I skid down the side of the mountain the moment I see the crash. My trail runners burn rubber as I launch myself over a boulder to get to the victim, a 44-year-old hang glider who caught a gnarly gust of wind coming over Big Bear Lake. He is moaning and clutching his side as I ask his name to discern a level of responsiveness. He mumbles something about the fall, and I check his airway, noticing a large amount of blood in his mouth and a pale film of skin across his forehead. I bark directions at my partner to help me move him into a spine stable position, and she holds his head to ensure that we don’t further damage what could be a severed spinal cord. We check his vitals before performing a head-to-toe patient assessment in which we discover a sorely broken rib. As I frantically scribble the details into my notebook, we formulate a plan to get help before we move him into a recovery position so that he doesn’t choke on any of the blood he is coughing up. Then, we wait.
A week ago, if you had asked me what to do if I saw a rock climber plummet 40 feet off a granite wall or a mountain biker flip headfirst over her handlebars, I would have frozen in discomfort with nothing to say. Injuries are about as common in the great outdoors as trees or rocks, yet it’s startling to realize precisely how few wilderness enthusiasts have any sort of training for what to do when things inevitably go tits-up. That’s where the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Wilderness First Aid course comes in and how I found myself simulating a high-elevation hang gliding accident in the back of a wooden cabin in Monrovia, CA.