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The Quick and the Dead

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When I come upon the ice climber, he is lying face down in the cold stream at the base of the frozen wall. The high-noon sun is barely beginning to crack a three-day cold snap.

It is mid-February in the secluded town of Lake City, in southwest Colorado. Above, among the foothills that stack up to create the leaning Uncompahgre Peak, the canyon walls rise precipitously on either side of the Henson Creek drainage. All winter, seepage and water from garden hoses dragged to the canyon rim send down a frozen cascade, forming a playground for ice climbers strapped into crampons and carrying axes.

I rush over to find that, luckily, the climber’s face is positioned above the water, and he is breathing, albeit laboriously.

“Oh, god, it hurts!” he hisses through clenched teeth.

I look up at the ice wall and down at the cold stream and delicate snow banks, taking inventory of anything that might hurt me as well. Near the climber’s ankle, a small pool of blood has formed.

He says his name is Free-Solo Jim and that he’d been 20 feet up the ice wall when a sheet broke away beneath him, and he plummeted. As I walk my fingers down his spine, his breath gets shorter and shorter. I pinch his fingers and, removing his boots, his toes to make sure he has feeling in them.

Moving my hands up his legs to find the source of the blood beneath his ankle, I find a bone protruding from his skin like a stick from a branch. Fumbling in the cold, I do my best to wrap the wound and hope for a speedy transport out of here.

A passer-by rushes off for help. Time passes like a lumbering freight train. Jim’s breath gets shorter and shorter until he is unable to speak. Moments later he stops breathing entirely.

“Jim?” I say, anxiety rising in me. “Jim! What did I miss?”

He opens his eyes and looks up at me.

“Gaping chest wound,” he says, smiling. “Terrible way to die.”

Jim opens his coat to reveal an ice axe protruding from his chest so convincingly that for a moment I think this is actually an emergency.

Thirty feet to my left, one of my classmates tends to a woman exhibiting classic symptoms of hypothermia. At the base of the ice-climbing wall, two other peers discuss a strategy for relocating their victim’s shoulder.

“OK, everybody back to the classroom!” the instructor calls.

I am one of 12 students from myriad backgrounds—law enforcement, firefighting, camp counseling, backcountry running and thru-hiking—seeking to gain knowledge and confidence for those times when the excrement hits the ventilator.

Rescuers and victims collectively rise and we make our way back toward a makeshift classroom in the town health clinic. A steady dialogue between rescuers and victims accompanies our hike. What went wrong? How could the rescuer improve? What did we forget to ask or look for?

The session marks a halfway point for this 10-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR or woofer, as it’s commonly called) class. Considered the base standard for backcountry emergency and rescue, the 80-hour course teaches students how to tape, splint, wrap and stabilize a person in any location from the trailhead to the backcountry. Having recently begun guiding fellow runners into the backcountry, I knew that getting my WFR certification was a must.

As I descend, my own simulated emergency in the canyon replays in my head, and I think too of Aron Ralston in southern Utah, his arm pinned beneath a rock for five days. Paces later, I recall Danelle Ballengee’s 60-foot, pelvis-shattering fall off an icy trail outside of Moab, Utah, when her dog ran for help and led rescuers to her. Stepping down onto a rock I think of how Dave Mackey shattered his leg on Bear Peak, Boulder, Colorado, when boulders rolled out from under his feet.

And I think of how as runners we find refuge and solace in remote sanctuaries, yet a simple mistake can turn hours into days.

I enter the classroom, a brush of cool air trailing me.

The teacher asks, “Who’s ready for lightning strikes?”

Rickey thinks every trail runner should have his or her WFR, and he’s going to start checking.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue