It's fair to say Scott Mason bit off a little more than he could chew.
In April, the Eagle Scout embarked on an ambitious one day traverse of the northern presidential range in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Early into his hike, he twisted an ankle, but chose to continue. A few miles later, Mason re-considered and opted for a quicker route back to the road, only to find the trail blocked by numerous streams swollen by spring snow melt.
While the young hiker settled down for an uncomfortable night without a sleeping bag, ensolite pad, or tent, a search effort was launched. His parents reported him missing, and soon New Hampshire Fish and Game officers, aided by an army of volunteers, were combing the mountains. A helicopter was brought in from neighboring Maine. Finally, after 3 long days and nights of difficult backcountry travel, Mason reversed his route and rendezvoused with a search party not far from the summit of Mount Washington. When he was reunited with his parents, several network television crews and a phalanx of reporters were on hand to capture the drama.
It appeared that the Mason SAR had reached a happy conclusion. The boy was found, alive, and while he had certainly made a serious error in deciding to continue into a remote area after spraining his ankle, he also exercised some good judgment that allowed him to emerge from the experience unscathed. The embarrassment at making the A-section of the Boston Globe and being on the evening news seemed like the right dose of punishment to ensure that he would learn from his mistakes and mature to become a better prepared outdoorsman. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, meanwhile, got to bask in some positive PR. And dozens of volunteers got to skip work for the day and play hero.
Then came the fallout: two weeks ago, Mason received a bill for $25,238 from the state of New Hampshire. "It was his negligence that led to him getting into that predicament," Major Tim Acerno of the New Hampshire Fish and Game recently said, adding that a helicopter used in the search significantly increased the cost of the mission. Mason has until August 9th to settle up or challenge the bill in a court of law. His family has declined to comment further on the matter.
The situation has ignited a minor firestorm that continues to smolder as the Mason family considers their options. Not only was the teen -- who, at age seventeen, was a minor at the time of the rescue, but has since turned eighteen -- suddenly saddled with a bill equivalent to a year's tuition at a private college, but he was also subject to a second round of ruthless Monday morning quarterbacking.
"If you go to these isolated areas to be "away from people..." then be prepared to die or if we have to come rescue you then get ready to pay," one online poster opined in the comments section of a Boston Globe article. "The kid lacked basic sense. Maybe this fine will discourage other macho stupidity," a second wrote. "It's about time these unprepared bozos pay," said a third. Everyone from newspaper columnists to experienced guides has sounded off on what happens when the government attempts to regulate adventure.
With that in mind, I'll offer a few thoughts of my own. The following is just my private opinion. It's based on my own general experience as an outdoorsman and guide, but also on the fact that, as a volunteer rescuer, I participated in the search for Scott Mason. And moreover -- by a combination of circumstance and plain luck -- I was the person who happened to find him.
It turns out that Scott Mason did not need to be rescued. When I spotted him, he was approximately a mile below the top of Mount Washington, moving towards the summit at a steady pace. I have no doubt that he would have reached the observatory located there under his own power, regardless of the massive search operation that was under way. (I don't mean to imply that the search effort was inept. The same swollen creeks that had boxed Scott into the Great Gulf had boxed search teams out; for three days everyone was caught in a frustrating and inadvertent game of cat-and-mouse.) But despite the circumstances of his "rescue", the State has held Scott liable due to his original decision to continue into a remote area with a sprained ankle. By the letter of the law in New Hampshire as things currently stand, that is probably true.
It sets a dangerous precedent when the government assumes the authority to regulate personal decisions made in the wilderness. As Edward Abby wrote: "A venturesome minority will always be able to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches -- that is the right and privilege of any free American." I whole heartedly agree. And having worked alongside many Fish and Game personel during SARs, I'm convinced they don't want to have to police the backcountry for negligent hikers either.
But even an adventure libertarian like me must acknowledge that rescues cost money, and our personal decisions can carry greater social repercussions that demand all outdoorsman assume responsibility for their actions. In the midst of a recession, land management agencies at the local, state, and federal level are all experiencing severe cash shortages. Scott's $25,000 bill was a re-imbursement, not a penalty or punishment. The simple fact is his search cost a lot of money, far more than 25,000 dollars, and someone needs to pay the bill.
While the dispute may be headed to court, lost in the controversy is the fact that a third option does exist. If you're in a car accident without car insurance, or get sick without health insurance, you are likely to face big financial problems whether it's your fault or not. One can also purchase rescue insurance. Though not commonly carried in the United States, that is the standard in Europe, and even here in the U.S. some organizations like the American Alpine Club offer its members a basic policy. Just as I think it's irresponsible for anyone who can afford it to not have a minimum catastrophe health insurance, outdoorsmen who choose to engage in risky adventures should make sure they are covered in the event they need help.
Nobody -- not outdoorsmen, not tax payers, not the land managers themselves -- wants government to be in the business of regulating adventure. But it's clear through rising special user fees and search and rescue repayment laws that that is the direction we are headed in if the outdoor community doesn't take responsibility on its own. Organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club should offer their members rescue insurance. Adventurers should also have more choices for purchasing a rescue/evacuation rider on their existing health insurance plans (many do already exist). These kinds of improvements would protect the individual from big fees like the one Scott Mason currently faces, but also help prevent government agencies from applying rigid legal definitions like "negligence" to wilderness situations in their effort to re-coup costs and stay under budget.
In the meantime, be warned: if you choose to roll the dice by continuing into the wilderness with a sprained ankle and no insurance -- you may unfortunately have to pay the price.