Shared responsibility for search and rescue

A view from Algonquin that, only a few minutes before, included a helicopter. (Enterprise photo — Zack Floss)

Last Tuesday, if you were hiking in the High Peaks, you may have noticed quite a bit of helicopter traffic around Mt. Colden. If you were curious, you may have done some searching online the next day to see if you could figure out what happened. It only took a few seconds to come across this post from Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer:

“3 SAR (search and rescue) incidents in High Peaks yesterday. It was a Tuesday. Staff is completely overwhelmed. We can’t ignore that this area is equivalent to National Park any longer.”

Overcrowding in the Adirondacks comes with a whole host of additional consequences, as we all know. One of these is the load of backcountry rescue operations conducted by Forest Rangers and others in the Adirondacks. Those who recreate here have the incredible privilege of knowing that, if they get themselves into trouble, help can be reached. It is, however, a privilege worth taking a much harder look at.

Accidents can happen anywhere and the backcountry is clearly no exception. Depending on your sport of choice, the hazards you can face are numerous. Apart from the inherent risks involved in outdoor pursuits, the potential for human error increases when you introduce environmental factors like open water, wet rock, bad weather, poor visibility, and so on. Even a simple twisted ankle can become a much more serious issue when you’re 6 miles from the nearest road. More serious accidents can require intensive operations that put the rescuers in positions of risk as well. Of course, it’s hard to fault someone for getting hurt in the mountains if they weren’t taking any undue risks.

There are, however, plenty of bad situations that people get themselves into that could be easily avoided. If you look at the Ranger highlights or talk to folks on trail, it becomes clear that some take the privilege of being rescued entirely for granted.

They pursue risks that are far beyond their ability to cope with, act with reckless abandon or without adequately preparing themselves (both physically and mentally) for the challenges they could face outdoors. The volume of accidents happening in the Adirondacks has become unsustainable, especially in cases where a little bit of forethought could have prevented a rescue operation.

What we need to keep in mind is that going out into the woods is a choice that we make freely. In every case regarding wilderness recreation, this choice can have some dire consequences that we are ultimately responsible for. While we are incredibly fortunate to have the option of being rescued, more people need to take time to think about their choices before emergent situations cascade out of their control and become problems for other people and the environment. If you break it down, even people involved in an honest accident in the backcountry are still responsible for having gotten themselves out there in the first place. This begs the question of whether the subjects of wilderness rescues should be treated without fault or if they should be held accountable for the accidents they’re involved in.

I say all of this from the position of someone who has been both rescuer and the one being rescued before. The latter deserves more attention in this case. A small cut on my foot while I was paddling caused a systemic infection that would have killed me in 12-24 hours if I hadn’t been rescued by helicopter in the Canadian Yukon. After 5 days of medical treatment, I decided to go back out into the woods to meet up with my group and complete the trip. At the time, I was told there was a chance the infection would resurface but I made the decision to go anyway, thinking the oral antibiotics would be enough. While I had a great time for 14 days on a remote section of the Blackstone River, I was ultimately not ready to head back out into the woods. The infection returned with force and I had to be rescued by helicopter again.

I reflect, with guilt, on the series of decisions that led to my second rescue all the time. I took my strength and health, the privilege of my rescue, the safety of the helicopter pilots, and the availability of local health care completely for granted. Fortunately, the outcome was positive and I’m still able to go play in the woods today, but I can’t help thinking about how selfish it was of me to go back out the second time. Maybe the issue wasn’t even the second time.

Maybe it was my decision to put myself in a potentially dangerous situation by heading out there to begin with, taking it entirely for granted that someone would be there to save me from myself if something went wrong. Do I have the right to assume that, by taking risks with my life, that others will be there to bail me out?

The recent helicopter rescue on the Trap Dike on Mount Colden serves as another perfect example for consideration. The history of this route speaks for itself. Despite the fact that more than a few people have died ascending it, the trap dike still draws dozens of hikers and climbers every year. In a rescue on July 18, a group of 2 became stranded when they exited the Dike a little early. This is an honest mistake made by people who, by all appearances, were prepared for the climb. Regardless, it still required two Rangers and a helicopter to become involved in picking them off a ledge that they had arrived at by their own power.

It’s hard to say how much blame we can assign in a case like this. Unpacking people’s motivation to climb mountains or to pass out condemnation is not the purpose of this column.

The goal here is to prompt everyone who recreates outdoors in the Adirondacks to think about the choices they make and to take more responsibility for them, especially when it comes to wilderness rescue. If everyone took more time to accurately assess their ability, their preparedness, and their goals, we could begin to reduce the burden that we place on our rescue professionals and the environment here. If we want to continue to have the privilege to be rescued when we do get into trouble, then this is the best place to start.


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