Mount Hood Climbers: What Price Glory?

PARK CITY, Utah, Dec. 12, 2006 — -- "What we're they thinking?" asks a search-and-rescue volunteer in this mountain town when told about the three lost climbers stranded somewhere on Mount Hood in Oregon.

"To climb a difficult ascent in the kind of weather they get over there in December is just asking for it," said the volunteer, who preferred not to be identified.

More searchers headed up Mount Hood today, hoping to find the climbers. The weather was still windy but dry, an improvement from the blizzard conditions that hampered the search Monday.

Another storm is expected to hit the area Wednesday, so today's efforts have taken on a real urgency.

The Oregon National Guard said it would send a helicopter to join the search.

The climbers have been identified as Kelly James, 48, and Brian Hall, 37 -- both from Dallas -- and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

They equipped themselves lightly to make a "light and fast" ascent to the summit of the 11,239-foot mountain, and apparently knew what they faced, as they have been described as experienced climbers. But Steve Rollins, a search leader with Portland Mountain Rescue, questions whether this was the right time of year for such a climb.

"Most climbers take on Mount Hood in May and June," he told The Associated Press. "A climb this time of year is unusual."

And extremely dangerous. Winds whipping up to 85 miles per hour create a white-out condition on snow-covered mountains, making visibility all but impossible. Temperatures that drop to zero late in the day can make freezing to death a distinct possibility.

Now it's up to search-and-rescue teams to risk their own lives to try to find the stranded climbers, and most are either volunteers or work for sheriffs' departments that do not charge for their services. It's a fact of life throughout the mountainous West.

"We're a nonprofit organization," said Sgt. Steve Stokes of the Summit County Sheriff's Department in Park City, Utah. "There's a huge controversy over whether we should charge for our services, and so far, we've elected not to do so." Summit County is home to several ski resorts and stays busy searching for and rescuing lost skiers, snowmobilers, mountain climbers and hikers every year. Last year the department had 52 "activations" of its 10-man search-and-rescue team.

"The problem with charging is, where do you draw the line?" said Stokes. "Who decides what was a legitimate accident versus someone who foolishly puts himself in harm's way?" Summit County, which depends on outdoor recreation and tourism, has elected to absorb the costs, which means taxpayers ultimately foot the bill.

Not so in Grand County, in southern Utah. This past year the county adopted legislation that allows the Sheriff's Department to charge those who become stranded or lost.

"In about six or seven day's time, we spent over $23,000," said Grand County Sheriff Jim Nyland. "We're a small county insofar as the number of taxpayers, and we could no longer afford it."

In this rugged terrain that stretches more than 3,600 square miles and includes two national parks and the Colorado River, search and rescue is a full-time job for people like Bego Gerhart. "A lot of people expect search and rescue to be free," he recently told ABC News. "But in rural counties all over the West, how do you afford to be what you need to be with a small tax base?"

Mark Mechau had to pay $650 to be rescued after becoming lost one night in his Jeep. He complained that too many people were sent to find him. "I'm a little upset about it," he said. "The bill was exorbitant, and I really didn't feel that it was equal to the task."

Search-and-rescue commander Rex Tanner defended his decision to send five rescuers. "If we had not been successful in rescuing him, somebody in the family probably would have questioned or you know, responded with the fact you didn't send enough people," he said.

How do the charges break down? It costs $275 to send a rescue team out the door, $75 a day for an all-terrain vehicle, $350 for a boat and $10,000 for a helicopter.

For a group of wayward mountain bikers, it seemed worth it. "It was worth every penny," said one biker. "These guys earned every bit of it."

Their charge? It was $575 for the search team and an all-terrain vehicle. In a couple of hours the bikers were found unharmed but dehydrated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.