As scientists, it’s easy to neglect personal safety in favor of the pursuit of exciting data. Should I hike without a survival kit to cut down on weight to extend my sampling area for the day? Should I traverse that crevasse to get a core even though I could plummet to my doom? Some would say that these are selfless acts to be commended, ones that put the drive for knowledge above personal worth. I completely disagree, and my time so far in Antarctica has taught me the same: you can’t conduct good science if you’re dead.
As such, the first order of arriving in Antarctica BEFORE I could even spend a day to settle into my room or work in the lab involved an outdoor safety course that covered cold-weather and remote field site safety. We learned about the 3 stages of hypothermia and saw some unattractive photos of frostbitten appendages. After a lecture and case study on risk mitigation (risk is calculated by taking probability x consequence, and apparently it has an exponential relationship), we traveled out a mile or so onto the McMurdo Ice shelf, which is 80 or so meters thick. There are different hazards associated with every site in Antarctica, but wind and cold are always concerns. We were taught to set up camp in efficient ways, building the great wall of ice (equally impressive as the one in China, in my opinion. It certainly took a lot of work to construct!) to shield our tents from the wind and setting up tents. We learned to bury a “dead man” stake under the ice and secure it with a trucker’s hitch knot to help the wind fly stay down, which supplies nearly all the stability for a tent given a rough wind storm. We were lucky enough that our days at camp were beautiful “condition 3” weather (a condition 1 is the worst, with gusts up to 60 mph and very few feet of visibility). Since our training essentially brought 15 strangers into the wild Antarctic with no real previous training, our instructors told us we needed to bond if we wanted to work well as a team to survive the night (that sounds more intense that it actually was, but again we were lucky the weather was beautiful). As an ex-resident advisor, I immediately thought we would do ice breakers (no pun intended) so we could learn about each other. Literally, we did break the ice while building survival trenches and our wall to keep out the wind, making friendships in the process. We needed to build a kitchen so that we could handle the stoves and shield them from wind or snow – and we had all of this ice around us for miles, and tons of shovels and saws. How could you not be so psyched to create whatever icy things you wanted? It felt like the biggest playground I’ve ever been in, but it also is a very extreme environment, not to be taken lightly. There are so many raw materials and we just needed to apply our creativity to build structures for survival. It was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had because it brought me back to my childhood. Anything we wanted to build, we could! We played make believe only it was pretty real. We carved out our kitchen and made armchairs and beds and stairs etc. One of the other campers and I took care of the stoves, and it was pretty easy since the wind was minimal. We made jokes with other campers like “so, do you come here often?” and pretended we were world class chefs even though we were just rehydrating freeze dried meals and preparing spiced cider and hot cocoa. We also liked to joke that we “buy local” because we boiled snow for drinking water retrieved just meters from our kitchen.
We woke up the next morning, our eyes burned from the incessant sunlight but relieved to see that the clouds had drifted and yielded a beautiful blue sky. We took down camp and our instructors came back to meet us (they didn’t spend the night outside with us because they wanted our experience to be raw and unguided by them) to begin new training for the day. We were all pretty tired, having spent 5+ hours digging ice blocks and ice trenches for sleep. However, we covered radio training to learn about VHF (very high frequency, local radios) and HF (high frequency, one that can be used globally by directing wavelengths to the ionosphere). HF sort of looks like laundry set out to dry – the antenna is super long and you control the wavelength you’re hoping to reach by breaking the circuit and unclipping the corresponding clip from the line. I radio’ed the camp at the South Pole and wished them a Happy Christmas. It was pretty neat to hear such clean reception! Vladimir, one of the senior Russian scientists, had a lot of great stories to tell about his time in the USSR when he used a lot of HF radios. I learned so much from my peers (it’s an honor to even call them that, as they’ve accomplished so much and had so many stories to share) on this trip.
Finally, we completed our training by performing survival scenarios and learning about helicopter safety. Our instructors used real scenarios that have happened in McMurdo before. The first involved a simple white-out scenario in which we had to perform a search and rescue for Bob who went to the toilet and disappeared during a cond 1. We had to wear white buckets on our heads to simulate this, but we were successful when we were tied together and we anchored ourselves to the building. The other scenario involved a group of workers who were traveling in vehicle when it ran out of fuel and caught fire, sinking into the ice. Apparently this has happened twice. To complicate matters, it was a cond 1 AND only one survival kit remained AND a member was hypothermic. Our guide, who has summitted Denali 9 times, told us of the time he first went to Antarctica and took a recreational hike after dinner. The weather changed so rapidly that he was 200 m from a building and couldn’t find it. Hearing such an accomplished mountaineer spread such caution about Antarctica was very humbling. This is such a beautiful place, but it can change to a cruel and unyielding one as well in minutes. Going to safety camp has changed my perspectives on what this experience can bring me, as I will learn a lot from the people I meet as well as from the lab work I conduct daily. I am looking forward to the field work I’ll get to do, as I’m now very prepared to handle extreme situations if they arise.
Over and out, (and happy holidays from the south!)