The $10,000 hike up Mount Monadnock

You’ve read articles about it. Hiker needs to be rescued from a mountain after going for a hike and getting lost or hurt. No matter that the hiker was as prepared, as Edmund Hillary when he summited Mount Everest, the people commenting below the online article find fault and demand that the hiker be charged for the rescue. God forbid, the hiker came up from Massachusetts. Charge him double!

I am going to explain how it is that some hikers get sent a bill for their rescue and others do not. I used to work in the New Hampshire Office of the Attorney General. One of my duties, which I really enjoyed, was to review rescued-hiker case files sent over by the Fish and Game Department to determine whether the hiker could be billed for the rescue. There were obvious cases in which the hiker should be billed. For example, two entrepreneurial guys had the brilliant idea of selling wine and margaritas at Tuckerman’s Ravine. After dipping into their product, they decided to hike to the summit at night in the hopes that the snack bar was still open. They even took separate routes.

Most cases are not that black-and-white, or as entertaining. The law, RSA 206:26-bb, provides for Fish and Game to bill “negligent” hikers for their rescues. Basically, you are negligent if you don’t act as a reasonably prudent person would in a similar situation. Is it negligent if you climb Mount Monadnock without a sleeping bag? No, unless you begin at 9 p.m. Although you still may not necessarily be negligent, you better be prepared with other items, such as extra clothes, a flashlight and food, in case you need to spend the night up there.

Are you negligent if you don’t bring extra batteries for your headlamp? I doubt it, but maybe if you are hiking at night and you know that your batteries are on their last legs. What if you don’t bring any water on a hot summer day and you become dehydrated and need to be rescued? I’d say you are negligent because any reasonable person would bring water. What if you wear a gorilla suit? I won’t go there.

Cell phones give rise to interesting legal questions. If you leave the parking lot at 4 p.m. in November armed only with your cell phone and a bottle of water, and you get into trouble near the summit, you will be grateful that you can call for help. You might also be billed for the rescue for being negligent. Although the cell phone helped get you rescued, being able to call for help is not a substitute for being properly prepared to spend the night on the mountain. You can download maps on your smart phone, so maybe your phone is a reasonable substitute for a map. On the other hand, would a reasonably prudent person rely on a cell phone battery lasting indefinitely?

What about preexisting medical conditions? If I have my hip replaced and then go on a backcountry trek through the Pemigewasset Wilderness during which my new hip becomes dislocated, and I need to be helicoptered off of Mount Bond, would I be negligent for having gone on the trek? Before you decide, you need to know more facts. How long ago had the hip been replaced? Has the hip ever dislocated before? Did my doctor advise against such strenuous activities? My point is that, except in a small percentage of cases, it is not clear that a rescued hiker was negligent.

The title of this month’s column is “The $10,000 hike up Mount Monadnock.” While most rescues do not cost nearly this much, rescues that are long and complicated — or that require a helicopter — can cost $10,000 or much more. It pays to be prepared. But if you do want to spend $10,000 on a hike up the mountain, take a limo to the trailhead, be carried up by Sherpas, and enjoy caviar, good red wine and a Cuban cigar at the top as you wait for your helicopter pick up.

Jason Reimers is an attorney for BCM Environmental & Land Law. This article is not legal advice.

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