- Stefan Bumbeck
It's March, and the calendar is peeling its way toward spring, but the backcountry still wears layers of snow, with more coats sure to come in the next few weeks. For skiers, snowboarders and climbers, that means a few more flings with the trees, the bracing air and the solitude before the snow melts, and the mountains become a playground for everyone else again.
The lingering snow and cold also mean more chances for winter adventurers to get lost in the pursuit of untracked powder and iced-over summits. Whenever conditions are good, things can go bad. "More people means more people getting in trouble," says Neil Van Dyke, chief of Stowe Mountain Rescue and an officer of the national Mountain Rescue Association.
As the popularity of backcountry skiing, ice climbing and winter hiking rises, so do the stakes involved. Mount Hood, Oregon, was the site of two high-profile search-and-rescue missions this season. That may be out West, but both the Green and the White Mountains present equally life-threatening conditions - and equally complicated questions about responsibility and risk.
"The number of search-and-rescue missions over the last 10 years has increased," says Lt. Todd Bogardus of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, who led a successful retrieval of a lost hiker from Mount Lafayette earlier this season.
Who pays for mountain search-and-rescue missions? "Almost all of the specialized mountain rescue personnel in this country are volunteers who donate their time at no cost to the taxpayer," says Van Dyke. "It has also been documented time and time again that the cost of mountaineering rescues is miniscule in the grand scheme of national search-and-rescue costs, compared to looking for lost hunters and fishermen, children who walk away from campgrounds, hikers, etc."
The Reckless Hiker Law, passed in 1999, allows New Hampshire to bill those who "recklessly or intentionally" create an emergency response situation up to $10,000, says Bogardus.
Vermont Statute 12 V.S.A. 1038, which was enacted in 1993, is well known to skiers and snowboarders who read the fine print on their lift tickets. It makes those who go out of bounds at a ski area liable for rescue expenses. Last month, Sugarbush charged two people who ducked into the backcountry during the Valentine's Day blizzard $900.
"We had to recall 20 patrollers and put them in harm's way, in a 2000-acre wilderness, on an evening when it was snowing 3 to 4 inches an hour, with high winds and near-zero visibility," says J. J. Toland of Sugarbush. "Doing it smartly, and with Sno-Cat support, we were able to pull it off."
Bill Schaaf, the ski patrol director at Stowe, says the amount the resort charges for rescues depends on staff, equipment and difficulty of extrication. The cost may not be just monetary. "After a long day, [patrollers] have to search in the dark for who knows how long," says Schaaf. "They are at extreme risk of personal injury - injuries that could affect their means of support or the rest of their life."
At Jay Peak Resort, backcountry use has grown immensely, says Ski Patrol Director Peg Doheny. "It's not just for the experienced and well prepared anymore; anyone just drops in," she explains. "They think since it's the East, it's no big deal. It's just as cold and dark here at night as anywhere out West."
Doheny, who has patrolled at Jay since 1981, says she and other patrollers spend days recovering after skiers and snowboarders go missing. "Rescues are awful for us," she says. "Adrenaline helps for a while, but then the lack of rest, lack of enough good food and too much stimulus really take a toll."
Ski patrollers and other rescuers report discovering lost winter adventurers in a variety of physical and mental states. "Kids will actually take their boots and even socks off and try to walk out [of the woods]," Doheny says. "They get so scared and don't act rationally."
Rescuers at Stowe once found teenagers burning their money, Schaaf reports. They were trying to start a fire in an attempt to stave off hypothermia and frostbite, the twin demons of winter in the woods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies hypothermia as reduction in the body's core temperature to below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with warning signs of lethargy, weakness and loss of coordination, confusion, shivering and reduced respiratory or heart rate.
"Hypothermia is sometimes referred to as the silent killer," Van Dyke says, because it can severely impair judgment in the short term. "Good decision making is critical to winter backcountry survival, and once you start down the slippery slope of losing body temperature, [making] appropriate decisions gets more difficult."
Frostbite is less of a short-term concern, according to Van Dyke. The tissue freezes, causing little discomfort until the skin is thawed. The National Institutes of Health warn that smoking, windy weather, diabetes and beta blockers can all increase the risk; very severe frostbite can result in gangrene and damage to tendons, muscles, nerves and bone.
"The big thing about the winter is that the margin for error is so much less than at other times of the year," says Van Dyke. "A relatively minor injury - say, a badly sprained ankle - can be potentially fatal in cold weather conditions."
To help avoid hypothermia, frostbite and, perhaps, costly rescues, Van Dyke refers backcountry users to a new DVD from the Mountain Rescue Association, Backcountry Skiing & Riding Safety.
Some people wonder whether winter enthusiasts should enter the woods equipped not just with wisdom but with technology. The Oregon state legislature is considering a bill that would require climbers to carry personal locator beacons, which aided in the second rescue attempt on Mount Hood.
But at $600 or $700 apiece, these gadgets don't come cheap, and the proposed law requiring their use has become controversial. "I don't think it's legit, for the same reason I don't think motorcyclists should have to wear helmets," says Adam Howard, editor of Backcountry magazine, which is published in Jeffersonville. "We're freedom-loving people, and the more restrictions you put on how we do things, the more difficult it gets."
Late last month, a 14-year-old boy got lost on Mount Mansfield. He broke all the cardinal rules of skiing off trail, says Van Dyke. "He went alone, he went late in the day, he didn't know the terrain he was entering, he didn't tell anybody where he was going, and he wasn't prepared for a backcountry experience - no map, compass, food, water, extra clothing, cellphone, etc."
Eventually, the boy turned around and followed his tracks back to safety. "He had what will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity," says Van Dyke, an avid mountain explorer himself. "If we overregulate the wilderness experience, I fear the opportunities to learn lessons could become diminished."