In order to get on the best morale trips (helicopter flights, penguin colony visits, a trip to the Dry Valleys or the Penguin Ranch, fishing), you need to attend a couple training classes. One of those is Sea Ice School to learn if the sea ice is safe to travel on. Another one is Happy Camper school to teach you how to survive in an emergency. However, you are only allowed to take them if your job requires them. It is a shame because a lot of people get passed over for the best trips just because they aren't qualified. For example, dining assistants don't need them and often get sent to them as a morale trip so their next time out they can go somewhere cooler. I figured my job did not require those classes, but I asked my boss about getting into both of them this past Tuesday anyway. He found a way to make it work and just four days after I asked, I found myself signed up for Happy Camper school.
Happy Camper school is a two day class in the field. You leave at 9am and return at 4pm the following day. You travel with two instructors and twenty students. The instructors teach you the basics, help set up a basic camp, and then around 6pm leave the students for their own nice warm hut with a stove. We have radios in case we need to reach the instructors, but the main idea is that we learn to fend for ourselves. There are simply too many field sites and not enough time to train everyone properly so they are really trying to teach self reliance as well as the basics of outdoor survival.
After a short introduction in town to what we would be doing, we headed out to our field camp. There were two skidoos waiting for the instructors to haul our stuff. We had to walk the last half mile to their hut. I think this was to get us used to being outside and to show how much walking can do towards staying warm.
Once at the hut, we got to dig into our lunches - hummus-cheese sandwiches, quesadilla, chocolate chip cookies, granola bars, juicy juice, pretzels, crackers, and all types of hot drinks. The body spends a ton of energy keeping warm. At colder temperatures, it takes more energy to stay warm. Therefore, we were encouraged to as much as we wanted.
After our quick lesson in stoves, we were leaving the indoors for the final time in the next 24 hours. We have no way to warm up except whatever shelter we could put get put up and warm things we could cook. Some of us were really excited. Others were less so.
After our bathroom break, our instructors used skidoos to haul our gear to our camping site. We, once again, got to walk out. It warmed us up though so I can't really complain.
Dinner was interesting. We were each given a freeze dried meal to eat. We were warned to make sure that it sat with boiled water for ten minutes to rehydrate our meal. I did and by the end of the ten minutes my meal was already luke warm. The hot chocolate faired much better, but only because I got to drink it right away. After dinner, I went for a long walk, tossed the disc, and then headed in for the long, cold night.
I got settled into my sleeping bag pretty well. I had a nalgene full of hot water to help keep me warm through the night. I kept on everything but my outermost layer. It was definitely a bit cold changing, but once I was into my sleeping bag things warmed up pretty quickly. After my two quinzee mates came in, things got even hotter and I considered shedding another layer. I probably should have.
In the middle of night, I woke up and needed to go to the bathroom. This involved the major ordeal of getting dressed. The biggest problem is that anything not in your sleeping bag is now frozen solid. This includes my normally warm boots. Instead they put my feet into such a deep freeze that they didn't warm up until I showered the next afternoon. I had two sets or toe warmers that I tried using when in the morning, but neither one worked because they expired in 2002. I'm going to have a talk with my boss about giving those to me. No matter though. I made it home with all my toes. However, my ordeals weren't done.
When I got into my sleeping bag, the zipper broke. It had been unzipping all night which was irritating, but this time the area behind the zipper busted open. Without my outer sleeping bag closed up, it was very, very cold. I finally got the zipper fixed, but I had cooled off quite a bit.
When I sleep, I need fresh air. The problem with getting fresh air down here is that to let it in you also let in a cold that might cause frost bite. I spent a while trying to get it just right so that only my mouth was exposed while my head was under my jacket.
When it was time to wake up in the morning, I had no idea. People thought I slept in, but really my feet were so cold from the last time I put them in my boots that I didn't want to risk it again until everyone was awake. I had heard footfalls all morning (they carry through the snow), but it only sounded like a couple people. It turned out that it was everyone. The snow magnified the footballs, but quelled any voiced. It was kind of surreal. I tried to get a couple picture of inside the hut, but none really did it justice. Imagine, three men with sleeping pads being able to sleep far enough apart to not touch each other. We could have put two more as long as everyone was willing to snuggle.
Black Island and Mt. Discovery
Other odds and ends:
The instructors suggested that to avoid getting up to use the bathroom that everyone should have a pee bottle. I guess they are pretty standard issue for mountain trips and mandated on some Antarctica trips. (In the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, you can't even spit on the ground. It has to go into a human waste bottle.)
If your body is cold, it needs fuel to reheat itself. We were told to leave a Snickers bar in our pocket so that if we got cold we could eat it to heat back up. If you left it out it would be so cold, you would not be able to bite into it. Earlier in the day, I opened a regular chocoalte bar to eat. It had been in a warm spot so it came out edible enough by the last square, I could no longer bite through the chocolate without it sitting in my mouth for a while.
The morning was pretty quick. We got up, packed up camp, and then they came to get us on the skidoos. We headed back to the instructor hut and then went through a couple more scenarios. The first one included radioing to the South Pole with an HF radio. Then, we put buckets on our head to simulate an Antarctican storm. We then had to locate a lost team member and bring them back to base with only a rope. That was pretty interesting. The last one was simply a review of what to do in a jam - set up a tent, build a wall, radio HQ, and make some tea.
When we finally got back to base, we did another hour of training on helicopters. Neat stuff. I'm not sure I'll get to go on a helo ride, but I'm working at it. One kind of intersting thing was that when we got back, we found another group who was learning how to use stoves and set up a tent in the warmth of the building. I'm not sure why we did it in the field, but no matter. It made for a better experience.
When we got back, we heard from a number of people that they were worried about us. The weather they received on base was as bad as anyone had worked in since getting here. They couldn't believe that we had done Happy Camper school and survived so well, especially since the temperature dropped to -51 F with the windchill.
Mt. Erebus, an active volcano near our camping site. The white cloud from its top is steam.