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Who pays for search, rescue and recovery?

Pressure cookers that have been simmering slowly in Vermont and New Hampshire are beginning to boil overs and a real explosion may be on the way. The question at hand is how to pay for the increasing number of wilderness search and rescue operations these two states are having to conduct each year. I’m sure the problem is there in other states, but it’s making news in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Of course anyone who reads this column is obviously smart enough to plan well, make informed choices, and be personally prepared so they never need rescuing. But it’s still a major issue that, in one way or another, will impact all of us who play outdoors.

In Vermont, S&R operations are overseen by the State Police. The problem in the Green Mountain State comes with the big increase “sidecountry” skiers and snowboarders who start from a lift-serviced ski area and go looking for untouched snow deep in the woods, often beyond the ski area boundaries. These adventurers are usually totally unprepared, ill-equipped and call for help when they can’t find their own way out by dark. There have been over such 70 incidents so far this season and deep snows in February and March will only make the numbers grow.

In New Hampshire, the Fish and Game Department oversees all search and rescue missions. Since 2006 NHF&G has reported 957 missions, 543 (57 percent) were for hikers and climbers; 159 (17 percent) were “walk-aways/runaways” (kids or impaired adults); 136 (14 percent) were for hunters, anglers, boaters and OHRV/ATV riders. The problem is that it only the latter group who contributed toward the total $1.8 million spent on search and rescue in those six years. One dollar from every boat and off-road vehicle registration (including snowmobiles) goes into the S&R fund, and shortfall is paid by revenues from hunting and fishing licenses.

A proposal before the NH state legislature seems to make sense, at least to me. Basically, it would offer hikers the opportunity to purchase a one-time, entirely voluntary “Hike Safe” Card. Hike Safe, incidentally, is the excellent education and outreach program – www.hikesafe.com – created jointly by the White Mountain National Forest (where 412 of the 957 S&R missions in the last six years have taken place) and NH Fish and Game. Anyone who had purchased this Hike Safe Card (the proposal prices it at $18, but that could easily change), or who had registered a boat or off-road vehicle in the past year would not be liable for the cost of any rescue (the average rescue in NH now costs $1,958). Everyone else would automatically be billed $600 for a rescue costing $100-$1500, or up to to $1000 for more expensive efforts. Currently the law allows billing of some individuals for the entire cost of their rescue, but only about 64 percent of that is ever collected).

Personally, I’d be the first in line to buy that Hike Safe Card if New Hampshire adopts it, and I’d be giving them as Christmas and birthday presents to all my family and friends until everyone I knew who hikes or backcountry skis in New Hampshire had one. I wouldn’t even mind it if I had to buy one for each state I visit. The simple fact is that, even with volunteer help, search and rescue costs a lot of money. Someone has to pay and, in these days of increased government austerity, it should be the people who need or are most likely to need rescue. What do you think?

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

One rescue, one recovery

The high White Mountains of New Hampshire have claimed yet another human life recently, and it’s only by pure luck that more people weren’t killed.

Richard Gabriele, 64, of University Park, Texas, who was described by authorities as “an experienced hiker,” was climbing with friends in the King Ravine area of Mount Adams, when he fell to his death on Jan. 26 at about 1 p.m. Apparently, Gabriele, who was hiking with six companions, lost his footing and slid several hundred yards on hard-packed snow and ice. All six were apparently well equipped for winter hiking. Rescuers reached the scene about 3:30 and later recovered the body.

That was the second “incident” in a little over a week. On Jan. 17, four roped teams of three climbers each made their way close to the top of Central Gully in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. One of the climbers was Keith Zeier, a retired marine who lost his left leg to an IED in Iraq in 2006, climbing to raise funds and awareness for Ascents of Honor. The climb was lead by seven-time Everest climber Andy Politz (who apparently had no experience on Washington).

Apparently, the highest of the four roped teams triggered a “small” avalanche which swept the other three teams off their feet and down the 45-50 degree slope. As the incident summary says: “Fortunately, the injuries this party sustained were relatively minor compared to those who have taken this fall in the past, allowing rescue teams to stabilize the situation and evacuate the party via the Forest Service snow tractor.”

Three people ended up in hospitals. Change a couple of minor details and there could easily have been several deaths.

Frankly, it looks like they simply underestimated Mount Washington, made a plan and stuck to it when conditions changed. Easy to do—often with dire consequences.

For more details on this near disaster, go to www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org and read the weekend update for Jan. 18. For an outstanding overview of the incident, read www.concordmonitor.com/home/3990079-95/climbers-avalanche-ravine-monitor.

Is Education Enough?

Obviously, the highest and best idea is to educate people to cut down on numbers who need rescuing. A number of ski areas are doing this, and I expect to see more of it. And the Hike Safe education effort is a good one. But education will only go so far. People are still going to need to be rescued and someone still has to pay.

Tim Jones is Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. He can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.