Happy Camper School — Snow Survival Training — Day One

Happy Camper School – Snow Survival Training – Day One
Written by Betty Trummel

Forget everything I said about yesterday’s nice weather on Ob Hill. I walked to the post office this morning and immediately picked up the clues that the weather was going to change. Everyone kept saying that a storm was on its way, and snow flurries in the air along with lower visibility were my first indications that changes were on the way!At 8:15 this morning I reported in for the first day of “Happy Camper” snowcraft training. This 36-hour training is required of everyone going out of McMurdo to a testing/work site and for those going into a field camp. Though I’ve done this training on my two previous trips, I’d day today’s Happy Camper School truly gave me more of a real Antarctic experience. Come along while I explain some of the key points, activities, and adventures of this HAPPY Camper experience!

We started indoors, with two hours of orientation and information delivered by our instructors, Jen and Suz. What fantastic teachers they were…from start to finish. Jen hails from Washington State, where she has been a climbing instructor on Mt. Rainier and has guided many other groups in the Pacific Northwest. She has a college degree in snow hydrology and watershed science, with a focus on snow. Antarctica is the perfect place for her to be! She also goes out on the teams that assess the ice and snow in the McMurdo Sound region. Everyone on the teaching staff at the Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) is well prepared for search and rescue as well as having some sort of wilderness first responder or paramedic background.

The second instructor, Suz, has spent 9 seasons on the ice. This is the 8th season with the U.S. Antarctic Program. She spent one year guiding for a private company, spending her season on Mt. Vinson which is the highest peak on the continent of Antarctica. Her other experience has been with FSTP. She has a college degree in biology and environmental studies and is also a naturalist/outdoor educator. She’s worked with Outward Bound and NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and been doing technical guiding since the late 1990’s. She’s got heaps of experience in backcountry skiing and mountaineering. With Jen and Suz leading us, I knew we were in good hands!

Some of the first topics we covered were risk assessment and management. Not only is this important in everyday life situations, but it becomes even more critical to assess and manage risks in an extreme environment such as what you find here in Antarctica. There are some objective hazards such as weather, crevasses, glacial risks, sea ice, and the sun. Subjective hazards (those more under our direct control) would include: lack of training, dehydration, hunger and fatigue, poor communication, poor self-awareness, poor situational awareness, and having too much of an ego (thinking a lot of yourself and your abilities). These human factors can lead to many issues and dangers in an extreme environment, so it is important to talk about how to mitigate the risks and work together as a team to be safe at all times.

Knowing that there are risks and working hard to identify them BEFORE an accident or issue arises is critical to safety. We talked a lot about the probability of risks and the consequences of those risks. Jen and Suz had us take part in a risk assessment exercise where we had to evaluate a situation and determine what could have been done to be more safe. It was a good way to begin to process the information they gave us…to apply it to a real-life situation that could happen here on the ice. In our scenario, the people involved were not prepared, did a poor job communicating, and also did not watch the weather changes to make the necessary adjustments in their schedule or plans. All of these things could save someone’s life.

We learned about cold weather injuries and illness. Managing our comfort and warmth are fundamentals for prevention. Basically the guidelines in cold weather environments: WEAR a lot, EAT a lot, DRINK a lot, and MOVE a lot. Being aware of the two basic body parts, core (center part with your vital organs) and extremities (legs, feet/toes, arms, hands/fingers) is important. We reviewed the basic signs and treatments for hypothermia, which is the lowering of the body’s core temperature. Noticing mild signs such as fine motor shivering, personality changes, loss of fine motor control, and someone having the “umbles” (mumbles, fumbles, stumbles, or grumbles) is the first step to recognizing that a person on your team might be suffering from hypothermia. If left unwatched or untreated, a severe case of hypothermia would lead to a fragile condition where the person might appear dea, have a very slow or weak pulse, have a blue/cold appearance, be unresponsive, and can even lead to cardiac arrest.

For the mild case (and can be applied to even stronger cases) of hypothermia, you need to change the environment of the person involved. Get out of the wind, get dry clothing and provide insulation. Hydrate (provide liquids for the body) with hot drinks. Eat things high in sugar or carbs. Exercise and move around…..get up and get MOVING! Providing external heat sources and aggressively re-warm that person or yourself if you feel too cold. In summary, we were reminded to KNOW your environment and BE PREPARED! Jen and Suz could not stress that enough.

Finally, we were getting outside and on our way from McMurdo to the ice shelf where we’d be getting more information and spending the night. A Delta (giant transport vehicle that holds about 20 people and gear) picked us up at FSTP and transported us to the ice shelf. Notice the blue sky in this photo? Well, that was really going to change in the next few hours! Around here they say that if you can see weather developing or storm clouds coming from the south by Black and White Islands, then you have a couple of hours before weather really changes in McMurdo. Most of the storms come from the south. What you’re not seeing in this photo is that the sky to the south didn’t look so blue and sunny…something was on its way!



Our first stop in the field was the instructor’s hut (called I Hut) where we did a few more training exercises, including how to light a one-burner camp stove. We’d need this knowledge later on this evening and tomorrow morning if we were to get anything to eat or hot drinks.


Our orange duffle bags were only part of our “gear” for this camp-out. We also grabbed gear bags and filled them with 2 thermal sleeping pads, a sleeping bag rated for low temperatures, and a “cozy” which basically was a fleece sleeping bag liner. The sleep kits were loaded onto a large sled hauled by our instructors riding on a snow machine. We schlepped our orange duffles and walked the rest of the way to our “campsite” near the outhouses.

Suz talked with us about our overall plan of action, which included what was to be built and how we’d go about setting up our camp for the night. Notice…sky is still blue!


Putting up the Scott tents (named after explorer Robert Scott) was the first set-up task. We were to have two Scott tents in our camp tonight. Each tent had to be anchored by burying bamboo poles attached to our guidelines coming from the tent. These bamboo poles had to be perpendicular to the the guidelines to provide maximum strength.


Next task, learning to saw out snow blocks to be used in the construction of a wall to block the wind in our camp. This wall would be critical for the smaller expedition tents, which are very flimsy compared to the heavy canvas of the Scott tent. It’s relatively easy to cut these snow blocks, and we made a sort of assembly line to cut, lift out and transport the blocks to the wall-building site.



It was not easy hauling a full sled of snow blocks and often someone had to push the sled from the back to get us going. I’m getting some help from another Happy Camper in the photo below. Notice the sky now…? It’s really cloudy and visibility is getting worse. It also began snowing while we were working. Since we were active, it didn’t feel that cold. Keep the body moving and you stay warmer!



Here is the wall-building process in action!

Dave Monk (on the left in the photo below), my fellow education outreach colleague was at Happy Camper School with me! He’s shown here placing and leveling blocks for the wall. This structure had to be built 4 rows of blocks high, to sufficiently block the wind at our camp.



Behind the wall of snow blocks, we set up 6 expedition tents. I helped with that task a lot as well, since I have a lot of experience setting up tents and camping. It’s a LOT harder to do this while your hands are in gloves/mittens, and many times we had to quickly take off our mittens to tie a knot or secure a tent pole. Again, all guidelines needed to be secured with a bamboo pole buried under the snow. These tents could blow away very easily if not secured.



One of the last things Jen and Suz showed us how to do was dig a trench to sleep in. I want to point out that the trench is marked with flags so no one will fall in it accidentally. Our visibility was quite poor by this point and the light was “flat” which means that we could not pick up the definition in the snow. Everything looked flat and equal, although there were many bumps, hills, drifts, and ripples in the snow. It was easy to fall over in the snow because we’d trip on those bumps along the way.


Once we got the main structures up and everyone had tasks to do, members of our group started the stoves to heat water for hot drinks and dinner. This was no easy job, because winds had really kicked up. While the people in the “kitchen” were busy, we all helped set up tents, make snow blocks, and set up camp. It was about 7:30 in the evening by the time hot drinks were even a possibility. But, we had stopped several times throughout the afternoon to re-fuel with granola, nuts, chocolate, sandwiches, and water from our own bottles.



Not a very appetizing meal, but I tried the mushroom pilaf. It was not fully re–hydrated and only luke warm, so VERY unappealing indeed.



Here is a closer look….not so yummy if you ask me!



We were getting frosty from our hours and hours of being outdoors working! I still wasn’t very cold though, because we had kept moving all afternoon and throughout the early evening.



One job I took on was to flag the route from our camp (seen below) to the outhouses. We had both a men’s and women’s outhouse. Although it doesn’t sound that important to flag a route, it was actually VERY important later on as our weather deteriorated and visibility went down to almost nothing at times.



Our deluxe bathroom facilities! Outside…..(notice the large drifts around the outhouse…it was a challenge just getting down to the outhouse!)



And, the inside….


Husmann students…I braved the cold and wind for this photo!!!! I think I am starting to look really cold about now!



Look at this line-up of Happy Campers behind our snow block wall…trying to get out of the wind. We were in “Condition 2” and if you forget what that is, go back to my previous blogs for more information. Our winds were at 51 mph during this time and overnight, and our temps were 15 degrees F (0.4 with wind chill). Visibility at this point was extremely limited.



Just sitting around for a few minutes could result in a later of snow accumulating on our parkas, snowpants, and boots as seen in the two photos below.




At about 11:00 pm we got into our Scott tent. Dave, Irina (a Russian scientist observing the WISSARD Project) and I shared a Scott tent for the night. With all of our gear and bags it was pretty crowded.



This was my view for most of the night (since I didn’t sleep much). I’ll tell you more about the night in the tent in my next blog entry. For now, I want to sign off and head to lunch here in McMurdo…out of the wind and elements. Stay tuned for part two of Happy Camper School. I’ll post it later today.


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