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 HappyCamper 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!
– 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!
– 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.
– 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! 🙂
– 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:
– 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!