After winning eight festival awards, the film is now getting out there and reaching the public in different countries, which of course is very exciting!
As I work on the companion volume (a full-length biography of Amundsen), I have been bringing together my researches on the polar health challenges and physical risks that afflicted explorers a hundred and more years ago.
But … the polar regions being what they are … some of these challenges and risks also afflicted me!
For example, when I took off my gloves to adjust a lens, in -68.3°C wind chill (taking account of our own speed of 20 kph), I got severe frostbite. That comes to -90.9°F, which is cold enough. Since the camera was already beginning to freeze, I had to struggle with the lens motor for several minutes, which meant keeping my gloves off longer than I should have. The camera ultimately died, although I saved the footage shot that day. My fingers became rigid, like chopsticks, for three weeks afterwards, and my doctor back in Montreal said if I exposed my fingers to frostbite like that again, I could lose them.
I had an acceleration concussion (a mild brain injury involving rotational forces in the brain, especially the midbrain and diencephalon). What happened? I sat on a sledge pulled behind a Polaris snowmobile, racing across ice as hard as granite for eight solid hours. In this case, I suffered so many hard impacts during the course of the day that the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain was not able to absorb them, and I reached the edge of consciousness and even passed over the edge occasionally. I had splitting headaches and poor balance for days afterwards. I was in so much pain on the way back to Gjoa Haven that I remember estimating the amount of time it would take us, given our speed across the ice, to reach the settlement. I did the countdown in my mind, from 10,000 seconds (roughly 2 hours 47 minutes) to our projected arrival at 0 seconds, and amazingly was only 50 seconds off, by the time we got back. All in wind chill reaching -63°C or -81°F (in -35°C weather, and when heading into the wind, taking account of our own snowmobile speed of 75 kph).
Blazing sunlight burned the skin of my face sometimes, and while I did not get snow-blindness, I was definitely dazed by sunlight, stunned, thrown for a loop, as in the featured photo at the top of this blog, taken by George Konana near Gjoa Haven, while he and his son and grandson were building an igloo for me.
I felt disoriented on the three-masted bark Europa, heading through a gale on the Southern Ocean, bound for Antarctica. This was not sea-sickness, and not exactly vertigo. My mind had to deal with rolling, yawing and pitching as mountainous waves from three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific and Southern) flew into each other, and the ship was naturally tossed around as a result. A rogue wave could easily have picked any of us off the deck of the ship and sent us to the bottom of the ocean.
On the Beaufort Sea, the commander of the icebreaker Amundsen never let us walk out onto the ice-pack alone, since it could easily split open, under the effect of currents, winds and tides, sending us lurching into the abyss. One scientist on board did actually fall through, to the waist, and was fortunately rescued in time.
A serac or block of ice on the toe of the Jostedal Glacier in Norway came tumbling down just as I was preparing for trekking and film-work on the ice. Fortunately the collapsing serac missed me.
We were often surrounded by polar bears on the Beaufort Sea, some of which we could see, others not. They run far faster than humans, and would have been only too happy to have us for lunch!
I remember getting too close to a herd of musk oxen during the rutting season (all to get that perfect shot), and some bulls took a run at me. Given that they weigh between 180 kg (400 pounds) and 400 kg (900 pounds), they would have demolished me at high speed… Lucky I dashed behind a boulder, and hid there until they calmed down and wandered back to the herd…
Wind chill calculations care of NOAA.