SnowCraft I: “Happy Camper”

If you plan on going out of “town” around here at any point in time, it is essential that you know some very important survival skills. After all, Antarctica is a harsh continent. Luckily, for those of us that have no previous survival training, the USAP provides a course called SnowCraft I designed to fill that void. Every single field-bound person (and even those not field-bound but that want to get out and explore beyond the trails in and around the McMurdo station) that comes through McMurdo as part of the USAP program is required to go through this survival training, and there seem to be bipolar opinions regarding SnowCraft I: you either love it, or you hate it. Those of us that are on the “loved it!” side refer to this survival training as “Happy Camper,” and the affectionate name really does describe the feelings that engulf you while you’re out and about experiencing the real Antarctica – you are a VERY happy camper! In an attempt to keep this post short on the text (HA! Watch me try!) and longer on the pictures, I’m only going to brush over some of the basic survival skills that I learned… and that I still remember.

The main theme of Happy Camper is to mitigate the risks that you take every time you leave the safety of McMurdo station. As I said before, Antarctica is a harsh continent, and the weather can change on a dime, from calm and so beautiful that you forget you’re in a frozen world one minute, to deadly and unforgiving the next, the same kind of deadly and unforgiving storms that claimed the lives of many an intrepid and experienced polar explorer. So what does the term “risk mitigation” mean? It means finding the right balance between the consequences of a particular event and the probability of those consequences actually happening. In simple terms, it means using your available resources to reduce the likelihood of getting caught in a life-or-death situation. As an example, let’s say you’re out exploring the sea-ice when it turns to Condition 1 in Antarctica (refer to my previous post on weather conditions if you’ve forgotten what Condition 1 means): the consequence of getting caught out during Con1 is death, and the likelihood is very high (“certain”). How do we mitigate this situation? One simple way to do it is to bring extra protective gear with you; e.g. pack extra fleeces and jackets for warmth, dry clothes, a sleeping bag and blankets, a stove with extra food & snacks, a tent, tools for snow-crafting (like a snow saw, shovel), etc., on separate duffle bags and bring them with you when you go exploring. By having these items with you, you have already drastically decreased the probability of facing death (the consequence) if you were caught in Con1 weather away from station. You have mitigated the risk! These are actually all items that are included in a survival bag, which  is issued to you by the Berg Field Center (or the BFC), McMurdo’s version of REI. Not familiar with REI? WHAT? Ok… click here: REI. Search for “Mountain Hardware.” Pick something cool. Put it in a box and send it addressed to me at McMurdo Station, APO AP 96599-1035… kidding, I know you are all somewhat intimately familiar with REI. You are required to take your survival bags with you anytime you leave station (except if you’re going on local hikes). Among the things that we learned at Happy Camper was how to use everything that comes in a survival bag (the items above, and some more). Other highlights of training:

Properly setting up a Scott Tent: which includes building snow and ice anchors for the wind ties, and building a snow bank around the tent to secure the seams so that air doesn’t get in (Scott tents don’t typically have floors, but you can add a simple tarp so you’re not sleeping directly on the snow). I learned a very clever way to anchor the wind ties down: dig a small trench parallel to the side of the tent (to ~2-3 ft. deep), then dig a smaller trench (wide enough for the string ties) toward the tent perpendicular to the trench and at an angle reaching from the bottom of the trench to the surface close to the tent, next tie a stick (or your tent steak) to the end of the wind tie, and lastly bury the stick horizontally at the bottom of the trench with the string coming up along the smaller trench. You’re essentially using the snow and ice around you as a secure anchor for your tent’s wind ties! And it works fantastically!

Setting up a Scott Tent: after putting up the poles and tent, we bury the edge of the tent with 1-2ft. of snow to prevent wind and drifting snow from getting into the tent from underneath.
© A. Turner
One of our Scott Tents, properly set up: These tents are named after Capt. Robert F. Scott, since they are essentially the same design and material that Capt. Scott used in his expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s. They have remained unchanged for over 100 years, and are still the best tents for use in Antarctica!
© A. Padilla
Tightening the wind ties after I buried the bamboo (tied to the end of the wind tie) in the trench to anchor it down to the ice.
© A. Padilla

Snow quarrying: out on the Ross Ice Shelf, the ice is a few hundreds of meters thick (400-500 m), and the snow cover above that can be tens of meters thick, and because essentially all of that snow is hard-packed by the very strong Antarctic winds, it is wonderful for cutting into blocks. We flag an open space for our “snow quarry,” and using a saw we cut the snow into blocks which we can then break off by shoving a shovel underneath it. We primarily use these blocks for building snow walls to shelter our tents and cooking area from the wind, but the possibilities are endless!

Our snow quarry. Using a regular saw and a shovel, you can turn the hard-packed snow into building blocks! We cut the length and width of the block to the dimensions that we wish, and then we let nature decide the thickness of the block: because the snow accumulates in flat layers, it will develop “planes of weakness” along which they will naturally want to break. All we have to do is stick the shovel under our block, and it will break right off.
© A. Padilla
Alasdair, one of our two awesome survival guides, demonstrates what a good building snow block looks like, right before letting us loose to quarry our own.
© A. Turner
It is necessary to be able to dig our snow blocks from underneath after we have cut (sawed) them from above. Here, I am grooming the edge of the quarry so that we can easily access blocks from the side and break them from underneath.
© A. Turner

Cold weather cooking basics: we learned how to use MSR Whisperlite stoves, running on white gas, to cook and melt snow for hot water. We also learned good ways to clean them and troubleshoot them if they stop working. Going along with cooking, we build a kitchen area by digging a trench in which we can stand so that we can keep the stoves low on the ground yet still at a comfortable working level (above your waist). A small snow wall is also a nice addition to the kitchen, and it protects us from the wind when the stoves are lit.

A trench approximately 4ft. deep makes a great kitchen. But first, we must shovel the trench out!
© A. Padilla
Learning the basics of operating an MSR Whisperlite white-gas stove in cold weather and potentially windy conditions. Also, breaking in our newly excavated kitchen!
© A. Padilla
A busy kitchen in the evening. Dr. Bob (our station dentist, on the left in the kitchen trench) takes charge of the “melting snow into water” station.
© A. Padilla

Staying Warm: little things that you can do to keep warm (both during the day and while you sleep), which include the use of internal heat sources (heat from your body, like exercising to increase circulation of your blood, specially to the extremities of your body) and external heat sources (using toe and hand warmers, and also using simple things like water bottles filled with hot water), and most importantly fueling up! Our body needs fuel to produce heat, so we ate a LOT of chocolate! 🙂

I don’t have a good picture of “staying warm,” but here is a cool picture of the sun and some clouds looming over Mt. Erebus. 🙂
© A. Padilla
But I do have a picture of our group trying to stay warm (unsuccessfully) during a talk with our guides. Immediately after this, we got up and ran in circles twice around our campsite. That worked pretty well.
© A. Padilla

– Survival Trenches: the most effective way to shelter yourself from bad weather in Antarctica is to dig a trench and jump in it. It is relatively easy to make a survival trench when you have a shovel and a saw, but it is quite exhausting and time-consuming. We had the option to sleep in a trench, rather than a tent, for the night, provided we were willing to build it ourselves. Well, guess what I decided to do? That’s right… and it took me well over 5 hours to do so! Here are the steps to building your own trench, in pictures:

Step #1: Pick your spot. This is mine, with a view of a volcano. You can’t have it. I marked it with two flags, either green, or red, or green and red, but not black; black flags are used for marking unstable features, like cracks in the ice. These two flags let others know that there is something there, in this case my trench, and to be cautious walking around it so that they don’t fall on my head while I’m sleeping.
© A. Padilla
Step #2: Mark the size of your trench, and start cutting into the snow. You want the trench to be wide enough for you to sleep in it, but not too wide because you will have to be heating up the air around you with your body heat. If there’s too much space between you and the trench wall you will be wasting a lot of energy and will probably not feel very warm.
© A. Padilla
Step #3: Start cutting your first layer of blocks out. You can saw your outlined trench as deep as the saw will go, and then use a shovel to break the blocks off. If you can get blocks out in good condition, you can use them later to build a roof over your trench!
© A. Padilla
Step #4: Dig deeper. It becomes more difficult to saw along the edges of your trench, but if you’re clever enough you can saw just inside the edge of your wall and at an angle to continue to dig down. A good trick when digging down is to cut as many large blocks as you can rather than just dig the snow up with a shovel. It is much easier to pick up big blocks out of your trench than to have get the snow out one shovel-full at a time. You want the trench to be deep enough for you to move around, and do things like change into dry clothes at night before you go to bed (so that you don’t wake up with frozen clothes). For me, 4-5 ft. was a good working space, I could kneel and do what I needed to do in the trench.
© A. Padilla
Step #5: Once you have finished digging your trench, put a roof on it. I also put a small snow wall on the southern side of my trench (from whence the wind will blow, and where I will have my head), so that it protects me a little more in the event that a large storm blows in. For the roof, you can line up two blocks over the trench and balance them by cutting their edges at an angle so that they meet as flat as possible over the middle of the trench. You can see my first pair of roof blocks at the top of the trench.
© A. Padilla
Step #6: This is actually an extra little step that you can add to increase the insulation of your roof. All you have to do is add snow to the little spots that remain open through which the wind could potentially sneak into your trench. An easy way to do this is to flatten the top of your roof so that you’re not trying to balance snow on an angled surface. You can also do the same along the sides of the roof, and add an extra layer of crushed snow to help seal all the openings from the wind.
© A. Padilla
Step #7: After you’ve finished your roof and extra insulation, you build yourself a “door” cover. You need to be able to move this cover easily, as it will need to block the entrance to the trench and you will need to be able to do so from the inside. You can use a duffel bag as a cover, but I decided to cut one large block, and add a smaller one on top, that I could slide over the entrance when I was ready to crawl into bed. IT’S READY!!!
© A. Padilla
Step #8: Enjoy the amazing view out the entrance of your trench. I like volcanoes.
© A. Padilla
Step #9: Sleep in your trench! This is me at the end of the day, ready for a nice long night and cold dreams! I’m pretty proud of my roof.
© A. Padilla
Step #10: The morning after, once you have survived because you did such a badass job with your survival trench, you fill in your trench and pack it as best as you can. You don’t want to leave an obstacle behind for people to fall into. This is the aftermath of my survival trench. It served me well. So long, survival trench. So long.
© A. Padilla

Self-Awareness: Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we learned a lot about the important of self-awareness. Though, it can be interpreted in many ways, in our situation, self awareness simply meant being attentive to how our body was doing in the Antarctic conditions, knowing the limits for what your personal body can handle, and learning to recognize symptoms associated with cold-induced injuries such as hypothermia and frost-bite (as well as frost-nip, the less severe version of frost-bite, which one of our happy campers began to develop).

As you can see, this was a futile attempt at keeping this post short on the text, but hey, here are some more pictures!

On the way to our camping spot. What a beautiful sight!
© A. Padilla
If you spend enough time walking around in -20ºF weather, your eyelashes will catch a lot of the warm moisture released by your body (like your breath, or a little bit of sweat) and turn it into EYELASHCICLES!! These is my best attempt at growing them!
© A. Padilla
A “sundog” shines over Mt. Erebus and our campsite. What a great way to start the day! If you’re curious, a “sundog” is basically an atmospheric illusion created by snow crystals (called “diamond dust”) in the air which act as prisms that bend the light rays passing through them, making bright spots of light appear in the sky. Sometimes, when the ice crystals are randomly oriented in the atmosphere, they will appear as a halo around the sun, and often it will be colored, like a rainbow. The scientific name for this phenomenon is “parhelion.”
© A. Padilla
A Delta vehicle, which can carry up to 21 passengers (20 in the back compartment). This is Delta “Dawn,” which took us to our camp area and dropped us off to begin survival training.
© A. Padilla
Our little Tent Village, with our tiny little snow wall to help protect our little tents from the wind.
© A. Padilla
Another view of Tent Village, this time with Mount Erebus steaming in the background.
© A. Turner
I survived!! This is me the morning after a long night of -25ºF sleep.
© A. Padilla
The remains of our Tent Village after surviving the night and taking down all of our equipment. Also, it’s hard to see in this picture, but there is snow sublimating (turning directly from solid to gas) in the background and running in little gas streams along the surface of the snow.
© A. Padilla
Our wall… the only thing that remains standing after our snowpocalypse.
© A. Padilla
We decided to take down our wall and minimize our footprint… I’m at the end of the line (right-most)  🙂
© A. Padilla
Minimizing our Footprint…
© A. Padilla
Minimizing our Footprint…
© A. Padilla
Minimizing our Footprint…
© A. Padilla
Our Happy Campers!
© A. Turner
But wait!! There’s one more thing! I hope you enjoy! 😀
© A. Padilla

A video!

 

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