Placing a picket anchor in the snow. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.
Placing a picket anchor in the snow. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.
  Climber 9-1-1  
  Part 2  
  By Rad Roberts  

W ill climbers take greater risks if they think they can easily call in a rescue?

According to many climbers, managing risk and overcoming fear are essential to the climbing experience. Climbers have a large degree of control over the risks they assume. When all goes well these risks are associated with very positive experiences. Other risky activities that share these characteristics include skiing in avalanche terrain and fast driving. Unfortunately, efforts to increase safety in these activities have had limited success. Part of this may be due to “risk compensation.”

Risk compensation is an effect whereby individuals adjust their behavior in response to perceived changes in risk. Not surprisingly, people behave more cautiously when their perception of risk or danger increases. But risk compensation theory also suggests that people take greater risks when they feel safer or more protected. Thus, when training or safety measures are introduced, people believe they are safer and respond by increasing the risks they take.

Data support this theory. In a British driving study, drivers on a complex 104 km course slowed down and were more cautious on sections of road they perceived to be dangerous, and they sped up on sections they perceived to be safer. Their physiological stress levels, as measured by perspiration and heart rate, were constant across the entire route. This suggests each driver adjusted his or her behavior to keep stress levels constant.

Crevasse rescue training on Mount Hood. Photo © Matthew Weaver.
Crevasse rescue training on Mount Hood. Photo © Matthew Weaver.
Crevasse rescue training on Mount Hood. Photo © Matthew Weaver.

Climbers do the same thing. A climber whose confidence is high and stress levels are low (e.g. a 5.10 climber leading 5.6 on good rock) may place little or no protection. But the same climber may take extra precautions and place lots of protection when stress levels are high (e.g. climbing 5.10 on poor rock).

According to risk compensation, the benefits of a safety measure may be partially or completely offset by the increased risks people assume when they adopt it. Efforts to increase safety in climbing, avalanche terrain, or fast driving can be divided into activities designed to prevent accidents and those designed to improve the outcomes of accidents. There is evidence that both are subject to risk compensation.

In a four-year driver training study in Georgia, teenagers were divided into three groups. The first group was given a comprehensive program involving both classroom and on-the-road training. The second got a basic course geared toward passing the state driving exam. The third received no formal training other than what their parents and peers might provide. Surprisingly, the group with the best training actually showed the highest accident rate. Risk compensation suggests that the highly trained students believed their education would reduce their chance of crashing, so they took more risks than their peers. Similarly, a study of 344 avalanche accidents by Ian McCammon of the National Outdoor Leadership School found that, “Avalanche victims with basic formal training exposed themselves to more hazard than any other group, including those with no awareness of avalanches.” Apparently, basic training gave these students a false sense of security and mastery.

Mobile communication devices, in contrast, are tools that might be useful after a climbing accident has occurred. In this regard, they are more analogous to seatbelts or avalanche transceivers than to driver or skier training. Notably, a 1981 British study on the impact of seat belt legislation showed no correlation between the passing of seat belt legislation and the total number of fatalities. Belted drivers were more likely to survive a crash, but their passengers and others on the road fared worse. One interpretation is that the newly belted drivers assumed more risks than their unbelted counterparts. A separate study in the Netherlands in 1994 confirmed this, finding that new seat belt users drove faster and followed more closely than unbelted drivers. Rescuers have begun to see similar results in mountaineering. According to Steve Rollins of Portland Mountain Rescue, “The public tends to take increased risks (mountain climbing) when they carry devices such as beacons because they feel they will be rescued if they carry one.”

Unfortunately, cell phones are far less reliable than seatbelts. Even if a message can be successfully delivered, severe weather and other conditions can prevent or delay a rescue. Risk compensation theory suggests that if climbers think cell phones are more reliable than they actually are, then laws requiring climbers to carry cell phones or other communication devices may increase accident rates. Only time will tell whether the benefits they provide are greater than the increased risks they cause climbers to take. In the meantime, rangers and SAR leaders agree that cell phones and other signaling devices can sometimes be very valuable. They also note that other equipment is probably more likely to increase climber safety.

What equipment is most likely to improve climber safety?

When climbers on Mount Rainier fell 75 feet into a crevasse near Camp Muir in May 2010, they were very lucky to be able to use a cell phone to call 9-1-1, but it was their sleeping bags and warm gear that prevented them from freezing to death while waiting overnight for a rescue.

Rescuers prepare for a search in foul weather. Photo © Matthew Weaver.
Rescuers prepare for a search in foul weather. Photo © Matthew Weaver.
Rescuers prepare for a search in foul weather. Photo © Matthew Weaver.

Inspection of data on the causes of accidents can shed light on what equipment might make climbers safer (see sidebar). Data from 2006 list the top causes for climbing-related accidents: fall/slip on rock (34%), fall/slip on ice (10%), rappel failure/error (6%), and nut/chock pulled out (6%). The contributory causes included climbing unroped (18%), placing no/inadequate protection (16%), no helmet (11%), exceeding abilities (11%), and inadequate equipment/clothing (9%). These statistics suggest that the items most likely to make climbers safer are a rope, a helmet, and foul weather gear. Additional “essentials” will vary depending on the difficulty and type of climbing being done, the season and weather forecast, and the speed and skill of the party. Examples include a waterproof jacket, sleeping bag, tent, stove, snow shovel, prescription eyeglasses, food, water, crampons, ice ax, matches, flashlight, and a myriad of other items.

One might conclude that more is better, but in the mountains speed and safety are tightly linked. Carrying less makes packs lighter and allows climbers to move faster, thereby reducing the time they are exposed to possible falling rock and ice and reducing the likelihood they will get caught by an incoming storm. There is a trade-off between going faster with less gear and going slower with more gear. Moreover, gear that is essential for some climbers may be unnecessary for others with greater skill and experience. Each climber must assess his or her own abilities, the challenges of the route, and its condition and decide what gear to take and what to leave at home. Safety results from experience, good judgment, and having the right equipment for each situation and knowing when and how to use it. Although it is not possible to define a list of essential climbing gear, ropes, helmets, foul weather gear, and other items are probably more likely to improve climber safety than a mobile communication device.

Would there be unintended consequences of requiring climbers to carry a signaling device?

If climbers are required to carry signaling devices this implies that rescuers would be required to save them. This is problematic because conditions and resources determine when a safe and effective rescue can be made. Removing the ability of SAR leaders to decide when/how/whether to stage a rescue operation would result in inefficient use of manpower and other resources and may generate lawsuits in cases where rescues do not go according to plan. Any one of these could substantially increase the costs of SAR operations over the long term.

Perhaps most importantly, legislation requiring climbers to carry devices may cause climbers to believe that rescuers will literally fly in and save them when things go wrong. This could lead climbers of all abilities to take more risks, increasing the likelihood and severity of accidents.


In light of the preceding discussion, let’s consider the pros and cons of legislation that would require Northwest climbers to carry mobile communication devices in the mountains.

Do mobile communication devices improve outcomes for mountain search and rescue? Sometimes. There is no question that phones and other devices can be valuable and even save lives, but they don’t always work when needed. Moreover, a device probably won’t prevent an accident from occurring in the first place. As Monty Smith of Portland Mountain Rescue said, “If you’re relying on a beacon, its best purpose is as a body locator.” The park officials and SAR leaders interviewed for this article oppose legislation requiring climbers to carry mobile communication devices. If those charged with keeping climbers safe oppose such legislation, one must conclude that they do not believe such laws will improve climber safety or reduce societal costs enough to warrant legislation that requires their use.

What is the best mobile communication device for Northwest mountain climbers? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. Cell phones, satellite phones, PLBs, SPOT beacons, and the MLU each have strengths and weaknesses. It is not possible for legislators or anyone else to select a device that benefits all mountain climbers in all situations.

Will climbers take greater risks when they think they can easily call in a rescue? Yes, if the risk compensation effect is real, and data from avalanche and automobile studies suggest that it is. However, it is unclear whether this will offset the benefits of having a communication device. The rangers, SAR coordinators, and park officials interviewed for this article all indicated that the benefits of cell phones on SAR operations outweigh concerns about risk compensation or false alarms. However, legislation intended to increase climber safety may actually increase the risks experienced climbers take and lure inexperienced climbers into dangerous situations.

What equipment is most likely to improve climber safety? There is no simple answer. Accident data suggest most climbers will benefit from having a rope, harness, helmet, and foul weather gear, but after that things become less clear. Crampons and other specialized footwear, an ice ax, stove/fuel/matches/pot, water, food, and many other items are usually more useful than a phone or other device. Should climbers be required to carry all of these things? Surely not, but where does one draw the line? Legislative intervention seems misguided at best, and intrusive and ineffective at worst.

Would there be unintended consequences of requiring climbers to carry a signaling device? Yes. If climbers are required to carry signaling devices this implies that rescuers are required to save them when they get in trouble. This is problematic because conditions, manpower, and resources determine when a safe, effective rescue can be made. Removing the ability of SAR leaders to determine when and how to run SARs could increase the costs of SAR operations without increasing climber safety.

Perhaps the biggest concern about requiring climbers to carry signaling devices is that it would cause a shift from climbers being responsible for their own safety to rescuers being responsible for their safety. This is likely to produce several unintended and undesirable consequences that will: 1 - make climbers less diligent about assembling enough fitness, skill, experience, information, and equipment to tackle challenging climbs safely; 2 - cause climbers of all abilities to take more risks if they believe they can easily call in a rescue; and 3 - increase legal liabilities of rescuers and thereby increase the costs associated with SAR operations. These negative side-effects could completely offset any benefit derived from laws requiring climbers to carry signaling devices in the mountains.

The essence of these concerns was conveyed in a 2007 New York Times column written by Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest. Whittaker explained that, “We need to meet the wilderness on its own terms. Laws and locators cannot replace careful attention, knowledge, and personal responsibility.”

Search and Rescue Summary
2006 Mountaineering Accident Data

Immediate cause of accident:
34% - Fall or slip on rock
11% - Slip on snow or ice
6% - Rappel failure/error
6% - Nut/chock pulled out

Contributory causes:
18% - Climbing unroped
16% - Placed no/inadequate protection
11% - No helmet
11% - Exceeding abilities
9% - Inadequate equipment/clothing

Experience level of climber:
16% - None/little
16% - Moderate (1 to 3 years)
36% - Experienced
33% - Unknown

61% - Rock
34% - snow
4% - Ice

Ascent or descent:
67% - Ascent
32% - Descent

Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2007

Mount Hood
SAR Leads: Sean Collinson (south side), Joe Wampler (north side)

SAR Operations in 2009: 16

SAR Personnel:
Clackamas County Sheriff's officer Sean Collinson plus Portland Mountain Rescue volunteers for south side. Hood River County Sheriff's officer Joe Wampler plus Hood River Crag Rats for north side.

Volunteer rescuer training:
30 hours per year in various areas.

Climber monitoring:
Voluntary climber registration system in the Timberline Lodge.

Request for climbers:
Be prepared. Know your route. Know the route conditions. Have a backup plan.

Mount Rainier National Park
SAR Lead: Stefan Lofgren

SAR Operations in 2009: 19

SAR Personnel: Climbing rangers

Rescuer training:
EMT, technical roped rescues, helicopter crew and short haul certification.

Climber monitoring:
Mandatory climber registration and climbing pass ($30 per year per person).

Request for climbers:
Heed weather and avalanche forecasts and be prepared for winter conditions at any time of the year.

North Cascades National Park
SAR Lead: Kelly Bush

SAR Operations in 2009: 9

SAR Personnel: Climbing rangers

Rescuer training:
EMT, technical roped rescues, helicopter crew and short haul certification.

Climber monitoring:
Voluntary registration at the Marblemount Ranger Station.

Request for climbers:
Backcountry permits are mandatory, but the climbing register is optional. Please use the climbing register responsibly: Enter ALL required information and remember to SIGN OUT. Failure to sign out will trigger a rescue operation.

Volunteer for SAR
To learn more about volunteering for search and rescue, visit the Mountain Rescue Association website and locate a group near you.
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