How much “risk” can we tolerate in the wilderness?

October 13, 2010

This topic comes up a lot among wilderness educators, but I recently came across two seemingly unrelated pieces in the New York Times which provide a very nice context to the discussion.

The first (NY Times – Struggling Cities Shut Firehouses in Budget Crisis) describes the angst which is developing in a number of urban areas as budget constraints are challenging city fire and EMS services. The article begins with the tragic story of a two-year-old boy in San Diego who suffered a fatal aspiration at his home. Although there was a fire station near the home, staffing changes in the SDFD led to its being empty at the time of the incident. The police responded to the child’s home within five minutes and started CPR, but it took 9 and a half minutes for an ambulance to arrive. The child was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Although it is not clear to me that the child would have survived with earlier care (when children survive such incidents, it is almost always because of immediate bystander intervention), the implication of the article was that harm may have been done because the city could not meet up to the “national goal” of a five minute response.

Well, just a minute here.

I am writing this entry at our summer home in the Adirondacks. I probably couldn’t get my nearest neighbor here within five minutes. The nearest fire department with EMS service is in a town about 16 miles away, and that is a volunteer operation. Ten times the “national goal” would actually be a pretty good response to our place!

Mind you, this area is by no means “wilderness”. There are several hundred homes in the vicinity, with such important services as bars, a gas station, pizza joints, and even a (limited hours) vet clinic. Although we are seasonal users, there are plenty of year-round residents. If any of my neighbors are disturbed that our access to emergency medical services is way outside the national goal, I haven’t heard it from them. Indeed, nearly every edition of the local weekly (we also have a paper) carries a letter to the editor thanking the volunteer ambulance crews for something!

Folks who choose to live (or get away) in places such as this generally make very informed decisions. No–we can’t call a cab. No–we may not be able to have high-speed internet access. No–if the big one comes some evening, we will not be defibrillated within minutes. On the other hand, we are not awakened by sirens at night, the smells of balsam replace those of exhaust, and we don’t worry about walking in the neighborhood. There are plenty of folks living throughout the US in very similar circumstances, and I doubt that many would trade them in order to be assured of a more rapid EMS response.

How does this apply to the wilderness? Just like the person who moves from San Diego, CA to Woodgate, NY is accepting a change in the availability of assistance in emergencies, the user of the wilderness is (or should be) doing so to an even greater degree. Stepping into the backcountry is an experience of inestimable value. It has a downside. The likelihood of surviving major trauma deep in the Five Ponds Wilderness is nil. An identical injury on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue might well be survivable. Sadly, one just can’t have it both ways. Take your pick.

This ethic extends to situations well beyond major trauma. Sprain your ankle at the tennis club, and expect your buddy to drive you home and share a beer with you after helping you get some ice. Sprain it on the way down Katahdin and you should expect a pretty rough time; please don’t expect a helicopter ride to Bangor. One of my many complaints about the “WFR” movement is that it may contribute to the perception that there is really something which can be done for devastating injury or illness is very remote areas. Usually, there isn’t. Accept it.

Which brings me to the other article: NY Times – Aw Wilderness!.

This opinion piece, by an attorney, decries the US Forest Service for lack of signage in some wilderness areas, bemoaning the occasional camper, hiker, or hunter who becomes lost. If one wishes to hike on established and well marked trails, the options in North America are nearly limitless. Yet, if one wants to test the extent of his navigational and wilderness skills in an expansive, truly “unmarked” environment, options in the lower 48 are not many. Indeed, when I teach such skills, I prefer to do so in Alaska. We do not seem to care that a number of skiers choosing black diamond routes will sustain serious, indeed some life-threatening injuries. Why can we not allow the wilderness equivalent of “black diamond” for those of us who desire such experiences?

Backpacking and similar wilderness pursuits, in virtually every database, are extraordinarily safe. Yet, they carry inherent risks which simply cannot be eliminated without significantly devaluing the experience. By giving the impression that we can “manage” these risks out of existence, we do harm in two ways. We provide expectations of safety which cannot be realized. We invite regulatory interventions which ultimately destroy the experiences that we value.