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It was a late September afternoon, and the autumn sun glistened on the Green Mountain peaks in Stowe, Vermont. Lovers of all things wilderness medicine gathered to learn from some of the founders of the specialty including Paul Auerbach, Peter Hackett, Luanne Freer, and Tim Erickson. Here at the WMS Masters of Wilderness Medicine Conference in September 2019, one idea sparked another, and the Women in Wilderness Medicine Committee was ignited.

A true visionary, Dr. Sarah Crockett, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Assistant Dean for Career Advising at Dartmouth, met with WMS president-elect Dr. Keyes, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado, and she invited her friend and fellow New England-based Wilderness Medicine educator Dr. Sarah Schlein, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Vermont, to discuss the need for greater gender equity in the WMS. Inspired by colleagues in other fields of medicine doing incredible work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts, Dr. Crockett relates, “It was exciting to brainstorm ways to support women in the specialty of wilderness medicine with Linda who at the time was president elect of the WMS and only the second woman selected to lead the Society in its 36-year history.” She goes on to explain, “Over the years, I have been inspired by many mentors in wilderness medicine. I am grateful to Paul Auerbach who took me under his wing when I was still a medical student – he was always ready to share his wisdom as we worked to build the Wilderness Medicine program at Dartmouth and launch our Wilderness Medicine fellowship. I am indebted to Peter Hackett and Luanne Freer for their mentorship as well. But often I found myself to be in a small minority of women in the field – from my early days as a search and rescue team member at Dartmouth College in the ‘90s to my time helping to build the AWLS curriculum at the University of Utah.” As Dr. Crockett considered the value of mentorship and networking, she became acutely aware of the need for better mentoring and support for women interested in wilderness medicine. Thus, she partnered with Dr. Schlein to spearhead the newly formed Women in Wilderness Medicine Committee. 

At the winter conference in Sun Valley, Idaho in February 2020, Drs. Crockett and Schlein led the first Women in Wilderness Medicine special interest group meeting. One thing was clear: the work to achieve greater inclusion, equity, and belonging for women and people of all backgrounds was greatly needed, and the work that needed to be done was not something only women should be doing. Dr. Crockett reminisces, “We had an incredible turnout with brilliant ideas discussing how the Women in Wilderness Medicine Committee could have a positive impact.  We were excited to have supporters and allies in some of our male colleagues as well. We also knew that additional work needed to be done to achieve greater diversity on many levels in the society.” Dr. Schlein recalls, “the diversity of talent and ideas within the group itself generated incredible depth and breadth of potential roles for the committee.”

The excitement and enthusiasm from that winter conference moved that work forward, undeterred, despite that it was in a conference room in Sun Valley that many remember getting word from their hospitals that their colleagues and patients were identified as having a viral illness called COVID-19. Dr. Crockett states, “Needless to say, life changed dramatically from the moment I stepped off the plane from Sun Valley as it did for all of us. Isolation, uncertainty, and care for patients put us all through the ringer.”

However, great things grow out of adversity, and the Women in Wilderness Medicine (WiWM) Committee flourished. A women’s leadership training program was developed which could be attended by women all around the world given the newfound necessity of virtual conferencing. Bimonthly meetings created a space for learning, growth, and camaraderie that was much needed during a time of isolation. The research working group recognized a paucity of evidence for recommendations for women’s health in wilderness and austere settings creating practice guidelines for women’s health. They also initiated several research projects which led to multiple publications. Additionally, the policies and practices of the society and its conferences were evaluated, and new guidelines were established to create more inclusion and diversity. As the WMS conferences moved to a virtual platform, passionate members found inspired ways to also create community even though they couldn’t be together in person: a movie night with rousing films featuring women in the wildness was a huge success, and a virtual gallery of photography and artworks were shared during another virtual conference.

Circumstances have since evolved to allow for in-person gatherings once again, and conference meetings have become a rich source of community building and mentoring. Ally Dove, a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, discusses her evolution and involvement with the Women in Wilderness Medicine committee: “As a college senior at UCLA, I was searching for a way to combine my interest in medicine with my love for the outdoors. I came across the profile of a female physician who was studying hyperbaric medicine, and when we met, I asked, ‘How do I do what you do?’ She suggested I attend a WMS conference, and in the summer of 2018, I did. At the time, WiWM was not yet an official committee, and while I made some incredible connections at socials and small group sessions, these unofficial mentorships were often limited to individual relationships instead of a community network. [As the WiWM committee developed,] I found comfort and support through the WiWM meetings and a deep sense of belonging despite being virtual. Now as a third-year medical student, I have applied some of the advice and knowledge I have learned during our WiWM meetings and shared that with medical students within our school’s WMS chapter. It is inspiring to see strong, compassionate, intelligent women in the field of wilderness medicine, and I am confident that the committee will continue to inspire others to ask the same question ‘How do I do what you do?’” 

WiWM social event at a WMS conference

Dr. Kim Kaiser, WiWM Community Engagement Leader and Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine at the University of Kentucky, describes what drew her to a leadership role within the WiWM committee and WMS: “While pondering ‘what’s next?’ in my professional career several years ago, I discovered the network of professionals in wilderness medicine which is the perfect blend of my passions: sports medicine and active outdoor adventures. Serving in a leadership role in the WiWM committee has filled a professional void I didn’t know was missing as I act as both a mentor and mentee, collaborator, educator, learner, and one of many seekers of adventure. Collaborating with other like-minded professionals in the WMS and WiWM always leaves me inspired to better care for my patients (and myself and family) and excited for another adventure. Women have unique perspectives which should be highlighted and celebrated, and I look forward to fostering that community within the WMS and inspiring others to adventure safely while finding their inner athlete.” 

The committee has generated an impressive number of peer reviewed publications on relevant topics in a few short years. With a goal to accelerate gender parity in the field of wilderness medicine, Schlein et al. analyzed the gender distribution of key leadership roles at the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS) and Keyes at al. reviewed gender of authors and reviewers of content published in WMS’s official journal, Wilderness & Environmental Medicine (WEM). Dr. Christanne Coffey, MD, and Board Liason for the WiWM committee, led the efforts for another WEM publication, “First-Trimester Pregnancy: Considerations for Wilderness and Remote Travel.” Drs. Keyes and Schlein have joined Dr. Valerie Dobiesz, MD, MPH, FACEP, Director, Front Line Indigenous Partnership Program and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to be guest editors for a WEM Special Issue in Women in Wilderness Medicine in 2025.

Many great ideas ignite from necessity, and the Women in Wilderness Medicine Committee is no exception. Dr. Crockett sums it up beautifully: “I feel such great joy as I consider the far-reaching impact of bringing women together from around the globe – all with the goal of helping women to thrive and feel enriched by the field of wilderness medicine. I am so grateful for the inspiring men and women I’ve worked with as this effort for gender equity has grown and evolved. I am grateful to see women in all stages of their careers and all backgrounds finding opportunities to share their talents and to lift others around them as they climb.”

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