Extreme medicine and expedition doctor Alexander Kumar provides an account of his time spent working in one of the coldest places in Antarctica and one of the few true extreme environments on Planet Earth. Known for his sense of humour, he has lived, worked and travelled through over 80 countries all over the world, including the Amazon and extensively across the Arctic and the Antarctic a few times also over the past 10 years.
Shackleton in Space
Antarctica is a large flat egg-white expanse with bits of egg shell in it (aka the TransAntarctic mountain range) that is greater in area than India and China put together.
Exactly 100 years on from Scott and Shackleton, I travelled to Antarctica and spent around one year living at Concordia, a joint French-Italian inland Antarctic research station as the Human Spaceflight Research MD to conduct research for the European Space Agency in an attempt to understand how far human physiology and psychology can be pushed towards a future manned mission to Mars. It is one of the most remote outposts on the planet located in one of the world’s most extreme environments.
The most extreme place on the planet?
Environmental extremes experienced there include:
* Enduring around 3 months of complete darkness, where the sun does not rise above the horizon
* The world’s coldest temperatures dropping down below minus 80 degrees Celsius
* Complete isolation with no means of escape for 9 months, simulating long duration space missions and life on the surface of another planet
* Chronic hypobaric hypoxia being located at around 3800 metres equivalent altitude
* Nothing lives outside the station for over 1,000 kilometres, in nearly all directions.
* Our nearest neighbours are the astronauts orbiting the earth on board the International Space Station, and then some Russians snowed* in at Vostok station (* = it does not actually ‘snow’ inside Antarctica).
Answering the job advertisement for what may be the coldest and loneliest job in the world, I found packing my mind for a year away was much more difficult than my bags.
“The uttermost end of the world”
To travel to the moon from the base would only take three days – far less than the three weeks it took to fly from London to Hobart and then to sail by icebreaker across the Southern Ocean, battling high seas, whales and being stuck in the ice pack with leopard seals before reaching a 60,000-strong rookery and football stadium’s worth of Adélie penguins. The stench nearly turned me back home.
Antarctica is an ill defined space in people’s minds. It incorporates South Georgia and other sub Antarctic islands, which are in fact closer to South America than the continent of Antarctica itself. People can and have sailed to South Georgia even during its winter. Whereas the interior of Antarctica remains an inpenetrable block of ice. Even a team led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ (Coldest Journey) could not penetrate the continent’s interior during winter.
The longest on-call
Antarctica is full of surprises (and penguins). Adding to that it was the first time since the station opened 10 years previously that there would be just one doctor overwintering – that was to be me, since another doctor left the base just before winter began. It was a game of Tag and I was ‘it’. I can’t complain now about a set of nights or hardship on-call after doing nearly a year on-call in Antarctica.
The journey wasn’t over, it had just begun. After flying a further five-hour flight inland in a Twin Otter over the Great White Silence, a blank white canvas. Perhaps God had forgotten to paint this continent, intentionally I thought, as he took rest on the 7th day.
Coldest science on earth
Antarctica’s ice layer protects and hides its secrets like a thick skin, stretched over the bedrock many thousands of feet below. Recent efforts at Russia’s Antarctic Vostok station tapped the veins of the sub-glacial lakes, which flow deep beneath the surface, that may harbour evidence of life forms of our distant past. But as yet, this continent’s secrets remain teasingly elusive.
Ice cores plumbed out of the 800,000-year-old ice have told a story of their own – the impact of mankind on Earth and climate change. Century-old equipment was used in the discovery of a hole in the ozone – earth’s own flesh wound, which may yet scar over.
We conducted earth science research including glaciology, meteorology, seismology and astronomy, alongside my own research (on the adaptation of human health and well-being to this extreme environment), and trying to help in arranging the jigsaw pieces involved in sending a manned mission to Mars and back.
Curtain of darkness
As winter sets in, you stop living and start surviving. Temperatures plummet below minus 80C. In May the sun sets for the last time. A curtain of darkness falls, leaving you to endure three months of 24-hour darkness. Spinning uncontrollably through the world’s time zones, leaving you gasping as you wake from unforgiving, hypoxia-euphoric vivid dreams. The cold and isolation begin to seep in and your mind begins to stretch uncomfortably, as your senses become blunted by the sensory deprivation.
There is light at the end of the tunnel as multicoloured lights flicker overhead in the darkness, the Aurora Australis.
One way journey to the great beyond
Once you enter the Antarctic winter, you begin a personal journey of discovery and you will learn a lot about yourself. You cannot turn back or go home. Once that last plane departs, there is only one way up, you have to summit and there is no quitting, only crying along the way.
Living and over-wintering as the only British national among a team of 13 Europeans in the most extreme and remote environment on the planet was not ‘easy’ but not so challenging as it was predictable. As in any stressful environment living in an Antarctic station can be likened to living in one of the Old West frontier towns – a continual sense of not knowing who is going to shoot at who next or why. As a team, we ate, slept, exercised, conducted science and survived alone frozen into the landscape in close proximity. We all survived.
Not wanting to spoil the winter and many stories that came from it, I can summarise wintering in Antarctica in one sentence… it is one of the world’s only psychological marathons and one of the Earth’s greatest, most magnificent and most peculiar journeys.
‘I’ve been to Antarctica’
Tourists are so often bedazzled by Antarctica. And the public are often impressed by those who have been there. It certainly is special. However, all in all, you can say you have ‘been’ to Antarctica if you have flown in to work there for a few weeks or been on a cruise down there, during the breezy summertime. Take heed, when this is so often thrown about in conversations and talks.
We are all just tourists when it comes to Antarctica
Really, you can never say you actually know Antarctica until you have wintered there. And not just anywhere. A winter on a subantarctic island such as South Georgia, Antarctica’s coast or peninsula (-20C climbing and skiing activities which can be accessible during the winter) is nothing like a winter in the interior of the continent (-80C in hypoxic darkness that is inaccessible for months). And even a well connected wifi ridden winter in the interior nowadays is nothing like a broken radio winter in Shackleton’s day. If you want real isolation, you’ll have to bury your head and phone in the ice.
My own conclusion? Simple – Watching people around you unfold and unzip at the seams during wintering as a doctor is an interesting and can be an unforgiving past time. For sure, people aren’t made of the same grit and stuff these days. If you want to really experience something try to do it properly. Challenge yourself and mankind. What have you got to lose? … Only a few fingers or toes.
Alex has since worked in different space analogue environments and constructed the ‘White Mars’ research protocol for Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
As an accomplished writer, photographer and public speaker, he has published articles in BBC News, New York Times and by invitation, recently held an exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society, featured in The Guardian.
Alex now talks and works internationally for different organisations and humanitarian agencies, conducts global health research and continues to enjoy taking photos behind his camera and presenting in front of cameras for TV including BBC and Discovery, alongside his day to day NHS job and is a member of the EWM faculty.
Alex is continuing important work on a patent for a unique blend of cheerful and optimistic British sarcasm.
More information can be found at: www.AlexanderKumar.com