Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Phil Brown: Don’t Bill Hikers For Rescues

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.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

27 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    If you are going to do anything you would have to make them all pay not just the ones that are unprepared.

    This guy almost payed the ultimate price for not being prepared. Not having proper boots and and compass are inexcusable. I imagine he has learned his lesson. We are all responsible to take care of people that need help in an emergency this is no different. I am very happy that it turned out the way it did.

  2. Connecticut Curmudgeon says:

    I agree, they should not be charged. One of the beautiful things about the mountains is that you don’t have to pay for them. It would be a shame if everyone started having to pay a rescue insurance fee.

    But it is rather annoying to read the stories like the couple who somehow got lost skiing at the Paul Smiths VIC and refused to follow their own tracks out as instructed by a ranger because they were too “tired”.

    I also found the volume of interviews that Steve Mastaitis did to be suspect considering the business he owned was mentioned in every one of them. I don’t think people who get lost, are unprepared and then cost the state tens of thousands of dollars in rescue costs should get free advertising out of it.

  3. ScottyJack says:

    He was wearing low cut boots in winter??? If that’s true a compass probably would not have helped..

  4. Justin says:

    I would love to see a reader generated column called “Humble Hikes” in either the Adirondac or Adirondack Almanac specifically for people to share hard lessons learned. People enjoy reading them to learn from other peoples mistakes. I’d be happy to write about green water on Gothics.

  5. oldladymac says:

    Charge them, people need to be responsible for their stupidity. Without the help of the rangers they would have been culled from the herd.

  6. TiSentinel65 says:

    Many rescues have been performed these past few weeks, whether it be on the semi frozen lakes or the mountain tops. Mistakes sometimes happen, sometimes poor judment, sometimes bad luck. Our rescue service has already been paid for with our tax dollars. The last thing we need is to scare tourists away by being inhospitable. We can educate about preparedness, however we can not prepare for everything mother nature throws at us.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    All trail heads should have a sign saying “Enter at your own risk.”

  8. Brian says:

    Good column. How are you going to decide who to charge? Is there going to be a morality panel that casts judgment? If you stumble because one of your bootlaces comes untied, trip and break your ankle, is it your fault for not noticing the untied lace or just an “accident”?

    Phil’s right. This is just the cost of doing business.

  9. JPW says:

    You may be interested in reading the paper by Leo McAvoy – “The Right to Risk in Wilderness” – in which the author advocates for designating “rescue-free” wilderness areas in which “recreationists would retain total responsibility for their own safety.” Back in my college days I took a Wilderness Management course with University of Montana, and we spent a good deal of time debating this topic through the lens of McAvoy’s paper.

    According to McAvoy, Bob Marshall argued that wilderness should provide an “opportunity for complete self-sufficiency.”

    The State Land Master Plan definition of Wilderness contains the following language:

    “All management and administrative action and interior facilities in wilderness areas will be designed to emphasize the self-sufficiency of the user to assume a high degree of responsibility for
    environmentally-sound use of such areas and for his or her own health, safety and welfare.”

    For some people, venturing into the wilderness is simply another recreational experience. For others it is about disconnecting from the outside world, and assuming a degree of risk and responsibility for keeping yourself alive. For most, I imagine, it is probably a little of both.

    But regardless of one’s motivation for visiting the wilderness, the now widespread use of and reliance on cell phones to call for rescues seems to have all but eliminated the need for users to assume responsibility for their actions.

    This debate will likely never end, but it is worth considering the question “Are you really ‘in the wilderness’ if the outside world (and help if you need it) is just a phone call away?”

  10. Harold says:

    I second Justin’s idea of “Humble Hikes”. I’m sure there would be many thought-provoking, educational and humorous stories to be told. My earlier opinion in this blog suggested that most avid explorers of the ADKs, myself surely included, have underestimated the weather or conditions and overestimated our own gear or abilities resulting in some anxious moments. Some of my favorite stories are those of “near misses”. It’s with that sense of humility that I also agree that rescues are a part of the landscape, we pay high taxes in this state but very dollar spent in support of the ADKs is money well spent in my opinion.

  11. Phil Brown says:

    @JPW, I hadn’t heard of the idea of a rescue-free wilderness. Intriguing. I can see the appeal of creating such an area, but what would authorities do if they knew someone was in trouble and might die without assistance?

    In the absence of a rescue-free wilderness area, I suppose you could approximate the risk by venturing into a lonely part of the deep woods without telling anyone where you were going (and without a cell phone, locater beacon, etc.). I’m not recommending that; I’m just saying.

  12. Joe Steiniger says:

    So we are climbing Mt Marcy, in February, with no (appropriate) boots, and no compass. We get lost and other people have to come save us. And you think the taxpayers should pay for this rescue operation?
    Sorry, no. I have been turned around in the woods more than most people, but there has to be some basic common sense preparation for climbing the highest peak in the area, or *you* pay for the rescue, not us.

  13. JPW says:

    Phil, its Josh. This concept is interesting but I’m not aware of it ever being implemented in the NWPS or anywhere else. I agree with your last point. I think the ability to easily call for help leads some people ignore the true consequences of their actions. Some folks are probably safer leaving the cell at home.

  14. Pete Nelson says:

    Does anyone notice how judgmental and even condemning we are getting in this country?

    The idea that you can judge whether someone was foolish enough or unprepared enough to warrant charging them for their rescue is silly. What are the criteria? Who decides?

    The idea that you can judge this question based upon the gear they are carrying is truly ridiculous.

    Gear in no way equates to preparedness or fitness to be in the back country. If it did, then the parade of geared-up people we all have seen in the woods who spent a lot of money at EMS and have little or no idea what they are doing in the woods would be an anachronism. I applaud anyone in the woods for sincere purposes regardless of their gear or experience level. Everyone learns. It is telling, I think, that as we gain expertise in the woods we inevitably shed gear.

    In the last year I have been deep off trail in the winter with three different people who are among the most well-known and respected back country experts in the Adirondacks. I will not name them here but you know them, trust me. As far as I know none of them had a compass. None of them needed a compass. Boot styles varied.

    Phil Brown’s column and JPW’s comments are right on the money. A little humility and respect for this wilderness and what it can do to the most experienced of us is in order.

  15. Brian says:

    PIn the rush to cast stones, people seem to forgetting that not all rescues are due to stupidity.

    We all (or mostly) agree that state land are a public resource, whose costs should be shared collectively. We don’t charge hikers for using the trails, even though some hike more miles than others, some impose more wear and tear than others. This is no different.

  16. Phil Brown says:

    Josh, I would like to read that paper sometime. Do you have a copy?

  17. Paul says:

    I remember seeing posters in the White Mountains about how you could be responsible to pay for your rescue if you needed one. Apparently this is the only state that has actually collected anything in this regard. Maine tried several times and never got paid. It is a legal morass. In NYS this would be a boon for attorneys and nobody else. In fact I have read that when you have this policy one thing it does is make it likely that someone in trouble will delay asking for assistance. I don’t think we want to go down this road.

    It is a fair debate to talk about how the “tax” to pay for it should be levied. We have lots of Forest Preserve land and it is growing in size every year. How to pay for all of it and the maintenance and things like these rescues needs to be weighed against what we gain from it. As more of these new easement lands are explored by the public we will probably start to see the need for more rescues. These places tend to be much flatter and densely vegetated and with many fewer trails and other landmarks to keep you oriented. I find it easier to stay “found” when I am in the mountains then when I am in the foothills and swamps in some of the lower lying areas.

  18. Tom B. says:

    Phil; Good column. You’re right, this is the cost of attracting the very people who climb, hike, ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, run or just lie around, drink too much on a sunny day and fall into the pool. Do we charge those people who fall in the pool?
    As for a “rescue-free” zone.. Really? Seriously? So we leave these people up there to litter up the landscape for future hikers, like the top of Everest? Oh, think of the flies. No. Rescue those that need help, publicize the case to the extent that others can learn and if they get a plug for their business in the meantime – fine.
    Every event can be a learning experience for somebody else – that’s what we need to focus on.

  19. JPW says:

    Tom B. – I wasn’t advocating for rescue-free areas in the Adirondacks. That idea would be about as popular as a fart in church. It is clearly a radical idea that never really gained any attention except in academic circles. I just thought it was an interesting topic to raise given the focus of Phil’s commentary.

  20. Paul says:

    I bet that some people who can “pay” for their rescue do. I know that if my kid was rescued I would do what I can to help that rescue crew out. Maybe we should invite Warren Buffet to spend more time in the High Peaks?

  21. Paul says:

    Maybe they should charge skiers that venture out onto avalanche prone pitches and cause an avalanche.

    Here is what the DEC had posted:

    This can destroy a lot of stuff when you have a big one. Take care of the environment. Is it really worth wrecking it just so you can ski on a hill you should not be on in the first place? If it happens when the avalanche danger is low that is different.

  22. Sammuel Jay Plummer says:

    Love the idea of a rescue free High Peaks. At the sign in posts have some type of documentation of all the deaths and injuries so people can have a reality shock before they set foot on a trail. Anyone who goes to the high peaks know there are more and more out of control individuals every year up there. This latest situation with the guy from Saratoga illustrates the ineptness of so many hikers in this area and it’s only a matter of time until travesty comes to the rescuers of these “throw caution to the wind” types while saving them from themselves. My opinion is to charge these individuals for their rescues, bann them from NYS trails and arrest them on reckless endangerment mistermeanor statutes that endangers the personell and heliocopter pilots invovled.

  23. HMPaul says:

    We in the search and rescue community applaud Phil Brown. We have opposed charging a fee to save your life, for decades. Phil adresses the issue smartly and raises some of the same points we have in our arguments. Thanks, Phil.

    Howard Paul, Public Information Officer, National Association for Search and Rescue

  24. bill says:

    I have hiked (mostly solo) in the Adirondacks over many years and in all seasons. Despite an extensive outdoors background, I still learned valuable information each time I talked with now retired ranger Pete Fish at a trail head or on the trail. Thanks Pete – I’m now teaching a new generation of hikers your wisdom. Maybe we should increase efforts to reduce the number of “clueless” people who wander into the woods or water.

  25. Adam says:

    Never having hiked or even been to the Adirondacks my thoughts may be more or less valid – but the thought of charging those people who are in need of assistance doesn’t seem to make sense for the simple reason that it provides a disincentive for people who may be in trouble – at a time when their survival might rely on calling for help sooner rather than later. While I would love to agree that anyone dumb enough to get themselves into trouble should pay the piper for it, I would much rather see a story of someone who was pulled out when they called for help than read a story of someone who died because they put off calling for help for too long because they were balancing the financial implications with the direness of their situation.

  26. zxyw says:

    The other thing I have never seen an adequate discussion of is what are the true additional costs of a rescue. Think about it. The personnel all exist and have jobs that they must be paid for whether or not they are rescuing someone. The equipment must already have been bought and paid for. In many cases, I imagine that a real rescue is not all that different than the elaborate training exercises done to simulate a rescue. OK, maybe there is some extra fuel, some wear and tear on equipment, some overtime, but again you get the same negatives by doing a training exercise. To me the bottom line is that there are some things most people agree we need civil society to do that cost us some money, and there is no profit in. Schools, police, fire departments, the military, etc. The cost of rescues is so small that I highly doubt anyone would notice even the smallest change in their taxes if we billed for every single one. And then if the person couldn’t pay, do we send them to jail where they live at great expense to the taxpayer? This is just a silly idea.

  27. Peak Experiences: Danger, Death, and Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast was published by the University Press of New England in November 2012 and includes stories about dangers, injuries, rescues, and the occasional death. The Hiker Responsibility Code was developed in New Hampshire, which says: Be prepared:
     * With knowledge and gear. Become self reliant by learning about the terrain, conditions, local weather, and your equipment before you start.
     * To leave your plans. Tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.
     * To stay together. When you start as a group, hike as a group, end as a group. Pace your hike to the slowest person.
     * To turn back. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Fatigue and unexpected conditions can also affect your hike. Know your limitations and when to postpone your hike.
     * For emergencies. Even if you are headed out briefly, an injury, severe weather or a wrong turn could become life threatening. Don’t assume you will be rescued; know how to rescue yourself.
     * To share the hiker code with others. Visit for much valuable information.
    This code should be promulgated along with advice specific to our region, which has more bushwhacks required to complete the high peaks. Prevention is the key. My book, Women with Altitude, also describes an amazing variety of difficulties one faces while attempting the Winter 46.

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