I just got back from Snow Craft school, which was a requirement for my winter stay. In the school, they teach us how to use the survival gear issued to us. Whenever we travel out of town, on a plane, helicopter, or vehicle, we take along a bag of gear to survive. The bag contains tents, clothes, and food. We also carry our ECW gear, which stands for extreme cold weather.
Friday morning January 26, at 9 AM, we loaded into two vehicles. One was about the size of a small van, with a trailer about the same size. It is called a Hagland, and runs on treads like a bulldozer. It does not hold many people, but is a fairly fast way to travel on rough ground. The other vehicle is a Nodwell, which is much larger. It also has treads, and holds about 20 people in a big box in the back.
The weather that morning was very beautiful, with blue skies and temperatures in the 30's. We traveled down the road past Scott Base, and onto the ice shelf. We traveled for a mile or so on the road to Willy Field, the cut off on another road to Silver City. Silver City is just a box building with a heater, that can be used in cases of emergency. Also in the winter, people can go to Silver City for the night. They say the stars and Aurora Austrailius are beautiful from there. Silver City also has a little building with a crescent moon on the door. For those too young to have ever seen one of these, this is the bathroom.
We parked the vehicles near Silver City, and got some training on using ice axes. They are tools used by mountain climbers and people that have to walk on glaciers. They have a head like a pick, and the end of the handle has a point, so it can be used like a walking stick.
We climbed up the face of a glacier about 100 feet. The walk was very steep, and we walked two steps at a time. We would plant the ice ax, then move our downhill foot and kick it into the snow, then move our uphill foot in the same manner. Sometimes the snow would be so hard, that we would have to take the blade end of the ax, and chop a step for our next step. We would walk across the hill, not straight up. This meant that we would have to turn occasionally and walk the other way. I made it up to the instructor in one try, but one person in the class took three tries. She would almost get to where we were, then slip and slide all the way to the bottom.
When we got to the instructor, he had us sit on the edge of a steep part, and he showed us how to use the ax to stop ourselves if we start to slide. We then would slide down, and stop ourselves, and climb back up. The nylon coveralls I had on were very slick on the snow. Everyone else had to push a little to get going, but I slid too easily. We then tried to slide all the way down using the ice ax to control out slide. I did alright until my butt hit a bump, and the ice ax came out of the snow. I really started going then, and had to roll over and dig in to stop.
We loaded back into the Hagland and Nodwell, and went to Snow Mound City. This is where the main part of the training is held. We first ate lunch that we carried with us. We had sandwiches, cold pizza, juice, and Yoohoo. One thing I have come to get used to is the freshness of some of the food. The bulk of the food is brought into McMurdo by boat. The purchasing and packing for the boat start well in advance of the boat delivery. This means that many times the "Best if Used by" date on the food has expired before delivery. The date on the Yoohoo was August 1994. I drank the apple juice because I could not find a date on the can.
We then started setting up camp. We set up two Scott tents, that are the same design that Robert Scott used on his pole expedition. The tent is pyramid shaped, and is about 7 feet on a side, and about 7 feet tall. It almost looks like a square teepee. The tents do not have a floor, so we put a tarp inside. We piled snow on the skirt around the edge of the tent to keep the wind out.
We piled all our duffle bags containing out sleeping bags and pads, and cover the pile with a tarp. Snow was then shoveled onto the pile, until it created a mound of snow. We then dug out the bags and created an igloo. It was quite large, big enough to sleep about 4 people. It was almost tall enough to stand in the center.
The snow on the ice shelf has been accumulating for many years. The snow is like coarse ice pellets that are stuck together. We used saws to cut blocks of snow, that we used to build walls to keep the wind away from the smaller nylon tents. We also made a pit with walls to get out of the wind for cooking and sitting. One person in the group spent many hours cutting blocks and building a more conventional igloo, that he planned on using to sleep the night.
About 5 PM when we were getting hungry, the mountains on the horizon started to disappear. We knew that a Herbie was headed our way. The bad storms that come over Black Island, or Herbie Alley, are called Herbies. I have asked many people, and nobody has been able to tell me from where the name came. Soon the visibility got down to about 1 mile, and things got very weird. We could no longer see the sun, but it was very bright. Everything was the same tone of light grey. There was no horizon, the sky was the same color as the ground. The holes we had dug in the snow, now became dangerous because the shadows and contrast were gone. I took my sunglasses off to see if I could see better, but it was still much too bright. Our instructors had told us that is common to go snow blind in that type of weather, because people will remove their glasses to try to see better.
We started supper, but the wind started howling, and the snow started flying. We moved the cook stoves into a pit, and piled snow blocks up to shield the stove from the wind. The visibility got worse, and the instructor hut about one quarter mile away disappeared. The instructors had already left for the night, but had flagged a route to their hut.
Supper consisted of dehydrated meals in bags. We melted snow and brought it to a boil. We then poured the water in the bags, to let it hydrate. It did not take long that realize, that the bags would freeze before the food absorbed the water, so we put them in a pot of boiling water to keep them warm. As I was mixing my meal, I realized that the temperature was dropping and my gloves were a little wet. I laid them down for only a few minutes, and when I picked them up they were as hard as a rock. I decided to get another pair of gloves out of my bag. As we ate, the weather kept getting colder, the wind stronger, and the visibility much worse.
After supper, which seemed forever to get ready, I got ready for bed by changing all my clothes, and putting dry mukluk liners inside my sleeping bag. The bags were very warm, but it was hard to sleep. The wind kept moving the tent, and making noise, and of course the sun never goes down, so I could not turn the light out.
I woke up several times during the night, and decided to get out of the tent about 5 AM and fix some coffee. Although the mukluk liners were in my sleeping bag, I learned I must put the outer shells in the form I want them, as I found them frozen hard as a rock. I went to the pit where we set the stove, but it was drifted over. I dug out the stove and got it started. The water left in the pots was a solid block of ice, so it took a while to thaw.
Soon another person in the group got up and helped me get things ready. The temperature was now down to about 20 degrees, and the wind was about 25 miles per hour and gusting. The snow was so thick that we could only see the first flag on the route to the hut, so visibility was about 50 feet. By the time we got the water boiling, my beard was covered with ice from the blowing snow, and my breath freezing on my face. Two of us worked together to try to get the instant coffee into the cups. We found that the wind would blow the Folger's Crystals out of the cup as fast as we poured the in. We finally figured out that putting some water in the cup first would weight the crystals down a bit. Ahhhh, the first cup of coffee, but before it was half consumed, the coffee was cold, and the outside of the cup was covered with ice from the blowing snow.
At 9 AM we went to the instructor hut for more training. First we discussed everything we did correctly or wrong, then received training on the radios. We went outside and set up field radios and talked with the station at the south pole. The weather cleared up some, enough to see the horizon again.
After lunch, we went down to near Silver City for an optional trip up a glacier, where they would lower us into a crevasse. A crevasse is where the ice is separated into a v shape, and can extend down hundreds of feet. Glaciers are always slowly moving, and the ice will push up in pressure ridges when it is pushed, and crack into crevasses when it is pulled. I did not climb up to the crevasse, as it was optional, and I sometimes have trouble walking and climbing due to an old injury. The others put on harnesses, and tied ropes to each other, so that if someone fell into a crevasse, everyone else would fall to the ground and dig in their ice axes. At about 5 PM I arrived back in McMurdo, tired and sun burnt.
Having fun at the bottom of the world,
David Hess NK3T