Special Statement on Mountain Rescue Operations

Portland Mountain Rescue
Mountain Rescue Association

Tragic events, such as the May 30, 2002 accident where three climbers died and a rescue helicopter crashed on Oregon’s Mount Hood, continually revive national discussions regarding subjects such as the risk of mountaineering, the regulation of climbers and the transfer of cost liability for search and rescue (SAR) missions.

With this statement, Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR), with the assistance of the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA), hopes to provide a response to the various questions we have received as a result of our involvement in several high profile mountain rescue operations – such as the May 30, 2002 tragedy.

The Facts:

  • PMR is an all volunteer, unpaid professional rescue organization.
  • PMR does not create or enforce laws, rules or regulations.
  • PMR does not charge for search and rescue services.
  • PMR receives no monetary funding from the government.
  • PMR members do not receive monetary compensation.
  • PMR rescuers are not reimbursed for food, fuel or other expenses.
  • PMR members normally own over $2,000 of their own equipment.
  • Mountaineers comprise less than 0.5% of all SAR missions in the U.S.

Like PMR, unpaid, volunteer professionals make up the vast majority of search and rescue (SAR) organizations in the United States. These groups, including most Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) units, rely solely on grants, donations and corporate support.

Often, there is a mix of volunteer (e.g. PMR), compensated (e.g. American Medical Response) and governmental (e.g. Army National Guard) groups involved in the rescue operations that day. News groups and the public generally assume that taxpayers fund all mountain rescue activities, but this is not the case for Portland Mountain Rescue. Our non-profit 501(c)(3) organization is funded entirely through individual and corporate donations. PMR rescue volunteers generously contribute their time to training, administrative and SAR operations. In short, our participation in search and rescue missions do not require direct taxpayer funds.

Who are the authorities on Mount Hood?

There are several government organizations that have jurisdiction over the South side of Mount Hood. The Clackamas County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office is the state law enforcement agency for that part of the mountain. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, creates the rules and regulations for the entire mountain, as it is part of the Mount Hood National Forest. Portland Mountain Rescue is one of several SAR organizations that work closely with the Sheriff’s Office and the USFS.

PMR does not create or enforce rules and regulations. Our role is to provide SAR services, to the extent we have available volunteer members, when the appropriate government authorities request our help.

Are persons required to register or be licensed to climb?

Climbers who are not guiding others for profit must complete a USDA Forest Service Wilderness Permit before leaving the Timberline Ski Area and entering the Mount Hood Wilderness. Climbers who are acting as professional mountain guides must obtain a USDA Forest Service Guiding Permit before leading other climbers up the mountain.

There are no licenses or fees required to enter the Mount Hood Wilderness and attempt a climb of the mountain.

Can climbers be fined for reckless or illegal actions?

The USDA Forest Service does have the authority to fine individuals for violations of Wilderness regulations. Examples of these are:

  • Being in the Wilderness boundaries without a USDAFS permit
  • Guiding climbers for profit without a permit (“illegal guiding”)
  • Exceeding the maximum group size (currently 12 people)

Additionally, under Oregon law ORS 401.590, the presiding Sheriff’s Office (in this case, Clackamas County) has the authority to fine individuals for reckless behavior that results in search and/or rescue operations. When to enforce the law is up to the discretion of the Sheriff.

Should persons be licensed and/or insured before climbing?

PMR does not believe that a licensing or insurance program would work on Mount Hood, as there are precious few USDA Forest Service resources to enforce such a requirement. In fact, some would argue that creating the bureaucracy necessary to accomplish this would actually cost the taxpayers more money in the long term than with standard SAR operations.

In our opinion, the most beneficial measure for preventing reckless mountaineering is education. Portland Mountain Rescue strives to create climber awareness of mountain hazards, such as avalanches, debris fall, terrain features (such as crevasses) and poor weather. On most weekends during the recognized climbing season, PMR members volunteer their time and actively speak with climbers on the mountain to help increase the awareness of mountaineering hazards. Our website, brochures and educational displays are other vehicles that disseminate key information to the climbing community. In short, PMR feels that knowledge is the best way to prevent the cost – in dollars and in human lives – of further accidents.

What about the cost of the military rescue operations?

When military aircraft are involved in SAR operations, comments often revolve around the cost of these operations and who should pay for any damages that might occur to the aircraft. PMR cannot speak for the Air Force Reserve, Army National Guard or other military organizations on this question.

Should rescue organizations charge for their future services?

PMR feels that imposing a charge for search and rescue operations may delay or complicate future missions, possibly putting more human lives at risk. There are documented cases of persons delaying the call for help because they feared being charged for the cost of the rescue mission. The value of a human life far outweighs the monetary cost of the rescue, and the rescuers put their lives at risk with full knowledge of the potential consequences.

Who can I contact to voice my opinions and suggestions?

Any suggestions for mountain related rules and regulations should be directed to the appropriate government authorities. Website links to some of these groups are as follows:

  • USDA Forest Service – Mount Hood National Forest
  • Clackamas County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office
  • Oregon Emergency Management

Where can I get further information?

The Mountain Rescue Association is the accrediting body for U.S. mountain rescue units. More information is available through the following link: Mountain Rescue Association Website.