Pros cite culture, tech and environment for increased fatalities on Mount Hood

When searchers on Mount Hood located Sebastian Kinasiewicz’s body on Aug. 13, he became the fourth fatality this year. Another four perished last year. by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Vitalie Slivca, 22, returns from the summit of Mount Hood on Aug. 16. He carries a full compliment of mountaineering gear, as well as a GoPro camera on his helmet. For emergency location, he carries a set of flares.

Looking at the numbers, it becomes clear that fewer people were dying on Mount Hood just two decades ago, and an examination of records from the 1960s will show fatalities in the single digits for any given year, and in some cases none at all. Compare this to contemporary numbers, when not a year passes without such sad news from the mountain.

The reality is that rescue missions in the past decade are up statewide. According to state search and rescue records, there were 1,087 in 2012, compared to 991 in 2002. In Clackamas County alone, there were 106 rescue missions.

It is important to consider that more than 10,000 people attempt to summit Mount Hood each year, so the increase in traffic leads to an increase in rescue or recovery missions.

The numbers raise the question: Why and how are more people getting themselves into trouble and in some cases dying on Mount Hood?

The answer, or answers, can be cultural, technological and environmental.

Tom Gall is a firefighter and emergency medical technician, and a volunteer with Portland Mountain Rescue. In his view, a new culture of risk contributes to the rise in fatalities. He points to popularized extreme sports and lighter gear attracting more people to the mountain.

Specifically, Gall points to the new GoPro cameras, which allow users to take point of view footage of their adventures. The advertising slogan for the GoPro is “Be a hero.”

“I think a lot of people are strutting off because of these lightweight cameras,” Gall said. “These things are luring people outside the safety margins.”

Gall tells the story of a friend who watched two kids on Mount Olympus in Greece with GoPro cameras, clearly trying to make extreme adventure videos, and in the process, climbing out onto slippery rock faces.

“One of the kids slipped and fell to his death, and I’m sure there’s video footage of it somewhere,” Gall said.

Technology like the GoPro, debatably, can lead to risk taking, but other technology designed to add security can be a detriment as well, especially when considering Gall’s assertion that popularized adventure is drawing more people to the mountain.

Mark Morford also is a volunteer with Portland Mountain Rescue. He said the increased numbers and a reliance on technology conspire to add to the danger.

“There are more people on the mountain today, on any given day, than there were 10 years ago,” he said. “The high altitude climber missions get a lot more media coverage, but we see a lot more back country activity across the board.”

Morford said rescue workers also are seeing increased use of the mountain in winter.

“Ten years ago, there really weren’t any climbers in the winter,” he said.

Part of the reason, he said, is the availability of lighter and dryer clothing, designed for winter use. This, along with cell phones and GPS technology, gives otherwise novice climbers a sense of capability.

“The gear now is good enough that it allows people to get out there and do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do,” he said. “These are just ordinary people going up and challenging themselves by getting out. Many of our missions are the result of lapses in judgment. Others are kind of just bad luck. People slip and fall. The missions that we do seldom are driven by someone out there doing something extreme. It’s just people being out there and being unprepared.”

Another technology, and one that it seems counter-intuitive not to bring, is one the rescue community does not want to require backcountry users to carry.

“We certainly recommend that the back country users carry some kind of emergency locator,” said Morford. “We like the Personal Locator Beacon technology, but we have consistently opposed legally requiring people to carry ELBs (emergency locator beacons) or paying fees for rescues.”

The reason, said Morford, is that studies have shown that people in regions where such equipment is required, or where rescue fees are imposed, believe they will be penalized, and so put off calling for help.

“We don’t want to discourage people calling for rescue,” he said. “Another reason is that when you require people to carry a locator device, you create an expectation of rescue. The average citizen would believe that if they’re required to carry an ELB, it means they only need to push a button and the helicopter will come get them.”

If technology gives otherwise timid users an unqualified confidence, it seems logical that a return to genuine orienteering skills could thin the herd and contribute to fewer deaths, and may be an indicator for the smaller numbers a generation ago.

“Solid skills are more important than technology,” said Morford.

This is not to say that contemporary climbers are less skilled. Consider 22-year-old Vitalie Slivca, a Moldovan living in Sacramento. He summited Mount Hood on Aug. 16, with plans to climb Washington state’s Mount Rainier next. When The Post ran across Slivca as he emerged at the trailhead just above Timberline Lodge, he said he had just returned from a 20-hour trek to the summit. He carries all the necessary equipment, and goes low-tech with locator gear.

“I have flares in case I get in trouble,” he said.

Slivca had the infamous GoPro camera on his helmet, but clearly also carried the skills necessary for the sport. Additionally, he is smart about using technology for safety.

“When I go I put a complete map on my computer telling my entire route and times I plan to be there,” he said. “My sister will know where to look if something seems wrong.”

Slivca is an example of a capable and qualified climber. Lee Davis, executive director of the Mazamas, a group dedicated to mountaineering safety and education, would like to see more climbers like Slivca.

“The mountain environment is inherently dangerous,” said Davis.  “The Mazamas exist to promote mountaineering and to help people to engage in a lifetime of joyful experiences in the mountains.” 

Davis said technical training, physical fitness and good judgment are necessary requirements for success on the mountain.

“Personal responsibility and knowledge of self-rescue techniques in the mountains is an absolute necessity,” he said. “Our regional climbing community has some of the best volunteer rescue and SAR teams in the country, but, nobody should expect or assume that help is readily available. Understanding the objective risks of traveling in the mountains and learning how to make good ‘go or no-go’ decisions comes through years of experience and mentorship.  We schedule hundreds of climbs for beginners annually to help do this very thing.”

To further make his point, Davis explains how the steps necessary to get a rescue team even to the vicinity of a victim will span 12 hours.

“You need to be prepared, and if you’re going to go off a trail, there’s a set of skills and training that are necessary,” he said.

Another factor that contributes to the peril on the mountain is climate change.

Portland State University Geology Professor Andrew Fountain has made his career studying the effects of environmental changes. He said climate change notwithstanding, the mountain environment is already unpredictable.

“Glaciers are always changing and even in a stable environment the exact nature of possible glacier hazards may change from year to year,” he said.  “In this era of climate warming and glacier recession, the hazard picture can change more dramatically. Old routes over a glacier have to be changed due to glacier shrinkage and perhaps the appearance of new crevasses.”

Fountain said the retreating of glaciers no longer buttress the over-steepened walls of glacial till, which can cause failure and lead to debris flows.

Another attractive adventure arena is the ice cave. These, said Fountain, are never safe and are increasing in numbers.

“Ice caves are more common under thin ice than thick ice because the latter squeezes the cave closed whereas the former does not,” he said. “So as glaciers thin, one can expect to have more ice caves.”

The changing environmental dynamics of the mountain are not considered by novice climbers, according to Clackamas County Sgt. Robert Wurpes.

“People look at the mountain as a static, inanimate object, but actually it’s a living thing,” he said.

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