Oregon Set to Pass 'Beacon Bill' for Climbers
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Well, the state of Oregon is poised to pass what has become known as the nation's first Beacon Bill. It would require people climbing to the top of the state's most popular mountain to carry electronic locator devices.
As Colin Fogarty reports from Oregon Public Broadcasting, lawmakers are responding to recent high-profile cases of climbers getting lost, some with tragic results.
COLIN FOGARTY: In December, three stranded Mt. Hood climbers made international headlines. The body of Kelly James was found frozen in a snow cave. His companions Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cook were never found. Then just this past month three more climbers went missing on Mt. Hood. Matty Bryant, Kate Hanlon and Christina Redl were in a party of eight hiking down what is normally a gentle slope. But Bryant says the weather turned into a whiteout blizzard.
MATTY BRYANT: This storm came out of nowhere. We tied together because the weather is so bad, so hellacious, that we were afraid we would lose each other.
FOGARTY: He was also tied to his dog, Velvet. Blinded by snow, Bryant walked off a cliff. Kate Hanlon says she and Christina Redl followed closed behind.
KATE HANLON: Christina and I didn't even know what was happening. I mean, Matty just went - I didn't even see him go. Velvet went, I fell and then Christina fell. You know, it was one of those experiences where you come to the awareness of falling and then that second awareness of wow, I'm continuing to fall.
BRYANT: I felt strangely calm and I was, like, okay. This is just might be the way it ends.
FOGARTY: But instead of crashing on a rock, the three climbers and the dog slid out on a half pipe of ice. Christina Redl's head was bloodied.
CHRISTINA REDL: Well, I woke up, I guess, about three to five minutes later, but I didn't really come to for a good couple of hours. I was kind of loopy. I kept asking the same questions over and over.
FOGARTY: The main question on all their minds, once they realized they had to stay put for the night, was whether they'd ever be rescued. After 24 hours on a windswept sheet of ice and rock, that rescue came.
HANLON: We just erupted. And I burst into tears because it was such a relief. I just - the whole world had changed. The whole world had changed.
FOGARTY: Bryant, Hanlon and Redl carried a mountain locator unit, or an MLU. It's an electronic beacon that allowed the rescuers to pinpoint their location. It's not clear such a device would have saved the Mt. Hood climbers lost in December. Even if their location was known, they were stuck in a blizzard that would have hampered rescue efforts. Nonetheless, the lesson to Oregon lawmakers was clear.
CHUCK RILEY: The folks who weren't rescued did not have these devices and the people who were rescued did.
FOGARTY: State Representative Chuck Riley chairs a committee in the Oregon House that's considering a bill to require electronic beacons on Mt. Hood. Riley also wants to require two-way communication devices like a cell phone. He says the new regulations would apply to people climbing above 10,000 feet on Mt. Hood during its five most dangerous months - November through March.
RILEY: If it saves one life and actually saves some rescuers' lives, it's worth it.
FOGARTY: But the measure has encountered resistance from mountain climbers themselves and even some of the very rescuers who found Bryant, Hanlon and Redl.
Steve Rollins with the Portland Mountain Rescue says the legislature can't mandate good judgment or control the environment.
STEVE ROLLINS: I'm a strong believer that the laws of nature are going to be far more powerful than any law our legislatures come up with.
FOGARTY: Mountaineering organizations also oppose the bill. Steve Matous, with the Colorado-based Access Fund, says Oregon's Beacon Bill would give amateur climbers a false sense of security.
STEVE MATOUS: People think, oh rescue locator beacon. Boom. Everything's fine. Well, you know what, it could be three days or a week before the weather is good enough for a rescue team to go out to find these folks.
FOGARTY: Despite this opposition, the bill is expected to pass. As for the three rescued climbers, they are trying their best to stay out of the political debate. But all agree the next time they climb Mt. Hood, they'll carry a mountain locator unit with them.
For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.