Written by Dan Rasmussen
Two days isolated in the frigid expanse of the Antarctic desert lit by 24-hour sunlight with only survival equipment—at McMurdo Station, this is known as “Happy Camper School”. Our two enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructors, Susan and Ben, led us (Paul, Erin and me) through the essential training necessary to stay safe, happy, and warm in the harsh, unforgiving Antarctic environment. Our training started in the toasty comfort of a classroom in the Science Support Center, but we soon transitioned to the barren Ross Ice Shelf, several miles from the hustle and bustle of McMurdo Station. We were greeted there with our first, astounding views of Mount Terror and the imposing Mount Erebus, two of the four volcanoes we are studying.
Vivid images of frostbit extremities, shown in the classroom, made me eager to follow Ben’s key piece of advice when we got to the ice: don’t stand for being even slightly cold, do something to stay warm. Most crucial to staying warm is our ECW or extreme cold weather clothing. Our instructors also stressed the importance of being well fed and hydrated with hot, sugary food and beverages. Also, keeping open lines of communication within a group is essential for safety.
In Antarctica, setting up camp is not just simply throwing up a tent. First, we put up an emergency Scott tent, a remarkable teepee-like shelter that’s been used here since the days of the earliest explorers. On the windward side of the tent, we built a wall out of igloo-style ice blocks to act as a barrier for high winds that come from the south across the polar plateau (Plate 1). We then pitched our sleeping tents and started an almost constant cycle of boiling water for hot food and drinks. I was keen on having a more survival-like experience and built a snow cave where I spent the night (Plate 2). The next day was spent learning how to safely deal with both emergency situations such as whiteouts (Plate 3) as well as essential know-how like working safely around helicopters in the mountains.
All of this training has really helped me to gain the confidence necessary to work in the extreme conditions of Antarctica. With the training well underway (sea ice and high altitude training are next), I’m getting excited to start fieldwork and delve into the science, which will be the topic of my Master’s thesis and Erin’s PhD thesis.