Heeding the Boy Scout motto is the best way to deal with illness or injury on the trail.
Craig Gorder woke up inside his blue Toyota minivan in a campground at Southern Utah’s rock climbing mecca, Indian Creek. He drank coffee with Kelsey Brasseur, his climbing partner, and reviewed plans for an upbeat, casual day of climbing in the Bridger Jacks, a series of blocky sandstone towers. At the crag, they left their phones, packs and first-aid kit at the bottom of each climb and came back down for snacks between pitches.
The pair started up Sunflower Tower mid-morning, and Gorder followed Brasseur up the first pitch to a wide belay ledge sandwiched between red-rock towers. From the ledge, Gorder wasn’t sure where to go next, so he took an educated guess and headed skyward.
About 20 feet above his partner, with no protection between them, Gorder found a vantage point below a band of loose rock. He took his time, knocking on the rocks around him, looking for the best place to venture up—and as he pulled down, a block the size of a freezer broke off and knocked him into the air.
Gorder landed on the belay ledge next to Brasseur, and the rock exploded in his lap, shattering his pelvis and slicing their rope into pieces. “I bounced off the ledge and into the 160 feet of air below,” Gorder explains—but he didn’t hit the ground. His rope, by pure chance, was wrapped around his ankle—and Brasseur caught the end as it flew past her, holding Gorder upside down a dozen feet below her with her bare hands.
Gorder managed to pull himself upright and shove his body, broken bones and all, into a wide crack in the sandstone. Brasseur pieced together their damaged rope, lowered herself to him, and pulled them both to relative safety. Gorder assessed his injuries—the bleeding wasn’t serious but the pain was, and he was at risk of going into shock.
A friend who was climbing nearby saw what happened and rushed to Gorder’s aid. Still conscious, Gorder asked his friends to feed him sips of water. Meanwhile, another friend who learned of his injury happened to have cell-phone service and was able to call 911. They then awaited a helicopter rescue, which took hours. Gorder was eventually flown to Colorado.
Gorder is a lifelong climber; he and his partner were fit, experienced and climbing within their skill range. Gorder had also taken a Wilderness First Responder course just months before the accident. His training helped him do something few people ever have to do: assess his own potentially life-threatening injuries. “I hesitate to use the word ‘fun’ to describe it,” he laughed, “but I was able to use the skills I had just learned.”
Wilderness First Responder (WFR) courses train non-medical professionals how to manage accidents and emergencies when they’re far from a hospital, using the tools available 100 feet up a sandstone tower or deep in mountain backcountry. Being a wilderness first responder didn’t prevent Gorder’s accident, but it did help him manage what happened afterward.
If you want to brush up on your wilderness-medicine expertise, spring season is the perfect time to do it—and like with any outdoor pursuit in Utah, you’ve got options.
Mountain Education and Development (MED) is a Salt Lake City-based organization that teaches rock- and ice-climbing skills and medical courses all over the world. MED has its roots in international volunteerism—a team led by current Operating Director Nate Smith who launched the organization in 2011 after spending several weeks teaching mountaineering, high-angle rescue and wilderness first aid to the Kenyan Wildlife Service.
Smith describes MED’s current instructor team as “educators and technicians,” and the team shares a passion for continuing medical education and bold objectives in the outdoors. One instructor climbed Patagonia’s Fitz Roy on his first attempt; another ran the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and the Zion Traverse in a single month. Smith himself is a professional Alpine athlete for CAMP, and just completed his 15th tour teaching light and fast Alpinism workshops across North America.
If you’re looking for highly educated instructors with unparalleled backcountry experience, consider a course with MED.
Upcoming WFR courses: Extended format, Tuesday/Thursday evenings Feb. 21-April 8 with some weekends, in Salt Lake City
Learn more: MountainEd.com
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) claims to be the largest provider of pre-hospital wilderness-medicine training in the world. Based in Lander, Wyoming, NOLS offers more than 800 courses each year. With a focus on leadership and risk management, NOLS also offers courses that integrate technical and medical instruction, and college students can look to them for semester programs in locations as far-flung as Baja and Patagonia.
If you want to learn from a time-tested organization with an international reputation, NOLS is the right place to start.
Upcoming WFR courses: April 4-13 in Moab or March 10-19 and May 6-15 in Salt Lake City
Learn more: NOLS.edu
Wilderness Medicine of Utah (WMU) provides comprehensive wilderness medicine courses at an affordable price—hundreds of dollars cheaper than their competitors. Cedar Coleman, WMU’s executive director, believes that “the more people that are prepared in the backcountry, the better off we all are,” and the organization has been promoting backcountry preparedness in Utah since the early 1990s.
Coleman explains that WMU donates all its profits to fund wilderness medical education and research at the University of Utah School of Medicine. WMU’s instructors are medical professionals with wilderness experience, ranging from EMTs to practicing physicians, and guest lecturers with expertise in areas like diving and high-altitude activities often make special appearances in WFR courses.
If you’re looking for an affordable course with a strong focus on medical essentials, WMU might be a good fit for you.
Upcoming WFR courses: March 13-18 in Salt Lake City or April 17-22 in Moab.
Learn more: WMUtah.org
Weeks after Craig Gorder’s accident, we talked on the phone while he took himself for a walk on his crutches. He was philosophical about his bad luck that day—“I decided a long time ago that I take risks, but that yes, climbing is worth it,” he said.
We all assume risks when we head outside for our favorite adventures—and sometimes, despite our best efforts, accidents do happen. Brushing up on wilderness-medicine expertise is a great way to make sure you’re prepared for your next adventure, no matter what nature decides to throw your way.