My Greatest Lesson From The Wilderness First Responder Course

I fail to understand those who are not lured in by the call of the backcountry.
I fail to understand those who are not lured in by the call of the backcountry.

[x_pullquote cite=”Paulo Coelho” type=”left”]“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” [/x_pullquote]This week I took (and passed!) the Wilderness First Responder course with the Wilderness Medicine Training Center. Anyone who spends a great deal of time in nature —and everyone should to preserve a healthy soul — will find priceless value in the knowledge acquired that could very well save a life. Of all the terms I learned for different conditions and states that we get ourselves into as humans, the one that stuck with me the most was The Collywobbles.

I didn’t learn it from the textbook or practical session but through one of my fellow students. An older gentleman who was a former nurse practitioner and army medic used it when describing a situation that simultaneously sparked his gastrointestinal and nervous systems. The closest word I found in this day and age.  As he said it I made eye contact with a few others in the classroom who also biting their cheek so as not to bust out laughing. This antiquated window into a former generation’s vocabulary sounded funny, but when I looked up its’ definition I related to it all too well:

intense anxiety or nervousness, especially with stomach queasiness.

We went through a lot in only five days. I related to much of the material that we went over, speaking up more often than everyone combined when it came to personal anecdotes of situations we described in class. Yet the Collywobbles stood out. Everything else we discussed stems from three different mechanisms: Trauma, Environmental, or Medical. But the Collywobbles doesn’t fit any of those categories: It is a physical condition created by our own consciousness, and usually unnecessarily.


Of course there are times when the collywobbles will help prevent you from serious injury or death, and listening to that anxiety-induced discomfort will help you to live another day. But many times that feeling prevents us from things that push us to the next level for whatever reason, keeping us in a state where we create excuses or feel sorry for ourselves.

For me that comes from a fear of failure; the ignorant act of discounting the fact that trying something at all qualifies as a success. I can speak only for myself but I know that the closer something is to your dreams and passions, the more scary it becomes when you set it in motion. All of a sudden the talk becomes the walk, which always takes longer than my impatient soul would prefer.

Patience in the Wilderness

Looking at the course as a whole, the theme of patience came up often. Out in the backcountry the one thing you have in abundance is time. When help is far away the last thing you want to do is rush. Doing so could endanger your patient, your party, and yourself. Unfortunately the reality is that sometimes people will die even when you do everything in your power to save them. When life support is far away, rushing through a situation will not miraculously save your patient. Sometimes the odds are too great, and as a rescuer you have to be ok with that.

My patch job on a fellow student. Maxi Pads FTW!
My patch job on a fellow student. Maxi Pads FTW!

We simulated a wide variety of scenarios. I related all too well to many of them, finding myself offering a personal anecdote more often than everyone combined. Maybe I was simply more comfortable sharing my follies but it did make me realize how many close calls I have had. I might have come across as accident prone, but in the grand scheme of things I still consider myself careful and calculated. Experience comes from charting your own course, which often times involves mistakes. The key is to minimize those mistakes through proper decision making — especially knowing when to pull the plug. I have turned around more often than pressed forward, and that’s when the Collywobbles can serve their purpose.

Perhaps the biggest skill in risk management, whether in the backcountry or at home, comes from knowing the source of that uneasy feeling. Are you in a bad situation that could get worse? Or is that feeling simply a fear of the unknown? Perhaps it’s a sign that you are about to do something great. I believe that deciphering whether the threat is real or an irrational fear helps separate those who do great things versus those who simply talk about doing great things.

As for the Wilderness First Responder course itself, I highly recommend it. Try to get Rachel as an instructor if you can. Positivity, personality, and knowledge go a long way when learning a skill and her guidance was invaluable.