It’s been an educational 40 hours – I just returned from the Antarctic Survival/Field Camp Training – which is fondly referred to more simply as “Happy Camper”. Everyone that is is to leave McMurdo Station, whether it be the researchers or sometimes (the more lucky) Raytheon employees, must complete this two day+one night course. It takes place about 30 minutes outside of McMurdo on the frozen Ross Sea, and if the weather permits, in spectacular view of Mt. Erebus. On site there is an established “I-hut”, “Connex” tool shed, and latrines. Generations of Happy Campers are taken there, so there are the weathered remains of igloos and ice walls all around.
Happy Camper started this morning at 8:30 am sharp. We spent about an hour and a half inside discussing risk management – what kinds of risks are met in this environment, how to minimize them, how to identify and react to them – as well as weather related injuries. This was important, because we were introduced to the main kinds of injuries given to us by the harsh Antarctic climate – sunburn, windburn, snow blindness, cold water immersion, and the most dangerous and prevalent two: hypothermia and frostbite, both of which occur progressively on a continuum.
All the cold weather injuries are scary, but hypothermia can be deadly. It is so important to recognize signs of hypothermia, either on yourself or on a teammate, and to know how to respond. Heat can be lost from the body by many ways – it can evaporate off our skin, it can be sucked out of us by a colder object like the ground (conduction), it can be swept away from us by the wind (convection), or heat waves can bounce off a surface entirely (radiation). Obviously, wearing proper clothing in layers can stop much of this heat loss from happening.
However, often times we are not fully prepared for cold weather. Especially in Antarctica, when the weather can change drastically in hours – sometimes from bright and warm Condition 3 to windy and freezing Condition 2 or 1. It is a very real (and possibly deadly) threat when out in the field, and that is why it is always absolutely required to carry the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear with you whenever you leave the station. One thing this course hammered into my head is an understanding of how serious the weather can get down here. It’s a scary thing to think about – it would be a nightmare to get cut off from everything by extreme, harsh Antarctic weather. But you have to be prepared for it, if it hits you, and know how to survive it – that was the point of this course.
Hypothermia: “a decrease in the core body temperature to a level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired.”
Signs and Symptoms of it:
- watch for the “umbles” – mumbles, fumbles, stumbles, grumbles, tumbles – which are a sign of impaired coordination and consciousness
- shivering, vasoconstriction – skin is reddened
- check CSM (circulation, sensation, movement) – white, numb, and stiff is a bad sign
- apathetic attitude
- slurred speech
- final stages (close to death) = violent shivering, then stop —> loss of consciousness
I talked to Ethan about it and he pointed out something important that the instructors didn’t mention – often times, people that have died out on thier own of hypothermia have been found with their clothing removed. This is because when the body senses that it is hypothermic, it shunts blood circulation towards the core – to keep the vital organs warm. The limbs are the shell and to the body, and are not vital. However, after a certain point, the body effectively “gives up” and all of a sudden the blood that was warmed up in the core is released back to the limbs. This huge change in temperature is perceived as sudden overheating – the person feels too warm (even though they are not) and begins shedding layers. They don’t get too far before they pass out and die.
Another serious, and although not life-threatening, can certainly be a life-changing injury.
Frostbite also occurs progressively, and is classified by four different degrees. Frostnip is less serious (as suggested by the name), and is essentially superficial frostbite. The skin is like hard rubber to touch, white/waxy in color, and numb. This condition is generally reversible – however, you do not want to rub the skin to make it warmer as this can cause ice crystals to tear through and destroy cells. It is most often seen in fingers, toes, earlobes, and cheeks. Frostbite is much more serious and it is near impossible t to reverse any damage. It is characterized by wooden skin (all the way through), white in color, numb, possible nerve damage causing anesthesia. You literally have to thaw out the appendage in hot water (recommended temperature is 105F). If the frostbite is deep enough, it can reach bone – this is when amputation must occur. I am sure you have all seen nasty pictures of frostbite.
Hopefully I won’t encounter any cold-weather injuries during my stay in Antarctica!
After this introduction to cold-weather risks and injuries, we gathered our gear and headed off to be picked up by the Delta. The ride was about 30 mins out to the Happy Camper field. We got there, were given a general introduction to the local area, and then headed to the I-Hut for a lunch of sandwiches and granola bars. After lunch we were introduced to the Whisperlite portable gas stove, how to assemble it, use it, and repair it if broken.
Then we headed outside to learn tent crafts, sawing building blocks out of the ice, and generally creating a comfortable field camp. We were given two Scott Mountain Tents (durable and lasting tents whose design hasn’t changed in over a century!)…these are the bright yellow tents in the pictures. We also were to deploy the smaller 2-person expedition tents to get a hand at those. We learned useful tent techniques like different knots and how to bury a deadman to anchor the tent in strong winds. Then, a quarry was set up to saw ice blocks out of, and the entire group worked on building the wind wall between the two Scott tents. We had to make the blocks as even as possible to eliminate gaps and prevent wind from getting through, as well as eroding the wall.
While some of us finished up the wall, the rest got around to setting up the expedition tents. Then we worked on the kitchen area – we dug out a large pit so that the ground would be at the proper height for stove use, build a windwall around the stove area, and dug out a trench to sit on. I worked on the trench, and let me tell you, after a few shovel-fulls of snow, you really start building up some heat! Its definitely a good way to warm up in the Antarctic.
Our last lesson of the day was in survival trench building. Basically, you use a saw to saw a measure into the snow, shoulder-width, and the start digging down into it – as deep as youd like, but at least chest deep. Then, you scoop out the sides at the bottom to make some wiggle room for your sleeping bag and other items – but you don’t want to make it too roomy or else it won’t be warm enough. To make your roof, you can either saw blocks out of the snow and put them at an angle to eachother, or, if you have one available, use a sled (or something similar) to cover the top, and then pack snow over the holes for insulation.
I was a little disappointed, because in watching Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World”, I was fully expecting that we were going to sleep in igloos, or quinzees, or survival trenches. None of that, they just wanted us to sleep in tents – completely optional to even practice building a trench, nevermind actually sleeping in it! Well, I was determined to get the full Antarctic experience, and I slept in a trench for the night (even though it was the one that our guide built for a model, customized and improved by my hands a little). I was the only female that did so, and only 1 out of 4 people that did so. The other 12 slept in tents! The two guides went back by snowmobile to spend the night in the I-Hut before dinner, and leave us to our own devices to use what we had learned. They told us to check in by radio at 8 pm, and then again at 8 am.
We ate a dinner of “gourmet” dehydrated meals – I had something called Leonarda da Fettucine – it was pretty bad! But we were all starved and cold so it was eaten without complaint. We had a few hours to kill so we all sat around chatting. I had brought my little capsule speaker, and we played some music out of the two iphones we had between us. It got pretty interesting, talking to the different people about what they were doing down here on the Ice. Slowly everyone retreated to their beds around 10 pm.
I went to attend to my trench. After packing more snow on top for insulation, and getting into the mammoth sleeping bag, I was pretty comfortable. The only issue was with the ever-shining light – it took me a while to get to sleep (even after all the day’s work) but eventually I did. I didn’t even feel the cold. That night it cooled off a little, and got down to about 20F. Waking up in the morning, I found the snow on my shoes had crystallized and hardened, but not even that got through to my feet with my super awesome SmartWool mountaineering socks on! We woke up at 7 am to start breaking down the camp, which took a good hour and a half. Breakfast was granola bars and hot chocolate.
The instructors came down at 9, and we packed all the bags onto the snowmobile and drove back to the I-Hut for our next lesson, which was Radio Comms. We covered the two main kinds of radio communications used around McMurdo, which were VHF (very high frequency) radio – handheld long-range walkie talkies – and HF (high frequency) radio – the old Vietnam War relic radio. VHF is line-of-sight comms, which means that you basically need to have a clear line of view to who you are trying to talk to – no obstacles in the way. You can use “repeaters” of which there are a few to bounce comms back and forth around large obstacles like mountains (but you need to be in view of the repeaters). HF radio is incredibly long range – you can use it and call anyone anywhere in the world. But its big and clunky and you need to string out the reciever, and also if your target is too close to you, then it can miss it. We practiced calling with both, and had to use the correct lingo (which we covered as well).
Then we had a short break for lunch, and went on to some survival scenarios, where we had to put everything that we had learned to good use. We split into two groups for this, and while ours did the scenario, the other group did the “buckethead” exercise. Brian (one of the instructors) came up to me and secretly asked me to start displaying signs of hypothermia to test the other people, but no one noticed my withdrawal from the group, shivering, and mumbling. They thought I was just being lazy.
“Buckethead” is supposed to simulate whiteout conditions – and what should be done should a person in a group be lost in a whiteout. It was a lot more difficult than it looks – when you don’t have any visibility, hearing is diminished, and your orientation is all messed up, its almost hopeless to try to find someone! Both groups failed at it, going completely off their intended courses pretty much right after stepping out the door of the I-Hut.
This was the last exercise, and after cleaning up the I-Hut, refueling the snowmobiles, and washing the cups, we were done with Happy Camper! It was quite an experience, and I enjoyed it more than I expected, mostly because of the people that I met. It was definitely a bonding experience, and not to mention all the new things I learned and got to practice! 🙂 One of the sweeter memories I will have from Antarctica.