The schist in the canyon had a white silver sheen to it, punctuated by swaths of darker blacks, the greens of mosses and the red strips of sediment from up stream. The sound that a river makes in a slot canyon is intense, perhaps only reminiscent of something like an arena concert, where the sound stops being a sounds and becomes a reverberation; finding its way into every fiber of your body and every corner of your mind. When you’re alone on a cliffs edge in a class C canyon, class C being a canyon with flowing water, the position that you’ve placed yourself in seems ridiculous and the fact that you’re being totally self reliant is seems even more ludicrous. Thank god I wasn’t 100% self reliant. Chris Atwood, the 32 year old explore from Arizona had quickly invited me to go explore one of his favorite canyons once he had heard I’d dabbled a little in slots previously. With the company of Katherine Gonzales, a high mountain guide from Chile, the three of us departed from Flagstaff, AZ and with a few minor hiccups drove the 75mi to Grand Canyon National Park.
I’ve been sleeping alone in the woods for the last four days. Tucked back into the shelter of the Coconino National Forest I’ve become a bit of a recluse. I’m anxious and quite excited for my WFR, wilderness first responder, course to start today. It’s been a few years coming, ten actually. Ever since 2007 when I took that National Outdoor Leadership School course, NOLS, and got my first taste of wild, but more importantly my first taste of emergency. At 16 years old when a can of bear mace goes off there is not much you really know how to do beside trying to calm down your screaming friend, or to try to drag them out of the unassuming hanging cloud of orange vapor. But seeing three others rush in and act with selflessness, caution, and calculated force changes your opinion of how you should act in the future. It’s not to say that this one moment was a life changing moment for me, but it has absolutely informed who I am today. It absolutely informed the out come of the car accident from 2011 on Valmont and 30th. Since that day in traumatic or urgent situations I’ve learned how to slow my mind and act logically and safely. And now starting today I have the opportunity to learn how to act not just with more knowledge but more deliberateness.
Back in the canyon:
The rope bag Chris had asked me to carry was not that heavy dry, probably around 10lbs. That being said it was bulky as hell and really threw off my center of balance. But more then that, it further inhibited my already weak peripheral vision on my right side. The first down climb into Garden Creek Canyon is on that can be taken face first, but you need to turn around and drop your right foot about four feet in order to get purchase on a small ledge that when edged to the right even further leads to a larger shelf and the bolts for the first rappel. For all intense and purposes I did this blind. Unable to relinquish my pride and throw the rope bag down I hefted it over my shoulder and proceeded into the down climb. Slowly and painstakingly controlling my shaking legs, placing them in just the right spots.
Prevention. Prevention is all you here about in wilderness medicine. In Grand Canyon NP there are rangers posted at the entrance to rim trails called PSAR rangers, preventative search and rescue. These guys and gals literally try to dissuade anyone form going down the trails who might be going in over their head, pun intended. The trail has signs posted everywhere that, “Down is optional, but UP is mandatory.” The SAR teams in any area don’t want to have to come get anyone, they want everyone to know their own skill level, physical ability, and comfort zone. They want people to be safe, but they also want you to enjoy the outdoors. But its when people make poor choices that the men and women that comprise SAR teams are more often than not rallied. Folks who have no real level of fitness, hiking experience, or who just flat out are not prepared make the trek into canyon every year and every year when folks have become a danger to themselves, there are the SAR teams to pull them out. According to one flight medic I had the pleasure of talking to, “99% of rescues are because of preventable and poor choices made by individuals who did not think through their actions.” PSAR teams in GCNP are the very embodiment of the preventative wilderness medicine. They are not there to prevent people from checking something off their bucket list, but they are there to remind you that this is in fact a very difficult thing to do and to be smart about it. Chris Atwood is one of 12 people in the world to have done a threw hike of the Grand Canyon and even he says every time he hikes in the canyon he is reminded of how unforgiving, indiscriminately, and how quickly the canyon takes its toll on even the most experienced there.
So prevention becomes the name of the game. If you feel like you’re having an off day, slow down re-evaluate and maybe change your plans. If you don’t have enough food to hike all 14.5 miles don’t. If you don’t have the level of fitness to walk down a trail don’t. Be accountable for yourself because when you put yourself in danger there are people who care enough to help you. But by helping you and by initiating a rescue, they put themselves in danger. Don’t waste resources, don’t waste lives, check your ego at the door. Prevention is the key to successful trip of any kind.
But prevention often times is over looked. Most folks, myself included won’t check their egos at the door. We think we can more than we can and often times bite of more than we can chew. And sometimes we just have bad luck, we trip, slip, fall, or make any number of easy mistake and find ourselves in a position where we need help. And here is where course like the WFR, and any emergency medical training finds its home. How can we help reduce the loss of life in the wild places we love so much? This is why WFR is a thing. But before our instructors teach WFR content they teach prevention. Check your ego, reduce the risk, reduce the need.
Back in the canyon:
I’m tired. The rock is slippery and I’ve already eaten three of the five bars I brought that day for nourishment. God I feel like an idiot. I’m making stupid mistakes, having a hard time with the physical demands of our descent and remembering how to tackle a class C canyon is kicking my ass. Luckily for me I’m with two others who have not only a phenomenal amount of experience between them, but also have extra food as well. While noticeable my errors are effectively corrected by the planning of others. The water is cold spring water, the sun is unrelenting. The white in the schist is reflective and amping up the brightness in the canyon. The rock can be hard to look at directly without sunglasses, the water is very much the same. That being said, the beauty of Garden Creek is overwhelming. The green moss on the wet north walls, the slick polished quality of the stone, and the views that spill down into the bottom of the Grand Canyon itself. What an incredible place to be an idiot.
WFR Course 3/11/19
With no real medical experience, the beginning of an academically intense and practical application filled WFR course seems more like a fun filled two weeks with fantastic people and that’s exactly what it was minus the fact that the training is the real deal. How do you deal with the big issues you encounter in the backcountry as an enthusiast, a novice, a professional, or an officiator? By falling back on your most basic training. Recently posted on Our Way Out West was a list of seven reasons why one person thinks that nature lovers should peruse a Wilderness First Responder cert, the most notable is that knowledge is power. The writer of this article shared his instructors saying of, ““You do not rise to the occasion; you fall to your level of training.” NOLS Wilderness Medicine shares this idea. There is no substitute for knowing how to act. And NOLS Wilderness Medicine curriculum is focused on the idea that once you’re in hot water, your going to fall back on something you’ve had drilled into you. And they drill in the PAS. The PAS or patient assessment survey, is a logical step by step evaluation of any patient in any context in order to thoroughly evaluate and identify any issues. If nothing else learn how to be thorough and systematic. Rule out possible options, list more plausible ones, identify major issues, and address the most threatening ones. Work quickly, systematically, and with confidence.
Back in the canyon:
Weird how you can feel so utterly crushed by something without any physical issue. Canyons can have that effect. The tight walls, the clear air, the open sky, you feel trapped and free at the same time. It’s not that I’m claustrophobic or scared of heights, but when you make a few bad decisions back to back its hard not to feel trapped by them. I had in essence built my own prison. I was the one who did not get enough sleep the night before. I was the one who did not pack the appropriate gear, I was the one who did not bring enough food. I was the one who put myself in the position that I was in trapped in a canyon with only one way down. And an easy way at that. A way I’d taken before. Not to say that I’d gone down this very canyon before, but I’d done similar things. rappelled off of high cliffs, swam through cold water, hike 15mi in nine hours. I’d done these things before. But I was adequately prepared for them. This time I was down on energy, lacking gear, and in a new environment with two new but great friends, and the cumulative experience of my previous adventures. But sometimes you decide to leave knowledge at the door. At that’s just what I’d done. I’d created a far more difficult situation for myself by not preparing adequately. By not being systematic.
Back to the WFR 3/14/17
Once your systematic, you need information. Everything has its own demands, its own need to knows. When you’re talking about a potential patient in the backcountry these things to know are possible injuries and illness and vitals. The PAS that NOLS teaches demands a thorough examination of the patient. Searching their body for possible trauma. Asking all the right questions about an individual’s history to suss out any possible medical issue. A head-to-toe is physical exam for a potential patient, while the S.A.M.P.L.E. history might lead to more information about someone’s medical status. In the head-to-toe a responder will thoroughly go over a patient’s entire body, checking for an physical abnormalities. The S.A.M.P.L.E. history stands for: symptoms, allergies, medications, pertinent medical history, last ins/outs (consumptions and waste), and events leading to the situation that patients and the responder are now facing. This systematic approach to a patient evaluation leads to the isolation possible issues, and their potential causes. It does not diagnose anything definitively but it can however lead to preventative measures and appropriate action to slow the cause of the malady or injury.
Back to the Canyon:
I found myself facing a 180ft drop in the canyon. Not a straight drop off but a few steps cut into the rock by the passing of the ages and the flow of the creek. The three steps down to the pocket where my two friends waited for me to arrive after cleaning the gear and lowering myself down seemed so far away. The rushing roar of the water grew to such a pitch I could not imagine a world where it did not exist. I shook violently from the cold, a blast of water from a nearby waterfill pounding into my back and over the top of my head nearly drowning me while I waited for a whistle blast that would signify Chris had gotten off rope safely. Hands shaking, I examined my anchor, the thin strap of webbing connecting me the rock face tight under the pressure from my weight. Prepping for my descent I unclimbed our pull line from the anchor and clipped it to my harness, checking the lock on the gate and finding it secure I turned my attention back to the rope Chris had just rapped down. It was slack. Waiting for the whistle blast to let me know he had gotten off safely, I began to shift anxiously and from the cold.
To be continued…