“Monthly highlights” is a series of post concentrating on a 10-month wilderness guide course I am taking this year at Niittylahden opisto near Joensuu in Eastern Finland. These posts try to summarize the best parts of each month and are naturally published at the end of each month (or in the beginning of the following month as it seems to be now). Hopefully you enjoy it!
Highlights of : Orienteering exams passed, cooking on open fire, climbing stuff and water rescue & survival!
When first watching our schedules I thought that there wouldn’t be much to write about October as we had one-week autumn holiday and no big trips coming up. But luckily I was wrong. The month was full of very interesting stuff and here are the best parts. One of the definite highlights is the 24-hour walking challenge where I covered 105km with few classmates. It is not included in the highlights post as there is a separate thorough report available.
Happy faces after passing the day orienteering test
In the beginning of October we had our orienteering exams. Even though most wilderness guides never have to navigate off-trail in unfamiliar terrain with customers I still consider orienteering as an elementary skill for every wilderness guide and it is also required to qualify as a wilderness guide. During the autumn we had quite a lot of orienteering training in preparation for the orienteering tests. I found the training quite useful and I believe that my orienteering skills got better, especially with the accurate 1:10000 maps that I rarely use for anything else.
To prove our skills we had two separate tests: a day orienteering test with a 4-5km course (measured as straight lines from marker to marker) and a night orienteering test with 3-4km track. To pass the test you were required to complete each course in less than two hours. In my opinion the requirements are actually quite easy. You don’t need to be an especially good orienteerer to complete the tracks well under an hour! But then again, wilderness guides don’t have to have the skills of competitive orienteerers and fulfilling the minimum requirements is enough to prove that you wont get totally lost in the forest. I played it safe and walked passing both tests easily with times around 70 minutes. So, from now on I don’t have to know how to orienteer any more.
Catching the food...
... and cooking the food
Repe the duck on his way to the pot
The second highlight was the open fire cooking course. It started on Sunday so I was a bit pissed because of the short weekend but the course made it up: Basically four days of cooking tasty treats outside on open fire – and of course eating them all! We catched some small fish from the lake but also had salmon, pork, duck, chicken and many other nice ingredients that we cooked, fried, barbecued, smoked or blazed. I think I put up a few kilos during the course… As usual the teacher was a nice guy and very proficient: a chef and entrepreneur who had done the same wilderness guide course in 2008.
Rappelling at Heinävaara. Fun. And possible even with a fucked up knee as shown by S here.
Training at school's wall. Your's truly playing the role of a stupid customer in trouble.
Teacher demonstrating a rescue technique.
We also had some climbing and rope training during the month. To qualify as a wilderness guide in Finland you don’t have to know a thing about ropes or climbing but in Niittylahden opisto we can also get a KTO qualification by SKIL as a part of the guide course. (The same applies to the paddling instructor courses, white water rafting and many other things.) The KTO is an abbreviation from the words “Köysitoiminnan Ohjaaja” literally meaning “Rope Activities Instructor”. The training doesn’t involve any actual climbing but provides the skills and knowledge necessary to arrange safe top rope climbing and rappelling for customer groups. Special attention is paid on safety and solving possible problems. As a KTO instructor you are qualified to arrange/lead top rope climbing and rappelling on artificial walls and on rock but you are not technically qualified to teach your customers how to climb which I find to be somewhat weird…
Well, we are not qualified yet as we just had the two two-day modules both including one day inside and one day outside building anchor points and training rescue techniques. Almost everything was new to me so I learned a lot and it was mostly really fun. And now that we have passed the training modules we can freely use the school’s climbing gear for independent training, so I guess I’ll be doing also some climbing during the rest of the year in Niittylahti. In the next spring we will have a full day of qualification tests including written and hands-on parts. After passing the KTO test and fulfilling some other requirements one can attend a course and test to become a qualified SCO i.e. Sports Climbing Instructor (thus being also qualified to teach how to climb, including lead climbing) and after that even a RCI i.e. Rock Climbing Instructor.
Search and rescue exercise in Wednesday evening.
For me one of the most interesting things of the whole year is probably the water rescue and survival course held in the end of October. As a preview we had a day of search and rescue training related to Volunteer Rescue Service. During the day we did search & rescue exercises in the forest as a big group and in the evening we visited the local volunteer lake rescue association the Joensuun Järvipelastajat for some water search and rescue. We search some islands to find a missing person, used search lights and night vision goggles to find PFD floating in the water and did some rescue swims. The first part in the woods was a bit boring but the evening was really interesting!
Training in swimming hall. Lights off and cold water sprayed on us.
J turning the life raft.
The water rescue & survival course itself started on Friday morning and lasted the whole weekend. First we had some theory in the classroom but quite soon after it we went to the local swimming hall to train swimming and floating techniques and the use of a life raft. The training in the pool continued in Saturday morning with three of the local lake rescuers joining us as students while few of them acted as security crew. After the pool sessions we had information for lunch. The information was that we were not going to have a lunch. Nor a dinner. Nor a supper. The next meal would be the breakfast on Sunday after finishing the course. This meant about 24 hours without food and to make it even more realistic I decided not to have much water to drink during the rest of the course. I think I drank some 2-3dl of water during the last 20 hours of the course. In the beginning I felt hungry but it eased out after the first ten hours or so but towards the end I was quite thirsty. In saturday afternoon we continued training in open water with dry suits: swimming, huddling, getting into the life raft, moving a hypothermic or injured person into the raft, etc.
Security boat Pärske and the life raft. For the night the raft was towed further out.
Around 6:00 pm we put away the dry suits for maybe the most interesting part of the course: a hypothermia swim! This meant performing certain tasks as small group in +5C water wearing only swimming pants and PFDs. We have been doing morning swims nearly every morning at the school so I knew that the water would feel very cold but the sensation eased off after the first minute or two in the water. For our group of four the compulsory tasks took around 5 minutes 45 second and towards the end I was feeling quite good: I had lost sensation from my toes but the water didn’t feel that cold anymore.
After the tasks we decided to stay in the water floating on our own in HELP position waiting to get really cold. The rescue crew was regularly checking our conditions and told the time we had spent in the water. Somewhere around seven or eight minutes I started to shiver slightly and after 11 minutes the shivering started to be quite intense affecting a bit on talking and body control. After 12 minutes we were called out for safety reasons. While climbing to the wharf I was shivering vigorously but felt otherwise good. The paramedics took electrocardiogram from S and it shoved some extrasystole and heart skipping some beats while heart rate was around 137 (while standing still after floating still for 6+ minutes and climbing up a ladder). According to the paramedic these are clear symptoms of hypothermia and after some five more minutes in the water we would have lost most of our ability to function.
Ice cream - after 12 minutes in +5C water!
After the swim I offered everyone an ice cream (our teacher allowed it as he has a good sense of humour) and we went into the sports hall to warm up. Some took a hot shower and some did physical exercise to regain body heat. I did both first training until the shivering stopped and then showering hot water on my feet to regain sensation and normal blood flow to my toes. The latter lead to some more shivering and it took about an hour for me to feel normal again. Even though the 12 minutes we spent in the water was longer than any group had previously done, I would have wanted to stay there even longer, long enough for the shivers to stop and to start feeling warm but as that would not have been safe I have to settle with the experience that I had. It wasn’t maybe the most pleasant experience I’ve had but one of the most interesting ones.
A night in the life raft.
After warming up we donned the dry suits again and prepared ourselves for a night in the life raft. The raft was towed further out to the lake and we swam there as a group to find the raft full of water. Emptying the raft with the standard fabric bailer took some time but the work kept us warm. Quite soon after emptying the raft we spooned up on the rubber floor in hope for some sleep. During the night we were regularly woken up by the instructors asking how we were feeling on the radio. We also had a couple of pee breaks with the help of the rescue boat Pyörre and during the night some people decided to leave and end the exercise for their part. (A free tip: the best way to pee while in the raft is to pee into the bailer. Peeing over board is quite a tricky task to do safely.) One of the best moments of the weekend was to stand at the deck of Pyörre and watch the starry skies above.
I got some sleep in short snippets but probably spent most of the night awake because of either being cold, not finding a comfortable position to sleep or because of the waves rolling the raft. The night wasn’t especially fun but it wasn’t really miserable either, only uncomfortable. Towards the morning my toes got really cold and lost sensation at some point but quite soon after it we were told to untie the anchor and get to the shore with the life raft. Luckily the wind was plowing straight to the shore so we detached the raft and just floated to the shore enjoying the morning while H played his mouth organ. It was a really nice way to end the exercise. After cleaning and sorting up the kit we had a breakfast and sauna and that was it.
After the exercise I felt quite tired because of the lack of sleep and food. I ate some more, had a nap and drove back home, ate a pizza and slept some 11 hours. I was also quite dehydrated because even though I drank well over five liters during Sunday I was still about one kilo lighter than usual in the Monday morning. Now about two days after the exercise I’m feeling about normal. The instant flu I got after the hypothermia swim is almost gone and body is again hydrated but for some reasons my calfs are stiff and sore… And now I have a huge respect towards the MS Estonia survivors – every one of them is a sheer miracle! And I also consider taking my dry suit with me if I go to a cruise…
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In November I’ll have a week off for personal reasons and we will have one week of entrepreneurship lectures which probably isn’t the most interesting topic on the course. (Though I hope it to prove useful.) But to compensate these we will have the Outward Bound’s Wilderness Advanced First Aid course which is said to be excellent and a six-day safety management & leading course out in the woods – hopefully with coldness, darkness, sleet and appropriate amount of misery. I’m really looking forward to these courses!
And in the beginning of December we will start our six-week internship period but more about that later…