Editor’s note: Shelli Johnson and her family were on vacation in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park when they found themselves first responders on the scene after a girl took a serious fall from a cliff (story here).
Here, Shelli writes about what it was like for her, her husband, and their three sons to be the first responders (Shelli took NOLS Brooks Range Backpacking - Prime and Wilderness First Responder courses).
How did you react in the moment?
It was difficult to collect myself. I did it, and I think I did so in short order, but in the moment, it felt hard. It felt heavy. The weight of responsibility, the seriousness of the situation, the desire to help, knowing that time was of the essence, and the mother in me were all felt. I took some deep breaths, and that helped me compose myself as I took my first steps and sprang into action to help the girl who fell.
How did your family talk about the fall afterward?
As a family, we have revisited the experience often. Here are a few thoughts from my sons and husband:
My son Fin, 9: “I felt bad, and sad.”
My son Hayden, 15: “It was a shocking experience. We’ve been coming here for years and we have so much fun here. Nothing like this has ever happened and I didn’t know what to do. I was worried, and I was hoping that everything would turn out okay. I was glad to be of some use, and to be able to help. I hope [she] will recover from her injuries.”
My son Wolf, 17 (a Wind River Wilderness course graduate): “It really opened my eyes. We’ve been exploring in the outdoors for so many years, and even though we know something like this can happen, it never has. I heard the yell, and then when we found her I initially wondered what had happened. And when I learned that she fell, and I saw the height she fell from, I was amazed that she was alive. I remember thinking, ‘This is serious. We’ve got to hurry and get help and get her to a hospital.’ I hope she’s doing okay.”
My husband, Jerry: “The experience was a reminder of how quickly things can change. Just moments before, we were acting like kids, following our boys as they led us up and over and through the Goblin pinnacles, and then next thing you know, we hear a yell for help, and things are suddenly life and death. I wouldn’t choose that situation, and yet I’m glad we were there, and able to be of some help. And I sure hope [she] is doing okay.”
Why did this event feel like a surprise? In what ways did you feel prepared?
I’m no cavalier parent. Just ask Jerry and my sons. I don’t mean to brag, but I am an expert when it comes to worrying. I’ve got it down, and for better or worse, I try my best to keep the boys on a short leash in places that are remote and that have high consequences should something go wrong.
Still, hearing the scream, and the yell for help, caught us off guard. We have been playing in the wilderness for most of our lives, and all of our sons’ lives, and we have never had this happen before. We know it can, but until March 30, we hadn’t ever witnessed, or been a part of, a life-threatening injury or rescue.
I was prepared in that I had Wilderness First Responder skills and considerable “manpower.” My husband helped make sure someone had run to the ranger station to get help, and our oldest sons, Wolf, 17, and Hayden, 15, put their capable, strong bodies to work right away, by offering to run for supplies and to try and find more help, and eventually help carry her out in the litter.
I think I was prepared, but I wonder if I could have been more prepared. This is a question I continue to think about. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that worrying and having Wilderness First Responder skills are not enough. We need to more often consider not only what can go wrong, but what to do in the event that it does. To be honest, I could do more preparing in the form of going through worst case scenarios and having mental plans in place. I will be better prepared as a result of this in the future. I have promised myself that I will be, and I don’t take this lightly.
Given that the patient was a young girl, what ways did this make you think about your role as a parent?
The mother in me was out in full force, both in wanting to help calm [the girl] down and to assure her she would be okay and that we were there for her. But no question, as a parent who is already a worrier and well aware of all the things that go wrong for your children in wild places, this experience won’t leave me any time soon, and probably not for the rest of my life. I won’t shake the image, and honestly, and I don’t view that as a bad thing.
You’ve mentioned that “worrying is not enough” when planning a trip with your family. What are some things you and your family do before heading out?
I always make sure we’re all prepared, that we have plenty of food and water, rain jackets and adequate clothing, etc. I check the weather forecast, and, depending on the time of year, the trail conditions. I make sure we have a first aid kit. I am a planner and value preparation in all that I do, particularly when it involves outdoor adventure, so everyone in our family knows the plan when we set out for our adventure. Usually, my parents also know of our plans and whereabouts. I have an InReach beacon just in case.
The only thing I’ll change, and it’s significant I think, is to think through the action steps to take if something bad happens. I think about the “what ifs” and the things that can go wrong all of the time. That’s not a problem; I couldn’t do that any better. But what I could do better is spend more time considering the action plan for after something bad happens.
This reminds me of my work as I coach leaders from throughout the U.S. on their life and leadership challenges. I work with them around “fear setting” and the importance of articulating worst case scenarios, and then coming up with action steps for each. It’s sort of a “premortem” process—to plan for the worst so that if the worst happens you’re not caught unawares, and you’re able to spring into action that isn’t reactive but, rather, responsive. I need to follow my own advice here when it comes to embarking on my own outdoor adventures.