Mountain rescue doctors and volunteers have already undertaken eight alpine rescue missions this year, in a normal year they just have a few. Rescue Mountaineer Christopher Van Tilburg says that increasing crowds, inexperienced climbers and access to equipment have changed who is headed to Mount Hood. A single mission can take all night or last multiple days. He wrote about his rescues for Outside magazine. Tilburg joins us to share his experience as a rescue doctor and what makes this year so different.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. This has been one of the busiest and earliest alpine rescue seasons on Mount Hood in recent memory. That’s according to Christopher Van Tilburg. He’s been doing search and rescue on Mount Hood since 1998 as a Mountain Rescue Doctor with both Portland Mountain Rescue and [Hood River] Crag Rats. He wrote about this recently for Outside Magazine and joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Christopher Van Tilburg: Thank you very much for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. Can you give us a sense for what the last week in January was like for you in terms of rescues?
Van Tilburg: Sure. That week we had four missions on the mountain and uh they were pretty much back to back and two of them were technical missions, you know involving rope work and getting people off the mountain – and it’s just it was very, very time consuming. That’s the easiest way to explain it.
Miller: Four missions in one week, two of them being pretty involved. How common is that?
Van Tilburg: Well, it’s not typical for us. Our missions on Mount Hood typically are less frequent and they’re more typically, in what we think of as the main, what we used to think of as the main climbing season, which is…which was the end of March through early July, but now it seems that people are climbing the mountain all year long.
Miller: So there has been a calendar change in the time people do things, or the activities people do at different parts of the year?
Van Tilburg: Yeah, the weather was very mild in 2022, in January and into mid-February. And so the mountain looked…mountain conditions up high, in the alpine, looked more like conditions we typically see in April, and so people were climbing the mountain in January.
Miller: Overall, how does this rescue season compare to earlier ones? It started, as you noted, pretty intensely, with those four rescues in one week, but six months in, what does it, what does it look like?
Van Tilburg: Well, we’re very, very busy. The Crag Rats, in particular, are very busy. We’re at about a dozen missions right now, but many of those missions are multi-days. So we’re at about twenty days of rescues and in a typical year we’ll have…the total year will have about thirty to forty days of rescue. And our busiest time, typically, is the summer – June, July, August.
Miller: In other words, so you’ve already been busy, if past experience holds true, what’s likely to be the busiest time is still to come?
Van Tilburg: Yes.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for how involved any one rescue might be? When you get a text in the middle of the night, or in the middle of the day, to go to a really serious rescue, what is entailed?
Van Tilburg: Well, it’s, it starts many, many months before, with training and gear preparation, but most of us are prepped with our rescue kit and our rescue pack. And so when the call out comes, whoever is available – not working, not out of town, on vacation – will usually try to jump in their car or a team vehicle and get up the mountain as soon as possible. And then from there, every mission is different and some of them are complex and some of them are fairly straightforward.
Miller: How do you explain the increase in calls that you’re seeing right now? You noted that the timing is one thing, that people are going up, maybe trying to summit the mountain in times when it may have been less common in the past. What else do you think accounts for the increase in calls?
Van Tilburg: Well, I think it’s primarily because there’s more people on the mountain. There are…there are hundreds of people on the mountain on a given weekend and that’s the primary problem. And part of that is probably because of the pandemic, and part of it is because gear is so readily available, and that’s the primary issue. There’s more people.
Miller: With more people getting out on the mountain, has the average experience level dropped?
Van Tilburg: Well, that’s a good question. It’s hard to say. We…there is definitely a huge range of experience on the mountain. There’s people who are beginners who don’t have the proper equipment and they’re climbing Mount Hood, and we also have people that are highly skilled that are now climbing Mount Hood in microspikes and running shoes for example. And so…
Miller: When you say ‘climbing,’ you don’t mean just going on the Timberline Trail for a portion of it, or going on a hike for the day on a groomed trail on one of the resort areas, but you mean actually trying to summit Mount Hood with sneakers on?
Van Tilburg: Yes, climbing to the top of Mount Hood through the technical terrain in running shoes and microspikes. Yes.
Miller: Maybe this is just my ignorance, but is that advised, or something that truly expert people do? Or is it something that makes no sense, ever?
Van Tilburg: Well, I think what’s happening is people want to challenge themselves and / or want to show people on social media that they are challenging themselves in a way that’s either nontraditional or that’s just pushing the limits of skills and equipment. And so I think, that’s probably what it comes from.
Miller: I know that part of the ethos of the work you do, and so many other volunteers, is that you’re not a judgmental group of people. I mean, whatever the reason for somebody being in harm’s way, you all go up there to help them out. And so I don’t ask this question to force you to be judgmental, but I guess I’m wondering if you have a sense for how often the people who need your help have done something that is really unwise, versus just they did everything that they could have, but sometimes bad things happen because this is a gigantic place with unpredictable weather and all kinds of other dangers that you can prepare for, but you can’t push away.
Van Tilburg: I think a lot of the people who we rescue, I don’t have the numbers, but I think a lot of people we rescue are doing everything right, they’re safe, they’re using good judgment, they have good gear, they know what they’re doing and they just have a mishap – and that might be a slip and fall, it might be sudden weather moves in. But I think by and large, more people are generally prepared, although the people that are unprepared or do something foolish, those are the ones that you tend to hear about or think about, more often.
Miller: With more calls than you’re used to, and maybe more calls coming in at different times of the year, has that affected your logistics, your ability to keep training, to keep your equipment in good order, to have enough people who are available to respond to the next call?
Van Tilburg: Yes, absolutely. I mean we have already canceled trainings this year, because we’ve had missions on the same day, for example, or we’re just too maxed out for that particular time, to do any more training. So certainly we’ve had to curtail, in some circumstances this year, some of our training.
Miller: What do you want people, who are planning a trip to Mount Hood, or, to really…to any serious mountain in the area, what do you want them to keep in mind before they go up?
Van Tilburg: Well, the short version is just to be careful. We’re really happy people are enjoying the wild lands of the world and the Pacific Northwest and and particularly our home volcano, but but we do want people just to try to be careful, make sure they have the skills, the equipment and the knowledge to climb Mount Hood – and if they don’t, there’s great Guides Services that can help shepherd people up to the top of Mount Hood.
Miller: You do note in your piece that one of those services stopped actually doing, providing that service on the weekends because it was too busy and they thought it was too dangerous.
Van Tilburg: Yeah, it’s incredibly busy on a good weather weekend on Mount Hood. And so if people have the option to climb on a non-busy day during the week, that’s probably recommended.
Miller: You’ve been doing this, mountain rescue, for About 25 years right now, despite the fact that it is really physically demanding, and I imagine, emotionally draining too. And then all the times you’re up rescuing people in the mountain, you can’t be doing anything else. What’s kept you going?
Van Tilburg: Well, I probably speak for all of the rescue mountaineers in our two alpine rescue teams. In that we have a passion for the mountain. We have a passion for helping people. We love the camaraderie, and it’s a very special service that we have the ability to offer to the public and we love doing it.
Miller: How much do you go up to Mount Hood just to have fun yourself?
Van Tilburg: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, I’m on the mountain 100 days a year and probably 20 of those are rescue related and 80 of those are probably for fun.
Miller: Oh. So that’s way, that’s way better than the ratio I was expecting.
Van Tilburg: I’m on the mountain all the time.
Miller: When you go up for fun, do you carry more medical equipment than the average person? It’s not just a first aid kit?
Van Tilburg: When I go for fun, I probably carry the average equipment that most people carry with possibly a few exceptions,
like sometimes I’ll take a rescue radio and sometimes I’ll take a small rope with me. But for the most part, when I’m for fun, I take my normal pack for fun.
Miller: Christopher Van Tilburg, thanks for joining us today. I appreciate it.
Van Tilburg: Thank you very much.
Miller: Here’s to a not busy rest of the season for you and everybody involved. That’s Christopher Van Tilburg, Mountain Rescue Doctor with both Portland Mountain Rescue and Crag Rats.
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