Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature

Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature

by Christopher Van Tilburg

Paperback(First Edition)

$21.96 $21.99 Save 0% Current price is $21.96, Original price is $21.99. You Save 0%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Wednesday, September 26?   Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Shipping at checkout.
    Same Day shipping in Manhattan. 
    See Details


Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature by Christopher Van Tilburg

Christopher Van Tilburg, MD is an emergency room physician, ski patrol doctor, emergency wilderness physician, and member of the Hood River Crag Rats, the oldest mountain rescue team in the country. When Dr. Van Tilburg's beeper goes off, the call may take him racing up a mountain peak to rescue an injured hiker, into a blizzard to search for missing skiers, or to a mountain airplane crash scene for body recovery.

Dr. Van Tilburg's work requires a unique combination of emergency medicine, survival skills, agility, and extreme sports. In Mountain Rescue Doctor, Van Tilburg shares personal stories of harrowing and suspenseful rescues and recoveries, including the recent Mount Hood disaster, which claimed the lives of three climbers. Mountain Rescue Doctor is an exhilarating tour through the perils of nature and medicine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312358884
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/28/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 783,930
Product dimensions: 8.28(w) x 5.38(h) x 0.84(d)

About the Author

CHRISTOPHER VAN TILBURG, M.D. is editor for Wilderness Medicine magazine and is a regular contributor to National Geographic Adventure, Backcountry, Columbia Gorge, among others. He is an emergency room and ski resort physician, and a member of the Hood River Crag Rats, the oldest mountain rescue team in the US. He has written seven books on the outdoors, and lives in Hood River, Oregon with his daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Mountain Rescue Doctor

Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature

By Christopher Van Tilburg

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Christopher Van Tilburg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2931-8



"Belay on?" I shout.

"On belay," yells Jim.

"Send me down!" I holler back as Jim begins to lower me into the crack in the earth. I can't see much. Not the bottom of the canyon. Not the cliff. Not the nearly dead patient lying on a ledge halfway to the creek. The hillside is thickly tangled with vine maple, ferns, and poison oak. I drop backward in a blind descent on the rope and plow through the brush with my butt and back. A branch catches my helmet and twists my neck. I duck my head to release the branch, which snaps back and pops me again in the face. My boots squelch into the thick muck and leave deep footprints. When I hit soft forest duff, the thickly matted decaying leaves and branches of the forest floor, my feet slip. My knees slam the ground with a sickening thud. Pain shoots into my legs. I hope I didn't break my kneecaps. I start to slide on my knees. The rope holds fast.

As Jim lowers me into the abyss, I also have to haul down the stretcher and medical bag, as the brush is too thick and entangled to drop the gear down on a rope. So in addition to keeping myself upright, bushwhacking backward down the hillside, and trying to watch for the upcoming cliff edge, I am dragging the stretcher. Wiry vine maple branches reach out, grab the stretcher, and pull it back up the hill. As I tug, the vine maple fights back and tears my shirt. Finally I yank the stretcher with all my might. It pops free, slides another ten feet, and nearly bowls me over. The rope goes taut again: Jim's got me.

I am worried. I am dangling on a rope on the edge of a cliff, descending into a remote, rugged canyon in the mountain wilderness. I have the utmost trust in my partner, fellow mountain rescuer Jim Wells, climber and orchardist. When the rescue page goes out, Jim is always among the first to respond. He has me locked securely on the rope. I trust him with my life — no second thoughts. What I'm worried about is the patient, who looks from my vantage point, to be very near death. Earlier, from high on the trail, we spied him through a thin fissure in the rock. She was perilously balanced on a small rocky ledge near the bottom of the cliff but far from the floor of the canyon. Blood was spattered on the rocks. She was not moving.

If that isn't enough, Jim and I are acutely troubled by the four people — two volunteer firefighters and two hikers — who are with the woman on the ledge. The two hikers heard cries for help and the two firefighters from the closest town, Cascade Locks, hiked down an old deer trail to the scene. The mantra of mountain rescue is in the forefront of my mind: no one else gets hurt. Even before rescuing an injured person, protection of the rescuers always comes first. A rescuer does no good, and puts many at risk, if he or she becomes injured. Our own safety is most important: if we can't reach an injured person safely, we won't. Second, protect the team. Third, rescue the patient. The safety of the team is part of Jim's responsibility as incident commander and mine as a member of the rescue team. I am anxious to drop over the cliff and get to the ledge but need to do so safely.

Hood River County, Oregon, is sprawling, rural, and rugged. Forty miles from the town of Hood River at the south end of the county, lies Mount Hood — the 11,239-foot-high, perennially snowcapped, active volcano that dominates the landscape. The mountain lies in the Mount Hood Wilderness, a subsection of the Mount Hood National Forest. The land is populated by old- and second-growth mixed conifer forests. The patriarchal Douglas fir intermingles with noble fir, white pine, western red cedar, mountain hemlock, and western hemlock. The rich green understory is thick and lush with vine maple, sword ferns, thin-leaf huckleberry, Oregon grape, salal, rhododendron, kinnikinnick, and vanilla leaf.

To the north, adjacent to the town of Hood River, lies the great Columbia River. The 1,243-mile-long stream originates in Canada and spews into the Pacific Ocean. The river slices through the Cascade Mountains and flows west past Hood River County. Near the town of Hood River, the river meanders through a deep gorge marked by 4,000-foot-high cliffs, waterfalls, rock pinnacles, deep gullies, narrow canyons, lava beds, and volcanic cinder cones. This area is so beautiful that Congress created the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: a section of land in northern Oregon and southern Washington that begins in the outskirts of Portland and stretches 90 miles east.

When people are injured or lost in Hood River County — most often hikers, bikers, and climbers — they call 911. Our sheriff, like these in most states, is in charge of search and rescue, or SAR. Most rescues in Hood River County occur on Mount Hood or, like today, in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The sheriff responds with as many deputies as he can spare and as many volunteers as are available. That's us — Crag Rats, an independent, nonprofit club with a mission to provide search and rescue services. In a rescue, we are officially activated by the sheriff's office and work directly under that authority.

This rescue started an hour before. Crag Rats had been dispatched to the most popular hiking spot in Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Bubbling rapids, high waterfalls, large boulders, and lush vegetation create a picturesque and tranquil Narnia only a thirty-minute drive from Portland. Through thick groves of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar, the trail gently rises above the creek. After two miles of meandering through the forest, the trail hugs a steep hillside 500 feet above the streambed. This is the most treacherous spot on the trail, the point at which we found the injured hiker and where Jim lowered me over the cliff.

After thirty feet of descending the steep embankment, I reach the cliff. I should be able to drop right onto the ledge where the patient lies, but I find myself thirty yards up the canyon. I hear water running but can't see a stream; and because he can't see me, Jim keeps lowering me through a trickling spring-fed waterfall, which appears lower on the rock face as if by magic. The seemingly gentle spring spills over jagged basalt, which is intermittently covered in bright green moss and thick patches of mud. I brace myself, but my boots slip on the wet moss and I slam into the incline, knees first again. I try to steer the stretcher down the cliff, but it bangs into me.

Thankfully, the cliff at last becomes a sheer wall and I dangle freely in midair. My harness cuts into my groin and the weight of my heavy rescue backpack pulls me backward, so I have to cling to the rope to avoid flipping upside down. Below me, I see the motionless patient.

Suddenly the heavy thowck, thowck, thowck of a helicopter swamps all other sounds, and the rotor wash pummels me with a blustery whirlwind of leaves, dirt, and water. The helicopter swoops up the canyon as if in a scene from a war movie. I can't see through the dirt and spray, and I can't let Jim know when I'm at the bottom of the cliff. He's still lowering me. In the next instant, my feet hit ground at the bottom of the cliff. With a thundering clang, the stretcher crashes on the rocks right beside me, barely missing my legs.

My footing is anything but secure. The damp mud- and moss-coated talus is as slippery as ice. Barely able to stand upright, I cautiously unhook myself from the rope, then yank it a couple of times, hoping Jim realizes that I am off belay. Maybe a spotter will tell him.

The patient is lying on a rocky ledge, across the dangerous talus slope from where I stand. I make a mental note: wide stance, keep a low center of gravity, make two trips if needed. I wave to the two firefighters, who come over to help pass the stretcher and medical bag across the slope. One heaves it up to the ledge effortlessly like a teenager tossing a hay bale onto a flatbed.

When I reach the patient, I see she is struggling to breathe, her head is matted with blood, and she's unconscious. She's dying. I take a few seconds to size up the situation, to ensure the safety of the rescuers.

"Be careful. Watch your eyes," I shout when the chopper sends another wave of debris flying. "Watch your head." The scene on the ledge is doubly dangerous now. The helicopter buzzes even closer to the canyon wall and blasts us again with its powerful rotor wash. Overhead, a medic twirls precariously on the cable, an umbilical cord stretching thinly from the giant aircraft. He spins seemingly out of control, dangerously close to the branches of the tall conifers. A gloved hand reaches out from the helicopter bay and tries to steady the cable, but with no luck.

The four volunteers on the ledge with me have no protective helmets, goggles, or gloves, no proper footwear, no personal survival gear. The ledge is a pile of melon-sized, sharply pointed rocks coated in moss, mud, and water: large enough for the five of us, but barely. A gentle slope leads down the canyon, so we are okay without a safety line, which would tether us to the cliff and prevent us from falling. At any moment, the medic whirling above could land right on top of us, and the downdraft from the chopper is still showering us with sticks, rocks, leaves, and dirt.

"Everyone, stay low! Don't look up!" I shout.

Then I turn to the patient and pull on my medical gloves. Emergency doctors speak about the golden hour, the first sixty minutes after a patient has suffered severe trauma, during which doctors have the best chance of saving a life — whether the patient has a collapsed lung, a brain injury, or is bleeding severely. This is the time to quickly put the patient on life support, staunch bleeding, and stabilize any fractures. After that first hour, it is more difficult to save a life.

The patient is on her back, unresponsive. Bright red blood oozes from her scalp and face, coagulating on the rocks. A loud stridor — a gurgling, snoring, grunting sound — means her airway is quickly clogging with saliva, mucus, vomit, and blood. Every ten seconds she takes a deep gulp of air: an ominous sign. I've seen this condition in the emergency room and recognize it immediately. It isn't likely a collapsed lung or broken ribs but the apnea caused by a severe brain injury that is interrupting the stimulus to breathe.

Her pulse is weakly palpable at eighty beats per minute. Her skin is cool, pale, and slightly purple, or cyanotic. This means that although her heart is beating and desperately trying to circulate blood, the patient is not breathing enough. You need both — lungs to draw in air and deliver oxygen to the bloodstream and the heart to pump the oxygenated blood to vital organs. This patient has lost a fair amount of blood; so there is less of it to circulate. Thankfully, we don't need to start chest compressions. If her heart stops beating, it will be extremely difficult — almost impossible — to keep her alive with CPR. The ground is unstable, we have only the basic life-support equipment, and we are far from help. If this patient were in a hospital, I would have access to highly trained staff and state-of-the-art lifesaving equipment. On the ledge, I have whatever gear that can be lowered down the cliff and run on batteries.

After many years working as an emergency and wilderness physician, I complete this primary survey in five seconds, much less time than it takes to read about it. Doctors use the mnemonic acronyn ABCDE, or ABCs for short, when evaluating a trauma patient. Airway and breathing are the most vital. Circulation comes next and includes both a check to make sure the heart is beating and that there's no catastrophic bleeding. Next: D for disability. The neurologic exam yields one of four basic findings: alert, responsive to verbal stimuli, responsive to pain, and unresponsive. This patient's neurology exam shows she is unresponsive to all stimuli. In addition to her poor neurologic status, the patient has a head trauma and possibly a cervical spine injury — an injury at one of the seven neck bones, or cervical vertebrae — that can cause paralysis or even death. Emergency doctors have a mnemonic, "C three, four, and five, keep the diaphragm alive." In other words, any spine injury above the fifth cervical vertebrae disrupts the nerves that control breathing and thus the patient cannot live without life support. If the spine is injured below neck bone number five, the patient can breathe but can't move arms, legs, or torso. In trauma cases, we always immobilize the patient's neck and entire spine in case he or she has a back or neck fracture, using a hard plastic cervical collar and a backboard.

Finally, E for exposure: protect the patient from hypothermia. I'll deal with that later. Right now, we have to keep this patient from dying. She needs advanced life support immediately. One hiker reports that she was alert and whimpering a half hour ago. Now she is in a coma. This is a bad sign: she is getting worse quickly.

I pause to make sure everyone is still on the ledge and aware of the rotor wash from the chopper, which continues to hover overhead. It appears that the medic is being winched back to the belly of the two-hundred-ton machine. But he begins to swing back and forth, wildly spinning in big loops as wide as the rotor blades.

"I need help holding her head," I shout over the cacophony. One of the hikers stabilizes the patient's head. I quickly place a three-inch curved plastic oral airway in the patient's mouth to keep her tongue from blocking her throat. Then I gently but rapidly strap on a cervical collar. I have to get this patient's airway secured before she stops breathing altogether.

"Can you get the airway equipment for me, please!" I shout to one firefighter without looking up. I need a laryngoscope, a device that pushes the tongue to the floor of the mouth so I can visualize the vocal cords, and an endotracheal tube that I will pass into the patient's windpipe to breathe for her, a procedure called intubation.

"Can you monitor the pulse for me, please," I ask the other firefighter. "Let me know if it drops below sixty. I'm going to intubate."

In the muck and dripping spring water, I swiftly ready the airway equipment and check it over, and make sure everyone has a job: one Good Samaritan stabilizes the head, one firefighter keeps the pulse, and another helps me with the airway gear. I ask the fourth person to get the stretcher ready. Thank God for the extra help, I think.

An endotracheal intubation is by far the most difficult procedure I do as a doctor; in fact, it is one of the most difficult in all medicine. First, this lifesaving breathing tube always is inserted when patients are on the brink of death: bad asthma causing lungs to fail, a heart attack causing the heart to fail, or congestive heart failure causing both to stop. Or, as in this case, head trauma. Second, it is a difficult procedure; many ER docs do this procedure infrequently. You have to insert the laryngoscope in the patient's mouth, carefully push the tongue out of the way without breaking the teeth, and get a visual on the vocal cords. While holding the scope with one hand, you slide the narrow tube into the windpipe, or trachea. The problem is that the throat is usually full of vomit and sputum and the vocal cords are usually in spasm, blocking the trachea. Third, you only have a few minutes to complete the procedure before the patient begins to suffocate. It is an extremely difficult procedure in a clean, well-lit hospital room with familiar equipment, nurses, and special drugs to sedate, alleviate pain, and temporarily paralyze the patient. Here I am kneeling on the sharp rocks, with the medical bag splayed open, helicopter rotor wash blasting us with debris, and spring water spraying on my helmet. I focus intensely, blocking out distractions, hugely thankful that I have help from the firefighters and hikers.

There's another complication: I'm trying to keep myself clean. I'm not worried about mud on my search and rescue clothing but rather about following universal precautions, techniques that protect healthcare providers from the bodily fluids of patients. Universal precautions came into widespread use with the increasing prevalence of HIV, hepatitis B and C, and other deadly blood-borne pathogens. Medical professionals risk being splashed in the face or mouth during procedures and contracting life-threatening, chronic, irreversible illnesses in the line of duty. Universal precautions help minimize this risk.

This is my one big fear in the uncontrolled setting of a trauma in the mountains. I'm a doctor, but I'm also a father and a husband. For this procedure, I have gloves on, and I pull on my old pair of clear-lens ski goggles, which I keep strapped to my helmet. I'm ready to instantly duck if the patient vomits food, stomach acid, yellow bile, blood, or all four.


Excerpted from Mountain Rescue Doctor by Christopher Van Tilburg. Copyright © 2007 Christopher Van Tilburg. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Author's Note,
Chapter 1 Resuscitation,
Chapter 2 Into the Slot,
Chapter 3 Crag Rats,
Chapter 4 The High Cost of High Octane Sports,
Chapter 5 Flight for Life,
Chapter 6 The Moment of Fear,
Chapter 7 Timberline Trail,
Chapter 8 Dial 911 for Mountain Rescue,
Chapter 9 Cliff Jumpers,
Chapter 10 Disappearance in Gifford Pinchot,
Chapter 11 Dead Man on Suksdorf Ridge,
Chapter 12 Mount Rainier,
Chapter 13 Rattlesnake Bite on Dog Mountain,
Chapter 14 Storm Warning on Zigzag Glacier,
Chapter 15 Midnight at Bennett Pass,
Chapter 16 Plane Missing, Presumed Down,
Chapter 17 Svitek v. Nidecker and Mount Bachelor,
Chapter 18 Anatomy of a Search: Tragedy on Mount Hood,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting book, written in layman's terms. Gives one a much better understanding of climbing and the difficulties of rescue . Gather he loves his daughters. Don't think he cares for his wife as much.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AlaskaDee More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book very much- it was a real page turner. The doctor that wrote the book did a great job telling the stories of individual call-outs and the results but did so in terms that a non medical professional could understand. I also learned a lot about Search and Rescue procedures. It was enjoyable and inspirational.
J-Snyder More than 1 year ago
Mountain Rescue Doctor by Christopher Van Tilburg is an intriguing collection of accounts of many search and rescue missions. As a part of a volunteer search and rescue group based on the North side of Mt. Hood named the Crag Rats, Christopher receives a call-out when volunteers are required for a search and rescue mission. As a part time emergency clinic doctor at a popular ski resort, Van Tilburg has extensive medical skills as well as the technical skills often required on mountain rescue missions. Van Tilburg’s passion for the outdoors comes through in his writing when he speaks of his own adventures. However, with two kids and a wife at home, safety is necessarily his primary concern and enjoying the outdoors safely is a prevalent theme throughout the book. On his rescue missions, Van Tilburg is constantly checking to make sure that all of the rescuers are safe and not in any danger. Another major theme is emergency medicine in the wilderness. Since Van Tilburg is often the only qualified doctor on the scene of an accident, he performs numerous procedures that save the patient’s life. His technical climbing skills come in handy when the rescue requires him to repel into canyons or crevasses and his medical and survival knowledge also come in handy. In my opinion, the medical accounts were the most interesting part of the book. Van Tilburg provides a look inside an emergency doctor’s head when he comes across a patient. Anyone interested in this field should definitely read this book and it is for this that I would give the book 4 out of 5 stars. I did not like how often he speaks about his daughters. I got the point the first time he said it and every time after that was simply annoying. Overall, I would strongly recommend this book. I would also recommend Rescue 471 by Peter Canning and Emergency Survival by Christopher Van Tilburg.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Peter Rudlowski More than 1 year ago
Dr Van-T does a good job describing medical issues in layman's terms and the individual chapters are engaging, but doesn't anyone proofread for grammatical errors anymore? The errors distract from the book, that I might otherwise have rated a four.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I spent four years working as a volunteer with Mountain Rescue in Colorado back in the '60's. Then it was off to another career but I've savored those memories for nearly 50 years. Now I work as a professional firefigher/paramedic/tech rescue so I am aware of a lot of the areas the author delves into in this book. What I really found interesting was his love of the mountains and wilderness and his strong desire to nurture that in his daughters. Oh, by the way, the story of the search on Mount Hood was a great culmination to this book. Well worth the time to read, especially if you, like the author, love the mountains and wilderness.