“Stop!, don’t come down yet,” someone yelled from below the pass between two peaks in the Beartooth wilderness in Montana. There was an accident below us and my group of 5 wasn’t able to come down until we knew more about the situation. I was one of 12 students with 3 guides off-grid for 30 days on a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership Schools) course. The course was designed for outdoor educators and included Wilderness First Responder certification. I wasn’t aware of just how much this course would change how I taught or how it would affect my life overall.
We arrived on the first day as a bunch of college grads, a couple of therapists, a Pakistani mountain guide, and an elementary school teacher (me). Our guides have guided in Yosemite, South America, and all throughout the Rockies. Before heading out in the wilderness, we were taught basic first aid, food planning, and gear care. Once we left the front country, the real learning began.
Starting with the basics
One of the first things I learned in the back country was that I didn’t really know how to walk. Now, I had been walking since before I was one year old, but I had never walked 12 miles a day off-trail wearing a 70 lbs. backpack. My feet and knees were banged up those first few days. Thank goodness we had learned about caring for blisters because I became the learning focus for how to do so.
We woke up each morning with something warm to drink. We made ourselves breakfast – now, I don’t mean granola and water, I mean we made full backcountry meals including biscuits, grits, and summer sausage cooked on small single burners and a big pan. After breakfast, we would find a cozy spot and “class” would begin. Our learning was centered around the challenges right in front of us.
We needed to know how to navigate our way safely around these mountains so we began with orienteering. Then, on to wound care. Needless to say, we all became proficient at caring for and preventing blisters. Learning basic first aid in a classroom was great for gathering information, but when it was time to apply that knowledge, we didn’t have the confidence to act unassisted (for caring for something as non-threatening as a blister on your heel). That confidence comes when you apply that knowledge.
Advanced “first responder” learning would happen later.
Putting Experiential Learning into Action
Backpacking through the Montana wilderness in mid June offers a lot of different experiences; the Beartooth, after all, is the largest piece of unbroken land in the U.S. above 10,000 feet. We hiked through snow at altitudes above 12,000 feet, we crossed rivers, and we did so much more. Our journey was filled with meaningful learning opportunities that no amount of reading and internet images could have prepared us for. We deeply explored the flora and fauna of the Montana wilderness identifying different wildflowers and plants that were edible, medicinal, or just beautiful miracles of nature. We had begun our transition from simple learning to true, Experiential Learning.
We had read about some of the dangers of altitude sickness but it wasn’t until 3 days into our backcountry experience that we realized that a member of our team was showing signs of what we had only read about. Over the next 3 days our friend was having trouble sleeping, which led to not sleeping, which quickly became loss of appetite, and then ultimately he couldn’t stop eating. We made the decision to evacuate him out of the backcountry and get him to a hospital. It would take 2 days to hike him out.
In order to make the best time, we used our maps, compasses, and GPS devices to plot the shortest route out. This route would take us past mountain lakes, over moraine fields, and through steep passes. While on this evacuation, another member of our team fell and cut herself in a way that qualified her as an added member of the car to the hospital. Again putting our newly acquired knowledge to the test, we “packaged” another friend for the hospital.
Learning to Survive
Our last mountain pass to descend, took a bit longer to navigate. The lead group went down the rocky pass and the remaining two groups waited to see them at the bottom. The second team made their way down as my team, the third and final team, waited at the top. We waited for a long time up there, much longer than we did for the first team. Earlier, while we were waiting for our turn, we noticed a couple of small hand-sized stones tumble down the pass from the top, where we were, and continue below us out of sight. We found out later that the “small” stones triggered a larger rock slide into the path of our friends below.
Communicate, reduce and accelerate
What we couldn’t see was a piece of pink granite the size of a car tire tumble across the scree and hit our friend. She suffered a concussion when the rock hit her and she dislocated her shoulder when she fell to the ground. This had become an experience none of us could have expected: three team members were suffering from a spectrum of emergencies. But the lessons did not stop, and we were about get the most important of the course.
We were immediately charged with several tasks: communicate the accident, reduce the dislocation, and accelerate the evacuation. Thankfully, our instructors were there to walk us through the entire process in what was becoming yet another moment of experiential learning. The days before were memorable, to be sure, and full of valuable teaching moments and lessons, however, as we continued to evacuate our team members and put those lessons into action – the next several hours would be full of the lessons I will never forget.
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