Going to School

The local saying goes "Antarctica is a harsh continent."

It is applied to every inconvenience that occurs down here. One morning in the galley a sign appeared in front of the waffle makers station it read:

"It's a harsh continent, there are no strawberries today."

It actually is a harsh continent and you can easily die or be injured here. So new arrivals to the ice have to go through several classes to learn how to survive.

Snow School AKA Happy Camper School

Spending a night camping out in Antarctica definitely separates the newbies from the old Antarctic explorers.

We report to f-stop at 9 AM then take a drive over the Ross Peninsula passing the New Zealand Scott base out onto the Mcmurdo ice shelf. Erebus rises above the school site. 18 students gather in a Jamesway hut for survival classes with instructors Ted and Chris.

Then it's out to the ice. We follow in the footsteps of Scott as we manhaul our gear to camp and set up a Scott tent.

hauling gear to camp
Hauling gear to camp on sleds. Look at that blue sky!

We score a beautiful day with temperatures in the high twenties and light winds. We pile all of our gear bags into a huge pile, cover them with the floor tarps from the Scott tents, and then shovel snow over the pile. We shovel and shovel and shovel, then pack down the pile.

packing a snowmound.
Packing down a snowmound.

Ted stops us and I think we are done, but no. He probes the pile with the shaft of his ice axe and proclaims that the wall must be thicker than his axe is long.

Ted Dettmer tests our mound
Ted tests our mound and proclaims that it needs more work.

We are only 1/3 done! So we shovel again and again. Then after we stop we leave it alone for several hours to allow the snow crystals to bind together to make a solid shell.

Ted also has us build a snow wall. He proclaims himself the snow block nazi and tells us that his first attempt at a snow wall was blown down by the wind. The secret to making a strong wall is to make perfect blocks and then stack them up so that the upper row of blocks bridges the cracks in the blocks below. We use snow saws and shovels to make our blocks perfect rectangular solids.

making parallel cuts for snow blocks
Using a shovel to make two parallel cuts in the snow with a saw.

As we are making our wall one of the helicopters returning from Erebus flies "over" us and says hello.

Behind the wall we set up our tents.

tent up
How many campers does it take to set p a tent?

We have a high altitude mountaineering tent which we will use on Erebus. It has more snaps and ties than any tent I have ever set up. The fly snaps onto the tent vie fastex connectors at several locations, this means we have to work our way between the fly and the tent to make the connections with our gloves on. When it's all together however it makes a solid tent that doesn't flap in the wind and is actually warmish inside. I spread out a closed cell foam pad, a camp rest mattress and a -40 F or C synthetic mummy bag with a polypro liner. The sleep kit even comes with a pillow. This is a warm sleeping system.

our snow wall
Topping off the snow wall.

Then its time for dinner.

I volunteer to be chef. I dig myself a kitchen in the side of the snow block quarry.

There is a table that fits two stoves, a seat for the chef and seats for the crew.

Soon we have two pots of boiling water.

This is a good system, people take water from one pot while the other pot is heating, thus there is almost always water available.

We each get our own packet of freeze dry food, this is Antarctica and our appetites are good so we each eat an entire packet of food which claims to be a two person serving.

Mary and Julie sleep in the Scott tent. I test out the mountain tent, Noel sleeps in an ice cave. We all sleep warm. Some people sleep out on top of the sleds we use to haul our gear.

Noel Wanner and Bill inside a snow mound
Noel Wanner and Bill inside a snow mound.

The next day it is time for our tests.

The instructors set up two scenarios.

One of them has gone to the outhouse in a storm and failed to return. Half the class must devise a way to locate him and rescue him under simulated blizzard conditions, they put white buckets over our heads.

The other says that we have just been in a plane crash and must set up a tent, start a stove, and establish radio contact with McMurdo using the HF radio.

We locate the missing instructor safely and evacuate him into the Jamesway hut. As we begin to undress him to treat him for hypothermia he proclaims the exercise done.

Once again I volunteer to start the MSR XGK stove. Ted has disabled it by disassembling the pump and dislocating the flame spreader. Otherwise the stove seems fine and so I reassemble it and soon it is roaring away.

The instructors proclaim that we all passed and ask us to rate the quality of our experience on a 1-10 scale where 1 is the inner circle of hell and 10 means that we want to live outside in Antarctica every night. There are no 1's and no 10's in our group. But there are a scattering of 3's and 9's. with a majority of 7's. Mostly we had fun. It was a good group.

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Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 2001

3 Dec 2000