By the time the first WMI Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course rolled around in the winter of 1991, WMI had set up home base in Pitkin, Colorado. This town of less than 60 was WMI’s living and working community until NOLS purchased the organization moved it to Lander in 2002.
Like most early courses, the first WFR ran out of the old Pitkin Hotel, with the dining room as the classroom. And like most early courses, WMI co-founders Melissa Gray and Buck Tilton were the instructors. “I love watching people learn. I love being a part of that process,” Tilton says about teaching.
In an organization where the very first instructor still works full time, WMI has clearly been doing something right for the past 15 years. Gray credits the passion that staff have for what WMI does to their family feel. “I never planned for wilderness medicine to be my career, but the people I work with and train are great… they ruin you for anything else!”
Jake Burnett: This Utah raft guide holds the distinction of maintaining his current WFR certification since that first course in 1991. “I think it’s a great course,” he says. “I felt like I had some skills for sure but left with the confidence that I could deal with a situation if it came up. I didn’t know what I had gotten into, but I got more than I expected.” Through all of the scenarios practiced in the Pitkin WFR, Burnett was armed to have any medical emergency his raft guiding could dish out.
He also remembers cross-country skiing after class and becoming friends with Tilton. “Buck is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met. And he’s a very funny man, too,” Burnett says. “Basically we became friends. I wasn’t just a client.”
Have all of his re-certifications been with WMI? “I’ve pretty much stuck with WMI. The training is top notch.”
Kurt Wedberg: In Pitkin, Kurt Wedberg first met folks working in outdoor education for a living. “I remember looking at everyone else on the course and thinking, ‘Wow, these people are living their full-time lives like that,’” he laughs. “People worked for various companies: NOLS, smaller outdoor education companies or ski patrol, living this vagabond lifestyle out of their Toyota trucks and traveling around. That was the first time I’d been around people like that, and I remember thinking it was pretty cool.”
The scenarios on that course stick out for Wedberg, especially a night scenario that involved skiing to get to the scene. “One of the highlights was learning the information that was taught and then going out and applying it.”
After his course, Wedberg became a professional mountain guide and eventually started his own company in Bishop, California. “As a guide, I felt like I had a good skill set that was a good couple of steps higher than what most people had at the time,” he says. “A lot of mountain guiding is relating to people and teaching people, and I know that I subconsciously learned a lot of that from my instructors.”
Daryl Miller: Daryl Miller came to take his WFR in order to work for Denali State Park, where he served as a climbing ranger for years before becoming the South District ranger. “What WMI teaches is to do what you can with what you have; use your mind rather than having to depend on specific kinds of equipment; use your resources in the wilderness instead of things you just don’t have.”
He credits his ability to apply this base of knowledge to the instructors. “They are really good—a notch ahead of some of the others that I’ve seen. It just seemed like there wasn’t much Melissa didn’t know,” Miller says. “Buck doesn’t get rattled easily, and it was easy to relate to him.”
Like Wedberg, who he has seen in the park over the years, Miller remembers that night scenario and its extreme cold. “It was a wake-up call for all of us. When you have to deal with injured people in the field and then add adverse conditions, it’s just really difficult,” he says. “It was a good feeling because you went away from there knowing that you had tools you could use in the field taught by people with first-hand knowledge.”