I can’t tell you how many times I am grateful for my wilderness skills…in the urban environment! It’s true that survival and outdoor leadership skills have a powerful, confidence building aspects. The impact and transferability of those skills on my daily life is amazing.
Let me share a few recent examples how these skills translated into dealing with emergencies and building my self-confidence…
Stranded in a Winter Storm
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was driving north on Hwy 97 to complete my move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Bend, Oregon. I was driving alone, save for the company of my cat, Espresso. Espresso is an excellent companion and very talkative, but I had low expectations of her ability to contribute problem solving skills should an issue arrive during the drive.
Luck would have it that I was driving into a major winter storm, but I could no longer delay the drive as I simply had to get to work on my new business (www.callwild.com). I was a bit anxious about what the drive would have in store and how my little front-wheel drive Mazda 3 would handle driving in snow, even with tire chains, for such an extended period of time.
About 8 hours into what was supposed to be a 10 hour drive, the traffic came to a complete halt. I could see that I was about 10 vehicles back from the impasse in the road. A trucker, with whom I had chatted with while putting on my chains some miles back, got out of his rig and checked on me and make sure I had food, water, and warm clothes. He said there was another big rig across the road and there was no telling how long it would take to clear the accident.
Ten vehicles back from the accident. What if I had been a bit faster getting my chains on???
I did a quick inventory of supplies for both myself and Espresso…food – check, water – a bit low, but check, warm layers – check. In fact I happened to have a duffel full of snowcamping gear as I was prepared to lead a snowcamping weekend for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit (BAMRU). I have a rule that when I am driving alone, I never let my gas tank fall much below half. I had plenty, but turned off the car to save gas. I posted a few updates to Facebook about the eventful drive and then turned off my phone to save battery.
After an hour had passed, a long time to sit in a car talking to your cranky cat, another trucker came up from behind to check on me. He said he had lots of food and water if I needed it. I took him up on the water offer (although I had a stove and fuel and could have boiled snow if need be). Later one of my girlfriends from BAMRU, Rachel, joked that I should have asked him if he needed rescue! However, I thought his generosity was touching, did indeed need more water, and generally try to be sensitive with the fragile male ego.
Espresso, the cold and cranky cat
Another half hour slid by, darkness set in and the temperature dropped to 25 outside the car. I thought of all the stories about people that had become stranded in the snow and perished waiting or going for help. I wondered if other people alone in their cars were getting cold or worried. As I happened to have all my snowcamping gear with me, I literally could have slept outside for days and been fine, but it was really all that snowcamping experience that made me feel comfortable in the situation. I know how to avoid hypothermia (eat, drink, move to generate body heat but not enough to sweat – staying dry is almost more important than staying warm), how to build improvised snow shelters, how to make tracks in the snow that can be seen from the air… I have felt extreme cold before so I know how much it sucks, but that it won’t kill me even if it’s uncomfortable (of course, it IS possible for cold to kill you, but I have survived some pretty cold environments in Alaska and the Himalayas).
As my friend, Stephanie, put it on my Facebook page, “I’m not worried about you, Em. If you can survive at 20,000ft on the side of a mountain, you can definitely survive this!”
After more than 3 hours and a scurry of flashing yellow lights on Oregon DOT vehicles, the traffic began to move. I checked in to a motel that night, deciding that 11 hours in a vehicle was enough for one day, but I went to sleep with the satisfaction that I had the confidence to get through a potentially epic night.
It wasn’t exactly clear sailing the next day, but I got a couple beautiful breaks in the weather
Crash on Hwy 101
Many avid outdoors people take the Wilderness First Aid certification, a two day course that covers the treatment basics of common wilderness injuries and illnesses. It’s a great certification to have. However, if you are spending longer periods of time in more remote backcountry settings, especially if you are responsible for leading trips, the Wilderness First Responder is the way to go. It’s a real commitment at 10 days and a higher price tag, but the WFR (pronounced “woofer”) takes your wilderness medicine skills to a new level.
For those 10 days, you learn all every possible ailment or affliction that could occur in the backcountry (I exaggerate a bit, but that’s what it feels like!). It’s a great combination of reading, lecture, discussion, practice, and scenarios. By the end of the course, everyone feels “scenario’d out” and groans when the instructors announce to prepare for another scenario…however, those scenarios have a purpose – to create the muscle memory so that automatic pilot kicks in when you are full of adrenaline.
Practice makes perfect at my NOLS WFR course in Boulder, CO
After getting my WFR cert, my BAMRU friends warned me of the “WFR curse.” The WFR curse is that you will suddenly start coming across accidents and medical situations in the urban environment. Sure enough, that has happened several times in the last year, but the most intense one occurred on Hwy 101.
I was leaving a dental appointment in San Carlos heading toward my job in Menlo Park. I was stressing about the backup getting on to the freeway as my former boss was a real timekeeper and I had only requested a half hour block of time off for my appointment that morning. As I began to enter the freeway, I drove through the cause of the hold up – four banged up cars scattered around. It looked like everyone was OK as they were all standing outside their cars talking on their cell phones. I sighed with relief…until I drove past the last car and looked in. It still feels like slow motion. I turned to my right and saw a sedan with the side smashed in, air bags deployed, and a gentleman sitting fully erect glued to his seat with the impression of being paralyzed or unconscious. No one was attending to him.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but the thought actually occurred to me to keep driving so as not to incur the wrath of the timekeeper boss. Fortunately, the thought was fleeting. I pulled over and ran back toward the car, surveying the scene as I approached. Responder safety is #1 – last thing you want to do is give the paramedics two people to treat rather than one!
I crawled in the back seat continuing to survey for broken glass, blood, anything that could harm me. A fellow was shouting at the driver, who was clearly in bad shape, to turn off his car. I looked the driver over, calling on my WFR protocol. I turned the car off, introduced myself (name, qualifications, permission to touch him), and began to ask questions, including his name in order to establish rapport.
I won’t go into all the nuances, but there are things you are not allowed to do in the urban environment that you can do in the wilderness environment, so my focus was simply on stabilizing him until paramedics arrived. I determined there was nothing that needed immediate attention (i.e., major bleed that needed direct pressure), but that there was a Mechanism of Injury (MOI) that could have caused a spinal injury. I explained to Gino why I was holding his head still and kept talking to him. He was in a lot of pain and could not move. He began to wail in a disturbing primal tone from deep in his throat. I asked him to listen to my voice and focus on breathing with me to calm him down – miraculously it worked. Thankfully the paramedics arrived quickly and asked me to continue holding his head while the got the C-collar on him and transitioned him out of the car.
Nothing I did was brain surgery, but it was still pretty intense to me and my adrenaline was definitely flowing. Based on the lack of reaction and general cluelessness of the others standing around, I really credit those bloody WFR scenarios with the ability to remain calm, think through protocols and determine what I could do to help. Who knew the WFR could come in so handy in an urban setting?
In 2010, I joined a small expedition to Makalu, the world’s fifth high mountain. We didn’t summit due to weather issues, but I gained a ton of experience attempting to climb my first 8000 meter peak.
Makalu is known as one of the tougher 8000ers. It’s particularly remote, the trek is one of the more challenging, the base camp is higher than most at 18.5k ft, and there is no real retreat from base camp. On Everest, where base camp is around 17.5k ft, you can hike down around 3 hours, get a hot meal, sleep in a bed, and give yourself a break from the ailments that tend to plague you at high altitude. Porters have carried injured climbers down to clinics in the Khumbu for treatment and helicopter rescues are common to take serious cases back to Khatmandu. In contrast, on Makalu, there are no clinics along the trek, in fact there are almost no villages! Once you arrive at base camp, it is a 7 hour arduous trek over glacial moraine boulders just to drop 2,000ft to get back to Hilary camp – not much of a respite from the altitude. Helicopter rescues are only possible out of Hilary camp so you would need to be carried by a poor porter over that terrain!
View of Makalu from Hilary Base Camp – we still need to circumnavigate it to get to ABC
It was an intense experience knowing that rescue was unlikely, or at the very least difficult, if the caca hit the fan. The climbing was tough over rock, snow, and glacier. I spent one night alone at Camp 1 with avalanches raining down around me and slept one night at Camp 2, setting a personal altitude record at ~23k ft. I was challenged both physically and mentally on the headwall and the small ice fall.
When I came back from the Makalu expedition, I presented a slideshow of my trip to my new coworkers (the owners had allowed me to extend my start date in order to go on the expedition). At the end, the President of the company said, “No wonder you aren’t afraid of the Trustees!!!” Indeed, even presenting poor investment returns to a room full of curmudgeonly Union Trustees can never seem as intimidating as looking up the 250ft headwall on Makalu and beginning to jumar up the headwall’s fixed rope starting at ~21k ft.
Not quite halfway up the Makalu headwall. Over 21k ft here. Grueling.
Indeed, I keep these intense experiences in the mountains near and dear to my heart. They help me keep perspective in my daily life in civilization. How bad is that parking ticket, really? Will it be the end of the world if this conference presentation isn’t well received? What if a client asks me a question for which I’m not prepared The perspective I gained provides me with more self-confidence, helps me think about risks differently, and provides more calm during emergencies and high pressure situations. Most importantly for achieving my personal and professional goals, I’m much less likely to hold myself back out of fear.
Now you don’t have to get yourself dropped off by a ski plane on a glacier in the middle of Alaska to develop these confidence building skills. Start small by getting your CPR or WFA cert. Go on a hike in a new spot with a map – figure out where you want to go and how to get back. Take some courses like the annual Sierra Club backpacking or snowcamping training series.
However you chose to do it, the important thing is to get out of your own personal comfort zone to stretch yourself. If you can do it in the outdoors, it suddenly feels so much easier to do back at the office!