Backcountry responders practice ‘MacGyver’ skills
Cruising on top of the Wyoming snow, moving through the Tetons at high speed, the snowmobile crashes.
As the telemark skier enjoys the backcountry, he falls and injures himself.
Those were the types of scenarios played out on Monday in the field outside the Park City Library and Education Center as about 30 doctors, EMTs, paramedics and nurses trained to respond to backcountry emergencies.
An organization known as the Wilderness Medicine Institute, a not-for-profit based in Lander, Wyo., organized the five-day course, which provides the students certification and cost each person about $500.
"If you think of wilderness medicine, a lot of it came from military-type medicine," says Mark Crawford, an EMT and paramedic with the institute who is one of the lead instructors of the Park City course.
The scene in the library field on Monday was unusual, with the participants split into smaller groups, gathered around people pretending to be injured. They treated them as if they were in the backcountry. Trying to stabilize the mock patients, the teams used ski poles, climbing cord, webbing and padding to create makeshift splints.
Crawford says emergency responders in the backcountry must be prepared to treat a patient for, possibly, hours as they await rescue crews to take them out. In cities, the responders usually treat a patient for a short time, maybe 30 minutes, before they arrive at a hospital.
"The biggest difference is the time you have with the patient," he says, adding that, in a city, the responders normally stabilize a patient but do not start treating them, unlike in the backcountry.
Locally, the backcountry is a popular destination and emergencies occur occasionally. People in Summit County especially enjoy the Uinta Mountains on the East Side and often downhill ski, cross-country ski and snowshoe in the backcountry and other out-of-bounds terrain. The areas are easily accessible from many points in the county, on both the East Side and the West Side.
On Tuesday, the Utah Avalanche Center reported there is a considerable danger on slopes steeper than 35 degrees in the Wasatch Range. In the western Uinta Mountains, the threat is considerable at upper elevations and moderate on the lower slopes, the center reports.
Mike Ditolla, an EMT with the institute, says the students must understand that, in the backcountry, they might not have the equipment they need to treat people. He says people in the backcountry typically do not carry equipment to treat injuries.
"We learn how to improvise with what we’ve got," Ditolla says. "We have a limited amount of resources with us (in the backcountry.)"
The students, after returning to a classroom in the library, learned about the symptoms of hypothermia. People mumble, they stumble and they drop things when they become hypothermic, the instructor said.
Hypothermia should be treated then, not once a patient becomes more severe. They should be given warm, sweet fluids, which provides needed calories for people suffering from hypothermia, the instructor said. The patients should be dried off and made to do mild activity, they said, also talking about putting them in what are known as ‘hypowraps,’ which warm people up.
Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds, who commands the county’s Search & Rescue team, says he plans to organize a medical reserve corps with the Summit County Health Department to assist the county’s rescuers. He is unsure if anyone tied to the team participated in the course. He wants doctors, nurses and, possibly, mental-health professionals to serve on the medical reserve corps.
"We don’t have a doctor on the hill, not even close," Edmunds says about the Sheriff’s Office current Search & Rescue operation.
David Saintsing, an emergency room doctor in Jackson, Wyo., describes the improvisations that the instructors stress in the backcountry. When they practiced treating a mock patient for a fractured leg bone, they used ski gear.
"We had to make that out of ski poles and straps — very MacGyver like," he says.
If there were trees nearby, they learned to cut off the branches to use to stabilize a broken bone.
"You utilize whatever you have to help take care of the patient," Saintsing says. "What I do in ER is not necessarily applicable in the backcountry. This is all new."
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