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  • Jeff Baierlein

Viristar Offers Emergency Medicine and Wilderness Rescue Training in Iceland

Courses held with Keilir Academy’s Adventure Guide training program

Wilderness First Responder training in Iceland

Viristar is running a Wilderness First Responder course in September for students of the Keilir Academy’s Adventure Guide training program in Iceland.

Viristar’s Director, Jeff Baierlein, has been teaching the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class at Keilir since 2014. The course is typically held each year, for students in the eight-month Adventure Guide Studies university program for aspiring outdoor adventure guides.

The 72-hour WFR course is part of Viristar’s suite of risk management services offered to outdoor and experiential organizations. In addition to a variety of emergency medicine and wilderness rescue classes, such as the WFR and Wilderness First Aid course, Viristar offers a 40-hour Risk Management for Outdoor Programs online training, Risk Management Review (safety audit) services, Incident Reviews, expert witness services, and risk management system development.

First aid, Iceland style

Wilderness Medicine In Iceland

Students who complete the Wilderness First Responder course receive a certificate issued by Wilderness Medical Associates International, for which Viristar is a licensed training company. The course follows the scope of practice established by the Wilderness Medicine Educators Collaborative, and is customized for the Icelandic context.

Medical protocols in Iceland differ from the protocols found in other countries.

For instance, medications in Iceland used in anaphylaxis differ from those commonly used in North America. Klemastini (clemastine) is one medication used in place of diphenhydramine; prednisolone in used in place of prednisone. Other differences involved wound management and BLS protocols. The Icelandic medical community has published a full set of Iceland-specific wilderness medical protocols for local providers.

Acronyms that make sense in English need to be translated to be useful for Icelandic speakers. For example, the AVPU scale, used to assess level of consciousness in a patient, in Iceland is the VÁSE scale (Vakandi, Avarp, Sarsauki, Engin viðbrogd).

Similarly, STOPEATS, an acronym used by English-speaking medical practitioners to remember potential causes of reduced mental status, in Icelandic is known as ÞOLHRESS (Þrystingur, Oxygen, Likamshiti, Hæð, Rafmagn, Eitrun, Sykur, Salt).

Stabilizing the spine near 66 degrees north

Iceland has no snakes (venomous or not), black widow spiders, or mosquitoes. Therefore, envenomations and mosquito-borne diseases are deemphasized in the course. But they’re not eliminated, as Icelanders have a penchant for frequent international travel—seeming to especially favor tropical destinations like Thailand.

However, Iceland has remote wilderness, massive avalanches, active volcanoes, geysers, boiling hot springs, hypothermia, and drowning hazards. The occasional polar bear floats across from Greenland (although they are promptly shot). Keeping outdoor explorers—both locals and international tourists—safe is always a focus of Iceland’s adventure guides.

Fjaðrárgljúfur, a popular canyon in Iceland

Keilir Academy

Keilir, a non-profit education institution, hosts the Wilderness First Responder class, one section of the Adventure Guide program. The program leads to the Adventure Guide Certificate, Adventure Guide Diploma, or Adventure Management Diploma.

With Iceland’s outdoor recreation sector rapidly expanding, Keilir began offering the adventure training program in 2013 to meet the need for high-quality, well-trained outdoor leaders and adventure tourism guides.

The Adventure Guide program is offered by Keilir in cooperation with the Adventure Studies Department of Thompson Rivers University in Canada.

In addition to the outdoor safety training provided by Viristar, components of the Adventure Guide program in Iceland include field-based and theoretical courses in:

  • Expedition Planning

  • Rock Climbing

  • Rafting

  • Sea Kayaking

  • Ski Touring

  • Whitewater Kayaking

  • Guiding Leadership

  • Winter Camping

  • Wilderness Travel

  • Swiftwater Rescue Tech

  • Glacier Skills

  • Mountaineering

Most recently, following the volcanic eruption near the volcano Fagradalsfjall this spring, the Adventure Guide program added a course on how to safely guide visitors to the volcanic eruption site.

Risk management regarding volcanoes is of special interest in Iceland

Connection to Icelandic Search and Rescue

Iceland is fortunate to have spectacular outdoor settings and vast, pristine wilderness areas. Waterfalls, glaciers, and expansive national parks abound. Spending time outdoors is an important part of Icelandic culture. And outdoor recreation is a significant part of the Icelandic economy, with tourists coming from around the world to ride Icelandic horses on the beach, soak in remote hot springs, go whale watching, and experience mountaineering in the country’s remote interior.

As a high-income country with a positive social culture, safety—and outdoor safety—is important in Iceland too. Search and rescue is practically the national pastime in Iceland, with about one percent of the population serving on a SAR team.

WFR courses in Iceland are held in various forms of cooperation with Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR). Landsbjörg, which conducts its own wilderness medicine trainings, has, for many years, graciously contributed staff and equipment to support WFR courses at Keilir.

ICE-SAR in action. Credit: Sigurður Ólafur Sigurðsson /Landsbjörg

In Collaboration with Thompson Rivers University

The Adventure Guide program was developed by the Thompson Rivers University Department of Adventure Studies. University credit is granted by TRU, which also runs the Adventure Guide training in Canada.

In 2013, when Keilir was seeking to start an outdoor guide training program, Keilir staff reached out to TRU’s Adventure Studies department, founded by the eminent and internationally acclaimed outdoor risk management and adventure tourism expert Ross Cloutier, and the Iceland option for TRU’s Adventure Guide program was born.

Horseback riding is a popular outdoor activity in Iceland

A Keilir-North America Connection

Viristar and TRU are not the first from North America to have a connection to Keilir’s campus. In fact, Keilir’s headquarters was built and originally occupied by Americans, and Keilir’s creation springs from their recent departure.

Here’s a brief history of the connection.

During World War II, American forces occupied Iceland, largely to prevent the island being used for German U-boat re-fueling and to secure Allied transport routes in the Atlantic. U.S. Naval Air Station Keflavik, not far from Reykjavik, was constructed, including housing and facilities for over 5,000 military and civilian personnel and their families.

After the war, the US and NATO stayed at the site, as part of Cold War defenses. In 1991, however, the Soviet Union collapsed. Finally, in 2006, the USA closed the base, evacuated all personnel, and turned the base over to the Icelandic government.

Faced with a sudden “ghost town” of hundreds of now-empty buildings, at risk of deterioration, the Icelandic government set about finding occupants for the abandoned facilities. Keilir was created in 2007, and took up residence in the old American high school on the base.

A Keilir student assessing his patient

Increased military activity by Russian and Chinese forces in recent years has led to a partial return of US activity at the base. This doesn’t affect Keilir and the other entrepreneurial enterprises that have found a home in the historic facilities there, however.

Keilir continues to graduate well-trained and highly capable adventure professionals, ready to skillfully lead mountaineering, kayaking, rafting, skiing and other trips across Iceland and around the world.

Keilir students guide ice cave trips, popular with tourists to Iceland

For More Information

Keilir Academy:

TRU Adventure Guide program:

Wilderness Medical Associates:


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