Five surprising tips that can save your life.
ACCIDENTS HAPPEN. It’s the nature of nature, since chaos is built into the system. The trick is knowing the right thing to do when the wrong thing occurs. Which, for too many years, I didn’t.
More than a decade ago, my brother Dan and I attempted to bike the length of Africa. We started at the top, in Morocco. Aside from puking up rotten dates and getting scrubbed too hard in a Marrakesh bathhouse, everything was going swell. South of Casablanca, we spent a night on one of the highest passes in the High Atlas Mountains, taking refuge in a tiny hut. The caretaker, a four-foot Berber, offered us shots of sweet mint tea. The only food was a jar of giant olives.
At one point, Dan had to take a leak and disappeared through the hut door into the darkness. When he didn’t come back, I started to wonder. Half an hour later, the Berber and I went for a look. Apparently, Dan had tried to walk around the back, but the hut was perched on a cliff. The Berber was swinging an oil lantern, and we were both staring over the edge when I heard Dan say, “Some brother’s keeper you are.” I climbed down the cliff; when I reached Dan, he was lying in the rocks with one mangled foot in the air.
“Broke my leg taking a piss,” he half-laughed, half-winced. We hauled him back to the hut and laid him out. I said, “This is going to hurt.”
“No shit, bro.”
I gave his foot a jerk, and he screamed and passed out. I straightened it but failed to splint it, so it was still floppy. Dan was in excruciating pain for a week before we got his lower leg put in a cast. Then we modified his bike pedals and continued riding through Africa.
Had I taken a wilderness medicine class, I would have known this: When you reset broken bones, you don’t yank. Instead, you pull, slowly and firmly, gradually allowing the bones to settle back into place. Then you splint the fracture, using whatever is at hand. A foam pad works well; sticks wrapped with a jacket will do.
Truth is, I should have taken a proper first-aid course 30 years ago. I guess I figured on picking up whatever I needed along the way, one expedition at a time. But after another trip to Africa during which chaos reigned—more on that in a moment—I decided it was irresponsible of me not to know exactly what to do in an emergency. So I coughed up $600 for one of the best training experiences in the country, the NOLS Wilderness First Responder course (nicknamed Woofer, a loose take on its acronym), and braced myself for ten straight days, nearly ten hours a day, of medical instruction.