Fear and Compassion (Blogging From the field #46)

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Post and photos by Rae Stevenson (MD)

[This post is part of a series of real-time communication from participants in the 2012 Juneau Icefield Research Program.  The program begins June 23rd and concludes August 18th.]

Dark clouds and rain on the horizon blew toward us with the southerly wind at the austere outcropping of Camp 18 on the remote Juneau Icefield.  My jaw tensed and stomach twisted as we approached the crevasse littered icefall where we were to participate in a mock crevasse rescue scenario.  As I was heading toward the chosen abyss before me, I suddenly heard a crack and felt the snow beneath me give way.  Before I could react, the white snowy gorgeous expanse sunk into a black, frigid freefall.  I fell and fell.  As air whooshed by I could feel my life drift away back toward the surface of the snow until BAM!  Crash, crack, slam, I am done.  Pitch black, dripping, horrifying and searing pain engulf me at the bottom of the crevasse.  Silence.

Crevasse rescue scenario near Camp-18 on the Vaughan Lewis Glacier, Alaska.

“Hey Rae, how you doing?” Newt asks me.  “Oh fine, great, thumbs up, I’m breathing.”  I snap out of my mind’s constructed worst case scenario.  I am clipping my harness into the solid, bomber anchor set up by the safety experts Newt, Brad and Marco.  “Great, you look great Rae,” he replies.  “I feel good I reply,” other than my thoughts which usually steer toward disaster.

Fear has been gripping me for weeks leading up to this incredible opportunity to learn from Dr. Hernando Garzon, the disaster response, urban rescue and Relief International emergency medicine physician who invited us up here.  He is teaching a course on physician response to disaster situations in “Austere Environments.”  I love this term he has coined.  I am trying to incorporate it into my daily conversations now instead of desolate, remote, resource poor, dangerous, or unforgiving.  I have always dreamt of providing competent medical care in the wilderness setting.  It is interesting to me, the evolution of my thoughts around this prospect.  I start off with naive confidence, then slip into apprehension, graduate to trepidation as the actual experience approaches until I allow myself to construct the worse possible case scenarios to the point of near paralysis.  But then there is redemption through the skill and compassion of our trip leaders.  These mountain men exude confidence, skill, bravery and Zen.  They are calm, present, very kind and say that my fear is appropriate and useful here.  They literally coach me through each baby step onto a snow field with a shear horizon that appears to drop off into the Gilkey Glacier Trench a few thousand feet below.

Self arrest practice near Camp-18, above Gilkey Glacier.

They showed me by careening head-first and face-up down this snow that self-arrest with an ice ax is actually easy and fun.  With their patience, a reassuring touch from Dr. Garzon, the example of his son Gram who shows no fear, a quick kind flash from Chip Duncan (International Film maker), and camaraderie from Dr. Mason Turner (fellow participant), I went from tip-toeing each calculated death defying step, to jumping head-first down the snow and spinning around my sharp axe tip digging into the snow.  Fun!

Filmmaker Chip Duncan, Dr. Hernando Garzon, and JIRP safety manager Newt Krumdieck.

Gram, with his pretend broken ankle, staying warm and awaiting rescue.

So the truth is I didn’t fall into a glacier crevasse to my horrifying end.  I lowered into one safely to care for Gram’s pretend broken ankle before the crew hauled him out.  I actually had the time of my life guided by incredibly adventurous and generous people.  I am so thankful that thus far in my life, my worst fears have turned out to be incredible adventures with amazing people.  I know that as I continue to breathe and learn from this, someday I can assuage the fears of someone else experiencing the challenges of surviving in an Austere Environment.

Thank you Dr. Garzon, Chip, Gram, Dr. Turner, Marco, Brad, Newt and all of JIRP!!

Marco Holgado, Dr. Rae Stevenson, and Newt Krumdieck at Camp-18.

A happy Dr. Rae Stevenson in a crevasse awaiting rescue.

[Editor’s note:  Dr. Rae Stevenson is a participant in Dr. Hernando Garzon’s medical program in “Austere Environments” on the Juneau Icefield facilitated by the Juneau Icefield Research Program.]


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