Last week I interviewed Steve Mastaitis at the Adirondack Medical Center, where he was recovering from frostbite and hypothermia after spending a night curled up in a snow hole near the summit of Mount Marcy.
The story, posted on the Adirondack Explorer website, generated a lot of discussion on my blog and in hikers’ forums. A number of people criticized Mastaitis, saying he was unprepared to hike Marcy in winter, and some suggested that he and others like him should be forced to pay for their rescues. Click here to read my original post.
Mastaitis admits he made some mistakes. Among other things, he should not have allowed himself to become separated from his party. He concedes that the low-cut boots he wore were not appropriate for winter. Critics pointed out other mistakes, such as the failure to carry a compass to help him find the right route down the treeless summit cone. (He veered off trail to the edge of Panther Gorge.)
Forest rangers searched long into the night for Mastaitis but retreated after midnight in the face of frigid temperatures and strong winds. They found him the next morning and flew him off the mountain in a helicopter.
Those who contend he should foot the bill for his rescue say he put the lives of the rangers and the pilots in danger. It’s an argument that gained force the following weekend when rangers were called upon to search for three solo backcountry travelers. Two were hikers who got lost and spent the night in the woods, one on Marcy, the other on Algonquin. The third was a skier who was found after dark. (Three of the rangers, Scott VanLaer, Chris Kostoss, and Joe LaPierre, participated in all three searches as well as the one for Mastaitis.)
Assuming all four made mistakes, should they all be required to pay for their rescues? Or only those who made “foolish” mistakes?
I don’t think any of them should.
Yes, forest rangers put their lives at risk and should be commended for their bravery. But rescuing people is part of their job. Firefighters also risk their lives. Yet when a house burns, we don’t send a bill to the owner—not even if the schmuck was smoking in bed.
What about the cost to taxpayers of searches and rescues?
Well, the state spends millions of dollars every year to attract people to the Adirondacks to hike, paddle, snowshoe, and ski. It does so to help the economy. The marketing no doubt appeals to people with a wide range of backcountry skills, from raw novices to old hands, and some of them inevitably get into trouble. Rescues are just a cost of doing business—the business of promoting tourism. What’s more, charging for rescues would not be good for that business.
The recent incidents in the High Peaks are merely the most publicized of the rescues that rangers carried out this winter. Just today the state released a report that details ten other rescue calls. The circumstances vary greatly. In one case, a skier injured her ankle on the trail to Camp Santanoni. In another, a father went in search of his sons whom he believed to be on Hurricane Mountain. In a third, a snowmobiler was riding too fast and hit a tree.
Again, should we charge them all? If not, should we set up tribunals to determine which rescues were due to “foolish” mistakes as opposed to accidents or to mistakes we can condone? What are the criteria? If an otherwise prepared hiker inadvertently leaves his compass at home, just once, is this oversight “foolish” enough to warrant an inquisition and our condemnation?
Frankly, I don’t want to spend my tax dollars on tribunals that will pry into the contents of our backpacks and parse our judgments. The money would be better spent on educating visitors on proper backcountry preparedness.
While the critique of the Mastaitis incident on the hiker forums was valuable, some commenters were overly harsh. We all make mistakes. And we all pay taxes—including hikers who get in trouble.
Photo by Phil Brown: Steve Mastaitis and his wife, Jane, in the hospital.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.