South Pole Doc Wants To Go Back

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The American doctor who was airlifted out of the long Antarctic night this week in a risky rescue mission says he's sorry he had to leave the South Pole behind. And he's itching to get back for the next winter.

"If I had my druthers, I'd be at the Pole. But the window of opportunity to get me out was now. I couldn't sit around and wait," said Ronald Shemenski, 59, said hours after a Twin Otter propeller plane carried him from Antarctica to Chile on Thursday.

He said he never worried about the flight out — "these pilots were good" — and that he rested on a makeshift bed atop a "couple of 55-gallon fuel drums" in a parka with a fur-lined hood.

"I'm fine," Shemenski said.

He would have preferred to tough it out at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station he left behind. "I didn't want the crew to risk coming down there," he said.

But in an interview with The Associated Press, Shemenski acknowledged that it would have been dangerous to stay on. He was diagnosed with inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can happen when a gallstone passes down the bile duct, irritating the pancreas. It is potentially life-threatening.

Rescue Video
Click here to watch video of Shemenski's arrival at Punta Arenas airport in Chile.

Click here to watch video of the C-130 returning to New Zealand after rescuing 11 Americans from McMurdo Antarctic Base.
"When I got sick, I was having quite a bit of pain. I wasn't sure what was going on. We did some lab tests down there and nothing fit what I was feeling," Shemenski said. Doctors in the United States helped make a diagnosis that he had a gall bladder attack.

"It could have progressed to being very serious and the main question was, 'Was this going to happen again?"' he added.

Rescuers decided to chance a risky trip before worse weather set in, making the Pole unreachable. Shemenski was the only physician among 50 researchers working there — his replacement was brought in by his rescuers.

The airlift was one of the riskiest to the Pole in winter, with the pilots of the eight-seat craft braving snow, cold of minus 68 degrees and darkness. The sun set last month and won't rise until late Septmber.

On Tuesday, the red-and-white plane with its stubby black wings and skis for landing gear touched down safely on the ice at Amundsen-Scott. In the hours beforehand, the 50 scientists scrambled to lay out the welcome mat.


Even in good weather, landing
can be tricky at Rothera base
on Adelaide Island     (AP)
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On a barren landscape where only an occasional moonbeam casts a feeble light, scientists turned out to clear the runway of snow and blowing debris, packing down the ice. In temperatures that dipped to 80 degrees below zero, they rolled out barrels of trash and set them alight — a jury-rigged landing guide in the dark polar night.

"People were out there loading the barrels and lighting the debris in minus 140 wind chill," said Shemenski, moved by the support.

For the pilots in the Twin Otter, it was like finding a small spark of light on a vast and shadowy plain sheathed in faintly shimmering ice.

Living in one of the most desolate spots in the world, Shemenski said he found friends and human warmth at the Pole — ties that were hard to leave behind.

"I hoped for a winter season down there. We had just become family down there and we were barely two months into our long winter," he said.

After reaching the pole Tuesday, the plane was warmed by heaters blowing all night to keep fuel from freezing. Then it made the eight-hour dash Wednesday to Rothera, a British base on the Antarctic peninsula, across the water from Chile, before Thursday's last leg.

The pilots said the ride was surprisingly smooth. But it was long: 4,446 miles from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the South Pole and back.

Sean Loutitt said he and co-pilot Mark Cary and flight engineer Norm Wong encountered no problems aside from extreme cold.

"The weather was the biggest concern," he said, adding they anxiously checked at least four separate forecasts simultaneously. "We took our time. We had our limits, and we waited for the best forecast to depart."

Shemenski has worked in Johnston Island in the South Pacific and Kodiak in Alaska, making friends far and wide.

At the Pole, he received an outpouring of e-mail messages from many friends and acquaintances, some unheard from in years. "I've been traveling for nine years, so I have friends all over. I heard from most of them," he said.

Shemenski, who is from Ohio, planned to fly back to the United States on Friday or Saturday for a checkup and probable surgery. And he hopes he'll be well enough to go to the Pole again. "If I get this medical condition taken care of, I'm hoping to go back next winter."

Tom Yelvington, general manager of Colorado-based Raytheon Polar Services, which organized the airlift, said he would love to see Shemenski get his ailment behind him and be back n call as the South Pole's lone doctor.

Said Yelvington, "He wants to go, and we want to have him."


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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