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Notes from the Field

Happy Camper School

December 2nd, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ludovic Brucker

Jessica, Randy, and I were scheduled to attend a 2-day Field Safety Training Program (a.k.a. Happy Camper survival school the nickname makes it sound much more fun than its official title!) on Tuesday and Wednesday, 23-24 November. The training includes spending a night outdoors. I heard about the program months ago and I was definitively looking forward to this enjoyable and educational experience. The invitation read: “Be sure to show up the morning of your course dressed for the field in your Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing.  […] Trust us!  We want you to be comfortable and safe for the Antarctic environment.” Sweet!

On Monday evening (Nov. 22), I had carefully prepared my ECW++ pack (the ++ stands for water and food). My ECW gear consisted of: socks, bottom and top thermal base- and mid-layers, a fleece jacket, a thick bib, Big Red, boots, and all the basics (such as hat, gloves and glove liners, mittens, face protection, etc). Additionally, we took the sleep kits and tents that we will be using during our traverse. These last two are very similar to the ones you most probably use when camping, but the sleeping bag is much thicker and we also use pads, a fleece liner, warm fleece pants, and a pee-bottle. Our bag also contained other basic and mandatory items, such as sunglasses, goggles, sunscreen, lipstick, and water bottles, among other things.

The first morning of the training was dedicated to listening to lectures about the harsh Antarctic environment and its rapidly changing weather conditions, with focused courses on topics such as how to deal with hypothermia, etc. We then headed out to the field a few miles away from McMurdo station, in the vicinity of Mt. Erebus. It was gorgeous! We were a total of 20 people, all freshly arrived from New Zealand the day before.

The outdoor session was much cooler (pardon the easy pun) than the lectures and it provided us with information on setting up camps, such as mounting a mountain tent and a Scott pyramid tent. The latter is particularly well suited to Antarctic conditions and it’s inspired in the tent Robert Scott designed for his 1910-13 South Pole expedition. It resists high wind speeds very well; we will have one in our traverse. Obviously, the tent resistance to wind is all about the quality of its snow anchors.

Instead of spending the night in a tent, I opted for the alternative, which was digging up a trench and sleeping in it. “Why not,” I thought. “I’d rather experience my first night in an Antarctic trench when the weather is pleasant and I have resources close by than when I have no alternative to using a trench.”

My trench had a narrow opening and got wider a few feet deeper. The ceiling was made of snow bricks covered by lighter snow to close joints and holes. I used my bag as an horizontal ceiling door, right above my head. An easier option would have been using a sled for the ceiling, as others did.

My night was perfect: cozy and unbelievably quiet! I didn’t even notice that the wind had started to blow strongly during the night. I woke up around 4 AM feeling a bit chilly; I ate a chocolate bar, drank some water, and went back to sleep. It was interesting to wake up in the middle of the night and be able to see like if it was day time. At this time of the year in Antarctica, all nights are bright, with only one star in the sky. It felt weird to be sleeping in a snow trench only three weeks after having slept in a hammock hung between palm trees in Big Island, Hawaii. Thanks Lora and Thorsten for these two experiences!

Happy Camper also taught us how to use a High Frequency radio. It is significantly different to use from the common very high frequency radio. After deploying the two 10-meter antennas, we made calls to South Pole station (1360 km, or 850 miles, south of us.)

In summary, these first two days outdoors were successful. However, we expect tougher conditions once we’re out in the field, in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.