Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for March 9th, 2007

Success, summits, and self-sufficiency

Posted by metaphorical on 9 March 2007

Big Jim Whittaker, as he is called by climbers, has an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times. He takes up the question of whether Oregon law should regulate climbing, for example by requiring search beacons, as the state legislature there is considering. Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest, co-founded the outdoor equipment retailer REI, and served for decades on volunteer mountain rescue crews in the Cascades.

Though rescue beacons help find climbers, seemingly saving lives in two ways—finding climbers while they’re still alive, and making rescuers more efficient, letting them get off the mountain more quickly— Whittaker thinks that all things considered, such legislation, if not the beacons themselves, is a bad idea.

This might seem a no-brainer: there are many lightweight, relatively inexpensive safety devices on the market today. Signaling beepers — more accurately called “emergency position indicating radio beacons” — as well as cellphones (which one climber in the February incident used to alert rescuers), global positioning systems and avalanche beacons have all saved many lives and will continue to do so. Mandating such equipment, however, does not offer a quick and easy solution to the problem of those in distress. In fact, reliance on technology often creates new dangers, not only to climbers but also to rescuers.  

The technology has made it easier to rely more on search-and-rescue personnel, and less on skill and knowledge. For example, as cellphones have become common, well-equipped and trained hikers have used cellphones to call for rescue, although in hindsight they could have descended on their own.

In these cases, the high-tech devices wasted rescuers’ time and cost taxpayers huge sums of money.

The accidents on Mount Hood remind us that nobody can move in a severe mountain storm, not even a rescuer. Sending a distress call could result in rescuers being sent out into a life-threatening situation for no good reason, which is why most rescue workers oppose the law. And waiting for rescuers summoned by beacons can be more deadly than moving on.

Whittaker is referring obliquely to a phenomenon variously called “risk compensation and “risk homeostasis.” It pervades not just climbing but any activity with a significant component of risk. Read the rest of this entry »

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