My two-day Antarctic field survival course concluded three days ago. It was one of those experiences that initially sounds exciting, then makes you nervous, question your sanity and feel invincible, in that order. There were 19, mostly first season, students and four instructors in the course. After two hours of lectures and introductions we packed into a Delta (a large boxy transport) and headed out to the McMurdo ice shelf to construct a field camp.
The weather on the ice shelf was wildly different from what we had experienced at the station on previous days. The windchill was -63 F when we unloaded the Delta, collected our sleep kits (tent, sleeping bag, etc.) and retrieved the tools we would need to build ice structures. On the ice there is nothing to block the wind and the snow blows so hard any exposed skin is at risk of frostbite, which can occur in as little as 5 minutes. It was intimidating, but we were not deterred if only because no one wanted to admit it was scary.
Luckily, the weather cleared up quite nicely in the late afternoon of the first day during our field instruction. We learned how to saw snow blocks out of the pack, construct ice cave shelters, use our emergency survival gear and most importantly how to get warm and stay that way. Most of the things we learned were so simple it seemed like they would be easy to execute… that was not the case. If I had to chose one thing to remember from this course its that everything takes longer in the cold. A close second is that manual dexterity and mittens don’t mix. Our instructors were fantastic and before long we had half a field camp, which was their cue to leave us on our own until morning.
Once they were gone our pace slowed to something very comfortable and we had some time to take pictures of (or with) Mount Erebus and cook some delicious (no sarcasm here) survival rations in our kitchen. I dug a lounge chair into the snow and quite a few of us got started on their very own ice shelters. Seven of us were brave enough to spend the night in the ice and most of them slept better than those of us who chose tents!
The conditions by the morning were bad. The temp was up, but strong winds brought visibility down to less than 200′ . With help from the instructors we managed to finish breaking down the camp by 08:45. It was strange to see it all gone. The space seemed more empty than it had before we built camp and it was a little sad to see all our work packed back into the snow and away in our bags. I think I speak for us all, however, when I say we were thrilled to head back to a heated shelter.
The highlight of day two was a search and rescue simulation – AKA ‘bucket head‘ – made all the more real by the rather brutal conditions. The nickname of the exercise is pretty self explanatory, we walk around outside blinded and deafened by the buckets on our heads searching for a lost party member. We failed and later learned why. It was a blast.
This was the most fun I’ve had during my stay here, but tomorrow I take a helicopter (helo) ride out to the Dry Valleys!!!