- 57 Degrees with Wind Chill
MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Any person who is required to venture off base, or out of McMurdo, has to take a course called Snowcraft 1 or ‘Happy Camper School’. We learn the basics of camping in Antarctica with our survival kit – a bag filled with a tent, MSR stove, sleeping bag, ice ax, pee bottle, shovel, matches, and enough dehydrated food to last for about three days. Everyone who leaves McMurdo is issued one, and the course teaches you how to use everything in there as well as other techniques of what to do in emergency situations. We simulate white outs, how to build or dig a quinsy, trench, and ice wall, and also how to use the high frequency (HF) or very high frequency (VHF) radios.
Since I have only been camping a handful of times, I was naïve to think that living outside in Antarctica would be just as easy, but simply colder, than my previous experiences. Little did I understand what cold entails.
As we load our bags into a gritty cargo truck – with conveyor belt wheels as a military tank would have – a ladder shoots out the back so that we can climb into it, and we head down to ‘Happy Camper School’. We don’t go very far – just down and around the hillside where McMurdo is situated and past the distinguishable green Scott base (the New Zealand base). Then we continue onto the ice shelf and past sea ice. There aren’t any paved roads on this ice shelf, but the pathways are marked by bamboo poles with flags.
Also, I realize that in this general direction I can barely make out two airplanes in the horizon – this must be one of the airfields, and I believe it’s the one we landed on. So, the C-17 landed on an ice shelf, and we first step foot not on the continent but the ice shelf. Isn’t that amazing? We landed on an ice shelf – the plane lands and takes off on a floating piece of ice. It is anchored and connected to land at some point, but at that point, there is no land underneath. The ice is thick enough and strong enough to support huge airplanes and vehicles, and even the piercing steps of our weight.
When the ten of us and instructor get dropped off, we walked to the instructor’s hut about 400 meters away. We were walking on a flat stretch of snow with mountains in every direction which were the only features that had speckled areas of darkness – either bare land or on some of them shadows of peaks and troughs in the mountainside. Straight ahead, the closest mountain stood – Mt. Erebus with smoke fuming out of its peak as if it were coming out of a chimney.
Not ever having seen a volcano before I could immediately tell that the cloud-like formation had rapid movement and was escaping from the peak. How amazing it is that the mountain looks like any other – with the same amount of snow draped all over its side even though there’s live lava inside of it.
Crunching in the snow and making inch deep footprints with my big blue boots kept me warm, too warm in fact because my sunglasses began to fog up. This incident provoked my awareness to water’s first signs of unrest. Little did I know that I would be captured in this battle against water’s transformation, and there would be no end in sight.
At first all was going well. Inside the instructors hut we practiced turning on MSR stoves, which was simple enough. But then we had to start setting up everything outside – setting up tents, the kitchen, and the snow walls. To set up tents and to anchor it, you must dig. You dig what are called ‘dead man anchors’ and then you must tie the string tightly. This digging makes you warm and sweaty, and this causes your sunglasses to become foggy, once again. Now I could only see through a clear space about the size of a dime on each lens. Then, in order to grip the fine string to make taut knots, your gloves must be removed, but this leaves you with cold, hard hands after tying too many. So it was a constant struggle to do a lot, move fast, but not too much so that you overheat. Because then your sunglasses would fog up leaving you just seeing vague shapes of red and no texture of the ground.
Then to build a snow wall, we cut blocks of ice with a saw and shovel, and created half circles about four feet high around each tent facing the direction strongest wind. Our group of about ten people split up. Some of them were the ‘brick-makers’, some of them transported the ‘bricks’, and others were the masons, building the wall. The blocks were about 18 inches long, 8 inches wide and about 18 inches tall, but they were extremely heavy and hard to get a good grip on. I was mainly one of the transporters, so that required a lot of brawn that was being built at that moment. I had no idea that ice could be so heavy. The only way I could carry them was to position one side of it against my body and hug the sides. But especially if the corners were not cut straight and rigidly, they’d break or slide through my hands. I’d sweat a lot, which would make my glasses fog up, but by this time, my sun goggles had gotten warm enough to produce condensation on the inside. The water battle was raging, and the water was gaining on me in my weary state.
Then I made a fatal mistake – I took off my glasses and left them hanging around my neck. When I reached for them later they had a frozen layer of water on the inside: a contoured dotted layer of ice. I was defeated. Now I couldn’t see anything out of them (luckily I had another pair in my bag to use). But I smiled to myself as I held the glasses. This is a reminder to me that physical processes like water transformation of evaporation and condensation occur all around us everywhere. It’s too bad I have avoided seeing this until now.
In the tent at night it was cold, and I could feel the ice beneath my air pad and foam pad. I later learned that I wasn’t utilizing my sleeping gear correctly – the fleece is supposed to be lining between you and your sleeping bag, not just a layer between the ground and your sleeping bag. I woke up many times during the night (although this had been the case for the previous three nights since my arrival to McMurdo and 24 hour daylight). But at around 4 AM I awoke to a new sensation - the sound of whistling wind and a flapping tent and my toes freezing. When I returned people inquired about our experience and gave us their condolences for having had to sleep in -57 degrees with wind chill.