A Course in Polar Medicine, New Zealand
Author: Petronella Watson
University of Otago, Wellington, Mein St, PO Box 7343, Wellington South 6021, New Zealand.
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In July 2011, Queenstown welcomed the course participants with a bitter winter storm: minus 14 degrees, a heavy snow fall, flight cancellations and road closures. This was the second big snow fall of the winter and we were thankful to arrive safely at the Lodge set high on the Pisa range to enjoy good food and great company. Course convener Dr Simon Dalton and the other staff (Dr Sean Hudson, Dr Dick Price and Mr Simon Murfin) welcomed participants to the course, and kicked things off with an introductory lecture on polar medicine and standard operating procedures.
After an early night everyone was ready to acquire the practical skills required for life in this cold environment. We started off with an introduction to snowmobiles – the mechanics, recovering stuck machines, riding and rescue techniques. After a while confidence and doughnuts, grew dramatically, until our arms were exhausted. Then we moved onto the care and use of dogs as a means of transport. Local enthusiasts introduced us to their packs and discussed general care and handling (not to mention some of the dog sledding journeys and races which they had competed in). We each took the dogs for a run by ourselves, gaining an appreciation for the affinity so many polar explorers, scientists and locals have for the enthusiastic Husky and Malamute.
In the evening we had an informative and inspiring talk on hypothermia, cold water immersion and frostbite – tales from the reaches of Everest’s summit to Scott Base and lonely polar research boats. The session covered recognition and management of these important conditions as well as their underlying pathophysiology and an overview of the limitations imposed by the wilderness environment. We then proceeded to hear much more about Dr Dick Price’s amazing life and career; from hair-raising mountain rescues to idyllic igloo building with his son.
Another beautiful dawn brought with it cross country skiing and an overview of the history and development of skiing as a sport and means of transport. Great practice for what was to come! Another half day was spent on navigation techniques in the often confusing white cold landscape. We also had introductions to the principles and practice of fire lighting and snow caving. Evening lectures covered altitude related illness and pre-expedition planning.
Wednesday brought preparation for our own fast approaching overnight expedition. We covered some practical scenarios, wilderness resuscitation, avalanche safety as well as transceivers and communications. The afternoon brought tutorials in stoves, shelter building and a briefing for our trip. We rounded off the day with a movie on Shackleton’s amazing Antarctic adventure and later that evening guest speaker Marcus Waters described some of his expeditions kayaking in the Antarctic Circle and skiing across the Greenland ice sheet – a real eye opener to the realities of Polar travel.
As the sun rose again and the skies changed from black to purple and pink to blue, we picked up our skis, fully prepared for an overnight expedition out into the wilderness. The morning was spent passing through iconic Pisa Range valleys, and quite a few spills and tumbles. We eventually made it to the selected spot for a late lunch and then shelter building. The afternoon was spent jumping, shoveling and carrying until quinsy’s, igloos and snow caves were fitted out with all our kit. After soup, pasta and chocolate for dinner, Dick set off some celebratory fireworks and a surprisingly comfortable, warm sleep was had.
Yet another fresh clear day followed, and after jumping on our snow cave (just as one delights in destroying a sand castle, except with notably more effort) we packed our bags and skied back to the lodge. At the lodge, there was a rush for the showers, but by lunch time everyone was enthusiastically chatting about their snow cave experience.
As we glumly packed our bags, and pulled out the expedition handbook for reading on the bus back to Queenstown, we reflected on the week. Certainly for most people the course taught much about survival in cold and remote areas. Another important aspect of the week was the camaraderie generated between participants. I’m sure the newly struck friendships will continue for many years to come.
Further information on Expedition & Wilderness Medicine UK’s CME approved courses for medical professionals may be found at: www.expeditionmedicine.co.uk