By JoEllen Collins
The media coverage of the December search for climbers on Mount Hood was extensive. Subsequent public displays of family courage and eventual grief absorbed much of television news during those weeks, along with reporting of the courageous efforts to rescue the three men. I experienced several emotions as I observed the onslaught.
First, I thought, there was obviously hope that the dramatic rescue of these men would provide a wonderful holiday reminder of the more positive and upbeat aspects of the human experience. Although earlier I was saddened by the death of the father who tried to find help for his Oregon family stranded in a storm, there was at least a possibility, I thought, that the safe journey of these men would provide some antidote to that unhappy result. It was not to be.
Second, I once again experienced amazement at the time spent on these stories when we all know thousands upon thousands of worthy people are starving, being maimed and executed by marauding terrorists in remote African villages, living with AIDS and, in the case of our military and the citizens of Iraq, suffering unimaginable atrocities. On the other hand, most people appreciate stories of the individual or of identifiable small groups when faced with tales of suffering. When charitable foundations personalize tragedies by showing the experience of an individual, they will often reap more contributions.
Then there was the question that I kept asking: Why? Why on earth would these three family men choose this time of year to climb on this particular slope, known for the suddenness of its weather changes? I would say I am adventurous in terms of travel and other challenges, but not in terms of athletic endeavors. It is hard for one who is not daring to get into the mind frame of such extreme adventurers. I am a rank coward when it comes to heights, for example, so it takes a huge stretch of the imagination for me to identify with the urge to tackle steep slopes. Even sitting on a chairlift gives me the heebie-jeebies, so I have to just close off the knowledge of my own fears and trust that others find rock-climbing and mountain scaling rewarding. I can understand the concept of the thrill of achievement, but I also wonder at what price it is satisfied.
I talked over the weekend with people who live near Mount Hood and know the joys it offers as a place of majestic beauty. They were confident that the climbers had acted wisely: They knew the risks, had taken all the possible precautions in terms of correct gear and provisions for emergencies, and were well aware of the hazards they might face. Nonetheless, my friends assured me, these three men were experienced and had every right to be where they were when the weather changed drastically.
Even for those who understand the climbers' impulse, there are other concerns. What about the cost of rescue efforts, not only in dollars but also in potential injury to the rescuers? The abundance of people willing to risk their lives in the search on Mount Hood was riveting and an example of the brotherhood of humanity. It makes me proud. Certainly, if I were a family member of a stranded climber, I would want every effort to be made to find him. Our own local search and rescue teams are invaluable resources. Nonetheless, the Mount Hood searchers were in extreme peril, and it was amazing that no one else was hurt in the process of looking for men who voluntarily put themselves in that environment. In Yosemite, climbers who get stranded on El Capitan must bear the expense of helicopters that come to their rescue. This is a partial resolution of the question of who pays for these efforts but does not take into account the additional potential toll in human life and limb. How would the families of the Mount Hood climbers have felt should someone else's family undergo similar grief if one of the searchers was killed in the process?
These are fundamental human issues: the urge to help others even at one's own peril, the concept of responsibility for the choices we make, the conflict between individual will and public response. I wish we had better news this December about that story. Actually, I'd prefer better news all the time. Hopefully, 2007 will provide some solutions to at least a few of the crises we face.