Geologists are known for spending a lot of time outside, if not smacking rocks with hammers, then climbing over lava or scrambling across wet foreshores. It’s no surprise that injuries occur. One of my professors as an undergraduate would wax lyrical on field trips about safety glasses and hammering technique, using his glass eye as a rather good example of what can go wrong when people aren’t paying attention to others around them.
I have been very fortunate in that I can’t recall picking up any real injuries while out and about (although you’d be surprised at the scrapes and cuts you can pick up in a lab). I’ve spent quite a few hours in A&E with undergrads who have injured themselves on trips I’ve been on though, and I have to say the worst (a very nastily broken ankle) was a result of stupid messing about on a bit of flat pavement during a lunch break. I also recall a lecturer spending some weeks in plaster after a late night fall off a sea wall onto the beach below. So it goes to show that the risk is all somewhat relative.
That’s not to say I’m not prepared for an accident of course. One of the things I most enjoyed back when I returned to academia to start my PhD was doing a ‘fieldwork first aid’ course. I spent the best part of a decade with St John Ambulance, so considered my first aid skills to be pretty good. Pretty much every other weekend was spent out providing first aid cover to public events, and we saw all sorts. Everything from cuts, grazes and asthma attacks through to people having their horse fall on them after failing a jump. However, the nature of first aid in those cases is basically about making everything safe and getting people to hospital as fast as possible. Fieldwork first aid presented a very different concept – that of being out in isolated wilderness and trying to vastly increase your mobility and longevity at the expense of injury in order to be able to get help. It was fascinating, but I hope I never have to practice it.
The closest I came to me needing that kind of training was actually about 6 years before, while I was still doing my undergrad. On a trip to Almeria in Spain we had hiked up on top of a hill to look at some carbonates. Very clear instructions were given on the route to get back down to the coach. Inevitably someone managed to either not hear or ignore the instructions, convinced he knew better. He took the steeper direct route. It was about 20-30 minutes to get back down to the coach, and there was no sign of Charlie. We looked around, then heard a “Uh – guys…”
The coach was parked next to a 5 m tall cliff. At the top of that, on a narrow ledge, was Charlie. He had managed to get himself down the 2 m cliff behind him, but was now stuck, as he couldn’t get back up. Below him was a 5 m drop, surrounded by cactus. To say we laughed at him doesn’t quite express the level of pointing and namecalling that happened, and to this day I have no idea quite how he and Shane (who volunteered to stand underneath and catch him) got away as injury free as they did. I have a photo somewhere of the panicked look on his face as he tried to lower himself to Shanes waiting arms, but a) it’s still analogue and b) it’s in the wrong country.
I digress. I should also be more honest. While I’ve never experienced physical injury in the field, I should admit to an emotional one. A pride-stinging moment which one or two of my colleagues still like to remind me of every now and again. Something of a running joke shall we say.
3 years into my PhD we had a new postgrad student start on a big tephra-related project the department was involved in. He was coming from a geography background, and while he’d worked with tephra in the lab, was not familiar with stuff in the field. As it happened I was scheduled to go out to Tenerife alongside one of our undergrad field trips in the September – I was going to spend a couple of days helping out with the undergrads, and the rest of the week trying to look for shear instability features in ignimbrites along the southern flank of the Canadas system. So the new student, whom we shall call Paul, for that is his name, was booked on the flights to come and join us. He was going to be my field companion, or, as I increasingly thought of him during the week – a convenient walking photography scale. In return for his 180 cm of vertical standard, he got a crash course in identifying pyroclastic flow and fall units, and the features of each.
And so it was that we found ourselves several days in doing driveby geology on the narrow roads near El Rio. We needed contacts between flow units, and we had got good at spotting them. The road cuttings provided some great exposure – cliffs of vertical clean section. A geologists dream. It was then I saw a beauty off in the distance – perhaps three quarters of a kilometer away. A pale wall, probably 10 m tall. A clear band separating the two graded units. Flows almost certainly. I checked the satnav to see what the best way of getting close to it was so we could go and have a good look. I pointed at it and explained to Paul what we were looking at. He wrinkled his nose up at me. “It’s a wall” he said with that voice that suggests we’ve been looking at nothing but the same damn walls of rock for the last 3 days and it’s about time for a beer.
At this point I should have just accepted that his youthful but inexperienced eyes were at least youthful. Blasé confidence got the better of me as we rounded a corner and the section went out of sight for a while.
“No”, say I. “Definitely flow. You could see the grading.
“It was a wall. Looked like the inside of an old water tank. It was green“.
Well, after a bit more to-ing and fro-ing we turned another corner, and what was very clearly the one remaining wall of an old concrete-lined water tank hoved into view. For the following days there was no let-up as the inevitable references to water tanks came up at each exposure. It became his favourite anecdote for about a month and a half.
The scars are on the inside.