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July 10, 2014 at 6:01 AM

Should climbers pay for their rescue? Here’s one who’s ‘paying it forward’ (Take our poll)

Members of Everett Mountain Rescue lead Kelly Jackson’s climbing party from Camp Schurman on Mount Rainier. (courtesy of Everett Mountain Rescue)

Should rescued climbers be billed for their rescue? It’s a question that can generate more heat than a steam vent atop Mount Rainier. You might consider the case of Kelly Jackson, of Maple Valley, who was rescued from the mountain last August.

Jackson, then 43, and four friends — all but one first-timers — topped the peak last Aug. 25 on a sunny but windy morning after an uneventful climb via Camp Schurman and the Emmons Glacier. On the way down, the clear sky changed quickly. They hit whiteout conditions less than 1,000 feet below the summit “and it was blowing so hard it was just trying to rip you off the ridge,” Jackson recalls. His group ended up spending two stormy, harrowing nights in an igloo and snow cave they created.

“We finished the igloo, climbed inside, and huddled together for what felt like the longest night of our lives,” Jackson wrote in an account for the internal newsletter at REI’s Kent headquarters, where he works.

They were able to notify park authorities by cell phone, sparking a long and concerted rescue effort by climbing rangers and volunteers. Before the second night was over, Jackson says, everyone in his party was wondering if they’d see their loved ones again. He says the sight of a ranger climbing out of the storm the second morning was a sight burned into his memory “until the day I die.”

“They thought they were going to find bodies up there,” he recalls. “It was dire.”

Five rangers led them safely down to Camp Schurman, and volunteers from Everett Mountain Rescue accompanied them the next day to the base of the mountain. The rescue cost about $7,000, rangers told Jackson.

While some rescue efforts aren’t followed by so much as a thank-you note to rescuers, Jackson wasn’t about to let that happen. He networked with his own family and friends last year and raised close to $20,000 that he has channeled through Washington’s National Parks Fund to help with a project chosen by the park’s climbing rangers — to improve communications equipment at Camp Schurman.

That’s not all. At Jackson’s instigation, 17 REI employees from across the country, including CEO Jerry Stritzke, will attempt to summit Rainier in two guided climbs in early August. The climbers — to include Jackson — are working to raise money through personal sponsors (click here to contribute), and REI has pledged to match up to $2,000 per climber, also to go to the Camp Schurman project.

But Jackson’s gratitude is hard to contain. If you want to join in (and meet him), a West Seattle bar called West 5 is hosting a fundraising happy hour, donating beer — Rainier, naturally — and a portion of proceeds to the same effort. It’s 6-9 p.m. Wednesday, July 16, at 4539 California Ave. S.W.

Should people be billed for their rescue?

“It’s a hard one,” Jackson responds, noting that climbing fees already help pay for such rescues. Every climber must purchase a permit at a cost of $31 to $45, and according to Chief Ranger Chuck Young last year’s permit fees for Rainier totaled $225,000 more than the cost of rescues — though the fees also pay for many other things, ranging from high-camp waste removal to climbing-ranger training and gear. (See our recent article on the challenges facing Mount Rainier and Washington’s other national parks.)

In any case, if all rescued climbers responded as Jackson has, the question of billing need be raised no more.

“I feel like I’m indebted to these guys and I need to do anything I can to pay it back — or pay it forward,” Jackson said.

What do you think? Take our poll.

Comments | Topics: mount rainier, mount rainier national park, rescue billing

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