Search and Rescue doing more rescues due to inexperience, social media

UPDATED: JUNE 13, 2022 AT 6:12 PM
KIRO Newsradio, Features reporter

Outside Magazine recently published an article titled, Why Are So Many Climbers in Trouble on Mount Hood This Year? It’s written by Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg, a longtime volunteer rescue mountaineer with The Crag Rats and Portland Mountain Rescues, an ER doctor and medical examiner in Hood River, Oregon, who has climbed Mount Hood a couple dozen times.

“Normally, we have four or five missions by early June,” said Van Tilburg. “This year, we’ve just been completely inundated with missions. We’ve had a total of 24 rescue days so far and we’re only at June 2. I think the reason is, for one, there are a lot of people in the outdoors, and particularly on Mt Hood. I do think it’s in part because of COVID, people have to get out and do something. I think social media is going berserk. But having so many people creates problems, inexperience.”

But the thing that stood out most to me in the article was the picture Van Tilburg painted of a rescue volunteer. A reminder that these are people with families, careers, and hobbies who drop everything to come to your rescue.

“I do think people should understand that we’re all volunteers,” said Van Tilburg. “We’re giving up a piece of our lives to go help people and we enjoy it, we’re happy to help. We’re not paid, and so when we’re coming to somebody’s rescue, we’re giving up a piece of our personal life. When you see the news clips of us racing up the mountain and grabbing somebody and putting them in a litter and skiing them back down, it seems like maybe the mission is over. But the amount of training and equipment readiness and gear repair. We get home and we have to wash and dry ropes and replace batteries. All of that takes a lot of time and energy.”

It’s a reminder to come to the outdoors as prepared as possible, to avoid rescue at all costs.

“Staying within one’s skill level,” advised Van Tilburg. “On Mount Hood, all of the routes are technical mountain climbs, so it’s not the place to learn how to climb a mountain. And we have rescued people this year who have never climbed a mountain before and they chose Mount Hood as their first mountain climb. If they’re not a mountaineer and they want to climb Mount Hood, go with a guide. There are several guide companies that offer really great instruction.”

Doug McCall is president of the Mountain Rescue Association and a Seattle Mountain Rescue volunteer.

“People aren’t always thinking that when you get into the back country, you’re further away from rescue,” said McCall. “If you call 911, the response is not like a fire department to your house, with an average of, like, four minutes. For me, personally, I have to drop whatever I was doing at home, pack my pack for what I think is going to be needed, drive to the trailhead and then hike up to where ever you are. That takes a little bit more time than people are really accustomed to when they call for emergency services.”

Over the years, there have been countless debates about who should pay for these rescues.

“I am adamantly against charging for rescue, as is the Mountain Rescue Association and Seattle Mountain Rescue,” McCall said. “We don’t want people to delay in calling for help. If they are concerned that they’re going to get charged for this rescue, ‘I think I can just maybe push through a little bit further,’ the weather window may be closing, then they don’t really call until it’s very dire. You could be putting yourself at a greater risk and it could be putting rescuers at risk.”

Your rescue may be interrupting these volunteers in the middle of dinner, but to be clear, they have dedicated their lives to this work that they love.

“To be a volunteer is quite special and I feel quite honored,” said Van Tilburg. “The esprit de corps, the camaraderie, is something that is very difficult to find anywhere else in life because we are a group of friends and athletes that spend our free time rescuing people. We’re in situations that are sometimes life and death and sometimes they’re humorous. I feel really honored to participate.”

Both McCall and Van Tilberg want to remind people to always bring the 10 essentials when hiking or spending extended time adventuring in the wild.

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