Perils in the backcountrySome of them like to be called “adrenaline junkies” — the extreme skiers, snowboarders and ice-climbers — but lots of them are just young people who like to cross-country ski, snowmobile and hike in winter. Yet their casualty rate reminds me of my service in a Marine rifle company.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
Some of them like to be called “adrenaline junkies” — the extreme skiers, snowboarders and ice-climbers — but lots of them are just young people who like to cross-country ski, snowmobile and hike in winter. Yet their casualty rate reminds me of my service in a Marine rifle company.
I began paying attention to the dangers when Bozeman climber Alex Lowe was killed in an avalanche, somewhere in Nepal several years ago. He left a wife and two children. (Since his death, he has become somewhat of a cult figure with Bozeman mountaineers and ice-climbers.)
A month ago a 44-year-old fellow from Bozeman who I knew from my wildlife agency days was buried in an avalanche near Cooke City, Mont. His wife survived, as did the man’s dog, which showed up in town several days after the man’s death and made national news.
Two weeks ago an ice-climber in his 50s, who had been engaged in that activity for decades, plunged to his death.
And when one pays attention to the news coming out of Mount Rainier in Washington state and Mount McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska … well, it is as predictable as watching Montana and North Dakota newspapers and witnessing the regularity of fatal one-car rollovers, the drivers not buckled. There are bodies on both mountains, buried in snow, that never have been found.
Why anyone would want to climb either mountain in the middle of winter is beyond me, but it is a free country — except for the fact that local rescuers from sheriff’s departments, the National Park Service, and even the National Guard end up risking their lives during rescue missions. And guess who gets to pay for it? Right — the taxpayers.
In yesterday’s paper there is a short news item about the Teton Sheriff’s Department rescuing a 60-year-old Colorado man who got separated from his cross-country skiing group during a blizzard and got lost on the back side of the Tetons. The story says that when rescue volunteers exited the helicopter they sank “up to their chins” in snow! I shot a five-point bull elk on the backside of the Tetons many years ago. But that was in September — not January — and no one ever has had to rescue me while I’ve been hunting.
Here’s another one from yesterday’s paper — The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office rescued four snowmobilers who were caught in a whiteout and radioed for help. The U.S. Forest Service also assisted.
Last November, Jamie Pierre, a 38-year-old Minnesota native, extreme skier and snowboarder who was living in Big Sky, Mont. was caught in an avalanche in Utah while snowboarding. He left a wife and two young children. The area where he was skiing was still closed because of unstable snow conditions, but Pierre went in anyway.
Last March a young Florida man named Brad Gardiner was skiing alone three miles from Lone Mountain west of Big Sky, Mont. Searchers looked for him for days without success. His body was found July 23 after snow melted from the avalanche that killed him.
Climbers and other danger-seekers don’t need winter to get into trouble either. Last year 13 people died in Yosemite National Park in California. Some fell while rock climbing, three died after being swept over a waterfall. In the Associated Press article describing the Yosemite misadventures, I learned that the National Park Service spent more than $2.5 million between 2007 and 2010, conducting nearly 1,000 rescues.
The Park Service does not charge for rescues, and therein lies part of the solution. Require these “adventurers” to place a deposit with the Park Service or the Forest Service, depending on which land they are using, so that when they need to be rescued, or their bodies have to be hauled out of the backcountry, more sensible people aren’t left with the bill!