5 December, 2001
I'm sorry I haven't written for the past few days. I've been out in the field on our "shakedown". This gives us the opportunity to test out our gear (and ourselves) before we actually go out in the field for a longer length of time. Normally, people who come to Antarctica must attend "snow school" or what they call here, "happy camper school". This, too, involves an overnight stay in a tent or igloo.
Apparently, I'm not part of a "normal" team of Antarctic scientists. Instead, we were taken on our own private two-day "shakedown" with two field guides and two safety officers (just like the ski patrol we have at ski resorts). This was not "happy camper school" where they build igloos, pitch a tent, and sleep overnight. I think it's going to be very hard for some of you to believe what I have done in the last two days. Hopefully, I'll be able to load pictures soon, and prove it to you.
Prior to our "shakedown" we had to pack provisions for 6 weeks out in the field. That involved trying to figure out how much each team of two would need for 42 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. It took us a couple of hours to pack up just the dry goods. It included 160 packages of hot chocolate, 200 chocolate bars, 300 juice boxes, 42 packets of oatmeal (for my breakfasts), 42+ packets of tomato soup (for my tent mate, Nancy's, breakfasts), 20 packets of dry milk, 30 rice and pasta packets, boxes of potato flakes, 24 steaks, 5 pounds of hamburger, 5 pounds of sausage, 4 pounds of cheese and cold cuts, 3 dozen flour tortillas, 12 packets of "dehy" dinners (dehydrated
dinners-in-a-bag), and much more.
Once the food list is returned to us, I'll share it with you, but as you can see, most of the food is dehydrated. The food can be stored for a long time, and it is much lighter to transport. It's very similar to back-packing food you can buy at the sport shops, but a lot of it (like Oreos, Fig Newtons, salt, pepper, Cadbury bars, etc.) is the same kind you can buy at the local market. The total weight of food for the 8 team members must have been close to 1,200 pounds!
For our shakedown, we were asked to pack one separate box containing enough food for two breakfasts, 2 lunches and 2 dinners. We were also given "sleep kits" containing a sleeping bag, two foam pads, 1 therma-rest pad, a sleeping bag liner, and a folding seat (no legs). Each team of two was also assigned a cook box (containing pots and pans, cooking and eating utensils, paper towels, zip-lock
bags, dish soap, and rolls of toilet paper. (More about that later!) In addition, we received 3 little stoves (which use white gas), a fire extinguisher, matches, and a type of fire starter.
Early Tuesday morning we met at the BFC (Byrd Field Center) wearing our entire set of ECW (extreme cold weather) gear (long underwear, fleece layer, wind bib, field parka, neck gator, goggles, cap, gloves, thermal socks, and bunny boots). I felt like the Pillsbury doughboy! We also had to carry a spare bag containing a spare pair of long underwear, gloves, socks, hat, and jacket . . . just in case. We also were able to take a few personal arcticles including sunscreen, lip balm, cameras, journals, etc. But whatever extra we chose to take, we had to carry. Imagine carrying a heavy bag dressed as the Pillsbury doughboy!
The morning was exciting. We loaded our gear onto long plastic snow sleds, and attached them to our skidoos (snowmobiles). We each had our own snowmobile, and we were given our first snowmobile-driving lesson as we snowmobiled about 15 miles out into the field. We passed "happy camper school" and the remains of their igloos and continued up into the hills where we learned how to lean our
bodies uphill while traversing across the hill so that we don't tip over, and how to use the brake when you start moving too fast going downhill. We were also told how to identify possible crevasse areas, and basically, how to safely traverse an icy area. Yep, I was scared, but this was nothing compared to what was to come.
Riding on a skidoo through Antarctic landscape is unreal. It truly is out of a dream or picture book. The area is beautiful! When you think you've seen something amazing (like blue ice hills), you see something more amazing (like Mt. Erebus with its plumes), then far off in the distance is another set of mountains, even more amazing than the ones you've just passed. It just didn't seem "real". I named my skidoo "Charlie", and we did fairly well after the initial fear except when we were back-ended by a zealous driver when my engine died. All is well, just sore.
Once we reached our campsite, about 10 miles from the base of Mt. Erebus, we pitched our tents, had a snack of granola bars and chocolate, and set off for "field school". This involved snowmobiling to another beautiful site where we learned to use the knots we had learned the day before. We were outfitted with harnesses, crampons, carabiners, prusiks, and a snow ax. We were told we were going to practice traversing through an ice field and would continue tomorrow with how to save a person who has fallen into a crevasse. At this time, I was getting a little worried. (As most of you know, this is my very first "camping" experience.)
Our wonderful field guides, John and Jamie, led us a mile or so downhill to what turned out to be a *real* crevasse field. We were taught how to walk harnessed to each other, and how to check for crevasses while we were walking. We actually came across two crevasses! The first, was very wide (2-3 feet). As I poked my ice ax through the snow, it went completely through, and only served to make the "crack" wider. I really thought we'd go around it. But crevasses are also very long "cracks" in the ice. They actually can go on for miles. We had to jump it! Although I was tethered to two other people, it was still very frightening. I really didn't want to jump holding my ice ax, but I was told I had to have it (in case I fell I could use it as an anchor to stop my fall). I decided to count to three and jump/fall to the other side. Thankfully, I made it.
We continued on and found another crevasse (not as wide) and jumped over that one easily. Needless, to say, I made sure to only step in the leader's footprints. I did not want to discover a crevasse the "hard way". We came to our final destination at the top of a hill where our field guide, John, decided to throw an emergency situation at us. He simulated falling into a crevasse, and we had to determine how to save him. After scrambling for a few minutes (and getting "hints" from our second guide, Jamie), we were able to assemble a pulley system, and we pulled John out about 30 minutes after he fell. In a real situation, I don't think we would have been in time.
With the simulation over, it was time to head back. Remember how I told you we had traversed a mile or so "downhill"? Well, it was now time to traverse back "uphill". Imagine the Pillsbury doughboy trying to walk uphill in 10 pound bunny boots through foot deep snow that at times covered crevasses that he had to jump? That's how I felt. I didn't think I would make it. Fortunately, I did. It seemed to take "forever", but we were once more back on our snowmobiles and headed back to camp in time for an 8pm dinner break.
Day #2 . . . in my next journal entry.
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