Thursday, December 17, 2009

Feeding the Mountain

On clear days Portland is graced by the shimmering, luminous presence of Mt. Hood that towers 50 miles east of the city in the Cascade range. At 11,240 feet, it is the highest mountain in Oregon and a popular site for climbing expeditions. Reports are that since records were kept, and up to May 2002, 130 have died. Since 2000 alone, 14 people have been claimed by the mountain. This week, another 3 are gone. So 17 people in 10 years. And just like the December 2006 expedition search that riveted this city and the nation, where 3 climbers were lost (one was eventually found dead in a snow cave and 2 others were never found), the 3 climbers lost this week were not wearing a simple $5 locator device that could have helped rescuers find them.

It is unconscionable. The debate is raging here in Oregon why climbers are not mandated to wear locator devices. The opponents of the devices (who include experienced climbers!) say that it would “be more dangerous as it would give them a false sense of security.” Say what? Oh, so you would rather put rescuers at unreasonable risks to try and find you - like looking for a needle in a haystack up there on that dangerous mountain. You would rather that your families suffer unfathomable grief and trauma as rescuers desperately try to locate you for days. While your families and friends try to convince themselves and the world that “they were very experienced climbers, we're sure they're still alive, maybe in a snow cave.” You would rather that your bodies never be found.

This week three families are grieving and have gone through hell. The locator device may, or may not have saved their lives. But at least it would have given rescuers a chance to find the lost climbers while the weather allowed. One climber was found dead on Saturday and the going theory is that he was going for help and died of hypothermia. Two others are missing, and as it has now been 7 days and there was no locator beacon to pinpoint their whereabouts, they are presumed dead. Mt. Hood swallows them up. Again. For no good reason except egoic pride and a false sense of invincibility. Go figure.

After previous failed attempts to legislate mandates to wear the locator devices, will Oregon legislators finally do the right thing? Obviously we can’t rely on (some) climbers to take responsibility for their own lives. They would rather put rescuers at risk. They would rather untold sums of public money be spent in desperate, days long searches to find them. We all wear seatbelts by law. Does that mean I have a “false sense of security” when I’m driving? Of course not. Regrettably, probably nothing will be done. Again. This debate will just continue to rage the next time Mt. Hood gets hungry again. More suffering. More risk for rescuers. More tragedy.
Debate over devices that save lives, locate climbers
Mt. Hood Climbing Fatalities
Search suspended for missing climbers

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