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What is Mountain Medicine and why it’s so important

Mountain MedicineThe term ‘Mountain Medicine’ describes a sub-speciality of medicine that addresses aspects of high-altitude travel and mountain sports. It represents an interdisciplinary field that draws expertise from multiple fields, such as high-altitude and hyperbaric medicine, tropical health, and sports medicine.

Mountain Medicine covers the prevention and treatment of medical conditions that may arise in the high mountains such as mountain rescue and resuscitation, high-altitude physiology, and pathophysiology. It can also cover ‘mountain diseases’ including frostbite, mountain sickness, hypobaric hypoxia, pulmonary oedema and solar radiation. It’s characterised by its unique environment and difficult conditions, which can make even the simplest of medical interventions or treatment challenging.

Why is Mountain Medicine needed?

Mountain medicine is a modern and rapidly evolving field, with more people around the world participating in expeditions, exploring new frontiers, and pushing the limits of mountaineering adventures. The requirement for a new mountain medicine focus has never been greater.

Over the last few years, a growing number of extreme sports have evolved from traditional mountaineering and climbing, to include subspecialities like icefall climbing, mountain biking, river rafting and canyoning. This change has caused a significant rise in accidents and high-altitude complications as well as very specific problems that specialised mountain medicine expertise is required to provide.

Who practices Mountain Medicine?

Any medical professional with a passion for the mountains and adventure, and who wishes to turn it into their career.

Many expeditions and projects take place in mountainous regions, where medical facilities are either non-existent or poor. This makes it vital to have medical professionals on the ground with the practical skills, knowledge and understanding to perform in highly complex and demanding situations.

To be successful in conditions this extreme, medics will need knowledge on altitude related problems, mountain survival (e.g., water purification, navigation and rope techniques) and build on their skills in leadership, risk assessments, incident management and search and rescue.

A prime example of a doctor using her mountain medicine expertise can be found in this blog article. Dr Luanne Freer (a past leader of our Mountain Medicine course in Nepal) shared her colourful experiences of life as a doctor trekking through Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, home to Mount Everest. She discusses patients and common conditions that she and her team frequently witnessed and responded to at the medical clinic she established in 2002. Not only does she detail the inevitable blisters of climbers and trekkers to the more perilous altitude-induced ailments, but also an account of a time where she instructed a local village doctor how to perform spinal anaesthesia on a woman in labour – via radio, while she was a day’s trek from the village!

What career opportunities are available?

Being a medic, living, working and surviving in the mountains, is demanding and not without its perils. You need to be physically fit, competent in mountain survival skills and capable of making quick assessments and decisions under tough conditions. You’ll also, of course, need the knowledge and skill set to practice medicine on a mountainside.

There are many avenues you can take, depending on your skill set and experience. Volunteering for organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières will match you with positions overseas based on your skills, experience, and background. Raleigh International are always looking for volunteer expedition medics where, depending on your location, you could practise mountain medicine on one of their many projects in places like Nepal and Kenya.

Bangor Emergency Department, a unique rural ED sandwiched between the mountains of Snowdonia and the Isle of Anglesey. They offer great exposure to environmental emergencies and as part of an active team, you’ll have the opportunity to work alongside ambulance crews, Helimed, and local Search and Rescue teams.

Other career opportunities include mountain rescue work either in the UK or overseas, working at a high-altitude rescue post, where you’d live amongst the local community, looking after sick locals and trekkers. You could also take a research post, studying high-altitude medicine.

Introducing the World Extreme Medicine Mountain Medicine Course

Demand is growing for medics with mountain medicine skills, making our previously sold-out Mountain Medicine course the perfect avenue to take. It introduces you to the practical elements of working and providing medical cover in challenging high mountain environments.

Our ultimate Mountain Medicine course takes place in Nepal, where throughout 17 days we follow the Everest Base Camp Trail from Lukla, trekking at an easy pace, staying in Nepalese teahouses and enjoying the spectacular scenery along the route.

Led by a world-class faculty of expedition medics and a strong local Nepali support team, you will learn fundamental skills essential to treat and evacuate mountain casualties – including other common conditions encountered at altitude.

NOTE: Mountain Medicine is a popular area of extreme medicine, and our courses are prone to filling up very quickly. If you’re interested in joining us for one of our next courses but find that spaces are full, please contact us to be added to our priority list for the next course.

The course aims to enable attendees to:

  • Learn and enhance your knowledge about Mountain Medicine and introduce you to the practical elements of working and providing medical cover in high mountain environments.
  • Acquire and develop specific mountaineering, advanced expedition medicine, rescue and survival skills.
  • Enhance knowledge and fundamental skills which are essential to treat and evacuate casualties in the mountains as well as covering the common conditions encountered at altitude.
  • Understand how a Mountain Medicine approach can be applied to a range of practical real-life situations by assessing, assimilating and applying scientific evidence and responding with an appropriate solution.

Our Mountain Medicine course also comes highly recommended from past course attendees:

“I loved this course, the whole experience was amazing and definitely a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity. We were a mixture of all kinds of people from all over the world.
To me the mountain medicine course is suitable for a person with a spirit of adventure, for someone who enjoys trekking, who is open minded and who is happy to meet and bond with 20+ people from all around the world over a 2.5 week period.
WEM Mountain Medicine 2019 surpassed my expectations and I’ve made friends who’ll stick around long into the future.” – Mountain Medicine Course attendee

Find out more about our unique Mountain Medicine courses by visiting our courses page.

Other blogs on Mountain Medicine that may be of interest, include:

For even more information, sign up to WEMAcademy, a new digital resource for extreme medical professionals, packed with podcasts, webinars, interviews and presentations – amongst which you’ll discover plenty of valuable information on altitude medicine, expedition medicine essentials and extreme medicine careers.