Whenever the sun shines in Portland we’re treated to a fantastic view of Mt. Hood. Its close proximity and relatively unchallenging standard route lead to over 10,000 people climbing it every year. Earlier this winter, as most of the media-watching public now know, it wasn’t so sunny on Mt. Hood. One classic Pacific Northwest storm led to the rescue of three trapped climbers while another led to the death of three others. The former party carried a signaling device while the latter chose not to.
This is anguishing stuff for sure, but now the state legislature, in their wisdom, has introduced a bill that would require climbers to carry an electronic signaling device when they’re on Hood between November and March. Drastic circumstances generally call for drastic action and in this case the logic seems straightforward. Protect the growing numbers of people who are heading into the backcountry from themselves by ensuring they can be rescued when things go wrong. I’m dubious about this, for practical as well as philosophical reasons.
The best thing to carry with you into the backcountry is experience, judgment, humility, personal responsibility, trusted climbing partners and the appropriate equipment to ensure you can be self-reliant in any circumstance. Reliance on technology can actually dull your judgment and cause you to take risks you may not otherwise take. The over-reliance on technology can also lead to rescue teams being put at unnecessary risk given the possibility of calling for help when you might be able to extricate yourself without assistance.
Then there’s a bigger question: Why go into the wilderness in the first place? I’ve always been drawn to the wilderness because of its wildness, its sublime nature and the sense of communion one experiences when attempting to ascend a peak or paddle a river. Technology has enabled many things but there’s something about the inherent risk and grandiosity of scale associated with stepping into wilderness that reminds me, in a fundamental way, of what it means to be human. In a world where alienation is all too common, we should leave the technology at home in order to leave the wild in wilderness.