DENVER POST: First-responder training for wilderness

Wilderness First Responder training.

“Help! There’s been an accident!”

A man jogs up to me and my partner, Read McCulloch, to tell us what happened. “I was mountain biking with my girlfriend, and she just popped off this jump and slammed into a tree. She’s not moving! Please help!”

WFR Class: Bloody MayhemMcCulloch and I grab our first aid bags and the rest of our equipment and follow him down the path. We find a woman’s body crumpled against the base of a tree. Her face and hair are splashed with blood, and her arm is at an odd angle. Before approaching her, we make sure it is safe and snap on latex gloves, and then Read goes straight for her head, clamping it between his hands as I shout close to the woman’s face, “Hey, are you OK? What happened?”

Nothing. My mind goes through everything that I’m supposed to remember: scene safety, putting on gloves, and “ABC” – Airway, Breathing, Circulation. She’s bleeding, but that’s “C.” Breathing comes first. Check her airway!

I’m kneeling not beside a mountain-bike trail but on a trimmed lawn on the south campus of CU-Boulder. A dozen other groups of my fellow trainees are doing the same, probing bloody foreheads and pretending to ease dislocated shoulders into their sockets while students walk by on the way to the gym, earbuds in, barely noticing.

The blood is fake, of course. I know this, just as I know the mountain-bike story is fiction, but the adrenaline is real as I “look, listen, and feel” for a breath. There it is. Now, does she have a pulse?

I am in Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Recertification (800-710-6657 or, a “three-day scenario-based course to review and practice evacuation and decision making guidelines” offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Medicine Institute. Our current chapter: “Fracture Management, Traction Splinting, and Dislocations.”

WFR training – the initial class is an 80-hour intensive – is the industry standard for outdoor professionals such as park rangers, search-and-rescue teams and wilderness-trip leaders. I take this three-day recertification every couple of years and have used the skills while working as an Outward Bound instructor, wildland firefighter and international trip leader. My WFR training also comes in handy in the front-country – on the playground at the school where I teach and at home with my daughters.

As for McCulloch, he is a nonprofit director from Buena Vista who plans to use his WFR skills (or, he hopes, not use them) as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru, where he and his wife are headed in a few months.

In this context, wilderness is defined as being an hour or more away from a hospital, which describes many of the areas in Colorado and the West, especially those “where we like to have our fun,” as my instructor, Ryland Gardner, puts it. Gardner is a backcountry ski guide with Paragon Guides and a volunteer firefighter in Lyons who has been teaching WFR courses since 2005. “There are inherent risks” in backcountry recreation, he says, “which is part of why we do it.”

Still, WFR training is about more than building traction devices out of canoe paddles and bear saliva. It is, our instructors repeat, about using good judgment and practicing careful patient assessment skills to help develop the ability to know when not to call in the cavalry.

Dialing 911 from the backcountry, says Gardner, though often life-saving, sets off a chain of events “which may put even more people at risk.” WFR training helps a rescuer stay calm and understand just how injured a patient really is.

My patient blinks awake. She looked pretty hurt, but she is better now and remembers everything. After determining that she does not have a head or spine injury and the cuts are superficial, McCulloch and I treat and immobilize the woman’s hurt shoulder. Then we decide to walk her to the trailhead.

Joshua Berman can be found on the Web at and on Twitter at @tranquilotravel.

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