Helicopter short-haul in the North Cascades. Photo © Aaron Zabriskie.
Helicopter short-haul in the North Cascades. Photo © Aaron Zabriskie.
  Climber 9-1-1  
  Special Feature - Common perceptions about climbing and SAR  
  By Rad Roberts  

T his special section examines commonly held beliefs about climbing and search and rescue (SAR) in the light of data from the National Park Service and other SAR organizations. Statistics and links to additional information can be found in the sidebar.

Perception: Climbers account for a large number of SAR missions.

Reality: False.

In 2005, only 5.5% of SAR incidents in National Parks resulted from climbing, which was divided into rock climbing (3.5%) and mountaineering (2%). Hiking (48%), boating (21%) and swimming (6%) were the activities most frequently associated with SAR incidents. In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon Emergency Management reported that climbing accounted for only 3.8% of rescues in 2003, behind hiking (18%), motor vehicles (15%), hunting (10%), wandering (9%), boating (6%), and aircraft (4%).

Perception: Charging climbers for rescues will increase public safety.

Reality: False.

National Park Service (NPS) and Northwest SAR leaders interviewed strongly oppose charging climbers or others for their rescues because similar laws in other regions have caused people who need rescues to delay or avoid calling for assistance. According to U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral James Loy, “If the specter of financial reimbursement hung over the decision to report maritime distress, we would get fewer calls, we would get calls during later stages of emergencies, and more people would die at sea. This factor alone outweighs any consideration of how much money we might recoup.”

The same concerns apply to climbing. In Colorado, a climber rappelled off the end of his rope and fractured his pelvis. He and his partners tried to self-rescue because they feared high rescue charges. Several hours later they did call for assistance, but by then the climber’s injuries had worsened and the resulting rescue had to be performed in the middle of the night, exposing rescuers to greater risks than a daytime operation. Several other cases involved missing persons hiding from rescuers in an attempt to avoid being charged for their rescue. Thus, charging for rescues could actually decrease climber safety.

Perception: Charging climbers for rescues will save taxpayers a lot of money.

Reality: False.

The American Alpine Club and others have presented compelling evidence for this conclusion.

First, climbing accidents represent a small fraction of SAR missions and costs. As noted above, climbing accounts for less than 5.5% of SARs in National Parks and less than 4% in Oregon. Further, three times more money was spent on hiking SARs than on climbing SARs between 2000 and 2004 in Yosemite National Park, where climbing is a popular recreation activity.

National Guard helicopter raises a critically injured victim on Mount Hood. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.
National Guard helicopter raises a critically injured victim on Mount Hood. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.
National Guard helicopter raises a critically injured victim on Mount Hood. Photo © Portland Mountain Rescue.

Second, a large fraction of climbing-related SAR efforts are contributed by volunteers and military groups who view technical rescues as valuable training exercises. Furthermore, several parks, including Mount Rainier and Denali National Parks, use climbing permit fees to help cover the costs of climbing rangers and rescue operations.

Perhaps most importantly, there are legal reasons why charging for rescues is not prudent. This stems from a 1991 ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which determined that the representative of a climber who died in the Tetons could not sue the National Park Service for the way his rescue was performed. The Court explained, “No statute imposes a duty to rescue, nor are there regulations or formal Park Service policies which prescribe a specific course of conduct for search and rescue efforts. Instead, the decision if, when, or how to initiate a search or rescue is left to the discretion of the SAR team.” According to Lloyd Athearn of the American Alpine Club, “Experts believe that charging for rescues may jeopardize this legal shield and imply a duty to rescue.” Thus, charging for rescues might expose parks and SAR groups to lawsuits whose costs could vastly exceed revenues generated from rescue charges.

Finally, the National Park Service is expressly prevented from charging for rescues because the US Department of Interior is a participant member of the United States National Search and Rescue Plan, which explicitly states that, “SAR services provided to persons in danger or distress will be without subsequent cost recovery from the person(s) assisted.”

Perception: Climbers use mobile communication devices to call for rescues.

Reality: True.

In 2005, 23% of National Park Service SARs were initiated by cell or satellite phone, compared with 29% in person, 23% by landline, and 5% by radio. In the Northwest, nineteen SAR missions were reported in Mount Rainier National Park in 2009. Of these, four were reported by mobile phone and five by radio. In the North Cascades, climbing rangers evacuated nine parties from the mountains in 2009. Three of these were called in by cell phone, one was initiated by activation of a SPOT beacon, three did not involve a communication device, and two involved parties who tried to use a cell phone in the field but failed to get service so they descended and reported their accidents in person at the Marblemount Ranger Station. These last two cases highlight the fact that cell phone reception is spotty in the North Cascades, with peaks and ridges more likely to have coverage than lower points.

Perception: Signaling devices would have saved lives in the 2006 and 2009 accidents on Mount Hood.

Reality: Probably false.

SAR personnel, NPS officials, and others agree that even if the precise location of the stranded parties had been known right away in these incidents, high winds, heavy snow, and high avalanche danger would have prevented SAR teams from reaching the subjects for many days. The climbers needed to keep themselves alive during the intense winter storms that raged during that period. Because all six of the climbers involved died, and four of their bodies have not been found, little is known about the location, cause, or nature of their accidents much less whether a signaling device might have changed the outcome. That said, a properly activated locator device(s) might have enabled SAR teams to locate the bodies of the four missing climbers. This would have saved a lot of time, effort, and cost expended during search operations and would have helped bring closure to the families of the missing climbers.

Perception: Increased use of cell phones and other devices will lead to more false alarms and increased risks to rescuers.

Reality: True and false.

North Cascades National Park and other areas have reported false alarms relating to SPOT Beacons, cell phones and other devices. Most problematic are devices that do not permit two-way communication between rescuers and victims. A few high profile misuses of SPOT beacons, both intentional and accidental, have led to “yuppie 9-1-1” articles in the press decrying their increased use. According to Mike Gauthier and Kelly Bush, who have led the climbing ranger teams and SAR operations for Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Park respectively, false alarms are relatively rare, and rangers are usually able to quickly determine whether a call is a false alarm or not.

Regarding risks to rescuers, Rocky Henderson of Portland Mountain Rescue notes that rescuer safety is always a top priority on SAR missions. On Mount Hood, most rescuers are experienced mountaineers who volunteer their time and expertise to aid in SAR missions. On Mount Rainier and in the North Cascades, mountain SAR is performed by climbing rangers who receive special training for rescues and are paid to provide this service. Helicopter rescues often involve military pilots and personnel, who are trained professionals. There are always risks associated with traveling in the mountains or performing rescues, but SAR leaders work hard to keep their rescuers as safe as possible. Moreover, mountain SAR participants, like firefighters, choose to spend their time on these public service acts, perhaps because they consider it part of their calling.

Search and Rescue Summary
U.S. National Parks, 2005

Activities leading to SAR incidents:
48% - Hiking
21% - Boating
6% - Swimming
3.5% - Rock climbing
2% - Mountaineering
2% - Stock/animal riding
1% each - Aircraft, snowmobiles, fishing, surfing, biking, skiing, suicide

Most common causes of fatalities:
23% - Hiking
12% - Suicides
10% - Swimming
10% - Boating
9% - Mountaineering
9% - Rock climbing

SAR initiation method:
29% - In person
23% - Land-line phone
23% - Cell or satellite phone
5% - Citizen’s band radio

Factors leading to SAR calls:
22% - Errors in judgment
17% - Fatigue/Physical conditioning
16% - Insufficient equipment, clothing or experience
9% - Falls
7% - Weather

Recovery rates and timing:
94% - Subject found within 24 hours
2% - Subject never found

Heggie and Amundson, “Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in US National Parks.”

Additional Resources

Portland Mtn Rescue: Mobile communication devices in the mountains.

McCammon: Role of training in avalanche accidents.

Athearn: Perception and reality of climbing rescues.

Colorado: Endangered persons refusing help because of fear of rescue fees.

Colorado: Detrimental impacts of rescue fees on communities.

Jim Whittaker NYTimes article.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Monty Smith, whose countless volunteer hours and passionate leadership greatly helped Portland Mountain Rescue over the past two decades.

The author would like to thank Steve Smith for help on the device section and Monty Smith, Kelly Bush, Stefan Lofgren, Mike Gauthier, Steve Rollins, Rocky Henderson, Travis Heggie, Jed Williamson, and Sargeant Sean Collinson for helping provide photos, data, and anecdotes on Northwest SAR operations.

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