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News & Views - Nov, 1990 Issue 

Wilderness Tragedy
Lon Woodbury

In the Spring and Summer of this year, two teenagers died on wilderness survival trips in Utah. This has caused considerable national press coverage, with negative consequences on enrollments in all wilderness survival groups. Since there have been considerable misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what happened, I've put together a brief chronology.

Wilderness survival trips for young people with emotional and behavior problems is a concept that started in the late sixties and early seventies. Most of the groups currently running these kind of trips can trace their roots back to Larry Dean Olson's class in wilderness survival techniques at Brigham Young University in the late sixties and early seventies (He currently runs ANASAWI wilderness survival in Arizona). As the various people evolved their styles, each developed a marriage of therapeutic models with wilderness survival. In essence, there were developed systems of structure, firmness, caring, and positive peer pressure in the natural consequences of a primitive and unforgiving environment. The results in terms of turned-around lives have been impressive.

When Steve Cartisano started Challenger Foundation in 1988, there was a significant difference from previous wilderness survival groups for children with emotional and behavior problems. The main difference was the addition of a military model. In Challenger's marketing, terms like "Boot Camp for troubled teens", and "forced marches" came into use for the first time. Experienced professionals privately expressed to me concern over what was happening. They felt it was based on punishment more than natural consequences, that fear was used as a motivator instead of building up an inherent sense of what was right, anger was used as a tool more than firmness, and that Challenger was growing too fast to maintain standards of quality and safety. One professional expressed to me the prediction that "Some kid is going to get hurt." It is clear Challenger was a totally different type of wilderness program.

The following is a chronology of what happened this year based on a series of Salt Lake City newspaper clippings sent to me.

May 1990. 15-year-old Michelle Sutton of Pleasanton, California, died on the first expedition of the Summit Quest. Summit Quest had just been formed by ex-employees of Challenger Foundation. The autopsy showed she died of exposure and dehydration.

June 27, 1990. 16-year-old Christen Chase, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, complained of dizziness, slipped into unconsciousness, and died just four days after starting a Challenger Foundation wilderness expedition. The autopsy later showed she died of heat stroke.

July 1, 1990. Utah imposed regulations on wilderness survival groups. They required psychological and physical evaluations on applicants prior to expeditions; minimum water, nutrition, and personal equipment for each child to have; and minimum age, experience, and training requirements for staff. These had been developed jointly by the State and the Utah industry's embryonic association, the negotiations having started the previous Fall.

July 29, 1990. The Sheriff seized the records of Challenger Foundation looking for policies and procedures that might relate to the death of Chase. Investigators were also looking for possibilities of insurance irregularities.

August 6, 1990. Challenger Foundation filed for bankruptcy under Chapter Eleven reorganization as a reaction to IRS claims of $100,000 owed in back taxes and a state lawsuit claiming $21,000 in back taxes.

August 14, 1990. Charges of negligent homicide and 5 counts of child abuse were filed against Challenger Foundation and it's officers.

September 1, 1990. A judge required Wilderness Challenger to prove it can adequately care for teenage patients. Some of the specific requirements were for Steve Cartisano to post a $100,000 bond, to pay back wages to counselors (estimated at up to $50,000), to license and insure all his vehicles, and to guarantee he has adequate staff.

September 8, 1990. A Salt Lake City judge order prohibited the Challenger program from operating after Friday's graduation of 23 students on the trail.

September 13, 1990. The State planned to drop negligent homicide and child abuse charges against Field Director Lance "Horsehair" Jagger in return for his testimony against Steve Cartisano.

September 13, 1990. Steve Cartisano and Challenger Foundation pleaded innocent of charges and Cartisano filed a "petition of impecuniosity" and asked the Court to appoint a public defender.

September 23, 1990. The newspaper reported Summit Quest is not operating in Utah, but they currently have youths on the trail and are operating in Arizona.

September 30, 1990. Challenger Two plans to open for business in Hawaii with a program similar to Challenger Foundation, but it is claimed Steve Cartisano will not be an officer or an owner.

October 1, 1990. Steve Cartisano says he plans to apply for a license and be running a program in Utah by November.

Copyright 1990, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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