Your winter season is only as good as the people who are spending the season with you. During a summer season, where people are constantly coming and going, a strong sense of community never entirely develops. You don't have the same sense of identity, the feeling that we are all in this together, for better or for worse, that comes from doing a winter.
Winters are different. Winters are closed, the same people you start the season with are the same ones that end it with you. Everyone has a vital role to play in station life and you know everyone. You come to depend upon each other, whether something as basic as a work task or a friend at the bar. Everything that happens down here affects everyone else. If someone is in a bad mood that is telegraphed to everyone. Alternately if someone is jubliant it can be infectious.
Which is why it's hard when someone gets sick or is injured. Even if you aren't good friends with the person their illness is shared by the community. Their absence in work and social settings is noticed and felt. You feel a genuine sense of concern, in those minutes, hours, days that follow before you know just how sick/injured they are. You want them to get better, you want things to be back the way they were before.
We had some medical situations develop in the past few weeks, that I won't talk about (don't ask), and when it became apparent that one case was serious we began to worry. We have the best medical facility in Antarctica but it's not designed for serious longterm care. So it's in sickness that our isolation is brought into focus, it's in illness that you feel the thousands of miles that separate us from civilization. But it's also in those moments of despair that the community, our band of motley vagabonds, can prove itself.
5 days ago we started prepping for a medical evacuation flight.
While these can occur frequently during the summer they are rare for the winter. In the past 10 years there have only been two at McMurdo. Those both occured early in the winter season, in April, before darkness had fully engulfed the station. A medevac in early July is unheard of in part because of the inherent risks involved. While no flight to Antarctica is routine a winter landing is made all the more challenging because of the darkness. It's true that recent technology has made this a bit easier you can't change the fact that you are landing a plane, on ice, in Antarctica, in -40F, in total darkness. Pilots are now equipped with night vision goggles and we have special equipment, stored away for this very purpose, that we setup on the runway.
But the runway has been closed since March. All of the buildings, generators, fuel pits -- basically everything you need for an airfield -- has been in storage since then, not planned on being used until our regular flights resume in August. Before a plane can even consider landing here there is a lot of work, from people all of the world, that has to be done (yet another reason why getting sick in the winter is so risky -- help is still a few days away).
We went to 24 hr shifts and we got it done (and I feel I am being too generous with the use of the word "we" -- while everyone played a small role, fewer people played much larger roles).
It's pretty amazing when you think about it. It makes me proud to be a member of this community. It makes me proud to work for an organization that cares enough about it's people to stop everything, and at considerable cost (my unofficial estimates run in the 6 or 7 figure range), to get this done when one of our own is threatened. In 5 days we went from skipping along, content in our midwinter worlds, to building a runway and setting up a fully operational airfield. A plane was dispatched from the US. Countless people whose names I don't know, working in agencies I have never heard of, have all played a role in this.
Today the darkness of winter was pierced by a light in the sky as a C-17 plane drew near and members of the US military landed it on our patch of ice. The plane left with two members of our community who will be missed.
Standing at the airfield, my hands frozen solid, watching the plane depart I was reminded once again that it's through rescues that our humanity truly shines.