Nathan Tift's South Pole Journal
Monday, April 23, 2001
Ron, our doctor, became sick about three weeks ago. For a while it was kind of scary, because he could not eat and neither he nor our nurse Mary knew what might be wrong.
The stationís ultrasound machine, just shipped this past summer, was clearly the best tool for diagnosis. Unfortunately it was still not working when Ron fell ill.
Not having anyone trained in fixing medical equipment, a few Poleys with technical expertise hurriedly disassembled the machine looking for the problem. By the time they were able to fix it, Ron was already feeling much better.
Those who were involved with helping Ron soon were able to confer with specialists in Denver via satellite while streaming them digital ultrasound video over the Internet. The diagnosis was that Ron had had a gallstone, but already passed it.
Since then, Ron has been up and about and feeling fine. Until he found out that back in the states they were planning a rescue mission for him.
A plane has never landed at the South Pole in the winter. Between the severe cold, endless darkness, and unpredictable harsh weather, it was thought that a landing would be impossible. Poleys wintering at the South Pole had always been completely isolated for eight months no matter what happened.
For some reason though, there was a big push to attempt a rescue this year because of Ron. Since he had a gallstone, there was a chance he could have more, and an even slimmer chance that the condition could become life threatening. Many of us, myself included, were perplexed that they were willing to risk the lives of a flight crew to rescue someone who had such a slim chance of developing a serious illness.
Various possibilities for rescue missions were tossed around back in the U.S. A plane could fly to McMurdo, and then on to the Pole. A smaller plane could come down through South America. Maybe they would only be able to airdrop better equipment and medicine.
Various ideas were also thrown around for the cover design of Ron's forthcomming book.
Eventually, The Air National Guard division that normally flies to the South Pole was dispatched from New York. However, they were turned around when they got to Hawaii, and instead it was decided that a private Canadian company would come down via Punta Arenas, Chiile to perform the rescue.
Our feelings at the South Pole during all of this were a mix of bewilderment, irritation, and relief. We wanted what was best for Ron, but since he didnít think it was worth the risk, we questioned the need for his evacuation. In addition to not seeming entirely necessary, it just didnít seem right to have anyone come here in the winter. Many of us pride ourselves on this experience that has always been one of complete isolation. To break that isolation with a chance to leave here was to infringe on the whole experience. We like the feeling of being pioneers enduring one of the most unique of human circumstances.
There is nothing we can do, though. They are coming. Ron is leaving.
Like many Poleys, Ron is an amazing person with myriad stories of adventure and a life like no other. He earned an engineering doctorate from MIT before going to medical school. He's also a pilot. He has practiced medicine in Inuit villages on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, the Australian Outback and many other exotic locales. And like nearly all of the others here, he has become a close friend. I will miss him a lot.
The Two Twin Otter planes of the Canadian Kenn Borek company have already made their way down through Chile and across the Southern Ocean to a British base called Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula. They are waiting for the weather to improve here at the South Pole. For the last two days it has been windy, and with the wind always comes blowing snow and reduced visibility.
On a recent weather observation, I stepped out the front entrance of the dome as usual and ascended the hill to the snow surface level to get a good look at the clouds and visibility. Before the wind picked up, all that was left of the sun was a dim glow on the horizon. With the wall of blowing snow it was now complete darkness. I have gotten used to bitter cold winds that take my breath away and cause me to rip off my face mask and turn my back to the wind to regain it. But after six moths of sunlight, I have not acclimated to the pervasive darkness coupled with that bitter wind.
I turned around facing the Dome to head back. It is difficult to frame in words the feelings that came over me when I could not see the Dome or its lights through the shroud of darkness and snow. I donít ever remember being afraid of the dark, but at that moment, the fear from seeing nothing but black was paralyzing. I cannot pinpoint the root of such sudden severe and abject horror, but it was the most complete fear I have ever felt, like looking Death in the face. With a wind-chill nearing -150įF, I did not feel cold, but I felt utterly helpless and incapacitated by the simultaneous lack of vivific oxygen and light. I somehow found the energy and salve to trudge back down the hill and through the door to the welcome comfort of light and windlessness inside the Dome.
An environment so inhospitable even to a pedestrian would be torturous for a pilot trying to land a plane. In some ways, I hope the weather never gets better so they wonít try to fly here.