Once we got into McMurdo and had a chance to settle in, most of us had to go through training to remind us of the right way to do things. Zach had never been down here before, though, and so he had to attend “Happy Camper” or “Snow School”. This is required for everyone new to McMurdo that plans to go off-station for any reason, and teaches you what to do in case of emergency and you get stuck somewhere–things like how to start a small camp stove to cook food, how to set up tents for shelter or how to cut snow bricks to build walls to protect you from the wind and how to dig a snow trench to sleep in if you don’t have a tent! Since we got in late on the 30th of December, this meant that Snow School was going to run from the morning of December 31st into January 1 of the New Year!

The first thing he had to do for Snow School was to listen to some discussions about safety theory and how to minimize risk while gone, and then it was time to travel away from McMurdo off onto the ice shelf, where the snow is deep. It isn’t too far to the place where they set up the camp, but you can really tell you’re in a different part of the world, because everything looks so different! McMurdo sits on Ross Island, which is surrounded by water to the north and ice to the south, and the island itself has three mountains, one of which is much more obvious than the others–Mount Erebus, an active volcano! You can see in the picture the material floating away from the top, but the volcano is very quiet and stable, and isn’t a danger.View of Mount Erebus from the campsite for Snow School

Once here Zach’s instructor talked to him about how unpredictable weather can be in Antarctica, and how suddenly snow storms can blow up and possibly catch you while you’re out. He talked about how to use a “survival bag” filled with sleeping bags, sleeping pads (to keep you off the snow while you sleep!), tents, food and a small gas-powered stove. Once this was done, Zach and his group picked a spot to set up their camp and began to raise the tents. They then began to saw block-shapes into the snow to make snow bricks! These bricks ended up being used to build a wall to protect them and their tents from the wind, which would help to keep warm. Even though the weather was really nice, with a lot of sun and temperatures right around 34 degrees, wind would pick up every few minutes and make it feel a lot colder–the wall really helped to keep them warm just by stopping all the wind from hitting the little camp! Here you can see the tents all set up, with the snow-brick wall built to the side of the big tent in the middle; everyone is standing in the kitchen, which was built next.The snow school camp after setup, with people standing in the snow kitchen behind one of the snow walls.

Now that they had a camp built, it was time to learn how to make shelters if the tents were lost. To do this, they learned how to dig holes into the snow and then hollow out little trenches to sleep in, protecting them from the wind and providing a little spot to put a sleeping bag into. Not the most luxurious way to spend New Years Eve, but after a long day of setting up a campsite, it still felt good to sleep in! A hot dinner was made from dehydrated camping food and then they made cocoa, tea or coffee to stay warm for the next few hours. They stayed up to ring in the new year, and then got their sleeping bags out and settled in for a night under the sky.A happy camper with their sleeping bag at the bottom of their snow trench.

Everyone slept in the trenches all night, and got a surprisingly good amount of sleep out of it–six or seven hours at least! In the morning, they all made breakfast on the stoves and then took down the tents and packed them back up into sleds to drag over to a nice warm hut for the next part of their training. After some tea or cocoa to warm up after the night spent outside, everyone had to learn how difficult it can be to get around outside in a white-out blizzard. The super high tech solution to let them experience how hard it is to see and hear in really strong storms? Buckets! The buckets are actually highly technical white-out condition simulators. Really.

With the buckets on our head, their task was to find a “missing camper” who had gotten lost during a white-out. They were allowed to use anything in the hut to assist them in finding the lost person, and finally settled on good, old fashioned rope. Wandering out holding the rope, they managed to stumble out to (and into!) the outhouse, only to find their friend wasn’t there. Finally, after much tripping and walking into bamboo flag poles later, they found the missing camper and safely returned back to the warm hut where they were allowed to remove their stylish headgear. This taught them the number one rule about going out in bad weather: don’t go out in bad weather! The bucket made it impossible to see, but it also made it nearly impossible to hear anything. This meant that once they got more than a few feet away from something, it was very difficult to tell how far away they were and that made it easy to get disoriented and wander.

After that, it was a simple matter of eating lunch and then waiting for the vans to bring them back to McMurdo. Now Zach is ready to go out with the rest of the group to sample and collect the data that we’ll use to conduct our scientific experiments! Until we can get out, though, we can enjoy the wonderful view out our lab window!Doot Doot Doot, lookin' out my lab door (window)