Tod Schimelpfenig was introduced to NOLS in 1970 when he saw the NOLS documentary “30 Days to Survival.” He was a student on a Wind River Wilderness course in 1971, followed by an Instructor Course in 1973 (He had to wait until he was 18 to take the course). His field instructor career included a variety of course types (hiking, sea kayaking, caving, mountaineering, Denali mountaineering, winter, natural history, educator and instructor courses) and included the first father-son wilderness course instructor team. Tod may be one of only two or three active instructors who worked for NOLS Founder Paul Petzoldt.
Concurrent to building his career in outdoor education, Tod had been developing his expertise in pre-hospital emergency medicine. Tod began his EMS career as a college student in Vermont and, in the intervening decades, he has filled countless EMS and SAR roles for the State of Wyoming: EMT, EMT-I, Incident Commander, SAR medical provider, EMT instructor, EMT lecturer, and EMT course coordinator.
In 1979, he designed a wilderness first aid training course for NOLS instructors. That course was one of the first of its kind in the world. It was a precursor to the wilderness first responder certification now standard in the industry. His curriculum taught practical, accurate, and relevant emergency medical skills to a layperson audience. It set the tone for the field and helped citizens to learn to trust the potential of lay providers in critical emergencies. It was and is transformational.
In 1988, Tod became NOLS’s first risk management director. One of his first acts was to create an incident database to better inform the school’s approach to risk management and wilderness medicine. That database is today the largest of its kind and has been the source of peer-reviewed scientific papers that have advanced wilderness medicine practices around the world. It uniquely contains details of thousands of illnesses, injuries, and near miss events across millions of program days over more than 30 years. Those data inform not only risk management at NOLS, but they have become a resource for other programs seeking to learn from NOLS’s industry leading risk management. These data have led to important insights published in national and international publications including Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, the journal of the Wilderness Medical Society, and the Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital Wilderness Medicine Fellowship. In the early 90’s, Tod co-authored the textbook NOLS Wilderness First Aid, now in its 7th edition. This book remains the definitive wilderness medicine text for lay people, and is provided to the thousands of guides, instructors, rescue technicians and military operators who receive their NOLS wilderness medicine training each year.
In 1992, again led by Tod, NOLS convened the first Wilderness Risk Management Committee (WRMC). The goal of this multi-organization group was to create an industry-wide dialog to share experiences, compare best practices, and transform risk management into a rigorous discipline. The first WRMC conference was hosted in 1994. Now in its 28th year, the conference continues to set the bar for the outdoor industry’s risk management practices. Again, through Tod’s efforts, wilderness risk management took leaps forward.
In the early 2000s, the Wilderness Medical Society asked Tod to help spearhead an international effort to align the curricula and practice of the major wilderness medicine schools. Tod worked closely with the education directors of 9 programs to publish Scope of Practice documents for Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness Advanced First Aid, and Wilderness First Responder programs. These documents are freely and publicly accessible and have increased the quality and consistency of wilderness medicine training programs around the world. This group remains active as the Wilderness Medicine Education Collaborative and continues to provide national and international leadership and guidance on wilderness medicine.
It is impossible to place a value on the depth of Tod’s contribution to the field of wilderness medicine. Having said that, some have tried, and for his outstanding achievements in wilderness medicine education, Tod has been recognized twice with the Wilderness Medical Society’s Warren Bowman Award (2002 and 2008), the Academy of Wilderness Medicine Matterhorn Award for continuing medical education (2012), as well as receiving an Award for Excellence in Peer Reviews from the Wilderness and Environmental Journal (2014). In 2010 Tod became the second recipient of the Reb Gregg Award, honoring his life-long contributions to wilderness risk management. Tod was also the recipient of the Wyoming EMS Lifetime Achievement Award (2017).
In 2021, Tod retired from his position as the Curriculum Director for NOLS Wilderness medicine, a position he held since 2002. Though his “retirement” was celebrated as the culmination of his 48 years at NOLS, Tod continues to teach NOLS Wilderness Medicine and NOLS Expedition courses, sharing his decades of wisdom and expertise with students around the world.