Friday, May 11, 2012

“Grossly" unprepared lost hikers should be fined

Entering the High Peaks Wilderness Area near Heart Lake.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.
Yes, there’s a pun in the title, but the subject is serious.

Last Thursday, May 3, a group of 5 hikers became lost in the High Peaks. When they were reported missing at 11pm, state police and DEC officers launched an overnight search. The missing hikers were found by rescuers around 10am the next morning, after they spent a cold, wet night outdoors. According to published reports, the hikers were grossly unprepared. They lacked essential hiking gear like a map and compass. Their "plan" had been to hike from the Upper Works trailhead to the Ausable Lakes and back – an illogical route of at least 30 miles. As if to underscore their lack of preparedness, they informed DEC officers that they had urinated on each other to keep warm overnight. That gives something of a new meaning to the phrase “grossly” unprepared, doesn’t it?

The debate of whether or not to charge lost hikers for the cost of rescuing them seems to get re-ignited every time there is a well-publicized incident like this one. Some have argued that hikers, skiers, climbers and other backcountry users have voluntarily put themselves in danger by engaging in "high risk" activities. Should these individuals then need to be rescued, so the argument goes, they should bear the cost.

I’ve always been squarely against the concept of charging for backcountry rescues. To me, backcountry users who have an accident or make a mistake shouldn’t be penalized. After all, we don’t charge motorists or homeowners for the cost of emergency personnel who respond to traffic accidents or house fires, even if they are speeding, smoking or engaging in other "high risk" activities.

But this latest incident has me re-thinking my position. Billing out the cost of the rescue isn't realistic, but a significant fine or penalty - say $1,000 - needs to be established a deterrent for the kind of reckless unpreparedness demonstrated in last week's incident. One possibility that makes a lot of sense to me was described in a recent Adirondack Almanack article about the debate over charging for rescues:
Tony Goodwin, editor of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks guidebook, thinks fining hikers in cases of gross carelessness might be a deterrent. “As long as we accept the fact that we want to encourage people to use the backcountry, there are going to be accidents that have to be dealt with and there are going to be people who are unprepared, but perhaps the most grossly unprepared, unknowledgeable ones can suffer some consequences that perhaps [would] give pause for others,” he said.
Another well-publicized incident on Mount Marcy a few months ago generated a wide range of reactions as to whether the hiker was at fault. Though there were some similarities to last week's incident, the Mount Marcy rescue differed in a number of important aspects. In my view, that incident was essentially an accident: the hiker (Steve Mastaitis) got separated from his group in difficult conditions. If it was my call I'd fine the 5 hikers who got lost last week, but not Mastaitis.

The bottom line: Carry the ten essentials and know how to use them. Have a realistic plan and a realistic turnaround time. Be prepared.


  1. Unfortunately, if you're stupid enough to pee on your buddies in a survival situation, you're probably not smart enough to be prepared or even have a vague idea of where you are going.

    I guess I feel like people shouldn't have to pay for backcountry rescue in general. Like you say, sometimes there's a legitimate injury, accident, or natural disaster that could not have been avoided.

    But there are some times when people really push the boundaries. I'm thinking of that guy who set off that SPOT satellite locator a few years ago, was rescued by helicopter, went back to the same area a few weeks later to retrieve his stuff, set off his SPOT again, then had to be helicoptered out again. (

    Of course, who decides who pays and who doesn't? Courts?

    1. I would only want a fine for the absolute worst cases, the ones that demonstrated gross carelessness or recklessness. Since DEC officers are already considered law enforcement personnel, they would write a ticket. I bet that most backcountry DEC officers have seen enough of these types of situations over the years that they know right away when a penalty situation applies.

  2. I do not believe in fines for a rescue. I do believe in the education of hikers/campers by people such as this board; especially in the Adirondacks. I know this area well. I spent many a spring, summer & fall hiking in the woods in and around Newcomb, NY {Upper works}
    Hiking in the Adirondacks is dangerous. Step off a trail or road...walk ten feet and look back. You will not see the road. It is a dense, wild area encompassing many hazards...too many have been lost or dead from a lack of due diligence in knowledge, equipment and training.
    Pass the word: the Adirondacks are beautiful, serene with gorgeous vista's however please understand the hospital is 1.5 hours away (Plattsburgh/Glens Falls); nearest gas station is 11 miles away (Long Lake) and grocery store 30+ miles away (North Creek) lends information the area is remote. Take care and remember to give back. Local business is always appreciated.

    1. My friend and I were hiking The DIX wilderness area, Sunday May 20, at 6:30 PM when we come across a 14 year boy, who became separatedly from his mother & brother and had no idea where he was. Apparently, he walked out ahead of them and took a different trail then they did. He had no idea how to read map or what a trail marking was. We told him he had to come with us and we would get him to the parking lot. At 7:30 PM, a mile from the parking lot, we ran into his brother & mother heading back into the woods to look for him, with no flash light or water, etc. He runs to his mother, she looks at us like "what are you doing with my son", turns around and walks out without saying a word. Are you kidding me!

    2. Anon - that incident you describe in the Dix Wilderness area certainly speaks to the importance of keeping your a group together. Thanks.