Antarctic Expeditioner Son
by Hazel Edwards
It was the Antarctic fire that nearly finished me off. Sounds weird doesn’t it. All that ice and fire is the killer. Some climate change!
Maybe I should start at the beginning, with the expedition. I’d been thrilled to pass the medical and get the job as a winterer on the Antarctic Base. So was my Dad for whom Antarctica was THE place like climbing Everest or something. And since his accident, he wasn’t going anywhere physically, so my expedition was his too. He travelled via my emails and digital photos.
I was a bit worried whether I’d cope out on the polar ice, despite the excitement of making it into the crew. The other blokes were very good at their jobs, and I’m new. It was my brother Ben who usually did the adventurous stuff in our family. Not me. But Ben had left us on the night of Dad’s accident.
‘Get past the Shrink and the Quack?’ asked the Dieso. He keeps every engine running on the Antarctic Base, even the generator in the House of Noise, as they call the workshop. A bit like the Doc’s job, I guess. Checking on bodies or engines for the coming winter when we’re iced in from March until November. And fixing us when things go wrong. That worried me too. People die there. I didn’t want to be one of them, not at my age. I’m just starting to do things.
Dieso was just being friendly. I wouldn’t be allowed to work in Antarctica unless I’d passed the medical and answered questions about whether I was likely to go off my head stuck in the ice for months. Then there was the special week’s training with the Fire Brigade back in Tasmania.
‘If the fire alarm goes, so do you,’ warned the Station Leader who is the Boss on base.
‘No worries,’ I said.
‘Reckon you could cope with being the Fire Chief?’ asked the S.L. ‘Not too much work, unless we have a fire. And then the lack of water is a problem.’
‘O.K.’ Everybody has two or three extra jobs. Chef is the nurse, the Met guy is the haircutter (No 1 cut, bald or Mohawk) and the Plumber helps the Doc with operations because he’s good with valves. Dieso makes the home-brew.
‘You’ll get to drive the Red Hag. That’s the fire vehicle,’ says the S.L.
‘O.K.’ That was a thrill.When I was a little kid, I loved the fire engines that screamed out of the depot near our home every time the siren went. Imagine driving one!
‘My job is to keep the Fire Hagg’s engine running,’ said Dieso. ‘You just have to drive it blind in the Blizz and put out any fires. Easy enough?’
‘No worries,’ I said, although inside I was a bit worried. ‘The other guys did the fire training too, so they know what to do.’
Since there’s only ice, and no rain, water matters around here. It’s in short supply for showers and not much left for fighting fires.
‘Good excuse not to shower too often,’ joked the Dieso.
At home, I lift weights, do the odd surf life saving on the beach, but all of us have to do the SAR (search and rescue) training here. You need to know how to haul someone out of the crevasse, those deep, unexpected splits in the ice. Weather changes so fast here. Nine-tenths of icebergs are under the surface. So is the danger in Antarctica, and not just for serious sports freaks with thrill genes.
I’m one of the Tradies, the support staff who keep everything running on the base. Some serious adventurers like Dieso climb the odd iceberg ( banned) or skinny dip in below zero water (once only) or attempt to smuggle in a surf board labelled ‘Scientific supplies’).When I e-mailed home about that, Dad said it was my turn to try new things, but keep within the law. Dad’s always been encouraging; even now he’s in the wheelchair. Then there are the ‘boffins’ as the scientists are known, like the glaciologists , birdos and bios like the ele-seal guys who think elephant seals are beautiful. Ah well, it takes all sorts.
I’ve got a few thrill genes but I was keen on staying alive for the winter. I’d seen those bleak crosses on station out near the penguin colony. I didn’t want mine to be added. The Doc warned us that if we fell into the icy Antarctic water, we’d die in four minutes, or we’d last about four hours if we had the thick polar gear on. Then our hearts would stop. Serious stuff.
“Keep warm,’ Mum said before I left home. ‘And come home safely.’ She was proud I’d been chosen, but… My big brother Ben had always been the adventurer of our family and I’m considered the wimp so this winter, I’ve got something to prove.
‘Antarctica’s cool,’ I said but I wasn’t sure how I’d cope. Iced- in from March through to November. No polar ships. Even the choppers which travel in twos for safety are sent home on the last ship out because they’d get blown away during the blizz. Sometimes I look at the stunning icebergs and couldn’t believe I am here in this ice land at the bottom of the world.
I worried about what might happen until I got here. Then you just had to cope with the extraordinary, as every day stuff. You just did your best. And that’s what happened about the fire too. You just have to cope. So I did, sort of.
We’ve had a few false alarms earlier this season. Like the changeover day Dieso was fork- lifting stores in the Green Shed. Supplies for two years take a bit of organising. (Just in case the resupply ship can’t get back. No supermarkets around here. ) He was posing for a digital shot to e-mail home to his girl friend, and rammed the fork lift into the pallets of frozen fish. They fell, activated the fire alarm and we all turned out in three minutes flat.
That was my trial run as Fire Chief. Luckily it was a false alarm but I did drive the red Fire Hagg to the limit. And everybody turned out in under three minutes.
‘When you mess up in Antarctic, you pay up,’ said Dieso. ‘Sorry mate. I messed up.’
Cost him drinks for everybody that night.
OK, we’ve got hi-tech satellite links, G.P.S., (that’s global positioning systems), and great cold weather gear like Sorelle boots, but the weather’s changing fast and that affects wildlife. Dad’s got a map at home and I e-mail him the coordinates whenever I see any wildlife, like penguins or seals. He plots it on his map.
I’m known as Chippie because I’m the expedition carpenter. I can build anything: cupboards, stairs, and even coffins. Usually I do the painting around the Base and that’s a constant job. And I’m the volunteer Fire Chief. Well, the S.L. said I had the job, so I didn’t really volunteer. Then there’s Sparks the electrician, the Met guys who are the weather experts and the Comm God who keeps up all the satellite links and makes sure the e-mails come in. He’s known as God for short. He also gets out the emergency messages. And this fire was one of them.
So, you could say this week started with a bang.
Bang! Then, RING RING RING!
The fire alarm sounded just after smoko on Monday morning. ‘Smoko’ is a left- over custom from the time construction workers building the Base huts needed a hot meal. They all used to smoke but only a few do now.
RING RING RING.
‘Fire in the electricity service building,’ yells the Station Leader.
Super-fast, he checks the whiteboard in the Red Shed that has everybody’s whereabouts. You tick yourself in and out of the Base, so the S.L. knows where you are in an emergency. Like now.
‘Get the gear Chippie,’ says the Comm God. ‘And warn the Doc.’
Sometimes, the Doc goes out with the crew. Other times, he gets the hospital operating theatre ready to warm up frozen patients or fix legs broken from falling off Quads.
Once the fire alarm goes, so do you. You move fast. We’re all part of the fire team. You rely on the others for your life. They’re your mates. And you mustn’t let them down.
‘Go Chippie,’ orders the Station Leader. ‘You drive the Fire Hagg. Got the breathing equipment?’
‘The Met guys say a Blizz is coming, fast.’
The guys all pile in. I drive as the Red Hagg lumbers across the ice. Slow but steady, the tracks grip the ice. This ice vehicle uses a radio, G.P.S and carries food and bivvy sleeping bags in caswe get caught out. I’d double checked everything earlier.Dieso keeps it fueled.
Chef is yelling from the back but in the driver’s seat, I can’t hear above the straining noise of the Hagg. I put on my ear-muffs and hear him through the speakers. The weather’s bad and the blizz is starting, so outside it’s like peering through milk. Ignoring the front window, I drive using the G.P.S. to navigate.
‘Down at the container wharf Chippie. Hurry,’ yells Chef. He’s trained for a week as a nurse to back up the Doc.
‘That Blizz is minutes away,’ warns the Met Guy peering through the window of the Hagg. ‘Visibility will go down, fast.’
‘I’m watching,’ I peer through the murk. I’m driving blind, trying to see the caned ice- road. They have beer cans on top of canes to mark the edges.The cans show up on the radar. And if it’s not a blizz, you can see the canes. Now I can’t see a thing.
‘Switch to the G.P.S., ‘warns the Met Guy. ‘Blizz will get worse, fast now. Got the bivvy bags?’
Earlier, we had to camp out on the ice in a "bivvy bag" for one training night. A bivvy bag is like a liner for the outside of your sleeping bag that gives you protection from the wind driven snow. In case of emergency you roll it out, slip in your sleeping bag from your pack (which is always carried off station) and jump inside until the worst is over. Maybe we’d need it today?
‘Cool’ says Dieso as the Hagg bumps. He is always the first to jump into the ice, ski over mountains or fly when there’s space on the chopper. I prefer to think before I act.
Blizz happen with no warning.
Beeeep. The radio is squawking. The S.L. is checking on us.
‘Go for the container building. Over.’
We all had that fire training before we left Tasmania, but I didn’t expect to have to use it. It’s a bit like First Aid. Stuff to help other people. You don’t expect to need it yourself, even on an isolated Antarctic base, five days from any help. Nor do you expect to sleep out in a bivvy bag.
The first alarm went off in the container building which has electrical equipment for the space physics division. So I drive blindly in the white murk. This is my first time making decisions for others in an emergency. I’m nervous. What if I get it wrong? I think I’ve got the Hagg as close as possible. Can’t see to check.
‘Are we here yet?’
I switch off. Outside it’s like wading through cream, but the wind whips, even with the freezer suit and furry boots on.
‘Hurry Mate,’ says God.
Dieso is already out and staggering across the ice. I check the brake before we leave, fast. Don’t want the Hagg lumbering into a snow drift on its own.
Ahead of us, a building looms in the murk. I fumble at the heavy door. The others are right behind me.
We clatter through the cold porch where you should leave your boots and hang outside gear. When there’s an emergency, like now, you lumber straight through, still wearing the cold weather gear and dropping ice and muck on the floors.
God has big wet feet and leaves marks on the floor.
‘In there,’ he points.
Once inside, you could be anywhere in the world. Store rooms. Labs. Hi-tech equipment. I can smell the burning. Unusual, because in Antarctica, there’s not much smell apart from penguin poo.
We hurry through the lab.
‘This is the sensor which went off.’ Bart the boffin there is freaking out. He’s a brilliant astro-physicist, and works weird hours, but now he stands looking helpless.
Wearing all the breathing gear, I lumber in and check. The others in my fire team check every piece of equipment.
‘This heater is too close.’
A heater had been put too close to a heat sensor. This triggered the alarm.
I’m relieved. It’s simple stuff. I can deal with this.
‘False alarm, ‘I report back on the radio. ‘Just the heater. Some idiot put it too close.’
Then I realise the ‘idiot’ is standing right behind and hears my report. We all do stupid things at times, but most of us don’t have an IQ like Bart.
‘Me, I left it too close,’ admits Bart the boffin. ‘Sorry to pull you out like that…Mate.’
Outside, the wind is shrieking. We cram back into the Hagg; I call the Base that we’re leaving.
On our way back from the Fire callout, the blizz has lifted a little and I can see a bit out of the window of the Red Hagg. Instead of full cream milk it looks like streaky meringue. The Base is somewhere ahead of us.
Then the Hagg lurches sideways. Inside the cabin, we fall on top of each other. The Hagg is stuck in the ice just as the wind starts up again. Slotted!
In a crevasse.
‘Oh no!’ It’s not just the danger, it’s embarrassing. Getting the Fire Hagg stuck in the ice and needing to be pulled out.
‘Get the ropes.’
‘We may need the dozer to help,’ says Dieso inspecting the depth of the crevasse. ‘Totally slotted!’
Suddenly our radio goes wild again.
‘Go to the RMU.’
‘No. Go to the Green Store.’
‘No. More smoke coming. Go to the Red Shed.’
Crawling inside, I speak into the radio. ‘This is Chippie. Our Fire Hagg is stuck. We’re slotted in the ice. We’ll come as soon as we can.’
By now, the others have crawled out of the sideways Hagg.
‘Won’t move that without help,’ decides Dieso. ‘Need a tracked vehicle.’
‘Let’s go on foot,’ I say. ‘Deal with the fire call first.’
‘Can’t be in three places at once,’ says Chef.
I make a decision. There are six of us. ‘Split into three crews, with two in each wearing the breathing apparatus. Volunteers can back up with fire extinguishers. Take the other equipment. Quickly.’
We lumber across the ice. The ice is crisp and our boots break a path.
For a few minutes, it’s as if we are the only people in the white world.
Dieso pants. ‘This is heavy going.’
Huts on the base are arranged in a colour coded ring so you can find them once the weather gets bad. The Red Shed is the accommodation, mess and the hospital. Green is the stores. Yellow for met (meteorology) And blue for electrical.
‘The Red Shed should be just ahead,’ I pant.
There it is.
“Look!’ Dieso points, just as the roof explodes with such force, smoke pours out.
‘Anyone inside?’ pants Chef.
‘Yes, the Doc and a few others. ’
The next few minutes are full on. We get inside the Red Shed, just as others are trying to leave. Smoke is billowing. Expeditioners are scrambling to pull on their freezer suits as we lumber up the stairs to the roof above the second floor.
‘Check it Sparks.’ We cough in the smoke. ‘Put on the breathing gear.’
I glance behind at my fire team who look like Martians. In front of me, I see the Doc, wandering out from the hospital, coughing, and just then a beam falls. I grab him and the beam just misses.
‘You okay Doc?’ His head is bleeding.
‘I’ll look after him,’ says the Chef. ‘You look after the fire.’
The hut is burning now. This is serious. We don’t have enough water.
Melt lakes behind the sheds are limited. And there’s only ice, no rain in a desert like Antarctica. And even a fire like this can’t melt enough water! Flames are shooting up.
‘Get the Doc out!’
What matters is someone with a cool head in an emergency. The Chef is good like that. So is the S.L. I’m not so sure about me. On the inside I’m revved and need to keep moving. The training kicks in, and I check things automatically.
Meanwhile, my team has dampened down the fire and Sparks is busy checking the electrical connections.
‘Electrically they’re okay.’
‘It’s some kind of power spike that set off the new fire suppression systems in the three buildings,’ he explains.
In a series of explosions, two of the five Ring Main Unit buildings and the ANARESAT building are heavily damaged. And that is just the start of the problem. Each building holds back up supplies, but the Red Shed is pretty important because of the hospital, the mess and the accommodation. Now it’s looking very damaged.
The CommGod is worried. ‘Satellite connections are down.’
R.M.U are the main power distribution buildings. They matter, big time. No power and everything stops. They carry about 6500 volts.
And the other building controls all the satellite connections. Without those, we’re stuffed. And that’s also what happened. We are cut off.
‘Can you fix them?’ asks the S.L.
‘It’ll take a few hours. The power’s out.’
‘So’s the back up generator,’ Dieso appears from The House of Noise as he calls his main workplace. Under the woollen hat, his face is worried.
And that’s what worries me more. Dieso is the kind of guy who can fix anything. Yellow caterpillar blood in his veins,’ he boasts. ‘Can make any engine with wheels or tracks move again.’ But not today.
No power. And no connection with the outside world. Scary stuff. Even looking back it’s scary, but at the time it was worse. When you don’t know WHEN something will end, the worry is constant. Like Dad stuck in the wheelchair and unsure when I’ll be back.
What if we have to live like this forever? What if no supplies ever come in from the outside again? What if this is all there is for the rest of our life? What if I never see Dad or Mum again?
‘Are you okay Chippie?’
‘Sure, Mate. ’
I wasn’t. But I had to ‘sound’ as if I had it together. You can’t have a leader cracking up because he’s scared of the dark or the cold or…
‘Did a good job handling the fire,’ says the Station Leader.’ We’ll move to the other hut while the Red Shed is being fixed.’
Meanwhile, we have to enter all three buildings to make sure any sparks are out. Seems all right now. But I went back to check later.
Nice to know we’ve been training for this, but I’d rather not test it too often.
Then there was the problem of the slotted Fire Hagg. We had to get that out of the ice. If there was another fire, we needed the Fire Hagg.
‘I’ll help you,’ offered Dieso so we trudged back with extra ropes.
The wind gusts were less, but it was still murky. We attached the ropes. It took hours to move the Hagg a few metres.
‘Blizz is starting again,’ warned Dieso. ‘Better get inside.’
In the end, Dieso and I stayed with the Fire Hagg overnight. So the bivvy bags were useful. Only this time we slept inside the Hagg, not out on the ice.
Luckily the ice around the Base is safer than out in the Great Southern Ocean. But there are crevasses everywhere. You never know when the ice could break away beneath you. That’s why the slow and steady tracked Haggs are used. They’re less likely to fall in than the faster Quads.
Except for this Fire Hagg.
‘It’s like being the ambulance driver who crashes on the way to a patient,’ I say to Dieso as we try to get comfortable in the chilly, sideways vehicle.
‘Or a blind driver,’ says Dieso.
‘My Dad had a bad car accident last year. He’s in a wheelchair now.’ I say and then wonder why that came out now. Normally I don’t talk about Dad much. ‘M’brother was driving.’
Dieso nods. “ Accidents make you think.’
When things go wrong in Antarctica it’s called Sod’s Lore or The Big A.
Not just the icebergs are big in Antarctica. Because of the distance, so is any problem. I feel as though I’ve failed as Fire Chief because I slotted the Fire Hagg.
‘Happens all the time,’ says Dieso. ‘Took us ages on the ropes to get the Station Leader’s Quad out of a crevasse. The Doc had to set his broken leg. Don’t know if the S.L. mentioned that in his report to the Division.’
We laugh together. That night, we sit in the dark, with Dieso telling tall stories.
‘You know how The Division bans the risky extreme sports. Para-gliding, surfing, iceberg climbing and ice caving are banned,’ says Dieso as he shrugs into his bivvy bag.
I nod but Dieso can’t see me in the dark.
Dieso says, ‘I’ve ticked off those four here. Also climbed a ‘berg, just before it rolled. ‘Berg climbing is banned now too. Hard to claim a record for something which is banned. Always wanted to climb Big Ben, the active volcano on Heard Island. Has only been summited twice. It’s out of bounds.’
‘So who were the other two climbers?
‘That’s what the Division asked too.’
We laugh together and I suddenly feel very alive and more confident that tomorrow, we’ll be moving the Fire Hagg again. It’s good to have mates out here. Dad will enjoy these stories when I email him. Ben would have liked having a mountain named after him.
We’d been warned on the very rough voyage out, that if we fell through the polar ice, we’d die in four minutes, unless we wore the survival suit. We’d last slightly longer with the life jacket, polar immersion suit and woollen clothes underneath. I understood but it didn’t seem real. Such deep water beneath the polar ice. A quick change from warmth to very cool danger. Like now.
‘Grab that rope.’ My fingers are freezing inside the double gloves.
Dieso and I had a cold night in the Fire Hagg which we’d managed to haul out this morning, with the help of the rest of the fire crew who arrived with extra ropes and the big Dozer known as Mr Muscles.
‘Now, back to Base. They need us.’
I was happy to get the Fire Hagg back but also a bit embarrassed that it has been out of action due to my driving in the Blizz.
‘Is the Fire Hagg functioning now?’ asks the Station Leader who stays back at the Base coordinating news. The Red Shed looked a bit smoke damaged but the Chef served a make-shift meal in the mess.
‘Yes. Fire Hagg is fine. So’s the crew.’
‘Getting slotted happens to the best of us.’ The S.L. smiles. ‘Guess you heard about the Doc patching me up last season?’
‘Yes. How’s the Doc?’
‘Chef sewed him up.That instant nursing course paid off.. But the plumber fainted. He might be good with valves, but he hates blood.’
I know how he feels. Training helps, but doesn’t affect the way you feel about scary jobs.
‘So I heard. What’s happened here in the Red Shed?’
‘The Pyrogen fire suppressant system misfired.’
‘This caused internal scorching and an intense build up of pressure within each building. That’s what caused the explosions which lifted and warped the roofs on all three buildings.’
‘Unreal,’ says the Dieso to the S.L. who nods.
‘I have to e-mail a report back to Headquarters in Hobart but the satellite links are down. No power. Could be out for hours, The Sparkies are working on it.’
‘External phones are out.’
‘No e-mail links.’
When you don’t know if or when something is going to end, it always seems ages. While the Sparkies and Comms Gods, feeling very lucky to be intact, work furiously to get power up again, the rest of us on station realise what it meant not having electricity or external communications.
‘Do your obs, the old fashioned way,’ the S.L. instructs the Met Guys.
Instead of hi-tech, the Met team starts taking their surface observations the old fashioned way. Weather reports matter big time in Antarctica. You need to know when things are going to change. Otherwise you might get caught on the ice for days.
‘Read the mercury thermometers directly. Write down the observations,’ says the S.L.
After a few hours, the Met Guys look as if they’re actually enjoying taking observations the old fashioned way. They can still release their observation balloons, but they can’t track all the results.
But then we realize the major problem. It is in the lab.
‘These samples might thaw,’ reports Stan, one of the boffins. He is holding his breath, watching the temperatures on the culture cabinets slowly rising.
I laugh. We’re surrounded by Antarctic ice and the boffins are worried about the temps going up!
‘The A Factor!’ says the S.L. “Let me known if things get worse.’
Meanwhile, we tradies have urgent work to do.
Turns out the emergency wasn’t falling down a crevasse, or getting blizzed out, it was a polar fire.
By midnight, the satellite connections were made.
I wrote my family an e-mail to go out once we had power again.
There’s an ice mountain named after you and Ben here. So now there are three Bens. It was like you were with me here.
How is life in the land of sunlight and warmtemperatures? I won't be knocking Melbourne's weathers any more. At present we have only just 4 hours of daylight and this weeks our average temp was a fresh minus -25 so Melbourne is looking good. Sorry about the time since the last E mail as we have been flat out. You may find that hard to believe from a Government employee. Had a fire, but it’s okay now.
Only memories and photos you’re supposed to take from Antarctica but I brought home something illegal to show Dad. A chip of iceberg ice in a plastic bottle. Just to remind me, of the Antarctic fire on ice. And I’ll decide whether to tell Dad that the four wheeled all terrain bikes here are called Quads because of their four wheels. Just like his wheelchair.
BIO: Australian Hazel Edwards was writer on ice in 2001. with the Australian Antarctic Division. www.hazeledwards.com has details of her internationally published Antarctic multi-media http://www.hazeledwards.com/antarctica.htm and the classic picture book ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, a recent Australian Govt gift to the Danish Princess..’ Co-written ‘Formula for Murder’ is her only adult crime novel but she’s written YA novels such as ‘Stalker’ and Fake ID” and has ‘Making a Killing at the Pokies’ in forthcoming anthology ‘Short & Twisted’ www.celapenepress.com.au.