World of Snowcraft

When I worked for the government, way back in the early Cretaceous, I occasionally got to boondoggle – as in, take a trip that wasn’t crucially necessary but just happened to be to a really exotic/interesting/posh spot.

During my time as a journalist, I didn’t get to do many press junkets because I worked at an unusually principled newspaper that would not allow us to except any trip/freebie/really, really cool swag that gave the appearance of influencing our coverage. I was proud of that, even though I had to pass up a lot of sweet opportunities. I did, however, all in the name of Advancing Serious Entertainment Journalism, get to do things like cover a Star Wars Convention (heaven!), try out a new spa (muddy!) and spend an hour in a hotel room with a contemplative and barefoot Viggo Mortensen (not the dreamy experience you might imagine, ladies… there was an unpleasant disagreement over whether I would eat the gummi bears he kept foisting upon me that, I believe, inspired the sauna fight scene in Eastern Promises).

Boondoggles in Antarctica are a bit different.

First of all, they’re called morale trips. The department where I work is the most station-bound of any here. I live and work in the same building and it is possible, at least theoretically, to spend your entire season here without ever going outside (if you can find someone to get your mail from the post office up the hill). I knew that going in, but it can still smart a little when you hear about people in other departments zipping about the Dry Valleys in helicopters, getting thisclose to penguins while driving to their worksite, etc.

So we get morale trips. There are a range, from spending the day dive-tending (helping the divers put on and take off their suits) to the coveted and rare Sleigh Rides (getting a free spot on a delivery plane to the South Pole, returning the same day). All of them are on a “space permitting” basis and many are last minute – learning, for example, that a helicopter delivering something to a field camp has room for one passenger. Because of the random nature of their availability, you’re not guaranteed a boondoggle, and if you’re offered one and turn it down, you might not get another chance.

Saturday evening when I got to work (I’m on the night shift now, 2100-0700 hours), I learned I’d been signed up for one of the most coveted boondoggles: Happy Camper.

Happy Camper, or Snowcraft I as it is officially known, is a two-day course in basic risk management and survival techniques, spent almost entirely outside on the ice shelf, including an overnight.

Yes, only in Antarctica would spending 36 hours in below-freezing temps, hacking your own emergency snow shelter out of the ice with a saw and shovel and then sleeping in it, be considered a morale-booster.

I loved it.

For starters, we had a good group of 20 people, a few others from my department as excited as I was to be boondoggling, a couple field camp support personnel, a bunch of geologists and a microbiologist, all headed to deep field camps. And yes, I harassed all the scientists with questions, but the beauty of having two disciplines represented was that I could badger the geologists and, once I’d worn out my welcome, interrogate the microbiologist, then go back to the geologists for more. There were also a couple filmmakers, including a woman from Michigan who had been part of the first all-women expedition to ski to the North Pole… because yeah, those are the kind of people you meet here.

Our instructors were also awesome, two rather tasty, laidback dudes who spend most of their time as guides for mountaineers and free skiers in Alaska (truly, truly crazy people). Neither one was one of those obnoxious macho mountain men types but you could tell they knew their stuff (sidenote: ever notice how the more knowledgeable and skilled a person is in survival techniques, the less likely he/she is to brag about it?).

It didn’t hurt that one of them, from the right angle, looked like Karl Urban.

We also completely lucked out on the weather… clear skies and the lightest of winds, with an overnight low of 1 degree (Fahrenheit).

But what I loved most about it was that it was useful. Yes, it was cool, it was exciting, it was ever so blog-worthy, but I also learned stuff, and I don’t just mean about the glacial lags the geologists are collecting from the Trans-Antarctic Mountains that will help them determine how landmasses where formed in the PreCambrian…

I mean I learned practical stuff, not just super-interesting-please-tell-me-more-Mr. PhD-Field Researcher stuff. Like how to saw building blocks out of snow. Turns out I’m pretty good at it. Something to add to the resume, right between “Ivy League grad” and “proficient in Russian.”

The course began in the classroom, learning to distinguish between hazard and risk and how to manage both. We were given a laminated card with a mathematical formula to figure out probability of death and such… not too practical in the field when death and such are staring you in the face and math becomes difficult, but a helpful way to organize your thoughts and plan the “what ifs” before you go into the wild.

Roald “Killjoy” Amundsen would approve.

There was a segment on how to recognize and treat cold weather issues such as frost bite, frost nip, hypothermia and chilblains, which always sounded to me like a scourge from another era, such as consumption or scurvy.

Karl Urban demonstrated simple techniques to restore circulation in your hands and fingers, even if one is, like me, plagued with Raynaud’s Syndrome (the body overreacts to cold and shuts down circulation to your extremities even with limited exposure, resulting in the delightful feeling that someone is stabbing the nail beds of your fingers with an ice pick… I try not to complain about it because I like being in the cold, painful as it is, but yeah, it bites). I tried the techniques when we were outside and had much less pain than usual.

I heart you, Karl.

(For those of you similarly afflicted, try bending at the waist so your hands are about calf-height, then swing your arms from shoulders back and forth in front of you for a couple minutes. This forces blood back into your fingers more efficiently and faster than the windmilling technique, which never worked for me… It also, if you have the same reaction I did, inexplicably makes you think of the old, old Looney Tunes short with the baby owl that rebels against his opera-loving German-accented owl parents to sing ragtime.)

We then piled into the Delta, a cumbersome, treaded vehicle that is the bastard of a personnel carrier and a tank, and headed out to the McMurdo Ice Shelf. The shelf is part of the (much) larger Ross Ice Shelf, and stretches along the base of Ross Island, in full view of both Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror, and the Terror Glacier (actual name), all of them looking mighty fine on a clear summer morning.

Mt. Erebus from our campsite (note steam rising from the fumaroles at its summit)

You know, it would be cool enough that I got to camp out in Antarctica, but doing it in the shadow of an active volcano with an open magma lake at the summit (one of three in the world!) is almost too much to bear. And the volcano next to it is called Mt. Terror. And between them is the Terror Glacier!

Mt. Terror (center) and Terror Glacier (left)

Excuse me, I need a moment. I just got overwhelmed by how awesome my life is. Camping between Mt. Doom and Mt. Terror… it makes me dizzy with elation.

We had more instruction in an old Jamesway (the polar version of a Quonset hut) and then dragged sleds loaded with our camp stuff to a stretch of undisturbed ice and snow. Here we learned to set up tents – the pointy Scott Tent made famous by, yes, Robert F. Scott, and a mountaineering tent that was very similar to the Kelty I own.

The start of our camp, including our "tool garden" (the safest way to store saws and shovels in snow)... the instructors got to use the snowmobiles. We walked.

We learned a couple basic knots and how to “deadman” (also called “T-trenching,” though, come on, “deadman” sounds so much cooler) the stakes and tie-outs to prevent the tent from blowing away in a strong wind. We also learned how to light a stove in the wind and, more importantly, how to troubleshoot if your stove does not light… the one used was different than the one I camp with, but the same principles applied.

Again, priceless information.

Our camp takes shape... Scott Tent at left

Then it was time to build an ice wall to protect our camp… sawing blocks of snow and stacking them like the world’s coldest Lego project at the right angle and distance to keep at least some wind off our tents. After I proved to be a miserable failure at hauling the blocks (I blame my T Rex arms), I got to try my hand at sawing and found, not for the first time, that I have a particular skill when handed an edged weapon tool.

Resume-builder, people, resume-builder.

Karl Urban demonstrates how to construct an ice wall

I slice ice nice... Mt. Erebus in the background

Our ice wall, completed

Next up: how to build an emergency snow shelter called a “snow trench” or, as I like to call it, “how to dig your own grave and enjoy it.”

More sawing! More shoveling!

Testing out the Ice Coffin before adding some homey final touches (like, uhm, a roof)

Tomb with a View... my snow shelter with yellow tarp and bamboo flag pole roof before getting covered with insulating snow; Mt. Erebus in background

After four hours or so I had a lovely Ice Coffin ready for my personal use. Then it was dinner time. We built a kitchen… no marble countertops or Viking appliances, though we did fashion a wind break. Water boiled and into single-serve pouches of dehydrated chili or pasta. A few hardy souls decided to go for a walk, but others headed to bed, me among them. It was around 9 pm by this time and I had been up for nearly 30 hours thanks to the schedule shift and my inability to nap.

So, trading in my wind pants for an extra layer of long underwear, I slid into my fleece bag liner and then my sleeping bag and slithered feet first into the Ice Coffin.

Wondering "now that I've built it, how the hell do I get into it?" and realizing "feet first is the only way."

I had tried to build a proper roof, but my trouble hauling ice blocks had left me with a bunch of irregular and too-short ice chunks rather than the orderly slabs I’d cut. The instructors had told us to “use all resources,” so I had improvised a roof from a tarp and several flagged poles laid out as supports, with snow piled on top of that. It worked, but it made the ceiling lower and there was a gap at the entrance of a couple inches. I filled my duffle bag with snow and, once inside the shelter, dragged it over the opening to block the cold air, as the instructor who was not Karl Urban had suggested.

Interior view of my luxury accomodations

This worked at first, but it was a tight fit in my Ice Coffin and, as I settled, so did the cold air. When I get tired I get particularly cold and I was particularly tired. There was also no room to do my newly-learned circulation-improving exercises. There was no room, in fact, to do anything except lay on my side with my Big Red parka over my head, not particularly comfortable and certainly not sleeping.

In hindsight, I should have spent more time widening the bottom of the trench, so that in cross-section it looked like a wine bottle and my hips and butt weren’t in contact with the snow walls, and digging a sink hole to trap the coldest air below me rather than on me. That would have been about two more hours of sawing and shoveling, quite frankly, and I wasn’t up for it.

I lasted four hours. Then, because Karl and the Dude who was not Karl kept making us drink water to stay hydrated, I had to pee. I got up and, wriggling out of the Ice Coffin, dumped a ton of loose snow into it. That was it. I decided I was too tired to be stubborn. After a trip to the most pleasant outhouse I’ve ever been in (no flies and no smell, thanks to the cold), I grabbed my gear and moved into one of the tents we’d put up earlier.

And slept like a baby for three hours.

I’m glad I dug my snow trench and learned how to do it (and, if there is a next time, how to do it better), but there comes a time when the need for sleep is more important than one’s pride.

(Sidenote: the scientists who’ve been to the field here and elsewhere a zillion times didn’t even make snow trenches. They spent the whole night in their tents, leaving their warmth only to watch us over-enthusiastic newbies digging and sawing and shoveling away, knowing smiles on their faces.)

Good morning... 0600 hours. Outhouse on far left, instruction buildings to its right

In the morning, we packed up everything and dragged it by sled back to the instruction area, then ran through a couple more classroom exercises and scenarios, including one that simulated finding your way in a whiteout by wearing a bucket on your head (it works… try it. Instant disorientation). We learned how to operate various radios, including the clunky old HF radios developed for use in World War I and still not outdated thanks to their reliability and simplicity.

Then, early afternoon, it was time to pack up and catch a Delta back into town. Back in the classroom, we learned how to buckle and unbuckle the various safety restraints we might encounter on a helicopter as well as helicopter etiquette in general (much like with a horse, approach from the front or side, not the rear. Never the rear. Stay away from the rear, okay?).

I’ll probably never need to put this knowledge into use, but, like most things I’ve learned over the years, it’s nice to have rattling around my brain, taking up space that could be occupied by things like my computer password and friends’ birthdates.

Then it was over. After a much-enjoyed shower, I was fast asleep in my dorm room bed. A twin bed with institutional-grade bedding never felt so good.

Thank you, Karl. Thank you equally cool Dude who was not Karl. From this moment forward, my camping will not be quite so half-assed and I will never again be plagued by invisible gremlins stabbing my fingers with ice picks.

In the dying words of The 13th Warrior‘s Helfdane: “Today was a good day. A good day!”

Castle Rock, as viewed from our campsite

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6 thoughts on “World of Snowcraft

  1. Another wild experience. After spending more years than I ever thought possible within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle, I am in awe of your willingness to get out there and get cold. I am of the most unwilling sort and will only return to the cold lands of this planet under extreme duress. After 18 months in southern Africa, I can tell you, even the thought of returning to the relatively mild Virginia winter causes a mild panic attack. Keep the ’em coming… this is the best blog ever!

  2. Wow. I think they came up with that morale booster trip just for you! How perfectly awesome! Clearly whoever signed you up for that knows you well and likes you!

    PS – I remember that owl cartoon, too!

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