Preparing for the Unexpected: Wilderness Risk Management Conference 2015

By Alyssa Rainbolt

Oct 22, 2015

Discussing Risk at the 2015 WRMC
Discussing risk at the 2015 WRMC. Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.

I sat down to breakfast at a table of folks including Outward Bound Vice President of Safety Mark Vermeal. Vermeal was sharing the story of his friend, who had neglected to tie a knot at the end of his rope while rock climbing. We at the table agreed that it was not an unfamiliar story: climber is comfortable at their home crag and doesn’t think to take the precaution of tying a knot at the end of the rope. Climber is injured; in this case, a broken arm. In other cases, outcomes may be far worse. It’s a common mistake that is highly avoidable, and one that should drive the need to shift the climber mentality.

“So, how do we do that?” Vermeal posed to the table.

And so, the 2015 Wilderness Risk Management Conference began. Leaders in outdoor education from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon and from as far as the Philippines gathered to discuss today’s challenges in the world of mitigating risk in wild places.

In his speech to kick off the conference, WRMC Steering Committee Chair Steve Smith spoke on the evolving factors that dictate the work outdoor educators do.

“The risks we face as outdoor programs are as complex and dynamic as they have ever been,” Smith said. “For example, climate change is affecting our programs in new ways, creating superstorms, glaciers that look different than they have in the past, flash floods, and enormous wildfires that can have devastating consequences.” 

Laura Gladrey Griebling Speaks at 2015 WRMC Laura Gladrey Griebling speaks at the 2015 WRMC. Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.

He went on to reference economic downturns, an increasingly risk-averse society, and the impact technology and video games have had on children.

“These are all large scale environmental and societal factors that make the work you all do more vital than ever for the participants in your programs.”

So, how do we identify the elements within us as leaders that could contribute to a disaster? How do we make our industry more accessible to diverse populations? How do we create a culture of mitigating the emotional risk created by homophobia, gender policing, and transphobia in the outdoor community? These are just a few of the questions addressed by 72 speakers from around the world.

Conference Highlights

Blindspot: Near Miss Trauma: Brendan Madden, National Director of Operations and National Safety Officer at Outward Bound Canada, addressed the “cultural blindspot in our industry” of near-miss trauma, and the need for long-term guidance and support for individuals who come close to serious incidents.

Crisis Management: A Preplan in Action: Drew Leemon, director of risk management at NOLS, presented on crisis management and how to develop a plan for managing crisis in the field.

Practicing Crevasse Rescue Students practice crevasse rescue on a NOLS course in Alaska. Photo by Bria Schurke.

Minimizing Risk When Working with "At-risk" Populations: Becca Polglase, Diana Girard, and Julie Dubin discussed the risk an organization can assume when expanding their programs to new communities.

The Law Says "Yes" to Risk: Reb Gregg, renowned attorney specializing in the field of outdoor adventure, discussed the “development opportunity” presented by taking risks in the outdoors and the law’s growing acknowledgement of its value.

10 Steps to Better Risk Management: Alex Kosseff, Executive Director of the American Mountain Guides Association, and Andrew Leider, Senior Consultant at Potrero Group, addressed commonly overlooked operational strategies for adventure organizations.

Performing Under Pressure: Deb Ajango, Owner and Director of SafetyEd, presented on the cognitive and behavioral reaction in a leader when presented with stressful situations, and how to influence that reaction with trainings.

Keynote Address: Mary Gibson Scott, former superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, presented the Keynote. Among the action steps she encouraged attendees to take back with them, she stressed the need to seek out a more diverse client base. The urge to diversify the industry as a whole had become a theme at this conference.

Editor's note: Post updated 9/28/18

Written By

Alyssa Rainbolt

Alyssa is a NOLS instructor and the former alumni relations coordinator and marketing rep for NOLS.

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