Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Happy Campers at Snow School (part 1)

This morning at 8:00 am. sharp, twelve participants of the USAP, including myself, reported at the Science Support Center to begin our 2 day survival training camp, better known as ‘Happy Camper School!’ This was a requirement for all participants who would potentially leave McMurdo for a field camp. Kevin Emery, our instructor, started out with a friendly yet serious tone by introducing us to the possible hazards associated with camping in extreme cold weather. He laid out the means by which the body loses heat and emphasized appropriate clothing to maintain body heat. That was why we were all dressed in our ECW gear, ready to head out for camp. He then went over some important preventive measures and also a few diagnostic tips aimed at recognizing signs of mild hypothermia and also what one should do to try and prevent a fellow camper from going into severe hypothermia. Another critical part in keeping warm was drinking warm fluids such as tea, hot chocolate, cider etc.

Happy Campers setting up camp!

So, armed with these valuable insights, Kevin led us first to pick up our food supplies for the 2 days at the Galley. From there out team headed out to the Ross Ice Shelf in a big shuttle bus and Kevin driving the piston bully with the supplies. We were dropped off just after Scott Base and walked from there to the Instructor’s Hut which was probably a couple of miles away. Now, as it happened, the warm and sunny weather we had for the past few days had suddenly decided to take the day off and so, we had a grey overcast day with a light snow and a decent wind from the Southeast and a temperature of -10 degrees Celcius!

At the Instructor’s Hut we were glad to have Kevin bring us a pot of hot water and we soon warmed up over hot chocolate. Also, we started on a brunch of cold sandwiches which would keep us fueled for setting up camp. We then assembled and tested our stoves which we would use for heating water later tonight. After preparing our sleep-kits comprised of warm, insulated sleeping bags and two thermal pads we made our way part of the way back where we would be pitching camp. Here there was also a storage for tents and other camping equipment which we ferried out on sleds to the actual camp site a few hundred feet away. Kevin then gave our group a few suggestions about the layout of a typical camp and the positioning of a snow-wall to shield the camp from wind. We observed some of the remnants of previous Happy Campers and quickly decided to make an arc shaped snow-wall with the two large Scott tents acting as part of it which would then provide a protected space for the smaller mountain tents.

The Happy Camp!

Buiding the snow-wall was a little project by itself. This was done by dividing the labour between the team, some of them sawing blocks from the Ice Shelf, while others transported these on sleds to the campsite where the ‘masons’ gave them their final shape and constructed the wall.

We also made a few snow shelters such as the quincy, which was essentially constructed by covering a large pile of our bags with a thick layer of compacted snow followed by digging out the bags from one end and making another entrance at the other just below ground level. The resulting structure is remarkably sturdy and supposedly comfortable. Building the quincy also required a lot of shoveling to cover the pile of bags which kept us warm but at the same time was tiring. With a team effort setting up camp was accomplished in a few hours and soon it was time to start dinner. We each selected a packet of dehydrated meals, added some boiling water, mixed it up, let it hydrate and wallah, we had dinner! It was actually not as bad as it sounds, and the chilly I had was surprisingly good!

Eating out of a bag at Happy Camper School!

By now everyone had made a decision as to where they would be sleeping and I opted for the Scott tent which could house 3 people, but as we had a lot of smaller tents and shelters, I just had one camp-mate, Jeff Gee, who was a scientist working on the Dufek massif focusing on correlating rates of magnetic reversals with the cooling time of the enormous igneous body. He and his group would be leaving for the field in a
couple of days. Their group went out for an after-dinner walk while I decided to curl up in my
sleeping bag with a bottle of hot water for warmth and relax with some music on my mp3 player. It had been a long day and I was soon asleep.

At the end of a long day.

An ice fall on Ross Island to the northwest of our camp.

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