The past two days on the ice I have been completing my Antarctic Field training (AFT). This course is compulsory for all newbie’s on the ice with more seasoned Antarctic goers required to do a refresher course. The field training was very much safety and survival oriented. It was present to us in such a way that we were encouraged to work in teams (as we will be doing in the field). The aim of each activity was to make us aware of the dangers involved in the field so that we could make a risk assessment of our immediate environments based on our own personal judgment.
The morning kicked off with a couple of hours of conceptual do’s and don’ts with our instructor Gideon. These included the meanings of different coloured flags (used to mark safe routes and show danger), how to prime and light a primus, decision making, the restrictions on approaching wildlife, and the importance of scheduled and constant radio communications with Scott Base just to name a few. Following lunch we had went through a scenario where the hagglund was sinking in cracked sea ice. Here we were required to evacuate the vehicle through the roof hatch safely. It was great to get out on the sea-ice for the first real time and begin to learn firsthand hands on. By the end of the summer the majority of sea ice here will have melted making it unsafe to drive on, and then eventually ice sheet covered water. In the afternoon once again we boarded the hagglung, this time with our sleeping kits, cooking gear, food and personal gear we deem necessary to take with us for an overnight stay.
We headed out from Scott Base to AFT camp, about a 20minute drive away towards Castle Rock (given its name by the early explorers due to its shape). Here we set up camp for the night with Mt Erebus and Mt Terror in the not so far off distance. There were five others in my AFT group and amongst us we set up three field tents, made a snow kitchen (with a barrier to protect us from the wind) and two snow cave shelters!
Dehydration is one of the biggest issues in Antarctica with it being so dry. Therefore main priority of setting up camp was to get the kitchen set up so we could start melting ice for water. All the while Gideon watched over our progress often offering advice and communicating with me as nominated team leader. As the evening progressed everyone happily ate there dehydrated meals and enjoyed varied hot drinks. The carpenters in the team (Randy and Jam) showed off their ability by making a couple of sculptures, including arch/doorways and icemen. All of these cut from the ice using a mix of saws and shovels.
At about ten I settled into my snow cave for bed (I chose this over a tent, it’s not often you get to sleep out in the Antarctic snow!). A reasonably comfortable nights’ sleep was had with temperature not an issue at all. The team demobilized camp by 8.30 ready for pick up. We carried out another scenario ‘finding a team member who is missing in a whiteout’. Once again we operated as a team to find our missing teammate. With unrestricted visibility and only a light wind we had to simulate the white out with beanies over eyes, no vision, no talking.
The next outdoor session was not until after the famous Scott Base Sunday brunch. As Sunday is usually a ‘day off’ for most of the staff a traditional cooked breakfast is put on with waffles to boot. Although the food at the base is great quality anyway (especially the bread) the merits of a cooked breakfast can never be overlooked.
The final part of the course was probably the most enjoyable. We visited ‘Mac Town’ AKA the American base, McMurdo station. Here we learnt about sea cracks and the training began to feel more like sight-seeing. We went to Discovery hut and the dive hole. The dive hole was amazing. We saw four divers gearing up to head under the 2-3meter thick ice in the name of scientific research. Very cool! Lastly we went to the pressure ridges out the front of Scott Base. These ridges are pushed up through the sea ice and form a huge line a few kilometers long. Amongst the ridges of broken up ice are many tide cracks both big and small. Some of the cracks go right through to the sea and are more than capable of trapping a person part or all of the way down. The trouble is that the cracks are covered in drift snow and move tens of centimeters a day. This makes them well hidden and impossible to mark. The bright blues of some of the ice is an incredible sight.
An extract from Scott's last expedition diary sums up my brief time in Antarctica so far, "Such weather in such a place comes nearer to satisfying my ideal of perfection than any condition that I have ever experienced. The warm glow of the sunwith the keen invigorating cold of the air forms a combination which is in expressibly health-givingand satisfying to me...No words of mine can convey the impressiveness of the wonderful panorama displayed to our eyes"
To be walking around this land is an amazing experience. I am forever reminded how lucky I am to be here.