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Training for the Antarctic - a Personal Perspective

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In the United States Antarctic Program it is often necessary to train people from all walks of life to cope with the special difficulties of life in the Antarctic.

Anyone who is assigned to a field camp or whose duties take them out of the boundaries of McMurdo Station must be trained in Antarctic survival by taking the Snowcraft I course also known as 'Happy Camper Camp'.

The field safety training people are very well trained in outdoor survival and wilderness rescue and are the sort of people who look at a 20-mile hike over broken terrain with a 100lb pack as good clean fun. On the other hand, there are people who feel that Antartica is really missing out by not having a whole bunch of ski lifts and warm chalets.

The following relates this Researcher's experience on the Snowcraft I course:

We left Mac Town1 at about 10am after a one-hour briefing. I was wearing my extreme cold weather (ECW) gear which was issued to us in Christchurch, New Zealand.
All I had brought with me besides what I was wearing was a change or two of gloves and socks. So I showed up at the field training and search and rescue building and everyone else brought all their ECW gear. Needless to say, I started off feeling underequipped.
Then we packed everything into the Nodwell for the seven or eight mile drive to Happy Camper Camp. This takes about an hour as Nodwells are not fast. Happy Camper Camp is about two miles out on the Ross Ice Shelf. We filed into the instructors' Jamesway2 for lunch and our briefing on cold-related injuries - hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot.
After that we learned how to use a portable camp stove. Now it is three or four in the afternoon and it looks like the beginning of a herbie3. Visibility is about 50 feet. We loaded the Nodwell with four regular and disturbingly lightweight dome tents, three Scott tents weighing 90lbs each, and 15 duffels each with a sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, and two mattress pads.
We drove a further mile out to snow shelter city and began setting up tents. To set up a Scott tent you need five ice axes, gently driven two feet deep in the snow, tent stakes and another eight or ten regular stakes. The pole arrangement is such that to erect the tent you need four people, one for each corner and a fifth person who has a rope by which he is belaying the peak of the tent so it does not blow away. Then others take the innumerable other ropes and stake them down. Finally snow is heaped on the skirt to preclude drafts. Repeat twice more.
Then we had to dig a pit and start cutting snow blocks. We quarried an area 12 feet by 20 feet by three feet deep and built a three-foot snow wall on the southern edge of the quarry. In the now sheltered depression we set up four of the flimsy dome tents. It is about 10pm when this is all done, and everyone is fed and equipped with a bottle of hot water. The bottle goes in the sleeping bag as a sort of pre-heater. It works well. I was not cold until three in the morning.
It didn't take long to break down the camp, but I was one of the three people who loaded everything into the Nodwell, which was a lot of work. We ate breakfast at the instructors' hut and learned how to use both the VHF hand radios and the HF mini radio stations. Then we set up the HF mini radio stations outside with two people to hold the 60 foot antenna off the snow. We contacted the Italian base at Terra Nova Bay. We finally packed up the radio stations and got ready for the next drill, which was the fabled whiteout simulator.
The object was to find a lost member of the party under simulated whiteout conditions. How do you simulate the noise-muffling, eye-blinding effects of a whiteout? We used a low-tech virtual reality set-up - we put buckets on our heads.
After much bumbling and fumbling we found our 'victim' and rescued him. We used a rope and executed a search pattern as you would use in scuba.
We packed up and rode the Nodwell back to town and that was pretty much that. No frostbite, no more than mild hypothermia, it was a victory.
We passed the training.
1An Antarctic slang term for McMurdo Station.2A kind of semi-portable structure of Korean War US Army pedigree that looks a little like a miniature Quonset hut.3Herbie is short for 'hurricane blizzard', a combination of the two. They are storms with wind speeds of up to 200 miles per hour and they are not fun.

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