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31 December, 2002

New Year’s Eve and Happy Camper School

We left the dorm for our usual 7:00 am breakfast, then met in Crary lab for a briefing on waste management. A few years ago there was significant dumping into McMurdo Sound but now there is an extensive waste management program in place. There are recycle bins all over McMurdo. Constructions, cardboard, metals, plastics, aluminum, biowaste, hazardous waste, food waste, and burnables must all be sorted. They actually recycle 60 percent of all waste, which is considerably higher than most US cities. In the field there are strict rules to follow, which I will discuss in my journals from the field.

After our presentation from Waste Management, we started the Field Survival Training Program, F Stop for short. But most people refer to it as Snow School or even more commonly Happy Camper School. This is a two -day course designed to teach you safety and survival skills for Antarctica. The two instructors, Tom and Mike, began with lectures about hyperthermia and frostbite.

After that we jumped into the nodwell, a large vehicle for trucking through the snow, and set off for the twenty minute ride past Scott Base and onto the McMurdo Ice Shelf. Located out onto the ice is Snow Dome City, an area where they hold Snow School. The area is sprinkled with several snow domes, snow walls, and shelter trenches.

We jumped out of the nodwell and set off first creating a snow dome. We took fourteen large canvas bags which contained our sleeping bags and pads and stacked them into a pile. Then we proceeded to shovel snow on top until we had created a giant snow mound about 18 inches thick above the bags. Then we let it set for about two hours. In the meantime, we learned to cut ice blocks with an ice saw. We cut rectangular blocks about one foot by two feet into the ground and then used a shovel to cut under them lifting out nearly perfect ice bricks. We then stacked them creating a wall perpendicular to the direction of the prevailing winds. If you build a wall three blocks high and build it right next to where you are extracting the blocks from, you actually end up in a bit of a pit with the equivalent of a four brick high wall to protect you from the wind. We created an area like this and then pitched two mountain tents in it where two members of our class slept.

We also constructed two shelter trenches that were about seven feet long by thirty inches wide by two feet deep. Then ice blocks were placed across the top except for an area at one end in which you would slip into the trench for protection from the elements. Two guys in our group tried sleeping in there for the night, but only one made it the entire night and reported the next morning that he had been quite warm during the night. The other guy had to abort due to a claustrophobia attack. Can’t say I blame him!

After we finished the trenches, a few of us returned to the dome of snow covering our bags. We began to dig an entrance into the side so that we could pull our bags out. It took about 10-15 minutes for us to reach the bags inside and to start removing them, leaving us with a giant cavity under the dome. We then continued to dig out the dome removing snow from the ceiling and floor until we had a nice spacious area for two people plus bags. Amber and I spent the night in this snow dome. It was really quite warm and I slept relatively soundly. These snow domes are amazingly quiet and the snow is actually a great insulator from the cold.

Tonight was New Year’s Eve and our class rang in the New Year with eleven and a half of us stuffed into a Scott tent. There is only room for three people sleeping side by side in these tents, so fitting eleven was a bit like a circus volkswagon bug filled with clowns. The half… that was the twelfth person who could only fit in from the waist up and the rest of his body was sticking outside the tent entrance.

We had many laughs, our little group of strangers from all different backgrounds and from various parts of the world. It was a very memorable way to start a new year and we all felt incredibly lucky to be celebrating it here in Antarctica.

Just a note, the digital batteries were not cooperating that day, so most of my footage of Happy Camper School is in video. I hope that will entice some of you to want to attend a presentation when I return, as it was an interesting and fun experience.

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