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Two weeks prior to the start of the 2021 Summer Conference, we learned of the passing of a dear WMS member and conference registrant, Gary McLean, a recent FAWM recipient and current DiMM participant. Just one week later, we received another enormous blow – Co-Founder of the WMS Paul Auerbach had lost his battle with brain cancer. 

In the midst of all the last-minute conference details, many of us switched gears, seeking to honor these incredible individuals in the way they deserved. In our communications to the board and membership, magazine article, and Facebook tributes, I gained a better understanding of just how far the WMS has come since it was created in the early 1980’s. Paul pushed people to do more and to do better. His involvement and desire for excellence in the organization spoke to the kind of person he was, and the organization wouldn’t be the success that it is today without him.

In outgoing President Linda Keyes’ opening State of the WMS address, she shared a little bit about the direction our organization is moving in going forward. While our official mission statement has stayed the same since the inception of WMS, we worked hard in the beginning part of this year to better define our brand. Linda and other members of the WMS leadership team shared this message throughout the conference: The WMS inspires you to be alive in the wilderness. You can learn more about how and why we do this here, but we have a set of core values and beliefs that guide how we carry this out. Following Linda’s lead, here are some examples of how I saw these carried out throughout the conference:

• Inclusivity >> Uproot barriers (not trees).

  • Diversity of speakers continues to be a key initiative of our conference planning committee, and the Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusivity (JEDI) committee once again launched an anonymous survey for the WMS to better understand who its members are and to make sure they’re represented and feel included. Live captioning and transcriptions were also made available for the first time.
  • The Women in Wilderness Medicine (WiMM) Committee held a virtual film night to celebrate inspirational women and also led a fantastic workshop for adventuring with children in the outdoors. Toward the end of the workshop, Sarah Schlein and Sarah Crockett shared these words of wisdom: “Sometimes there’s a misconception that wilderness medicine is going to Everest or these long expeditions, but there are so many opportunities to practice wilderness medicine right in your own community, close to home. Explore the backcountry, respond to rescues in your own backyard, figure out what you want to do. Getting kids outside and integrating families into your passion and your profession is so important to what we do. Every child needs nature – not those with a certain economic class, culture, gender, sexual identity, or set of abilities. Every child needs nature and we have so much to contribute in making this a priority for our society.”

• Kindness >> Elevate others as you climb. 

  • I saw many examples of members lifting up fellow members throughout the conference. From sharing the trivia instructions and lecture handouts with others who had trouble finding them, to introducing conference mates to other attendees who had similar interests, to complementing the speakers after their lectures, the attendees were happy to be there and enthusiastically encouraged one another from beginning to end.
  • The keynote address from legendary climber Lynn Hill was full of inspirational messages such as: Don’t let distractions get in your way, be who you are, make sure your mind is connected with your body, protect the environment, and if something’s not fair, then say something. “Elevate others as you climb” was probably the most consistent message she had throughout her presentation, though. She had countless stories of how she lifted others up, or how others lifted her up. Stories of people who challenged her to push beyond what she thought she was capable of and trails that she blazed, making way for others to follow in her footsteps. She repeatedly bragged on others and consistently encouraged attendees to be a coach, mentor, and teacher to others. 

• Service >> See the need, fill the gap.

  • WMS conferences would not be possible without our incredible volunteers. Conference Chair Ian Wedmore and Co-Chair Taylor Haston spent hundreds of hours of their time over the last year putting together this incredible conference. They made it fun (see Taylor’s wilderness adventure hats in the slideshow below), engaging, and were able to secure unique speakers and topics that were rarely, if ever, covered in previous conferences. On a smaller scale, we had some attendees give generously of their time and attention by reviewing slides in advance in order to make sure all were respectful, leading wellness activities, cleaning up the chat logs so we can share the most relevant information, and helping moderate breakout sessions. There are many ways to step in and serve, and we are so grateful to all who assisted in making the conference fun and educational.
  • In addition to service to the Society, one of the most inspiring lectures was Luanne Freer’s on the Wongchhu Sherpa Memorial Hospital. Her story about continuing the legacy of the late Wongchhu Sherpa is one that many of our members have heard before; however, each time it’s shared, we see more and more people touched by the mission of the hospital and feeling called to get involved. Our members are out there serving people every day, yet continue to seek out ways to make a greater impact. One attendee reviewed the session saying, “This presentation was particularly meaningful to me. I am happy to know about the man and the project and look forward to becoming involved in some way.”


• Nature >> Find your way in the wild.

  • One of our photo contests confirmed that members can relate to our new brand language, “Alive in the wild.” We asked attendees what this means to them, and the submissions for this one just kept on coming. The statement has so many different meanings to so many people, just like wilderness medicine. For some it’s a lifestyle, others it’s a hobby. For some it’s an escape, for others it’s a sense of belonging, and for others it’s a necessity. The variety in the photos we received and in the various environments covered in lectures, from space, to water, to the desert, to mountains, was a reminder that that there’s something for everyone when it comes to the wilderness. 


• Education >> Seek knowledge, pay it forward.

  • Education is, and always will be, central to our mission. However, over the course of the last year, this component has looked a little different than in the past. This was the third virtual conference for the WMS and with Zoom fatigue in full force, we knew we had to step up our game to keep the interest of our attendees and maximize the educational value. Engagement was a high priority, and the following changes were implemented to achieve this:
  • Longer networking sessions, both randomized and topical, based on feedback from past participants
  • A redesigned conference platform website with a new networking feature. These chat rooms allowed attendees to have separate conversations with attendees and exhibitor, plan regional meetups, and continue the conversation with faculty after a lecture was over
  • More workshop options – all of which sold out, showing that regardless of the medium, demand continues to be high.
  • More interactive mainstage lectures. One of the most praised elements of our virtual conferences has been the ability to chat with speakers while their pre-recorded lecture was playing, but for this event, several speakers took it up a notch. For example, rather than one speaker talking for 45 minutes:
  • Linda Keyes and Scott McIntosh exchanged in a dialog about current research in wilderness medicine. Their hats, sound effects, and posing of questions to each other made this scientific lecture conversational and entertaining.

  • Sarah Spelsberg, last year’s 14er winner who was brought on as a new speaker to deliver a full lecture, had an interactive presentation in which she showed various radiographic images and invited all attendees to use chat to send what they thought was the cause of the injury. While most people did know the answers, the amount of information that Sarah was adding about the cases through chat made it a jam-packed educational session with close to double the information if it had just been presented live. As she begun, one person wrote in the chat, “I’ve been waiting for this lecture all year!” She lived up to and exceeded expectations as one of the most raved about speakers. 
  • Todd Miner incorporated breakouts into his lecture allowing people to discuss a hypothetical Alaskan plane crash in small groups. Participants walked through a list of items and decided on the top ten they would have used in the survival situation and then were brought back together to hear how their selections compared to what the experts recommended.
  • what the experts recommended.
  • Matt Welder concluded the conference with a lecture on austere blood transfusions and invited attendees to practice alongside him in performing a blood typing test. Several members came on camera to show themselves in action and many revealed their results, all of which appeared to be accurate.


  • Other top-ranked lectures included:
  • Mission to Mars: Medical Planning for Humanity’s Longest Journey - Benjamin Easter
  • Cold Weather Clothing & Field Sanitation – Jeremy Neskey
  • Field Amputation (“I hope to never have to use this info but am glad I have it” was expressed by attendees several times) & Lower Extremity Injuries – Anthony Johnson
  • 14ers – instead of the usual 5 mini-lectures on a variety of topics, there were 9 this time and people were still asking for more. These are presented by up-and-coming speakers and are always a crowd favorite. Although all speakers received high marks, Ross Hoffmeyer and Daniel Solchanyk were voted to return in 2022 with a full faculty package after their winning lectures on Methoxyflurane Inhalational Analgesia in the Wilderness and Working in High Risk Environments, respectively. 

Although it’s bittersweet when a conference comes to an end, reading the evaluations is always so rewarding. Here are a few of my favorite comments:

"Simply “WOW”! I’m impressed more & more each conference."

"Worth every minute."

"Best conference I have attended."

"If you are passionate about the outdoors, you owe it to yourself [to attend]."

"The best CME there is."

"Come to one conference, you will be hooked!"

"Truly AWESOME conference! It's a MUST!"

Click here for additional photos, or better yet, experience a WMS conference for yourself as we embark upon our first-ever hybrid event this winter. Join us online or in Jackson, Wyoming, from February 27 to March 3 for the WMS 2022 Winter Conference. After two years apart, you better believe we’re ready! In the meantime, get outside and be alive in the wilderness.


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