Mountaineering is inherently risky – but there is general agreement that you can mitigate a lot of it with the right gear and experience. However, some climbers always decide that they like the risk, and the more, the better. The usual defense for their behavior? “It’s our lives – let us choose how to live it.” The problem of course is that it isn’t only their lives in play. When you put yourself into unnecessarily risky situations, you put the Search and Rescue crews who would respond to come after you at risk as well. While these dedicated individuals know this risk, it’s totally irresponsible to take advantage of their goodwill so you can ascend peaks without the proper training or gear.
Who are Mountain Search and Rescuers Anyway?
Search and Rescue (SAR) is a catch-all term for the emergency responders in wilderness environments. Their duties are pretty clear: They search for lost and missing individuals, and rescue those who are injured, sick, or unable to get home. Most of these crews are partially to fully volunteer, with a few paid lead members to keep things running. These individuals don’t do this kind of work full-time. They risk their lives to save others totally on the side, all the more inspiring given how demanding the job is.
This isn’t Hypothetical: Rescuers Die.
Just this December, a man went missing in the California San Gabriel Mountains, trying to climb Mt. Baldy These hike peaks aren’t to be trifled with – their imposing 10,500 foot peaks soar 2 miles above Los Angeles, and snowstorms are frequent in the fall and winter. However, this hiker headed into the snow without the right gear or emergency supplies to survive on his own, alone. The result was a long, week-long Search and Rescue effort that ended with the death of one of the rescuers: 32 year-old Timothy Staples fell down an Ice Chute and lost his life. To this date, the lost hiker remains missing somewhere on the mountain.
Despite this tragic accident, little has changed. Two weeks ago, Search and Rescue crews rescued three more unprepared hikers in the Mt. Baldy area, the exact same place where Timothy Staples fell last month. One Rescue Pilot said, “When we get the snow, they love to come up and get the beautiful views, but they don’t come prepared,” rescue pilot Deputy Doug Brimmer told the Times. “This guy was hiking by himself in light clothing and tennis shoes with no food, no water and 50% battery life on his cellphone.”
When Does the Risk Become Irresponsible?
As I started with, risk is inevitable in mountaineering. This begs the question, when does that risk rise to the level of irresponsibility? There are a few easy guidelines to make sure you’re never putting Search and Rescue Volunteers in more risk than is necessary.
- Bring the Ten Essentials. They are called essential for a reason! With extra layers, food, water, shelter, and the means to start a fire, you’re far more likely to survive if lost outdoors to be found. This is key: A body can be buried in a snowstorm quickly if you die, leaving SAR crews to wander through the snow for weeks, all the time facing significant dangers.
- Leave your Plans with Someone Dependable at Home. If rescuers don’t have any idea on where to find you, they will need to spend a lot of time looking. Heading out to a peak without a route picked out in advance is inherently irresponsible – you should never do it, period.
- Don’t Exceed your Skill & Experience. We all scoff when hearing about Mt. Everest climbers learning to put on crampons at Base Camp. However I run into people climbing all the time who are solo’ing with gear or techniques they’ve never tried before. If you don’t have a skill, go with someone who does, until you can do it in your sleep.
- Never Split Up Your Party. The most common factor in someone getting lost on the mountain is splitting up a party. Sometimes it’s on purpose, when someone gets altitude sickness and turns back while others keep going. Other times it’s accidental, as people spread out and gradually lose sight of each other. Stay together, make decisions together, and if you are forced to split up, make sure no one is alone.
- Exercise Critical Judgement. The trouble is that altitude literally makes your brain worse at critical thinking. When you’re considering changing a route, judging the weather, or going forward on your own, try to be extra critical of your decisions. Play devil’s advocate with yourself to keep yourself from making poor decisions in the moment.
No one Wants to be Responsible for Another’s Death or Injury
It’s easy to take risky action when you think you’re the only one who will suffer the consequences. In most American mountain ranges, that thinking is inherently flawed. The moment someone at home reports you haven’t shown up, SAR will go looking for you, whether you want them to, or not. The decisions you make, gear you bring, and route you choice directly impact the risk they face in coming after you. Follow the five tips above, and just be smart. No one wants to be responsible for another’s death or injury: especially a volunteer with a family on their way to rescue you. Stay safe friends!
About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.