Wilderness EMT rescues adventure writer

The well-known adventure writer Tim Cahill, 71, who almost died after being thrown out of a raft in the Grand Canyon, is giving credit to Justin Kleberg ’11 (pictured below) for saving his life.

The mishap took place when Cahill, founding editor of Outside Magazine, was on a private rafting expedition Dec. 7, 2014, with 15 people. Kleberg, a wilderness emergency medical technician, was along for the trip. At Lava Falls, one of the river’s most treacherous rapids, Cahill was tossed from his raft and submerged. An accomplished swimmer, he managed to reach the water’s surface, but soon became trapped under another raft. Kleberg and another rescuer pulled him from the river when he resurfaced again.


Photo by Ralph Lee

Cahill collapsed on a nearby beach, stopped breathing and had no pulse. Kleberg started CPR and registered nurse Steve Schmit performed rescue breathing. Cahill regained consciousness and was flown by helicopter to a Flagstaff, Arizona, hospital, where doctors and nurses described his recovery as “a miracle.”

He wrote about the experience in “The Death of Tim Cahill,” published in the April issue of the Montana Quarterly. The story describes the heroic efforts of Kleberg and the other rescuers. Cahill calls them his “Colorado River Miracle Team.”

Kleberg is humble about his role that day, and says he is just happy that Cahill had a full recovery. “I’ve spoken to him recently. He was at his home in Livingston, Montana, and doing really well,” he said.

An avid whitewater kayaker, Kleberg is an honors graduate of the Parks and Recreation Management Program. He works for the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Vernal, Utah, and was trained at the Wilderness Medicine Institute in Lander, Wyoming. He divides his time between Utah and Idaho.

He says that most of his emergency medical work in the wilderness is routine and rarely as dramatic as a river rescue. He takes care of people with sunburns, infections, wounds and gastrointestinal problems, sometimes evacuating them from wilderness settings if necessary.

“This is an area where there are vast expanses of land, wild canyons, big trees and wild animals,” said Kleberg. “So it’s a fun place to live and work, and I can explore the natural world.”

Kleberg will return to the Grand Canyon to lead a river adventure in January 2016, when he will be joined by his close friend and fellow alumnus, Will Butler ’11, a ranger in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.