Charles "Butch" Farabee had seen the forbidding skies turn black before.
With the recent mountaineering dramas at Mts. Rainier and McKinley fresh on his mind, the acting superintendent of Glacier National Park in Montana stared out his office window toward the high, frosted peaks as afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.
Lightning. Hail. High winds. A sudden change to cold temperatures. His face wore a look of consternation.
"There are people out there today climbing on the peaks who knew bad weather was approaching, and yet they went up there anyway," Mr. Farabee says. "Maybe today they'll get away with making a bad decision, but next time, when it snows, maybe they'll get caught and then we'll have to go find them."
Emboldened with a desire for extreme challenges and a false sense of confidence by having cellular phones in their backpacks, more people than ever are trudging into the outback with not only greater ambitions of confronting danger but higher expectations of getting rescued fast.
Farabee just shakes his head. "A small but increasing percentage of our visitors are pushing the limits of their abilities, because they believe help is just around the corner," he says. "When they come into the wilderness, they forget that ... they are stepping back in time."
Whether it is the maze of Utah's slick rock canyons, the cathedral cliffs of Yosemite, or bears at Glacier National Park, risks persist beyond the hand rails. The best singular example of Farabee's concern is the avalanche on Mt. Rainier earlier this month that killed one climber. Onlookers were able to dial 911 within seconds of it happening, but it still took many hours to mount a successful rescue because of significant topographical challenges.
Since the 1960s, the number of search-and-rescue missions has increased steadily to the point that many parks now have their own rescue teams. Last year, the Park Service spent $2 million for 4,263 search-and-rescue incidents, which involved 2,503 injuries and 171 fatalities and ranged from lost children at campgrounds to helicopter rescues off Mt. McKinley, says Dennis Burnett, a park ranger based in Washington.
More mundane dangers
While the recent rescue operations on towering pinnacles like Alaska's McKinley and Washington's Rainier get most of the attention, Park Service rangers are quick to point out that many of the most costly rescues occur in much more mundane settings.
Summer vacationers left overconfident because they know they are only a few miles from their cars sometimes run into trouble. Walks in paradise can turn tragic when people veer off trails, are struck by falling rock, flip their kayaks on seemingly flat water, or get caught on exposed alpine slopes during afternoon lightning storms.
In addition, the advent of better equipment, an expanding middle class, and a growing ecological awareness has sent more people scrambling for the crags.
"The biggest killer in Yosemite involves the 16- to 22-year-old males who think they are invincible," says Farabee, a former Yosemite ranger. "They go free climbing up something that everybody else wants to go up with ropes."
Perhaps the only consolation for those who wander into the path of harm is that Uncle Sam picks up the tab for their rescue. Victims foot the bill of their rescue only if they are breaking the law - such as parachuting off the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia on the 364 days when it is prohibited.
Rescues at McKinley
At places like McKinley and Rainier, rescues are hardly new.
In fact, John Quinley, a spokesman for the National Park Service, says the harrowing events on Mt. McKinley - where seven British climbers had to be rescued earlier this week when they were trapped by fierce storms - are not uncommon. The rescue became a media event only because of the weather, he says.
"These guys were at 19,000 feet for four or five days. If they had broken their ankle on a clear day, they would have been off the mountain in a couple hours and you wouldn't have heard about it," Mr. Quinley observes, noting that between 1,000 and 1,200 climbers attempt McKinley each year. "But with a storm, cold temperatures, and an expensive rescue that gets dragged out, it becomes an epic survival story - but the basic story line is not that extraordinary."
Indeed, statistics show that the average number of serious injuries or deaths occurring on those mountains has held steady or been in decline during the past few years due to new safety measures such as climbing fees and training.
For example, seven years ago the Alaska Range, of which McKinley is a part, recorded 13 deaths - the worst ever for local mountaineering. A couple of years later it had the same number of climbers and no fatalities.
In the Lower 48
But while those summits tend to attract a caliber of aspirants better prepared to deal with the unexpected, many peaks in the Lower 48 draw tourists who are attracted to the idea of extreme challenges. And for Mark Magnuson, leader of the renowned Grand Teton climbing rangers, an elite corps of Park Service mountaineering specialists, that has led to a disturbing phenomenon.
"In general, I don't think they are coming to the Tetons as prepared as they have typically been," says Mr. Magnuson. "One trend we've seen coming on for awhile is with the onset of both sport and gym climbing in urban areas."
"We see a lot of folks who in that controlled setting are technically proficient; then they take those skills into a mountain alpine environment and they are in way over their head," he adds.
Facing real route-finding challenges, rockfall, snow fields, and adverse weather, inexperienced climbers get injured, creating a year like 1997 when there were 23 major incidents and six fatalities, including the loss of a seasoned guide.
He points to a telling statistic: 27 percent of all rescues during the past three years have been initiated by a cell phone - compared with zero a decade ago. The rate is climbing, and while technology helps some rescue operations, Magnuson wonders if it is creating a false sense of security.
"Phones are a double-edged sword. They allow us to identify injured people faster, but if they contribute to more injured people, that's not good," Magnuson adds. "It used to be that by the time we'd receive a report of a serious injury and gotten to the scene, the victims were either very much alive or very much dead. Now we're reaching people who might otherwise have perished."
To emphasize the notion that alpinists are heading into the mountains at their own risk, the ritual of requiring all climbers to sign in at the base of the Tetons before making their descents was discontinued in 1992.
Still, Magnuson notes, rangers attempt to assess the skill level of climbers and dissuade those who are ill-prepared, a tactic they hope will save lives.
"Let's face it, most of us who have been doing this a long time can point to moments when we know we got lucky and chalk it up to experience," Magnuson says. "Experience here is vital."