Sunday, February 6, 2000

Crevasse rescue on ice shelf

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Thursday night a New Zealander and three Americans had a brush with death. While walking between the road to Williams Field and the road to Silver City, on the Ross Ice Shelf near Scott Base, the group went off a flagged route, unknowingly entering a crevasse field.

The New Zealand woman fell through a slot, ending up 20 feet below the surface in a fairly narrow crevasse, said Ted Dettmar, of the search and rescue team, who was one of the first rescuers on the scene.

She was not complaining of any specific injuries, Dettmar said, so he and other members of the SAR team set up a rope to pull her up. Units responding were one of the fire department’s ambulances, both SAR team Hagglunds tracked vehicles, and two New Zealanders in their
tracked truck.

“We had everything we needed for a full-on crevasse rescue,” Dettmar said.

But because the crevasse was not very wide or deep, four rescuers were able to get a rope around the woman and pull her to the surface without much trouble.

“She was shaken, a little sore, and upset,” Dettmar said. Aside from being cold, she was uninjured.

The team escorted her to the ambulance, which took the patient and another member of her party back to McMurdo. The other two returned to town with the SAR team.

The following day, a team went out to examine the area, Dettmar said. They found a large crevasse field very close to existing flagged routes, including one slot several feet on from where the fall occurred, which was much wider and deeper.

The inspection also revealed foot tracks which did not belong to the group who suffered the accident, or to their rescuers. One set of tracks went over a crevasse over two feet wide, Dettmar said.

Dettmar stressed that the flagged routes are the only safe paths for foot or vehicle traffic on the ice shelf. “You get off the flags and you’re on your own,” he said, noting that there are crevasses on the flagged routes, too, but they are monitored and either filled or bridged to make safe crossings.

To perform the rescue Thursday night, Dettmar said, several people and vehicles had to drive into a very dangerous area. After the rescue, the team marked their paths with crossed black flags to indicate that they are not safe to travel on.

“Just because there are other footprints or vehicle tracks, off the flagged route, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said.