18 November, 2003
Happy Camper School
I awoke this morning to the same bright sun that was shining at 11:00 PM last night, so it was easy to get moving and head off for Snow Craft Class (a.k.a. “Happy Camper School”). Before heading out of McMurdo Station, all personnel expecting to go to field camps and even staff who will drive out of town must attend a Field Safety Training Program (FSTP).
Happy Camper School begins innocently with a warm and cozy classroom lecture on environment-related injuries including hypothermia, frostbite, snow blindness, sunburn, trenchfoot and altitude sickness. Brian Johnson, one of our instructors, then offered us a “Free Ride” to pick up our lunches and head out to “Snow Mound City.” After bundling 23 people plus luggage and sleeping kits into the Delta (one of the variety of monsterously large snow vehicles in McMurdo Station) we headed out of town for the first time since our arrival. I have slowly come to realize that a large part of work in Antarctica involves hurrying up to wait, packing into small spaces like sardines in a can, and finding space to sit in amidst mountains of luggage (Figure 1). But close-packing has advantages as you get to know your neighbor quickly and everyone stays warm!
Upon arrival at the famed “Snow Mound City” I was able to take a good look at our transportation and continue to be amazed at the sheer size of the snow vehicles (Figure 2). My contemplation of tire size was soon cut short by the opportunity to practice polar survival skills.
Back in the warmth of the station classroom we had been introduced to the survival bags that go into the field with every group leaving McMurdo. A large red dry bag contains a first aid kit, shovel, an ice saw, tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a bivouac sack (a large synthetic bag that fits your sleeping pad and sleeping bag), a small camping stove with fuel bottles, a mess kit, and dehydrated food. The logical place to start survival training was to practice using the supplies in the survival bag, so we reviewed stove use and maintenance (Figure 3).
Once we demonstrated that we could at least heat up a pot of snow to melt water for dinner, we headed out to “survive.” In the spirit of the early Antarctic explorers, we sledged our supplies to our campsite using good old manpower (Figure 4) – no sled dogs here! Brian, our instructor, demonstrated how to cut blocks (Figure 5) that could be used to build a variety of basic shelters from igloos to wind breaks. Once the wind break was in place, we erected our tents. We learned to set up both the bomb-proof Scott tents, a large, yellow, double walled tent named for the early explorer Robert Falcon Scott (Figure 6), and smaller, lighter mountain tents.
Time-intensive, but warm and cozy, alternatives to a tent are snow shelters such as a snow cave or a trench shelter. The entire training group pitched in to bury our sleep kits under a mound of packed snow to make a snow cave or “quincy” (Figure 7). Once the mound had settled, I helped dig an entrance that would drop down below the floor level of the snow cave and then break through to the inside of the cave (Figure 8). The deep dip in the passageway serves to trap cold air outside of the cave. Once the bags were removed, the inside walls of the snow cave were shaped and smoothed and the quincy was ready to inhabit. There was room for three people to get a warm and quiet night’s sleep inside (Figure 9). Looking out over the snow field, I quickly realized why this area is called “Snow Mound City” as the remnants of these long-lasting shelters were visible all around us from past training sessions.
While part of the group worked on the snow cave, others used their new snow-block cutting skills to build a kitchen including a stove, benches, and a protective wind wall – all the luxuries of home (Figure 10)! Andy Sajor (a fellow TEA from New York State) was the mastermind behind the kitchen, which quickly became the social hub for the group (Figure 11). Other hungry campers assessed the food situation, discovering that this was our opportunity to test out the survival kit’s dehydrated dinners. The “Black Bart Chili with Beans” was a favorite while the two year old pepperoni sticks were avoided by all but the bravest like Jackie Caplan-Auerbach (Figure 12).
After an eventful day of survival training, it was time to call it a night, crawl into our respective shelters and curl up with our hot water bottle. Even Shackleton the Geo-Bear (my guest from Ms. Amy Metzger’s 5^th grade class from Illinois) and Andy’s pet dinosaur from New York huddled for warmth in their igloo (Figure 13). Be sure to check back in tomorrow to find out how the “Happy Campers” make it through the night.
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