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Climbing tragedies often preventable

The nation has joined Portland-area residents the past week, sharing in the hope that three climbers lost on the steep, icy slopes of Mount Hood would be found alive.

As of Tuesday afternoon, we know that one of the climbers lost since Dec. 10 has died.

This story of hope, anguish and bravery has united rescuers and the climbers' families and has been witnessed on an intensely public stage. Yet, we are reminded that this unfolding tragedy had its beginnings in a series of private decisions made by three individuals.

Kelly James, whose body has been recovered, and Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke, who are still missing, were experienced climbers who had conquered larger peaks than Mount Hood. Whatever their reasons, they made their climb in the face of weather reports that would have discouraged most people. And they didn't take the cautionary step of carrying potentially lifesaving mountain-locator units, even though such units are readily available to Mount Hood climbers.

What is the public's responsibility?

Admittedly, it's easy to say now that James, Hall and Cooke could have made different decisions. Any tragedy can be viewed in hindsight for different choices and better outcomes. We make such a review with great caution. But given the immense public attention and resources - and the sad outcome to date - we believe that it's fair to ask: What responsibilities do climbers and the public have? How far should our state and community go to protect people from their own risk-taking impulses? Or to save them when their plans go terribly awry? What requirements should be placed on climbers to carry mountain locator devices or other forms of global positioning equipment - in addition to personal cellular telephones?

For many Oregonians, it's difficult to forget the Oregon Episcopal School tragedy on Mount Hood in May 1986 when two adults and seven students from the school died after being trapped in a whiteout on the mountain. Fewer may remember, however, in January 2003 when five climbers were rescued high up on stormy Mount Hood after they used cell phones to call 9-1-1 and say they were caught in a storm and dug into a snow cave. Thanks to signals from GPS and mountain locator devices, rescuers found the climbers alive in the snow cave.

All climbers should wear locators

It was after the OES deaths that a non-profit foundation created the Mountain Signal Memorial Fund, which allows climbers to rent mountain locator devices at minimal cost. These units won't prevent falls or accidents, but as evidenced in 2003, they greatly improve the odds of quickly finding lost climbers. One lesson from this week's sadness is that all climbers should be equipped with at least a cell phone and either a GPS device or a mountain locator unit. The other obvious lesson is that climbing Mount Hood should be strongly discouraged or suspended when storm systems are clearly on the way.

We do not feel these are undue requirements considering the larger community's commitment to take care of lost climbers, as exemplified this week by the recent massive search-and-rescue operation on the mountain. That's a burden that volunteers, professionals and taxpayers willingly bear, but we suspect that all involved wish that lost climbers would be quickly and safely found.

Without a legal requirement mandating the use of locator devices, the only chance for enhanced mountain safety is through greater personal accountability and for climbers themselves to decide to carry locator devices with them on the oftentimes-treacherous slopes of Mount Hood.