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Sun Valley might very well be Idaho's best kept secret. Everything about the trip to the resort was effortless and enjoyable. After landing, we deplaned, had our luggage, and were on our way to the charming resort in less than 20 minutes. The people were friendly, there were endless activities, it wasn't overrun with tourists, almost all bluebird days, and there was just so much local charm. After the first day, I was left wondering why this state was most known for their potatoes when there so many other things that made this such a special place!

We quickly learned we should have done more dances and sacrifices to the snow gods; however, the lack of fresh powder didn't damper the sense of excitement one bit for the WMS 2020 Winter Conference, and I think that was largely due to the energy of the program committee. The night before the conference, we saw Grant Lipman, Ali Arastu, and Jamie Lieberman (who was especially stoked to have us all in his hometown), and their anticipation reminded me of little kids the night before Christmas. They all had worked so hard for the last six months, and they were ready to see the fruits of their labor. As the largest WMS winter conference on record, with more than 300 attendees from seven countries, and feedback like the below, it's safe to say their hard work paid off! Here are a few of my favorite comments from the evaluations thus far:

  • This is the first conference I've been to that really had me hooked the whole time. There was so much valuable information.
  • Excellent presenters and excellent topics covered. Very practical and relevant to the wilderness setting.
  • I loved this. I'm coming back and bringing all my friends.
  • Basically one of the best WMS conferences EVER.

I asked Jamie for his thoughts on the conference and he summed it up with, "Passionate people, invigorating and interesting topics, expert speakers - all gathering to share, learn, collaborate in a fun, beautiful environment."

So what are some of the topics and speakers that were so impactful? Here are few of the ones I heard people buzzing about in the halls between sessions:

  • "How to Die Roped Up" by Colin Little – Colin won last year's GME mini-lecture series competition which is designed to bring new speakers into future conference lineups. His presentation was technical and well-researched, but also extremely interesting. He was witty and used good visuals, and one attendee shared, "Dr. Little did an excellent job of presenting. The complex science and physics were explained so very well and concisely for all of us to understand."
  • "Advances in Frostbite: Field and Hospital Treatment" by Peter Hackett – Peter Hackett, need we say more? As usual, it was a solid presentation covering past and current research. He's one of the most knowledgeable and best presenters in the field.
  • "Medical Problems at High Altitude: Pre-Trip Planning and On-Site Issues" by Andrew Luks – With the increasing number of people accessing high altitude, this was a very relevant and applicable topic for attendees of all backgrounds. Clear, concise, and to the point, Andrew always does a fantastic job presenting concerns, red flags, current updates, etc.
  • "I Am Not Your Doctor": Collaboration of Associate Providers in Wilderness Medicine – J. "Pearce" Beissinger, Jason Williams – We are working hard to get the message out that the WMS is not just for physicians. It's a priority of the board and staff to make all levels of providers feel included and welcome, so this was a great step in giving that concept a voice. The session "increased awareness of the high level of clinical acumen, rescue skills and leadership of non-physician providers in wilderness medicine," reported one attendee.
  • "Drowning: Fatal & Non-Fatal Considerations in Resource Deficit Areas" by Justin Sempsrott - Multiple people told me this was the best presentation of the conference. Justin was practical and direct yet engaging. This is such an important topic and there are so many opportunities for community education around it.
  • "Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete" and "Exercise Associated Hyponatremia" by Tamara Hew-Butler – Tamara is a "hold onto your chair" speaker. If you didn't have your morning coffee you might not have kept up. Tamara is a ball of energy and she both moves and speaks quickly. She was hysterical and chock full of knowledge when it comes to endurance athletes and EAH.
  • "From Taking Histories to Telling Stories: A Clinicians Guide to a Novel Approach in Fighting the Climate Crisis" by Terry O'Connor - Terry knocked it out of the park with this closing session and shared a side of him that many probably haven't seen. Medical providers are uniquely situated to not only be invited into people's lives, and by learning to share their stories in an effective way, we may be of better service to highlight the public health crises of our time. It was both personal and inspirational and we can't wait to see more of Terry in the future!

In addition to fantastic lectures, this year's conference had more and better-attended social events than ever. From the welcome reception and a happy hour for GME fellows to newbie bowling and the pub crawl, attendees came ready to have a good time. Maybe next time we will schedule Ski & Board with the Board prior to the pub crawl though – after hitting up three local bars and a late night for many, some were dragging a bit as we headed to the slopes on Tuesday. However, that didn't keep this crew from making the most of their time on the mountain. I thought I was a pretty good skier (especially for a Texas girl), until I skied with our members – I did my best to keep up and got a good workout in!

President Scott McIntosh shared, "Ski with the Board of Directors was a great way to get out on the slopes and meet members in a fun and relaxed setting. Some people were in costumes, some did beginner runs, some did more advanced. Everyone had a great time!"

Although the value in WMS membership extends far beyond conferences, reconnecting with old friends and building new relationships is one of the benefits of meeting in-person through formal and informal gatherings. One member shared with us that he was sitting around talking with two others he had just met, and by the end of their conversation, the three of them decided to go to Nepal together in the fall. Other unique gatherings at the conference included the Environmental Council meeting (under the extraordinary leadership of newly appointed chair Carolyn Meyer), and the first ever Women in Wilderness Medicine Committee meeting. Sarah Crockett and Sarah Schlein led a brainstorming session to discuss how the WMS could make sure women are more fairly represented. Their committee is exploring ideas for mentorship, a women's speaker bureau, women-specific scholarship, and a "report card" to track female representation within the WMS. As the meeting began, the group had to add more and more chairs and widen their circle – a physical representation of the belief that there's room for everyone at the table.

The last night of the conference concluded with a keynote address by Clare Gallagher, a Patagonia-sponsored ultramarathon runner and environmental advocate. She shared how she had dreams of becoming a doctor but after a lost battle with organic chemistry, her life plans changed. She ended up winning the Western States 100 last year and was able to use her fame to help get the word out about the importance of taking care of our planet. She acknowledged the many negative health effects from pollution and said, "Medical professionals have the most compelling testimonies of anyone." She urged attendees to join in the fight with advocacy and the power to vote, and shared various resources to get more information such as the podcast Drilled and the New York Times Climate Fwd: newsletter.

Keynote Speaker Clare Gallagher with Program Committee Members Ali Arastu, Jamie Lieberman and Grant Lipman

I walked away from the conference with a sense of pride in our organization, because even if you take away the beautiful location, I'm confident our members will still find tremendous value in the conference. We often get confused with the organization that puts on the Big Sky Conference, but it's important to recognize what sets us apart:

  • We're more than just an event – the pillars of our organization are conferences PLUS education, certifications, research and membership. In addition to the positive experience and lasting memories, the WMS wants its members to be challenged, to grow, to connect, and to find more joy in what they do both professionally and in their hobbies.
  • We are a professional, non-profit association. Our goal is to further a social cause and provide a public benefit. As Jamie Lieberman shared several times at the conference, our mission is to encourage, foster, support, or conduct activities to improve the scientific knowledge of the membership and general public in human health activities in a wilderness environment.

Conference co-chair Grant Lipman recalled, "It was a unique combination of highly educational content with inspiring lecturers; when mixed with engaged WMS members in a beautiful setting it felt so much more than just a 'conference.' Check out our pre-conference and main conference photos on Facebook to see what we mean.

Thanks to all who are a part of the WMS community, and if you missed Sun Valley, we sure hope you can join us in July for the annual Summer Conference!

NOTE: We were very fortunate that our conference ended when it did. We had no reported cases of COVID-19 by attendees. Since the original writing of this article, things unfortunately escalated immensely, and turns out our comments about being more than just an event or a destination will be put to the test! We’re going virtual for this summer’s conference but promise to deliver the same high-quality wilderness medicine education and memorable experience you’re used to!

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