Physician’s update and survival training.

Physician’s update

I am Malcolm Arnold, the physician on station. This is my third winter at Mawson and my eighth voyage to Antarctica in total, half with the Australian and half with the United States program. Despite all my previous exposure, this continent, and this station in particular, never fail to delight me.

Nothing very dramatic has been happening this past week from the medical standpoint. The immediate weeks after resupply are always a busy time, packing medical items away, discarding expired medicines and installing new equipment. After many years service our antique though functional operating table was finally replaced with a brand spanking new modern one (photo below). Such tables are massively heavy and it took Ian Petty, Chris George, Pete Hargreaves, Wayne Scandrett, Rob Kiil and the JCB to do the job. This complements a fully functional operating theatre much as you would see back home in Australia.

On Thursday 15th March, Mel Fitzpatrick, our Field Training Officer, led a group of 4 first time people (Bron, Michael, Darren, and of course Mel) up onto the plateau for 3 1/2 days of field training. This followed the already thorough initial training back at AAD head office, with exposure to the real thing, and the ever present harsh conditions and dangers in Antarctica — as well as its beauty. Successful completion of this training is a pre-condition for later recreational trips. The four stayed in the Rumdoodle field hut, then used both tent and bivouac bags in camping in the Central Masson range. There they met −15 degree Celsius temperatures and an unpleasant 40 knot wind. All survived and look invigorated from the experience.

One of the unique realities of living at Mawson is dealing with the constant and sometimes hazardous wind. Winds on Station often reach 70 knots during blizzards and may on occasion top 100. While these wind speeds are a real danger to outside movement, some travel between buildings may still be necessary at the lower wind speeds. To make the transfer to other buildings safer, ropes under tension at about waist height (“blizz lines”) are put up along the usual travel paths. We use stiff hawser-type ropes which give excellent hand grip, not the smooth stretchy variety used in climbing. When visibility is extremely low from blowing snow during blizzards, these truly become a lifeline. They are fixed at each end to buildings, or to used 200 litre fuel drums, filled with either concrete or very heavy rocks. Each traveler calls in by radio on leaving one building and on arriving at the destination, as well as giving a likely time they will be there. While blizzards can occur at any season here they are much more frequent in winter, and before winter starts in earnest, all these lines need to be inspected for wear, tensioned, and some ropes replaced and reconfigured. Some ropes need to allow vehicle passage and are made quickly detachable with carabiners or quick links, so they can be easily dropped to the ground then reconnected. This past weekend Ian Petty and I spent time doing this maintenance.

With a lull in the weather on Tuesday 20th, Ian Petty, Wayne Scandrett and Chris George commenced construction of the new ARPANSA building which will consist of prefabricated containers lowered on to pre-existing concrete footings. Initially this involved them trial checking the dimensions and fit of the footing attachments with a half-height container before lowering the final containers into place.

Survival training

To be able to go off station during our time in Antarctica we have to have done adequate survival training before hand. This being our first time south, our first lot of training was 3 days in the Framnes Mountains with our trusty Field Training Officer (FTO), Mel.

On Thursday morning Darren, Bronwen, Mel and I packed our Hägglunds with all the gear that we thought we would need and more. Because of the possibility of the weather turning foul and getting stranded until it clears we have to take an extra 5 days food for each of us plus adequate equipment. After briefings from the Doc, Comms and Station Leader we set off for a slow, noisy and rough trip South. The Haggs are not the most luxurious vehicle.

The first part of the trip was to go up Gwam, a track that leads from the station to the plateau, it would make the most hardy ice road trucker cringe. It is ice, and very slippery. Regularly it has to be ripped with Cathy the Dozer (most things with motors here have names) to keep it passable. We rotated the driving so that we all got experience in driving and after a few hours we arrived at our first camp, Rumdoodle Hut in the North Masson Ranges about 25km from Mawson. After getting the hut ready, opening all vents and turning the gas on we put our ice spikes on and went for a walk around the area for a bit of familiarization. The air is so clean that you seem to be able to see forever, ranges that appear to be less than 10km away are in fact closer to 30.

That night Darren and I slept outside in our bivvie bags (large plastic bags that we tell our children not to play in) Bronwen and Mel slept in the hut. We dug low shelters in the snow, rolled out the bivvies, put our packs in and then crawled in and laid out the sleeping bag adjusted to whatever layer of clothing required and went to bed. To keep anything dry or drinking water melted it had to go into the sleeping bag as well. After a surprisingly warm night we surfaced the next morning surviving night one.

Each day at 10 am and 7 pm we have to do weather observations and radio back to station to let them know what is happening (sked). After this Mel took us over to a large ice slope where we cut steps up with our ice axes to make it easy to climb. Mel had an ulterior motive for this as no sooner we were 3/4 way up she had us sliding down and then climbing again. We learnt how to self arrest using ice axes and after a couple of hours of this and sore bodies we had lunch and then packed up and moved to our next campsite.

After what seemed like never ending travel we arrived at the campsite in the Central Masson Ranges about 15km from Rumdoodle. Here we set up the Polar Pyramid tent (of the same design that the early polar explorers used), and made a snow village, Mel constructed a kitchen and Bronwen constructed her bivvie. These were positioned based upon the weather forecast — big mistake! Mel attempted to boil water for tea but could barely get any steam off it, the wall of the kitchen blew in on her so we made room in the rear of the Hagg and tea was cooked in there. Darren and I slept, or attempted to sleep in the comfort of the tent, Bronwen braved the elements and slept in her bivvie and Mel stayed in the relative safety of the Hagg. We estimated that the winds were gusting to about 60 knots that night, the tent stayed upright, Bronwen’s wall didn’t, falling onto her and Mel stayed in the Hagg. Night two — survived.

After brekky and skeds we did some navigating using maps and compasses as at times modern technology doesn’t work down here and we must know the old ways as well. After discussing the weather forecasts that we were given we decided that we had had enough of this site and we would return to Rumdoodle for the last night. After packing everything up we returned to the hut, did some more navigating, sightseeing and then retired to the comfort of sleeping on a mattress. Night 3 — survived.

The return back to Mawson was even slower. Mel was walking around the Hagg with some plastic in her hands and a sly look on her face. She put the plastic over the windscreen in front of the driver, we had to return to Mawson blind! Traveling back we had to drive using the GPS and radar to simulate traveling in a blizzard or white out conditions. With the front passenger acting as spotter so we didn’t hit any rocks or drum markers we managed to make a slow return to Mawson, unpack the Hagg and put everything away and had a well desired shower when all was finished.

In all we had a great 3 days training and the 3 of us gained new skills that we will need in the future. We are now eagerly awaiting the next phase of our survival training. Thanks Mel.