For outdoor enthusiasts, specialized first aid course could be a lifesaver

Students learn to support a broken leg in a wilderness first aid course. Photo by Matt Rosefsky. Students learn to support a broken leg in a wilderness first aid course. Photo by Matt Rosefsky.
Matt Rosefsky was on a Washington mountaintop on a 70-mile stretch of trail last September when everything went wrong. One of the group of four he was leading on an excursion with the local Outdoor Adventure Social Club injured his knee and had to slow to a hobble. Another hiker started to get hypothermic as ice and snow began to fall —the first flakes of a coming blizzard. The trail was rough and hard to follow. As the group leader, he had to decide whether to hunker down and risk getting stranded, or try to keep the suffering group moving to escape the storm.
“Any way I looked at it, there was no magical right action where everybody was going to be set,” Rosefsky said. “There was a risk in any possible answer.”
Fortunately, that’s what he’s trained for. Rosefsky, 40, a UVA alum who founded the OASC after graduating in 2004, is a certified wilderness EMT, and now teaches classes in disaster and wilderness first aid all over Virginia and elsewhere. His next two-day instructional course starts January 12 here in Charlottesville.
Rosefsky first got interested in wilderness first aid when he started leading hiking trips. In 2007, he got certified as an EMT and instructor by SOLO, the country’s oldest wilderness medical school, and soon forged a partnership with Charlottesville-based Blue Ridge Mountain Sports to offer affordable classes in the communities where the outdoor apparel company has stores. The course costs $175, and Rosefsky and BRMS team up to donate 10 percent of the proceeds to a local charity­—in this case, the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club.
The 18-hour course is about half lecture, half hands-on work, said Rosefsky. It goes a lot further than your basic first aid instruction, because it’s designed to teach you what to do when you might be the only help a victim will get for a long time. The obvious application is in the backcountry, so the course is popular with local hikers and outdoors enthusiasts. But the skills you learn could be just as applicable in a city hit by an earthquake or a hurricane, said Rosefsky.
“Imagine if some big disaster happens,” he said. “First of all, your cell phone probably doesn’t work. There are 300 people who are hurt, and there’s 10 ambulances. Do the math. They’re not coming anytime soon. So you need to know what to do until that help arrives.”
For that reason, SOLO trainees learn to do some things even most ambulance crews don’t, he said, like set broken bones and do a spine test to see if even a severely injured victim might be able to walk out, instead of being backboarded. The instructional process is intense—think fake blood and a screaming actor who can’t tell you what’s wrong. At its core is a method called the patient assessment system—an observation-based recipe for dealing with any crisis.
It might come in handy some day, as it did for Rosefsky and his hiking companions on that snowy peak. What he’d learned helped him know what to do then: wrap the injured knee, get the hypothermic hiker bundled up as best as possible, and head out of the storm to find a safe place to camp and get warm. Eventually, he said, “everyone was fine.”