Sorry to my readers that I haven’t been posting for the past few days. I have actually been out on field training on Ross ice sheet. Since the majority of our work will be out at field camps, it is very important to be able to survive in the harsh Antarctic climate. Here the weather can change instantly from a mild temperature to gusting winds up to 100mph and temperatures plummeting to -90 or more. So for newbies like myself, the host a field training called Happy Camper.
The first day we spent some time in lecture learning about the equipment in the survival bags and how to use it. We then drive to a remote part of the ice sheet and apply what we have learned. We started off with a long hike to get even further off the land and out on the ice. There is a list of things that are essential for survival: shelter, water, food, and heat.
So the first thing we went about doing was setting up Scott tents. These tents were designed and used by Captain Robert Scott who was one of the first explorers in Antarctica in 1912. He and his party of 5 were the first group of people to reach the South Pole. There tent designs are still being used in Antarctica today.
After we set up two Scott tents, we then started building walls to help brace the camp from the strong winds. This also helps further protect the mountain tents that we set up later. Using a saw and a shovel, our team carved out square (or as close as you can get) blocks of snow. We build up our wall to about 4 feet tall.
In some situations, you may not have enough resources to be able to set up a tent with a wall, so to build a shelter you dig into the snow and make a snow cave. It usually starts with a trench and then you use blocks of snow to build the roof.
After camp was build and we had our shelter, it was time to make water. We started the camp stove and melted snow to make water. One way to keep warm is to fill your water bottle with hot water and stick it into your jacket for warmth. You can also stick one in your sleeping bag to warm it up before you get in it.
At 6:30 the instructors left our group for the night. We continued to boil water to make dinner out of dehydrated meals. Anything with heat is conserved pretty well. Even our dehydrated meals were shoved into our jacket so any radiating heat would be absorbed by our body, not the environment. But a funny thing I found out about dehydrated meals is that they tend to expand as they get hotter. Since I hadn’t taken all the air out of my meal bag before it was sealed, my dinner exploded inside my jacket. It looked like I had been puked on. This can actually be a really bad thing. Since I was now wet, everything started to freeze. Fortunately for me, one of the instructors had left their jacket at the camp and I was able to use that for the night. If I had been out in an actual emergency scenario, I would have had a very hard time keeping warm.
Sleep that night was fine. The only thing that sucked was that all the condensation from breathing would freeze on the sleeping bag and the tent above you. So every time you moved, you got small snowflakes falling on your face. Another hard thing while sleeping was the 24 hour sun light. The sun still ducks behind the mountains, but it stay relatively light all night long. I just wrapped a scarf around my face which also kept me protected from those little snowflakes from my breath.
The next morning, it was up and move. If you don’t move, you won’t be able to keep warm. Most people would run to the end of the road and back. Me, I pulled out my Frisbee and threw with a few friends. It worked wonders.
The other thing that I had never thought about was what to do when you have to go to the bathroom. Most places have port-a-potties, and if you can’t do that, you just go outside. But here the USAP has decided that, in order to preserve the true Antarctic environment, all trash, food, and human waste will be removed from the continent. So my question was, how do we go to the bathroom? That was when I was introduced to the pee bottle. Yes you are required to pee in a Nalgene bottle and bring it back to camp with you. And since temperature outside are so cold, it has to be kept close to your body so that it doesn’t freeze solid. Can’t say that I’ve ever done that before.
As the day continued, our instructors showed back up, happy to see everyone alive and without frostbite (which does happen to happy campers). We were given hot drinks and a sack lunch. Our last step was to survive a blizzard. However we had beautiful condition that morning. Cold, but beautiful. So in order to simulate a white out, we put buckets on our head and had to make it from point A to point B. We never made it. And that was the point. The wanted us to realize that it was very easy to get lost in a white out and that it is, most of the time, better to stay where you’re at and wait til conditions get better.
At that point, we had graduated Happy Camper. It was such a relief to get back to base and have a hot dinner on a plate and a warm shower. It honestly never felt so good.