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Legislators and mountain climbers hone in on Lim's Beacon Bill

Proposal would mandate mountain locator devices
by: contributed photo, Locator units such as this one could become mandatory for climbers.

A state representative from Gresham is leading an effort to require Mount Hood climbers to wear electronic locators in case tragedy strikes.

Republican Rep. John Lim, chief sponsor of the 'Beacon Bill,' wants climbers who go above Mount Hood's 10,000-foot-level between November and March to be equipped with a device that allows searchers to pinpoint the climbers' location.

House Bill 2509, as well as four more that Lim is backing, comes in the wake of two December tragedies that left four men dead in Oregon's rugged and unforgiving terrain.

Lim is a longtime friend of Spencer Kim, whose son, James Kim of California, died of exposure and hypothermia after getting lost on a U.S. Forest Service Road in Southern Oregon. His body was found Dec. 6.

Later that week, three out-of-state climbers got caught in a storm on Mount Hood. Rescuers eventually found Kelly James' body in a snow cave. While search and rescuers looked for the men, Lim met the mother of Jerry 'Nikko' Cooke. Cooke and Brian Hall were never found and are presumed dead.

'It's a double hit,' said Lim, adding that he hopes the so-called Beacon Bill can prevent such deaths on the state's highest peak of 11,239 feet. If not, at least the device can help rescuers recover their bodies to provide their families with closure.

Lim didn't expect the Beacon Bill to become so high-profile, but its timing coincided with yet another tense Mount Hood rescue. On Sunday, Feb. 18, three climbers fell from a ledge into the White River Canyon, but thanks to an electronic locator, they were rescued the next day, along with their dog.

Coincidentally, hearings on the Beacon Bill began the following day.

Local legislators have their doubts

The Beacon Bill has no teeth to bite those who don't abide by it. Lim doesn't want the threat of a potential punishment to prevent climbers from calling for help. He just wants to save lives and money. Last December's search for the three missing climbers cost about $5,000 a day.

Besides, at a weight of 8 ounces and a rental fee of $5, the device is hardly a physical or financial burden to carry, Lim said.

The Sandy area's two state legislators - Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, and Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett - have their doubts about the Beacon Bill, however.

'I just don't think it's necessary,' Metsger said. 'I understand the whole issue, but we'd be putting something into statute that has no impact.'

He said the fact that there are no penalties for not carrying a locator device makes the bill useless.

'The public education part of it would be more effective than passing another law, requiring something that has no teeth,' he said. 'I encourage people to use (locators), but that's not the point. Government can't pass laws on everything; sometimes common sense has to prevail.'

Smith says that although she hasn't made up her mind on the Beacon Bill, she has 'some real problems' with it.

'I'm not really sold on it, the way it mandates people to do things with no way to enforce it,' she said. 'I don't think they thought that through. I worry about urban legislators trying to pass mandates on rural issues.'

Smith said she doesn't believe the Beacon Bill is addressing the issue of safety on Mount Hood well enough. She said she'd rather see legislation emerge from the recently convened Governor's Search and Rescue Task Force, made up of 16 individuals with career experience in search and rescue, including Sandy resident Jeff Jaqua, the Zigzag Ranger District search and rescue coordinator.

'Mount Hood is an icon; it's the second-most climbed mountain in the world,' Smith said. 'It's huge what we do here.'

'More trouble than it's worth'

Tony Holmes, a former Zigzag resident who has climbed the summit of Mount Hood more times than he can keep track, agrees.

'I think there does need to be a change,' said Holmes, a volunteer regional coordinator for the Access Fund, a national mountain-climbing advocacy group, 'but I think there needs to be more of an outreach/education program than a regulatory program.'

He said that in the last several incidents on the mountain, the problem was just that the climbers didn't check the weather before climbing - something a locator unit wouldn't be able to help. Offering free clinics on wilderness survival, avalanches awareness and mountaineering would have a better impact on safety issues than would legislation, he said.

Instead of helping, he said, the Beacon Bill potentially could make issues worse on the mountain, in that climbers would have a false sense of security with their locator beacons and would rely on them instead of learning basic wilderness survival skills.

Holmes also said he's concerned that the bill could be a stepping-stone to additional regulations. 'We could easily slip into that, where you have to get special use permits to climb, and the Forest Service could potentially start regulating who goes, which route they go on which day. The intentions are good, but the bill causes more trouble than it's worth.

'Do I wear one?' he asked. 'Yes. Do I encourage others to wear one? Yes. Does it need to be a law? I don't think so. It's close, but not hitting the nail on the head. Let's find a way to educate the community to stay out of trouble in the first place.'

Likened to seatbelts

Lim understands the arguments, but he sees the Beacon Bill as similar to legislation that required motorists and passengers to wear seatbelts, or legislation requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

In fact, Lim voted against the seatbelt legislation.

'I didn't like it because it's my personal freedom to enjoy the way I wanted to drive as long as I'm a safe driver,' Lim said.

But now he is convinced the legislation has saved lives, money and minimized injuries.

'Sometimes people's paradigm shift takes some time,' Lim said, adding that he thinks the same thing will happen with locator units. 'Eventually, it will be proven to be the right thing, even though I have stiff opposition from the mountaineers.'

If approved by the Legislature, the Beacon Bill wouldn't take effect until July 1, 2010. Lim wants to give local mountaineering stores time to purchase enough devices needed supply the 10,000 people who climb Mount Hood every year.

Until them, Lim has these words of advice: 'Anyone going into the Mount Hood area, don't leave home without it.'