Sunday, 29 April 2012


Feb 25th Return flight

I remember sitting on my hotel window sill one evening, looking out, five days after I had landed in Tasmania. The rooms large corner windows looked out over Hobart's marina, and back over the city and the steep forested slopes of Mount Wellington right above. The sky looked dramatic, crowded with towering, low cumulus clouds starkly coloured orange, grey and black in the last light. The clouds hid the mountains and seemed to press on the town. Looking the other way, out to sea, the sky and the waters were peaceful and clear blue. The fishing boats in the harbour below me looked very familiar, the same sort of small trawlers and creel boats that worked the east coast towns I grew up in. Stretching away from the marina I could see bigger quays with a couple of icebreaker ships tied up. I could see lots of people in summer clothes strolling along the tidy waterfront past restaurants, cabins, piers, and the preserved equipment of a once-busy working harbour.   I felt a deep contentment to be here, but at the same time I didn't know what to do. I had had a strange few days in Hobart. Restless, unsettled.

The Astrolabe had arrived on Friday, February 17th. After five days sailing across the southern ocean in progressively calmer seas we spent a very happy afternoon enjoying the view of the nearing Tasmanian coast. The first grey shadow of land on the horizon gradually resolved into tall cliffs, sloping forests, and green and yellow fields over the course of the afternoon. There was no swell at all anymore, and I was very contentedly standing in the lookouts at the bridge, enjoying the view, the warmth, the calmness, the ordinariness of it all, so much. Particularly to see wildlife. Pods of dolphins occasionally swam past or underneath the boat. Birds, everywhere. Against a backdrop of those cliffs we saw a distinctly circular patch of water several metres across, become white as a frenzy of birds - petrels or shearwaters - dived over and over into the sea, their cries and the splashing audible over the ship's engines. I realised I was seeing them fishing a baitball. Some underwater predators had rounded up a shoal of prey fish, forcing them to swim in a tight ball and trapping them up against the surface. I wondered if it was the dolphins, but it could equally have been a group of predatory fish, or sharks, or seals. The birds, taking advantage of the trapped fish, dived into the shoal to catch a meal for themselves. All of a sudden the commotion melted away and the boiling white patch vanished as the ball of prey escaped their predators. The birds settled to rest on the water. Then moments later it erupted again a hundred metres away, and then again, and again as the unseen action between the circling predators and their shoal of prey went on. A fine diversion for a short while.

The Astrolabe crawled slowly into the long estuary of the Derwent river, lined for miles by gentle green hills. Rural roads sined through the farmlands and occasional houses to either side, and as the land closed in I could see buses and tractors driving along. The normality was such a novelty.  Further up, leafy Hobart spread out on all the hills that surround the water, and above them thick forests cover mountain ridges that crowd over the city and the river. We passed the city centre and and the harbour, and went on further up into the mouth of the river to a refuelling jetty. And this is where we disembarked. The sky by now was dusky and thickly clouded over. A fine, quiet rain obscured all the hills and most of the town. We could have stayed on the ship for the night if we wished, but very few actually did. Some went straight to the airport for a plane that night, some just vanished. The goodbyes were very quick and perfunctory. For most, they were essentially 'see you in Antarctica next November.' Others returned to their bunks, having decided to stay on the ship. Within fifteen minutes, the ship seemed empty. An hour later and it was dark. I disembarked with Yves-Marie, DDU's winterover doctor. We crossed the pontoon and found ourselves at a crossroads in empty, unlit industrial yards, waiting for a taxi. We sheltered from the rain under a makeshift corrugated-sheeting shelter in the dark with a few other guys from the ship. Apart from the quiet drizzling rain it was silent. Dark towering fuel tanks, sheds and warehouses all around.

Hobart's pretty fully booked out and it took a lot of help from the cab driver to find us a room for the night. Then I and a crowd of French guys, most I knew but some I didn't, had ourselves one big night out on the town. Since then, with hotels a problem, we got spread out more and more. Our email accounts were variably deactivated or inaccessible, phones defunct, broken or out of contract. Trying to arrange meeting points with variable success, it was hard to keep in touch. To my amazement, my French was sufficient to hold conversations and even have a laugh with the guys I could keep in touch with. But it was still very simple stuff and I didn't really fit well with the crowd. After struggling with communication for so long, the English speaking world here in Hobart was much more inviting. I found myself each day walking and walking around the town, really quite aimlessly, but I guess I explored it pretty thoroughly.  The best was sitting outside at the restaurants on the piers.  Amongst  the boats, in the warmth, I could sit happily for hours.   The others, mostly summer campaigners back in town after only a couple of months in Antarctica, were making plans to get out and do some sightseeing but I found I had no wish to go out of Hobart. After a year in the wilderness of Antarctica what I really wanted was to stay in the town, rest in coffeeshops, read newspapers, get some new clothes. We didn't quite realise that Hobart would be so booked out and trying to get accommodation was very difficult. I think I stayed in four different places in the eight nights I spent in Hobart. One place was a terrible hotel, deep in suburbs, whose reception was a large betting shop. The next was the five star 'Grand Chancellor' hotel on the seafront. The next was a bed and breakfast in North Hobart which I enjoyed the most. I spent the late evenings sitting out on thier veranda, looking out in the dusk across a valley at the city lights on the hill on the other side. It was warm and humid, and so comfortable to sit outside. I can't describe the complete contentment I felt there. Even the muted, distant noises of city traffic seemed reassuring and pleasant. I was glad to stay within civilisation and just be.

Whilst the warmth was certainly nice, what I found myself delighting in over and over was water – in the seaside air, the steam in a shower, swimming pools. Even the drinking water because it had minerals, rather than the essentially distilled water I had been drinking in Antarctica. Being able to breathe so easily again because in the normal, humid air the lining of my nose healed and the constant blood and dried mucus in my nose was gone. So I slept normally at last. Physically, I found that my leg muscles had weakened a fair bit. I could get thigh and hip joint pains after a morning walking around town. When I went to a swimming pool, I found that I had a much larger oxygen carrying capacity as you would expect from living at altitude for so long – I could swim far longer doing breath-holding strokes - but that the stamina of my arms and legs was much reduced and I had to stop very soon.

But, funnily enough, being in Tasmania made me so homesick. The culture, Tasmania's cool climate, the buildings, even the roadsigns are so similar to Britain that it felt like home was just a few miles down the road. I had a week booked in Sydney but sitting on that hotel windowsill, looking out I realised that really, I had spent the week pacing round Hobart waiting for my flight out, just exactly like the guys who had paced Concordia, waiting for the weather to lift and their plane to go. I didn't want a holiday, I just wanted home. I decided to cancel it and go straight home.

And now I'm on my way, writing this on the dark, softly roaring plane from Hong Kong to Paris. It's mostly empty, and essentially I'm alone with just my thoughts. M has just moved to Cambridge to start a new job, and she has temporarily taken a room at our old College, Wolfson. It's where she and I first met, where I lived for four years as I studied medicine. It's funny to think I'm heading back to the College. It's a good place and I'm looking forward to it. Much more so than I felt it in Hobart, I suddenly feel how good it is to be back in the normal world.

Feb 29th Wolfson College, Cambridge


Radio, Radio, from Eoin, over
- Go ahead, Eoin
Back at base, over
- Copy that.


Wolfson College's reading room. It's a very pleasant place, lit by soft lamps and a long wall of tall windows looking out onto the gardens of the college. The room's other walls are lined with bookshelves and photographs of past students celebrating rowing successes. People come here to chat, or read, or write in a quiet comfortable atmosphere. It's where, in a way, my adventure really began. Years ago I sat on one of these leather sofas waiting nervously to be called for an interview for a place on my medical course. And I found out much later that the house the interview took place in used to belong to Sir Vivian Fuchs, the expedition leader of Antarctica's first land crossing. After, I lived in the College for four years while I trained to be a doctor. So I remembered with wry appreciation the routine call I would make as soon as I returned to the station from a walk outside. I would be standing, still with suit and boots on, in the dark metal corridor between the towers and I would radio up to the radio room to say I was inside. If the radio's button had frozen I would use a nearby telephone. Then replace the radio battery with a fresh one, check it then turn it off, stow it back in my suit. Ready to go, in case of emergency.
I make myself more comfortable on the sofa. It feels particularly cosy today, with a classic Cambridge fog chilling everything outside. The trees take on an uncharacteristic, stricken appearance, the gardens mostly invisible, and people hurry outside, head down against the cold, pale figures in the fog. Inside, only the rustle of a college fellow turning the pages of a newspaper disturbs the quiet. I sip a coffee contentedly and wonder whether this, or the Epica workshop with its puttering oil stove and wood smell, is a better place to relax in. The epica workshop, I think. Perhaps it's just about the contrast within and without, perhaps its the warm smell of wood and grease or maybe I just prefer that kind of rough, easy company you find in such workshops everywhere.

It's been interesting to sit here and read over my blog. Through the winterover I wasn't able to see it at all. Once in a while Paolo would be allowed to use the satellite link to download a newspaper pdf, and when the link was active we could get online to look at a website or two. I would use it to upload photos but the satellite link was so slow and unreliable – the connection would drop again and again - that I never wasted time to look over previous posts. So when the Italians established a permanent internet link two weeks before I left the base it was the first time I got to see my blog. I can see there have been some formatting problems, and I see I occasionally posted something badly edited, and once or twice just plain rubbish. I put most of that down to hypoxia. I never stopped making errors of inattention at DC and even to the end everything I did I had to double check on another day.

There's so much more to that year than I could ever put into words but now that I read it, I'm a bit sad that I couldn't or didn't write more.
There were many many things I couldn't write at the time, to avoid causing worry. Like how exceptionally badly I was affected by altitude sickness when I arrived first. Two days after I arrived at Concordia I was vomiting so badly I couldn't keep down water. But Ales had to leave so there really was no choice but to keep working. I remember that we went to the grey water unit to learn the sampling process and I stayed on my feet for as long as I could, a bit dizzy and disorientated, then we went to the hospital where I got 2 litres of fluid infused intravenously and then I got straight back on my feet and we returned to finish the training. Ales and I were both a bit concerned about the possibility of progressive cerebral oedema, because nobody had ever reacted like this to the altitude before. But there wasn't much to do except wait and see how badly it developed. For about four days after I was so lethargic I could hardly move from my bunk. I wasn't keen to worry my family at the time with that.
And likewise I could say little about other's difficulties. I could not say any more about the emergency evacuations we had to do. Partly, I certainly didn't want anyone at home dwelling on what could go wrong up there, but mostly because of my obligation to keep individuals' medical confidentiality – being such a small group of people secrecy is not an easy matter. But that first medical evacuation in December 2010 was a salutary experience. I had not prepared for the medical problems of the station as I expected to defer on all that to our station doctor, and preparing for my own job was a busy enough task. But our station doctor, a surgeon, was not prepared for a challenge of pure internal medicine like HAPE, nor the challenges of remote medicine. I walked into the tiny  hospital room and could see literally from the end of the bed the patient's bounding carotid pulses and cyanosed lips. He was in a desperate state and needed evacuation at once. But for all that I demanded the doctor go and discuss evacuation with ENEA's Italian office, I didn't have the diagnosis right straight away. I made the very classic mistake of thinking his fever, neutrophilia, cough and chest and peripheral signs indicated a right lower pneumonia and impending septic shock. It took a four hour rush to get the evacuation organised, and it was only when the rush was over and the plane was in fact taxiing away that realisation hit. Thank goodness we got him down, and he recovered well. But the fall-out that evolved between myself and the station doctor, from having to get involved in the case, would severely sour our relationship for the whole winter.

Then, there were all the times that were indescribable because they were so simple, so unimportant taken alone, but now I look back they were the moments, the laughs and the fall-outs, the challenges, the successes and the mistakes, the minor disasters, the conflict, the reconciliations and the co-operation that make a single crew out of fourteen very different people. How the relationships between us as individuals appeared so, so important through the time, but looking back seem less so now. So, some of the guys did fall out. Some people didn't like other people. So what? We held it together well through the winterover. Everyone did their job. The base at the end of the winterover was in good shape and so were we - individually and as a functional crew. The experiments were done, the data and the samples ready to go back for analysis. When I look back, these are exactly the challenges that I'm proud of, that makes it mean something forever, to me, that I was one of the crew of DC7.

Too, I'm a bit sad that I never did write much about my departure from Concordia. My last week on the station last week was utterly chaotic. My replacement had arrived but was distracted by the need to attend to Monsieur Rochard, and then by the DC8 station doctor's decision not to do the winterover. He was unable to find time to come up to the lab to learn the job. I was writing guides for him, photographing and filming everything and anything relevant, helping Vera (the ESA representative that came to the station for a few days to set up the DC8 experiments) prepare the equipment, both new stuff and the equipment I had been using last year. Too, I was getting involved in medical provision, and also advising Alex on how to prepare for being the station doctor. And I had to pack up my room into my cases to send back to Europe, and train and prepare for working on the raid. I had a pretty fraught week. The day I left, much to my disappointment I was busy right up to midnight and I missed the opportunity to say goodbye to my many friends. I remember that the base was asleep by the time I finished up. I rushed out of the lab at midnight and down to my room, swept everything left on my shelves into a bag and walked out of the base without looking back or giving any thought at all to the fact I was leaving this station. I had to be ready to start on the raid early the next morning and that was all. I forgot to download photos other people had taken of the winterover – I'm no good at photos of people really, and I wanted copies of photos that the others took of some of the good times. So sadly I just don't have those kinds of photos to put up here on the blog and I really wish I did.

In part, I do miss Antarctica. Not for the land –it's beautiful but I certainly have had enough of that. What makes Antarctica a special place, as far as I'm concerned, is the people that you find there. That's how I would sum up the place: a bitterly hostile landscape, full of wonders, populated with really good people. Friendly, good fun, and very capable. One of the things that stands out most in my memory was the email greetings that all the bases exchanged at midwinter. More so than our own midwinter celebrations, It took the edge off the loneliness, and for me it lifted my eyes off the particular difficulties I was working through in the depths of the darkness made me appreciate again that a winterover is indeed a tough thing to do, and that it was reasonable to find it so. It was very nice to be reminded that others shared the same challenges, and it was fascinating to see for the first time that pretty much every base that stays lit and occupied through the night does so in their own unique environment – no two are at all the same. And it was wonderful too, to get greetings from people around the world who thought of us, people like the staff at IPEV and ENEA, others who had done a winterover before and thought of us. No-one back home made anything of it, which just tells me that you really do have to have experienced a winterover to understand what it means to do a winterover.
On reflection, I am so very glad that I went to Concordia.  It was an indescribably superb adventure, albeit tremendously tough.  But, I have to say, it's good to be home, too.

Coming back has been easier than I expected it would be. I got good advice from the astronomers who had done winterovers before – Karim, Eric and Djamal -that, if I wasn't going back to the same job I had before, it would be wise to stay away from work for a couple of months at least. And that's what I am doing! IPEV pays us a basic holiday rate right through to June to cover all the annual leave and weekend days off I missed by being on the station. It does give me time to recover and also some kind of target date to aim to get a job by. Having a year's worth of salary in the bank does take the pressure off a bit. So I'm not in a hurry and I'm enjoying that, but I'm concious that its important to make sure I don't become aimless.

M's move to Cambridge, where she started a new job the week before I arrived, is a good thing for us. It means that, as we try to re-establish our relationship, we can look at making a new life together here, rather than I try to fit into her established life in Glasgow. Our relationship only barely survived my year away.
While I was at the station, our once weekly phone conversations were difficult and rarely an enjoyable thing. We both found them to be really stressful. I think that M was struggling with the fact I was away in a place she could not really imagine, and with some degree of danger, so she found it difficult to sustain a conversation about it. I was not keen to dwell on all the things I was missing by being so isolated, so it was hard to talk to her about her life.  One week was not much different to the next at the base, so I really didn't have very much to talk about. She had thrown herself into her work seven days a week and so neither did she. So our talk was stilted, frequently unhappy and almost always disappointing for both of us. The time zone separation could not have been worse so usually we were both tired, and aggravated by the transmission getting dropped every few minutes. I was physically uncomfortable, sat in a small hard plastic chair in a cramped metal room under the quiet tower's aluminium steps. Week after week the frustration built up to the point I think we both found the phone call unbearably difficult, and we started to seek excuses to avoid it. Emails got less and less frequent. And for me, each time I struggled to write or speak to M I felt so guilty that I had ever come to Concordia. It felt our relationship was, bit by bit, slipping away even though we were both doing what we could to preserve it. It got sharply worse as I got closer to my return to Europe, and I had to start thinking about actually meeting her again. I wondered if it was going to be just impossible. For sure I still wanted our relationship to survive but, after a whole year of such difficulty I think I had just about given up on it. Particularly as my departure got put back and put back - it was so frustrating that I had to stay. The station simply would not have been adequately covered if I left and of course, it's friends and colleagues I had been working with a long time asking me, face to face, to stay. It was a tough situation. My temper deteriorated on the station and led, directly and indirectly, to a couple of confrontations with the station leader.  By the time I left Concordia, I really needed to leave.

It was M that saved our relationship. Just when I thought a reunion seemed too difficult and that to be honest, I was feeling that I didn't deserve another shot at it, M wrote a couple of really positive, optimistic emails when I was on the astrolabe. So in the last days, against all my expectations, the difficulty of facing her really turned to a feeling of fragile optimism. But when I stepped off the train at Cambridge and found her, her eyes were so, so full of uncertainty and reservation. I think my emailed replies had more communicated the anxiety and the uncertainty I had felt than the optimism, and she really didn't know what was going to happen. Standing looking at her in the busy station I felt wracked with regret and guilt more than anything, at how hard I could see she was finding it. And I thought - how do you start a conversation after fifteen months apart? Thankfully, I didn't have to. I was late arriving and we had to go straight to see a house she was thinking of renting. Instead of a conversation, we had something we needed to do. And actually, that worked out well. I guess the fundamental thing was that we both wanted to make it work. From there, we've started to build new foundations together. I think that all the long distance living we had to do before I went to Antarctica, thanks to the structure of medical training in the UK, stood us in good stead too, like pre-stress on a heart about to suffer a heart attack. Within just a few hours, being together felt right.

Anyway, today is good. I still get weary surprisingly easily, and after a short time walking in Cambridge I'm glad to come back to the college and take it easy here in the reading room. We haven't found a place to live yet but sharing the purpose is really helping us. And being in a comfortable, familiar place helps a lot adjusting back to normal life.

April 16th Little Shelford, Cambridge.

We found a place to rent in a beautiful little village just south of Cambridge, called Little Shelford. It's a quintessential, colourful English village, much friendlier and quieter than the city - I found the crowding in Cambridge extremely stressful, although that is easing now. It's a sunny morning today so I took a walk through the village. I didn't feel like going far though, so I thought I could go and pick up a few things from the co-op. On my way back, I walk down quiet roads lined by tall trees, past very old garden walls and thick hedges, churches, timber-beamed and brick houses, thatched roofs, green gardens, friendly strangers saying hello.   A little stream flows between Little Shelford and Great Shelford, the next village just a fifteen minute walk from our house, where there are a few shops and a couple of pubs. It's a very good place, and it's close enough to Addenbrookes for M to cycle to work when she wants to. 

There are so many songbirds here. And the trees rustle in the breeze all the time. Children, music flowing from windows, church bells - the world seems incredibly rich in sound. I realise that, of all my senses, my hearing was by far the most deprived in Antarctica.

Legs are back to normal, the tendinitis in my shoulders and elbows much improved. My stamina is almost back up to normal. I've been eating unbelievably a lot - I guess my body really needed repair. My old drive to get out climbing, mountaineering, walking, sailing, whatever, is just about completely absent. M and I spent the last couple of weekends tidying up our garden together. Happy as I am, I do hope some spirit for adventure comes back soon, though.

I have some meetings in London tomorrow to start locum work, hopefully in emergency departments in the area. I've spent my days recently reading emergency medicine and doing some exam revision to polish up my slightly rusty knowledge. And, we're starting to organise a reunion for the crew in Cologne, at the European Astronaut Centre in June.

At the door of our house I stop to watch some little birds swooping and stalling as they shoot right past me and round the side of the house, on their way to the bird feeder we have at the back. I notice that there are new green shoots growing up by the garden wall, I wonder what they will become. I go into the kitchen, put the bag of shopping on the table, and go to the window to see if the birds are still there. 

I'm home.