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Wilderness survival: From preparation to execution

Robert Allen
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Kaylie MillerColorado Mountain College-Summit instructor Brian Taylor demonstrates how to build a fire for surviving in the wilderness.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – A survival situation may lurk around the next turn for the avid hiker, backcountry skier or other recreator in the nearby mountains – particularly in the winter.

As the sun falls and temperatures plummet, the Colorado wilderness quickly becomes life-threatening to someone lost, stranded or injured.

“The more time you spend outside, the more likely you are to get caught in these situations,” said CMC-Summit emergency medical services coordinator and faculty chair Brian Taylor.

He shares tips such as how a 3 millimeter-thick garbage bag is more useful than the typical reflective emergency blanket.

Taylor’s popular Survival Skills class is offered each semester at the Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge Center. After September’s class hit the 20-student limit, another was offered this weekend to folks who didn’t attend.

The two-day course includes hands-on instruction and covers requirements for staying alive in backcountry deserts and mountains. It involves shelter building, signaling, food and water procurement, survival medicine, how to build a survival kit and more.

On Saturday, students learned the basics of building fires and shelters for survival.

“You’d think it’d be more complex, but the technique is so simple,” said Tony Bustamante, 22, after helping create a shelter of an emergency blanket anchored to a tree with sticks.

Bustamante of Boulder said he’s taking the class as he earns his associate’s of arts degree.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “We go from hearing about (the skills) in the classroom to actually applying the knowledge.”

Taylor said the course formerly involved more time in the classroom but that many of the skills are best learned outside.

As a longtime member and team leader with Summit County Rescue Group, Taylor’s had plenty of opportunities to test the techniques. Just a few weeks ago, he was on the all-night evacuation mission to rescue an injured hunter in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness area.

Many survival guides on “chasing bunny rabbits and rubbing sticks together” and making bows and arrows and snares aren’t applicable to busy 21st century people, Taylor said.

“We are not mountain men and women anymore,” he said. “If you don’t practice those skills every day in non-emergent situations, you’re not going to be able to do it.”

And many widely available survival kits don’t offer the best tools for sustaining life in the wilderness. Taylor said every wire-survival saw he’s seen used was broken during its first use.

He explained the importance of having the proper knife for a given situation.

Among the tips were to bring along a knife with a “full tang,” meaning the metal blade extends through the handle to the bottom.

“This is a hammer. I can beat nails into wood with this,” Taylor said while he demonstrated with a fixed-blade Cold Steel knife.

Taylor said the decision to stay or go is one of the most important decisions facing someone in a survival situation.

“That is usually the factor that decides if you live or if you die,” he said. “It’s easier to stay in one place and survive than to survive on the move.”

Surviving in the wilderness takes willpower and attention to the “sacred order:” shelter, fire, water and food.

Proper survival philosophy is the base of putting the skills and tools at one’s disposal to good use.

“If you start crying, everyone else is going to cry,” Taylor said.

Max Gorham, 19, moved from Vermont to Breckenridge a few months ago. He took the class after finding it in the CMC course catalog and hearing from people that it was “pretty cool.”

“I’m currently trying to become a big skier and it’s extremely important to have this knowledge to survive,” he said.

After making shelters on Saturday, the seven students learned about supplies and skills for building a survival fire. Today the class involves building natural shelters in varying climates, water procurement and filtration, and survival medicine among other skills.

The Survival Skills course offered in January also involves digging snow caves and shelters, Taylor said.

Taylor’s experience includes more than 15 years as a guide and volunteering as a team leader with Summit County Rescue Group. He’s learned from some of the nation’s best survival instructors and has a degree in outdoor education from Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or rallen@summitdaily.com.


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