Voluntary rescue efforts in China dampened by unexpected death
Huang Zhoingwen's funeral  Photo: hsw.cn
 
An outdoor rescue volunteer in western China's Shaanxi province fell off a cliff on his way to search for a strayed mountain climber, attracting a wave of sympathy from his peers engaged in such activities while shedding light on the dilemma faced by the group of people who risk their own lives to help tourists in trouble.

Huang Zhongwen, 49, nicknamed “Yellow Horse” by his friends, died from an accidental fall off a cliff in the Qinling Mountains while searching for an elderly climber on December 5, which happens to be the 32nd International Volunteer Day, according to local Chinese media.

Huang reportedly began to do voluntary search-and-rescue from 2013 and in 2016, he and several other people founded the Shaanxi Qinling Emergency Rescue Center, intending to provide help and aid to trapped mountain climbers.

Till now, the center has over 40 formal members all with professional certificate for emergency rescue, which is issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Over the past four years, Huang has participated in over 80 rescue operations, helping over 200 people.

“In front of the Mother Nature, even the most qualified rescue team is insignificant. So, every mission brings unexpected dangers and the volunteers are risking their own lives to help others,” a rescue team leader at Huang's funeral ceremony was quoted by the Hua Shang Daily.

According to the newspaper, voluntary emergency rescue for outdoor explorers in Shaanxi, a western province featuring mountains and canyons, has become some kind of a tradition. It started around 13 years ago when some outdoor enthusiasts with rich experience began to participate in missions, assisting police in the rescue of hapless backpackers.
 
Huang and his team members  Photo: om.qq.com

Since the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, development of voluntary aid groups began to gain momentum; following the trend, emergency rescue efforts in Shaanxi gradually transformed into more and more organized operations.

In November 2009, a team of tourists got lost in the Qinling Mountains while a group of volunteers finally brought them back. Inspired by the success, the saviors formed the Xi'an Outdoor Rescue Team. And with several arduous while successful operations, the team soon earned fame and drove the several paid rescue teams out of business.

“Since then, outdoor rescue services in Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi province, became totally gratuitous,” Chen Xutong, technical director with the Shaanxi Shuguang Emergency Rescue (SSER), a non-profit with over 500 volunteers, told the Hua Shang Daily.

He noted that although the heroes have gained public acclaim, they're coming under pressure as more and more work is coming their way, including collection of the remains of those killed during outdoor adventures and assisting police in field investigation.

And rescue volunteers have to split their bills. The more they help, the higher expenses they have to undertake. Shan Tiecheng, the secretary of the SSER, estimated the cost of one volunteer per day at a minimum of 50 yuan, which covers supplies like box lunch and equipments' wear and tear. A typical search-and-rescue operation in mountains usually involves over one hundred people and would cost around 5,000 yuan per day, while a simple search task requires a dozen volunteers, costing over 500 per day.

Currently, there are over 20 rescue teams comprised of around 2,000 volunteers in Shaanxi. They're from all walks of life; they may be small business owners, cleaners, Taxi drivers or college teachers. Once there is an operation, they would assemble from different places and march into deep mountains.

So many local people are joining the rescue force of their own accord because they're needed. Since 2013, with China's booming tourism industry, more and more people are attracted to the Qinling Mountains. “More are coming and so more get lost,” said Lv Xiaobin, the deputy chief of the Yangzhuang Police Station, situated at the foot of the mountains.
 
Qinlin Mountains  Photo: image.baidu.com
 
Based on local data, the mountains bordering Xi'an would attract around 500,000 tourists annually, and in recent years, the police usually get 60-70 alarm calls every year. When it comes to peak seasons of summer and autumn, local rescue teams and police often complain they're short of hands.

Qinling Mountains boast several classic routes which have enchanted flocks of outdoor sports enthusiasts, among which the one meandering from Baxiantai, the peak of Taibai Mount, to the Dragon-Turtle Mountain is hailed as one of the most perilous passes in the country.

During this year's national holiday in May, several outdoor teams traversing the route were caught in a snow storm, over 20 people got lost and three of them died. The incident had caught nationwide attention.

However, occasional high-profile fatal accidents do not deter Chinese people's enthusiasm for outdoor exploration. Local statistics show that over a million people go for outdoor adventures annually in Shaanxi. Over the past 20 years, more than one hundred went missing, got killed or were wounded in the mountains.

The Chinese phrase “Lv You”, literally meaning donkey friends, was coined in recent years to refer to tour pals, friends traveling with you and those who're mad about outdoor exploration. “With greatly improved living standards, outdoor activities have become one of the top recreations for urbanites. Lv You has become a synonym for fashion and style,” said a Lv You, admitting that “they're especially lured by unfamiliar routes because untrodden roads would bring more challenges and excitement.”

However, most clubs in charge of organizing and planning the outdoor exploration activities are also not prepared. They may lack required expertise and this is regarded as one of the main reasons behind the many deadly accidents.

The Shaanxi Tourism Rules regulate that all tourism activities involving passing through undeveloped areas or trekking on unconventional routes must be put on record with the local sports administration agencies. According to the Xi'an Outdoor Sports Administrative Measures, which was put into practice in 2009, all clubs are required to acquire sports business certificates from local agencies and they must possess qualifications to lead outdoor exploration teams and provide medical aid.

Based on a survey by the Hua Shang Daily, among the over 1,000 clubs and companies specializing in designing outdoor adventures, only a few have gained required qualifications and are truly experienced. The problem is that with no specific laws in place to regulate the organizers, they have to manage themselves at the current stage.

And voluntary rescuers, who may be counted on by those in danger, are also in predicament. The devoted people have gained respect and admiration of local police stationed along the Qinling Mountains, while the police officers are hesitant when they need to call them for help. “If we asked them to come and something happened to them, we would feel quite guilty,” said one police officer.
 
Over 400 people participated in Huang Zhongwen's funeral  Photo: hsw.cn
 
More professional teams buy insurance policies for their members, but for those that could not afford the premiums, their volunteers have to risk their life to rescue others. “For every voluntary team, the top challenge is expenses. People are taking risks, and sharing expenses to partake in. If anything happens, there is no security. And this does make them frustrated,” said Ren Xutong.

In his perspective, the efforts need to be guided and boosted by governmental policies or incentives. Although authorities have vowed to further support and encourage development of non-profit organizations, some analysts familiar with the situation admitted that there is no long-term mechanism and funding problems need to be addressed by the voluntary teams themselves most of the time.

 


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