Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Happy Camper School! November 13 and 14, 2012

On Tuesday morning, John E, Sean, and I met at 8:15am in McMurdo's Science Support Center (SSC), a building that has some offices, meeting rooms, and a whole bunch of equipment in storage, including a garage full of snowmobiles. There, we signed in on a sheet and gathered with a bunch of other people for the beginning of our two day Field Safety Training Program Snow School ("Happy Camper School") course.

Our Happy Camper group consisted of twenty people from across McMurdo. There were the three of us from Super-TIGER, three scientists from the ARIANNA neutrino detection experiment further out on the Ross Ice Shelf, three seismologists, one of the station's doctors and the McMurdo physical therapist, a couple of Stewards, who handle galley and other cleaning work on station, a cook from the galley, a guy from Science Cargo, a work scheduler in the main contractors office and a few other people with various jobs around McMurdo. For some, Happy Camper school is required for work in the field; for others, it was a welcome diversion and a chance to get out of town and see the area.

We were greeted by our two instructors, Ben and Loomy. While not on the Ice, Ben works as a tour guide on Denali in Alaska, while Loomy works as a park ranger/mountain ranger. They had us all go around the room and tell everyone our names, where we were from, what we did in McMurdo, and what cold weather camping experience we'd had before.

Then we started the first lecture segment, which was about an hour on Risk Management. We went over a lot of the basics, including assessing hazards and finding plans to mitigate them, went through the official McMurdo station procedures for Risk Management, and evaluated a scenario that occurred around ten years ago and what could have been different.

We then got a talk on frostbite and hypothermia detection and prevention. Along with all of the warnings, there were some very graphic pictures of frostbite victims, including some taken of a Happy Camper participant just a few weeks ago. We also went over ways to stay warm out in the field, since this is an important part of surviving Antarctica.

Once we had finished up these talks, we loaded ourselves into a Delta (the instructors got a van to themselves) and were driven out to the main Happy Camper site. The ride out there took the same road as the one we use to get out to the LDB site every day for work, so while the scenery was now familiar to me, most of the group was amazed and tried their best to see out the windows and take it in. Once there, we organized our bags into a "cargo line" so they wouldn't be blown away in a strong wind, and headed in to the Instruction Hut, or I-Hut.

Inside, we ate a prepared lunch from the McMurdo galley--sandwiches, chips, cookies and candy bars--and settled in for a few more instructional points. Loomy showed us all how to use the stoves that we would be using and gave us all the relevant safety tips. Then we broke into groups of four and went outside to play with the stoves and get some practice lighting them up.

Back inside, Ben talked us through everything that was included in our "Sleep Kits" that we would all get for the night. There were two insulating sleep mats, a sleeping bag, and a fleece liner for the bag, with optional large "bear claw" mittens. We then headed to the "drying module" about 20 feet away.

The drying module is essentially a building that is kept what felt like 150 degrees F, and is used to dry out equipment that has gotten wet from the snow. There, we had to organize ourselves and get everyone a sleep kit with the appropriately sized sleeping bag (regular, large or extra large). While some people stuffed bags with sleep pads, "bear claw" mitens, and fleece liners, I grabbed a sleeping bag for each person in the group based on the size they requested. We were able to get everyone a sleep kit (although one kit did not have the mittens. Naturally, this is the one I ended up with) and loaded them onto a sled to be towed out to our actual happy camper location.

Once the sleep kits were secure aboard the sled, which also had our stoves and two boxes of food, Ben and Loomy drove out about a quarter of a mile to a cluster of three small buildings. Everyone grabbed their bags of ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear and followed.

The three buildings were two outhouses and a storage locker that contained more equipment for our stay. Ben told us what we needed to bring, and then went with Loomy another hundred meters or so off into the ice shelf with the snowmobile and sled.

We piled everything we needed--two "Scott Tents", seven "Mountaineering Tents", poles for marking things in camp, pots and pans, tent stakes, saws, ice axes, shovels, and boards to keep our stoves level--onto four small sleds that were provided and dragged it all out to Ben and Loomy. Where they were was where we would make our camp.

Once everything was brought out and arranged so that it wouldn't blow away in a strong wind (not really an issue that day, which had almost perfect weather, but a good practice to get into), Loomy talked us through putting up the Scott Tents. The design of these tents hasn't changed in over a hundred years, when they were used by Scott and other early Antarctic explorers, but we were using modern versions with metal poles and modern fabric. Since Scott Tents are relatively easy to set up, and also very sturdy (Ben told a story about Scott Tents surviving a storm that sent snowmobiles flying through the air), they are the first thing to be set up and last to be taken down, so they can be used as an emergency shelter if needed.

Loomy also showed us how to anchor the tent in the snow, since stakes are not necessarily the most useful. This involves digging a hole, putting a stick of bamboo down at the bottom to tie a rope tied to the tent around, looping the rope around the bamboo, and filling the hole back in again. This allows the bamboo to pull on the packed ice, and uses the strength of the ice pack to hold the tent down. We got a chance to practice setting up and securing both Scott Tents before we got called over to the area where Ben had been working.

Ben had started digging what would become our Snow Quarry, and showed us how the ice was packed tight enough that you could cut a large brick out of snow with a saw, then pry it out with a shovel and move it over to the side or load it on the sled. Then he talked to us about building a snow wall to protect the camp from storms and showed us with flags where it should go, between the two Scott Tents.

Then, he told us to get to work building the wall and left us on our own for about an hour or so. I spent most of that time either sawing bricks out of snow, moving pre-sawed bricks onto sleds, or dragging the sled from the snow quarry over to the wall. We rotated jobs in and out pretty well, and got a good portion of the wall up, before Ben stopped us and started showing us how to set up the mountaineering tents.

These tents are pretty standard two-person tents, with the only difference between use here and anywhere else being that they, like the Scott Tents, need to be secured in the snow. Since there needed to be a spot in a tent for everyone in our group, all seven mountaineering tents needed to be set up. We split up into groups and started setting them up. Once they were up, but before all of them were fully secured, we got called over to where Loomy had been at work.

Loomy had dug a trench in the snow, our third option (after both types of tents) for sleeping that night. He showed us the technique of using the saw to extract large chunks of snow at a time, similar to the brick we had been cutting, and then how he had hollowed out a larger area in the snow on the bottom. He also showed us how to make a roof and the best way to orient things with respect to the wind.

We then went back to our snow quarry, which Ben had started quickly converting into a kitchen. Since we'd dug a pretty significant area out of the snow, it was a lower sheltered area that we could use for cooking. Ben and Loomy then gave us a list of what needed to be done before camp was complete--water boiled for dinner, snow wall completed, all tents secured, and everyone fed. Once stoves were started and water was heating up, they left our group and retreated to the I-hut for the night, leaving us on our own.

We broke down into smaller groups pretty quickly, with some people cooking with the stoves, some working on the snow wall, some securing the tents, and some, including me, cutting and transporting snow bricks. I spent the next couple of hours either sawing or moving snow bricks. It wasn't particularly hard work, but after a while it got pretty tiring.

Around 7:30pm, we had everything we needed for our camp to be complete. The snow wall was up, there was plenty of boiling water for dinner, and all the tents were secure. I staked out an area for my snow trench and then went to get something to eat.

 Dinner was packets of dehydrated food that we just poured boiling water into and waited for it to heat up. I had "Sierra Chicken", which was basically chicken and noodles. It wasn't particularly exciting, but it tasted good. There was also plenty of granola bars, hot drinks, chocolate bars, including special "Energy" bars.

After dinner, I got to work digging my trench. I initially dug it more than waist deep, but that was mostly so that I could use the snow that I took out while hollowing out the bottom to fill things back up to a constant level.

I dug a straight trench initially, then hollowed out an area at the end for my feet and started to widen things down below. I kept the top relatively narrow, in order to make it easier to build a roof, and left about a foot of packed snow at that width before narrowing things out down below. It took around three hours to dig the trench and get it narrowed out to the point where I felt like I could sleep in it. By then, I was exhausted, but still needed a roof. After playing around with a snow block roof like Loomy had shown us, I decided to just use a sled. I lay a bamboo flag pole across things and rested the sled on that, and then buried the sled in snow blocks to seal all the heat in.

In the meantime, John E and Sean had retired to a Scott Tent and were already asleep by the time I went in to retrieve my camera, dry socks, and other cold weather gear I needed for the night. 

Once my trench was more or less complete, I unpacked my sleep kit inside it. Things fit pretty well, so I filled my water bottle up with hot water, sealed it tightly, and threw it in the sleeping bag while I finished the "door" to my trench. Here, I just used a combination of the bag my sleep kit came in and my red USAP issued windbreaker to seal off what was left of the hole, secured down with blocks of snow. 

Sadly, no pictures exist from inside my trench. In the evening, I was focused on getting into my warm sleeping bag, and by the morning, my camera battery was unhappy about being cold and didn't work. I did get a series of photos of the view from my trench just before retreating inside it. 

I climbed into the trench and took off my "Big Red" parka and snow pants and changed into dry socks. This was by far the coldest part, and since my trench still wasn't very big, it was very cramped. Getting everything off and socks changed took a while, and this was the only point where I seriously questioned the life choices I had made up to that point. Once I got inside the sleeping bag and liner,  things warmed up considerably. I got myself situated, using my parka as a pillow, and was able to stay very warm, with the exception of the bits of my face that were out of the sleeping bag.

Throughout the night, I drifted in and out of sleep. I know I definitely fell asleep at some point, since I dreamed that it was time to wake up twice before it was actually true. I used my neckwarmer as a sleep mask, because it stayed bright. The "door" to my trench fell down at one point, and it snowed a little, but other than that, it was uneventful. I had enough space to roll over onto my side, but that was about it.

In the morning, I reluctantly got out of my warm sleeping bag and found my wind pants frozen solid. I slowly uncrumpled them and put them on over my thermals and fleece layer, hoping they'd thaw out quickly. My parka was also pretty well frozen, but I got that uncrumpled, fluffed out (the air in the down is what makes it insulating, we were reminded several times the day before) and, eventually, got my hand through both of the arms. I then had an oatmeal breakfast and we got to work taking down the camp.

In addition to taking down all the tents, all the trenches had to be filled back in. We piled snow back into all of the trenches (I think at least nine of us opted for the trench), filled in part of the kitchen and snow quarry, tore down the wall, and packed everything back into the storage container. Ben and Loomy stopped by at 8:30am to bring us back to the I-hut for more instruction.

In the morning, Loomy gave us a lecture on how to use both the local VHF (Very High Frequency) and long-range HF (high-frequency) radios. We then went outside, strung up the HF radio antennae, and attempted to contact the outside world. Our group got everything hooked up, but didn't get a response from McMurdo Operations. After about five minutes, Ben figured that they must just be busy and brought us back inside. Ben went through the contents of "survival bags", designed to keep two people alive for three days, and gave us some helpful tips if we ever needed to use them. 

At this point, we were split into two groups for scenarios. Sean and I were with Ben, while John E was out in Loomy's group. Inside, Ben explained the first scenario--a whiteout and a missing team member. This was when we got to try to walk outside with buckets on our heads, simulating whiteout conditions. Since basically you can't see anything but white, it's easy to get disoriented, and our team, which was trying to walk straight with a rope between us, ended up making a circle about 20 feet in diameter. We didn't even make it to the first flag, a mere 10 feet from the door, before we got off track. It was not our finest moment.

Then, we switched places with Loomy's group for the second scenario. This involved a "burning vehicle", where ten of us suddenly found ourselves out on the ice shelf with nothing but a survival bag and HF radio in under 20 minutes. We had to set up a shelter, boil water, build a snow wall to shelter the camp, and set up the HF radio and call for help. Sean and I got to work on the radio, and we were able to radio in for "help" from Ben. We then got to work helping the rest of the camp, including one member of our party showing (fake) signs of hypothermia and radioed back with an update on our condition as a group. This scenario we did very well on, and got everything but the snow wall done quickly.

We finished things out at the I-hut early, so we cleaned up and sat around for a while waiting for our ride back to town. Once the van for the instructors and the Delta for us got there, we piled in and headed back to town.

At this point, the weather was getting worse, with snow coming down and the wind blowing reducing visibility. The van Ben and Loomy went on an unmaintained portion of the road to get around some heavy equipment, and got stuck in the snow. Our Delta was a few minutes behind them, so we sat around (laughing a little bit at them, since everyone was fine) while their van broke two 5000-pound tow cables before finally getting dragged out of the snow. Ben hopped in the Delta with us and we took off back to town.
Back in the Science Support Center, we filled the food boxes up for the next Happy Camper School and watched a short video on helicopter safety (spoiler: stay away from the rotors). Once that was done, Happy Camper school was complete, and we were free to go take a hot shower.

After showering, I met up with the rest of the Super-TIGER crew for dinner, but then basically went straight to bed. I was exhausted from a fun but tiring two days of Happy Camper School and slept very well.


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