Plans to move our project along are progressing well down here. Everybody is slowly but surely trudging through all of our required trainings before getting out into the field. This includes various things from the operation of snowmachines trucks and generators, to how to handle environmental and waste issues. I’m quite amazed how much time all of these trainings take, as well as how difficult it is to schedule them all. Being the new folks on the rock, Avery & I were required to attend an overnight snow school (aka. “Happy Camper”) session from 9am Wed. to 3pm Thurs. This training in MANDATORY for anyone heading out into the field in Antarctica, even myself despite my past season up at summit. The rest of the group was able to get by with a 3 hour recap presentation having completed their happy camper session in years prior.
The class all met together in a classroom above the Science Support Center – the building that houses all of the automotive, power and electrical equipment used in the field. We met our instructors from FSTP (Field Safety and Training Program) Ned and Jen as well as introduced ourselves. There were 13 of us in total, including the entirety of Sarah Aciego’s group (I-184) who will be sharing camp with us on the glacier for the first part of the season. Others included a group of German researchers from ‘Wegner Polar Institute’, the local artist in residence as well as a teacher from Polartrec.
The course started with a discussion or risk & hazard management as well as cold weather injuries (hypothermia & frostbite). The session included some pretty gruesome photos of frostbite obtainted during a happy camper class back in October 2012. With the knowledge of how not to freeze our butts off, the class packed all of our ECW, food, stoves & sleep kits for the ~half hour drive out to the campsite.
Once at the site, we ate our bag lunches and talked about how to use an MSR whisperlite – the stoves provided in all of the emergency survival bags. It was good to practice using the stoves, but paying attention was difficult due to the breathtaking scenery.
That’s Mt. Erebus behind Avery – an active volcano over 12,000 ft tall.
We headed back inside for a quick lecture on how to get ready for slep in cold weather camping. Pro Tip: Stick your socks & gloves inside of your shirt overnight if you want them to dry out. Also, try to prepare your sleep setup before you’re actually tired – going to bed in the cold takes much more prep than just falling atop my mattress as I do back home.
With most of the classroom instruction completed, we headed outside to learn proper technique for assembling tents. We set up two Scott tents as well as several mountain tents. With the tents set up, we next build a wall of snow bricks to act as a wind shield for protecting the smaller mountain tents from the hypothetical wind we might encounter in the field. In reality, the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful – a balmy -10C with little to no wind.
Chillin on the snow wall
With the instruction nearly finished around 6pm, Ned & Jen headed back to their heated shelter and said adieu to us for the night as we boiled water for hot cocoa & dehy meals. The rest of the night was ours to hang out before going to bed. Several people decided to dig trenches for themselves to sleep in, while the a group of the german researchers decided to build an igloo. I fell asleep in my scott tent before they finished, but apparently after 5 hours of dedicated work, three of them built a mighty impressive home for the night:
The finished Igloo
6am came early the next morning, as we ate our oatmeal and broke down camp. Tents always come down much faster than they go up. Ned and Jen came back to pick us up and we discussed how the night went for everyone. I was surprised to learn how warm the igloo was, at least when three people were filling it with their body heat. Some of the folks sleeping in the ditch had a really rough night, never really getting warm or being covered from snow that they inevitably tracked in when getting settled.
Igloos make for a good home in the snow
While Jynne’s ditch looks cozy here, she had miserable night attempting to sleep in it
We rounded out the morning with a discussion of emergency survival bags as well as basic operation of HF & VHF radios. We gave south pole a call on the HF radio and asked what the temperature was. -38 the operator said, but then cut us off because it seemed like there were more important things to do at pole rather than talk to a bunch of happy campers.
After lunch came the most well-known part of happy camper: the buckethead scenario. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to take any photos of it, but for those interested, Werner Herzog features the activity prominently in his film about Antarctica (It’s on Netflix last I checked!). Several photos from other blogs can also be found with a quick Google Image Search. A scene was set up where one person in our group “got lost” returning from the outhouse in a whiteout and we had to conduct a rescue operation. Ned and Jen boarded up the windows and instructed us to find our missing team member using any materials at our hands, with the stipulation that if we went outside of the room we were required to wear a white bucket on our head and forbidden from speaking, simulating the realistic conditions of a whiteout. We used a climbing rope and sent out three people at a time, one with the rope tied around them, one holing the rope taught at the door and a third to travel between the ends of the rope looking for our missing camper. The furthest person on the rope gradually swept across the snow field, but according to our instructors this made for a hilarious scene. Again, I wish I had my camera. Our group failed miserably and never managed to find our missing member after more than an hour. Our biggest problem was the lack of any leadership in our search party, as we were very sloppy and disorganized. Luckily, she was just hanging out in the other building next door, but we learned lots about the subjective hazards associated with a search an rescue operation.
That little exercise brought our happy camper session to a close. All that was left to do was clean up for the next group, ride back to town and watch a quick helicopter safety video before graduating. I really enjoyed my happy camper experience, as it was just like another lovely day at Summit, while Avery was glad she didn’t freeze to death in the whole ordeal. While we were away, everyone else was working had at preparing cargo and pushing our group closer to getting in the field. As it stands, we’re shooting for a put-in over Monday and Tuesday of next week, but first we get to enjoy a day off in McMurdo. I wonder what this town is like when everyone isn’t busily at work. It sure is a sunny Saturday night!