John Harrigan: Search, rescue missions would be funny, but …
It's a fairly familiar scenario. A group of hikers starts out from the trailhead at a ridiculously late hour (a “rescue” that was pretty much a “lead 'em out by the hand” on Mount Major recently comes to mind). Or it was nice and balmy on the valley floor, but nobody thought about what conditions might be like above timberline. Nobody had a light. For certain, nobody carried a map and compass — these items apparently relegated to the dustbin of hiking history. No one carried water, let alone a morsel of food. Rain gear? A sweatshirt? Forget it.
Many authors write formula books, a never-ending series of novels containing the same basic ingredients, with only the names and characters juggled a bit for the new edition. An outdoor writer could do that with search and rescue missions, but there'd be no money in it because people could just read the papers. Besides, any book would be instantly outdated by a spate of new foolish episodes.
Search and rescue has spawned its own non-urban legends over the years. There was the group missing for two or three days after an early snowstorm hit the Franconia Ridge Trail. A massive search and rescue mission was launched, resulting in searchers discovering a nicely made snow cave in which the missing twentysomethings were found dancing, devoid of any cold-weather clothing or, for that matter, any clothing at all, while inhaling something that smelled like dry leaves. And there was the guy who called 911 from a high country trail because his parrot, taken along on a hike for reasons unknown, had flown up into a tree and would not come down.
I've heard these stories in various versions, such as the Disappearing Hitchhiker or the Poodle in the Clothes Dryer. They might or might not be true, but they're great stories.
Last Tuesday's New York Times contained a column on search and rescues in the Age of Gadgets. Said title covers everything from cellphones to personal locator beacons. These last send a satellite message signaling (a) where you are and (b) you need help, but no information about the situation.
Columnist David Roberts, a mountaineer and western adventure and history author, cited a 2009 incident in the Grand Canyon in which four hikers in a remote place hit the “help” button on their satellite transmitter. When the helicopter arrived, they refused extrication, stating that they were just worried about running out of water. The next day the same thing happened, the reason given this time being that their newly provided water tasted a bit off. They pushed the button again, on the third day, and this time the rangers didn't wait for a reason and simply flew them out — and charged the group's leader with creating a hazardous situation.
That, of course, is the bottom line. It is one reason why thoughtless, frivolous, idiotic calls for search and rescue aren't really funny, although we're still tempted to laugh. But still (slap your face here), it's no laughing matter because any search and rescue effort, for anything at all, sucks up stretched manpower and limited funds and, much more important, puts volunteer and paid rescuers at risk. New Hampshire has had its own stark examples of this, one of which resulted in the death of a famed and much-liked mountaineer who came to the rescue. It's a story I do not want to tell again because it's so sad.
Do toll-takers at New Hampshire's turnpike toll booths have an extra half-second to hand out little pieces of paper to the percentage of vehicles whose drivers don't use the EZ Pass lanes? These, I'd think, by nature would be vehicles conveying out-of-state visitors, the demographic group seemingly most unfamiliar with basic hiker safety.
The little piece of paper would contain basic warnings, like “Don't start your hike late” and “Carry water” and, of course, “Take a map and a compass.” Doubly, of course, “Carry a light” — and any other brief messages that might spare our vital search and rescue people from going on senseless, stupid missions.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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