A rock fatally struck a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) student on the head 25 years ago, and the subsequent rescue efforts — in darkness and stormy weather — later resulted in an active collaboration between NOLS, Outward Bound and other outdoor education organizations to take a closer look at their risk management and safety practices.
The student, 24-year-old David Black, was fatally injured when another climber dislodged a rock above him, hitting Black in the head. Black was one of three students and a NOLS leader who were descending Mt. Warren in Wyoming’s Wind River Range on a midsummer afternoon in 1989.
In a review following the incident, leaders from both NOLS and Outward Bound agreed that there were contradictory practices in place between the two organizations — guidelines that were supposed to provide protocol before, during and after such incidents occur in wilderness. Buoyed by Black’s family — which challenged NOLS to do something about the lack of communication between industry players on the topic of risk management — NOLS organized the Wilderness Risk Managers Committee. In addition to NOLS, the group consisted of leaders from Outward Bound, the Wilderness Medicine Society, Exum Mountain Guides, the Association for Experiential Education, the National Park Service, National Safety Network, American Alpine Club and The Outdoor Network.
A year later, the committee had outlined a list of concerns that could have an adverse impact on each organization. Among those topics were suggestions to tone down the risk of some outdoor adventures in order to ensure safety. The concerns also targeted a need for consistency when it came to gathering data following an incident in the wild, and the problems associated with reliance on tech gadgets that can remove self-sufficiency from the experiential education equation.
The committee also agreed that it was to remain a collaborative communications group rather than a rule-making body, and it set about a plan to host a larger gathering of outdoor professionals the following fall. What followed in September of 1994 was a gathering of nearly 200 outdoor education leaders, guides and other stakeholders in Washington State for the first-ever Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC).
Much has been accomplished over the past two decades, with the fledgling forum developing into an international conference for outdoor education organizations of all scopes and sizes. These groups share the wilderness with others for the purpose of education, adventure, personal growth, leadership development and service learning. But specifically, the conference is a place for discussions about the risks that come with the rewards of a guided outdoor adventure.
And in each of the past 21 years, the WRMC has concentrated on risk management — including program administration, legal considerations, staff training and program practices. This annual risk-management revival has resulted in a better prepared and much more organized outdoor and experiential education industry.
This year’s Wilderness Risk Management Conference took place last month in Atlanta, Ga. For those of us who weren’t able to attend, the WRMC created a handy guide with key takeaways from each of the workshops presented over the three-day conference. Those takeaways appear below, and we encourage all of our industry peers to review what’s being recommended.
Presented below in alphabetical order, followed by the name of the workshop’s presenter(s) and the session’s key conclusions: (more…)