Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Feeling Safe

Tim Cully is a part time Mountaineer in Antarctica. In his off-ice life he is an Emergency Room nurse in Wyoming. On very short notice, in late September, Tim, a seasoned Antarctic mountaineer and veteran to McMurdo in a wide range of roles, was asked to come lead our Mackay Sea Valley field team, since the original mountaineer was no longer able to go. Tim was only able to take a few weeks off of work, but his expertise was needed to get the team safely out to the field area over sea ice, and to set up camp on the sea ice near Granite Harbor, around 100 miles from McMurdo Station.

The chief scientist eagerly accepted his limited availability, and said he would patch coverage for the field team with different mountaineers after Tim left.

I was puzzled why they would go to the expense of flying someone out for such a short time, when they would still have to involve other mountaineers soon after the project started.

Then I met Tim.

From the very first meeting, Tim took leadership. He introduced himself to the team in a manner which seemed to say, "We are a team here and I value your ideas as well as your safety." It was the first time I had confronted my fears about traveling over sea ice, which has many potential dangers. Cracks. Thinning ice. Heavy vehicles passing over potentially invisible cracks.

Immediately our first meeting focused on the task ahead: to plan our 24 hour traverse, without stopping for the night, since it would be a huge task to set up camp in the middle of the ice, rather than to press on and set up a permanent camp. Was I scared? Heck yes! But somehow Tim laid it out and dealt with the dangers in a very calculated way, and presented to the team what his plans were to minimize the dangers and keep the journey safe. After giving us the facts and sharing his thoughts, TIm said something I never thought I would hear. He said, "Is everyone comfortable with this plan? We won't move ahead unless everybody feels okay with it."

Wow. So the 47 year old teacher from Michigan, who wasn't feeling as young as she once was, could still say, "Hang on, guys. I'm scared!"

Well, I didn't say it out loud. But I was relieved to have a team leader who was sensitive to the fact that I had two children at home to whom I wanted to return safely. It was clear that Tim wasn't the type to gamble with our safety. He also left nothing to chance. From double checking every tent, to triple checking fuel supplies, to securing three different radio types to take to the field, Tim took no shortcuts at ensuring our safe field season. He maintains the priority of getting the scientists out into the field, collecting data, but he does so in a way that does not jeopardize safety or challenge common sense.

In the end, the traverse ended up involving only half the group, and the rest of the team flew (minus me, who will fly out in a week or so) by helicopter. The traverse ended up stranded for 2 days due to equipment difficulties and poor weather which prohibited mechanics from flying out. But I know that the traverse party was warm, comfortable, and safe, even in their "stranded" state.

I saw Tim today when he helicoptered out of the field to prepare for his re-deployment to Christchurch tomorrow. He assured me that all was well with the team, that camp was established, and that they were well engaged with the seismic survey. I can only hope the other mountaineers inspire as much trust as Tim, since we will have a month in the field, followed by the long journey home to McMurdo.

Thanks, Tim, for making me feel safe!

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