The Durango-based Open Sky Wilderness Therapy program could face licensing and accreditation repercussions following a December incident in which six students were sent to a hospital for frostbite and two of them required an emergency flight to Denver for further care.
According to Open Sky’s CEO and founder Aaron Fernandes, the students were treated for frostbite on Dec. 28 and Dec. 29 at Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez after being out in nearly zero-degree temperatures in the Utah backcountry.
Four students were evaluated and released. However, two students were flown to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, where they were treated and subsequently released, Fernandes said.
“We don’t have the final answer yet, but at the moment it appears that the students were not wearing suitable footwear for the cold weather conditions,” Fernandes said. “We are still investigating if there were errors in the decision-making by our staff regarding footwear or any other deviations from our safety guidelines.”
Fernandes said responders moved as quickly as possible, but he was “troubled that it took the time it did to get the students from the backcountry to the hospital.”
“Obviously, I am deeply concerned and alarmed about these events. We are doing everything we can to prevent something like this from ever happening again.”
Fernandes said he couldn’t comment further on the nature or seriousness of the injuries, citing student privacy. But he did say “all six students are either currently enrolled in or have recently graduated from the Open Sky program.”
Open Sky, founded in 2006, takes troubled teens and young adults into the backcountry for therapeutic treatment. Courses can last up to 10 weeks, based on the needs of the student.
The program has a summer location in the forests of the San Juan Mountains near Dolores, at an elevation of 7,700 feet.
Its winter site, where the incident occurred, is about an hour and forty-five minutes from Durango in the high desert of southeastern Utah, near the city of Blanding. The base camp elevation is 6,300 feet.
The National Weather Service reported that on Dec. 28 at the Blanding Municipal Airport the high was 26 degrees and the low was 4 degrees. The next day, highs hovered around 28 degrees with lows near 17 degrees.
Paul Gibson, clinical director of the emergency department at Mercy Regional Medical Center, said “it’s got to be pretty freezing out there” for frostbite to occur. Gibson was unfamiliar with the Open Sky incident, but said “the exposure was probably tremendous” to require a transport to Denver.
“They probably exhibited later signs of frostbite,” Gibson said. “That’s when the skin starts to die and fall off. Generally, they’ll send them to the burn center in Denver, because the treatment is pretty similar.”
Open Sky is accredited by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council and the Association for Experiential Education.
Mike Gass, a director at Outdoor Behavioral research center, said internal and external reviews are conducted of field incidents, which could affect an organization’s accreditation status.
“If a program did something inappropriate, they could be put on probation or, if it’s serious enough, have accreditation revoked,” Gass said. “My understanding is this was a cold snap that came in and affected the program. It’s a rare occurrence, but there are some things in nature you just can’t predict.”
Dan Miller, a standards director for the Association of Experiential Education, wrote in an email that the organization is “aware of this incident, and it maintains regular communication with all of our accredited programs to ensure that they remain in compliance with our standards.”
The Human Services departments of both Colorado and Utah, which Open Sky is licensed under, did not respond to inquiries about the specific incident. Pamela Neu, with Colorado’s DHS, said if an incident reaches a critical level, investigations could be launched under the state’s Child Welfare program.
Fernandes said Open Sky is in compliance with the reporting requirements of both states.
Wilderness therapy came under intense scrutiny in the mid-1990s following the death of a 16-year old boy in Utah involved in a different program. That caused criticism that outdoor programs were more of an abusive boot camp than a holistic healing experience.
Danny Frazer, a co-founder of Open Sky, told High County News at that time it was a “kick in the butt” to the industry, which led many wilderness programs to seek state licensing and accreditation.
“There’s been a major transformation since the mid-1990s when there was a number of accidents and incidents that were inappropriate,” Gass said. “The field has really matured since, in the last 10 to 15 years.”
Robin Reber, an admissions director for Star Guides Wilderness in Grand Junction, said it’s industry practice to use state-of-the-art winter gear when bringing students out into the backcountry in cold temperatures.
“I don’t know of any wilderness program that doesn’t operate year-round,” Reber said. “We’re very careful with the young people we have, and we don’t like being cold either. You have to be really conscious of the temperature.”