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Antarctic Hazards

Dear Stephanie,

I certainly can't pack light for this trip! For our safety training session out on the ice, we needed to take ALL our extreme cold weather gear: two parkas, eleven pairs of gloves and mittens, numerous pairs of socks, both pairs of long underwear, fleece pants, fleece jacket top, wind pants, bunny boots, water bottle, and goggles. We were also instructed to pack extra thermal underwear and lots of sunscreen. And on top of that, each of us got a sleeping bag, two foam pads, and a polyfleece liner for the sleeping bag. My pile of gear was almost bigger than I am!

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Our school day started with a little lecture. We were briefed on cold weather injuries and the use of a radio in case of danger. We learned that the key to staying healthy and safe in Antarctica is thinking and planning ahead! We all learned to look out for each other by learning about what can happen and what steps to take if something does happen. Here's some of what we learned....

It's not hard to see why dehydration is such a risk here–the air is so dry! A dehydrated person can't regulate his/her body temperature; the entire body becomes tired and stressed. Fortunately, it's not that hard to prevent dehydration; we just have to make sure we drink a lot of water. And there is lots of water in Antarctica; to get it, just melt the ice on your camp stove!

Hypothermia is another cold weather injury. Hypothermia sets in when the body feels threatened by cold. To maintain life, the body pulls all the blood to its core, causing the blood vessels in hands, feet and brain to constrict. Down here they call mild cases of hypothermia the "umbles." At the onset of hypothermia, a person will lose speech and physical coordination–mumble, fumble, and stumble. We are taught to always work in teams so that we can watch each other for signs of hypothermia. We also learn how to take action if we think a team member has the umbles–the first step is to take him/her to a warmer shelter or add layers of clothing.

Frostbite is another potential injury–it's simply the freezing of skin. A mild case of frostbite can be "cured" by warming the affected area; but the best method is prevention. Warm clothes and appropriate gear will keep frostbite from occurring in the first place.

 

You might have had a sunburn before, but what about sunburn of the eyes? That's snow blindness, and it's a real risk in Antarctica. We have to wear good eye protection whether the day's cloudy and overcast or bright and sunny; either way, the snow and ice reflect sunlight to a dangerous degree for eyes. Snow blindness can even occur during a snow storm if the cloud cover is thin. Snow blindness can be relieved with cold compresses and by staying in dark environment for a time; but, again, the best method is prevention with good sunglasses. In Antarctica, good sunglasses have side shields or are actually goggles.

Before I came to Antarctica, I had never heard of trench foot. It's way worse than athlete's foot! It's hard to keep feet warm and dry here; and when feet stay wet, bacteria grow. This can cause trench foot, an infection like gangrene. It can lead to the loss of your toes! We avoid trench foot by changing socks a lot, and by choosing the right fabric for our socks. The safety trainers told us again and again, "Cotton kills. Don't wear cotton." You see, when cotton gets wet, it loses its insulation powers; this means that feet in wet cotton get too cold. Wool and "polar-tech" materials don't lose their insulating powers when wet; so they are the fabrics of choice for socks.

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We learned all that from our training guides during the safety briefing; we also learned a little bit about them. The guides all are very experienced in Antarctica safety. One of ours was part of the Search and Rescue team that rescues people who have been caught in storms, or are lost, or are suffering from hypothermia or another injury. It was both exciting and comforting to be trained by people who had actually experienced the hazards we might face!

 After our safety briefing, the training guides divided us into two groups. Each group received training in building emergency shelters. Our group built a snow block wall as a windbreak for a tent before learning how to set up a Scott tent. A Scott tent is a square pyramid canvas with a cone entrance, kind of the like the entrance to an igloo. It is six- or seven-feet-square and sleeps three or four people.

Next we built a real igloo. It was hard work! It took about four hours for our team to cut forty large blocks of ice and put the igloo together. The blocks had to be of a consistent size; each block was cut in the shape of a trapezoid, fitting together with the blocks on either side like a keystone at the top of an arch. We worked from the ground up, using a spiral sort of formation. We also had to make sure that the doorway entrance was below the level of the floor in the igloo so that of all the cold air would sink before coming into the igloo.

After we had finished, we got to take a look at the Quinzee constructed by the second group at survival school. The Quinzee is a dome-shaped structure made of snow; it can sleep several people. The builders start by piling all of their extreme cold weather gear on the ground and covering the pile with a tarp. Next they piled LOTS of snow on top until they had a two-foot thick layer. Finally, they tunneled underneath the snow pile and dug out the gear; this left the dome-shaped Quinzee. It was harder than it sounds–our "igloo" group spent no more time than the "Quinzee" group!

We weren't just setting up camp for fun–we had to sleep in our camp that first night. Before dinner (and the excitement of charbroiled dehydrated rations), our instructors left us and made their own camp a large distance away. We were supposed to be able to camp without any additional help, but we did have a radio in case of a major problem.

I was head chef for dinner that night. I learned to operate the Coleman stove and boiled snow water. The cuisine consisted of various packs of dehydrated food, gorp, candy, granola bars, and hot chocolate! We had a little excitement when the Coleman stove caught on fire, but it was all part of the learning experience. We quickly extinguished the fire and switched to our back-up stove. That helped to prove the importance of planning ahead, since we certainly won't have a hardware store near us in the field!

Just as we had been taught, we were always watching the weather. If a storm approached, we had been taught that we must tie ALL our gear down or stow it so that it can't blow away in the strong wind. We would also need to mark outside gear piles with tall flags; after the storm, we could relocate supplies that had been buried by blowing snow!

We'd been watching the small, wispy cirrus clouds in the sky from the south-southeast for about two hours; this is the direction from which major storms originate. Sure enough, at about 11 p.m., the wind began to pick up. We tied everything down as we'd been taught and got ready to sleep through the storm! We knew we wouldn't be cold in our sleeping bags; they were rated for very low temperatures and we had to wrap ourselves up in them like mummies. Before hitting the sack, we also boiled water on our camp stoves to use in our water bottles; these came with us to bed to help keep us warm.

Wondering what it's like to actually sleep in an igloo? Two members of my research team stayed in the igloo overnight. They said that it really was quite warm in the igloo, but that if they touched the sides, snow fell down! It was also very quiet inside the igloo, even in the windstorm that blew up that night. I slept in the Scott tent, which was toasty warm, but very noisy; all night, the winds buffeted the tent and the canvas sides flapped noisily. I kept waking up from the noise and slept poorly when I slept. I wasn't cold, but I was a little nervous, wondering if I had put things away properly or if they were flying around out there, wondering what the camp would look like in the morning.

Before I could find out, we had to wait for the storm to end, and suit up for the day. We put on all of our layers–the heavy long underwear, fleece pants and jacket, wind pants, balaclava or fleece-lined hat, heavy gloves and a heavy parka. Some of the team hadn't put on enough sunscreen the day before and they were already sunburned, so we all took special care to put on plenty of sunscreen, too. Don't forget, the Sun never goes down in the Antarctic summer!

I finally got to see if my nighttime fears had come true at about 10 a.m., when the storm stopped and we could at last climb out of the tent. Talk about a winter wonderland! Some of our shelters were completely covered in snow, and the day was still very cold and windy. We thought we had oriented our tent in the correct direction for the prevailing winds, but this blow came from another direction, and the snow had really piled up. The two people in the igloo and the team members in the Quinzee had to be dug out of the drifts! The same thing happened with the snow trench, although that happy camper was able to dig himself out of the drift before we got to him. Lesson learned; when sleeping in a snow shelter, always take in a shovel with you!

After all that hard work, we were starving–time for breakfast! But even that wasn't so easy in our Antarctic camp. Where would we set up our stove? Our designated area was covered with drifted snow! Finally we decide to set it up in the Scott tent; Scott tents have an opening at the top to allow gases to go out. Our group of seven crawled into the tent together to breakfast on instant oatmeal, hot chocolate, granola bars, and gorp. And we were having a grand time.... until our instructors showed up and let us know that we hadn't remembered all of our training. We had forgotten to leave the tent door open (it was cold out there!); and so we ran the risk of being poisoned. The stoves produce carbon monoxide; and several people have died here because they forgot to vent their tents. The roof flap alone isn't enough ventilation. As you can see, there is no room for carelessness here!

After we learned the perils of breakfast in Antarctica, it was time to leave the warm tent for more safety training. We spent the day working through a variety of danger scenarios, learning how to deal with problems that could arise at a remote field site. Our instructors showed us how to use field radios and took us through a simulation of a plane wreck; we had to set up camp–fast!–and help an injured person. I was pretty proud of our team–we managed to get a camp stove lit, set up a radio with radio antenna, erect a Sierra mountain tent, and stake it down so it was secure and call the South Pole in just sixteen minutes and twenty-three seconds! Pretty good, considering it took us hours to do the same thing on our first day.

Plane wrecks aren't the only perils for which we had to prepare; we also learned how to work in areas with crevasses. Crevasses are deep openings in the ice surface, and some areas in Antarctica have a lot of them. They can be hundreds of feet deep–not a good hole into which to fall! And because they are often hidden by snow "bridges," it would be easy to fall into a crevasse, or to lose a sled, snow mobile, or other equipment being used to transport our gear. So how do you avoid crevasses? First of all, as our instructors explained, it's best to have an experienced mountaineer guide on the team; he or she will know how to "read" the snow and ice and can detect the hidden cracks. Careful walking techniques could also help–we learned to walk single file, with ropes attached to each team member, and to probe the snow and ice in front of us. See? You can't even take walking for granted in Antarctica! We also learned how to rescue someone who has fallen into a crevasse.

Crevasses were not the end of the our training; next we had to simulate the rescues of a hypothermia victim, a field party member with an injury, and a team member lost in a whiteout. For me, the whiteout search and rescue was most interesting.

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A whiteout is kind of like a blizzard–the strong winds cause so much snow to fill the air that you cannot see ahead of you. You often can't even hear because of the roar of the wind. Imagine trying to find someone in those conditions! Two people were "lost" in our simulated whiteout; the rest of us developed a search plan using only a rope and flags. To make the simulation more realistic, we wore white buckets on our heads. That way, we couldn't cheat! We really couldn't see and had to depend upon the other people holding the rope as we covered the search area. And it's not easy! We came within just one foot of one person and never found her. The whiteout training made me realize just how difficult it is to find someone in a whiteout; and that a field camp emergency puts everyone in danger, not just the lost or injured person.

With new skills and new understanding, we were at last ready to "graduate" from safety training. We returned to McMurdo, tired, but more confident about our ability to handle the challenges of remote field work. And it was a beautiful day; the weather had cleared, and Mount Erebus, the volcano nearby, was releasing little puffs of smoke into the clear sky. I stood there for a few moments, enjoying the view and the feeling of confidence and accomplishment I had. I had been pretty scared going into this training course, but it had turned out to be a wonderful experience. Now–hopefully–I was ready for the weeks my group would spend out on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Take care,

Carole

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