Rescue Me

We just spent 16 days in the Alaska Range – 13 of those days were on Denali’s West Buttress – and during that time period there were a total of 4 deaths. The day after we flew out 2 more deaths occurred at high camp. (Click here to read Mike Campbell’s article profiling the accidents.)

The rash of deaths after a long quiet winter can only mean one thing: It’s climbing season in the Alaska Range. Unfortunately “climbing season” also means “rescue season” and this year is off to a bad start. And with rescue season comes the inevitable “who’s going to pay for this” argument on countless blogs, op-ed pages and comment sections nation-wide. Given our current political climate where tea party members happily gloat about gutting public programs while patriotically adding funds to our bloated defense budget I think it’s pertinent that I post some links to rescue studies.

In 1998 I was involved in a high profile rescue that took place on the slopes of Denali. Over the course of 50 hours there were three accidents on the Upper West Rib that involved a total of 5 people. Each of these rescues required a separate response, the most dramatic being a helicopter rescue at 19,000′.

Climbing accidents are high profile and this one made the news overnight and stayed in the headlines for days. After everyone was safely evacuated Senator Frank Murkowski held a special Senate session where he hoped to force climbers to pay for their own rescue. This in turn led to the NPS publishing Analysis of Cost Recovery for High-altitude Rescues on Mt. McKinley, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska“.

This paper addressed the costs of rescues on Denali and the NPS wrote that not charging for rescues is a “long-standing interagency and intergovernmental policy” and that to change this practice and charge for rescues would be “inconsistent with other rescue efforts for similar activities conducted by the military, state, and federal agencies.”

In the conclusion the National Park Service wrote:

Because of public interest, interagency implications, and the long history of providing SAR without cost, any change from the status quo should be addressed by specific legislation and apply to all agencies conducting rescues for high-risk activities, regardless of location (climbing, sailing, small aircraft, hang gliding, and so on).

At the same time the American Alpine Club released “Climbing Rescues in America: Reality Does Not Support ‘High-Risk, High-Cost’ Perception” which detailed the low percentage of climbing rescues on comparison to other activities nation wide. This report also compared costs of rescue per user group. The executive summary of this report states that “there is little justification for singling out climbers to pay rescue costs if other groups continue to be rescued without charge.

During Murkowski’s inquest (keep in mind that Murkowski always had issues with the NPS and Federal oversight of Alaska’s public lands and he never let an opportunity to berate the NPS go by) the Anchorage Daily News published a well written article about rescue costs. It’s an excellent read — and drives home the numbers that essentially make backcountry rescue S&R costs seem trivial (i.e. in 1998 $350 million was spent by the Coast Guard vs $1.1 million in the Denali Mountaineering Operations budget). The article in full is copied below.

More recently a number of studies have been published illustrating the growing gap between public public perception of climbing rescues and the reality behind the numbers. Two well written articles are the NorthWest Mountaineering Journal’s “Common perceptions about climbing and SAR” and Heggie and Amundson’s 2009 article, “Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in US National Parks” published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine.

And finally- for the climbers out there – Steph Albegg’s excellent analysis of Mountaineering Accident Statistics is worth a read.

Happy reading.


Should Adventurers Be Billed When Public Agencies — And Money — Save Their Lives?

Natalie Phillips – Anchorage Daily News Reporter

A climber collapses on Mount McKinley with altitude sickness. Rescuers in a special high-altitude helicopter are called to pluck him off the mountain. The cost: $1,892. Three tourists unwittingly wander onto the dangerous mud flats of Turnagain Arm. A concerned passer-by alerts authorities. The Air National Guard, with a helicopter and an HC-130 refueling plane, is called and airlifts the trio to safety as the tide rushes in. Cost: $8,000.

A single-engine airplane disappears between Anchorage and Kantishna. After four hours of looking, searchers in two helicopters find the plane crashed in the Alaska Range. The pilot and passenger are dead. Cost: $90,161.

A 49-foot sailboat with a broken rudder founders off the Aleutians in a raging storm. The Coast Guard drops survival suits and a life raft. But the three people on board won’t abandon ship. The Coast Guard flies in repair parts from Canada, but that doesn’t work. Finally, a Coast Guard vessel tows the boat to Unalaska. Cost: $630,000.

Who pays? In each of these search and rescue operations, which occurred in Alaska over the past three years, the cost was borne by public agencies, mostly the federal government. That’s the way it almost always works here.

Is that fair?

Should people who get lost or otherwise meet trouble in the Alaska wilderness have to share in the cost of their rescues? Should their families?

Which ones? How does anyone decide?


Every year, roughly 1,500 searches and rescues are launched around Alaska for injured mountain climbers, lost hikers and snowmobilers, missing pilots and vessels that have found trouble. Recent weeks have seen search operations virtually every day. Just last week, searchers were called out to rescue a German hiker injured while crossing a glacier; to save five commercial fishermen whose boat sank; to pick up three men whose plane crashed in Prince William Sound; to find a missing hunter in the mountains above Palmer.

Though exact figures are hard to come by, a compilation by the Anchorage Daily News shows that at least $9 million is spent annually in Alaska rescuing the lost and injured or recovering bodies. The figure doesn’t include the thousands of hours donated by volunteers with the state’s many search and rescue groups.

As NBC’s Tom Brokaw told the nation during a June broadcast of the evening news after one particularly harrowing rescue on Mount McKinley: ”And you, the taxpayer, are paying for it.”

That’s true.

In Alaska, officials can’t recall a single case in which an injured or lost person rescued by public agencies paid for the rescue.

The debate over who should pay has been simmering for years, not just here but in many Western states.

In Colorado, some county sheriffs have started seeking reimbursement for search and rescue missions. In California, two snowboarders recently found guilty of the misdemeanor of skiing out of bounds may have to reimburse the state $23,000 for their rescue under a new law that allows the state to collect.

Though most of the search and rescue money in Alaska is spent on looking for missing planes, lost hikers and hunters, and disabled boats, that’s not what stirs the debate. It’s the rescues — often highly publicized rescues — of climbers on Mount McKinley.

In June, park rangers spent four days trying to rescue six members of a British climbing team. Two with frostbite and sprained ankles spent four days stranded on a steep slab of ice near McKinley’s summit. They were airlifted to safety dangling from a line 100 feet below a Park Service helicopter.

Two others — one with a broken leg, the other with severe frostbite — were plucked off the mountain by a military helicopter. The remaining two were airlifted down because their team had lost so much gear that it wasn’t safe for them to climb down.

The story was front-page news locally for four straight days before making national news. The cost to the military and Park Service totaled $221,818, making it the most expensive rescue ever on the mountain. Some Alaskans grumbled.

It prompted Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski to examine the issue more closely. He has scheduled a Senate Energy Committee hearing on the topic Monday morning at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

”It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Murkowski said in an interview last week. ”Should the taxpayer bear that responsibility?”

”I am not going into this with any preconceived answer,” he said. ”I am going into it with the recognition that this is costing the government an awful lot of money.”

Adding to this year’s debate are two incidents in which different groups of young people wandered onto Cook Inlet’s notoriously dangerous mud flats. In one case, three tourists were rescued as the tide surrounded them. In the second, four local teenagers mooned Alaska Air National Guard rescuers circling above in an HC-130 plane, then scorned a Guard helicopter crew that landed to save them. The teens told rescuers that they regularly explore the mud flats and needed no assistance.

The National Association of Search and Rescue has long debated the topic of charging but hasn’t taken an official position. State officials have heard the rumblings but say they have no plans to start charging.

”Frankly, it’s not a concept I support,” said Ron Otte, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety. ”None of the legislators in Juneau have suggested we do.”

It’s hard to find anyone in Alaska in the search and rescue business who thinks charging is a good idea. In fact, they have a long list of reasons the public shouldn’t be charged.

But that’s not the case everywhere. At least one county sheriff in Colorado is charging and has been for years.

”We bill for what we consider high-risk recreational pursuits,” said San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters in Telluride, Colo.

”If a person is going hang gliding, skiing in an avalanche chute, kayaking or what we consider thrill seeking, we expect them to be responsible. And we expect them to pay,” he said.

”If you want the liberty of using the mountains and the rivers in high-risk pursuits, you better be responsible. You are not a victim. You deliberately placed yourself in this spot.”


Unlike in Lower 48 states where county sheriff’s departments and state governments pick up the tab for most rescues, very few rescue dollars in Alaska come out of the state till — probably less than $500,000 a year.

Here’s how it works:

Usually, small-scale, localized search and rescues in Alaska are coordinated by Alaska State Troopers, state or national park officials or the North Slope Borough, depending on the location. They all rely heavily on volunteer search groups like the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and the Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs.

The state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation spends about $30,000 a year on rescue training, paying overtime on searches and replacing damaged or lost equipment.

Alaska State Troopers spend about $300,000 a year for searches and rescues. Most of that goes toward replacing lost or damaged equipment, feeding volunteers and reimbursing volunteers for fuel expenses. It also includes reimbursing fuel and maintenance expenses of the Army National Guard units based in Western Alaska when they are called to help.

The National Park Service in Alaska also reports spending very little. Last year it spent $211,000, with one-quarter going toward Mount McKinley rescues. And it spent another $280,000 to have a specialized helicopter on standby in Talkeetna during the April to June climbing season. Nationally, the agency spends about $3 million. Most of that money goes to helping lost hikers, stranded boaters and swimmers in trouble, in that order. Climbers come in fourth but usually get the most publicity.

When search and rescue gets more complicated in Alaska, all of these agencies turn to the National Guard or the U.S. Coast Guard for help.

Those two agencies operate the two main search and rescue coordination centers in the state. When they step in, the costs start to pile up.

The Coast Guard’s rescue coordination center in Juneau oversees almost all coastal searches, and it’s in charge of any inland searches south of Yakutat. Last year, the Coast Guard reported spending $7.2 million in Alaska on 1,140 calls for help, including medical evacuations. Otherwise, roughly 30 percent came from commercial fishing boats and about 40 percent were hikers, hunters and recreational boaters.

With two months left in fiscal year 1998, the Coast Guard has already spent $9.5 million. That figure is sure to rise, because the next two months — the hunting season — are some of the busiest for the agency. Still, it’s not much compared with the $350 million the Coast Guard spends nationally every year.

Murkowski said the Coast Guard bills boaters in Chesapeake Bay if they need to be rescued because they run out of gas. He said he thinks the same thing has happened in Alaska.

Officials with the Coast Guard in Alaska couldn’t recall anyone’s ever being billed.

Almost all extensive inland searches in Alaska — from the Kenai Peninsula to the Brooks Range — are handled by the 5-year-old Rescue Coordination Center at Fort Richardson, run by the Air Force.

The center has an annual budget of $630,000 and oversaw 375 missions last year, but the budget doesn’t include the money spent when Air and Army National Guard or Civil Air Patrol aircraft are dispatched. The Guard units flew about 450 hours, and the Civil Air Patrol flew 971 hours. In both cases, most of the hours were flown looking for downed or missing aircraft, according to spokesmen with both agencies.

Usually the military picks up the bill for those flights. The Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron’s mission is to rescue fighter pilots in combat conditions and has to fly each of its aircraft a certain number of hours each year to meet training mandates. So it treats assistance on civilian search and rescues as training.

”I can’t think of a better way to get rescue training,” said Col. Ron Parkhouse, commander of the unit.

The National Guard doesn’t keep figures to show how much it spends on civilian rescues in the state, according to Guard spokesman Capt. Mike Haller. However, he said, the aircraft the Guard units fly — the HC-130 and the Pavehawk and Huey helicopters — cost between $800 and $5,000 an hour to operate.

The National Park Service has kept track of the hours and assistance the military provides. In 1997, the military donated $201,100 in flight time to park rescues. Most of that — $173,100 — was to help the Park Service look for airplanes missing in its jurisdiction.

Based on the 450 hours the military flew in 1997, the Daily News calculated that the military contributed about $1.5 million in flight time to the search and rescue of civilians. The state reimbursed a small portion of that, about $80,000, according to Sgt. Paul Burke with the Alaska State Troopers. The rest was written off as training.

The volunteer Alaska Civil Air Patrol is reimbursed by whichever agency asks for its help, usually the Alaska State Troopers or the Rescue Coordination Center. The patrol bills a flat hourly rate based on fuel and maintenance costs of its planes. Last year, the agency billed the two agencies $67,895 for the 971 hours it flew.

Ninety percent of the times the Civil Air Patrol is called out are for a missing or downed plane, said Col. Steve Franklin, commander of the Alaska Wing. The Civil Air Patrol has 1,300 volunteer pilots, spotters and ground support personnel who assist state and federal agencies in search and rescue missions. Its busiest season is also the hunting season, which is just gearing up.


What makes a search and rescue expensive is the search. Often rescuers spend days flying over vast areas with few clues about where to look. The costs mount quickly.

Earlier this summer, four people set out in a skiff for a 2-mile crossing from Whale Island to Afognak Island. When they failed to arrive, a search was launched. Their boat was never found, but in the days that followed, two bodies, including that of an infant strapped into a car seat, washed ashore. The Coast Guard’s cost: $292,056.

In summer 1993, a hiker set out on a 130-mile journey through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. He left his itinerary with friends. On the day he was due back, there was no sign of him. A search began. Six days later, after an extensive ground and air search, his body was found washed up on a riverbank. The National Park Service’s cost: $79,000. The National Guard, which assisted, does not keep an accounting of its costs.

Last summer, the Park Service spent seven days looking for a Cessna 182 that disappeared in Denali National Park with two couples aboard. The plane was never found. The pilot did not file a flight plan. The Park Service’s cost: $60,810. The National Guard’s costs were not available.

The reason Mount McKinley rescues are often less expensive is that usually little time is spent searching. In most cases the injured or missing climbers’ approximate location is known. The time from the start of a rescue until an injured climber is in a hospital bed can be as little as three hours, said John Quinley, a national park spokesman.


In 1994, a Backpacker magazine survey found that 73 percent of its readers thought ”irresponsible hikers” who get in trouble in the wilderness should pay for their rescues.

One respondent suggested that they repay the appropriate public land agency with several hours of volunteer service. Another said charging people for rescues is silly and would be no different from New York City police charging tourists who inadvertently wander into a high-crime neighborhood, get mugged or robbed, then need help getting home. Others favored a rescue insurance plan.

In Colorado, hunters and boaters automatically buy rescue insurance when they buy an annual license, Sheriff Masters said. Fifty cents from every license goes into a state pot to reimburse counties for their search and rescue costs. If a licensed hunter or boater needs a rescue, the cost is covered.

About five years ago, Colorado also started selling hiker certificates for $1 a year. They provide the same kind of insurance that hunters and boaters get when they purchase their licenses, Masters said. The program has not taken off, he said, in part because most other Colorado county sheriffs aren’t billing for rescues.

In Alaska, no one has looked closer at whether to bill or not bill than the staff at Denali National Park and Preserve. Spring 1992 was a turning point.

After years of launching five to 10 rescues a season, park officials were called out 22 times. Eleven climbers that summer died — more than one in 10 who went up the mountain. The total rescue costs to the Park Service and military reached $431,345.

Park officials decided it was time to do something different. They started by analyzing the accidents and looking at what was being done elsewhere. They looked at requiring climbers to carry insurance or find a bonding company.

In many European communities, climbers buy insurance from local companies for about $40, park officials found. But rescuers in those European communities advised against the system because once the climbers bought the insurance, they were quicker to call for help and expect to be rescued. So rescuers often lost some discretion on when and whether to launch a search.

Denali National Park officials did not want to create that expectation or give up the discretion of when to put rescuers at risk, said J.D. Swed, chief mountaineering ranger at the park.

”One thing we got from the Europeans was, ‘Don’t model your system after us; it makes people less responsible and puts more rescuers at risk for very little or no reason at all,’ ” Swed said.

Park officials then looked at requiring climbers to post bonds to assure that rescue costs would be paid. Under a bonding system, climbers would go to a private company and pay money betting against needing a rescue. If they got back safe, they would get most of their money back. If they didn’t, the bonding company would pay the rescue bill, then collect the balance from the climber.

Bonding companies told park officials they would have to collect $1,500 cash up front from U.S. climbers and $7,500 from foreign climbers, Swed said. They said they would keep 20 to 25 percent of each deposit upon the climber’s safe return.

”We thought that rather than make people make better decisions, people would be reluctant to call for help until it was too late,” Swed said. Delays can make rescues riskier for rescue teams.

Park officials determined that requiring bonds or insurance ”wouldn’t accomplish anything but move money from one pocket to another,” Swed said.

In the end, the Park Service established a $150 user fee. The money is earmarked specifically for educational and accident-prevention programs. It has been used, for example, to produce guidebooks in multiple languages. Park officials also started requiring climbers to register 60 days before starting an ascent, giving park rangers time to review climbers’ resumes and make recommendations about training for the mountain and route planning.

And Park Service decided to continue leasing the high-altitude helicopter, which has been kept on standby during the climbing season since 1991.

Park officials say they are happy with the results.

The numbers of rescues and fatalities on the mountain have dropped. In the years before the new rules, McKinley averaged 5.6 deaths and 18.7 rescues a year. Since the program was instituted, the mountain has averaged 3 fatalities and 11.7 rescues a year, Swed said.


Park officials also discovered that one of the biggest problems with instituting a system for charging for rescues is deciding who should pay. Unprepared hikers? Boaters who don’t wear life vests? Pilots who don’t file flight plans?

”If we are going to try to charge people for activities they take on, we can’t pick out just one particular user group,” Swed said. ”Who is going to be on the committee who decides what activity is dangerous?”

While mountain climbing may seem inherently risky to someone who sails, it’s not that dangerous for the person who is prepared, Swed said.

In Telluride, Sheriff Masters decides case by case who is negligent.

”I probably wouldn’t bill a negligent parent whose kid has wandered off and we have to go searching, because I wouldn’t want to take the rap for that,” Masters said. ”But they are going to hear from me. We might file child-neglect charges against them.”

The Park Service has a system for recouping rescue costs if ”someone has done something negligent or creates a hazardous situation for other people,” Swed said.

”They can be issued a citation or arrested for creating a hazardous condition. It’s a misdemeanor,” he said. If they are found guilty or plead guilty, then the court can require them to reimburse the agency for the rescue, he said.

It has been used only once on McKinley. In that disastrous summer of 1992, park officials tried to collect rescue costs from a party of French climbers.

The three climbers reached the 17,200-foot level on McKinley, but the weather started to turn and one climber was too tired to move on. Two team members left the tired climber and headed down to get gear they had cached, including a stove and fuel. They planned to return.

As they were heading down, they grew weary and frightened by a developing storm. They dropped down to a ranger camp and reported their stranded and tired partner.

Alone with no means of melting snow to make water, the climber could never have survived the oncoming storm. A rescue team was sent to take her to safety.

The expedition leader was cited with disorderly conduct for abandoning the woman. A judge found him guilty and fined him $100. The climber had insurance through a French mountaineering club. The judge ordered that the Park Service be reimbursed $2,000 for rescue costs. The bill was never paid.

It’s the only time such a charge has been brought against a McKinley climber, but billing is not uncommon in Yosemite National Park, Swed said.

The incident in which the French climbers were billed points to another problem with trying to recover rescue costs. Often the rescue cost might not be worth the amount of money and time it would take to collect it, especially if lawyers chose to debate whether the person’s behavior was negligent or irresponsible.

But at other times, those who need rescues are young people with no resources or ability to pay the bill anyway.

When asked, officials with a variety of rescue agencies in Alaska said they have no interest in getting into the bill-collecting business.

”When they’re done, they want to be done,” Quinley said.

Masters said he’s heard these arguments but doesn’t buy them.

”We started billing the estates for whatever assets, or the parents,” he said. ”The response has been kind of interesting. One mother was a waitress and sent us $20 for years. A doctor threatened to sue us.”

But not all Colorado sheriffs agree with Masters.

In nearby Pitkin County, the sheriff’s departments weighed the pros and cons and adopted a policy of not billing for rescues.

”We feel this is a service like fire protection. It’s something you have paid for in advance,” said Steve Crockett, the county’s emergency management coordinator. ”The hardware is paid for in advance because you pay taxes. The labor is free because it’s volunteers. Your tax dollars have paid for it. And if you’re lucky, you’ll never need it.”

© Anchorage Daily News.