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NOLS Wilderness First Responders Course

Last week I spent 9 days in snowy Flagstaff, AZ, completing my NOLS Wilderness First Responders Course alongside 28 wonderful humans. I spend a good chunk of my time outside and I hope to lead groups into the backcountry in the future so having the proper knowledge was a must have in my wilderness repertoire. I tried to get into the January WFR course here in Tucson but I wasn't able to get the time off. Instead I was able to get into the course in Flagstaff offered through the Flagstaff Field Institute.

I don't have any kind of medical training so I anticipated learning a lot of medical jargon and things like how to dress a wound, wrap an ankle, moleskin a blister, etc. What I was not prepared for was how mentally and emotionally taxing this entire experience would be. Our instructors Jason and Graham did an incredible job. They far exceeded my expectations and I cannot recommend this course enough. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

The first day Jason and Graham set the expectations of the 9 days ahead of us. We would spend roughly half of the day in the classroom going through our workbook and the second half would mostly be outside, roleplaying scenarios as victims and rescuers. Each day as our knowledge grew, the scenarios became more and more complex. Eventually, ramping up the stress, emotions and the mental stamina needed to complete a night time rescue scenario.

All of this would be difficult in any setting but add in the fact that Flagstaff already had a good foot of snow, only to get hit by a record breaking snowfall, dumping 3 feet of snow in 24 hours. During the storm, the entire city shut down. Roads, schools, businesses closed. Even Northern Arizona University cancelled classes and that never happens. No matter how cold or how much snow was coming down, we were still outside, knelt down next to our "victim" completing our Patient Assessments of whatever scenario was thrown at us. We kept joking that Winter WFRs are a special breed and are more prepared than other WFRs and I'm sure that will be true!. This wasn't a normal WFR course, this was a Winter WFR!

I loved all the snow. I've missed "real" winter living in Tucson. Spending 9 days playing in the snow was a dream. We had a beautiful view of Humphreys Peak, the highest peak in Arizona at 12,633. I like to think that it was watching over us, keeping us safe. 

More than the snow, I loved the people I met during my WFR course. I was thankful my friend and former coworker Julia was also taking the course. Day One our instructors said we would all get close after spending 9 intense days together and they were right. By day 5 I was already sad thinking about how in a few days this course would be over and we would all go our separate ways, never to all be together again. It was such a bittersweet goodbye. Some were off to start new adventures in their built out vans, others were starting new jobs in the outdoors, and others were starting a new phase of their lives and ready for anything. Meeting other like-minded, outdoor-loving people made me feel positive about the future of our outdoors. It reminded me that there are good people out there who have the care about the same things as I do. Getting to know these wonderful people truly filled my heart.

Another aspect I appreciated from the instructors was the importance placed on calling out gender inequality in the outdoors. The course was led by two straight white cis-gendered men and it was refreshing to hear them talk about how they not only recognize their privilege but they called it out and specifically talked about how their experiences outdoors are not the same as everyone else, especially women, people of color, and LGBTQ identifying individuals. There was even an instance in a group scenario where we were selecting a group leader and the white male in our group explicitly said he would like to see a woman in that leadership role rather than another man. It was so reassuring to hear men lift up those who don't always get that opportunity!

Not to say when women are in those roles that they always perform. I, for example, failed when it was my turn to lead. In the group scenario I led, I froze and didn't know how to manage my group or how to help our patient going into shock from a pneumothorax (open chest wound). It also didn't help that Carl who was playing the victim was doing such a convincing job acting like he couldn't breathe! Thankfully I had positive and supportive people in my group and I was able to lean on them to get us through the scenario but that experience really shook me. It was a learning moment for me. As we were decompressing at the bar after that scenario, Tyler who jumped in and took over as group lead when I couldn't perform told me it's better I experience those emotions and learn how to deal with them now, rather than having that happen with a real victim in the backcountry. It helped put things in perspective and made me appreciate the emotional aspect these scenarios are supposed to replicate.

Some of my favorite scenarios were:

-Avalanche Scenario (imagine coming upon a group of people laying on top of each other, tangled in webbing and rope and gear, screaming at the top of their lungs, in a foot of snow, , in the dark, while onlookers from the nearby Assisted Living Facility watch from afar..)

-Hypothermia Scenario (imagine it's 30 degrees outside, there's 2 feet of snow, and your friend is in her shorts and tank top, completely drenched in water, laying in the cold snow and you have to quickly perform your Patient Assessment while her whole body is shaking because she's actually freezing! Knowing my friend was cold and in distress made me want to help her that much more.)

-Hot Air Ballon Scenario (imagine in the middle of assessing your patient one of the rescuers in your larger group starts to have a panic attack and instead of having just 5 patients you now have 6 patients you need to help)

-Completely Unresponsive Scenario (imagine you come across a person laying on the ground and they're completely unresponsive, they're breathing but they won't react to your verbal or pain response. What would you do?)

-Night Rescue Scenario (I've been sworn to secrecy about the specifics of this scenario but imagine trudging through 4 feet of snow for 30 minutes with only a headlamp, then walking out into an untouched snow field in 20 degree weather on a clear night and surprise after surprise hits your group.)

The Night Rescue was probably my favorite scenario. I loved how our group performed together and I think we did a good job of staying calm when the unexpected came our way. And it was so cold that night! After an hour and a half sitting in the snow, helping our patients, the scenario was officially over. As we were hiking back to the classroom I looked up and the clear sky was filled with stars. I asked Paul, Noah, Jill, and Jeanette if we could stop, turn off our headlamps, and just look up at the sky for 30 seconds. That was such a special moment. I'll always remember that night and how much that moment touched my heart. I couldn't help but cry looking up at that gorgeous night sky. The next morning when we were talking about what gear and resources we were glad we had the night before, Noah mentioned he was glad he had his group. That's exactly how I felt too.

Even sitting in a group of 28 other people with our varied experiences and background and different outdoor activities, I still had a feeling that I was an outsider. My imposter syndrome was coming in fast and hard. I was talking to Jill about this and she reassured me that I'm not an outsider, I'm supposed to be here. That was only amplified by the conversations I had with others who also felt like they weren't outdoorsy enough or because of their background or upbringing that the outdoors weren't for them. The outdoors are for everyone. We kept telling each other that over and over again. You have to do what makes you happy. You're #1. We learned that on Day One. In any rescue scenario, if your well being is going to be at risk, you shouldn't try to help. Your safety and happiness is #1. Don't forget that. 

The last day, after we had taken our multiple choice test, after Angie and I had performed and passed our final practicum scenario, and after all 28 of us were officially given the title Wilderness First Responders, we went out for drinks to celebrate. We went to a bar on Beaver Street, a couple blocks from Route 66. I was thinking about how when I drove out to Arizona from Chicago I followed Route 66 and at the time I had no idea what was ahead of me. I didn't know where I'd be working or what I'd be doing or even that I'd still be living in Arizona almost two years later. Looking down the road at that Route 66 sign it hit me that I'm still on the right road. This is where I'm supposed to be. Jill came over and I told her what I was processing in my head and she said, "see you're not an imposter, you belong here! You're a WFR!"

Completing this course felt like the culmination of so many things. Believing in myself enough to invest the $775 to take the course, spending 9 insanely intense days with a bunch of strangers who would become friends, challenging my mental and emotional stamina to overcome obstacles I might have to deal with in the real backcountry. I feel like it was all leading up to me completing this WFR and saying "I'm ready for what's next." I didn't need to get my WFR for work like a lot of the other people in this course. I need it for whatever is down the road. I can't quite see it but I know this certification will lead me to the right opportunity. Even taking the course in Flagstaff felt like it happened the way it was supposed to happen. I met the people I was supposed to meet. I made the mistakes I was supposed to make. I'm being prepared for what's next and I'll be ready to say "yes" when it's here.

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