Mountaineering: how to safeguard both climbers and rescuers

Usually, when winter arrives in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, it brings only snow, ice, and a few thousand rugged tourists.

Last winter, though, also brought unexpected controversy - the kind that local people would just as soon be spared now that snow has begun to fly here again.

Last January, two young ice climbers from another state lost their way on 6, 288-foot Mt. Washington, highest peak in the Northeast and the site of some of the world's worst weather conditions. In an attempt to rescue them, a local man was killed by an avalanche.

Ultimately the climbers were found alive, although both sustained disabling injuries because of the bitter cold.

The incident triggered an intense debate: Should volunteers risk injury to rescue strangers from these mountains for no financial compensation and perhaps the necessity of paying any resulting medical expenses out of their own pockets?

Perhaps fueled by news coverage of the January incident, there were suggestions - even among church groups - that winter climbers were a nuisance.

As another winter sets in, however, those who perform rescue missions are agreed: Within reason, they will do whatever is necessary to bring down from the mountains visitors who are unable to leave on their own.

To do so, they contend, is a moral responsibility, especially when visitors are officially encouraged to come here, enjoy the mountains, and spend money to help keep the local economy going. Although the White Mountains are within driving distance of about 65 million people, they are remote, and tourism is the chief industry.

Despite the controversy, no one expects fewer visitors this winter, even though winds above the treeline frequently top 100 m.p.h. with chill factors around minus 80 degree F.

Actually, rescue leaders say, they worry more about the summer months, when inexperienced visitors dress in sandals and even swimwear to hike the mountains.

After the incident last January, the New Hampshire Legislature quickly passed a long-sought workmen's compensation bill covering volunteer rescuers in case of injury or death in the line of duty. The death benefit, however, is a modest $1, 200.

Calls for greater regulation of campers, hikers, and climbers also were heard. Among the suggestions: that such people be required to carry certain equipment and supplies; that they register at a central facility and file itineraries, and that they be held liable for the cost of rescues.

But those who work in the mountains and serve on rescue missions reject the idea of greater regulation. They speak philosophically and unemotionally about the risks of mountaineering.

Says Lt. William Hastings, district chief of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which is legally responsible for mountain rescue: ''I think anyone who has a love for the mountains and the back country doesn't want to see it tightened up.''

''If I thought it would get us somewhere, then I'd be for it,'' adds Jon Martinson, manager of a large permanent camp at the base of Mt. Washington run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. ''But I see it only causing more problems than it solves. It doesn't seem to make sense to create regulations that are only going to be difficult to enforce.''

The Fish and Game Department, for example, has a staff of only seven people to patrol this district. But there are roughly 200 points of entry to the 750, 000-acre White Mountain National Forest, and it is virtually impossible to keep track of everyone.

Mt. Katahdin, a 5,268-foot peak in neighboring Maine that also is popular with climbers, is tightly regulated, these men point out. But that does not stop visitors there from encountering trouble and needing to be rescued.

Indeed, rescuers regard most of those whom they have to bring out of the mountains as being just like themselves - lovers of the outdoors who particularly enjoy the challenge of mountaineering. The two men whose disappearance led to the death of the rescuer last winter ''were good climbers who were well-prepared,'' says Mr. Martinson. ''They just made a judgment that was wrong.''

Rick Wilcox, owner of a climbing and camping equipment business in nearby North Conway and head of the 25-man Mountain Rescue Service, which performs the most difficult missions, says helping those in trouble is his first priority - even if that means leaving his store undermanned. Many of his own employees are Rescue Service members - as was the man who was killed last winter.

These men, nearly all of whom are single and in their 20s, have the option to refuse a mission, Mr. Wilcox says - but don't. All are experienced climbers, skilled at using ropes, pitons, and other gear to climb slopes or rock faces less experienced climbers can't reach.

Wilcox says rescuers in the White Mountains are generally not bitter about the loss of a colleague. ''But if someone was really criminal in what he was doing on the mountain and we had to go get him, I think we wouldm be bitter about that,'' he adds.

Mountaineers agree that their work and the welfare of all who use the back country would be greatly eased if visitors learned proper hiking and climbing techniques first and paid attention to posted weather conditions before setting out on the trail.

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