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.