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Saving Lives in the Backcountry: Where Does LNT Fit In?
By Tod Schimelpfenig

A respiratory emergency in the Waddington Range necessitates creating an extraction zone in dense vegetation to olift the ill patient from the area via helicopter.
Photo: Ben Lester

As wilderness medicine practitioners, how to avoid injuries and illnesses in the backcountry should be part of our everyday thinking, philosophy and actions. This constant mindset not only protects people, it can protect the environment as well.

Over 40 years ago, Paul Petzoldt spoke of three priorities governing decisions and practices in the wilderness: safety of the person, the environment and the equipment, in that order. Safety, or in modern vocabulary, “risk management” of the person makes complete sense. When it comes to the choice of helping someone or damaging the environment, we serve the person first. Less obvious, though, is the link between safety of the person and safety of the environment.

I’ve been on many wilderness rescues where we took care of the patient with little impact to the environment. However, I’ve also been on some rescues where, unfortunately, the environment was a distant second priority. Most often this is the simple noise disturbance of a helicopter in the wilderness. Granted, it leaves little mark and a fleeting presence, but it’s still an intrusion.

Occasionally we alter the wilderness to facilitate an evacuation. I remember a wilderness rescue for a hiker who tried to jump off a small cliff rather than patiently find a better route down. He fractured both his ankles. The helicopter pilot didn’t like the only landing zone we could find, so he dropped off a crewperson who used a chain saw to cut down a tree blocking his approach. I hiked past that meadow last summer. The tree lies on the ground, a reminder of the consequence of a poor decision.

Some searches require ATVs and snowmachines to cross wilderness boundaries, their intrusion justified as an act in the best interest of a victim who was lost because he left home without a map and compass.

I’ve witnessed searches where ill-prepared searchers, spending an unanticipated night out, trashed the krumholtz (tree line) to build shelters and large fires and searches where 50 people walked side by side through pristine meadows, trampling vegetation as we looked vainly for clues to the whereabouts of a person who left camp without telling anyone where she was going.

I’ve been on cave rescues where normally careful spelunkers put care of the cave aside and searched aggressively in delicate passages, leaving marks on the walls and broken speleothems in their wake as they looked for someone who chose to cave alone.

So where does Leave No Trace fit in to wilderness medicine? These examples hopefully underscore how prevention and thoughtful planning can avoid human and resource damage. When we make decisions that affect the safety of ourselves and our companions, we’re making decisions that can affect the environment. The theme of prevention that pervades WMI’s curriculum is both for the safety of the person and the safety of the environment.

Click here for more information on Leave No Trace, or combine LNT lessons with wilderness medicine by signing up for a WMI course.

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