Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Camper Survival Training

I just got back from the 'Happy Camper' ice survival training course where we spent two days out on the ice learning the tricks to surviving in style. I made a rough calorie estimate for yesterday and I'm ballparking anywhere between 6000-7500 calories consumed during the day.

The course started with the 20 of us 'happy campers' in a classroom, reviewing the finer points of risk assessment and McMurdo emergency protocols. After that, we loaded up our (Extreme Cold Weather gear)++ and headed to the Delta, an absurd looking vehicle designed with absurdly large and low pressure tires for driving people over snow. They gave everyone five minutes to gather extra equipment that they might have forgotten, and everyone thought it was hilarious that I came back with an ice cream cone from the 'frosty boy' dispenser. I'm up to five or six ice cream cones a day, there must be something addictive that they add to the sugary slop that goes into the soft-serve. I've even gone so far as prepping for a hike up observation hill in -10 degree temperatures by bringing along some ice cream.

Heading out to the ice on the Delta

Everyone loaded into the Delta with ECW gear on.

We drove for about 30 minutes away from McMurdo, through the Scott base (the New Zealand Antarctic Base), and arrived at our field camp, a Jamesway shelter set up on the sea ice. In the shelter, they brought out the first of what would be several absurdly large meals. They fed us sandwiches that easily had a full pound of turkey, or about two full inches of meat, along with bacon and cheese. On top of that, we had liberal amounts of fig newtons, chips, cookies, M&Ms, ritz, and plenty of chocolate. After some basic training on how to use camp stoves, we headed back out to the ice to set up camp for the night.

We hiked about half a mile and picked up gear, including some huge tents, and lots of shovels and wood saws to build up camp. I'd been through most of this training before, so what I was really looking forward to was building things out of snow. I got really excited when it came time to start quarrying snow blocks and building wind walls. We set up a professional quarrying operation, using rope as a snap line to mark out cutting lines in the snow, and had a number of people shuttling overfilled sleds full of 80 lb snow blocks between the quarry and camp. Everyone else was satisfied by building a basic wind protection wall, but Kris and I spent another few hours building a coliseum eating area complete with benches and tables.

Our instructor Bryan showing us the finer points of sawing snow into blocks.

We're about one week away from the point at which the sun no longer goes down. Right now, since the sun approaches the horizon at such a low angle, we're treated to HOURS of the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.

The sunset with the wind turbines that power Scott base and a portion of McMurdo. These were installed last year, and I believe more are scheduled for installation soon. All of the other power is supplied by diesel generator, which is why McMurdo has so many ugly 2M gallon diesel tanks (see below).

All of my construction came at the expense of spending time building a survival trench in which to spend the night. Many of the other members of the group were working on building themselves small snow caves instead of spending the night in a tent. Somewhere around 11:30, I decided that it would be fun to spend the night out, and decided to sleep in the non shelter that I'd been building. Our sleep kits included two sleeping pads, a ridiculously lofty sleeping bag, and a fleece bag liner. There wasn't any wind or snow, so the conditions were perfect for sleeping out. It took a while to get perfectly situated, but it was really warm and comfortable when I finally went to sleep. I woke up sometime in the early hours and the wind had started blowing from the exact opposite direction we were expecting, and directly through the only opening in the circular structure I was using as shelter. Despite this with something like eight layers on, I was still pretty warm and able to get some sleep. I found out later in the morning that the temperature had gone down to -21F.

In the morning, we packed up camp and headed back to the shelter to run some practice emergency scenarios. In the first, we had to wear 'whiteout buckets' over our heads to simulate trying to execute a missing person search in whiteout conditions. All we had to do was to get from the shelter to the latrine 100' away to find someone, and the route was marked every 10' with bamboo flags. Stephen and I headed out on the end of a rope, and thought were were doing an excellent job of routefinding towards the latrine. The instructors stopped us after about four minutes, and when we pulled the buckets off of our heads, we were on the wrong side of the shelter moving in the opposite direction after accidentally pulling a 180 and following the wrong line of flags. It was extremely disorienting and a bizarre shock to my senses to pull off the bucket and be so far from where I thought we were.

After that, we had some ham radio training using old korean war hardware, and ran a medical emergency scenario. This was a great reminder that my medical skills have fallen off significantly after not ski patrolling for several years.

Radio training inside the Jamesway shelter.

Tomorrow I'll get back to Yeti. We're working on diagnosing some bizarre behavior in the code and I've been slamming my head against a wall and hoping for a breakthrough soon. It's certainly not dire and we have a number of days to make everything work, but I'd really like to get everything working perfectly so we can get some real science done with the radar.

The whole album of photos is up on Picasaweb here:

Antarctica 2010 - Yeti Robot


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