Preparing for Backcountry Injuries

Semper Paratus- “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1 Peter 1:13

I don’t know why they’re called Annapolis Rocks. The cliffs along the Appalachian Trail are a 90-minute drive from coastal Annapolis. Three miles from the trail head, they’re a great first backpacking trip for the youngest guys, and a wonderful site to introduce outdoor climbing and rappelling. Their sweeping view of the Antietam valley and Hagerstown MD also make them a popular site for day hikers, particularly at the turn of the leaves in October.

The Annapolis EP battalion had hiked up on Friday, then climbed and rappelled on the face on Saturday. Sunday’s worship service on the cliff’s edge attracted curious hikers, some of whom stayed to listen. Others took note, and moved to other viewpoints along the cliffs. As the guys were putting on their packs to head home, one of the program’s alumni yelled, “CALL 911!” He’d watched a day-hiker slip while taking pictures, and fall 50 feet to the rocks below.

We must raise our game in preparing for backcountry injuries.

A young man in our group who was trained as a Wilderness First Responder found a route to the bottom, followed by a EMT-qualified dad, and a half-dozen non-comms and dads who’d completed their Wilderness First Aid Training a few months earlier. A quick pass through the Patient Assessment System revealed shallow breathing and a weak pulse, both of which ceased after about 5 minutes. Airway, Breathing and Circulation now displaced other concerns. The team set 1-minute shifts for CPR with rescue breathing. Meanwhile, a lance corporal shuttled messages between the rescue team at the base, and the other sergeant at the summit who gathered the other 40 participants, dads and youngest boys to pray. Two corporals were dispatched to guide Rangers to the incident site, while two corporals consoled and prayed with the patient’s companion. After an hour’s time, the Rangers arrived, and informed the team their patient was beyond resuscitation.

A solemn hike out ensued for the Battalion, while two of our alumni stayed with the hiker’s Chinese companion. They learned their patient was a British physics professor, in the US to give a presentation the next day. His Chinese doctoral student had watched him fall. The student was shattered; the Prof had become a father figure to him since he’d left China. Our guys hiked out with him, and then drove him to his Baltimore hotel; he was unfit to drive their rental car. Two days later the grad student wrote to inform us he’d returned with his mentor’s body to England, and shared with the Prof’s widow that teens from an American church had fought for an hour for her husband’s life. He relayed her gratitude.

The noncoms and dads debrief every trip. This one would be different, as the events were traumatic for dads and guys alike. Several other elders and a pastor joined the usual cohort.

What did we decide we’d learned?

  1. There’s no substitute for preparation. A dad was an EMT (and since added the Wilderness EMT). Many of our college alumni have finished the 8-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR). All non-comms over 16 have completed the 2.5-day Wilderness First Aid (WFA). The cost to bring the Wilderness Medical Institute to our church biannually is considerable, but shared with others in the community who attend. The most serious injuries we’ve treated haven’t been our own, but others we encounter in the woods and at home, or serving as camp staff.
  2. We still have to care for own own sheep. This means due-diligence to ensure we don’t add to the number of patients while we’re dealing with crisis. We had over 30 other guys to manage while the rescue team worked. Other non-comms kept their focus on the flock. A week after elders debriefed the non-comms, the non-comms debriefed all the younger guys.
  3. We no longer commonly see death up close. It’s jarring to have someone die in your hands. Our gospel hope is our only anchor in the face of the storm.

At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee wakes to discover Gandalf didn’t die in the Mines of Moria. In his elation Sam asks the wizard, “Are all things sad now becoming untrue?” For Annapolis Battalion we were drawn into sharing in a student’s, a family’s, and a college’s profound sadness. But, we can answer, “Yes, Sam, because of Jesus, we know all things sad are now becoming untrue.”

“Yes, Sam, because of Jesus, we know all things sad are now becoming untrue.”

The Lesson I hope to drive home to CSB Leaders: we must raise our game in preparing for backcountry injuries. You owe boys, parents, and your churches programs that are current with backcountry risk management and care, and that means getting trained by professionals in wilderness medicine. A dad with a 30-year-old cert, and a book, doesn’t count. A Red Cross first aid course assumes you can get your injuries to an ER in less than an hour. Trip leaders must know what the wilderness industry considers standard protocol. When can you confidently treat-stay-play? When should you immediately evacuate? When should you call the cavalry? Any group traveling independently in the backcountry should have at least one WFA-trained dad or non-comm. Camp staffs should have at least one WFR, preferably several. I’ve been dismayed by treatment of injuries in the field by leaders relying on the Boy Scout First Aid they completed in the 1960s, or camp staff who meant well, but recklessly enabled, then mistreated injuries. They were oblivious to risk and clueless with how to properly respond. Worse yet, they believed they knew what they were doing, when they were actually aggravating the injury. Simply completing the training will make your noncoms, and dads, more risk aware, in addition to creating a capacity for ministering in unexpected contexts.

The Wilderness Medical Institute offers classes nationwide through REI, or their own website. Or, they’ll come to your site. We fill classes of thirty bi-annually: half from our Battalion, a half-dozen from nearby units, and others from the local community, who are thrilled to have local access to the class at our church (and help defray cost).

Captain Rob Niewoehner, US Navy(ret), PhD, serves as the Brigade Chairman and Elder at Annapolis EP Church, Maryland. An experimental test pilot, he teaches Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Leadership at the United States Naval Academy.

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