Summer in the high country – from panoramic mountain views to verdant Aspen groves, summer is a particularly vibrant season to experience wilderness therapy at Open Sky. Living in the vast wilderness allows Open Sky students to build skills and face elements, which foster resilience and competence. At Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, maintaining the physical and emotional safety of our students is the utmost priority.
Open Sky is committed to maintaining the highest standards of safety in all aspects of operations. During the summer, Open Sky implements specific season-related protocols, which encompass all elements of programming and personnel. These include staff training and risk management, specialized personnel, state-of-the-art equipment and gear, course area management, weather-related safety considerations, and program accreditation.
Open Sky meticulously selects highly qualified staff who are experienced outdoor professionals committed to student safety. All field staff are trained in CPR and are certified Wilderness First Responders (WFR), the nationally recognized standard in wilderness medicine education. A WFR is trained to provide extended emergency medical care in a wilderness setting. A typical WFR certification requires 72-80 hours of classroom and practical training, along with successful completion of both a written and practical exam.
Field guides receive extensive training in Open Sky’s risk management policies and procedures. Guides who work during summer months are also required to complete specific seasonal skills training. The comprehensive risk management training provides guides with tools to mitigate risks unique to the summer operations including weather considerations.
Summer trainings emphasize prevention first. With their WFR backgrounds, field guides are well-versed in the ways in which our bodies can react to changing weather conditions. Open Sky offers guides weekly trainings on weather-related safety topics in order to keep information and preferred practice procedures fresh and up-to-date. Guides are trained to identify various signs and symptoms of heat-related conditions and to treat accordingly. During the summer, guides are required to visually witness students drinking a minimum of 3–4 liters of water per day in order to ensure our students stay properly hydrated. Hydration games and other lighthearted interventions are utilized by field guides to make staying hydrated easier and more enjoyable for students. Groups are also required to have electrolyte replacement supplements available during the warmer months.
Open Sky also has a dedicated risk management team comprised of members representing each of the company’s departments, as well as external experts. The risk management team meets each quarter to address seasonal needs and a variety of response scenarios. These in-service meetings are required for program management, field guides, medical personnel, operations staff, and field managers. Additionally, Open Sky holds 90-minute field staff trainings each week to address wilderness therapy safety, wilderness skills, course curriculum, and other risk management related topics.
Open Sky is the only wilderness program with around-the-clock field leadership and a field medic who are embedded in the field 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Open Sky employs two full-time field medics, one of whom is a Registered Nurse, and the other a certified Wilderness EMT. The field medic is available to respond rapidly in the event of any illness or emergent need.
Open Sky is committed to providing the highest quality gear to both our staff and our students. Our students are provided with exceptional gear designed specifically for summer conditions, including (but not limited to):
Field guides are provided with state-of-the-art equipment to allow consistent communication between groups and the field director. Each team carries:
Open Sky uses the highest quality technology to maintain communications with our field operations. Twice each day (morning and afternoon), guides are required to check in with support personnel via handheld radio, satellite phone, or cell phone. Each non-scheduled call from the field has a defined response sequence appropriate to the need. At any given time, there are at least three people on call in the field – the field director, field manager, and field medic – who are available as first responders to any emergency situation in the field. Calls for medical or clinical response are attended to quickly and efficiently.
Each May, Open Sky students and staff migrate to the higher elevations of nearby mountains. Situated at 7,600 ft. elevation, our base camp lies adjacent to beautiful mountain landscapes in all directions. The natural environment features extensive wooded areas and tree cover, which help provide shade and keep students cool during warm summer days. In addition, the high elevation means our course area is generally mild and cooler. Generally, summer course area temperatures will average in the range of 70–80°F during the day and 40–50°F at night.
Even when temperatures feel comfortable, Open Sky employs preferred practice safety procedures by monitoring weather continuously during the summer months. Forecasts are monitored around the clock and are provided by phone or radio to field guides in each group when changes are anticipated. Students do not hike or leave basecamp if temperatures are above 90 °F. If severe weather is forecasted, field guides are are informed and adjustments to each team’s itineraries are made accordingly.
Here at Open Sky, we utilize a hybrid base camp-wilderness model year-round. This means that students spend several days each week at our high country base camp during the summer. One advantage of the hybrid model is that our base camp was designed with specific summer safety-related features in mind.
Each team’s base campsite is furnished with large rainproof tarps. These industrial style tarps protect students by offering shade and weather protection to ensure basic physical safety. These structures also provide a central location in which daily therapeutic activities such as cooking, meals, and groups can continue regardless of weather. In addition, each Open Sky student receives a personal tarp and expert instruction to construct individual shelters for use during journaling and personal reflection time. Finally, individual shower and toilet stalls have been installed at all base campsites to allow each student additional privacy and access to personal hygiene without compromising supervision.
Other warm weather-related wilderness therapy safety topics integrated into the summer training curriculum for our field instructors include, but are not limited to:
Around mid-summer, the high country typically receives a brief “rainy season” in which afternoon showers or storms become more frequent.
With naturally occurring weather events like thunderstorms, we prepare our staff with preemptive training about summer weather-related safety issues. Field guides learn to recognize weather patterns, identify safe terrain, and employ specific safety policies in the event of a lightning storm.
At Open Sky, prevention is key. With weather forecasts regularly communicated to staff in the field, guides are able to take action early by adjusting their team’s itinerary to maximize safety when storms are predicted.
It’s no secret that alpine forest areas are home to a vast array of wildlife. At Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, we adhere to the safety principles of the Leave No Trace (LNT) Program. Field guides help new students understand the importance of minimizing our impact on the environment by teaching and role modeling LNT principles.
These principles are instrumental to the existence of wilderness therapy. They provide guidance to us as a program so that Open Sky may continue to help students enjoy the therapeutic benefits of living in the natural world. These guidelines set the industry standard for sustainable practices that avoid human-created impacts.
This includes the risks and repercussions of human interventions relating to wildlife. At Open Sky, we work to mitigate risk and prevent such outcomes by diligently following waste reduction strategies and respecting wildlife in its natural habitat.
Although wildfires typically do not pose a threat to our course area, Open Sky Wilderness Therapy utilizes certain safety procedures to further mitigate any potential fire risk – especially during dry months. Field guides also receive training in fire-related safety procedures to employ should the threat ever become feasible.
Open Sky maintains a strong relationship with the federal forest service. Of the more than 50 permit holders in this district, Open Sky is the largest operator and has an exceptional working partnership with national forest administrators. Our field leadership team maintains direct communication with the district office year-round. We pride ourselves on the strong partnership and working relationship between our organization and the agencies with which we partner.
Operating on state and federal forest land provides other benefits in terms of mitigating the risk of wildfire. The region’s fire risk is monitored continuously by multi-party federal, state, and local agencies. When conditions are dry enough, leading agencies will enact regulations such as a fire ban (no open flames). Open Sky works with these agencies to adjust programming accordingly when fire restrictions are in place.
In November 2014, Open Sky was the first wilderness therapy program to receive the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) accreditation, co-developed by the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) and the OBH Council, and independently managed by the AEE. This voluntary accreditation, granted by an independent, third-party group of professionals, ensures that we not only meet the minimum state regulations but also meet or exceed the industry’s standards of preferred practices. OBH accreditation required achieving an independent, comprehensive accreditation standard including protocols that address risk management and both winter and summer safety. Open Sky’s OBH accreditation was renewed in Fall 2017, signifying our ongoing commitment to quality, safety, and risk-management preferred practices.
In conclusion, risk management preferred practices make wilderness therapy a proven safe intervention for adolescents and young adults. As one OBH Council study puts it: “While no treatment can guarantee the total safety of any child, adolescents participating in OBHC programs are actually at less risk than adolescents not participating in these programs.” In fact, research shows that the average American adolescent is two times more likely to visit an emergency room than an adolescent participating in an OBHC-accredited wilderness therapy program.