.. Survival

The antarctic is about survival. As Morgan in Antarctic Navigation learns during a stint at the US base on the continent, it’s a completely hostile environment.

During the (southern) winter of 1999 a scientist stationed at the south pole for the winter discovered a lump in her breast. For all the high-tech equipment at the southernmost base, there was nothing the outside world could do to help. During the antarctic winter, no plane could fly to the pole, land, and return to the relative safety of New Zealand. Gender aside, she might as well has been a part of one of Schackleton or Scott’s expeditions.

Finally a plane did make the round trip, just barely. But rather than trying to land, it dropped the emergency medical equipment she needed to operate on herself. On the television news we saw footage the other polar scientists taped as they retrieved the package in the icy darkness.

I’d have a lot of respect for nature in a place so remote, cold, dark, and windy that a military jet can’t go there.

In the (southern) summer of 1997 six sky divers went there to parachute down onto the South Pole. Three of them died because they neglected to open their parachutes.

When I heard about this at a cocktail party my first question was not “Why?” but rather, “How. How did they arrange to do such a frivolous thing?” But of course the answer is money--they each paid some enormous sum for the chance to jump the pole.

I heard an interview on NPR with one of the three who jumped successfully. Two who survived were tandem jumping -- they were tied together. The other four were to link up in the air for a while before opening their ’chutes. The man being interviewed described jumping from the airplane at 8000 feet (above the ground, which is at 9000 feet above sea level) and beginning to reach for his friends. The next thing he knew he was half way into the “red zone,” which is the zone in which you want your parachute to be out. He deployed it at about 1000 feet and landed. Two of the other three jumpers never deployed their ’chutes, the third had started to when he hit the ground. The Chilean government still has all the equipment (these jumpers probably went through Chile because the US government would never sanction their trip, but I speculate . . .) but it is suggested that there was no equipment failure.

The interviewer asked if he thought they could have been better prepared and he described their preparation as adequate. Then he said they had not jumped together before, so they were unfamiliar with each other’s flight positions and habits. He mentioned that they’d been on oxygen on the airplane, but that he didn’t think any of them were suffering from altitude sickness. Then he described the ground, an endless field of white that lends no sense of perspective.

Amazing as it may seem, as a scuba diver I can understand how they could fall thousands of feet without realizing it, and without checking their altimeters. Placed in an alien environment, the mind and body react unpredictably.

But I cannot understand how they could risk jumping in one of the most hostile environments on Earth without jumping together somewhere safer first. They were not well prepared, they were arrogant. What a sad testament to have died ill prepared in a fatally dangerous sport, having gone out of their way to do it in a tremendously hostile environment.