Thursday, January 8, 2009

A night out on the ice

Yesterday, and half of today, was dedicated to my AFT (Antarctic Field Training). We started with a briefing from Heidi on first aid kits, survival bags, tents, camp stoves, sleeping kits, and radio use when we go into the field. It is all a bit different in Antarctica. Sometimes easier than in New Zealand (things don’t tend to get wet), but mostly harder. As you can probably imagine, the sleeping kits are pretty ‘butty’ as Heidi would put it. You have an oversized foam bed roll, a thick thermorest mattress, a polar sleeping bag or two heavy sleeping bags (one zips into the other), a polar fleece liner or flannel liner if you don’t feel the cold, another thick cotton bag that goes around the whole set up and a ‘num num’. The ‘num num’ is a layer of black sheepskin that lies between your thermorest and sleeping bag/s. They are a new introduction to Antarctica New Zealand’s field issue and have proved exceedingly popular. You’ve got to be quick though! There isn’t enough for everyone and Renee and I were beaten to them - mostly by grown men… I won’t mention any names.

Following lunch, the seven trainees jumped into a hagglund with Heidi at the wheel. A hagglund is a track vehicle that can be used on all terrains, and will float in the water. They look quite cumbersome but I realised they are amazingly maneuverable as we weaved through the transition zone between the land and the ice on our way to field camp. At this time of year, the transition is at its weakest. The ice is buckled and ice melt and seawater that has escaped through cracks form massive pools. Despite this, vehicles from both Scott Base and McMurdo Station must persist through this zone. It is their lifeline, feeding the aircraft runways, the ANDRILL site (an international geological project), the A-frame (a.k.a. the kiwi bach), a rugby field and field training sites. At this time in the year, almost everywhere else must be accessed via air (usually helicopter).

On the way to our field campsite, we passed the A-frame. This dwelling is just as it sounds - a little A-frame hut. The hut was originally owned by the Americans who decided they wanted to get rid of it. When things are to be gotten rid of at McMurdo Station they are taken to the ‘Skua bar’ where they can be ‘skua-ed’. Skuas are big brown birds found coastally in Antarctica. They have a bad reputation as they manage to be noisy 24 hours, are notorious scavengers and can prey on the chicks of the much-loved penguins. Many US personnel leaving the Station use this op-shop to offload any excess baggage. Kiwi’s are often found at the ‘Skua bar’ cashing in on free leftovers from the Americans. One year the A-frame was ‘skua-ed’! It is a decent sized, self-contained hut, that is always well stocked with food and can be booked. It provides a great retreat for Scott Base staff and visitors. Apparently, the Americans are now very jealous of this luxury.

There is a great relationship between the Kiwis and Americans. There is a bus that runs between the bases (although it is easily walkable) all day, free of charge. Scott Base is so popular with the Americans that it has got to a point where their visiting is restricted to invitation only. For example, tonight is ‘America night’ in the bar, an invitation for them to visit. At McMurdo Station, kiwis have their own parking spaces marked ‘kiwis only’. We travel to McMurdo Station (a.k.a. MacTown) for the company and facilities that are more extensive than those of Scott Base. They have a doctor, a bigger shop, a coffee shop and a burger bar for example. However, that doesn’t stop the Americans from coming over here and buying out all the Cadbury chocolate apparently!

There is also a healthy rivalry that comes with being neighbours. We also passed a rugby field on our way to the field campsite. This was a strange site; the goal posts seemed to almost float against the white backdrop of the ice and sky. The annual match between New Zealand and the USA is scheduled for Sunday, I hope to be there… and may even be playing I’ve been told! It is not to be taken lightly however. This year the New Zealand Rugby Union has donated a shiny new trophy to celebrate the contest. Although New Zealand has won every year to date, there is definitely a little added pressure this time.

After a thirty minute drive, we arrived at our field campsite. Here we learnt how to erect a few different tents. My choice was the most commonly used tent in Antarctica, Scott’s polar tent. The design used today is not far different from that originally used by Robert Falcon Scott during his expeditions. Scott was a famous British Antarctic adventurer who led both the Discovery (1901 – 04) and Terra Nova expeditions (1910 – 1913) in pursuit of scientific discovery and claiming the South Pole for Britain. It was his second expedition that claimed his life. There became a race to get to the South Pole in the early 1900's. Earnest Shackleton (a former co-voyager of Scott’s) came within 180 kilometres of the Pole on his Nimrod expedition and Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian party were on their way. Scott reached the South Pole only to find the he had been pipped-at-the-post by the Norwegians. Sadly, Scott and his four companions died whilst returning from the Pole due to hunger, cold and exhaustion. Around eight months later the bodies of Scott and his men were found in their polar tent.

The polar tent is said to be popular because it can be set in a short amount of time, it is secure in strong wind, you can stand at full height inside them, and they have a bright yellow colour that gives a happy ambience inside. This is the tent I lived in for a month whilst stationed at Terra Nova Bay in 2006. It was my little sanctuary then, so I was keen to re-visit that feeling last night!

As part of our AFT, we also learnt how to make emergency snow shelters in case of sudden weather change. Such shelters are designed to keep you out of the wind first and foremost. Although the ambient temperature in Antarctica often doesn’t seem that low, once you add the wind chill factor, the temperature can fall quickly, and sometimes dangerously. We were given ten minutes to build a rough shelter and the rest of the evening to elaborate if we wanted. It is amazing what you can achieve in as little as ten minutes. We all managed to build something that could quite possibly save our lives in future. For this reason, it was quite a reassuring and empowering exercise. Last time I did my AFT I persisted with my snow cave and had a very restful sleep in it. This time I could see bad weather coming in over the sea ice from Black Island, so opted for the polar tent! Those who slept out in their shelters had a much quieter sleep without the flapping of the tent in the wind, but some woke covered in fresh snow! Either way we all had a fun night out. It is amazing how much fun a little distance and time away from normality can be.

After cleaning up camp today, we traveled to a nearby icefall to practice snow travel and climbing. Practicing ‘self arrests’ was an adventure! To do this, you purposely gain great speeds whilst falling down the slope and stop yourself using either you fists and toes, or an ice axe. Great fun. The rest of my day was spent scoping out my Crater Hill field site. I am looking forward to getting stuck in tomorrow!

Our camp kitchen, even with an ice kitchen table. A polar tent can be seen in the background. Flags are used in Antarctica to mark hazards (black signals crevices, thin ice, deep holes), fuel lines (blue) and safe routes (red and green flags), in case of snow cover and/or bad visibility

Me in an emergency shelter, with an igloo behind. We practice building both of these types of survival shelter on AFT and some people sleep in them

Front door view from our polar tent

Practising self arrest methods on an ice fall. In the background you can see the hagglund we used to travel to our field camp

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