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Stacking the odds in your favour

May 11, 2009

Climbers and mountaineers are frequently in situations where the consequence of even a seemingly small mistake could be very serious.  It’s common for us to assume more challenging climbs as our skills and ambition develop, and we often find ourselves in more committing situations as a result.  Further, we naturally have our home “crags” and haunts to which we might become intimately familiar with, and perhaps a degree or two more casual about the specific hazards there – which can make us more susceptible to some sort of “incident”.  Experience leads to better judgement and risk management, but the risks are still present.

Those whom the gods would have destroyed, they first make complacent.”

So why don’t more of us pursue training and practice skills in high-angle partner/self rescue and more advanced wilderness medical training?

Consider a couple of scenarios:

IMGP1462You’re out ice climbing on a single pitch route close to town that’s done infrequently, and your partner falls near the top of the route (50 m up on a 60 m rope) and is seriously injured.  The climb is located at the top of a steep and challenging talus slope.  What would you do?  How would you secure or access your partner?  How would you describe your location to the local EMS?  What if it will be a minimum of 4 hours at best before they’re on the scene, if they can even get to you?

You’re partner whips near the end of a lead on the 5th pitch of a 7-pitch rock climb a few km hike from the road, and he’s not responding to your calls from the belay.  Now what?  Assuming you’re able to get to your partner safely and the best option in this case is to lower them down one or more pitches, and you have the skills to do this, how long might it take to get your partner down each pitch?  The answer might surprise you.

IMGP1469Through the Alpine Club, I’ve been very, very fortunate to have participated in three high-angle rescue courses over the last decade or so, and a third mountain leadership course that had some basic high-angle rescue as a component.  Even with practicing these skills outside (where it counts) once or twice a year in an attempt to augment these courses, I still find I have a degree of uncertainty in addressing different scenarios.  And every time I go to practice them (not often enough) I find I’m frustrated at my odd fumble with a load-release hitch or hesitation in building a hauling system.  I hate to think how I’d deal with situations like the above examples without any of these skills.

Being a bit of techno-geek, it’s been easy for me to get caught up in learning the technical aspects of high-angle rescue, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece of the “climbing preparedness” pie is the medical aspects.  It’s mind-boggling to me how many climbers I know don’t even have standard first aid training.  In thinking through some scenarios and discussions with my partners, I’ve come to realize I was sorely lacking in this regard.  Honestly, what good is basic first aid training going to be if your partner or group member is critically injured and definitive medical help is hours or days away?

P1080594During the past week (and then some), I was finally able to get a more appropriate level of training on the medical end of things, being fortunate enough to make it through a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course offered through Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA).  I now feel exponentially more prepared to deal with more serious medical emergencies in the backcountry, and more comfortable dealing with even minor issues that commonly crop up.

P1080555We had the good fortune to have two very experienced instructors on our course, both paramedics with extensive wilderness experience and excellent teachers.  The course approach itself is excellent and very relevant to the wilderness setting, with a mixture of lectures, hands-on demonstrations and lessons, and no shortage of realistic scenarios and simulations conducted outside, regardless of the weather.  In even the simplest scenarios, I found that with my limited knowledge prior to this course, I would have been able to do very little to help or in most cases would have had no idea where to start.

P1080565The WFR course as taught by WMA focuses on a critical-systems based approach to emergency medicine, and this very much suits the way my mind works, as opposed to the “band-aid, call for help” approach taken in a regular first-aid course.  It certainly better equips you to deal with life-threatening emergencies.  WFR graduates are certified to perform six different wilderness protocols provided certain stringent criteria are met during patient assessment that could save a life or prevent further serious harm.  In addition, they receive extensive training on other relevant techniques and procedures, and a fairly long list of tips and tricks that would make dealing with many of these types of situations much more efficient.  I can’t recommend the course enough.  It is a significant commitment in terms of time and money, but I think that pales in comparison to the potential benefits.

Lisa Barrett, the lead instructor on our course, summed it up best at the end of the first four days (the WAFA component), just after the group had dealt with a rather complex simulation:

That was a tough situation to deal with, lots of critically injured patients and distractions, remote and rough terrain.  Prior to doing this course, how would you have handled that situation?

I’m pretty sure I would’ve shat my pants.


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