Hysterical Despair, Alone: Overwintering in Antarctica isn’t machoism, its madness

During our ‘meet and greet’ aka ‘training’ (only 4 days…) in Paris to come down here, I remember being told, for once by someone who had actually overwintered here before, that going to Antarctica and overwintering isn’t ‘machoism’. Being down here now at the height of winter, I whole heartedly agree. But… whilst it isn’t machoism, its really just ‘madness’. Here we are actually more isolated than astronauts on board ISS, with only a 10,000th of the training for our mission. And that’s why we call it ‘madness’.

Climbing Mount Everest

The challenge of overwintering can be likened to climbing a very high mountain, like Everest. You don’t need muscles… you need willpower, inner strength and a little luck with the weather.

Now here I am, standing at the summit and the view down is pretty special, but as with any cat, its always easier to climb this tree than to make a comfortable and successful descent. In discussing this with one of my colleagues here on the base… he said in reply to reading this, that he is ‘scared’ about going home. Its funny, you spend half your time worrying about meeting the darkness and getting to midwinter, wondering what lies there. And then, we refocus and start to spend next half here worrying about readjusting to standing in a supermarket or on a busy street or using money again.

Youth hostel, Antarctica

The isolation of just 13 people is something else.

I can only liken this experience, to being back aged 18 years, when I was inter-railing around Europe. My uncle, Pip, who having more sense than money (yes, I meant it that way), had put a cheque in my hand at Christmas for the precise amount for a month’s inter-rail pass around Europe and told me to get on it. Like any Indian, off I went to Cardiff that summer to work in the family restaurant, working near to minimum wage, to collect the money to sustain me travelling around Europe. And like most of my siblings, I was fired twice – once for oversleeping, and another for a distracting crush on a girl. Anyway, swinging back to the point, I railed from city to city all around Europe, for over 6 weeks, having bought an extension for my pass. Nearly each and every night I slept in a different youth hostel in a different city.

Overwintering at Concordia to me, is as if I had rolled up late one evening to a small, remote and isolated youth hostel in rural Romania. Once entering, someone then shut the doors and said you can only all come out in a year. There are 13 other random European folk who you’ve never met before, some speak english some do not. There is enough food and fuel to survive until they open the doors again. All you have to do is to survive, together. You soon realise where everyone’s skills are and each find your own role to make the environment a safe and healthy one.

Like any castaway, whilst I am fortunate to have my colleagues, my team, our crew, I do feel somewhat (culturally) ‘alone’. And after all its culture, that brings identity and a sense of belonging to a community.

Let sleeping dogs lie

You will never know what I mean unless you come down here and stay here for the long haul. Talking about it long distance and hearing others interpretations, still mean you get to go home to the life of safety and security you have built for yourself as you curl your toes up the very same night, in bed, your bed, knowing tomorrow will be just as safe as today, like the last year has been. Some people enjoy their comfort zone.

Down here we volunteered to be conscripted to fight in a war, on a distant planet, we have only just got to grips with. The news crew isn’t here and they tell a different story, not really having a 1st person perspective handle on the story, like normal. Lets leave it there.

Down here at 4am in the morning, with difficulty sleeping watching the world from afar, as if viewing the problems from another planet, we hold a unique but challenging perspective, to deal with and lay such demons to rest, that is. Toiling over why so far away others are fighting, others living so excessively, starving in their minds, whilst others on the other side of the planet are starving in their bodies- meanwhile no-one seems to be paying attention to the decaying state of our planet.

Reading the news every so often, I ponder the world’s problems and thats what keep me awake at night, having seen so much of it first hand in my short 29 years. The monsters of your mind start to awake under your bed… you hear footsteps on the stairs, approaching your room… your heart beats faster, and the possibility of sleep backs further away into the morning, scared. There is no escape.

‘Alone’

Now I am living in the Antarctic winter myself, I have feverishly been reading every piece of polar history I can get my outer mitts on.

I just re-read ‘Alone’ – the account of Admiral Byrd’s incredible but harrowing time, of actually being ‘alone’ in Antarctica. I sympathise with the part where he lays his head in his hands, crying about his desperate situation. And having stuck many of my body parts to various pieces of metal whilst outside the base, smiled when he went on to write how when crying into his arms, he found his face stuck to his hands by the cold temperature.

Hysterical Despair

I have coined my own term for my and fellow crew member’s similar feelings I have experienced in desperate times in the past down here on the ice. It is ‘hysterical despair’. Where things go rotten, can’t be helped and all you can do is laugh… and so it begins, a period of hysterical laughter, that spreads to the point that people are laughing, can’t stop and yet don’t find their predicament particularly amusing- in fact, its devastatingly, frustratingly, more stuck than a stuck person which find themselves in a very sticky place whilst visiting ‘stuck land’, which in case you missed the point, is a very sticky place indeed.

Antarctic Castaway

Like Tom Hanks, I am a Castaway of sorts, being the only British- Indian member of this crew. In case you don’t think thats a good analogy… last night for an informal dinner, we were all sat in the lounge. I was sat in the middle, in the natural great divide, in-between the french members of the crew talking on my right, and the Italian members on my left, each speaking their own language and referring to their own cultural references. I sit in the middle, as a bridge of sorts, making an effort to understand each group’s different culture.

The social crevasse

Its a social crevasse of sorts. You know its there, but until finding it by falling into it, didn’t know where it would be. Everyone now gets along and helps each other as a team through these difficult times. But in desperate times, we unconsciously stick to our own, its that simple. When sheep are scared and run, they follow each other – their own kind. They don’t run after the wolves hunting them. Its just the natural order of the world and its a social convention of sorts.

There are many cultural barriers here. But I find as I have always find, the only real and honest way to break them down is with a sense of humour, even if I am staring down the barrel of it.

Wilson

Wilson…!

So like Tom Hanks, I decided to make my own Wilson! So far, he has been as useful as Wilson in House MD (TV Show)… helping me through difficult times and diagnosis. And believe it or not, his first language is English, though I am teaching him ‘Concordian’ – the universal language of the base. More about this in another blog later.

Living down here through the eternal darkness … it has become a bit like Inception, or Shutter Island. You don’t really know what is real anymore. You cannot be sure. There is a true sense of ‘derealisation’. As a doctor, for me, it is easily identified, diagnosed and dismissed. Talking with others, it has not been so easy.

Like in the emergency department, it is so easy to take a step back and draw a certain line between what is ‘mad’ and what is not and by that of course, I mean ‘normal vs. abnormal’, a finding of ‘supra-tentorial pathology vs. an anomaly that can be ignored’. The difficulty comes deciding what is ‘real’ and what is not.

What is real? Are we dreaming?

But like Moon, Event Horizon, Pitch Black, Solaris, and other Sci-fi movies, you can never be sure our crew didn’t die here many months ago… and our souls are just drifting through the eternal darkness of time out here, alone on the ice. There is a heavy, pessimistic thought. Don’t be worried, I am just hypothesising here.

So in Pete Marquis’ advice to me (as an Antarctic war veteran in the British Antarctic Survey who knows his way around overwintering), delivered to me many months ago, I’ll draw in the reigns and I “just get on with it.”

You never truly know yourself until you flex the very substance of your being – where overwintering can grant you this wish- but where many others sensibly shy away from. You find your neural fibres continually being involuntarily stretched, to the point of breaking. Its not comfortable, but you gain more insight into your surroundings, past and future than could ever be gained whilst sitting on a bus during rush hour through South London. You feel your mind ‘bending’. I am left to wonder what the tensile strength of neural fibres is?

Explorer vs. Doctor

Metaphorically speaking, I am driving a Land Rover down here, over rough unexplored ground, along the edge of a canyon, maybe on Mars. The view is spectacular – dazzling – new. Thats what pushes me to the edge – to discover what is new for me – in science and geography and more so, perspective gained from both knowledge and experience.

There are warning signs along the road, saying slow down, STOP!, Dangerous drop ahead. The Explorer inside me keeps my foot down, wanting to satisfy that innate urge and desire to discover, to push the limits. You don’t want to go over the side of the cliff, but in chasing your dream, you want to get as close to it as possible. Its not machoism, its just that same desire that I have always had. Either you know what I am talking about, or you don’t, to get off the beaten track.

Whereas, the Doctor I have trained to be, acutely aware made to think scared by others fear, who even not knowing the path themselves, know danger is ahead. You know only too well the potential consequences yourself, having seen and treated the worst trauma cases in the world (working in a South African Johannesburg hospital springs to mind), and so a compromise has to be found.

If this is a dream, lets hope it doesn’t turn into a nightmare. After all, as again in Joseph Conrad’s words, ultimately in discovering what is new for me, down here I have been made to realise again and again, over and over, that as that last sun set those months ago, “we live as we dream, alone” and thats my point here.

 

Song of the Day:

Al Green’s ‘Let’s stay together’

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