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  • by Chris Stewart

SOLO in the Mountains

Teaching Critical Outdoor Survival Skills

"More than 100 people have lost their lives in the White Mountains," Frank Hubbell said, "and many of them could have been saved. They weren't aware of how to take care of themselves when the crisis occurred."

As he spoke, the two dozen students at SOLO - the Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunity - listened and took notes, watching intently while Hubbell explained the ways not to join that grim list of statistics. "If you know what to do before going into the backcountry," he emphasized, "your chances of survival get better and better."

Hubbell knows what he's talking about. With years of experience in teaching first aid, mountain medicine, and search and rescue techniques, he has seen more than his share of injured hikers, frostbitten skiers, and lost hunters. He has also learned the importance of teaching people how to avoid trouble, but also how to cope with problems once they happen. At the SOLO center in Conway - where more than 700 students enrolled for courses in 1981 - Hubbell and the SOLO staff have been bringing this message to those who venture outdoors for the past seven years. The idea, as instructor Bill Aughton noted, is rooted in a basic principle.

"We tell people that if a car hits you on the street you'll probably be in the hospital within half an hour," Aughton said. "But if an accident happens in the backcountry, a rescue can take anywhere from four hours to two days or longer to carry out. Because of this, our teaching stresses how to deliver long-term patient care - not just how to put a bandage on a cut."

Though these techniques may seem fundamental, far too many people are unaware of their value, and this ignorance frustrates those who must handle backcountry search and rescue operations. In a sense, it was this frustration which led to the creation of SOLO.

Several years ago, after another exhausting and - in Hubbell's eyes - needless rescue on the slopes of Mount Washington, Hubbell and fellow rescue team member Gregg Betts sat together at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Camp reviewing the day's events over a cup of coffee. "Gregg and I talked about all the stupid things people do to get themselves in trouble," Hubbell recalled. "Someone asked us why it was that no one taught people how not to get hurt. That question made a lot of sense." It also sparked the beginning of SOLO.

Having taught various courses for the AMC - including mountain safety seminars, search and rescue techniques, and first-aid classes - and having organized post-graduate courses for Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), Hubbell was well-qualified to head SOLO's faculty. "I realized that I preferred to teach people how to avoid trouble," he said, "and I wanted to take this concept and turn it into a full-time occupation."

Beginning in 1975, that's exactly what happened. Though SOLO offered only a handful of courses during its first season, it now schedules 45 programs throughout the year - most of which are two-day weekend classes. The school relies largely on word-of-mouth to advertise, but its popularity has been dramatic; enrollment doubled last year. The school's physical plant on Tasker Hill Road in Conway has also grown, and now features a three-story wood frame lodge (designed by Frank's architect brother, Kent) where as many as 30 students can be housed, with a spacious cooking cabin adjacent to the lodge. SOLO's growth, as Hubbell pointed out, is directly related to the boom in outdoor recreation.

"We've expanded out programs to included the entire field of rescue training," he explained. "With the increased numbers of kayakers, canoers, skiers, hikers, climbers, snowmobilers, and hunters, there has been a rise in backcountry accidents. Knowing how to prevent these accidents, and how to cope with them if they occur, becomes all the more important."

To illustrate this pint, Hubbell cited Nordic skiing. "People are able to ski practically anywhere in the backcountry, and this means accidents can happen miles from the highway," he said. "One of the ways we're dealing with this is to work with town rescue squads to prepare them for the special problems associated with these rescues. They're not like normal rescues close to the road where you can leap out of bed, put your shoes on, and head out."

Among other things, these rescues demand different preparation and equipment. Team members must be ready with extra food and clothing, must be skilled in skiing or climbing, and must understand the added dangers - not only to the victim but to the rescuers themselves.

"There are many things to consider," Hubbell continued. "Standard first-aid measures, while useful in most situations, become more complex five miles up a trail in the middle of winter. You can't simply splint a broken leg, for example, and move out. Isolated in the backcountry, you have to be certain that the injured person's toes have good circulation, that your party is properly clothes and equipped, and that you're able to safely transport the victim."

By adapting its programs to meet the needs of rescue organizations as well as others who use the backcountry, SOLO has attracted a wide range of pupils. Students from Dartmouth, Cornell, Colby, and the Universities of Maine, New Hamphsire, and Vermont have attended, and rescue squads from Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have also taken courses. In addition, staff members from such groups as the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, the Maine Youth Conservation Corps, and the Appalachian Mountain Club have enrolled in SOLO courses. While SOLO does offer skiing, hiking, camping, and canoeing trips (under the direction of Jim Driver), its focus remains on safety in the backcountry.

"The biggest thing that makes us different from other programs is our concentration on backcountry emergency medicine, self-help techniques, and self-rescue," Hubbell said. "Being able to take care of yourself when you encounter trouble away from help is critically important."

Simply put, this knowledge saves lives. According to Frenchman Andre Roche's research, training such as SOLO offers is critical. "Several years ago, Roche conducted a statistical analysis of the accidents in Europe," Hubbell said, "and found that a much higher percentage of people survived if they had learned self-rescue techniques - if they knew what to do in an emergency. People who could self-rescue - who could dig themselves out of an avalanche, who could treat shock, who could prevent hypothermia, and who could react to other crises - survived 80% of the time."

By contrast, the untrained survived only 20% of the time. In effect, the results of Roche's work confirm the value of SOLO's courses. "He helped to prove our philosophy that giving people the skills to survive is very important," Hubbell stated.

For SOLO's students, learning these outdoor skills starts with indoor training. "We stress classroom work when we teach the basics," instructor Lee Frizzell noted. "This understanding comes first." Once students thoroughly study a subject such as winter survival, they then put their knowledge to a practical test; a Saturday morning session about hypothermia might be followed by an afternoon spent digging snow caves.

While SOLO's courses span topics from winter camping, high-angle rescue, and mountain first-aid, to refreshers for EMTs and mock rescues, beginners can benefit as well. "You might not think that we could devote an entire seminar to Day Hiking," Hubbell said, "but along with our Mountain/Woods First Aid course, it's one of the most important classes we offer."

The reasons for this, as Bill Aughton explained, are obvious. "It's one of the most dangerous outdoor activities," he stated. "Frequently, people don't carry enough gear since they don't expect to be out overnight. And they often do foolish things - such as scrambling unroped over rocks - because they're inexperienced. Without the right attitude, equipment and knowledge, day hikers can meet with serious problems - particularly at this time of year."

Still, as Aughton added, the dangers aren't limited to wintertime. Even a couple hiking Mount Kearsarge in July could encounter difficulty if they take off without adequate planning. Aside from following common sense rules and checking weather reports, carrying maps, and allowing sufficient time for the trip, hikers should bring proper gear. Five or six pounds of extra equipment, Aughton pointed out, could provide a critical margin of safety should an accident occur. Another sweater, additional food, two thick plastic garbage bags, matches, mittens, hats, and a flashlight, could make the difference between surviving and not surviving.

In the end, what SOLO teaches pays off for its students and backcountry rescue organizations alike. "We want to minimize the number of accidents and the number of hours people spend in search and rescue work," Frizzell said. "We'd like for people not to get hurt, and we'd like for people involved in rescue work not to have to go out and risk their own safety." The more people know about safety, the fewer the number of rescues; everyone benefits.

The SOLO staff can, as Bill Aughton said, draw from the collective experience of all its members to make its classes as beneficial as possible; their individual qualifications give them a unique perspective in the field. Frank Hubbell is the captain of Conway Rescue, director of the Attitash Ski Patrol, a team member of Mountain Rescue Service (MRS), Chairperson of Ambulance District A-4 and an instructor/coordinator for EMT and CPR. Lee Frizzell is trained as an advanced EMT instructor - with seven years teaching experience in first aid - and runs the Attitash first-aid room. Dave Gold, a professional safety consultant, is another EMT instructor and the past director of EMT training in New Hampshire and Maine. Bill Aughton, a former paramedic and Alpine guide, is an EMT and a director of MRS. Bill Kane, an MRS team leader, is a member of the Fryeburg Rescue Squad, an EMT and an EMT teacher. With teachers having this background, there's no question that students receive thorough training. In the same way, there's little doubt that they appreciate what SOLO has to offer.

"Your presentation, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the subject were all excellent," one student wrote after a Backcountry Rescue Seminar. "I think you're providing an important service to the rescue field." Another student, at the end of a Mountain/Woods First Aid course, noted that, "I had a wonderful time - I learned a lot, ate well, enjoyed myself and my companions, and was very impressed with the knowledge, friendliness, and diversity of talents found in the instructors."

However, not everyone was completely satisfied with the completenss of the SOLO course. "Sorry I kept falling asleep," another student wrote, "but what can you expect at 10:00 Sunday morning."


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