I’m painfully aware that I’m well behind on my regular Patreon posts and website updates at the moment, although on the flipside I’ve been making excellent progress on my book “Becoming Martian”. For $25/month supporters I’ll be sharing the first edit of the book’s three sections in the next week, and while I haven’t made it public yet, but I’m currently organising launch events for the book’s released during Australia’s National Science Week from August 12 to 20th… so I guess it’ll all have to be done before then!
In the meantime I’m working through the psychology section of the book to clean up a few things (“culture” is the third and final section) and I’ve made the decision to cut many of the personal stories that I’d originally planned to include so they can be compiled into an anthology of short stories to be released sometime next year. It seems a shame not to share one of them though, taken from part of the book looking at the shared hallucinations experienced by Earnest Shackleton and two of his crew in the final stages of the “Endurance” expedition.
Strangely enough I’ve had a related experience, so while it won’t go in this book there’s a good chance a version of this story will wind up in the next book… but I wanted to share it here first 🙂
Repetition and boredom in driving extreme conditions can easily play tricks on the mind, and if the mind is pushed far enough all sorts of bizarre things can start to occur. Explorers suffering extreme dehydration can visualise pools of water in empty riverbeds. A common final symptom of hypothermia are often found naked in the snow – after severe shivering, they start to believe that they are in fact overheating, and strip off all of their clothes as their vital organs shut down completely. Full auditory & visual hallucinations are a major factor in extreme environments coupled with a lack of visual & auditory cues – without something for the mind to hang onto, it starts to create it’s own stimulus.
One specific case I’ve experienced myself was on a training exercise with the British Royal Marine Commandos. The exercise was designed to be a full-spectrum test of all that we had learnt in the previous 15 weeks of training, primarily in map reading and solo navigation. From my experience with the Australian Army, I already knew I’m pretty good at reading and using a map. But on this exercise I was exhausted and constantly confused, and for no obvious reason. Unknown to me, I’d been bitten by a deer tick on another exercise a month before, and was rapidly deteriorating from the early onset of Lyme disease.
After getting lost and barely finding my way home from another solo navigation exercise, I slumped into my sleeping bag to try to recover… only to be woken back up by a call from the Troop Commander. Each of us had been given specific times to report to the Map tent to start our navigation exercise, but many of the other guys had been turning up late, or sent away because they didn’t have the right equipment. Troop commander had been adding up the amount of time that had been wasted – in total it came to 3.5 hours – and had decided that we were all going to pay it back. Together.
We’d already received a fitness thrashing for another screw up the day before, and had an 8 mile pack march home the following morning, so the Troop Commander had another idea. The corporals marked out a square in a field, 100m on each side, and we started walking. Walking to repay the 3.5 hours we’d wasted. Going around, and around, and around. A few of the troop slipped off and hid in the bushes and snoozed for a few hours, but for the rest of us we just kept walking around in circles in the dark.
We’d already been running on less than 3 hours sleep over 2 days when this started, so sleep deprivation was already a familiar friend. About an hour in, the hallucinations started. They started out simple – I started to see a fence from around the orange cones that marked the edge of the “square”, a fence that I’m certain would have stopped me from cutting the corner. The corporals started sweeping a spotlight slowly over the area to check that everyone was still walking, and one of the other guys thought it was an oncoming truck and leapt into a culvert to avoid it. But I just kept walking. I’d convinced myself that we WEREN’T doing the 8 mile march the next morning, that we were doing it right there, so I started to pick up speed thinking the corporals were counting how many circuits we were doing, and would pull us out at the 8 mile mark. They weren’t.
About two and a half hours in however, I realised that one of the harshest training corporals was walking with me in support. Corporal N was a hard Northerner with a sarcastic and often cruel wit, who I’d never seen smile. Yet here he was, walking with me in the middle of the night in silent support. Corporal N stayed with me for over half an hour, walking about 2 meters to my right and a few steps back the entire time – saying nothing, but always keeping an eye out for me and making sure I kept my pace.
The next morning, after 3 golden hours of sleep, we were told that we were still marching the 8 miles back to camp with full packs. I packed my kit up and got the section together to get started, but as we set out on the march I where Corporal N was. One of the other marines looked at me strangely and said “He’s at home – he never came out on this exercise”. But that night I was completely convinced that this harsh and unforgiving corporal had shown a softer side by walking through the night with me.