Suffering in silence

Published on 30.03.2009 - Catlin Arctic Survey

The reports coming back from Pen Hadow's expedition are lifting the curtain somewhat on some of the suffering the team members are having to endure: cold, rotten terrain, wind, etc.

In recent days, reading the updates from the Catlin Arctic Survey, we have had a whiff of all sorts of interesting things. Which is why, to break the inevitable monotony of the daily reports on the trio's progress, Pen Hadow has decided to entrust the topics associated with this type of adventure to specialists. They in turn have analysed with some professionalism a number of the less well-known aspects of polar expeditions. Or if not unknown, topics that are rarely dealt with in any depth. We have already mentioned in our previous reports that while there are no major adventures on the agenda this season, monitoring the reports from the expeditions underway has been especially interesting this year. This is precisely because some of the teams have elected to talk in greater detail about some of the human or psychological factors associated with ventures of this kind.

Certainly in recent days, anyone following the updates from the Catlin Arctic Survey has had a treat. First of all, there was a medical man, Dr Craig McLean, who talked to us about the dangers linked to muscle immobilisation, because the three men had been obliged to spend five days in their tent waiting for the Twin Otter to bring them their first drop of fresh supplies. Then another medic, Martin Rhodes, who appears to specialise in the illnesses associated with the polar regions, provided a highly understandable description of the various stages and phases of chilblains or frostbite, along with their symptoms (changes to the colour of the skin) and the importance of the layers of tissue affected. He also referred to the fact that Hartley is suffering from frostbite in his feet. Which is how we learnt that the only remedy for attempting to cure incipient frostbite (or in any event to warm it up) is to immerse the frozen part in water warmed to 38°C for 30 to 40 minutes, which can be excruciatingly painful. Having said that, Hartley has not told us how he is treating his frostbite; he simply explains that when there is a rise in temperature, he feels much better.

We were also rewarded this week with a few lines about polar nutrition, written by Rebecca Amey, a well-known nutritionist. Then it was the turn of a famous mountaineer, Paul Deegan, to explainhow constant exposure to polar cold can really handicap day-to-day activities. He explained in particular that when an individual is constantly exposed to the polar cold, their mental field of vision can become very narrow. For example, if you keep thinking about the way your extremities (fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, face in general) will react to the cold and try to find maximum comfort for them, you waste an awful amount of energy.

On 27th March, day 27 of the expedition, it was Mark Wilson's turn to comment on how the three people involved in the expedition have to keep a whole range of emotions in check, covering both moments of happiness when everything is going well, as well as the worst moments of discouragement, when you might wonder "what on earth am I doing this for?". The photographer Martin Hartley (who is sleeping very badly) has said on several occasions that there are at least a million other things he would prefer to be doing than wandering about on the sea-ice.

But despite all that, things are not going too badly for the expedition. The trio has finally resumed a normal rate of progress, which involves 65-minute periods on the move, interspersed by 10 minutes of rest. Then, on 27th March, Hadow wrote that the scientific readings he has to take are going to plan.

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