Mountain rescue never was as simple as sending out a Saint Bernard with a cask tucked under its furry chin.
The search for three climbers stranded for a week on Mt. Hood is pitting rescue teams' wits and the best gear and technology of the day against difficult conditions and, the greatest and most dangerous unknown, the weather.
At time of writing Sunday, rescuers had not found the three, all experienced climbers who were last in contact five days earlier. The quest follows an earlier search in southern Oregon for the Kim family, who became stranded in their car on a snowy, remote forest road. James Kim, who went for help, succumbed to exposure; the rest of the family was rescued.
The Mt. Hood rescue teams, racing against time, tried Saturday to take advantage of a break in fierce storms that had lashed the area for several days. Forty-five expert mountaineers inched their way up the steep slopes on both sides of the mountain, backed up by Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, and C-130 aircraft from the Nevada Air National Guard. But by early afternoon, 50 mile-an-hour winds and blowing snow forced them to turn back.
Earlier in the week T-Mobile was able to "ping" the cellphone of one climber, who reported he'd taken refuge in a snow cave just below the 11,239-foot summit while his climbing partners headed down for help. Aircraft, meanwhile, have used advanced military gear such as the Scathe View system, a C-130-mounted turret device to acquire, analyze, and transmit imagery to ground teams. Unmanned aerial drones with heat-seeking sensors have also been called to duty.
The climbers apparently are not carrying mountain locator units – radio beacons available for rent. And as often happens in such cases, the question of rescue cost and who should pay remains contentious.
Some critics say climbers and extreme sports enthusiasts should reimburse the cost of rescue, and several states do charge in cases of recklessness. Others say billing those rescued can add to the danger.
The Mountain Rescue Association stresses the importance of personal responsibility and training, but its position is that "no one should ever be made to feel they must delay in notifying the proper authorities of a search or rescue incident out of fear of possible charges."
Most experienced rescue team members are unpaid volunteers, and military units value the experience and training resulting from rescue efforts. Still, the cost to local public-safety agencies can be high.
Rescue insurance (required in the Swiss Alps) is also a matter of debate. In Denali National Park in Alaska, climbers of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley pay a $200 fee – a kind of insurance premium that helps pay for mountain safety programs there. But some say rescue insurance can result in a false sense of security.
Neither insurance nor the question of reimbursement for rescue was an issue in the Kim family's case. The family had taken a wrong turn, onto a road meant to be closed for the winter. It now appears that at least some responsibility may lie with federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees who failed to lock the gate on that road.
The past week's narrative on Mt. Hood recalls two earlier harrowing episodes.
In May 2002, an Air Force Reserve Pave Hawk helicopter sent to rescue six climbers who had survived a fall into a deep crevasse (three others had been killed) crashed into side of the mountain in gusty winds as it tried to airlift an injured climber. Though the helicopter rotor blades shattered and the fuselage rolled 1,000 feet down the steep patch of snow and rock, the crew survived.
Twenty-six years earlier, three teenagers – all experienced climbers – encountered a heavy snowstorm and whiteout on the mountain. They dug a snow cave for shelter to wait out the storm. It was nearly two weeks before the weather broke and they emerged – each 30 pounds lighter – and were found by a rescue team.
Those boys – now middle-aged men – have been a comfort to families of those who waited over the weekend, hoping for an outcome similar to the second story. "I've been in constant prayer for these guys to give them some courage," Randy Knapp, a carpenter and part-time minister in Medford, Ore., told The Oregonian newspaper. "I know they can make it. It's possible to survive this."