“When you’re in the backcountry, be ready to change your plans.”
They’re words to live by for wilderness medicine and backwoods expert Eric Bowman, M.D., emergency medicine physician at WellSpan York Hospital. On a recent trip to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in search of lingering snow for some skiing, his plans changed in a big way.
This is no ski resort. There are no lifts. Expert skiers or snowboarders make a few turns on whatever snow is left and then pop off their equipment and hike back up the mountain a couple of football fields in length to do it all over again.
That’s what 22-year-old Ian Brown was doing, hiking back to the top of the mountain, when he lost his footing and started sliding on his back and head first down the hill at what Bowman describes as 30 miles per hour, eventually flung into a pile of rocks at the bottom of the melting snow.
“When we saw it, we thought we were heading down to recover a body,” recalled Bowman.
Bowman and his friend John Silar, both ski patrollers at Liberty Mountain Resort in Adams County, rushed to the scene to find Brown with several broken bones, but lucky to still be conscious. The problem was, they were in the middle of a treacherous mountain, and no cell phone signal or radio.
“All of my skills came into play that day,” explained Bowman. “Emergency medicine skills, backwoods skills, skiing skills, all of it.”
Bowman examined Brown and fashioned a makeshift leg splint out of ski poles and a trash bag, a stretcher out of a sleeping bag, all while several of Browns friends lined up the mountain to create a voice relay system to someone at the top who had cell phone service and could call the ranger.
Even with Brown stabilized, they still had to get him off the mountain. It was too dangerous for a helicopter so a group of 12 people including Bowman and Silar carried him on the makeshift stretcher through boulders and overgrown thickets to the four-wheeler trail. Even then, they had to get him down the trail on an all-terrain vehicle to the waiting ambulance. Brown’s injury occurred at 1:15 p.m. He was loaded into the ambulance at 8 p.m.
“I’ve never in a single day had such a complicated rescue of any kind,” explained Bowman. “But it was collaboration. We all worked together to get the job done and get Ian off that mountain.”
Brown, from Massachusetts, had several broken bones and needed emergency surgery and stitches, but he is recovering.
Brown has kept in touch with Bowman since the accident and has expressed his gratitude. Bowman has also talked to Brown’s mother, who considers her son blessed.
During the rescue a film crew from North Woods Law, a reality show on Animal Planet that follows rangers from the state’s Fish and Game Department, captured parts of the rescue on camera and plan to televise it as part of a future episode featuring Bowman.
While this rescue put the emergency department doctor’s skills to the test, he is no stranger to wilderness medicine training.
In fact, for 13 years he has been hosting a “PA Wild Med” conference each summer near his home near Hanover with participants camping in tents, going through real-world scenarios, workshops, and all held outdoors regardless of weather. This year, due to the ongoing pandemic, the event has been canceled.
“You have to practice with your gear to be best prepared,” says Bowman.
On June 27, on a steep mountain among boulders, those skills he has been honing through the years helped to save a young man’s life.