American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

International Mountain Rescue Handbook

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1974

International Mountain Rescue Handbook, by Hamish Maclnnes. New York: Scribner’s, 1973. 224 pages, 150 photographs, 130 drawings and diagrams, $10.00.*

For years I thought of mountain rescue as an unfortunate necessity— as something that a group of competent climbers could intuitively handle when the occasion arose. Hamish Maclnnes presents a different side. What is described in his book is nothing less than a science derived from observation, study and experimentation in the field of mountain rescue. Two hundred-odd pages and sketches, photos, numbers and descriptions cover every possible subject from the use of balloons to the proper diet for rescue dogs. A large portion of the book is devoted to rescue dogs, and I was previously ignorant of the fact that these canine Alpinists are rated by a system only slightly less complex than American rock climbs. Witness the following quote from page 49:


“The dog must be obedient and versed in normal commands. It must also undergo a livestock test … must be capable of finding someone buried under snow at a depth of 2 feet (61 cm) working into the wind in an area 80 x 80 yds (73 x 73 m) on fairly level ground.… The ‘A’ Certificate is sub-divided from 1-10, ‘A-1’ being the highest. The subdivision is done as there is usually a big variation in first dog years. The letter ‘M’ after the dog grading denotes that the handler is a mountaineer and the dog is highly competent on rock and ice.”

The book is incredibly comprehensive, picturing and describing an array of equipment rivaling the Whole Earth Catalog, but with a macabre theme. “(Casualty) bags should be coloured red to avoid unpleasant obvious stains.”

Sometimes Maclnnes’ advice seems rather obvious.“… do not use a bitch in heat if other dogs are being used.” Sometimes the advice is inaccurate. A photo of red plastic snowshoes is captioned: “This type of snow shoe is good for traversing deep powder snow.” Actually, they are infamously poor in this respect. In another place he states: “In America and in several other parts of the world, permission must be obtained before embarking on the ascent of a peak or a specific climb.” This is not true in many parts of this country.

I object to the all-encompassing air of finality that obtrudes on almost every page of the book. I have noticed the same feeling when reading rescue reports, filled with dates and heights and ETA’s and numbers and numbers and numbers. I look at the pictures in the handbook, showing men in stretchers, litters and bags. They are real-life photos from real-life rescues all over the world. Yet I keep wondering: when the picture was taken was the man in the stretcher alive? If so, would the statistic-crammed report become any less inanimate?

I am reminded of a high-school friend who worked as an ambulance driver. It made no difference what was in the back of his ambulance— a mangled corpse or a living human being. His job was always the same: get there quickly and come back quickly, so that you will be ready to go out again on another mission. Gradually he lost the feeling that he was piloting a vehicle to save human lives in emergencies. The emergency situations became his vehicle, providing excitement and employment whether or not the payload was dead or alive.

If the handbook is used as a reference work, to supplement other rescue plans, then I have no objection to its wide distribution. But if, on the other hand, it is used as a textbook for mountain rescue, I fear that it could create a group of Alpine ambulance drivers, roaring through the mountains in helicopters content that their equipment is the key to their success.

Norman Clyde, who passed away last December at the age of 87, was famous for locating many lost people in the California mountains. He never relied on unusual or specialized equipment. After a rescue team had abandoned the search for Walter Starr in the Minaret area of the Sierra, Clyde located the body by himself. How? By watching the habits of flies in the area where Starr disappeared. It seems unlikely that the International Mountain Rescue Handbook could contribute to the development of another Norman Clyde. But all considered, I hope that if I am ever in a position to be rescued (again), the team has a copy of this book.

Galen Rowell

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