Monday, May 07, 2007

Could this death have been prevented?

How far should survival courses go in pushing clients?

(AP photo of Dave Buschow from msnbc site)

Ultra Rob, an Out There friend and fellow blogger who spends a lot of time in Colorado's outdoors, e-mailed to ask about "Dying of Thirst," an AP story that ran in Saturday's Gazette.

The story tells of a New Jersey man who went to Utah last summer to test his skills and endurance with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. He died as a result of dehydration, walking hours in 100-degree heat with no water.

The recent story shares a lot of details that were not released last summer. It appears other clients and the leaders of the trek knew Buschow was in trouble - meaning, that he wasn't a just whiner but was struggling mightily - but there's disagreement about knowledge of the seriousness of Buschow's condition in his final hours.

Here's excerpts from the story. Follow this link to read the entire piece on
ED WHITE, AP writer:

BOULDER, Utah — By Day 2 in the blazing Utah desert, Dave Buschow was in bad shape.

Pale, wracked by cramps, his speech slurred, the 29-year-old New Jersey man was desperate for water and hallucinating so badly he mistook a tree for a person.

After going roughly 10 hours without a drink in the 100-degree heat, he finally dropped dead of thirst, face down in the dirt, less than 100 yards from the goal: a cave with a pool of water.

But Buschow was no solitary soul, lost and alone in the desert. He and 11 other hikers from various walks of life were being led by expert guides on a wilderness-survival adventure designed to test their physical and mental toughness.

And the guides, it turned out, were carrying emergency water on that torrid summer day.
Buschow wasn’t told that, and he wasn’t offered any. The guides did not want him to fail the $3,175 course. They wanted him to dig deep, push himself beyond his known limits, and make it to the cave on his own.

Nearly a year later, documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act reveal those and other previously undisclosed details of what turned out to be a death march for Buschow. They also raise questions about the judgments
and priorities of the guides at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. What matters more: the customer’s welfare or his quest?

“It was so needless. What a shame. It didn’t have to happen,” said Ray Gardner, the Garfield County sheriff’s deputy who hiked six miles to recover Buschow’s body. “They had emergency water right there. I would have given him a drink.”

... While regretting the tragedy, the school, known as BOSS, has denied any negligence and instead blamed Buschow, saying the security officer and former Air Force airman did not read course materials, may have withheld health information and may have eaten too heavily before leaving River Vale, N.J., for the grueling

Noting Buschow signed liability waivers, the school said: “Mr. Buschow expressly assumed the risk of serious injury or death prior to participating.”

Garfield County authorities declined to file charges, saying there was insufficient evidence the school acted with criminal negligence. The prosecutor said participants knew they were taking a risk.

"We were all desperate for water,” a camper wrote. “Every time (Buschow) would fall or lie down, it took a huge amount of effort to pick him back up. His speech was thick and his mouth swollen.”

During a break, (Buschow) mistook a tree for a person and said, “There she is.”

“This was the first point at which I became concerned knowing that delirium happens when dehydration becomes severe,” a camper wrote. Buschow “also asked if there was much air traffic that went through here, and asked if anyone had a signal mirror."

By 7 p.m., as the sun descended and temperatures cooled a bit, the group approached a cave in Cottonwood Canyon, known to BOSS guides as a reliable source of water.

Buschow’s companions were carrying his possessions for him. Within earshot of people exhilarated about the pool of water, he collapsed for the last time.

“He said he could not go on,” staff member Shawn O’Neal wrote two days later in a statement ordered by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. “I felt that he could make it this short distance and told him he could do it as I have seen many students
sore, dehydrated and saying ’can’t’ do something only to find that they have strength beyond their conceived limits.”

Buschow’s death was caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, according to Dr. Edward Leis, Utah’s deputy chief medical examiner, who found no evidence of drugs or other factors.

We got a few comments when we originally posted this story. Some think you know the rists when you sign up for these courses. Others think trained guides should have known the different between someone "pushing" him/herself and someone in serious trouble. Your thoughts?


zen said...

IMHO the problem is the emphasis on pass / fail in this kind of course, for both participants and guides alike, neither of which wants to make the wrong decision.

The participant doesn't want to lose his cash. The guides don't want to sully their reputations. Judgement is clouded by desire. And no decision is made at all.

Bottom line, guides must have absolute authority to end the field excercise for a participant for any reason, solely at their discretion without fear of backlash from the participant or the guide school. And this should be spelled out in writing, in the waivers participants sign, and in the employment contracts guides sign.

I have to believe had the guides had this kind of support - i.e. their jobs weren't dependent on pass / fail rates - Buschow might still be alive.

Dena Rosenberry said...

Great point, Zen. I know there's a lot of pressure to "fulfill goals" on these trips. Guides should be trained to the point they feel confident to make a call that counters the "goal." And clients should sign a release they will abide with the experts' calls.

I watched a guide in the Ruwenzori Mountains beg a German climber to head to lower elevation. The guy wouldn't do it. There were hikers, climbers, guides and porters all desperately urging the guy to let them help him.

I never learned whether the man lived, but he and his partner refused all help - and he was clearly in a dangerous state of altitude sickness.

Aside from an unpreventable accident, there should be a 'tomorrow' for all clients.

outdoorspro said...

I've been a professional guide for years (like many of your readers, i assume) and this is complete BS.

These guides make a living taking people into very dangerous situations, where the biggest hazard is dehydration. The fact that the guides couldn't/wouldn't recognize the symptoms of life-threatening dehydration clearly indicates just how utterly incompetent they were.

Ultimately, once you're out in the field the guest can refuse treatment or make rescue and life saving difficult, but in this case there isn't a single indication that the guide ever offered treatment. In this case, the water he was hiding.

It is a sad fact of the guiding world that many, many clients are unprepared and irresponsible. If we start ignoring our responsibilities as paid, professional guides just because of this fact, we'd be leaving dead bodies all over the place.

One of the biggest responsibilities we have as guides is protecting the clients from themselves. Clearly, the guides in this case should have been criminally charged for failing to look after the safety of their clients.

UltraRob said...

Zen has a good point about there being a lot of pressure for guides to get their clients to pass. Still they need to know when someone is in serious trouble.

Most people can do way more than they think they can. The mind generally gives up long before the body fails. Still there's a time when the body breaks down. Generally by the time that happens the person is too far gone mentally to know they need to pull the plug. In this case, it was the guides' responsibility. Sunday I posted on my blog more of my opinion about this survival course gone wrong.