Happy Camper!

I just wanted to start off with a few fun facts about McMurdo Research Station. McMurdo is located on the Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island at 77 degrees, 51 min S 16 degree 40 min E. It is actually built on volcanic rock nearby the active volcano, Mount Erebus. According to the McMurdo station website, the peninsula where the station is located is the ground furthest south accessible by ship.

I arrived back to McMurdo yesterday afternoon from several busy days at Snow School. It was a blast – 2 days of survival training and 1 night sleeping out on the ice! We had beautiful weather, or rather as nice of weather as you can get in Antarctica. It was around the twenties (degrees F) when we left the station, with clear skies and gusty winds (temp with wind chill = 3 deg F). The winds died down at night, but the temperature dropped to about 1 deg F.

The camp started with lectures about risk management and proper layering for life on the ice. Then we were driven out past the station to the McMurdo Ice shelf. For those of you who are not familiar with the terminology, the ice shelf is region of the glacier that flows down and spreads out, whereas the sea ice is1 formed when the ocean surface freezes. The airstrip of McMurdo is currently out where the ice shelf meets the sea ice. Later in the season, we will apparently see water there. One of my labmates told me that our flights back home will actually be from another airstrip located further in on the ice shelf.

A view of Scott Base (which is the New Zealand research base) from the Happy Camper campsite.

All of our luggage and gear piled high to survive a night on the ice.

Once in the field we learned about setting up camp stoves, building snow walls to prevent wind/storm damage to tents, setting up tents, and my favorite part of the camp was digging snow trenches! It was awesome! We dug out these trenches in the snow and then cut out blocks to make a roof. I actually spent the night in my snow trench ;-). Some people got really elaborate with their trench design, but I was so tired after just digging it out I lost steam on making it pretty.

We set up enough tents to keep me happy for awhile. There were 2 Scott tents (which are the pyramid-shaped tents made out of a heavy canvas material; they were super heavy but really warm and apparently can even be used as a cook tent in a pinch) and 7 mountain tents (which are the lightweight backpacking tents). I have never actually set up a tent on the surface of a glacier. The snowpack is fairly dense, so you can wrap the guy lines around a short stick (we used small bamboo poles) and then bury the stick, allowing us to use a trucker's hitch on the ropes to tighten them up!

Our beautiful snow retaining wall that gaurded our tents from unexpected storms that could blow in during the night.

Four of our 7 mountain tents we erected for the night.

Josh stuck in the entrance to his snow trench ... He got a little carried away with closing it off.

Home sweet home!

Snug as a bug in a rug in my snow trench

This was taken from inside an awesome igloo that Cheryl (another happy camper) and I found on our walk during the evening. It was a remnant from a previous Happy Camper camp, but had frozen solid so it was still standing strong!

Ready for bed inside the snow trench ;-)

The lessons continued on day 2. We awoke at 6 am to break down the camp so that everything was completely packed and ready to go for our 8:30 "pick-up," when our stuff was wisked away to the instructor's hut which was only about a 1/4 mile away (we walked ;-). That morning we learned about radios and used a really old school HF radio to contact both McMurdo and the station at the South Pole! Camp ended with us acting out a couple of "practice scenarios." One of them was essentially that we needed to use the survival bag to establish camp and radio the station during horrible weather. It was essentially rushing about doing everything we had learned the previous day: set up the tent, build a snow wall, set up the HR radio, get the stove going, make some water (I thought I was done with putting up tents!). The other was a bit more fun. The scenario was that we were in a massive blizzard and visibility was essentially zero. One of the group ventured out to the bathroom, but didn't make it back. We had to safely conduct a search for the lost group member. In order to simulate blizzard conditions, every time we stepped outside we had to have a white bucket placed over our heads! It was pretty amusing, but really interesting to brainstorm with the group how to go about the search without placing anyone else in danger. Overall, I had a blast at snow school. Although most of the things I learned won't be useful at our actual field camping site (which is located in the Dry Valleys where there is no snow on the ground), it was really interesting information to learn and a lot of fun to practice!

Posted on November 21, 2010 .