Chris Imray / March 2016, Alta, Norway
The radio crackled into life again:
‘I think her name is Heidi. Over’
‘Well she’s not responding- we dug her out of the avalanche fifteen minutes ago and despite starting CPR we are getting no output. Over’
‘Did she have an air pocket around her mouth when you extricated her? Over’
‘Are you certain? Over’
‘ In which case, I am afraid she is not going to make it- I think you should call this and concentrate on the others. Over’
This was the radio coms on the last day of the World Extreme Medicine Polar Medicine Course outside Alta in Norway this year. Nine candidates from Europe, North America and Australia had met up to take part in this long running and successful course. Their backgrounds varied from paramedic, junior doctor, hospital consultant to GP. All came with a particular reason for wanting to do the course. One individual had wanted to spend the night in a snow cave since he was in his teens (30 plus years ago) and another had just got a job as a base medic with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
The Faculty was headed up by Andy Leivers, who is a mountain leader with very extensive alpine and arctic experience. Matt Edwards, an Emergency Department SPR, who has spent a couple of seasons in the Antarctic with BAS was in charge. They were supported by Mike Cole, an Emergency Department Advanced Nurse Practitioner, who has also spent a number of seasons in the far south with Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, and me, a vascular surgeon with both altitude and cold experience.
Everyone flew into the coastal town of Alta, the most populous (10,000) town in Finnmark and at 69° 58′ 36″ N is well inside the Arctic Circle. After travelling about an hour south to of Alta, we reached the small traditional hotel set in a remote location. We were looked after superbly by Maj Lis and her great team.
The course is very much a hands on course and on the first day, after less than an hour covering the basics of hypothermia and frostbite, we were all outside. The immersive nature of the course carries on throughout week, gradually building the candidates knowledge and competence. Brief and focused lectures are given inside and these are followed by reinforcement with outside practical field experience.
Travel by foot, ski, snowshoe, skidoo and dog sled are all experienced and we spent half a day on each. Local expert Knut oversaw/supervised/helped/cajoled us all, but his input really made the experience all the more memorable for all of us. The polar expertise is incrementally built so that by the end of the week everyone participates in a mini-expedition involving a night ski/snow shoe to a remote camp. The night was spent out under canvas in sub-zero temperatures was a high point for many. The following day was spent experiencing what its like to live in these super-low temperatures. Part of the day was spent digging snow holes in preparation for our last night out within the Artic Circle which was deep in a snow hole.
Weather during the course was good but cold. We experienced temperatures as low as -27C during the day but fortunately visibility was mainly good and winds low. However, as a result of this particularly harsh spell of weather, Knut was unable to saw through the >1.2 metres thick ice and so the cold water immersion scenario planned for the final day had to be a theoretical scenario rather than a practical one. There was a certain amount of relief expressed by some!
For me there were a number of highlights, including spending time with the indigenous Sami people and hearing how they are adapting to modern Arctic life. We spent a while with a reindeer herdsman who was (with others in his family) moving 17,000 reindeer with skidoo and equipped with a mixture of state of the art protective gear and traditional knives and headwear.
The Northern Lights were visible on a couple of evenings and were as spectacular as I had been lead to believe. A long exposure (about 30seconds) is required to get reasonable photos, and with such low temperatures this can be challenging.
As ever spending time in the company of like-minded wilderness enthusiasts, both candidates and faculty, during the course and relaxing in the evening is a special experience.
Bring on next year!
Polar Medicine in both Norway and New Zealand is organised by World Extreme Medicine.