Ore. Lawmakers Push Climber Safety Bill

There's danger aplenty on Oregon's tallest peak -- including avalanches and crevasses. Some say a small electronic device can improve the odds of survival.

Several Oregon lawmakers want to require climbers to wear electronic locators above 10,000 feet on Mount Hood -- an idea mountaineers resist.

Rep. John Lim, chief sponsor, contends that three climbers who died in December might be alive had they carried the devices, which send electronic signals that can give search and rescue teams the precise location of stranded climbers.

But many climbers say that while carrying beacons is a good idea, it should be their choice -- not required.

"It's a very dangerous undertaking, but that's part of the beauty of it," Dave Sauerbrey, a leader of a climbing group, said of mountaineering.

On Sunday, three climbers who fell from a ledge at the 8,300-foot level of Mount Hood activated such a beacon, helping rescuers pinpoint their location and mount a rescue operation.

No state requires climbers to carry the devices. Lim says Oregon should be the first, especially in view of the deaths of three out-of-state climbers in December. The trio did not carry beacons, though one was able to make a distress call to his family using a cell phone.

Lim said having to carry a beacon shouldn't be that big a deal to climbers and the requirement would cut the cost of search-and-rescue operations.

"It will send a strong message to climbers -- this may save your life and spare your loved one's misery," he said.

But Rep. Scott Bruun, a climber who's been to the summit of Mount Hood a dozen times, disagrees: "This was a tragic accident that happened in an extreme sport. This is a situation the Legislature can't fix."

In the past 25 years, more than 35 climbers have died on the 11,239-foot mountain, one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world.

Rocky Henderson of Portland Mountain Rescue said his group has taken no stand on Lim's bill, but he believes that "if you try to legislate so much safety, you lose the adventure."

Missing mountain climbers accounted for only 3.4 percent of the total number of search-and-rescue missions mounted in Oregon in 2005 -- not a disproportionate share compared with hunters, mushroom pickers or others who get lost in the wilds, Henderson said.

"The Oregon Legislature shouldn't waste time on something that's such a small problem in the overall scheme of things," he said.

But another lawmaker who's co-sponsoring the bill said the climbers "are being a little bit selfish" and the legislation would reduce the risks faced by rescuers at high altitudes.

"Those rescuers are putting their lives on the line," says Rep. Jerry Krummel. "I want to give them all the tools they need to help them save lives. This bill does that."

Charley Shimanski of the Mountain Rescue Association, which represents 100 search-and-rescue groups in the U.S. and Canada, said he worries that relying on electronic beacons could give climbers a false sense of security.

"They might think, `I've got this gizmo that tells everybody where I am, so I can take greater risks,' " Shimanski said in a phone interview from Evergreen, Colo.

He called Lim's bill an "overreaction" to the December deaths. Even if they had locators, the climbers would have likely died because conditions were so perilous, he argued.

Story courtesy of the Associated Press.