Winter is a particularly powerful time to enroll in wilderness therapy. Living amidst the winter elements provides students with unique opportunities to increase competence and resiliency. When students complete a winter stay at Open Sky, they leave with a tremendous sense of pride, empowerment, and confidence – attributes that will serve them well as they navigate life’s future challenges.
At Open Sky, we are committed to maintaining the highest risk management standards in all aspects of our operations. During the winter, Open Sky implements specific winter wilderness risk management practices and protocols that encompass all aspects of programming, including course area management, guide training, staffing, student education, gear, nutrition, activities and program accreditation.
Course Area Management
In October, our course area moves from the high mountains of Colorado to the desert canyon country of Southeastern Utah where the climate is more hospitable, precipitation is infrequent, and sunshine is plentiful. The typically mild winters in the lower elevations provide perfect conditions for our winter course area. Between November and March, average high temperatures range from 41 – 61 °F, average low temperatures from 20 – 32 °F, and average snowfall accumulation is between 0.5 to 4.5 inches.
Open Sky utilizes a hybrid base camp/wilderness model year-round. Each group’s base campsite is furnished with a large tipi, a canvas wall tent with a wood-burning stove and a covered camp structure, which provide teams with shelter and warmth during winter. These structures also provide areas to gather, prepare food, eat, and dry gear. In addition, individual shower stall structures in each group site provide the added comfort of a warm shower, and gravel pathways throughout base camp alleviate the inherent challenge of mud and clay. Firewood is stocked throughout our operating area for easy access.
Weather is monitored continuously with twice-daily forecasts provided (by phone or radio) to the field guides in each group. Students do not leave basecamp for expedition if temperatures are below 10 °F. When significant inclement weather is in the forecast during expedition, groups are required to return to base camp to stay comfortably in the tipis or other shelters during passing storms.
Open Sky instructors are highly qualified and experienced outdoor professionals committed to students’ physical and emotional well-being. All instructors 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 practice training, along with successful completion of both a written and practical exam.)
Our field department has a mandatory curriculum for winter wilderness risk management training. This mandatory curriculum provides guides with a comprehensive understanding and competency in winter camping skills and best practice risk mitigation. The training’s emphasis is on prevention and then stop-and-fix. Guides are well-versed in the ways in which our bodies can lose heat and are trained in weather-related injury identification and treatment. During the winter, each student receives extremities checks (hands, feet, and head) a minimum of three times per day and more frequently in specific situations.
Our emergency response team meets quarterly to address seasonal needs and a variety of response scenarios. These in-service meetings are required for program management, field guides, operations staff and field managers. Additionally, we hold a 90-minute field staff training each week to address safety, wilderness skills, course curriculum, and other risk-management topics. Beyond internal training, Open Sky routinely coordinates with the local community to ensure effective collaboration and best practice protocols are in place.
Open Sky is the only wilderness program with an around-the-clock field manager and field medic who live in base camp 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Open Sky employs two full-time field medics, with minimum credentials of either Wilderness-EMT or RN. That way, there is always one medic living in base camp and embedded in the field to oversee the safety and well-being of each student. The field medic is available to respond rapidly in the event of illness or an emergent need. No other wilderness program provides this level of around-the-clock medical support.
Upon enrollment, each student is provided with the Open Sky Student Pathway, an educational guidebook specifically designed to educate students on self-care in the wilderness. A primary goal of the Student Pathway is to empower students with the information they need to thrive in the wilderness environment. Students engage practices to support their physical safety and self-care (hydration, temperature management, and wilderness skills) as a part of progressing through the therapeutic curriculum of the Pathway.
Open Sky students are provided with exceptional gear designed specifically for winter conditions: insulated winter hiking boots, over-boots, winter socks, thick long underwear, fleece jackets, deep winter sleeping bags, puffy warm jackets, insulated gloves, hats, neck gaiters and waterproof outer layers. Sleeping bags are rated to -30 °F and students are provided with two insulated sleeping pads. Students receive two of each base layer (thick and thin) so they have clean and dry base layers. In the winter months, our operations team does the students’ laundry on a weekly basis, so they have at least three pairs of fresh, clean, and dry socks at all times. Camp shoes are also provided so that insulated hiking boots and NEOs (over-boot covers) may be dried overnight.
Open Sky modifies diets in winter to include calorie-dense foods such as extra protein, butter, peanut butter, and nuts so that sufficient calories are consumed to offset additional energy demands of winter temperatures. We also provide hot beverages and carefully monitor water intake and hydration.
Open Sky was the first wilderness therapy program to receive the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) accreditation, developed and conducted by the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) and the OBH Council. 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 five protocols addressing winter wilderness safety and risk management. Open Sky’s OBH accreditation was renewed in Fall 2017, signifying our unending commitment to best practices in quality, safety, and risk management.