Few outdoor-recreation organizations have a finer reputation for safety and professionalism than the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Even so, the Lander-based nonprofit notched a sad milestone in September—its 12th death in the wilderness-education school’s 46-year history. Tom Plotkin, a 20-year-old from Minnesota, fell after twisting his ankle on a steep trail above the Ganges River in India and is presumed dead.
It’s a reminder that the inherent risks of outdoor recreation will catch up with even the best-prepared organizations.
The great outdoors is full of risks, but since they are risks that people enter into willingly, government regulators only rarely set minimum standards. No one tells NOLS, for example, how its student groups must proceed when traveling in grizzly country.
Recreation providers in Wyoming who aspire to a strong safety record say they must invest time and money to ferret out the best practices in their industry, and to teach those skills and lessons to their staff, clients, and students.
NOLS has its own risk-management team, headed by Drew Leemon.
“If we can articulate why we do certain things, and have sound practices for what we do, that will go a long way toward protecting our business,” Leemon says. “It’s worked for us for a long time.”
Few Wyoming recreation providers are as big as NOLS, but its commitment to continually updating its safety practices is something that any provider could emulate. NOLS maintains a list of “accepted field practices” that govern how students and trip leaders should manage significant risks, such as crossing swollen rivers.
In 2009, NOLS had a scare in Alaska when several students slipped while jointly fording the Talkeetna River, leaving some of the students with mild to moderate hypothermia. In reviewing the incident, NOLS found that the instructors hadn’t closely followed its accepted practices.
Months later, Leemon re-wrote the guidelines for crossing rivers, using input from field instructors. The school added some new methods for crossing, and introduced an acronym—WADE (Watch, Assess, Decide, Execute)—to help insure that instructors and students approach a river in a deliberate way.
Leemon says it’s too soon to tell whether NOLS will change its practices based on the death in India, or the highly publicized grizzly attack in July on a group of seven NOLS students in Alaska. Until this summer, NOLS had led trips in Alaska for 40 years—serving nearly 10,000 students—without a grizzly attack, by adhering to the practice of traveling in groups of four or more.
“We learn from experience,” Leemon says. “Every situation presents some new angle that we can incorporate into our practices.”
Other Wyoming providers are also learning from experience.
After record-breaking high-water years in 2007 and 2008, the eight whitewater rafting companies that operate in Snake River Canyon met to agree on some common safety standards. Among other things, the companies agreed that if the Snake is flowing at more than 16,000 cubic feet per second, they won’t use the smaller 8-person rafts, which are more likely to flip in high water than 16-person rafts, according to Heather Ewing, the owner of Barker-Ewing River Trips.
Barker-Ewing has also established its own practice of providing clients with free wet suits on cold days when the combined air and water temperatures do not exceed 100. (During the warmer periods in July and August—when wet suits are a convenience—Barker-Ewing rents the suits for a fee.) One of the biggest risks of rafting during run-off is hypothermia from exposure to the Snake’s frigid waters.
“The scariest thing for us in high water is how fast things move and how cold that water is,” Ewing says. “The wet suit is going to buy you more time.”
At the Absoraka Ranch, which operates pack and hunting trips near Dubois, owner Bud Betts runs through a Monday-morning checklist of safety information for clients. Wranglers conduct a horse-safety checklist every morning. And employees participate in annual safety and First-Aid programs offered by the Dude Ranchers’ Association, which is based in Cody.
“This is stuff that never happened 20 years ago,” Betts says.
Those systematic approaches to safety may save a life — or they may not.
“If I have a horse that I know bucks or has a propensity to run away, I can’t put a client on it,” Betts says. “But then again, any horse can buck or run away. They’re a horse. That’s the act of God aspect.”
Wyoming law states that clients of outdoor-recreation providers take on the “inherent risk” of the activity, but Catherine Hansen-Stamp, a lawyer who provides legal and risk-management advice to several outdoor-recreation companies in Wyoming, notes that the line between injuries that result from inherent risk and those that result from provider negligence can be a gray one.
That’s one reason why she says every company should consider having a well-crafted participant agreement that includes, among other things, an acknowledgment and assumption of risks and a release of liability for negligence. “Such an agreement provides important information to participants so they can make choices about whether or not to participate,” she says. (She notes that some federal agencies limit permittees in the use of these agreements.)
The agreements can also provide potential protections for the organization, she says.
“I’ve seen cases in which a plaintiff will argue, sometimes unreasonably, that an injury was caused by the defendant’s negligence,” she says. “The organization may instead believe the injury resulted from an inherent risk or some other cause – perhaps the plaintiff’s negligence. This gives the organization the opportunity to say, ‘Well, wait a minute. You signed this agreement.”
But some Wyoming recreation providers say too much talk about risks on the front end of a trip can take away from the fun and relaxation that the client is seeking, and possibly create tension between the provider and client before the trip even starts.
George Hunker, a former NOLS instructor, has run a fly-fishing guiding business focused on backcountry trips in the Wind River Mountains for three decades. During that time, his Lander-based company, Sweetwater Fishing, has had to evacuate two clients via helicopter. One had a torn quadriceps muscle, and the other a broken ankle.
Hunker makes sure his clients know what they’re getting into, but he doesn’t do a major safety briefing in advance. Instead, he doles out advice on a need-to-know basis. When heading through a boulder field, he might let a client slip on a small lichen-covered rock—“gain a little experience”—before he pipes up with a lesson about how to safely navigate the bigger boulders.
“You don’t want your clients to be so paranoid of risk that they don’t have a good time,” Hunker says. “My general philosophy is that the guide should be looking out for everything, and have a mental checklist, so that the clients are completely safe without having to worry about those sorts of things. They hire you as a guide because it makes things easier for them.”
For years, he fended off his insurance company, which wanted him to make clients sign a risk-acknowledgement form. Finally Hunker caved, but he put his own twist on it, with language that fit his philosophy more than the insurance company’s.
“I understand that risks, dangers, and hardships can never be completely eliminated,” the form concludes. “I realize I may be a long way from medical attention. I expect you to take care of me like I was one of your own children.”