Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy Campers sleep out in Ice Trenches!

Earlier this week I was given the opportunity to go on a trip.  Before I go on I should give you a little vocabulary lesson.

Happy Camper: A two-day and one night training course that teaches you how to sleep out in Antarctica.   It covers how to use the stoves they provide, the High Frequency radio, the survival bag, and the tents.  They teach you how to sleep warm, secure your tent in high winds, build a snow wall and best methods for setting up camp. 

Boondoggle:  A field trip.  Occasionally various work centers or scientists will need extra people to help them.   When this happens, a call goes out to the work centers that are relegated to McMurdo station and supervisors will choose people from the crew to go and help.  Boondoggles can be just for fun, but more often than not they are working trips.  Examples include: Shannon's Happy Camper, Jamie's trip to the Dive Hut, helicopter trips to dig up fuel caches, twin otter trips to pack up field camps. 

ECW:  Extreme Cold Weather Gear.  If you are told to bring your ECW is means to bring everything you were issued to keep warm.  It is A LOT of clothes and most people don't ever wear it all.  If you are you told to bring your ECW++ is means bring all your ECW and more.  ECW includes your big red, overalls, bunny boots, googgles, and tons and tons of underlayers and various little extras like hats, balaclavas and liner layers. 

Hagglund: A tractor.  But it's really cute and people (myself included) really love them.  

FSTP:  Field Safety Training Program.  These are also the people that go out and rescue you if you are trapped somewhere and the weather is turning bad, if you fall into a crevasse or have some other tragedy happen to you. 

Got it all? OK.  
Earlier this week my supervisor asked me if I wanted to go on a Happy Camper.  Of course I said yes!  Last year, everyone got to go but this year they are limiting it strictly to people who are actually going out into the field.   After being canceled twice I finally made it out with Britt and Eric (both on my crew) and 6 other people (most of whom I knew).  We showed up at the FSTP classroom at 8:30 and were walked though some basics for living and working in Antarctica:  how to recognize hypothermia and how to help someone (or yourself) if you suspect it;  How to make a realistic risk and hazards assessment of any task you are undertaking and, of course, group introductions.

After all this we loaded up our Hagglund and headed out to our campsite.  Before we were allowed out into the wild, we were given some more prep. This time, more practical information.  How to sleep warm, some basic orientation of the landscape  and practice using the campstove.  

Finally, we were brought out to our campsite, told to get our tools and then set to making a gear line.   We were then walked though setting up tents in high winds, how to set a deadman anchor, how to build an snowwall and how to orient camp to protect you from high winds. The instructor walked us through these things but ultimately we did it on our own.   She left us for the night after making sure we had our flag line set up (incase the weather got so bad we couldn't see), and our water was boiling for dinner (while she trusted us, she was clearly being cautious).   

As a group we constructed the wind block and the kitchen and then we all sat around together to eat.  It was really nice to be able to relax and chat with our group.  Most of us were boondogglers used to fill out our group for the two scientists who were going to be flying out to camp the next day.    It was fun to chat and get to know everyone. 

After all the general camp activities were taken care of we were free to build our snow trench.  Eric and I had already agreed to dig one together and I'm so happy we had decided that.  It was, as you can imagine, hard work and lots of digging so it was nice to be able to switch out and have another person encourage you and give ideas.   After digging for about 3.5 hours we decided, while it could be bigger, we were tired and ready for bed.    

Climbing into the trench was an hilarious experience. The snow followed you into the trench and then into your sleeping bag.  In fact, after getting into my bag, my hip was extraordinarily cold and after putting tons of layers on it I reached my hand into my pocket and found a snowballs worth of snow.   Little things like that made it a real adventure to try and sleep warm.   I was low-level chilly all night long but after using my Pee Bottle in the middle of the night and using the subsequent warm bottle for my toes I was able to sleep a little better.   When 6:10am rolled around Eric woke me up a little too enthusiastically.  I think he was really ready to get up and get out.   Unfortunately,  our trench JUST fit him so although his feet were inside his sleeping bag and had multiple layers, they were right up against the ice and so his toes were frozen in the morning.  We took a few minutes to try and warm up his toes before climbing out and it was a good lesson for us on the little things that can keep you warm or make you cold. Thankfully it was a warm night in Antarctica-27 degrees and only 16 with windchill.   In reality this is balmy weather for this continent and we were lucky it wasn't colder. 

In the morning we ate breakfast and set about taking camp apart.  It took us about two hours to get all the tents down, the gear put away and the trenches filled back in.   When Jen came back with the Hagglund we were taking photos and singing sea shanties.  

But our adventure with Happy Camper wasn't over yet!  We went back to the warming hut to check in on everyone's night and if they stayed warm.  We learned how to use the HF radio-we even got to call and talk to South Pole!  We opened up a survival bag and walked though when and why you might need it.  And we got to participate in the Bucket Head Scenario!   Bucket head is an activity designed to simulate a white out condition and to get you to think about risks and hazards in going out to rescue someone caught in the storm.   Thankfully our group had a rescue diver in it's midst and we decided our best chance of success was to send her out as she had experience being on a rope and in no-visibility conditions.    In fact, we WERE successful in finding the last know location of our "missing member" but they had already left that location and we never found them before we were forced to begin our debrief.   Overall, our group was great! 

After Buckethead we had to clean up and head back to McMurdo.  It was an excellent night out and one that I hope everyone gets to participate in as the season progresses! 

In the Hagglund! 

It's a penguin! 

Did she let me drive this thing? 

Landscape orientation. 

Guess what these little things are.  

Learning about the camp stove. 

How to sleep warm. 

All our tools! 

What a gorgeous Gear line! 

Deb digging a snow trench! 

Building a snow wall! 

Testing the kitchen chairs. 

What great lighting and ventilation we had in our Kitchen. 

The whole crew! 

Me, Eric and Britt!  Dinner time! 

Snow trench! 

Another version of a snow shelter. 

So Cozy! 

Are you Jealous? 

The next morning! 

Hagglund and gorgeous. 

Breaking down camp. 

Me and John at breakfast. 

The whole crew! 

Hagglund, me and Erebus. 

Talking about Bucket head. 

Radio Lingo. 

HF radio talk.

Homemade radio antenae

Setting up the antennae. do you see the bamboo poles? It's run up along those . 

Winding it out. 

Calling south pole!  As our minimum temperature was 16 with windchill (and it wasn't really windy) we wanted to know what there's was.   It was -27.  I am SO HAPPY we are at McMurdo. 

Winding it back in. 


On her way to are a rescue! 

Our last photo before heading back. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hiking in Antarctica

People have been asking me if we can wander around. They answer is yes and no.  We can wander around on set routes that range out for about 6 miles and the longest of which creates a 12 mile loop.  The hikes are not always open and you CANNOT stray from the flagged trail.  For the longer ones that take you out of sight of town you have to file an "efoot plan', an agenda that states who's going, how long you'll be and who your point of contact back on base is, then you check out at the fire department,  get a radio  and you're off.  Ones that require an "efoot' plan are ones that  also require a buddy to be hiking with you.  
This is all good policy.   We are in Antarctica and, while relatively safe, there are still hazards and dangers.  It's important not to take anything for granted. To make sure you don't forget this here's the narrative on the first page of a hiking guide:

"'…The two entry sites into the crevasse were approximately thirty feet apart.  Looking into the crevasse we could not see the bottom, nor was there any response when we tried to yell to the victims….'

'Once a rope to the first victim was established, (Mr.) Petty prepared to rappel down, and observed a repeated tugging on the rope from the victim below.  Upon entering into the crevasses, it was noted that the crevasse width decreased from three feet at the top to approximately fifteen inches, seventy-five feet below the surface, where the victims were.'

'Both had slid down the slick suface vertically, and appeared to be tightly wedged in…Petty (McMurdo Medical) was the first to assess victim #1 and found him able to talk although he appeared in a shock state.'

'Victim #1 was able to grab the end of the rope an dciil it around his wrist but was unable to hold on when it was pulled.  His only word were to the effect "Get me out of here…I'm really in a mess aren't I?'

'On victim #2….a final extrication attempt…we were able to secure a grappling hook under his arm for a fairly secure hold. With eight rescuers hauling on a 2:1 pulley system, the patient remained jammed, showing how tightly #2 was in fact jammed in…'

Both victims died in the crevasse accident. They had left the safety o fthe designated Castle Rock flagged route and had attempted to take a "short cut" to scott base. A third member of the party was between the two when they dropped through the hidden snow bridge and into the crevasse. He crawled on his hans and knees to the flagged route…and ran to Scott Base, instigating the Search and Rescue call-out. "

All that is written on the first page of the "Ross Island Hiking Guide Book".  That incident happened in 1986.  Since then, nothing so preventable has occurred. Unfortunately it was the impetuous act of these two men that has driven the lesson home for the rest of us.  I think it is very smart to have this be the first page of the hiking manual. Living here it's very easy to forget that Antarctica is wild and dangerous.   We mostly stay in town, I can walk from building to building without a jacket, we are on land, I look out and see cars driving around, fire fighters on patrol and the daily maintenance and actions of life in any town.  But it is Antarctica.  Wandering outside of this safe little area without being alert and diligent can, as you just read, lead to some tragic accidents. 

All that being said, Jamie and I love hiking and so we've been going out on as many adventures as time and energy allow.  On one of our days off we hiked the aforementioned Castle Rock loop.   We went with three of our friends and had a variety of activities between us.  Two of us were going to snowboard, Jamie and I brought sleds and another was running.  It was extraordinary fun! After checking out at the fire department to get our radios and picking up our pee bottles (can't pee on the pristine antarctic snow), we wandered out to find the start of the trail.  To get there you have to walk past the Vehicle Maintenance facility,  supply storage and a variety of other large buildings.  Walking around in town is visually uninspiring.  However, as we walked out on the trail, with town to our back, all you could see was mountain and snow and you really begin to get a sense of the craziness of living here.   I understood why "stark" is the word to describe Antarctica.  It is black and white. and (occasionally) blue. That's it. There is NO OTHER COLOR in the natural landscape.  The seals and penguins fit into this color scheme.  The human fauna will add some color to the view but it's clearly foreign.  When you see a person out there you will never think, "Wow, look. They belong there."    It's more like "oh look, a dot of red! I wonder if I know them."    On this loop around Castle Rock we didn't see anyone other than the 5 of us and it was amazing.   

About a mile in we came to an emergency shelter. It's a little red round portable hut called an "Apple" .  The weather here is unpredictable and the idea is that you can shelter there if need be. Also, as you can imagine, even if they weather isn't crazy it can still be cold and windy so it's nice to have a place to get out of the wind, sun and cold to have a snack or drink some water.  The apple has a variety of reading materials, a little heater, food stuffs if you get stuck there for a long time, benches to relax on and extra cold weather gear and sleeping bags.   We, however, had just started our walk and so we didn't linger. 

We walked on direct until we reached Castle Rock-a gorgeous outcropping which, as it gets warmer, you can summit.    We stopped there to have some lunch and found a nice perch to sit on overlooking the landscape.   It was gorgeous.  The frozen bay was dotted with seals and on the other side you could see glittering snow and ice on the sides of the craggy mountains.   There was only the tiniest of breezes so we were able to sit there comfortably and eat our lunch.  After lunch, the fun began!  At this point, we were at the top of a hill.  The snowboarders were off first, followed by our runner and then Jamie and I on our sledding adventure.   This was a bit terrifying beucase the hill didn't go straight down and we didn't want to sled off the trail so we had to keep stopping and getting back on track.  But it was super fun.    When we all finally made it to the bottom of the hill there were high fives and comments of awesomeness being tossed in the air.  After we all settled down and got ready to walk across the ice we looked back and Mt Erebus was in full view, the sun came out and we got to see the Fata Morgana out across the bay.  As we walked we had to stop every 15 minutes to try to get a better picture because the entire experience was so amazing.   

By the time we had gotten back to town the five of us had decided that we would have a "Super Tuesday" every week and so far we've gone out somewhere each week.  It's pretty amazing just being here but being able to go out and be IN Antarctica has been mindblowingly fun.  We are loving it. 

Entrance to the Castle Rock Loop and Trevor! 

Apple Shelter 

Hiking in Antarctica! 

trying to get it right. 

There we go

We are in Antarctica!  Wow.  

Castle rock with Dugan and Josh leading us up the trail . 

Castle Rock. 

Castle Rock and Trevor  

Lunch Picnic View 



It gets a little cold out here. 

Is that a Volcano in the background?  Why yes, it is. 

Notice how at the bottom of the mountains on the left side you can see what looks like an error in the computer file. Like a windows error. that is the Fata Morgana, a mirage created from the cold. It creates the appearance of cliffs in out in the distance. Awesome. 

Frozen hair and frozen face.  

Fata morgana

Fata Morgna