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Wednesday, June 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

The dangerous mountain next door

A seriously injured Mount Rainier climber is pulled off the mountain May 17 by an Oregon National Guard helicopter. The climber, Peter Cooley, died en route to the hospital.
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Intensive rescue efforts surrounding two recent climbing deaths on the slopes of Mount Rainier raise old questions about the expense and who should bear the costs.

No good reasons exists to change the current system. Charging climbers stiff fees, requiring insurance, or billing those helped invites liability problems, could complicate rescues and might not save any money.

Search-and-rescue experts need the discretion to marshal the equipment suitable to the situation. The costs are real, but they are not prohibitive.

Rainier is a natural wonder in dazzling sight of 2.5 million people drawn to its hiking trails, ski runs and climbing challenges.

Consider 2003 on Mount Rainier. In more than 2 million visits by campers, hikers, skiers, climbers, swimmers, divers, hang gliders and assorted tourists, 25 incidents were classified as full-fledged search-and-rescues.

Twelve involved hiking, two skiing, eight climbing, two mutual aid — typically helping another agency with a vehicle accident — and one listed as "other."

Of the 25 incidents, a dozen ran up costs exceeding $2,500 and qualified as an extraordinary expense paid out of the national search-and-rescue budget at National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. The 12 totaled $57,047 and required 1,500 hours. Two complicated rescues accounted for $21,000.

All of the other workaday wandering children, blistered hikers, singed campers and stranded motorists were handled as a routine cost of doing business with millions of guests.

Eleven thousand people each year try to conquer the 14,411-foot peak. A relative handful of experienced climbers are drawn to the mountain's more difficult routes, such as Liberty Ridge.

For those who want to test their skills, the route is considered a classic. Only weeks apart, two climbers died from falls on the rocky, icy ridge, familiar to mountaineers as steep but not extreme terrain.

The safety and enjoyment of Rainier and other national parks will not be improved by turning the park service into insurance brokers or by complicating search-and-rescue decisions.

Climbing safety will always be a combination of skill, experience, fitness, equipment, weather, pace and route. Yet, the most experienced climbers can be surprised — and that is the word — by changes in weather and conditions.

In the event of the worst — from an injured climber to a missing toddler — skilled help should remain available to all. Professionals have made the current system work.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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