Buck Tilton swears he almost had a heart attack
during the first WEMT course he and Melissa Gray
taught in Colorado. Two weeks before, the two instructors
in the yet-immature wilderness medicine field drove
from New Hampshire to the wide-open market in the
West to start what would become the Wilderness Medicine
Institute (WMI). Once they arrived, they discovered
that their carefully set plans had fallen through.
Of the ingredients they needed to run a WEMT course
(students, classroom, gear, instructors, hospital
rotations and permission to test), they only had
half. Gear was backordered, permission to test nonexistent,
and hospital rotations a dangled promise. As seasoned
curveball handlers, they immediately jumped on the
phone and started calling in favors across the country.
The gear arrived in time for students to unpack
on their first day, and everything fell back into
place, except for permission to test, which Gray
and Tilton didn’t cement until halfway through
the course. In the end, students from the first WEMT
were officially authorized by the state of New Hampshire.
“We were operating on faith, I guess,” Gray
says about the course.
Fifteen years and more than 40,000 students later,
WMI celebrates another successful anniversary. We
found a few students from the first WEMT course and
dredged their memories back to that early WMI adventure.
While convenient timing and location brought them
together initially, these students found inspiring
education, lasting friendships, confidence, and careers
in outdoor education, medicine and adventure.
Jim Richards drove into Gunnison, Colo. with a bike
and a kayak strapped to his car. During the month,
Richards remembers getting outside with his new friends
at every possible opportunity. “It was a really
good group of individuals who got along and recreated
together and learned together,” the outdoor
education veteran says.
Richards also got a new nickname on the course,
one that has stuck during his 11-year NOLS career.
Tilton called him Jim “Danger,” though
Richards doesn’t exactly remember how this
|Shana Tarter, one of WMI's first students,
now serves as the Institute's Assistant Director.
Shana Tarter: Lured from her room one night by shouts
of an accident, Shana Tarter vividly remembers running
out only to be met with homemade cookies and her
classmates to celebrate her birthday. “I don’t
think I’ve ever had anything like that,” she
says. During the WEMT, Tarter responded to a real
rescue with Ish Antonio and Rod Alne, two military
students on the course. As they climbed into the
helicopter, she remembers them whispering in her
ear, “These guys don’t know how to fly
these things; they crash all of the time.”
Tarter developed a connection with WMI that has
grown tighter over the years. The Cornell graduate’s
inspiring experience sparked a career in wilderness
medicine. “A lot of places have good curriculums,
but WMI applies this curriculum in the manner most
useful to students.” A few years after her
course, Tarter came back to instruct and is now the
Assistant Director of WMI.
Ish Antonio: “The people made the course enjoyable,” Ish
Antonio says about his WMI experience. “It
was a totally different kind of environment for me,
and it was a breath of fresh air.”
Antonio, who recently retired from a career as a
pararescuer, found that the WMI curriculum and rescue
methodology lined up well with his military background.
He describes WMI founders Tilton and Gray as “outstanding
instructors” who made learning enjoyable because
they liked their job and had extensive knowledge
and personal experience. “I’d do the
course again if I could.”
Cleve Justis: “I was completely blown away,” Cleve
Justis says about WMI’s first WEMT. Justis
compares the month-long experience to a NOLS course,
where expedition behavior and taking care of each
other take on a huge importance.
The style Justis encountered incorporated a fun,
hands-on experience different from traditional academic
learning. “Our instructors could connect with
students in ways that no other educator I’d
had until that time could,” he recalls. “And
they remembered everyone’s names the first
time around the room; that was impressive.”
When the environmental educator graduated from the
course, he felt he had accomplished the gold standard
in outdoor leaders. He’s still friends with
his instructors and classmates. And the lessons have
traveled with him as an EMT, WMI Instructor, NOLS
Instructor and the Director of the Headlands Institute. “WMI
profoundly shaped my approach to patient care,” he