Friday, November 2, 2007

No "Herbies" for Happy Campers

Winds that build into storms and flow toward McMurdo out of the South are called "Herbies." My last experience with Survival School, involved a Herbie and a Condition 1, (**see last paragraph for a definition) both of which I never want to have to deal with again, so I had been dreading going back to “Happy Camper School” this year!

But…this year’s survival training took place in beautiful weather. Not a single Herbie in sight! The temperature ranged between zero and twenty below most of the time, but it wasn’t windy and the sun was shining brightly. Our Big Reds are incredibly warm and with layers of long underwear and fleece shirts and pants, we were toasty as long as we kept moving! It was so bright that goggles were a must to avoid snow blindness.

We were driven out onto the ice shelf, part of Antarctica’s huge ice sheet that has pushed out over the ocean. The ice is an incredible 35-40 meters deep. Our FSTP (pronounced F-stop, meaning Field Safety Training Program) leaders taught us skills we would need if we found ourselves in an emergency situation in Antarctica. Even though I have had this training before, I learned new things and reinforced former skills. The main skill that was stressed was prevention, but if we should find ourselves in a bad situation…stop and think. Good advice for everyone, I think.

One form of prevention was that even though the weather looked beautiful, it was necessary to drill holes in the sea ice to flag a line to the latrine just in case... the weather can change suddenly and viciously in Antarctica, and getting lost in a whiteout can be disastrous. Whiteouts reduce visibility to zero, and without a horizon or landmarks people easily become disoriented. Raging winds make it impossible to hear. Our survival trainers created a whiteout simulation was for our team by placing buckets on our heads. We had to try to find a lost member without sight or hearing and our only tool was a rope. It is a very difficult rescue! The best way to avoid that scenario is to stay inside in a whiteout or condition 1!

For all of my northern friends, try these ideas for staying warm in the cold chill of winter: stay hydrated; eat chocolate or candy for an immediate calorie boost, but then add grease to rev your metabolism, (this is for prolonged exposure, not just walking to the mailbox!) wear many layers, but never wear cotton next to your skin (cotton kills!), and move around. As soon as my toes began to get cold, I started walking around, and they soon warmed up. Swinging your arms also helps.

Our greatest problem was trying not to sweat as we were setting up two 100 pound Scott tents, four mountain tents digging a Quinzee, boiling water for dinner, flagging the trail to the latrine, building twenty sleep kits, and building an ice wall to block the wind from the tents. Sweating cools you off, so staying warm, but not sweating required constant attention to your body temperature. There were twenty of us, and we worked well as a team. Survival as your common goal is extremely motivating!

Building a Quinzee hut took the efforts of the entire team. All of our sleep kits (large duffle bags with pads, liners and sleeping bags) were piled on top of each other in a huge bonfire style. Then we shoveled snow on top of them until they were covered by about a foot or more of snow in all directions. We pounded it down tight, and then dug a tunnel through which we could retrieve the bags. The inside of the hut was carved out to make a space for 2-3 people to sleep. Snow is such a good insulator, that most of the people who slept in there claimed they slept warm.

I slept with four people in a Scott tent meant for two to three people. That fourth person made it feel rather claustrophobic, but it also helped generate a lot of heat. We all slept warm…something I did not experience during my first Happy Camper School. As a matter of fact, I was anything but happy that year, so I made a play on that for Halloween.

When we got back to town, it was buzzing with excitement as everyone dressed for the Halloween costume party. I really thought I would have to miss the party because of Happy Camper School, so I did not have a costume plan. Robin, one of the ARISE teachers, gave me a flashing red nose, so I added black gloves and a sign that said: “Unhappy Camper: I wish I’d listened to my FSTP trainer—sunburned nose and frostbitten fingers.” (to see a picture of me visit my friend, Mindy Bell's blog at She is a Polar Trec teacher in McMurdo with scientist Stacy Kim) It was the best I could do five minutes before the party, but I was considerably underdressed in comparison to the amazing creativity of the McMurdo Community. Check out the pictures of the National Geographic—he was amazing and it was no surprise that he won a prize. Hope your Halloween was filled with treats and no tricks!

**In Antarctica we have three weather conditions that are flashed on TV screens and the intranet constantly. Condition 1 is by far the worst. Visibility is less that 100 feet, or wind speed is greater than 60 mph, or the wind chill is greater than -100 °F. In a Condition 1 you are required to stay where you are. If you are in the galley, you have to stay there. In your dorm or office, the same thing. Field camps have to get in their tents and hunker down as best they can. Last year, a Condition 1 hit a field camp and lifted up a snow machine and tossed it into the air like a toy. Luckily no one was hurt, but it serves as a reminder that Antarctica can have a very nasty temper, and it should never be underestimated or forgotten. Condition 2 is visibility of less the ¼ mile, or wind speeds between 55-65 mph, or a wind chill factor between -75° and -100°F. Obviously not a day to spend much time outside either! Condition 3 is anything better than a Condition 2 up to a beautiful sunny day.

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