Victoria Ormerod, an FY1 in Cheltenham reviews the winter Wilderness Medical Training (WMT) Expedition Course in Chamonix. The course attracted over 100 delegates from around the world, from medical students to retired GPs, to be taught by nine WMT instructors. WMT also runs a summer Chamonix course for medics.
Wilderness Medical Training (WMT) organise a number of different courses every year, for both medics and non-medics. These vary from predominantly practical courses based around a trek in Morrocco, to more classroom based formats, but what they all have in common is a focus on medicine in extreme environments when far from help. The course I attended was the ‘Expedition Medicine’ course from the 20th-24th January 2014.
The ‘Expedition Medicine’ course run by WMT was held in the beautiful mountain town of Chamonix. With just a 45 minute transfer from Geneva, a buzzing nightlife and plenty of challenging skiing on the doorstep, this was the perfect location to gather for a winter course. For those not keen on snow-sports (of which there were few) there are still plenty of other activities available such as the alpine museum, plentiful coffee houses, boutique shops and an excellent sports and swimming complex. From a skiing perspective, the only down side to the resort was that it is not all accessed from one main lift system, but requires buses in the valley to move between ski areas, something I was not used to from previous ski holidays.
Logistics and Accommodation
On signing up for the course online, you are sent a welcome pack email containing all the essential information on attending and what to organise in the meantime. This was really useful and covered everything from airports transfers (including a discount code) to what ski pass to get and directions to the course when in resort. If you follow this you can’t go too far wrong in your planning.
WMT have a special arrangement with accommodation at ‘Gite La Vagabond’ in Chamonix, and most of the course delegates stayed here. It is slightly off the main highstreet, about 5 minutes walk from the town centre, and 10 minutes from the course location itself. Despite it being possible to walk to the closest ski lift (Brevent lift), this would be a 20 minute steep uphill walk, which is not that appealing in ski boots. There is, however, a bus stop 5 minutes away from the Gite and allows access to all the ski areas (some of which are around 40 minutes bus away).
Apart from being sociable with the other course members, the accommodation itself was a low point of the week. Rooms were small in bunk style beds with no storage space and only one plug socket between 6 people (not ideal when everyone has a phone to charge). Wifi was patchy and only available during the day time (when we were all usually out on the slopes/at the course), and there were only 2 toilets and 2 showers functioning between 40 delegates for our stay. It is a B&B basis charged at around 35 Euros/night, with a basic breakfast of bread, jam and cereals, however one morning, no one turned up to serve breakfast. Luckily we were refunded for this and they did make amends to be there on time from then on.
Despite the accommodation problems, I would still recommend staying there purely for the social aspects of the course, which is of particular importance if attending alone. I met a great group of people by staying there and made friends to ski and socialise with all week.
In response, Barry Roberts from WMT adds: less than a third of delegates used the hostel that, after many successful years working with us, let us down. We won’t be recommending this option again. Other delegates arranged apartment hire shares via our Facebook group, getting a discounts from a firm we also have a deal with.
The course was aimed at anyone with an interest in wilderness medicine, without a need for any prior experience or to be a medic, despite over 95% of delegates being doctors of some sort. A majority of medics seemed to be from foundation year 2 due to the availability of study leave and even the ability to obtain a grant to cover the course fees from some deaneries with the course counting for 17.5 CPD points.
The five day program ran from 3pm-7.30pm and was lecture theatre-based for all but one day of the week. This allowed for morning activities out on the mountain, with most people skiing or snowboarding. The other day of the course was spent with a practical half day in the local park covering GPS navigation, splinting and bandaging, hyperbaric chamber use for altitude sickness, transceivers and avalanche rescue, rope work and an ATLS type trauma scenario. This was a useful afternoon, however, if you had any previous experience in these areas some of it may have seemed a little basic. Although the central town park was convenient for attendance, it would have been nice to do this aspect somewhere slightly more remote than central Chamonix in a park, perhaps up the mountain in a more realistic setting.
The lecture course covered a huge range of topics, from the logistics of planning an expedition, kit lists and team selection, to problems in cold environments such as hypothermia and avalanche risks, and also those of tropical environments. There were more focused sessions on diarrhoea whilst travelling, legal issues, eye problems at altitude and even the essentials of emergency dentistry all of which were very well organised and delivered.
The final lecture each evening was an ‘insight talk’ by one of the course tutors on their personal experiences. These were accompanied by wine and nibbles to set the evening off, and included some truly awe inspiring stories. It was great that some of the ex-course attendees were teaching on the course, and acted as a reminder that it is possible to do some incredible things based on the teaching from this course. On a down-side, it also acted to highlight that despite all of us attending considering ourselves as ‘adventurous and outdoorsy’ type people, most of us were worlds away from having yet done anything quite as cool as these guys had experienced on their expeditions. By the end of the week we were all buzzing with excitement and ideas of our own trips, and at the end of the final day, we had the talk we had all been waiting for on how to join expeditions with tips and ideas to get us started.
After the course each evening, people would disperse and usually go for dinner somewhere in town, before rendezvous-ing later on at a given location for drinks and often live music.
There is an optional glacier trek day on the Saturday after the course, which unfortunately I was unable to attend, having to return to the UK for work, however I heard it was well received and gave a practical element to some of the crevasse and avalanche talks we had previously heard.
The course runs for 5 days, however most of those attending try to maximise time in the mountains by tagging on the weekends before/after for skiing/ other activities. One down side is the cost being quite pricey, however it is possible to get study leave for this time after F2 year, and often funding depending on your deanery which is well worth looking into. Here are some estimates for the week:
Course / £495
Flights / £230 return (Easyjet from Bristol to Geneva)
Transfers / £47.52 return (with Mountain Dropoffs)
Accommodation / £210 for 7 nights with breakfast
Ski Hire / £100 for 7 days (varies depending on level of skis/boots required)
Ski Pass / £215 for 7 days (‘Le Pass’ pass covering Chamonix area)
Extras / Lunches/dinners and drinks
I have to thank Barry Roberts (WMT Course Manager) and his team for organising such a fabulous week. I learnt a huge amount and would now feel much more competent in applying for an expedition medic position with ideas how to get involved. The course instructors were really inspirational and a whole lot of fun, being approachable on the course and socialising in the evenings. On par with the course content, I think a true highlight for me has to be meeting so many other like minded medics to ski and socialise with. After a week together with new friends I am sure many of us will keep in touch for years to come and know we have all returned to work with serious ‘post Chamonix blues’ only kept going by the excitement of planning for our own expeditions and trips in the future.
Highlight / The inspirational evening lectures
Lowlight / The accommodation