Rescue helicopter in action
A couple of days ago my girlfriend and I decided to take advantage of the holiday weekend and warm weather with a long hike. I chose a well-regarded but lightly trafficked trail (according to the on-line guide) on the western portion of Liberty Reservoir. All was well until my usually reliable sense of direction failed me and I picked a wrong fork, leading us on a circuitous and incorrect loop. 40 minutes later, and much to my girlfriend's consternation, we ended up back at the same fork. At least we didn't have to backtrack, or so I optimistically noted. Further on, and with wet feet after an improvised stream crossing, we faced another choice, go straight or turn right. I chose straight - wrong again - and we ended up staring across 200 yards of water at the bridge where our car was parked. Rather than backtrack 20 minutes up a steep hill to the other path, I suggested we bushwhack around the reservoir and pick up the trail nearer the end. My girlfriend had moved on from irritated to miserable and I faced a mutiny. We backtracked, and the rest of the decisions on the hike were made more democratically. We (or I) were saved from any other wrong turns by following two hikers, clearly familiar with the correct path, that we spotted about a hundred yards ahead of us on the trail.
What should have been a two-and-a-half hour hike lasted closer to four hours. We had wet feet and I had an angry girlfriend, but we made it out and my mistakes were pretty quickly forgiven (I think). Fortunately, we were hiking in suburban Baltimore, and we were never in any danger. My cell phone had coverage, and we were never more than a mile from houses and roads. Still, I had silly visions of us lost, going in circles, being trapped by darkness. These thoughts led me to ponder something that has bugged me for years: people getting lost and rescued from the wild.
You hear stories in the news about hikers being rescued after getting lost, climbers never found after long searches, or sailors rescued from adrift sailboats. These stories get plenty of coverage because of the dramatic aspect of people lost and time running out for a successful rescue. The adventure and tension draws people in. However, should these types of search-and-rescue missions even be launched? At times I've felt, perhaps hardheartedly, no.
Consider the case of Aron Ralston. He’s the hiker who came to fame in 2003 for cutting his own arm off to free himself after he became trapped by a falling boulder. His story was dramatically brought to life in last year’s harrowing film 127 Hours. Ralston was foolish to go biking and hiking in Canyonlands National Park alone. He was careless and reckless (and certainly fearless) in aggressively engaging the rugged terrain, which is what ultimately led to him getting trapped. Perhaps most importantly, he was selfish in failing to let anyone know where he was going. Rescue for Ralston was not a possibility, hence his incredible action to amputate his right arm. In viewing the film I felt how terrible his circumstance was and hoping that by some miracle he could be rescued (even though I knew before watching of what would happen). Still, think about it, he was careless, reckless, foolish, and selfish. No one made him go adventuring alone and no one assured him that he would come out safely.
Abby Sunderland and damaged sailboat
Then there’s the story of teenager Abby Sunderland, who set sail from California with the express purpose of setting the record for the youngest person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world; an unnecessary and irresponsible endeavor by anyone’s measure. When she became stranded somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a massive search by American, Australian, and French forces located and rescued her. A silly mission with a dubious objective ended up costing the efforts and resources of three nations – or more precisely, the taxpayers of these nations.
These are just a couple of examples of people heading into the wilderness by their own choosing and at their own risk. Why, when their situations turned dire, should other people’s safety be jeopardized in searching for and rescuing them?
Didn’t they cross that imaginary line that that says “Continue Beyond This Point AT YOUR OWN RISK”?
As I’ve written, life is hazard and things go wrong. When a hiker leaves a trail and get’s irretrievably lost, or suffers a broken leg in a fall, is it the outside world’s responsibility to come to the rescue? When a sailboat is capsized by a rogue wave in the open ocean, do planes, helicopters, and ships need to be dispatched to find and rescue the crew? When a climber gets lost in a whiteout and trapped on ledge, does a team need to be sent to bring them back? When a person decides to drive in a blizzard do rescuers have to go and find the marooned driver? Think of the risks that rescuers take to help the people in trouble. Think of the time and costs to carry-out extensive search-and-rescue missions. Are these risks and costs justified?
Society says, yes. Search-and-rescue forces are well-established all over the world. In the United States, one of the primary responsibilities of the Coast Guard is rescuing people in distress. Even features much more commonplace, like the lifeguards that monitor local beaches, are there for the same purpose. It seems that despite the costs and risks, we have made the choice that at least a thin veneer of society will extend into the wilderness. That people who get lost or fall into danger will have some chance of rescue.
I guess I should ask myselfthe question of whether I would want - would hope - that someone would come after me if I ever became stranded? How could I answer anything other than, yes? Perhaps my idea that there is no guarantee of safety in nature and that no safety net should be provided is too harsh.
I don’t know the statistics (if there are any), but perhaps for every successful rescue there is a failure, or maybe not even a search. Risks do exist, people do get hurt, and society doesn’t always come to the rescue. But adventuring is part of our nature and so is the desire to aid others in trouble. Search-and-rescue will and should continue.