Adam Baxter balances his seasonal life with summers as a ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park and fall through spring teaching for the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI). This May in Washington, D.C., he is receiving the "Valor Award" for his part in a rescue operation that took place in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) during the summer of 2013. According to the Department of the Interior website, the Valor Award is "presented to Department of the Interior employees who have demonstrated unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger.” The story is told in section 3 of this profile.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 32 years old and was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I live in Boulder, Colorado, and am recently engaged to a wonderful woman who manages an organic farm outside of town.
In the summer of 2002 I graduated from high school and took a NOLS Wind River Mountaineering course. After my NOLS Wind River Mountaineering course in 2002, I very much wanted to become a NOLS instructor. It was my first taste of true wilderness and in many ways that course is responsible for where I am today. However, I wasn’t destined to become a NOLS instructor.
I went to college at Colorado State University where I spent as much of my free time climbing and exploring the West as I could. While in college I took a NOLS Outdoor Educator semester to get more specific training and my Wilderness First Responder certification. That WFR was my first window into the medical world. After graduating from college I balanced several seasons working in outdoor education while climbing as much as possible.
Eventually, I found myself applying to the National Park Service and worked a season in resource management. In 2010 I was searching for a different direction in the NPS. I looked around the Park Service at potential jobs and saw these folks running around in the mountains, going climbing, and doing search and rescue. That was something I could get on board with! All I needed to meet the minimum qualifications was an EMT. When I applied for the WMI WEMT in 2010, I did so with the intention of becoming a seasonal climbing ranger in RMNP. I also knew I still wanted to be in outdoor education and figured I could find a perfect balance rangering in the summer and teaching for WMI in the winter. I got super lucky and landed the job in RMNP the next summer, but I was not accepted the first time I applied to the WMI Instructor Training Course (ITC). However, I remained persistent and the following year I landed a spot on the ITC. I have found that these jobs complement each other very well. I get plenty of hands-on experience in the summer to add some real life lessons to my classes. Teaching for WMI helps maintain my skills and makes me a better patient care provider. My intimate understanding of patient assessment is directly correlated to my teaching experience at WMI.
2) What's something that you treasure, have learned, or wish to learn about teaching wilderness medicine?
I have been fortunate enough to teach several kinds of courses in my 2.5 year tenure at WMI (WFA, WFR-R, WFR, EMT). I prefer the longer courses because I am able to develop more meaningful relationships with students. The WFR courses are really interesting because of the diverse demographic that seem to find their way onto that course type. Often times there are folks in transitional phases of life that are taking the course in order to start their career in guiding, outdoor education, or some other new and exciting outdoor pursuit. Occasionally you get folks who are doing it as continuing education for their current career or for personal knowledge. Sometimes you get folks who are completely changing their career. All combinations contribute to a vibrant and interesting dynamic on course. I particularly appreciate the younger folks who are just starting out their journey in the outdoor industry who show a lot of excitement, nervousness, and motivation. I often see a lot of my former self in them and, because I never had someone who fulfilled that traditional mentor role for me, I enjoy offering up nuggets of insight that I have learned along the way to the person who is open to that. I hope to continue to develop and build upon those relationships throughout my career with WMI.
3) Please tell us why you are receiving the NPS “Valor Award”.
On a rare high pressure day in July, a climber fell approximately 60 feet while ascending the North Chimney on Long's Peak. The North Chimney is a loose and rocky gully that is used to approach the Diamond, a popular climbing objective on the east face of Long's Peak. He was roped, but due to the nature of the terrain he bounced several times and shattered two thoracic vertebrae, cracked a cervical vertebra, broke several ribs, punctured a lung, and fractured a scapula among other less serious injuries. Our team happened to already be on the south side of the mountain when the call came in about the fallen climber. We quickly redirected, collected some rescue equipment from a cache nearby, and made our way to the North Chimney. Several rangers were immediately flown into the cirque with the helicopter that was on standby for the recovery operation. With the assistance of several climbers and Rangers on scene, we managed to lower the patient in a litter 600 feet to the Mills Glacier where a team of around 25 rescuers carried the individual to an improvised landing zone and transferred care to a Flight for Life medical helicopter. While there are five of us receiving the award, there were around 40 climber, ranger, and volunteer SAR responders involved in saving that individual’s life. It truly takes a village, and everyone that took part in the rescue deserves recognition for their part. The fallen climber has made a remarkable recovery and is climbing again today.