“Unprecedented” was a popular buzzword of 2020. Not only did it apply to the pandemic, but for the four full-time WMS employees who live in Austin, Texas, it also applied to the ice storm that wreaked havoc on the state the week leading up to the WMS 2021 Winter Conference. We were dealing with continuous days of historic low temperatures, boiling water advisories (when water was actually available), extended power outages, a week of school closures, frozen and broken pipes, and food shortages due to impassable roads. We called upon the improvisational and adaptive skillset often necessary in wilderness medicine as we navigated, what to us was, a foreign environment.
Another unprecedented event was that this was the first virtual WMS winter conference, and with nearly 900 registrants from 24 countries signed up, there was no time to slow down, despite our challenging circumstances. We had successfully executed our first virtual conference seven months prior, but we had new conference chairs, new speakers, more trivia, new wellness activities, more exhibitors, a new pre-conference, concurrent workshops, a new video contest, and various other elements that didn’t just make it an easy repetition. Not to mention the fact that Zoom fatigue has beset just about everybody and the summer conference set the bar high, so we knew we had to step up our game this time around to make the conference more engaging and meet higher expectations.
Thankfully, we had two tremendous leaders who had spent countless hours volunteering their time to make sure the event was of tremendous value to attendees. Conference Co-chairs Dave Young and Patrick Burns went above and beyond, pouring their heart and soul into the preparation and implementation of the event (plus, they are fun and kind, making them a pleasure to work with!). Coming up with fresh and interesting sessions is not an easy task, but the variety of topics was one of the most complimented aspects of conference. From climate change and ultramarathons to edible plants and women-specific issues in the wilderness, Patrick and Dave worked tirelessly to secure speakers who were passionate about a diverse array of topics.
Speaking of diversity, this was a major initiative of the 2021 conference planning committee. The WMS Board adopted a values statement last year focusing on inclusion and has been devoted to overcoming the historical myth that, “the WMS is for white males.” The significant increase in people of color and female speakers, plus an eye-opening lecture from Avinash Patil on Diversity in Wilderness Medicine, embodied the Board’s commitment to inclusion. The wilderness is for all, and our organization needs to be representative of the demographics of the greater medical community. Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (JEDI) Chair Roople Unia encouraged participants to complete an anonymous survey that was emailed out in order for the WMS to better understand its members and how to better serve their diverse needs. For the minority of people who still struggle to see the need for these efforts, Roople said it best: “It’s not about being PC or earning a participation trophy, it’s about eliminating structural bias and removing barriers to pull from a bigger pool of excellence.”