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									Less Traveled Roads
In the Mountains
Christopher Van Tilburg
Portland, 2006

Notes and photographs from Christopher Van Tilburg ’88, a doctor in Hood River.
Christopher is the editor of Wilderness Medicine magazine and the author of several
books. Info: www.docwild.net.

Hood River, April. County Sheriff Office text message: “High Angle Rescue. White
Salmon River.” An hour later I’m dangling on the end of a 50-meter rope. A woman is
precariously perched on an unstable log jam deep in the slot canyon. Instead of my usual
doctor’s scrubs, I wear heavy canvas “poison oak” pants, a life vest, a rescue backpack, a
helmet, a climbing harness, and heavy leather gloves. Overhead thwock, thwock, thwock:
a Blackhawk helicopter zooming up the canyon. It’s Army MAST, Military Assistance to
Safety and Traffic, from Yakima. The woman shivers uncontrollably, blood spattered all
over her clothing. I stabilize her injuries and balance tenuously on the logs to keep from
falling into the icy water. The hovering Blackhawk drops a cable. Daylight is waning. We
get her to the hospital.

Cloud Cap, June. Rescue mission on my birthday. Up Cloud Cap Road in the Mount
Hood National Forest. At mile four, a black bear sprints across. We go through dirty
snowbanks nestled in the switchbacks, then up Cooper Spur Trail into the Mount Hood
Wilderness. An hour later we find the missing climber.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest, July. Missing woman, day five. We tromp amid
huckleberry fields and fir groves. Strapped to my chest: SAR radio, Global Positioning
System, cell phone, camera. We never do find her.

Cloud Cap, August. I run west on Timberline Trail, which circumnavigates the entire
volcano. I pass massive basalt boulders and wiry green-gray alpine fir. I surf the scree
and sand of the east lateral moraine of Eliot Glacier, cross a rickety bridge over a muddy
torrent, then climb back out. I pass one drainage, another, three more. Finally I find the
woman with a knee injury. Four friends hike in with the stretcher. We make it back
before daylight ends – barely.

Cloud Cap, October. On this clear cold morning, we stock Cloud Cap Inn with
firewood. Built in 1889 as a high alpine B&B, it was almost razed by the Forest Service
in 1954. The oldest mountain rescue group in the nation, Hood River Crag Rats,
requested to maintain the cabin. Since then, we’ve used it as our base for trainings and
rescues. This marks the time to change my pack from summer to winter gear: the latter,
much bulkier, includes avalanche rescue equipment and skis. No rescues in a while,
getting antsy.

Alpine Trail, January. Lost snowboarder. Snow. Twenty minutes after we start
searching the call comes in: he’s found. I examine him in the snow patrol room at
Timberline Lodge. His face is ashen and pale and he shivers uncontrollably.
Hypothermia, dehydration, embarrassment.

Viento Ridge, February. A missing Cirrus SR44 airplane has been spotted from the air
at dusk. Now we tromp through the woods at dark using global positioning to locate the
crash site. Giant downed fir and hemlock, huge basalt boulders, deep ravines. We go
slowly: protection of rescuers is the first priority. We can’t afford even an ankle sprain.
Eventually the sheriff flies his Piper Cub along the ridge to give us a reference. Next
morning, we start coordinating the recovery of the bodies of three beloved and respected
members of the community. Later that summer, after the media attention and funerals, we
guide the families to the crash site to pray. It’s part of being a doctor.

Westside Elementary, March. I haul my bulky pack in to Mrs. Stein’s first grade class
along with splints, tape, and bandages. I bandage one kid like a mummy and the
classroom explodes with laughter.

Multnomah County Circuit Courtroom 729, May. As an expert witness, I strap on my
snowboard in front of twelve jurors to demonstrate snowboard mechanics, injuries, and
snow immersion. I remember the call out on that cold February night three years before.
Today the stuffy courtroom is filled with exotic language: objections, redirects, liability,
negligence. I’d rather be outside.

Eagle Creek, April. First call of the half dozen or so we get every summer on one of the
most popular hiking trails in the Gorge. Motionless patient on a ledge. On rope, I plow
through thick understory. A vine maple branch pops me in the face. A Blackhawk from
Salem’s National Guard 1042nd Medical Company swoops in, pummeling me with leaves
and dirt. Patient barely breathing, thready pulse, head injury. In the emergency room I’d
have nurses, respiratory therapists, and a trauma surgeon to help. Here there are
volunteers in a complex rope rescue. Best crew you can imagine. We extricate the
patient, wheel him down the trail, speed lights-and-sirens to the nearest landing zone, and
transfer him to a Life Flight chopper. More than 30 people have helped. As the sun dips
behind Table Mountain I head home.

Eagle Creek, Fourth of July. Five injuries today, the worst a back fracture. Teenager.
To reach him I hike three miles and swim across the Lower Punchbowl Falls plunge pool.
The water is freezing. I place a cervical collar on him to stabilize his spine. Two hours
later three friends swim over with a floating stretcher and we swim the patient across the
pool and down the creek to a gravel bar. Chopper: the 1042nd again. They airlift the kid
to OHSU. Two hours later I am watching fireworks with my wife and daughters.
Fireworks explode overhead and my girls are giggling.

								
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