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Monday, December 14, 2009

Mt Hood rescues, Locator Units (MLU's), do you need a rope, and how tough is it to climb

Unfortunately, there has been a winter climbing accident on Mt Hood. Two climbers are still missing on the west side of the mountain near Reid Glacier and one was found dead. It's always heart wrenching to hear these stories. No matter how many times that I climb Hood (3 times), I am still drawn to it and plan to climb it this winter. I always hope that my training, conditioning, and safety measures will get me down safely. After that, everything else is out of my hands.

Whenever there are these highly publicized accidents, 2 questions emerge in the media which are:
1. Why aren't all climbers required to carry Mt Hood Locator Units (MLU's) or other tracking devices?
2. Should climbers have to pay for their own rescues?

Portland Mountain Rescue, a volunteer organization of highly trained rescuers and educators, answered both questions very well in their press release. However, I will elaborate on the first question since I think that it's a hard one for the public to understand and climbers have a hard time explaining it.

There are limits: MLU's are little boxes worn on a strap that is carried outside someone's jacket or backpack. They only work on Mt Hood where sensors are set up, the climber has to activate the signal, and this signal is only detected if someone is actively looking for it. It's not like a bat signal that goes out in the sky when there is danger. If a group is taken by surprise by an avalanche or the person who is carrying the MLU falls and is knocked unconscious, the signal will not be able to be activated.

It is not the most important piece of equipment: The other limits to MLU's is that it doesn't create an instant rescue. A climber needs warm clothes, food, or a bivy sack to survive cold conditions. Even better, the climber should have rope, pickets for creating anchors, maps, compasses, or first aid gear so they can avoid the need for a rescue or possibly move themselves out of harm's way. Or even better yet, climbers should review weather and snow conditions to they know if they should be climbing in the first place.

It's the most intensive measure:
In summary, focusing on MLU's for the primary tool for mountain rescues is like focusing on pace makers or cholesterol lowering drugs as the primary tool for preventing heart attacks. It's the equivalent of ignoring diet, exercise, education, monitoring or other preventive measures. It's like someone ordering a Hardee's Thick Burger, large fries with mayonnaise, and a Diet Coke. The Diet Coke doesn't cancel out the other mistakes. The MLU is held up as a silver bullet of mountain rescue when it's really about the planning, conditioning, and proper equipment. Focusing on MLU's is really misplaced focus. Yes, they are helpful but not as helpful as the other things that I mentioned. I think that I have run out of analogies to use and encourage reading the Portland Mountain Rescue site for other examples.

Is Mount Hood tough to climb and do you need a rope? I get a fair amount of google traffic with these questions and I have yet to completely provide my opinion. Quite simply, yes it's tough to climb and you do need a rope and pickets (also called protection). I have only climbed the south side which is the easiest side and the chutes have become quite steep. Going up and down the chutes involves snow climbing so some loose snow or foothold could easily result in a slip. If someone slips, they risk a fast slide off a short ridge. Unless someone is very experienced or comfortable, I wouldn't climb it without a rope team and pickets. Pickets are 2 foot long metal bars with a carabiner clip attached. A climber drives them into the snow and clips the rope through the carabiner. A rope team without a picket or protection mainly allows the whole team to potentially fall if one member falls.

Caveats abound and I gear this advice for a fairly new climber who is researching. Someone looking for specific route information or climbing routes other than the south side have already stopped reading. Someone who is wondering about a less tough climb should check out Mt St Helens. Someone who was really wondering how tough my hood was, has already put a cap in this blog's @ss.

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