Antarctic Diary: December 12, 2002


One of the sayings here on the ice is you should keep from doing anything that causes you to become a story. In a closed community under continual environmental stress, stories circulate.

Carolyn got frostbite on her nose. People say it wasn't even that cold, but the wind was harsh.

And then your friends are supposed to tell you about frostbite. They see it before you feel it. You go numb when you're cold enough. If you're lucky you'll feel the burning in the surrounding tissues and realize something's amiss. If you're busy, you may not pay attention to it.

Then your skin freezes solid and dies.

There are degrees of frostbite just like there are degrees of burns. Third degree frostbite means the cells in your body have exploded from internal ice crystals. When you warm up, that part of your body become meat slush. Second and first degree denote lesser levels of cellular damage.

They say it's painful.

And once you've been bitten in one area, it's very subsceptable to refreezing. Pretty much for the rest of your life.

There was a radio call I remember. Carolyn was up at F6 and I was at Lake Hoare. She called down to Thomas, who while not a medic, has more cold-weather field experience than everyone.

She asked, "What does it mean when you have a white patch on your nose?"

Theories in the hut evolved from "standing under the wrong skua" to "misplaced trench foot".

We settled on a case of nasal trench foot and told her that's what it probably was.

The moral of this story is that you need to take care of yourself in Antarctica.

One reason people may have been callous to poor Carolyn is they'd just had to medevac one of the deep field divers. Donna got a kidney infection and was in pain for three days while we all waited for the weather to clear so the helos could fly.

Field camps are equipped with some meds, narcotics, some antibiotics, a couple of injectable drugs, but it all fits in a small ammo case. The supply is limited. Most of the time there isn't a medic in camp, so you'd have to radio in to the hospital to find out what to do with that stuff if you don't have training..

That's what Thomas did. For three days he was on the radio to Doc Betty, monitoring Donna's progress. It wasn't good. She was on a downhill slide. Spikey, high fever. Acute pain.

They pumped her full of liquids. Some drugs. Called into the doc with status every two hours.

When he was reasonably (read: not totally) sure he wouldn't crash, one of the helo pilots launched in the fringe of bad weather. They pulled Donna out. They kept her in McMurdo for a couple of days, until they were sure she'd survive the airlift to Christchurch.

She's still in the hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand. They expect a full recovery in a month.

After Donna went home, Doc Betty informed Thomas he had saved her life.

The moral of this story is that when you're in trouble in Antarctica, people will take care of you.

There is no official law in Antarctica, but those here under the aegis of the United States Antarctic Program agree tacitly to live under U.S. law. There is now a federal marshall on station who has the authority to detain and retro anyone committing an actual crime. It's not clear he has ever done this.

During the 1997 winter-over there was an altercation between a lab tech and a cook's assistant at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The conflict became physical. The station's staff did their best to keep the combatants separated. But one evening, during a party, the lab tech mixed the drinks and handed one to the cook's assistant, who upon taking a few swallows, fell down in convultions.

As this was winter, there was no possibility of medevac to civilization. Nor was there the possibility of sending the lab tech back for arrest.

After a while the cook's assistant recovered. But the station manager had a situation on his hands he didn't know how to handle.

He radioed back to the U.S. for guidance. What were his options?

The authorities in the States were similarly perplexed by the lack of clear legal guidelines.

So they instructed him to restrain the combatants, put them on snowmachines, and take them out four miles onto the sea ice.

Then they would be subjected to maritime law. And as captain, he was free to exercise the appropriate punishment.

In sotto voce the individual relating this story to me let me know the station manager had a gun, and did coerce the perpetrator with the weapon.

While I had not heard the lab tech was shot for attempted murder, it's not clear what the station manager would do with a violent man tied to a snowmobile four miles away from the mainland in the perpetual Antarctic night.

The moral of this story is that while there are no official laws in Antarctica, people will do their best to do create them.