On November 2nd Michelle and the kids dropped me off deep within the Appalachian mountains at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I was scheduled to take a 10 day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course, a certification I am required to keep up with. There were several benefits to redoing the whole course rather than just doing a re-cert such as keeping up with the new updates to protocol, the introduction to cool new products readily available on the market and then of course learning little tidbits, new tricks and techniques and refreshing the skills forgotten. Regardless of all of these technical skills there were three things that made this particular course and time in general a treat.
The first thing was the place. The Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is usually referred to as the NOC is a mystical place in the Nantahala Gorge well within the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. The NOC runs programs for all age groups with it’s main focus on river rafting with subsequent programs focusing on zip lines and the Wilderness Emergency Care.
Located on the VERY pretty Nantahala River they run guided raft, kayak and canoe trips on not only the Nantahala River and on the dozens of other rivers within Western North Carolina. The very rustic and remote village like cluster of buildings that make up the main campus consist of a convenient store, retail outdoor store and restaurant right on the river. Then there is the actual campus on the other side of the river that encompasses the main raft house and then conference buildings followed by the cabins further up-hill that hold tightly to the steep forested mountainside rising out of the valley. Branching out of the NOC are a series of trails with the most famous being the Appalachian Trail or AT. The AT runs the entire length of the Appalachian Mountains (Georgia to Maine). Thousands of people attempt to hike the AT every year and most of them start a few hundred miles south of the NOC. Even in November, the number of hikers arrived there overdo for a shower and roof over their heads was quite high. The AT descends steeply into the Gorge for thousands of feet and then climbs back out again even further up into Smokey Mountains National Park which consist of many of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. The highest peak, Mt Mitchell at 6,680 feet is actually not far, located on the other side (east side) of Asheville.
The second treat was the experiential approach to teaching the material. This was by far the most practical WFR course I have taken. There was not a single skill we learned in class that we did not take the time to practice in a scenario. Practicing like this makes the more obvious and straight forward circumstances we face in actual emergencies much simpler. In real life all the pieces are straight forward and easy to file and make decisions on. The first example that comes to mind occurred towards the end of 2012 when I was climbing with two customers at Mt Erie in Washington state. There were two individuals climbing a route to our left on the Main Wall, a 300’ wall on the south face. When the guy leading fell he flipped upside down smacking his head, (he wore a helmet thank goodness). More than anything he impacted his leg before flipping upside down. We quickly lowered him to the ledge and within two and a half hours a helicopter plucked him off the cliff side and carried him to the hospital. On the initial assessment we found his ankle had the lower leg bone poking out with blood pooled thick around. With any movement whatsoever blood began squirting quickly. With no movement there was no increase in blood flow. Our decision was obvious, don’t move the ankle and get him to a hospital. All the pieces were there. There were no what ifs? There were just the real options that were on the table.
During one of the course scenarios that took place at night, we responded to a couple of young women who went out for some night climbing and one of them fell to the ground unconscious. Her partner went to get help. Every step of the way I’m asking myself, “What should I be seeing here?” “What am I not seeing that I should be seeing?” It’s more like a game with set rules and parameters where there is always some sort of hidden injury or medical condition that you’ve gotta pull together. This coaches you to use all of the tools the course provides you again and again. As I approached the scene, the woman pulled a knife on me…..That’s step one – the scene was not safe so I stopped there – nothing could be done. The young woman in the scenario then fell apart emotionally. What happened? Did she hurt herself? What happened? Well it turns out she swam across the Nantahala River and back to call a rescue. It’s getting towards freezing and it’s night time. Should we really cut all of her clothes in order to get her dry and warm blankets on her? We ended up warming her up without completely stripping her down but that may not be what I would have done in real life. The participants played their roles quite well.
In 2008 I was on my way out with two gals of an early June trip on Mt Baker. Everything was covered in late season snow and we had one last sketchy creek crossing. The only option to cross the raging Glacier Creek had one dubious log crossing. This is of course where one of the gals fell in. We pulled her out no problem but we still had a few miles of walking. She wanted to just walk out and get it over with. I demanded she completely change from head to toe including underwear. That was the proper first aid. All the pieces were there, it was easy.
The river was another tool that was used on the course to keep pushing and testing us. One of the last days we put the entire group in two boats and floated down the Nantahala. Back and forth we ran scenarios. Back and forth, back and forth, we tested each other. Rafting down the river gave us the opportunity for a new and dynamic environment to run scenarios – what a blast..
Lastly but by no means least the third biggest treat of the course were the people. Halfway through the week I realized I was no longer counting the days. Through evening meals and drinks, afternoon hikes, good conversations, entertaining study sessions I found myself amongst a great group of folks.
By the end of the week when Michelle and the kids came to pick me up, one of our class mates who is the head naturalist at a local nature center invited us as well as several other classmates to a falconry session. Michael, our naturalist, took us to the Balsam Mountain Preserve where he works and introduced us to their Eagle and Kestrel as well as taught us the basics of falconry with their big and beautiful Harris Hawk. I enjoyed having the bird fly to my arm and snag the piece of steak out of my glove but it was probably most fun for me to watch the hawk fly to Jacob and then Elias.