Sunday, 29 April 2012

Home


Feb 25th Return flight

I remember sitting on my hotel window sill one evening, looking out, five days after I had landed in Tasmania. The rooms large corner windows looked out over Hobart's marina, and back over the city and the steep forested slopes of Mount Wellington right above. The sky looked dramatic, crowded with towering, low cumulus clouds starkly coloured orange, grey and black in the last light. The clouds hid the mountains and seemed to press on the town. Looking the other way, out to sea, the sky and the waters were peaceful and clear blue. The fishing boats in the harbour below me looked very familiar, the same sort of small trawlers and creel boats that worked the east coast towns I grew up in. Stretching away from the marina I could see bigger quays with a couple of icebreaker ships tied up. I could see lots of people in summer clothes strolling along the tidy waterfront past restaurants, cabins, piers, and the preserved equipment of a once-busy working harbour.   I felt a deep contentment to be here, but at the same time I didn't know what to do. I had had a strange few days in Hobart. Restless, unsettled.

The Astrolabe had arrived on Friday, February 17th. After five days sailing across the southern ocean in progressively calmer seas we spent a very happy afternoon enjoying the view of the nearing Tasmanian coast. The first grey shadow of land on the horizon gradually resolved into tall cliffs, sloping forests, and green and yellow fields over the course of the afternoon. There was no swell at all anymore, and I was very contentedly standing in the lookouts at the bridge, enjoying the view, the warmth, the calmness, the ordinariness of it all, so much. Particularly to see wildlife. Pods of dolphins occasionally swam past or underneath the boat. Birds, everywhere. Against a backdrop of those cliffs we saw a distinctly circular patch of water several metres across, become white as a frenzy of birds - petrels or shearwaters - dived over and over into the sea, their cries and the splashing audible over the ship's engines. I realised I was seeing them fishing a baitball. Some underwater predators had rounded up a shoal of prey fish, forcing them to swim in a tight ball and trapping them up against the surface. I wondered if it was the dolphins, but it could equally have been a group of predatory fish, or sharks, or seals. The birds, taking advantage of the trapped fish, dived into the shoal to catch a meal for themselves. All of a sudden the commotion melted away and the boiling white patch vanished as the ball of prey escaped their predators. The birds settled to rest on the water. Then moments later it erupted again a hundred metres away, and then again, and again as the unseen action between the circling predators and their shoal of prey went on. A fine diversion for a short while.

The Astrolabe crawled slowly into the long estuary of the Derwent river, lined for miles by gentle green hills. Rural roads sined through the farmlands and occasional houses to either side, and as the land closed in I could see buses and tractors driving along. The normality was such a novelty.  Further up, leafy Hobart spread out on all the hills that surround the water, and above them thick forests cover mountain ridges that crowd over the city and the river. We passed the city centre and and the harbour, and went on further up into the mouth of the river to a refuelling jetty. And this is where we disembarked. The sky by now was dusky and thickly clouded over. A fine, quiet rain obscured all the hills and most of the town. We could have stayed on the ship for the night if we wished, but very few actually did. Some went straight to the airport for a plane that night, some just vanished. The goodbyes were very quick and perfunctory. For most, they were essentially 'see you in Antarctica next November.' Others returned to their bunks, having decided to stay on the ship. Within fifteen minutes, the ship seemed empty. An hour later and it was dark. I disembarked with Yves-Marie, DDU's winterover doctor. We crossed the pontoon and found ourselves at a crossroads in empty, unlit industrial yards, waiting for a taxi. We sheltered from the rain under a makeshift corrugated-sheeting shelter in the dark with a few other guys from the ship. Apart from the quiet drizzling rain it was silent. Dark towering fuel tanks, sheds and warehouses all around.

Hobart's pretty fully booked out and it took a lot of help from the cab driver to find us a room for the night. Then I and a crowd of French guys, most I knew but some I didn't, had ourselves one big night out on the town. Since then, with hotels a problem, we got spread out more and more. Our email accounts were variably deactivated or inaccessible, phones defunct, broken or out of contract. Trying to arrange meeting points with variable success, it was hard to keep in touch. To my amazement, my French was sufficient to hold conversations and even have a laugh with the guys I could keep in touch with. But it was still very simple stuff and I didn't really fit well with the crowd. After struggling with communication for so long, the English speaking world here in Hobart was much more inviting. I found myself each day walking and walking around the town, really quite aimlessly, but I guess I explored it pretty thoroughly.  The best was sitting outside at the restaurants on the piers.  Amongst  the boats, in the warmth, I could sit happily for hours.   The others, mostly summer campaigners back in town after only a couple of months in Antarctica, were making plans to get out and do some sightseeing but I found I had no wish to go out of Hobart. After a year in the wilderness of Antarctica what I really wanted was to stay in the town, rest in coffeeshops, read newspapers, get some new clothes. We didn't quite realise that Hobart would be so booked out and trying to get accommodation was very difficult. I think I stayed in four different places in the eight nights I spent in Hobart. One place was a terrible hotel, deep in suburbs, whose reception was a large betting shop. The next was the five star 'Grand Chancellor' hotel on the seafront. The next was a bed and breakfast in North Hobart which I enjoyed the most. I spent the late evenings sitting out on thier veranda, looking out in the dusk across a valley at the city lights on the hill on the other side. It was warm and humid, and so comfortable to sit outside. I can't describe the complete contentment I felt there. Even the muted, distant noises of city traffic seemed reassuring and pleasant. I was glad to stay within civilisation and just be.

Whilst the warmth was certainly nice, what I found myself delighting in over and over was water – in the seaside air, the steam in a shower, swimming pools. Even the drinking water because it had minerals, rather than the essentially distilled water I had been drinking in Antarctica. Being able to breathe so easily again because in the normal, humid air the lining of my nose healed and the constant blood and dried mucus in my nose was gone. So I slept normally at last. Physically, I found that my leg muscles had weakened a fair bit. I could get thigh and hip joint pains after a morning walking around town. When I went to a swimming pool, I found that I had a much larger oxygen carrying capacity as you would expect from living at altitude for so long – I could swim far longer doing breath-holding strokes - but that the stamina of my arms and legs was much reduced and I had to stop very soon.

But, funnily enough, being in Tasmania made me so homesick. The culture, Tasmania's cool climate, the buildings, even the roadsigns are so similar to Britain that it felt like home was just a few miles down the road. I had a week booked in Sydney but sitting on that hotel windowsill, looking out I realised that really, I had spent the week pacing round Hobart waiting for my flight out, just exactly like the guys who had paced Concordia, waiting for the weather to lift and their plane to go. I didn't want a holiday, I just wanted home. I decided to cancel it and go straight home.

And now I'm on my way, writing this on the dark, softly roaring plane from Hong Kong to Paris. It's mostly empty, and essentially I'm alone with just my thoughts. M has just moved to Cambridge to start a new job, and she has temporarily taken a room at our old College, Wolfson. It's where she and I first met, where I lived for four years as I studied medicine. It's funny to think I'm heading back to the College. It's a good place and I'm looking forward to it. Much more so than I felt it in Hobart, I suddenly feel how good it is to be back in the normal world.

Feb 29th Wolfson College, Cambridge

Click.

Radio, Radio, from Eoin, over
Click.
- Go ahead, Eoin
Click.
Back at base, over
Click.
- Copy that.

Click.

Wolfson College's reading room. It's a very pleasant place, lit by soft lamps and a long wall of tall windows looking out onto the gardens of the college. The room's other walls are lined with bookshelves and photographs of past students celebrating rowing successes. People come here to chat, or read, or write in a quiet comfortable atmosphere. It's where, in a way, my adventure really began. Years ago I sat on one of these leather sofas waiting nervously to be called for an interview for a place on my medical course. And I found out much later that the house the interview took place in used to belong to Sir Vivian Fuchs, the expedition leader of Antarctica's first land crossing. After, I lived in the College for four years while I trained to be a doctor. So I remembered with wry appreciation the routine call I would make as soon as I returned to the station from a walk outside. I would be standing, still with suit and boots on, in the dark metal corridor between the towers and I would radio up to the radio room to say I was inside. If the radio's button had frozen I would use a nearby telephone. Then replace the radio battery with a fresh one, check it then turn it off, stow it back in my suit. Ready to go, in case of emergency.
I make myself more comfortable on the sofa. It feels particularly cosy today, with a classic Cambridge fog chilling everything outside. The trees take on an uncharacteristic, stricken appearance, the gardens mostly invisible, and people hurry outside, head down against the cold, pale figures in the fog. Inside, only the rustle of a college fellow turning the pages of a newspaper disturbs the quiet. I sip a coffee contentedly and wonder whether this, or the Epica workshop with its puttering oil stove and wood smell, is a better place to relax in. The epica workshop, I think. Perhaps it's just about the contrast within and without, perhaps its the warm smell of wood and grease or maybe I just prefer that kind of rough, easy company you find in such workshops everywhere.

It's been interesting to sit here and read over my blog. Through the winterover I wasn't able to see it at all. Once in a while Paolo would be allowed to use the satellite link to download a newspaper pdf, and when the link was active we could get online to look at a website or two. I would use it to upload photos but the satellite link was so slow and unreliable – the connection would drop again and again - that I never wasted time to look over previous posts. So when the Italians established a permanent internet link two weeks before I left the base it was the first time I got to see my blog. I can see there have been some formatting problems, and I see I occasionally posted something badly edited, and once or twice just plain rubbish. I put most of that down to hypoxia. I never stopped making errors of inattention at DC and even to the end everything I did I had to double check on another day.

There's so much more to that year than I could ever put into words but now that I read it, I'm a bit sad that I couldn't or didn't write more.
There were many many things I couldn't write at the time, to avoid causing worry. Like how exceptionally badly I was affected by altitude sickness when I arrived first. Two days after I arrived at Concordia I was vomiting so badly I couldn't keep down water. But Ales had to leave so there really was no choice but to keep working. I remember that we went to the grey water unit to learn the sampling process and I stayed on my feet for as long as I could, a bit dizzy and disorientated, then we went to the hospital where I got 2 litres of fluid infused intravenously and then I got straight back on my feet and we returned to finish the training. Ales and I were both a bit concerned about the possibility of progressive cerebral oedema, because nobody had ever reacted like this to the altitude before. But there wasn't much to do except wait and see how badly it developed. For about four days after I was so lethargic I could hardly move from my bunk. I wasn't keen to worry my family at the time with that.
And likewise I could say little about other's difficulties. I could not say any more about the emergency evacuations we had to do. Partly, I certainly didn't want anyone at home dwelling on what could go wrong up there, but mostly because of my obligation to keep individuals' medical confidentiality – being such a small group of people secrecy is not an easy matter. But that first medical evacuation in December 2010 was a salutary experience. I had not prepared for the medical problems of the station as I expected to defer on all that to our station doctor, and preparing for my own job was a busy enough task. But our station doctor, a surgeon, was not prepared for a challenge of pure internal medicine like HAPE, nor the challenges of remote medicine. I walked into the tiny  hospital room and could see literally from the end of the bed the patient's bounding carotid pulses and cyanosed lips. He was in a desperate state and needed evacuation at once. But for all that I demanded the doctor go and discuss evacuation with ENEA's Italian office, I didn't have the diagnosis right straight away. I made the very classic mistake of thinking his fever, neutrophilia, cough and chest and peripheral signs indicated a right lower pneumonia and impending septic shock. It took a four hour rush to get the evacuation organised, and it was only when the rush was over and the plane was in fact taxiing away that realisation hit. Thank goodness we got him down, and he recovered well. But the fall-out that evolved between myself and the station doctor, from having to get involved in the case, would severely sour our relationship for the whole winter.

Then, there were all the times that were indescribable because they were so simple, so unimportant taken alone, but now I look back they were the moments, the laughs and the fall-outs, the challenges, the successes and the mistakes, the minor disasters, the conflict, the reconciliations and the co-operation that make a single crew out of fourteen very different people. How the relationships between us as individuals appeared so, so important through the time, but looking back seem less so now. So, some of the guys did fall out. Some people didn't like other people. So what? We held it together well through the winterover. Everyone did their job. The base at the end of the winterover was in good shape and so were we - individually and as a functional crew. The experiments were done, the data and the samples ready to go back for analysis. When I look back, these are exactly the challenges that I'm proud of, that makes it mean something forever, to me, that I was one of the crew of DC7.

Too, I'm a bit sad that I never did write much about my departure from Concordia. My last week on the station last week was utterly chaotic. My replacement had arrived but was distracted by the need to attend to Monsieur Rochard, and then by the DC8 station doctor's decision not to do the winterover. He was unable to find time to come up to the lab to learn the job. I was writing guides for him, photographing and filming everything and anything relevant, helping Vera (the ESA representative that came to the station for a few days to set up the DC8 experiments) prepare the equipment, both new stuff and the equipment I had been using last year. Too, I was getting involved in medical provision, and also advising Alex on how to prepare for being the station doctor. And I had to pack up my room into my cases to send back to Europe, and train and prepare for working on the raid. I had a pretty fraught week. The day I left, much to my disappointment I was busy right up to midnight and I missed the opportunity to say goodbye to my many friends. I remember that the base was asleep by the time I finished up. I rushed out of the lab at midnight and down to my room, swept everything left on my shelves into a bag and walked out of the base without looking back or giving any thought at all to the fact I was leaving this station. I had to be ready to start on the raid early the next morning and that was all. I forgot to download photos other people had taken of the winterover – I'm no good at photos of people really, and I wanted copies of photos that the others took of some of the good times. So sadly I just don't have those kinds of photos to put up here on the blog and I really wish I did.

In part, I do miss Antarctica. Not for the land –it's beautiful but I certainly have had enough of that. What makes Antarctica a special place, as far as I'm concerned, is the people that you find there. That's how I would sum up the place: a bitterly hostile landscape, full of wonders, populated with really good people. Friendly, good fun, and very capable. One of the things that stands out most in my memory was the email greetings that all the bases exchanged at midwinter. More so than our own midwinter celebrations, It took the edge off the loneliness, and for me it lifted my eyes off the particular difficulties I was working through in the depths of the darkness made me appreciate again that a winterover is indeed a tough thing to do, and that it was reasonable to find it so. It was very nice to be reminded that others shared the same challenges, and it was fascinating to see for the first time that pretty much every base that stays lit and occupied through the night does so in their own unique environment – no two are at all the same. And it was wonderful too, to get greetings from people around the world who thought of us, people like the staff at IPEV and ENEA, others who had done a winterover before and thought of us. No-one back home made anything of it, which just tells me that you really do have to have experienced a winterover to understand what it means to do a winterover.
On reflection, I am so very glad that I went to Concordia.  It was an indescribably superb adventure, albeit tremendously tough.  But, I have to say, it's good to be home, too.

Coming back has been easier than I expected it would be. I got good advice from the astronomers who had done winterovers before – Karim, Eric and Djamal -that, if I wasn't going back to the same job I had before, it would be wise to stay away from work for a couple of months at least. And that's what I am doing! IPEV pays us a basic holiday rate right through to June to cover all the annual leave and weekend days off I missed by being on the station. It does give me time to recover and also some kind of target date to aim to get a job by. Having a year's worth of salary in the bank does take the pressure off a bit. So I'm not in a hurry and I'm enjoying that, but I'm concious that its important to make sure I don't become aimless.

M's move to Cambridge, where she started a new job the week before I arrived, is a good thing for us. It means that, as we try to re-establish our relationship, we can look at making a new life together here, rather than I try to fit into her established life in Glasgow. Our relationship only barely survived my year away.
While I was at the station, our once weekly phone conversations were difficult and rarely an enjoyable thing. We both found them to be really stressful. I think that M was struggling with the fact I was away in a place she could not really imagine, and with some degree of danger, so she found it difficult to sustain a conversation about it. I was not keen to dwell on all the things I was missing by being so isolated, so it was hard to talk to her about her life.  One week was not much different to the next at the base, so I really didn't have very much to talk about. She had thrown herself into her work seven days a week and so neither did she. So our talk was stilted, frequently unhappy and almost always disappointing for both of us. The time zone separation could not have been worse so usually we were both tired, and aggravated by the transmission getting dropped every few minutes. I was physically uncomfortable, sat in a small hard plastic chair in a cramped metal room under the quiet tower's aluminium steps. Week after week the frustration built up to the point I think we both found the phone call unbearably difficult, and we started to seek excuses to avoid it. Emails got less and less frequent. And for me, each time I struggled to write or speak to M I felt so guilty that I had ever come to Concordia. It felt our relationship was, bit by bit, slipping away even though we were both doing what we could to preserve it. It got sharply worse as I got closer to my return to Europe, and I had to start thinking about actually meeting her again. I wondered if it was going to be just impossible. For sure I still wanted our relationship to survive but, after a whole year of such difficulty I think I had just about given up on it. Particularly as my departure got put back and put back - it was so frustrating that I had to stay. The station simply would not have been adequately covered if I left and of course, it's friends and colleagues I had been working with a long time asking me, face to face, to stay. It was a tough situation. My temper deteriorated on the station and led, directly and indirectly, to a couple of confrontations with the station leader.  By the time I left Concordia, I really needed to leave.

It was M that saved our relationship. Just when I thought a reunion seemed too difficult and that to be honest, I was feeling that I didn't deserve another shot at it, M wrote a couple of really positive, optimistic emails when I was on the astrolabe. So in the last days, against all my expectations, the difficulty of facing her really turned to a feeling of fragile optimism. But when I stepped off the train at Cambridge and found her, her eyes were so, so full of uncertainty and reservation. I think my emailed replies had more communicated the anxiety and the uncertainty I had felt than the optimism, and she really didn't know what was going to happen. Standing looking at her in the busy station I felt wracked with regret and guilt more than anything, at how hard I could see she was finding it. And I thought - how do you start a conversation after fifteen months apart? Thankfully, I didn't have to. I was late arriving and we had to go straight to see a house she was thinking of renting. Instead of a conversation, we had something we needed to do. And actually, that worked out well. I guess the fundamental thing was that we both wanted to make it work. From there, we've started to build new foundations together. I think that all the long distance living we had to do before I went to Antarctica, thanks to the structure of medical training in the UK, stood us in good stead too, like pre-stress on a heart about to suffer a heart attack. Within just a few hours, being together felt right.

Anyway, today is good. I still get weary surprisingly easily, and after a short time walking in Cambridge I'm glad to come back to the college and take it easy here in the reading room. We haven't found a place to live yet but sharing the purpose is really helping us. And being in a comfortable, familiar place helps a lot adjusting back to normal life.

April 16th Little Shelford, Cambridge.

We found a place to rent in a beautiful little village just south of Cambridge, called Little Shelford. It's a quintessential, colourful English village, much friendlier and quieter than the city - I found the crowding in Cambridge extremely stressful, although that is easing now. It's a sunny morning today so I took a walk through the village. I didn't feel like going far though, so I thought I could go and pick up a few things from the co-op. On my way back, I walk down quiet roads lined by tall trees, past very old garden walls and thick hedges, churches, timber-beamed and brick houses, thatched roofs, green gardens, friendly strangers saying hello.   A little stream flows between Little Shelford and Great Shelford, the next village just a fifteen minute walk from our house, where there are a few shops and a couple of pubs. It's a very good place, and it's close enough to Addenbrookes for M to cycle to work when she wants to. 

There are so many songbirds here. And the trees rustle in the breeze all the time. Children, music flowing from windows, church bells - the world seems incredibly rich in sound. I realise that, of all my senses, my hearing was by far the most deprived in Antarctica.

Legs are back to normal, the tendinitis in my shoulders and elbows much improved. My stamina is almost back up to normal. I've been eating unbelievably a lot - I guess my body really needed repair. My old drive to get out climbing, mountaineering, walking, sailing, whatever, is just about completely absent. M and I spent the last couple of weekends tidying up our garden together. Happy as I am, I do hope some spirit for adventure comes back soon, though.

I have some meetings in London tomorrow to start locum work, hopefully in emergency departments in the area. I've spent my days recently reading emergency medicine and doing some exam revision to polish up my slightly rusty knowledge. And, we're starting to organise a reunion for the crew in Cologne, at the European Astronaut Centre in June.

At the door of our house I stop to watch some little birds swooping and stalling as they shoot right past me and round the side of the house, on their way to the bird feeder we have at the back. I notice that there are new green shoots growing up by the garden wall, I wonder what they will become. I go into the kitchen, put the bag of shopping on the table, and go to the window to see if the birds are still there. 

I'm home.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Raid photographs

Photos below:

The logistic raid approaching us – nine challengers, ten crew,
supplies for concordia
The two raids stop to exchange personnel. Patrice Godon, Head of
polar logistics at IPEV
Encamped for the night, the first darkness I've seen in months
The scientific raid – three challengers, five crew
Me and the tractor we drove, pulling a train weighing I think 24 tonnes

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A warm breeze

A warm breeze

The Astrolabe, IPEV's workhorse ship that shuttles between Hobart and DDU, is relatively small for these waters -
65metres long by about 13 - and when moored up in Hobart alongside the big ex-soviet icebreakers that also lie up
there, she is absolutely dwarfed. It was originally designed as a supply vessel for the oil industry and its sister
ship operates in the north sea. It is flat bottomed, and that's why IPEV use it as the sea around DDU is shallow and
difficult to manoeuvre. A lot of the open deck has had accommodation built onto it, but it has kept the heli-pad. She
carries about ten crew, and forty passengers. Having seen and heard of this ship for so long, it seemed very familiar
when I saw it moored at DDU the day we visited. The pack ice had been broken back just enough at the quayside, and
the ship's bow was only a couple of metres away from the ice. There was a steady procession of Adelie penguins
walking past her bow as they toiled between sea and nests. They didn't take much notice of her but eight emperor
penguins in a tight huddle at the water's edge stared and stared at the ship, clearly fascinated by it.

After two more very pleasant days at Prud'homme we got taken by the helicopter to board the ship, just a couple of
hours before her departure. Myself and three others from the Prudhomme station. The pilot knew the others well so he
pulled a couple of fun moves as he flew up, I had my heart in my mouth for a moment.

The ship was ready to depart a couple of hours early so the decision was made to use it to break the pack towards a
meteo station on one of the small islands between DDU and Cap Prud'homme. With all cargo and passengers embarked – at
least half of the passengers worked at Concordia this summer, so I know them very well - it sailed round into the bay
and as close to the station as possible. It took runs at the ice, the nose riding up onto the pack and then sinking
down, breaking the ice underneath it. It only made about 30 metres each time as the metre thick ice was about the
ship's limit. But this time it got the job done. Then, turning its nose out of the bay, we left Antarctica.

That evening sailing away from DDU the whole sea, as far as I could see, was completely white covered, white with
fragments of pack ice from very small up to tens of metres across. And the horizon was completely hidden from view in
all directions by icebergs, some near, some very distant, some relatively small but formed into fantastical shapes,
the really large ones - tabular and regular shaped - further off usually. We did pass close to one that was 10km long
and therefore as long as my home town and the next village, and the 5 km of road between them all taken together.
I stood on the heli-pad at the back of the boat, but I found I couldn't stay there. The boat was rolling and pitching
quite hard, not because of ocean swell. The sea was flat calm, there was no breeze at all. The boat's strong lurches
movements were because she was making frequent hard turns as she negotiated the ice. The ship can bash lumps of pack
ice out of the way but we get slowed down by the impact, often from her cruising speed to almost a standstill. So to
keep speed up it's better to steer a weaving course through the broken pack and keep the impacts to a minimum. But
impacts are frequent, and on that first evening I got several bruises from bumping into cabins' forward walls when the
ship got slowed by heavy pieces of pack. Deep rumbling impacts would vibrate through the ship's hull.

The continent disappeared from view too quickly, hidden by this towering icy seascape of bergs. But Antarctica still
had one last little surprise for me, which I'm quite sure I'll never forget. As the sky greyed over and the wind
rose, it started to snow, just as I was thinking about getting inside. And each snowflake landing on my jacket was a
perfectly sharp, unique, six pointed symmetrical shape. Just like I've heard described all my life, but I've never,
ever seen before. Farewell to you too, Antarctica.

The sea was calm, as usual, until the ship cleared the ice and there we ran into a pretty large swell. The twenty
four hours after that almost all the passengers were confined to their bunks by sea sickness and even three of the
ship's crew were incapacitated. Both Yves-Marie, the official ship's doctor and I have been given bunks in the ship's
medical room. Boxes and bags of hospital material were throwing themselves around and several times one or other of us
got up in the night to put it all back again and resecure the restraints. I took a look out the door leading to the
rear deck just to see waves which I knew would be enormous. It was quite something to see the stern of the boat
pitched far back down, squirming in the trough of a very big wave then rising on the face of a cross-wave, rolling
heavily to one side. I shut the door, don't want to watch too much of that, that's for sure. They flung our not-
so-light boat around with such ease. Over the following days the weather and the sea state gradually settled but me,
I was hardly able to get off my bunk for two days.

Finally, today, I have my sea legs, the nystagmus is gone, and I've been able to see, eat and drink normally. I can
sit quite comfortably in the hospital writing as the ship continues to roll around. As I type this my chair
periodically slides two feet backwards leaving my fingers momentarily typing thin air. Then a moment later it slides
considerately back to where I started. Our hospital door is two metres away from the exit out to the rear deck. It's
kept open all day to get some fresh air in, and today there is a warm breeze flowing in from outside. I went outside
to take a look and some water poured off the deck above and over my legs and shoes. It was warm. Warm, flowing
water. The swell has eased off quite a bit. The sea is blue, reflecting a clear sky and our progress toward
Australia. We should make it to Hobart tomorrow night. There are three or four albatrosses following us.

It's warm, at last. At long last.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Time, at last, to leave Antarctica.

Arrived at the coast Feb 7th
The long round coast at the grid south to south-east of Antarctica is
broken in many places by tongues of glacial ice protruding from the coast
out to sea, where areas of the vast sheets of ice sweeping down from the
domes get corralled and accelerated by subglacial fjords and forced to out
into the water. The astrolabe glacier, in Terre Adelie, is one such
place, the valley forming it 1500m below the level of the sea. The
coastline here is formed by rolling hills of ice sloping down to the sea.
They end as far as I can see in both directions in vertical cliffs of ten
to twenty metres which join, seamlessly at their base, the flat shelf of
sea-formed ice that gets called the pack. The Astrolabe glacier gets
forced out to sea beyond the coastline, and in doing so creates a bay on
either side of it. It disintegrates into icebergs the size of villages as
fast as it is renewed by the flow of ice behind it. So, it retains it's
size, while at the same time casting a dense flow of bergs into the
westward current flowing round the coast. This side of the glacier,
amongst the confusion of cliffs, pack, icebergs and sea are a few little
rocky outcrops. Some are on the coast, left uncovered by deflected areas
of ice sheet, and others are out beyond the cliffs, small islands in the
sea. This year, thanks to the unusually calm coastal weather, the pack
ice has never been broken up and so it is still possible to walk out to
them. Today in the space of four or five hours, however, we saw the pack
fracture and half of the entire shelf, several square kilometres of ice,
drift out into the melee of floating ice and effectively vanish.
In this bay is the French base of DDU – Dumond D'Urville, named after the
French explorer. Actually it is in two parts. The main base is made of
quite a few buildings built in a loose ring around the top of the largest
of the islands close to the edge of the glacier, with a dock for the
Astrolabe ship on an adjacent island.
Five kilometers across the other side of the bay, on what surely must be
the smallest piece of bare rock ever to be called a cap, is Cap
Prud'homme. This small building is the base for the mainland operations.
The raid has its headquarters here and the airstrip is here. All material
and people arriving on the boat, to be taken up to Dome C, have to be
ferried by helicopter over to Prud'homme. Or, wait until the summer is
over and the pack ice returns, and when it is thick enough heavy material
can be transported over the ice and stored ready for the next summer.

To Anthony, Patrice and Alex there was no excitement to have arrived here
– this is what the job is, this is their base, returning simply means
different work for the next few days. For Michele, He'd seen DDU before,
it was nice to be back, nothing more. So I kept the sheer, overwhelming
relief to be somewhere else, somewhere more normal, to myself. More
normal, I thought it over again, as I looked at a yellow moon rising over
a bay full of icebergs the size of towns, coloured red by the setting sun.
We drove in a fifteen tonne tractor down a glistening ice slope to a
French station we would call home for the next five days. A helicopter
buzzed past, skimming the ice, certainly no more than thirty metres behind
us. The VHF radio crackling with the voices of strangers kilometres away.

Cap Prud'Homme Feb 9th
I was offered me the choice of staying at Prud'homme or at DDU for the few
days we wait here for astrolabe to depart. Without hesitation I chose to
stay here, it's a very nice place to be while I wait for the ship. The
base at Cap Prud'homme is very small, right now there are only about
fifteen guys working here. Plus another ten or so usually here but who are
right now driving back toward the base on the last logistic raid of the
year, having departed Concordia about two days ago. They are mechanics
mostly, working on the raid and the airstrip and ready to offload any
boats bringing material across. That won't be happening this year,
however, judging by how much pack ice lies between the base and open sea.
The base is small, warm, comfortable and airy. It's only around minus
five degrees here, so the doors can be opened and air let in. The
furnishings are wooden and homely. At it's centre is a large room where
the crew cook and eat. The single long dining table runs almost the
whole length of the room. At one end is the small kitchenette, and at the
other four wide and tall glass doors doors let us look out onto the bay of
sea and ice and across to DDU, about five kilometres away. It's painted
and furnished in a very homely way. There are a few bedrooms, some
workshops, some stores, some yards for tractor maintenance. That's it.
The guys are very friendly and welcoming despite mostly depending on my
still extremely limited spoken French for communication. But we still
manage to have a joke frequently and I am really enjoying the easy
company. A couple of days after I arrived Yves-Marie, the doctor here
took the opportunity of the extra cover to go back to DDU to tie up some
work left from the winterover. So I have a role as the station doctor by
default, albeit with nothing actually to do. The hospital room is tiny,
with a small desk for consulting and the doctor's bed less than a metre
away. Simple DIY cupboards contain a small but pretty comprehensive stock
of equipment. The window also looks over the bay and I find it's a very
warm, comfortable place to sit, enjoy the view and write my winterover
report. Jean-Louis will get here from Dome C tomorrow and he is widely
recognised as the best chef in Antarctica. This is a fabulous place to
be, in fact.

There is a team of glaciologists here who has been coming each summer for
seven years, observing the movements of the ice with solar powered GPS
sensors fixed at certain points on the glacier. They invited me to go
along with them one day, and I found myself in DDU's little squirrel
helicopter flying daringly close to the ice to stay out of the katabatic
winds, up to check on their stations. From the first station we hiked to
the second and third, roped together as we were crossing crevassed ice.
It's a long time since I did any improvised roped rescue practice and as I
walked I thought about the gear they had given me, I had to think a bit to
remember which way round you clip a ropeman when rigging a z-pull, how to
release ascenders to pay out rope, the way to get down on the axe to
arrest a leader's fall into a crevasse, the best knots to tie into the
rope with, and all the complications that can come up to catch the
unpractised rescuer. It's a natural extension of my climbing safety skills
and I quite liked thinking around the problems again. But of course no
such eventuality occurred. Mostly, it was just great to walk for so long,
on solid footing as we crossed the glacier past, and occasionally stepping
over gaping open crevasses.

DDU
Then yesterday we walked to DDU for a visit, five km across the pack ice
filling the bay. The rule is you go in threes at least carrying a radio.
Whilst one of the guys did some GPS work, his pHD student Cyril and I
wandered around the base, meeting lots at Dome C people who had flown down
that day. It was strange to find good friends, who I only knew as working
very hard, to be wandering around with nothing to do. Tourists just like
me. We'd been there an hour or so when we got approached by a stranger
who said, 'You are the Scottish doctor.' Just like that. Like the Highland
villages I grew up in, everyone knows who you are, how you got here. And
I like that. He is the district Mayor. Whereas Concordia is an
expeditionary base, DDU is treated as a French territory and you are
essentially in France here. After a brief chat the mayor put his shades
back on and went back to directing the helicopter by handheld radio, as he
watched it carry supplies on a wire from the docked ship to the storehouse
door he stood in front of. DDU is sixty years old now, established I've
been told when an older base round the coast burned one summer and the
crew retreated to a scientific hut that had been built here. It is very
close to the glacier and huge icebergs drift close by. Apparently there
are around a hundred people on the base at the moment. It is an
accumulation of low, large huts of various ages in a ring around the top
of the largest outcrop in the area. There is a post office hut, a hospital
building, a seventy five metre tall VHF radio mast, various scientific
buildings, amongst others. We had our dinner there – eating out, I joked.
Again, a friendly place, you just have to speak what French you can for a
few minutes and you always find people ready to chat and have a laugh in
English.

The base is built on a rock that is home to thousands of Adelie penguins.
They nest right around the buildings and, much more densely, down the
sides of the outcrop. Their chicks are full grown now, fully adult height
and some look bigger than their parents, less than six weeks after
hatching. But they still have their brown downy feathers and are unable
to swim, so they depend on their parents for food. It's quite comical,
and common, to see chicks chasing their parents around the rocks demanding
food, and the parent quite determinedly running away. There are
penguin-made paths on the ice all round DDU as parents leave their nests
to walk across the pack to the sea for more food. There are so many of
them that there is a more or less continuous procession of them going
out, and coming back. They are less than a meter tall yet they walk
kilometers to get to the sea. I have missed most of the emperors, they
have already passed through on their way to the sea and I will leave
before their return. The colony will face the long, long winter, with
winds as high as 300km/hour and absolute temperatures of minus 35, just
half a kilometre from the base. There are a few around the base, however,
slow moving and somehow seeming mournful compared to the boisterous,
clumsy, busy Adelies.
On our return across the ice we climbed a small iceberg that was frozen
into the pack ice, 10m high cliffs at either end and sloping flanks in
between, perhaps a kilometre or so from the ice sheet, several more to the
sea. Weddell seals were lazing around at the foot of it, having found or
made a hole in the ice to climb up through. They don't bother much when
humans pass close by. To them I guess danger is Orca-sized, we don't look
so scary. At the top of the iceberg there was glassy ice, flat and
smooth enough to skate on, and it was almost cobalt-blue coloured, even
under a darkening grey sky. It was a very strange discovery.
Occasionally a solitary Adelie would cross our paths, several kilometres
out of the way of their nests or the sea. Just wandering, apparently.

Time, at last, to leave Antarctica. Feb 11th
So the Astrolabe will depart tomorrow. We'll go by helicopter in the
morning to join her and she'll cast off at midday. This time there
should not be any postponements.
My time, although I am in the semi-designated position of medical
responsible for the Prud'homme base, has really been a vacation. In the
six days I've been here I've prescribed a bottle of Maalox. That's it.
This afternoon I took a walk down to the edge of the pack ice today, to
explore the curling crests of the ice cliffs, like breaking waves. Blue,
white, or red where mixed with the earth. I thought it would be time to
pause and reflect on the raid and on departing Concordia, write a little
about it.

But really, I find I don't have much to say really. Job done, now looking
ahead to the next step. But at the same time I find I can't see at all
more than the next step ahead. At Dome C, in the last few days I could
only see ahead to the raid, on the raid, ahead to some rest at Prud'homme,
now tonight, only as far as the helicopter ride to the astrolabe tomorrow.
That really is as far as I can see. Hobart? Holiday? UK? Work?
Haven't a clue, can't even imagine these things. Besides, it really
doesn't feel like goodybye, more like au revoir. Patrice has asked me if
I would like to come back to be the doctor for raids in the future, and I
would. I think I might find myself back here sometime.

Sounds like the guys have got out the guitars and beers, and have started
playing tunes in the workshop. I think I'm just going to go join them,
worry about all that later. See you.

By the way, the wind is getting up, shaking the base tonight. And this
afternoon I noticed that there was a swell in the bay for the first time.
Looks like the weather is not going to be kind for us.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Raid day 9 - On arrive

Arrived at DDU

Tired, aching shoulders and arms, and now quite happily drunk.
Bonne nuit

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Raid day 8

Position 67 degrees 32.780 South 138 degrees 00.750 East
Distance to DDU 120km

We have finished another straightforward day, pitching and rolling down
the snow track.
And now as I type I'm looking out on a beautifully coloured sunset. It's
lovely to see twilight again, after three months.
The wind is high, the caravan, already leaned a little to one side as the
snow we're parked on is uneven, rocking a little in a strong wind.
Trails of snow are snaking over the deep blue snow, like sand does on a
windy beach. All the colours of the rainbow light the sky just above the
horizon. Otherwise our little disc of white world is just the same as
it has been every night of our journey.

Tomorrow we'll get to the coast, although not quite to DDU. The last few
kilometers are quite steep and so the train will need re-arranging, and
that takes a bit of extra time.

As long as we have good weather, we'll see the sea tomorrow. I can't
begin to express how much I'm looking forward to it.

And, the day after we arrive, the last planes of the year leaving
Concordia should land at DDU as the next winterover, DC8, begins.