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1 January, 2003

New Yearís Day, Happy Camper School Continued, and Into the Dry Valleys!

Amber and I woke up to the shout of Dean, our senior member of Snow School. We quickly got layered up to go outside. Dean told us the winds were strong and snow was blowing. We couldnít tell the conditions from inside our quite and cozy snow dome, but when we exited, we sure found out. The winds were whipping snow at us horizontally as we were trying to pull our gear out of the dome. With the wind chill Iím sure it was well below zero. We had to help others in our class to take down their mountain tents and the two Scott tents we had erected the day before. Scott tents weigh about 70 pounds and trying to take that down in a strong wind is no easy task. It certainly takes teamwork and it is amazing to me how quickly strangers can pull together to get a task done without complaining or much confusion. We disassembled our entire camp area swiftly and without incident.

We had radioed our instructor, who had slept in a nearby shelter, that we were breaking down camp, and he started up the nodwell and headed over to pick us up. He brought us back to the instructor tent where we were given two scenarios for different emergency situations. The first involved working together to find someone who leaves a tent to go to the bathroom and gets lost in a whiteout on the way back. My role was to be the person lost in the storm and so I had to lie down in the snow for twenty minutes while the team tried to find me with buckets on their heads to simulate a whiteout condition. I looked up a few times to see how they were doing and they looked very silly as pail heads with faces having been draw on them with giant markers. They did not find me in the time allotted and we all learned a lesson in the difficulty of finding someone in severe conditions. Our instructor told us that it often takes 6 hours or more to find someone. You need to be organized and have a good search and rescue method in place to cover every inch. Often times, people have been found very near their tents, but were passed over by searchers. As they found out, when the wind is blowing hard, you really canít even hear someone yelling to you.

Our second scenario simulated a crash and we had to exit a bus and establish shelter in 20 minutes. This required us to quickly grab our equipment out of the bus and then build a 2 block high ice wall blocking the prevailing wind, pitch a mountain tent, and start a primus stove to bring 2 inches of water to a boil. We had seven people in our group. One person quickly took charge and assigned us duties. Three people set up the tent, which was very hard to accomplish in the wind and they also only provide you with a few tie downs so you needed to improvise to get your tent secure. Two people worked to get the stove lit, gather ice to melt, and boil the water. Finally, I worked with another man to build the wall. We all worked very quickly and successfully established shelter within our time limit.

Next we received a tutorial on how to work our radios. I tried to establish communication with South Pole, but was unable to get through. There were apparently problems because I received a reply from Mac Ops (McMurdo) telling me they too were out of touch with them.

Our last phase of Snow School took place back in town where we were shown a video on helicopter safety. This included the proper way to approach and depart a helo. The program stressed the importance of never venturing near the rear of the aircraft due to the high risk of decapitation. That wasnít exactly what any of us wanted to hear as we were scheduled to fly out in three hours, but it certainly made the point perfectly clear!

Our time was very rushed. Brenda, the principal investigator, had scheduled us to fly out right after Snow School. She had left early in the morning. This is her 13th season in Antarctica, so she only needed to attend a refresher safety school course. After class, we only had enough time to return to our rooms to grab out bags, turn in our keys, and cram down a quick dinner.

We had called for a shuttle to take our remaining gear and us to the helo pad. We all weighed in. My carry-on was 45 pounds and my technology bag was 55 pounds. We each had to be weighed as well, and I checked in at 165 with all my ECW gear on, which again is mandatory when flying. The boots alone weigh 6 pounds!

We were each issued a helmet with a built in radio and headset. Our pilot fired up the helo and we waited for him to do a pre-flight check. Then the pilot signaled us when it was safe to approach the helo. We carefully walked over, climbed in, plugged in our helmets to the radio, buckled up, and awaited take off. After leaving the pad, we flew off to the side of Helo Ops to pick up the sling load. This took several minutes of hovering and adjustment before the pilot was able to fly away.

I took mostly video footage of the trip to Taylor Valley, located in an area known as the Dry Valleys. It was about a 45-minute ride and although it was cloudy, the view was still spectacular!

When we arrived near our camp, the helo swung out over Lake Fryxell and dropped our 1500-pound load in the middle of the ice because it contained our coring equipment and this area is at least 1/2 mile from our camp. Then the helo headed for our camp, which from the air looked like four tiny yellow pyramids in the middle of nowhere. Although one thinks of Antarctica as all snow and ice, the Dry Valleys are just thatÖ. DRY. Glaciers are coming down between the mountains on either side of the valley, but the valleys themselves are made up of silt with a thin covering of gravel. I will explain how this process occurs in future entries.

We were ushered off the helo and quickly taken behind a small mound of sand to duck down and cover our faces because when the helicopters take off, the fine sand blows everywhere and can easily hit your face and get in your eyes.

Because the Kiwi team and Brenda had arrived ahead of us, the tents were set up and Sarah had kindly unrolled our sleeping bags and placed the fleece liner inside so we could just crawl into bed. At the end of a very long and hectic day, that was greatly appreciated.


Our Scott tents set up on the shore of Lake Fryxell. The dome shaped tent is our cook tent.


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