An overdue hiker in Lake Tahoe + thoughts on hiking and preparation

The day we left Lake Tahoe, my wife and I stopped at the Eagle Falls trailhead. On the way there we saw what looked like a police helicopter and two police 4x4 units parked on a turnout. Now, after living in South Florida for 10 years, I associate helicopters with bad traffic accidents, SWAT team deployments and Coast Guard rescue. I pointed out the chopper and made some comment about bad traffic ahead.

Mer and I stopped at Eagle Falls and climbed on the rocks a little bit. Then we crossed Highway 89 to the Eagle Falls trailhead. In the parking lot there, we saw four more police vehicles (all 4x4s) along with two cafeteria tables set up on the asphalt. Two competent-looking middle-aged women, bad perms and paper cups of coffee and stacks of photocopies, sat behind cafeteria tables that had serious-looking communications equipment squawking and hissing on them. I half expected a major storm or some kind of foreign incursion. We walked up to the trailhead map and announcement board.

Turns out, the helicopter and response units and competent-looking women were there because of an overdue hiker.

A young man named Matthew was one day late. He'd filed a wilderness permit and then marched off into the wilderness west of the lake (which looks like this) and was a single day late in returning. There were printouts with a mugshot-like photo along with a description of the missing hiker including the color and type of his gear (jacket, snowshoes).

Later, my wife said, "At first I was really surprised by the magnitude of the response. Then I felt guilty because I was surprised."

Frankly, I was just as surprised. Maybe because of my background in the Ozarks, I always have considered wilderness explanation to be at the risk of the explorer. Half a dozen officers, at minimum, searching the forest? A helicopter? Maybe if the vice president disappeared, but surely not for just anyone.

That was on Thursday, June 11, 2009. Today I found this article:

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — After being lost in Desolation Wilderness for three days, a 26-year-old Pollock Pines man was located by rescuers in good health on Tuesday.

The El Dorado County Sheriff's department began the search for Matthew Kinney after they were notified he did not arrive at the Horsetail Falls parking lot as scheduled on Saturday morning, said El Dorado County Sheriff's Lt. Les Lovell. Kinney had left for a three day hike from Loon Lake to the waterfall on Thursday, but became lost, Lovell said.

About 60 volunteers from more than a half dozen local and regional agencies assisted in the rescue, which included 15 ground teams searching the more than 63,000-acre wilderness area. The teams were inserted into the wilderness on Tuesday via a California Highway Patrol helicopter, Lovell said.

Rescuers located Kinney, who was described by Lovell as an experienced hiker familiar with the area, disoriented but unharmed at about 3 p.m. near Lake Schmidell, Lovell said.

The area where Kinney was found is near the area he was scheduled to spend his first night, Lovell said.

Lovell recommended that backcountry travelers hike with a friend if possible and stick to a detailed itinerary of travel plans they leave with a friend or relative.
To me, this level of response is simply incredible. On the one hand, it implies an astonishing level of resources available to come to the aid of a potentially lost and desperate hiker. On the other hand, it represents a huge investment of resources with an extremely low return on investment. (Perhaps the ROI is tied to the reputation of the area -- that a location in which lost hikers are never heard from again gets a lot less tourist traffic?)

Back at home in South Florida, I found this discussion of the effort involved in rescuing two lost, unprepared, wilderness explorers. After some thought, I posted the following response:

I was in Lake Tahoe recently, where I saw at least 5 search and rescue units, plus a helicopter, plus an HQ/basecamp consisting of 2 full-time people, all dedicated to tracking down a single overdue hiker (overdue for 24 hours).

In one sense I agree with your thesis -- if one goes wandering in the wilderness, one must be prepared. But it seems to me that the folks responsible for actually enforcing this have made a decision. They have decided that it's easier, and perhaps more cost-effective, to engage in these big and risky search efforts for overdue hikers and lost city folk and the like THAN IT IS to enforce a minimum level of preparation among hikers.

Think about it -- it cost $120k to save these lost souls. On the other hand, it might cost $750k per year to man the trailheads with trained rangers who will inspect the gear of potential hikers and approve or deny them access to the wilderness. Plus, access to the wilderness is fairly porous...

Even though it's distasteful, it's very likely much less resource-intense to start a search for a lost hiker than it is to prevent unprepared and underequipped hikers from entering the wilderness.
The short answer is this: although it is much higher-profile, and easier to object to, it might economically be more efficient to search for the lost hikers than to insure that all are prepared. Search and rescue is probably cheaper than running orientation and basic skills classes for hikers.

The high-profile rescue appeals to our sense of romance and danger. At the same time it attracts budget hawks and those who say they know better. Without an actual study there's no way to know which side is right.

Speaking as a social liberal, fiscal conservative and wilderness preparer, I think the proper tactic is a blend of the above. Officials should offer training courses (maybe even including the rental of Personal Locator Beacons?) and orientation. At the same time, officials should be prepared to rescue those who fail to return as planned. This seems to me the best of both worlds.