(I’m scheduled to leave the ice in 11 days. The Terror Tykes played our last show on Saturday. I’m trying to find out if anyone took pictures, if any turn up, I’ll post them. It was the last “event” before I leave the ice. My tribe of Iceholes is scattering, returning from the end of the Earth to more “civilized” places. The sun is scheduled to rise this Friday for the first time in a long time. With that in mind, I’ll post this – which I wrote and then forgot to post months ago.)
“Incident Command to SAR team: be advised we found a note indicating possible suicide”
I’m out with the search and rescue team on a training exercise. I’ve been working with them in an advisory/training capacity. Basics of field medicine, how to package a patient for extrication, glacier travel tips; I’ve been passing on some of the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the last 10 years to help strengthen the team. It’s also great fun to get out of the clinic from time-to-time.
This has a familiar feel to it.
The last mission I went on with my previous SAR team was a search for remnants of a suicide victim. The body had been out in the mountains for a while and the sheriff needed extra manpower to conduct a fine search of the area for bones. Probably 15 or 20 of use stood arms width apart, walking through the hills, looking for anything that looked like it might have been human at one point. The bones had been there for at least a year. After that much time, they take on a similar color to the surroundings and become quite difficult to see. Animals spread them every which way. But with enough trained eyes on the ground, you’ll usually find what you’re looking for. We did. We recovered the bulk of the body. Anytime you think you see something, you call it out and the sheriff comes behind you to verify, but also to allow the team to keep moving in a straight line. It increases the probability that things won’t be missed.
My last SAR call in the US and the first time I tagged along with the SAR team on the ice were for the same thing.
The area of interest, where our “patient/victim” was suspected of being located was a ways out of town, near some rocks that meet up with the sea ice. It is an area that takes a long time to access by foot. Although we couldn’t have asked for better weather, maybe -15F without a wisp of wind, we didn’t have that kind of time. Traveling miles over the ice on foot takes a long time. So we traveled by vehicle. 4 of us, team 1 of 2, were in a tracked vehicle made to cover whatever the Antarctic could put in front of us. It was made for this terrain. Compact, with bright lights attached to a box of a passenger compartment and sitting on top of two-and-a-half foot tall tracks. And made to operate in the severe cold. Anytime, anywhere. It was not made for comfort. Sharp edges had after-market insulation duct taped to them. Softens the blow a bit when you rattle around in there.
This, too, had a very familiar feel. In Portland, we would occasionally hitch a ride up Mt Hood on a sno-cat to facilitate a search or rescue. Sno-cats are basically larger versions of what we use down here. Though designed for more commercial uses, the older ones were not particularly luxurious. They were typically reserved for paying skiers who wanted to access areas not serviced by the ski-lifts. But the resort was good to the rescue community and would occasionally give us a lift up. Or, more often, would make one available to bring us and our victim down. It greatly sped up a notoriously slow process. People often like to get lost or injured in lousy weather, which precludes the use of helicopters.
Even though all agreed that the conditions couldn’t have been any better, it is still winter in Antarctica. We dress in the same gear that people use to climb Everest. Head-to-toe, we’re all covered in puffy, down filled gear that pretty well makes everyone look like a marshmallow. And even with all that, fingers get cold. If you take your goggles off, eyelids will freeze shut. Beards become white with frost in minutes. It’s inhospitable. But on the ride back, at the end of the day, you’re warm. You’re warm and with your team. I have vivid recollections of coming down Hood after a body recovery in the back of a sno-cat. The freezing fog had coated every one of us in a thick layer of ice. As we warmed up, steam came up from heads and puddles formed at feet. It was the end of shared misery. There is something tremendously satisfying in coming through a miserable experience with your team. People you personally may not be that fond of, but at that moment, you have survived together. You suffered together in the service of something bigger than each individual. I feel satisfied in those moments. And I know that I earned it.
There was no actual victim, fortunately. There was no suffering on the ice, just a little discomfort. I got to look out on the last glimpses of sunlight on the horizon, overlooking the sea ice. It’s probably the last sun I’ll see for a long time. I was able to contribute to the strength of the team.
I feel right back at home.