From my backyard I can see Mt. Hood, so the disappearance of three climbers on its summit a few weeks ago wasn't just a news blurb to me, but a nagging worry at the back of my mind. When the big storm passed through the Portland area, leaving me in a darkened house watching seventy mile an hour winds roar through the trees, more than once my thoughts turned to the three men trying to survive the same storm atop the mountain. When the weather finally cleared, allowing rescuers to make their first search, I trained my binoculars on the mountain, as if by force of will we could together bring those men off the mountain alive.
While it crossed my mind that December was an unusual time to summit Mt. Hood, I never questioned the need to go after the missing climbers. If most people were given a set of ropes, a pair of ice axes, and crampons, they wouldn't make it 500 feet up the side of the mountain, let alone the 11,000 feet to the top of Mt. Hood. To take the hard route in winter as these climbers did demanded skill and experience, of which they had plenty. The trouble is, to immerse yourself in nature is to incur risk. The Northwest is
the outdoor playground it's made out to be, and most of us who live here have explored its wilderness and we each have our own story of When Something Went Wrong.
So when Rosie O'Donnell criticized
the cost of the search, I was completely incensed. My first thought was what the f**k does she care about what was spent on the search? Nevermind that the actual search costs were not the $2.5 million she quoted, but a far smaller $6500 a day, it's not her place to pass judgement on a matter so far removed from her own reality. But the more I though about it, I realized my anger stemmed from more than her insensitivity to a regional concern and her ignorance of what it means to live close to nature.
To criticize the search is to belittle humanity's noblest impulse : the urge to help. After 9/11, the urge was so strong that would be volunteers had to be discouraged from coming to Ground Zero because their numbers were so great that they would have overwhelmed the system. After plane crashes and train wrecks ordinary people save their fellow passsengers with such regularity that it's almost a TV movie of the week cliche'.
It doesn't even take large scale disasters to trigger the urge. Every day of the week stories are reported of a passerby pulling an injured person from a wrecked car or leaping into a river to save a drowning stranger. We give chase to assailants who have attacked not ourselves but another, give CPR to the person collapsed on the sidewalk. We push stalled cars out of intersections and give directions to tourists. And it's not just people who we want to help. We rescue cats from trees, deer that have fallen into an icy pond, baby birds that have fallen out of their nests. The drive to help is so embedded in us that when we read of circumstances in which observers ignore a person in distress we shake our heads in both horror and disbelief.
Ms. O'Donnell wasn't the only critic of the search. Some, like her, cited cost while others focused on the climbers' decision to summit at a more dangerous time of year. The ones who weren't complaining, however, were the volunteer mountaineers who unswervingly risked their own lives to go in search of the lost men. Day after day they went up because it was the right thing to do
. The day the fire truck stays in the station because the fire started from someone smoking in bed, or the paramedics leave the child at the bottom of the pool because the parents weren't watching, it's all over for us.
And I'm not forgetting that we also commit unconscionable acts of cruelty and violence upon each other and the other inhabitants of the Earth. But the majority of us would lend the other a hand without question. More than intelligence or language skills or tool use, all abilities shared by other species, the drive to help appears to be a defining human characteristic.
It's what gives me hope for us despite everything we do wrong. Someday, when we're part of the galactic community, I think that's the way that we'll be remembered. Yeah, our interstellar neighbors will say, those humans are the ones who'll give you a lift when your starship breaks down, and give you a meal when your rations have run out.
Because really, we just want to help.