September 05, 1977 12:00 PM

A sudden downdraft sent the single-engine Piper into the side of Mount Jefferson in Oregon. One passenger died immediately; the pilot and second passenger were critically injured. Twelve hours after the crash, Dr. Cameron Bangs stepped cautiously onto the ice from a rescue helicopter. He promptly fell, and his survival pack slid 1,000 feet down the mountain. “I would have gone too if I hadn’t stopped myself with my ice ax.”

Inching his way to the plane, Bangs first treated Gene Reddick, 50, for broken ankles (and later for a broken nose and chest puncture). Carrying the 180-pound victim (25 pounds heavier than Bangs) through the thin, subfreezing air to the chopper 1,000 feet away was excruciating. Bangs vomited and then dropped his patient, but Reddick was full of morphine and felt nothing.

The other passenger, Hilda Neff, 45, had a severe head cut and a thermometer reading of 82°. “Most people die at that temperature,” Bangs says. He carried her to the helicopter in his arms like a baby, and at the hospital, a special heated fluid was injected directly into her abdominal cavity. Both Neff and Reddick survived.

This spring Dr. Bangs received the Avco-Aviation/Space Writers Association’s 11th annual Helicopter Heroism Award for his part in the rescue. The 40-year-old internist is a member of Oregon’s mountain rescue service. Usually working as part of an Army National Guard helicopter squad (nicknamed the “Flying St. Bernards”), he has helped save an estimated 75 lives in 55 rescues over the past nine years, and has treated hundreds of cases in hospitals for climbing injuries and exposure.

Bangs is no less intrepid in his dealings with the medical establishment. In 1970, for instance, he set up a volunteer aid station at the Portland area’s first rock festival, and in a TV interview admitted that he had tried marijuana himself. Later the county medical society gave him an award for his work at the festival, but his pot confession set off an uproar.

Not exactly courting his confreres, he declared last year: “I deplore the kind of thing where a doctor joins this or that because he might pick up a few referrals. And frankly, many of my colleagues bore the hell out of me.” Now, even though he belongs to the AMA and three local medical groups, he still says, “Obviously, I’m not your typical physician.”

The rest of his life-style is hardly more so. He and his second wife, Jeanie, a onetime ski instructor, and their four children (three from his first marriage) live on a 50-acre farm outside Portland. Bangs rides a motorcycle and spends off-hours looking after the farm, climbing and skiing, which he learned growing up in Massachusetts, where his father was a shoe distributor, his mother a teacher.

He went to med school at the University of Vermont and in 1964 interned in Portland “to see what it was like.” In 1966, after joining the Mount Hood ski patrol, he realized his knowledge of rescue medicine was desperately inadequate. Bangs put himself through a crash reading course and now teaches survival and rescue at seminars in this country and Canada. “Death,” he preaches, “is caused by lack of knowledge.” A sampler of his advice: If caught in harsh cold without adequate protection, keep drinking liquids but don’t eat snow—the body loses too much energy melting it. Stay as dry as possible; people die because they get wet. If frostbitten, don’t thaw affected areas until there is no threat of refreezing.

Bangs makes a respectable living as an internist in suburban Oregon City, but has never been paid a penny for his dicey chopper work. “The whole system is voluntary,” he says. “That’s the Western way.”

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