|Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson, February 11, 1986|
Ascending, reaching, hoping, enduring, achieving. Being tenacious, always evaluating the terrain, looking towards the summit.
It's a thrill, a rush, a tangible accomplishment. Adrenaline. Bravado. Something weaker people with fainter hearts and flabbier limbs either can't do, or are too lazy to try.
It's one thing to put on some hiking boots, grab some bottled water, and saunter up a pleasant hillside to take in the vista, or trek along a hilly forest path underneath the graceful, broad canopy of weathered trees.
But either our news media is getting more fascinated with the stories of botched rescues of climbers, or more and more Americans are woefully underestimating their mountain climbing capabilities.
Nick Hall, a native of Maine and professional search-and-rescue ranger, died June 21 while trying to help four climbers from Texas on Washington state's Mount Rainier.
Aaron Beesley, another professional rescuer, fell 90 feet to his death on Utah's Mount Olympus this past Saturday while trying to rescue two teenaged hikers.
Tony Stanley, a California Highway Patrol officer, was injured last Thursday when the rotor blades of his rescue helicopter clipped him as he attempted to reach a stranded hiker - who was a doctor. The doctor, who had suffered a relatively minor injury by comparison, which had contributed to his need for rescue, ended up saving his rescuer's life.
Granted, considering the number of people who go mountain climbing for recreation every day all over the United States, these incidents could be considered statistically irrelevant. And neither Hall, Beesley, nor Stanley were forced to work as rescuers. News reports of their heroics portray each of them as lovers of their jobs and passionate about helping people. Indeed, you'd have to be, to do these sorts of things for a living.
But dying while doing something for a living puts a different spin on it, doesn't it? Especially when people die trying to rescue you.
We've all seen the news reports of residents in the path of a hurricane or wildfire who refuse evacuation orders and think they can defy Mother Nature. At some point in the evacuation scenario, local law enforcement agencies will declare that if you stay, and you find yourself in imminent danger, rescuers will not be sent in to save you. And I agree wholeheartedly with that decree. The job of police officers and fire fighters is to protect us, but we have an obligation to be prudent about our own safety. We can't expect to ignore warnings for our own health and welfare and then expect somebody to risk their own life to pluck us from death at the last minute because we didn't act on our own behalf sooner.
Yes, the line between refusing to evacuate in the face of a hurricane and exposing one's self to getting stuck on a mountain is fairly vague and gray. It's certainly not crystal-clear, is it? Especially since climbers are the ones intentionally putting themselves into an environment of danger precisely because danger is part of the attraction. Even if you're so afraid of life that you never leave your house, there is plenty of danger right in your house. However, our post-industrial society has designed many ways to mitigate the most common of dangers, and many of the dangers to which we're exposed in normal life aren't dangerous themselves to the people who may need to rescue us. Shucks, that's one of the reasons people go climb mountains: because they can get away from all of the circumstances of ordinary life. Getting away from ordinary life means you usually have to go someplace extraordinary.
Not that there's anything wrong with escaping to nature, going hiking, or even climbing mountains. To the extent that risk is a part of life, climbing mountains for some people might be safer than trying to cross a Midtown Manhattan intersection.
But how American is it of climbers to feel entitled to be rescued if they get themselves into trouble? If you're climbing in a national or state park, my taxes are helping to make sure you get help out there in the middle of noplace. Sure enough, most rescuers employed by taxpayers don't get paid much, at least relative to their job description (saving lives, remember?). But in our current fever to abolish entitlements, is it expecting too much for mountain climbers to pay 100% of the cost of employing those who might need to rescue them?
After all, they're willing to give their life for you.
All you want to do is climb a mountain.
Maybe you don't mind the inequity in roles. After all, we Americans are programmed to live for fun. And maybe my personal disregard for mountain climbing as a sport makes me disproportionately biased on this subject. Before you write me off as just another hardened cynic, though, I know of two friends who consider themselves pretty good amateur climbers. Still, I feel confident in what I say because both of them have scoffed to me about their peers who don't soberly weigh the costs before each climb.
At the end of the day, however, doesn't it seem that the reasons people use for justifying climbing mountains can be explored in other activities - activities in which the risks that endanger them don't also endanger the people who may need to rescue them?
The last words of American patriot Nathan Hale, before the British hung him for spying during the Revolutionary War, purportedly were, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country."
A noble sentiment, indeed.
I wonder if mountain climbers start each trek saying, "I regret that each first responder has but one life to give for my risky behavior."