One of the major perks to being a “Grantee” (scientist in Antarctica) are the multitude of training programs that we’re required/forced/coerced into taking. Most of these are pretty generic safety lectures about the fact that it’s cold outside, knives are sharp, and don’t stand in front of moving vehicles. However, some are quite interesting – ATV training, generator training, and helicopter safety information. But one such training regime holds a special place in my heart.
Happy Camper. This is a two-day, overnight snow survival school where the mountaineers at McMurdo train all the scientists and personnel going out to work in field camps. Training begins with a group icebreaker (get it?) where we say where we’re headed and our cold weather experience. My only previous snow camping has been by accident, and I have been foolishly trying in vain to keep it that way.
The first morning started with an ease in to camping on the ice shelf. We were transported out to the ice flow near Mt Erebus and into a little ihut. Training in the hut on multi-fuel stoves provided an opportunity to acquire individualized burns to remember the occasion by, followed shortly after by the explanation that the afternoon and evening would give us ample time to cool the wounds as we would be sleeping on the ice.
Snow school is essentially a very quick course on what to do in the event that you find yourself stranded on the ice. The first thing done was establish shelter – Scott tents, four-season mountain tents, and a wind wall. The wind wall was pretty cool. I’ve never made a proper igloo or snow shelter before, so to see and learn how to quarry snow is slightly amazing. Essentially, you take a flat, untrampled area of snow and take a hand saw and cut brick shapes. Then, using a shovel just “pop” the brick out. If done correctly, this gives you perfectly square building blocks – which amazed me in its simplicity. I’ve never thought of snow as such a workable building material capable of being quarried. Once the quarry was in working order, a walled city was built using the Scott tents (capable of sustaining harsh Antarctic winds) as corners and the wall to block the wind for the mountain tents. The brave members of the group even had the opportunity to dig their own graves and sleep in a snow trench for the evening.
The remaining hours of the day were spent boiling snow for water, eating, and fighting off hypothermia (it was -30 out without the windchill). I froze my ass off. After deciding that no matter how long I starred at the sun it wouldn’t go down, I hobbled into my nipple-high sleeping bag designed for hobbits and spent the night nursing my toes.
The following morning was gorgeous weather. I mean that with sincerity. We broke camp with incredible speed and went off to more training – radio training on HF radios left over from Vietnam, white-out training with buckets on our heads, and basic first aid drills. After falling asleep to a relatively important safety lecture we were packed back into a goliath transport beast and brought back to McMurdo.
I must admit that despite my midget sized sleeping bag, I rather enjoy winter camping. Damn good thing too, since starting on Friday it’s what I’ll be doing for the next three months. Time to think warm thoughts.