Leave it to Alaska’s neighbors to the south to figure out the simple way to end the need for costly rescues in the remote Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains:
Just ban the mountaineers most likely to get in trouble and prohibit climbing in those months when rescues are the most difficult and costly.
Parks Canada announced last week it is banning all winter expeditions in the Kluane National Park of the Yukon Territory and forbidding solo climbs up the park’s 19,551-foot Mount Logan, the second-highest peak in North America.
The announcement, according to the CBC, comes in the wake of eight rescues in Kluane in the last seven years. Park Canada says those rescues cost $60,000 to $100,000 each, and it’s not happy about footing the bill.
“We really wanted to improve the safety both for folks visiting Kluane as well as the safety for our rescue responders,” Parks Canada spokesman Ed Jager told the CBC. “We’ve also taken all…of these steps to reduce the financial burden on taxpayers for the rescues that have been taking place in Kluane.”
Mount Logan is just across the border from Alaska and is part of the Kluane/Wrangell-St.Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage Site that combines U.S. national Parks in Southeast Alaska and those in far Northwest Canada to create what the U.S. National Park Services calls “the world’s largest international protected wilderness.”
The two Canadian parks – Kluane and Tatshenshini-Alaska – plus Wrangell St.-Elias National Park and Preserve and Glacier Bay national parks sprawl across a largely uninhabited area of 38,000 squares miles along the northeast coast of the Gulf of Alaska.
An area nearly the size of the state of Virginia, the heritage site is almost devoid of roads, The Alaska and Haines highways cut along its eastern and northern edges and the Richardson Highway its western edge, but no roads cross through the site and the few that penetrate into it are primitive and don’t go far.
The area is the site of one of the greatest survival stories of the modern north, the 1937 self rescue of Harvard Mountaineering Club climbers Bob Bates, who would go on to become well known as an American adventurer, and Bradford Washburn, who would simply become famous.
“In 1937, Mount Lucania was the highest unclimbed peak in North America,” says GoodReads. “Located deep within the Saint Elias mountain range, which straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon, and surrounded by glacial peaks, Lucania was all but inaccessible. The leader of one failed expedition deemed it ‘impregnable.’ But in that year, a pair of daring young climbers would attempt a first ascent, not knowing that their quest would turn into a perilous struggle for survival. Escape from Lucania is their remarkable story.”
The definition of remote
Both Bates and Washburn are now dead, but the area around Mount Lucania hasn’t changed since they nearly died there. It is a wild and remote area, which is what makes any rescue difficult and costly.
So along with a moratorium on travel in the Canadian portion of the area from Nov. 15 to March 15, Parks Canada said it will now require climbing parties permitted to use the area after March 15 to carry search-and-rescue insurance to cover any rescue costs.
The rules will not apply to other Canadian parks.
“The circumstances of Kluane are unique,” Jager told The Canadian Press. “There’s the isolation. The place where people are getting rescued from is 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the nearest road.
“There’s the altitude. There’s no other place in Canada where you have all these peaks over 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) where helicopters don’t work well and you need to significantly change your approach to rescue.”
The area is famous in the climbing world for all its unclimbed routes, but because of its inaccessibility remains little visited. Parks Canada says only about 120 people launch expeditions in the area each year with maybe 35 of them taking a shot at Logan.
For comparison sake, about 1200 people take to the slopes of Alaska’s Mount Denali during a three-month climbing season, and a busy day can see more than 100 of them arriving on the mountain. Rising to 20,310 feet in the Alaska Range, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America.
Climbers there are required to pre-register and pay a $375 climbing fee that helps fund a full-on, helicopter-assisted, search-and-rescue operation based out of the Denali National Park ranger station in Talkeetna during the climbing season.
The Park Service reported flying more than a dozen climbers off Denali last year – seven of them from traumatic injuries and another seven stricken with high-altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema, common problems at altitudes above about 8,000 feet.
Denali attracts few climbers during the winter months because of temperatures that can drop to 100 degrees below zero and mind-numbing isolation. There was only one team on the mountain in February of last year.
For almost half the years this decade, Minnesota’s Lonnie Dupre pretty much had the mountain to himself in winter as he tried to become the first to record in a solo winter ascent. He failed in 2011, 2012 and 2013, but finally made the summit in 2015.
Given the few interested in climbing the high peaks of the north in winter and the limited number of soloists in general, the Canadian decision is expected to draw little opposition.
In many parts of the world climbers are routinely required to provide climber’s insurance in order to receive a permit. That we don’t do that here seems odd and particularly so when you consider that most climbers aren’t capable of paying for even a small percentage of the often ridiculous costs incurred to drag their silly butts (or carcasses) out.
Make ’em buy insurance and this issue goes away just as it does everywhere else. If they opt to climb without insurance and therefor without a permit, they don’t get rescued. Without consequences there’s no accountability.
If Parks Canada requires climbers to carry search and rescue insurance to save the public from having to foot S & R costs, why do they use S & R cost to the public as rationale for banning winter climbs? Maybe I need to read the article a second time. Am I missing something?
On the whole, in the bigger picture, rescue services are very local, of one or another very specific types.
Both Alaska and Yukon illustrate this, dramatically. AK has a unique system.
SAR Search & Rescue organizations across the nation (and world) largely went through their big Coming Of Age trauma, years & decades ago. Different entity-models stake-holders did the cage-match, to determine who’s traditions & ideas would prevail. AK was largely odd-man-out, since their situation, their attitude, and finances were all …. irreproducible.
Steve Stine is right. Rescue covers a lot more than formal climbers. Singling them out, is picking on them.
I say let every person who wants to “enjoy” remote Alaska do it. Especially in the winter. In fact encourage all of them to go out and experience the cool winters by hiking up around snow covered mountains or to take long hikes and not worry about emergency gear. After all as long as you keep moving you can’t get cold. And no need to worry about avalanches or getting lost. Just use the North Star to find your way home and move quickly across avalanche ripe slopes. Right.
Only let’s not marshal any resources to help them back. But later, let’s award as many Darwin awards as there are the number of those who are never seen again.
Remember the comedians wise words: you can’t fix stupid.”
Your sarcasm is noted, but just so you know…more people will die on the Park’s Highway then up in the hills this next year.
Quite a few talented climbers have died in auto accidents to and from their adventures yet no one is considering to stop rescuing folks from motor vehicle accidents in AK or Canada.
There should be a balance and when conditions are poor and the setting is very remote then a rescue cannot be always guaranteed, but when we can lay a helping a hand to those in need we should…because it is the humane thing to do.
Another aspect of rescue involves air taxis and flight seeing operators (of which quiet a few have crashed in this last year)…should we no longer rescue the passengers in small plane accidents since it is their fault for flying into the bush?
Climbers are not the only user group that requires help from time to time, but they definitely make the “front page” when they do.
Certainly you can see the difference between driving in a passenger vehicle required by law to carry insurance for accidents, and traveling into the backcountry in the middle of winter into an inherently dangerous situation where insurance is not required and expecting to be rescued when the shit hits the fan? Even if the rescues noted in this article are being paid with Canadian dollars $60,000-$100,000 is still a lot of money per incident. On the road system where recovery service providers are paid through various taxes for use of the roadway the cost per incident is likely much much smaller.
I won’t begrudge anyone the experience of going into the backcountry, but expecting others to risk their lives AND foot the bill for the honor of saving your ass is a step too far.
You are missing valuable points.
Yes the per incident price may be higher for helicopter rescue, but the sheer volume of vehicle accidents makes auto collision way more expensive to state and local services throughout North America.
Many rescue teams are made up of entirely of climbers and are not “forced” to take on the responsibility of going into the backcountry to risk their lives.
On Denali for instance, I volunteered as a paramedic with a patrol on the mountain and worked with various personnel from AK and other western states.
These teammates were psyched at the opportunity to help other climbers in need.
Same thing goes on in Yosemite with YOSAR and this paradigm goes all the way to the White mtns in NH where their entire rescue team are volunteer climbers and guides.
This “call to duty” extends to many other agencies as I know that the PJ’s out of the base in Anchorage are always willing to venture out when needed to help…their courageous rescue of Jack Tackle years ago stands as one of the most technical rescues in the history of the state…and they are proud of it!
No one is asking you to participate or help, but please know that most “rescuers” are climbers and skiers and wilderness explorers who are more than willing to help those in need.
Places like Chamonix, France perform dozens of rescues each week and doctors are flown out to glaciers to help…it is part of their culture and seen as an honor to be part of the community where the majority of folks head into the hills for recreation…week after week.
I’m not missing any of the valuable points you said I am missing at all. And I guess you can’t see the difference between driving in a passenger vehicle required by law to carry insurance for accidents, and traveling into the backcountry in the middle of winter into an inherently dangerous situation where insurance is not required and expecting to be rescued when the shit hits the fan.
Nobody is arguing volume, clearly there are more road incidents than backcountry incidents.
What I said has to do with liability. People driving on roads pay taxes for the use of the roads, they pay for insurance while driving on these roads, these taxes fund the emergency services for when there is an accident. The same is true for commercial aircraft and insurance.
I fully understand and acknowledge that the people doing these rescues are willing and capable of doing them…truth be told some even live for them. Reading what you just wrote and how you wrote it, I have no doubt you are one of these people and good on ya for it!
The point you are missing is that spending $60,000-$100,000 per incident (even if it is in Canadian dollars) is obscene, especially if the taxpayer is paying people who are willing and capable of doing it for free…especially when done to rescue their buddies. Why should taxpayers fund your lifestyle because you choose to expose yourself to unnecessary risk? If you can’t foot the bill by buying the appropriate insurance (that would be a superfluous line item on the budget for any winter expedition to this area of remote Canada) then maybe you should rethink your expeditions plans. Or just accept that you need to self rescue or risk death in the event of any mishap, since that’s part of the allure I don’t really understand the objection. Unless, of course it has to do with getting paid to climb mountains and get into the backcountry on somebody else’s dime…
I am trying to wrap my mind around $60-100k. Hmm. The PJ’s and Chinooks are already paid for through the taxpayers. Rescues, while dangerous, are great training and actually break-up the training routine. PJ’s and pilot/crew members look forward to the experience. Imagine if the Coastie’s had no real-world rescues?
What about a crab boat? Instead of personal gain we habe 100% financial gain. Should we not rescue them? On a smaller scale how about one driving in the snow, who should know better right, and crashes?
We have SAR for those who get off the couch, not those that stay on it.
Rescues rarely if ever cost 60 to 100 K.
The average rescue (like the homesteader who just burned his cabin in Skwentna) is a short half hour flight and a hot blanket and a meal.
The problem comes in when pilots and crew mis judge the elements or fly when conditions are poor.
(We have seen this with several Lifeflight accidents in the last year)
That is why I say that a rescue should never be guaranteed…
We saw this several years ago in the accident that destroyed Helo 1 here in the Valley.
The snowmachine rider who was rescued was only 5 miles outside of Talkeetna and conditions were poor…therefore the helicopter was not the best option.
A ground team on snowmachines in daylight would have been the best option.
As for user groups that require rescue, well the only guy that I know who has ever required two “black helicopter” rides out of the bush is a licensed hunting guide in AK.
First rescue was when he blew a motor on his airboat and the second was when he flipped the same boat two years later.
Climbers for the most part try to “self rescue” with their teammates and then have communications to call for a private air taxi to take them out…dramatic rescues of climbers in AK are very rare.
I agree with Bryan that we have the tools and personal to assist those that get off the couch and we should support this paradigm to help keep our species strong and fit, while allowing the agencies who participate a chance to perfect their skills.
One positive outcome is great training ground for airguard para-rescue.
And of course Coast Guard rescue
You should clarify. Dupree first mid winter ascent. Vern did first winter solo over 20 years prior.
I find it ludicrous that we think nothing of spending $60-100 thousand to rescue someone who can afford to take the time and spend the money it takes to climb a mountain and then, when he or she get in trouble, we rescue him or her at taxpayer expense when people who think this is okay absolutely refuse to allow their tax money to help a single mom having trouble feeding her children.
Jim: i’d suspect you don’t know many climbers. most of the ones i knew/know never had any money, and many of them were regularly on the edge of being able to feed themselves, let alone any children.
Just got a copy of Art Davidson’s book “Minus 148 degrees”…interested in checking it out.
Canada should just say “We do not provide winter rescue” and allow the area to be pure wilderness.
When I was climbing in a remote area of Ecuador on a peak called “el alter” there was absolutely no chance of a rescue if things went wrong…and you know what- we never saw another climbing party in the two weeks in the area.
If Denali would stop the dog and pony show with rangers and medical tents strategically placed accross the mountain you would see many less “gumbies” attempting the peak.
I personally feel there should be areas without the chance of outside rescue…make teams more responsible for their actions and force explorers to think twice before darting off up a peak.
Amen! I’ve said for years that the Park Service LOVES the rescue industry it has created. By having camps, they encourage the inexperienced to try a mountain they wouldn’t otherwise and encourage the experienced to travel lighter. Why not? I can always get first aid, medical assistance, etc on the govt dime at 14k’. Then they use every instance of an “assist” to justify a bigger operation the following year, to charge more fees, hire more government mountaineers, etc. It is self perpetuating.
I’m convinced they kill more people than they save.
How many people attempt St Elias, where you’d better have your stuff together and be self sufficient, each year compared to the West Buttress?
Good for Canada looking out for their taxpayers, the costs of these rescues should be paid by those who intentionally placed themselves in the position to require rescue.
A few days ago we were warned about how anthropogenic global warming/crisis/catastrophe was going to lead to more drownings, but science tells us that cold kills more than warm…up to 20 times more. “Cold weather kills 20 times as many people as hot weather, according to an international study analyzing over 74 million deaths in 384 locations across 13 countries.”
In that regard, atleast Canada is actually trying to save lives and money instead of wasting it by doing studies saying when it’s warm out more people swim and more might drown.
Yet another environmental Sacred Cow gimmick.
Denali can do it … Logan can do it.
It’s about politics, not logistics.
Ah yes, once again Daddy Liberal knows what is best for you…Canada – typical…
When did refusing to use taxpayer money to support stupid people become a “liberal” policy, Bryan? I thought regressives were into making people pay their own way. Why should I pay to rescue someone who likes to play on mountains or in the ocean or in the forest when they screw up? If we won’t pay up to help poor people, please explain to me why we should pay up to help the rich?
This plan would probably be considered progressive, Jim. Classic liberalism is a big backer of freedoms. And the conservative policy would be to just say no to rescues.
If you get into trouble, find your own way out. Something along the lines of the original policy of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.