Wilderness Survival and Rescue Reading
Hooked On Search & Rescue and Survival Stories
Ever since I joined a Search and Rescue (SAR) team in September, 2007, I've been reading book after book about true wilderness survival and SAR stories. I'm an addict, I tell you!
On this page, I'll review and recommend only what I've actually read, and if I happen to come across something I don't particularly like, I'll tell you about that too.
I may stretch the theme a bit to include books and documentaries about some who, unfortunately, did not survive, as well as an occasional how-to text.
Be sure to add your comments at the end of this series of reviews if you've read anything here and have something to say about it, even if you personally poo-pooed the book I might be kvelling about. (That's "gushing" in English). And please add your own recommendations to the guestbook below.
I hope you'll check back from time to time, as I'll be updating the page as I keep reading.
Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature
Sticking a breathing tube down someone's throat without accidentally inserting the tube into the person's esophagus or breaking the patient's teeth, is no easy feat. Add to that the fact that the doctor is perched on a narrow ledge, as a hovering rescue helicopter sprays him and his patient with dirt and debris, and it's downright amazing that he's able to pull it off.
Endotracheal intubation is one of the most difficult medical procedures an ER doctor performs, and that's with skilled assistance within the clean and controlled hospital environment. But Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg has had to intubate patients in less-than-ideal backcountry conditions as a member of the Hood River Crag Rats, the oldest Search & Rescue team in the U.S.
Christopher Van Tilburg is not only an ER doc and a ski patrol and emergency wilderness physician; he's also an excellent writer. I spent a few days reading Mountain Rescue Doctor during every available moment.
Along with insights into the ethical challenges faced by a wilderness physician and the tools and techniques of emergency backcountry medicine, Tilburg describes a number of suspenseful missions. One firsthand account involves a call to Columbia River Gorge, where he intubated an unconscious hiker who'd fallen from a cliff. Another chapter concerns the rescue of an injured and hypothermic man who'd fallen onto a logjam. Dr. Tilman describes rescuing cliff divers with spinal injuries, rushing to assist a trapped climber within the "Golden Hour," treating the victim of a rattlesnake bite, and participating in a grisly body recovery at the scene of a mountain plane crash. Tilman has been involved in many high-altitude, winter missions, including a much-publicized search for three missing climbers on Mt. Hood.
Read Mountain Rescue Doctor
After finishing the book, my only disappointment was that, in some cases, I was left wondering what happened to the victims Dr. Tillman had worked so hard to save. Did they survive?
Then I came across a blog post by the author, in which he states, "Yes, several chapters don't really say what happens to the patient. That's part of the deal with mountain rescue missions: we hand off the patients to a helicopter or ground ambulance crew, and sometimes we never find out the end result."
As any member of a Search & Rescue unit knows, that statement is very true. The last we sometimes see or hear of a patient is when they're lifted into the sky in a litter, spinning at the end of a 200-foot rope.
Lost In The Yellowstone: A firsthand account by the one who was lost
This is a pretty quick read, perfect for a long plane ride. The story takes place in the late 1800s, before Yellowstone was designated a National Park.
The main text is written by Truman Everts himself, but the editor has included side notes about the concurrent movements of those searching for Everts as well as reality compared to Everts' assumptions. Very interesting contrasts.
Coming Back Alive: Coast Guard Search and Rescue missions
Of the many books I've read about the lost, the stranded, the injured and the rescued, another of my favorites is Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas by Spike Walker.
This is a book about eight incredible rescue missions off the coast of southeastern Alaska, culminating in the edge-of-your-seat account of the Coast Guard's efforts to save five crew members from the fishing vessel La Conte, which sunk in 100-mile-per-hour winds and record 90-foot seas in January, 1998. Without a life raft, the men drift in the freezing water for hours, as three different helicopter crews try in turn to rescue them.
Author Spike Walker worked for years as a deckhand in Alaska. He researched Coming Back Alive meticulously, through hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors.
Read Coming Back Alive
This was one of those "I don't care how tired I'll be at the office tomorrow, I have to keep reading" books. In fact, I was so intrigued that after finishing "Coming Back Alive," I started following Coast Guard SAR headlines on Twitter with links to their news releases. (Follow @USCG)
So That Others May Live: Caroline Hebard and Her Search and Rescue Dogs
Not being a K-9 handler myself, I knew relatively little about SAR dogs before reading this book, other than my interaction as a K9 backer for the search dogs and handlers on our Search & Rescue team. I'm fascinated by what these dogs are able to do, as well as by the relationship between Caroline and her German Shepherds. I had no idea a canine could be both a ground-tracker and an air-scenter in one, as well as a cadaver dog to boot. And no idea they could detect a body beneath the water -- whitewater at that!
Caroline Hebard was a pioneer in the field of K-9 SAR and one of the first American dog handlers to participate in international disaster aid. I truly fell in love with her dogs while reading this book, particularly Zibo with whom Caroline had a very special bond. Zibo saved Caroline's life as well as the lives of many lost and injured souls. These dogs are heroes, no doubt about it.
Touching The Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival
Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival by mountaineer Joe Simpson recounts Simpson's and Simon Yates' near-fatal climb of 20,813- foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They were the first people to successfully reach the summit of Siula Grande via the almost vertical west face.
But things went terribly awry on the descent, when Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and shattered his knee. The pair, whose trip had already taken longer than intended due to bad weather, had run out of stove fuel, which they needed to melt ice and snow for drinking water, and therefor had to descend quickly to their base camp about 3,000 feet below.
They proceeded by tying two 150-foot ropes together, then tied themselves to each end. Yates dug himself into a hole in the snow and lowered his injured partner down the mountain on the 300 feet of rope; however, because the two ropes were tied together, the knot wouldn't go through the belay plates, so Simpson had to stand on his good leg to give Yates enough slack to unclip the rope. Then Yates would thread the rope back through the lowering device with the knot on the other side.
Things went better than expected for awhile, though Joe was in agony as his bad leg kept catching on the snow. And then a second disaster struck; Yates accidentally lowered Simpson over a 100-foot cliff during white-out conditions, leaving Simpson dangling in mid-air with the knot tight against the belay plates. Yates couldn't see Simpson but felt all of his climbing partner's weight on the rope, which was very slowly pulling him down the mountain.
Simon Yates held on for about an hour, while his bucket seat gradually collapsed beneath him. Eventually, he forced himself to cut the rope, ultimately dropping Simpson into a crevasse.
The next morning after a cold night in a snow cave, Yates descended the mountain alone and saw the crevasse. He realized what must have happened to Simpson, certain that he must have died in the fall. Yates safely descended the remaining dangerous leg of the journey.
But Simpson had survived, and, when he eventually took in the rope, he discovered the end had been cut. He spent a dreadful night in the crevasse, described in his own heartbreaking words, but despite his injuries, Simpson abseiled from the ice bridge that broke his fall to the bottom of the crevasse and crawled out onto the glacier.
From there, he suffered three more days, crawling five miles back to base camp. Almost completely delusional, he reached camp just a few hours before Yates intended to leave.
Read "Touching The Void"
Simpson's survival is widely regarded by mountaineers as amongst the most amazing pieces of mountaineering lore in history. I literally could not put this book down and even cried into my cereal.
Mountain High, Mountain Rescue
A firsthand account by a female technical rescue team member
Imagine first volunteering with an alpine Search and Rescue team at the age of 63, joining a group of young, robust whipper-snappers in the field. Well, Peggy Parr, author of Mountain High, Mountain Rescue, did just that and not only rises to the task but excels.
As a field leader for a Colorado Springs-based SAR team, Peggy shares her fears, joys and insecurities, as well as her fascination with the mountains where the rescues and recoveries usually take place. Often, a life is saved, but sometimes help arrives too late.
One of my favorite quotes from the book--one of so many that I can relate to--is, "This strong desire to aid strangers stricken by misfortune is like a vein of gold inside the team. When I joined, I had no such sense of mercy--adventure was my goal--but the compassion of the members was contagious and I caught this best of all diseases."
The Last Run
A true story of rescue and redemption on the Alaska seas
This is another tale of an amazing Coast Guard rescue mission, along with backstory about the events that led to the sinking of the fishing vessel Le Conte in January, 1998. I enjoyed Coming Back Alive so much, I picked this one up too and found it equally well-written and engrossing. In fact, one of the rescue efforts included in Coming Back Alive is what The Last Run is all about and, this time, the reader gets to know the real-life characters more intimately, as well as the ultimate fate of one of the two men who didn't survive the ordeal. This reads more like a novel than non-fiction.
James Bradley, author of "Flags of our Fathers," writes of The Last Run....
"This riveting book has it all: ordinary guys facing the extraordinary, tales of the Alaska frontier, a suspenseful fight for survival, a dramatic rescue against seemingly impossible odds, and touchingly human and humorous moments. Do yourself a favor and let Todd Lewan take you on The Last Run."
Heart Of The Storm: Adventures of a Helicopter Rescue Pilot and Commander
A firsthand account by Col. Edward Fleming
Wow, that was good. If you're at all interested in helicopters and the lives of those who fly them, particularly in the field of rescue, add this book to your reading list. Personally, I never realized just how difficult flying a helicopter is, even in ideal conditions, before reading this book. Needless to say, many -- or perhaps most -- of Fleming's missions were in anything BUT ideal conditions.
During his 30-year career, author Col. Edward Fleming participated in and led countless rescue operations, including the 1991 Halloween storm recounted in the book, The Perfect Storm and movie of the same name. He also orchestrated the successful rescue of Dr. Jerri Nielsen from Antarctica. Remember that one? She was the woman diagnosed with breast cancer and whose health was rapidly deteriorating during the long Antarctic winter, necessitating a ground-breaking, daring mission to save her life.
Heart of the Storm also details dramatic jungle rescues, the longest helicopter rescue mission in history to save crew members of a Ukrainian freighter 840 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, desert operations in Iraq, and a nearly disastrous rescue of crew from a sinking schooner during an Atlantic winter storm.
Reading this book, I've gained an even greater respect for these rescue crews, who really do risk their own lives every time they take off.
Miracle In The Andes
By Survivor, Nando Parrado
I recently returned from a camping trip, during which I spent many hours reading by lantern, totally engrossed in this book. Many people have heard of both the book and the movie of the same name, about the rugby team involved in a plane crash in the Andes Mountains in the early 1970s, but I wonder if most of those same people have heard of this account of the accident and subsequent fight for survival by those who didn't die in the initial impact. Alive,
While Alive was written by a third party through interviews with survivors, Miracle in the Andes is a firsthand account by one man who lived through the ordeal. In fact, Nando Parrado was one of the men who miraculously made his way out of that frigid, barren world of snow, ice and stone to find help for his weakening, starving and freezing companions. This book is so much more than a recounting of events; Nando Parrado makes you feel like you're right there with him on the mountain.
Even if you're familiar with this story, I strongly recommend reading this book. It tells the tale from a completely different perspective than Alive, written by someone who wasn't there, could ever do. The book also includes a number of photos taken by the author during the struggle for survival after he found a camera in the wreckage.
Dare To Survive
By Rick & Amy Rinehart
Flash floods, animal attacks, avalanches, plane crashes ... oh my! The subtitle of this book is "Death, Heartbreak and Triumph in the Wild," but the book did seem to be a bit lopsided on the death and heartbreak side.
I guess I've finally found a book in the wilderness survival and rescue genre (loosely at least) that I'm not so gung-ho about. The writing is fine, and I did find some of the stories interesting, but this book just seemed a bit ... random to me. Or not quite what I expected anyway. It's not a bad book, in my opinion, but definitely not as much of a page-turner as others I've read.
The book jacket states, "What does it take to endure the impossible? Dare to Survive tackles that question as it vividly reminds us when danger strikes, survival becomes the ultimate human challenge." To me, though (and maybe I just wasn't paying close enough attention), I didn't feel the book answered that question or made much of an issue of it often enough.
"Inspirational stories of extreme survival and tremendous bravery" in the American West.
Lost In The Wild: Two Search and Rescue missions in the North Woods
It crossed my mind a number of times on a canoe-camping trip in Minnesota's Boundary Waters -- how easy it would be to get lost in the thick North Woods. There often are no significant landmarks to aid in navigation, especially if one ventures off the beaten path -- not that there are many beaten paths in the Boundary Waters -- without maps and a compass and solid orienteering skills. In fact, a friend and I got quite confused about our location and our route ahead when we hiked Minnesota's Kekekabic Trail and, at one point, backtracked close to ten miles just to get to a point we were sure of.
So, I could relate to this book. And even though I knew that both young men -- who got lost at different times, not together -- survived to tell their stories, that didn't lessen the impact of those stories or the suspense of Lost in the Wild.
In August, 1998, young canoeist and guide Dan Stephens is on a routine search for the next portage when he falls and hits his head. In his altered state, he then wanders away from the group of inexperienced Boy Scouts he's leading through Quetico Provincial Park, Canada's adjacent companion to the Boundary Waters.
Three years later in October, 2001, medical student Jason Rasmussen sets off on a solo hike in a remote area of northern Minnesota and runs into trouble on the first day when he takes a wrong path and becomes lost in dense forest. Then he loses his map and even abandons his tent, food, and hat and gloves, wanting to travel light while he looks for the trail.
In this book, you'll learn how the two young men got into their predicaments and how they managed to survive until they were found.
Angels In The Wilderness
By Amy Racina, stranded and injured in King's Canyon National Park
Have you ever thought about how different your life might be if just one event, one circumstance, hadn't happened -- if something or someone different had taken its place? Well, in the case of Amy Racina's accident while backpacking alone in California's Sierra mountains, one difference amongst a number of events that led to her rescue could very well have cost her her life.
What if the hiking party who found her had canceled their trip for some reason or chosen another route? Or left even one day later? What if Amy hadn't been calling for help at the time the hikers happened to pass by above -- hikers she couldn't see or hear from the ravine? What if she hadn't dragged herself up the ravine but had stayed where she'd fallen? The hikers would probably never have heard her. Amy questions those and other circumstances that fell into place to ultimately save her life at close to the last minute.
I found this story riveting and inspiring, which is why I spent the night reading in bed with my headlamp until I'd turned the last page.
This is firsthand account of a disastrous solo hiking trip. Author Amy Racina fell sixty feet in a remote part of King's Canyon National Park, breaking both legs. Battling pain, fear and exhaustion, she survived for four days, pulling herself inch-by-inch along a ravine with her hands until her calls were heard by a man who was partially deaf.
Lost In The Himalayas
By James Scott and Joanne Robertson
Written in part by the survivor himself, who describes in heart-wrenching detail his torment, both physical and emotional, during his six weeks lost, stranded, starving and cold in the Himalayan winter, and by his sister, Joanne, who kept the search going long after most people firmly believed James was dead, this is the story of perseverance and hope on both ends of the search.
In December, 1991, James Scott from Australia was a 24-year-old medical student who'd gone to Nepal with the intention of completing a term of practical work in a Kathmandu Hospital but instead got firsthand experience in the struggle to survive despite near-impossible odds.
This book is written as journal passages by both James and Joanne as that struggle takes place, making you feel like you're experiencing the anguish and hope right along with them. Five stars from me! I found this book riveting.
Some Other Survival and Rescue Books I Recommend
This book includes twenty tales, including the dramatic story of a dog team's efforts to find a teenage girl lost in the Rockies and the rescue of submariners trapped at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.
"Jennifer Lois outstanding in-depth ethnography of mountain search and rescue teams yields insight not only into the specific heroic culture of rescue workers, but also more generally into that of other risk-takers such as firefighters, police officers, and ER doctors. Lois focuses on the way emotions drive some and impede others, how difficult emotions are handled in crisis situations and released afterward s, and the emotional currency or repayment between heroes and those they rescue. She skillfully shows the way heroism intertwines with masculinity, producing an organizational culture stratified by gender. Finally, she discusses the transference of the hero identity from the group to individual members and their subsequent self-effacement in a culture of false modesty when interacting with their support community."
- Patricia A. Adler, University of Colorado at Boulder
Bringing Jon Home
On Saturday morning, July 15, 2006, Jon Francis, climbed to the summit of the Grand Mogul, in the Sawtooth Mountain Range of Central Idaho. He never returned. Law enforcement searched for about 29 hours. After the evening search team briefing, on July 17, 2006, the Incident Commander approached Jon's father and said; 'David, you need to give your son up to the mountain.' Feeling helpless and abandoned, the Francis family gathered that evening and committed to continue the search.
As a member of a busy mountain rescue team, author Steve Achelis participated in hundreds of rescues that frequently made the evening news. In Mountain Responder, Steve takes the reader along on these life-and-death rescues as he and his teammates dig people out of avalanches, hang on a thin cable below a helicopter, and rescue climbers stuck on rock walls. Threaded throughout these unforgettable rescues, Steve shares the exhilaration of saving a life, the fears and uncertainties during the struggle to keep a patient alive, and the doubts and second-guessing that occurs when someone doesn't make it.