Safe Wilderness Therapy Demands Winter Prepration

Field staff at RedCliff Ascent have a difficult occupation and are expected to maintain high standards of operation all year. Occasionally, extreme weather conditions can make their jobs even tougher.

Because safety is our #1 priority, RedCliff’s Field Director, Scott Schill, recently held a special winter training seminar for all field staff. Here are some of the highlights of that presentation:

Shelters:  Shelter from harsh weather does much to comfort those living outside during the winter. We’ve seen as much as 30+ inches of snow in one storm and temperatures that have dropped to below 0 for a ten day stretch. The two most used winter shelters in the field are the “Shuttle” shelter and the “Circus Tent”.

The “Shuttle” is a completely enclosed shelter built fairly low to the ground to keep in warmth. It is difficult to get a large group of students into a shuttle shelter but if you’re successful, body warmth can keep the shelter at a reasonable sleeping temperature. In addition to the shuttle, a fire shelter is necessary to keep a group safe during hours you’re not in the sleeping shelter. It is meant to be large enough to carry out program expectations including hard skills and written assignments.

The “Circus Tent” is designed to accomplish the function of the sleeping shelter and the fire shelter combined. It is more difficult to construct but is made using two group tarps in a sort of teepee configuration, with a high peak propped open for a smoke hole. The doorway can be closed at night to keep warmth in. A fire can be stoked occasionally during the night to fend off some of the bitter cold. 

Sleeping: There are several sleeping arrangements that are acceptable and they are outlined in the staff manual. The point that needs to be made in this instruction is the need to keep and maintain body warmth during the night. This can be achieved by several means.

A.      Sleep close together. Hoho’s (sleeping pads) should be touching in the winter. Keep genders separated as usual.

B.      Pay attention to sleeping bag loft. If you see a student whose sleeping bag has noticeably less loft than others, please call it in. We’ll replace it as soon as possible.

C.      Make sure students have adequate padding to insulate them from the ground. Extra clothing can be used on top of their Hoho.

D.     Students may use their personal tarp as a bivy or “burrito”. If students sleep in a line, a group burrito will keep in additional warmth.

E.      See that students are dry when they get in their “wiggys” (sleeping bags). Make sure their wiggys are dry. It may take some extra time to get the bags dried. It is good practice to hang them on tree branches in the morning sun to dry them out. Even on bitter cold mornings, moisture can evaporate from the bags.

F.       Clothing – Students should sleep in their blacks (polypropolene long johns) or reds (fleece tops and bottom) or both. More than this will be less effective. Make sure students have a beanie or their hoodie to sleep in. This allows them to keep their face out of their wiggy while they sleep keeping additional moisture from accumulating in their bag during the night. If students have a pair of socks to use in their wiggy, they should fit loose. Otherwise, it’s better to sleep without them. One of their red fleece tops can be used to put their feet in and will serve much better than tight socks.

G.     Food – Make sure students have eaten a hot meal before going to bed. A few slices of salt pork in their pot will help them sleep much warmer. Butter on a scoobie helps as well. A former RedCliff staff took a job in Antarctica. She claimed they ate a stick of butter before going to bed each day to help them generate heat while they slept.

H.     If students need additional warmth, they may heat water in a Kleen canteen and drop it in a sock. This can be placed in their wiggy, which slowly gives off heat during the night. This water can be used for hygiene in the morning.

I.        Peeing – Students should go to bed with an empty bladder. They should also be encouraged to get up and pee if they have to during the night. Getting out of a warm wiggy can be excruciating on a bitter cold night but they will fall back asleep almost immediately after getting back in their cocoon. Make sure there is an adequate place to pee close to camp. Encourage students to wake you up in the night if they are too cold. You may have a suggestion that could help.

Advance Camps: During the winter months, the days are shorter and the nights longer. Sometimes this provides a challenge getting from one camp to another in time to get it set up before dark. Staff may decide to have what is referred to as an “advance camp”. This is a day hike for up to two miles. Students bring with them everything they will need to gather a wood supply, dig a sump and a latrine, select a shelter site and work on curriculum if they have extra time. When these activities are finished, the group heads back to camp and begins dinner. The next day, the group takes down camp and moves to the new site. The only things they have to do are set up the shelter and start the fire and camp is set up. This accomplishes several things. It breaks up some of the funk created by staying in the same camp for too long. It also provides needed structure without the drudgery of the full pack saga.

Cold related injuries: This refers to hypothermia, frostbite, frostnip, or chilblains. Human tissue can be subject to some extremely cold conditions for short periods of time without sustaining injury as long as it stays dry. Hands and feet are the most susceptible to damage. Here are some ways to prevent that damage:

A.      Identify the student(s) in the group that are most likely candidates. High risk students are: 

1.     High maintenance kids that can’t or won’t take care of themselves.

2.      Students with dark skin (Black, Hispanic, Arabic, Polynesian, etc.)

3.      Self destructive students.

4.     Students that just won’t follow instructions.

B.      Make sure feet are dry. Foot checks are required two times a day by state regulations and more than that by our own standards if we deem it necessary. Look at the feet. Use latex gloves and touch them if you need to. See how the toes appear and feel. We issue merino wool sock during the coldest winter months. These socks are a great blend of wool and polyester and other materials. Wool insulates even when it’s wet. Students will also be issued boots rated to 40 below zero (again, as long as they are dry). It is crucial that dry feet go into the boots dry. “Unholey Soles” will be issued in the winter months. This will keep their socks somewhat dry while the students frolic around camp in the snow. Unholey Soles can be removed as long as the students are warm by the fire and sitting on a hoho. DRY, DRY, DRY…

C.      Hands should not be exposed to wind and bitter cold for long periods of time without protection. Have the students use wool liners and or mittens especially when working in the snow or wet conditions. We will be using a 6 mil cord instead of the small black pack cord for tying packs. This cord can be used to construct a very secure shelter, haul piles of wood, tie a clothes line, built camp gadgets, roll a pack etc. It is much more functional than the black cord we’ve been using and more importantly, it can be tied and untied with mittens on. Don’t use hand sanitizer away from the fire. It evaporates so quickly it could cause tissue to freeze. Pot cleaning can be another potential danger for hands on those bitter cold days. Be sure students aren’t using bare hands to clean pots on those days unless they can do it safely by the fire.

Fire: Even if you have no shelter in extreme condition, fire can be the key to not only survival but to good spirits. There will be situations that make fire extremely difficult to start. Here are some tips.

A.      Dry out some tinder and double bag it. That goes for staff and students alike. We only made it a requirement to have nesting material for one fire. Make sure it’s dry and it will save a great deal of stress and frustration. When looking for tinder in the winter, the best place to find relatively dry cedar bark is from the “armpit” of the larger branches.

B.      Set up a fire shelter to protect the fire from falling rain or snow.

C.      Clear the ground. In some cases the ground may be frozen solid and digging a pit may not be an option initially. If the ground is soaked…

D.     Use the group saw and cut four small logs (3 to 4” in diameter) about 10 to 14”.

E.      Using a Bushman knife and a baton, split the logs in half and lay them in a parallel pattern with the flat, dry sides up. This creates a dry platform for your fire. Split another log in a similar matter only in fourths. With the Bushman or another sharp knife, whittle shavings from what would have been the center of the log. These dry shavings can be piled up and lit with a lighter or a signal flare (provided to each HI). Even if logs dead wood has been soaked in rain for days, dry tinder can be found in the center. Water only penetrates about the first ¼ inch then the wood fibers swell and seal out the moisture.

F.       If you do all this and still can’t get a fire, call base. We will have a supply of 3 hour logs at outpost and we’ll get you some asap.

G.     When you have a fire going, be less concerned about burning wood smaller than your wrist than you would be in the summer. Larger diameter wood puts out more heat for longer. Keep this in mind in extreme weather. Low impact takes a back seat to safety. Ideally we can accomplish both. H.     Stack wet wood up on one end of the fire pit or around it. It can dry out as the fire burns. Stacked wood or even rocks at one end of the fire pit can also reflect heat making the fire more efficient. This can only be done with smaller groups as most space around fire pits is occupied by bodies.

Communication:  By adding more solar panels and turning off the main channel for the winter, we think we should have a drama free winter but, follow the SPOT protocol if we lose the repeater. Make sure you hit your spot the minute you realize the repeater is down. Do it again at call-in time. You may use the SPOT to signal base that you need radio batteries or could use some other non emergency assistance by hitting the help button. If the repeater goes down during a hike, it would relieve a great deal of stress on the part of Support Staff if you would set your SPOT on track mode.

Accessibility:  Be near major roads. As usual, camp far enough off the roads that your camp can’t be seen. If you have a question about accessibility, ask base at call-in. We have a smowmobile and a snowcat. We’ll be able to get to you. Don’t worry about getting socked in with a snow storm. Just stock up on wood and stay put. We’ll get to you. If the storm hits just before therapy, we’ll break trail with the snowcat for the other vehicles. The snowcat will be stocked with 3 hour logs and other pertinent gear to assist you in case of extreme conditions. We want you to feel like you can still use the field in winter. However, keep in mind that if there’s snow, it will be deeper in the higher benches and the lowest part of the valley is a sump at night and can be considerably colder than the lower benches away from Pine Valley Rd.

 Hiking:  Hiking is probably the safest activity that we can do at RCA during the winter. It doesn’t take long before the blood is pumping and extremities are warmed up. Layers can be shed in order to prevent getting too sweaty. We can’t identify one case of a cold related injury that occurred while hiking. Snow can be problematic for hiking and will definitely slow the progress of the hike. While hiking in deep snow, you may have the lead person hike for five minutes, then step off the trail and fall in at the rear. Then the next person breaks trail for five and so on. You will need to deviate from hiking with Staff in front /Staff in back in order to pull this off. Otherwise staff will be hiking together in the line most of the time. Keep the group close together for better supervision. Think DRY. If Neos are required to keep snow out of boots, then make those arrangements.

Between on-going safety training and RedCliff’s commitment to make sure students have the best gear for any weather condition, RedCliff parents can sleep better themselves knowing their children are safe regardless of the season.

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