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What if ... could apply to Mt. Hood tragedy

Better monitoring of weather, use of GPS devices might have changed the outcome

The nation has joined Oregon residents the past several weeks, sharing in the hope that three climbers lost on the steep, icy slopes of Mount Hood would be found alive.

We now know that one of the climbers lost since Dec. 10 has died. The search for the other two was officially called off last Dec. 20.

This story of hope, anguish and bravery has united rescuers and the climbers' families and has taken place 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 'Nikko' Cooke, who still are 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 devices are readily available to Mount Hood climbers.

What responsibility do climbers have?

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?

What requirements should be placed on climbers to carry mountain-locator units or other forms of global positioning system equipment - in addition to cell phones?

For many Oregonians, it's difficult to forget the Oregon Episcopal School debacle 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 Mount Hood after they called 911 on their cell phones to say they were caught in a storm and dug into a snow cave.

Thanks to signals from GPS and mountain-locator units, rescuers found the climbers alive.

It was after the OES deaths that a nonprofit foundation created the Mountain Signal Memorial Fund, which allows climbers to rent mountain-locator units at minimal cost.

As evidenced in 2003, the units greatly improve the odds of finding lost climbers.

One lesson from this recent episode 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 lesson is that climbing Mount Hood should be strongly discouraged or suspended when storm systems clearly are on the way.

We do not feel these are undue requirements, considering the larger community's commitment to take care of lost climbers, exemplified 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 mountain-locator units or GPS devices, the only chance for enhanced safety is through greater personal accountability and for climbers themselves to decide to carry such emergency equipment.