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19 November, 2003

Happy Campers?

Despite the fact that our Scott tent remained brightly lit throughout the night, Jackie, Amy, and I slept soundly after our long day of Snow Craft Class (a.k.a. “Happy Camper School”) yesterday. With three bodies and all of our gear in the tent, we were quite cozy and we wondered how our teammates who slept in the quincy and snow trenches fared. Redressing in the crisp morning air was made easier by the fact that I had tucked all of my inner layers (long underwear, fleece, socks, and hat and gloves) into my sleeping bag last night as well as my water bottles so I would have drinking water in the morning. Having tucked my bib-overalls and big red parka between my -55º sleeping bag and two sleeping pads, I was well insulated from the cold ground. My big FDX snow boots would have been miserably cold had I not slept with the quilted liners and insoles in the bottom of my bag. But with advance planning you can be warmly dressed in no time. After a quick hot breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate (Figure 1) we broke down camp and sledged gear, and in some cases people (Figure 2), back to the storage facility.

Now that we had shown that we could make it through the night outside we spent some time at the Instructors’ Hut debriefing about how each person slept and what people might do differently out in the field. We followed up this lecture with Radio School where we learned to use the VHF (very high frequency) handheld radios and the HF (high frequency) systems. The VHF radios are used for field camps that are within Helicopter range of McMurdo Station. HF radios are required for deep field camps where planes are used to drop equipment and personnel. HF radios have long antennas that allow you to transmit over greater distances by bouncing the signal off of the atmosphere and back down to a receiver. In this way, we were able to try to send a message to the South Pole Station which is approximately 1,000 km from where we were camping.

No class would be complete without a test at the end of each unit. To pass “Happy Camper School” we needed to demonstrate our proficiency at basic field survival skills. We were given two scenarios that required our group to assess a situation and implement the appropriate actions. Our first scenario involved locating a team member who had walked to the outhouse during a whiteout and failed to return. Our group was allotted 150 feet of climbing rope as a tool. Armed with our rope, but “handicapped” by large white buckets on our heads (Figure 3), we headed out in search of our lost person. The buckets were meant to simulate white out conditions by depriving us of two senses, sight and hearing. And they were effective! With your head inside the bucket you could only see the ground a few inches in front of your toes, which proved to be a bit dangerous at points as I walked square into the outhouse. In addition to the very realistic limitation on visibility, it was extremely difficult to hear your other team members, as it would be with wind blowing at 30 or 40 miles per hour.

Our team chose to place rescuers at 10 foot intervals along the rope and then walk out in a single file line in the direction we believed the bathroom to lie. From that point, we swept the ground in an arc leaving one man to be the pivot point at the door of the hut (Figure 4). We found Brian, our victim, with much difficulty on our second sweep of the camp prompting us to make a rule that from now on, any person using the bathroom in a white out must tie a rope to his ankle before leaving the hut to save us the trouble of a rescue! In reality, flagging the route to the outhouse in the event of bad weather is a sensible plan.

Our second scenario placed us out in the field as the weather was turning from condition 3 (clear skies and light winds) to condition 1 (severe weather, high winds). Our task was to set up a camp (erect the tent, build a wind block, set up the stove to boil a quart of water by melting snow, string the HF radio antenna and successfully place a test-call to McMurdo Station) all within 30 minutes. We were confident in our abilities and sure that we had more than sufficient time, until we discovered that one of our team members, Clive, had wandered off and laid down on the ground. Clive was hypothermic, a condition where his core body temperature was falling dangerously low and his mental state was impaired. He was acting irrationally, trying to take off his coat despite the fact that he was actually freezing. Susan, our FSTP instructor for this scenario had instructed Clive to unobstrusively wander to see if anyone was keeping an eye of the group’s physical well-being. For this scenario, Clive was in need of medical attention. He was ushered into a tent out of the wind and made as warm as possible. Snow was being melted for hot water which would have been important for Clive to drink as dehydration magnifies the affects of hypothermia. A call was placed to McMurdo Station informing them of our situation. All this was accomplished within the 30-minute deadline, but with a much smaller margin that we had expected. But we had passed the test and our victim was grateful for our efforts to “save” him.

Having passed “Happy Camper” school we earned ourselves another “Free Ride” back to McMurdo Station. Once again happily packed into the Delta we had an opportunity to see part of a Mass Casualty Training Exercise conducted by the McMurdo Fire Department. They were running a scenario in which a van had crashed along the road into town. Despite our newfound confidence with our survival skills we were happy to leave this scenario to the experts.

As much as we had enjoyed the “Happy Camper School” and wanted to spend another night in our great shelters and amazing snow kitchen, no one turned down a hot dinner and showers back at McMurdo. We should sleep well in our soft, warm beds tonight. We’re one step closer to getting out into the field, but tomorrow the “Feeding Frenzy” begins.

1. Figure 1 - A quick hot breakfast of oatmeal and hot cocoa hits the spot on a chilly Antarctic morning. --

2. Figure 2 - Sledging gear (and in this case a person) back from our campsite the next morning proved to be a great way to get moving and warm up. --

3. Figure 3 - A "Happy Camper" experiencing a simulated whiteout condition in which we had to search for a lost team member. --

4. Figure 4 - The sweep of the campsite in search of our lost team member proved difficult in our simulated whiteout conditions. --

5. Figure 5 - Leaving a pivot man at the door to the hut allowed the line to fan out across the campsite, as well as ensuring our safe return to the hut. --

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