Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Worry, be Happy

We were just the happiest, of Happy Campers-

When you arrive in McMurdo station, Antarctica, you meet a lot of new people, from all walks of life. There is the staff at the McMurdo Hospital and the McMurdo Firefighters at the Station, who keep all us scientists and staff healthy and safe. The hospital stays busy with the fast spreading viruses and extreme cold weather. The Firefighters have very important jobs. If a fire were to happen here in Antarctica, all the buildings would catch fire very rapidly, and because we are isolated down on the bottom of the world no one else could come to help us! The Firefighters do not have a lot of fires to fight here, but it is comforting and vital to have them, because if something were to go wrong, it could go VERY wrong VERY quickly.

If you are in any of these groups, and will be spending anytime out in the field, or a significant distance from the safe haven of McMurdo station, then you must participate in a two-day outdoor Antarctic survival school. Known as Snow School, or more lovingly as Happy Camper. It starts with a half-day of lectures on survival in the extreme cold. Survival during an unexpected situation, is kept in a Survival Bag. These bags are kept in most cars, all planes and helos, and are brought with you if they may become necessary. It includes: tent, shovel, food, stove, and fuel. Survival also travels with us in the form of our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. The major concerns we have out here include: the cold, hypothermia (lack of heat), frostbite, windburn, sunburn, and because Antarctica is so dry our most serious threat is dehydration. When you are here your body is in a constant state of thirst and it is nearly impossible to stay hydrated. We have to constantly drink water... constantly. Dehydration adds to the effects of all injuries and threats we have out here, it also makes it harder to stay warm.
After class we were taken out to our camping spot, 30 minutes out on to the sea ice, of the frozen Ross Sea. Yep, we slept on FROZEN ICE! There were an even 20 people, including some of the BBC crew and my Dry Valley friends. With 20 people, the long day of hard activities, was not so difficult. Divide and conquer! We set up 2 large tents and six regular tents. Then we had the task, a little overwhelming and sort of insane task, of building a wall of ice blocks! I couldn't believe we were going to actually make walls of ice blocks! These walls would protect our tents from wind. So one group of people took the saw and began sawing regular sized blocks out of the snow. Then they were delivered to me, where I built them up into a wall and had to adjust everyone until they fit right. This was 30 feet of wall 3ft high, made entirely of blocks of ice! When I was done, the wall had curved twice to be the right distance from each tent, and looked more like the Great Ice-Wall of China.

Next we piled all out duffel bags together and covered them in snow. This would become a snow cave, or Quinzy, for two people to sleep in.

This was quite an undertaking and at one point, to provide motivation, out instructor climbed on top, where we were lacking in snow, and told us to throw snow on our instructor, which provided enough motivation for us to finish the piling!

After it harden, a few people worked on digging out the bags and creating a snow cave. I had my heart set on sleeping in that cave, and after Chadden, the BBC filmmaker, moved into a previous camps already built Quinzy , it was free for Kathryn (another BBC filmmaker) and I to sleep in! I was told by many, that is was the warmest place at night... AND I would get to sleep in a snow cave, and really, who can say they that?!

Then it was time to eat our dehydrated meals, I had brown rice and chicken. It was actually good, I enjoyed it! Plus the "cooks" kept water constantly boiling, which meant lots and lots of hot cocoa for me!

The view from Happy Camper, is where I belive it must get its name! It was unbelievable! We were out on the frozen Ross Sea, surrounded by plateaus of ice, and had unbelievable views of

Mt. Discovery

Black and White Islands
White Island and Black Island (snow and no snow)

Castle Rock

Castle Rock is a large snow less rock jutting out from the peninsula of snow

Silver City Ice Falls
Silver City Ice Falls is exactly what it sounds like, a waterfall of ICE!

Mt. Erebus

Mt. Erebus! Mt Erebus was unbelievable, it is a little over 12,000ft and you can see it all from the base to the open caldera pit steaming out the top of the completely snow and ice covered active volcano. Erebus is one of two, open pit caldera volacanos, the other is in Kenya, Africa, which means at the top, there is an open pit and you can look down in to the pit and there will always be bubbling liquid lava. That open pit and lava is causing the constant plume of smoke rising from the top of Mt Erebus. At the top, these pyroclastic bombs explode out of the pit all the time. Hot lava balls, solidifying quickly in the cold air, so they are very airfilled and light black wholey rocks. In them there are sometimes crystals of paligioclase feldspar, that is much harder then the pyroclastic rock, and thus stays a solid crystal when it comes up into the lava and gets expelled. They are called Erebus Crystals, the are black hexagonal usually, crystals coming out in many angles from a pyroclastic bomb. They are all over the top of Erebus and I have gotten to see a bunch that people have around here at McMurdo.

The night was excruciating! The air temperature was 26 below zero Fahrenheit! I spent most of the night awake and freezing! I drank water, ate chocolate, had boiling water bottles in my bag, a fleece liner, and multiple layers of long-underwear and fleece on! I did everything I was taught to keep warm, and I was still freezing! I was so happy when it was finally 620am and I could wake up, get on my parka, and walk around and BE WARM!!

When I woke in the morning I found out, my mate in the Quinzy or snow cave, who was sleeping closer to the door slept great! Best night of sleep she has had in a while. I account for the differences in the fact that I was getting over being sick, and this was not the craziest place she has slept! The life of a wildlife filmmaker! But I just couldn't sleep, I was too cold! In the morning, I had to call to check in, I took the job of Camp Manager in preparation for my time at Lake Bonney.

The next day we went through some drills to simulate emergency situations. One was the bucket-head drill. If you ask me, I am pretty sure this is just hazing, but the idea is to simulate a white-out. One person was assigned to watch for everyone's safety outside, and I volunteered! So no bucket for me, and it also meant some great pictures of my teammates! They all donned their white buckets, grabbed there knot we'd tied in the rope. The instructor was the victim lost on a whiteout and they had to find her outside. My team followed a well though out plan, very well and kept up good communication. The time constraint kept us from finding our lost instructor. The next mission was a faux plane crash. We were given a survival bag, and the group quickly divided up into groups, one working on making contact with Mac-Opps (main McMurdo contact), another set up a tent, and another lit the stove. I had 2 victims at my post in medical, one with a broken leg and one was hypothermic. The drill was quick and by the time I had my hypothermic patient drinking water and bundled, and my other patient's leg splint, the drill was over. I was shocked to see my team had the tent up, contact had been established and the stove was lit! I want them around if I crash in Antarctica!

Then we got on our shuttle and got back to McMurdo (what I am now calling home) and got to unwind for about an hour before dinner, and the Happy Campers were all the first at dinner! I really did learn a lot about survival in Antarctica. I had a blast with all my camping buddies, and as long as I had hot cocoa and big red, I was warm and happy! I slept that night, warm in my dorm and was only slightly worse for the wear the next day. But I woke to Sunday brunch in Antarctica... which let me tell you, it was a perfect end, to a "Happy" weekend.


Official Happy Camper survivor


  1. Hey Emma! Thanks so much for taking the time to write to all of us through your blog. I'm really enjoying it and am impressed with your literary style.I can't wait to read the next installment.
    I would say we miss you, but I feel like we're there with you, minus the uncomfortably cold conditions, of course.Keep up the great work and keep blogging!

  2. Hello
    This is the rov team and we were wondering if you could send a pictures of the rov.
    St. Patricks rov team

  3. And we are at the notre dame and I really want to come here.

  4. This
    Look fun next time take me with u next time emma

  5. How is 60 degrees colder than 40 degrees that does not make any sense

  6. It looks fun next time take me with u we going to have fun we going to have Party every day yeah

  7. Are you going to go to the Arctic too?This is your student Detavionna Howard

  8. This look fun next time take me with u Emma

  9. Was it cold when you slept in the cave?

  10. What was the robot for

  11. I really liked the pictures of the robot but the robot looks like a giant orange

  12. I like totally love the pictures!

  13. If u do go to the article make sure there are no bears around u at the time when u are sleeping oh and I forgot plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz take me with u so I can have my first adventure and I can tell people about what happened when I went to the artic plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz take me with u to the artic.with u and some more other people.

  14. That is what I want to no how can 60 degrees coder then 40 degrees

  15. Why did they have fire trucks in antarctica?

  16. Also can you take me with you

  17. I love to learn about the Antarctica and the arctic