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M.D. Chris Van Tilburg Weighs in on Rescue Efforts of Missing Mt. Hood Hikers


Author and M.D. Chris Van Tilburg, a member of Oregon’s Hood River Crag Rats Search & Rescue Team, has been participating in the rescue attempt of the two hikers who were reported missing on Mt. Hood last Friday. Van Tilburg and his team were on the mountain all day Sunday before having to retreat due to bad weather. We spoke to him on Monday afternoon:

AMK. As of this writing, the two hikers have been missing for more than three days. What should they be focused on right now in order to improve their chances of survival?

CVT. Building a snow cave and hunkering down. It’s all about shelter from the elements at this point, trying to stay warm, and not trying to move about the mountain in foul weather.

AMK. It’s been reported that they have at least one bivvy sack or lightweight sleeping back between them. What should they do with it?

CVT. If they’ve got one, they can share it, use it for a ground pad. They can also stick their feet in their backpacks or use their packs for ground padding. Insulation from sitting on the cold snow is just as important as covering up.

The hikers packed a bivvy sack

AMK. According to reports, the hikers had planned to come down the south side of Mt. Hood. Have you hiked or climbed this part of the mountain? Is it particularly tricky this time of year?

CVT. I climbed to 10,500 feet on Sunday, and turned around just short of the summit due to dangerous conditions — avalanche risk, whiteout, cold temperatures and high winds. Any time of the year in any conditions, the south climb can be dangerous — even in clear, windless skies.

AMK. Temps are in the low 20s at night. According to media reports, there is the threat of avalanches, which is preventing full-on rescue efforts. What would you advise the two hikers do next – stay put, try to stay warm, or try their luck making it down the mountain?

CVT. Dig a snowcave, stay put, and try to signal rescuers by any means possible.

AMK. The hikers have been outdoors for more than three days; at this stage, what is the biggest threat to their survival?

CVT. Hypothermia and dehydration.

AMK. Bluntly, at this point, how would you rate their chances of being rescued alive?

CVT. It’s really hard to say. We had a group in the 1970s that lasted 14 days on Hood. There are a lot of variables at play. In this storm, lightly equipped, without injury, after 3 days I’d say chances for the hikers start plummeting. If they have a snow cave and a stove to melt snow for drinking water their chances improve.

AMK. What essential pieces of equipment do you advise hikers or climbers take with them before embarking on Mt. Hood or other hikes or climbs during the winter?

CVT. Extra clothing, a bivvy or blanket for warmth or shelter; food, water and a stove to melt snow in; communication and navigation equipment like a GPS, cell phone, mountain locator unit, a transceiver, signaling mirror and rescue whistle; avalanche safety equipment, including a shovel; gear for crevasse travel, including rope, harness, carabiners, russic cords, plastic boots, crampons, ice ax, helmet. It’s a long list and a heavy pack.

Chris Van Tilburg, M.D., is the editor of WMS’s Wilderness Medicine and the author of eight books on the  outdoors. His most recent book is Mountain Rescue Doctor. He lives in Bend, Oregon.

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