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Wilderness Medicine conference has long history at Big Sky

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By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Dr. Eric Weiss started teaching wilderness medicine 28 years ago in Squaw Valley, Calif., because he witnessed first hand the lack of preparedness many outdoor enthusiasts had when medical emergencies arose in the backcountry.

Weiss, a Professor of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University Medical School, began traveling to Nepal in the early 1980s, where he provided medical support for Mt. Everest climbers and trekking groups. “People didn’t know how to deal with frostbite, traveler’s diarrhea and hypothermia,” Weiss said.

The Wilderness Medicine summer conference moved to Big Sky Resort from Squaw more than 20 years ago and the winter conference began a couple years after that, Weiss said.

This year Wilderness Medicine brought 16 instructors – all experts in their field – to the resort from Feb. 12-16 to teach courses ranging from “1001 Uses for Duct Tape & Safety Pins, Improvised Medical Care” to “Venomous Sea Creatures and Shark Attacks” and “Backcountry Dentistry: Where There is no Dentist.”

The conference helps satisfy the continuing medical education requirements necessary for healthcare professionals to stay licensed in their field. While about 60 percent of attendees are physicians, the conference also attracts nurses, EMTs, and military personnel, according to Veronica Haynes of A Meeting by Design, the company out of Bozeman that organizes the conference.

“We promote this as a family-friendly conference for doctors,” Haynes said. “Because [medical professionals] are very busy, a lot of them prefer to go someplace where they can take their families. There are optional workshops that some of their spouses and children can take…their kids can get certified in first aid.”

Workshops and activities for youth also include “Survival for Kids,” where children learn how to avoid getting lost, how to signal for help, and how to survive a night spent outside with practice building igloos, snow caves and other improvised shelters. Wilderness first aid courses for both kids and teens offer instruction in how youth can recognize and manage common medical problems and emergencies.

About 750 people descend on Big Sky for the conference, one of the largest held at the resort, according to Big Sky Resort Director of Marketing Lyndsey Owens. The doctors and their families get “CME credits (continuing medical education), great skiing and a big helping of Montana hospitality,” Owens said in an email.

When Weiss started looking for a winter location Big Sky seemed like a natural fit, he said. The resort had the expansive ski terrain, plenty of lodging, and lack of crowds he was seeking. It also offered close proximity to the wilderness classroom needed for the courses.

He also noted the importance of ski-in/ski-out access – since the courses are held in the early morning and evenings – allowing attendees the greatest amount of time to explore the slopes while the lifts are turning.

“I fell in love with the ambience, terrain, and lack of crowds,” Weiss said. “[But] most of all the people were very affable and friendly.”

Dr. Joe Swan, an anesthesiologist from Columbus, Ohio, had skied at Big Sky twice before but this was his first time attending the conference. He purchased a home in Four Corners recently and plans to move there when he retires.

“It’s the subject matter that appeals to me the most,” Swan said of the wilderness medical skills he learned over the weekend. “I’m going to be living here in a few years and want to make sure I can take care of myself, my kids and grandkids.”

Phil White has been teaching at the Wilderness Medicine conference since 1997, instructing urban survival, and travel planning and preparedness. A retired Fire Chief of the South San Francisco Fire Department, White enjoys the people he meets in Big Sky attending the conference and working at the resort, he said. He’s also enamored with the setting.

“It’s a great opportunity to see a part of the country that people only see in the movies,” White said.

In 1999, he said he drove up Gallatin Canyon from Bozeman at 5 a.m. because the canyon was closed the night before. “I was going 20 mph, the sun was coming up, tufts of grass poking out and the wind was blowing. I imagined Lewis and Clark or members of the Nez Perce getting started for the day and that stuff actually happened here.”

White said he shows people how to jumpstart cars, tells them how they can drive miles to safety on a flat tire, and when a car’s rear drive shaft is dented, how they can disconnect the drive shaft to continue traveling. But the most important travel preparedness tip White gives attendees is: “Travel often,” he said.

Every year the conference hosts a special evening presentation by luminaries in the field and past speakers have included Jon Krakauer, Aaron Ralston, David Brashears, and Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest.

This year, acclaimed National Geographic photographer Gordon Wiltsie presented the Queen Maud Land expedition he documented for a 1998 issue of the magazine, which included climbing legends Conrad Anker, Alex Lowe, Rick Ridgeway and Krakauer.

The skiing and opportunity to explore Yellowstone with a blanket of snow are an obvious draw for attendees in the winter, but the resort has done a lot over the years to make the summer conference more appealing, Weiss said.

“There used to be very limited things [to do] in the summer outside of nature itself,” he said. “[Big Sky] put in zip lines, rope courses, archery and other activities to make it a very family-oriented resort.”

The National Conference on Wilderness Medicine returns to Big Sky July 23-26, 2014.

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