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Rescuers deserve more help from lost adventurers

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
February 21, 2012 4:49 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

This winter has been a killer in Washington’s Cascade Mountains – literally.

In Mount Rainier National Park, a snowshoer died in December and four other people went missing in mid-January and are presumed dead. On Sunday, a snowboarder and three veteran skiers died in backcountry avalanches.

In some of the cases, it’s possible that technology might have been a life-saver – had it been used. The most remarkable survival story is that of professional skier Elyse Saugstad, who credits her specialty air bag with keeping her on top of the avalanche Sunday at Stevens Pass that killed three companions.

The air bags, more commonly used in Europe, cost $600 to $1,300 – which has kept them from gaining wide acceptance in this country. But as Saugstad told the Anchorage Daily News, “It’s very cheap when you’re in the middle of an avalanche.”

The tragedies – especially those in Mount Rainier National Park – have spurred discussion about whether some devices should be required by those venturing into the wilderness. The two backpackers and two climbers who were caught in bad weather last month and remain missing might have been found within a survivable window of time had they been equipped with a personal locator beacon. The PLB, which can send out a distress signal and geographic coordinates to rescuers, was credited with 71 rescues in 2011 and 70 in 2010.

Another device, a Mountain Locator Unit, is a radio-based locator that does not send out a distress signal but can help rescuers home in on an overdue party. Climbers can rent MLUs for $5 at Mount Hood, where nine people from a Portland school died after being trapped in a storm in 1986.

It’s unlikely that carrying such useful devices will be mandated in Washington any time soon. The latest attempt to do so, in 2010 by state Rep. Marko Lilias of Mukilteo, never got out of committee.

But there’s nothing preventing the National Park Service from laying down rules of its own. For instance, why not tell climbers and backcountry visitors that if they fail to register and take a locator unit with them, then they will be held financially responsible for any extra costs associated with a search and rescue – if they’re found alive, that is.

Although many seachers are volunteers, park rangers on duty or military units that consider seaches part of their training, sometimes there are extra costs, such as when private helicopters are called in or overtime pay is involved. Why should the public pay those costs when they might have been avoided by carrying a simple device? And why should searchers endanger their lives by covering a vast area – often in bad weather and rough terrain – when a device could quickly pinpoint the location?

It’s tragic enough when people die in the mountains, but that tragedy is compounded when their deaths might have been avoided by taking simple precautions.

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