by Francesca Eathorne
Blog number three from the Trust’s General Manager Operations and Communications on her first experience of Antarctica.
For Francesca’s previous posts, please see the Antarctic Blog feed.
Before I can join the conservation team properly I have to complete Antarctic Field Training (AFT). AFT is a rite of passage in Antarctic in many ways. It’s a shared experience because everyone who comes to live and work at Scott Base has to do it. It’s survival training that is both theoretical and hands on, culminating in an overnight camping experience.
Given that I’ve never been camping, let alone in extreme conditions, I’m nervous about it but looking forward to learning about what it takes to survive in Antarctica.
We start the day with a theory component but it turns out I’m in the wrong room so I immediately start on the back foot as I have to hoof it down the long corridors to the other end of Base to get to the room I am supposed to be in. Luckily our trainer is relaxed about me being late and I recognise a few friendly faces in the room. There are six of us with only three of us going on the overnight component as the other three are returnees so aren’t required to do that part of the training again.
Our trainer goes over the basic guidelines around safety and talks in depth about frostnip and frostbite, accompanied by some scary looking images. I suddenly realise this is serious stuff. You have to take responsibility for yourself. If you are cold you need to sort it out and not suffer quietly or it can have major consequences.
The next stage is to pack up our tents and sleeping gear. The trainer says that I will take a tent similar to the one I will be camping in at Cape Evans in a week’s time so I can practise putting up the right sort of tent. This sounds like a good idea; I don’t know how much I will be cursing this in a few hours.
We pack our sleeping bag liner with two fat sleeping bags; it all fits together Russian doll style. Then we pack the sleeping bags with our Thermarest mattress into a larger carry bag. I use the ‘punch it in’ style as it’s one of those impossible to fit it all in bags. It was quite satisfying. We are all red and puffing from getting our sleeping kits together.
Next we head downstairs to learn how to use the Primus cookers. Remember I’ve never been camping so this is a new experience for me and I am slightly anxious about burning down the Hillary Field Centre (HFC). A story from a colleague is fresh in my mind; when I asked her about her top tip for a first trip to Antarctica, she quipped “Don’t burn down the HFC!”. She regaled me with a story about leaking too much gas from her Primus during the training and producing a big fireball that even the field trainer was a bit taken aback by. Silently I tell myself that whatever else I do here, do not set anything on fire.
Our trainer is awesome and clearly explains the instructions, and another experienced woman on the team is kind enough to help me through each step. I successfully get the burner going without creating a fire sitaution. I’m quite pleased with myself.
Now we pack our food kits and get our clothing and gear together. We get issued a pee bottle each (and I remember to pack my She-Wee) and we head out to meet our trainer at the Hagglund.
We are transported by Hagglund to Windless Bight, which takes about 10 minutes to drive to from Scott Base. Windless Bight was named by the Winter Journey Party led by Dr Edward Wilson of the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913), which encountered no wind in this area. This is ironic because tonight we are expecting 35-40 knot winds on top of the minus twenty something temperatures. It’s considered a rough night for camping. I have nothing to compare it to so I’m not really aware at this stage what it means.
We disembark the Hagglund and are immediately hit with freezing wind. Snow is swirling around and visibility is poor. We can barely see back to Scott Base and another notable landmark, White Island, has disappeared into the cloud. It’s an isolated spot with flags marking the safe zones. We are not to go outside of the marked area; even if a wayward glove or hat blows out there, we leave it alone. The terrain beyond the safe zone is dangerous and pitted with crevasses.
Despite knowing that the field trainer is fully equipped to deal with these conditions, I have a sense that it’s going to be a long and tough night.
First steps are to get the tents out of the Hagglund and work together to put them up. This is a learning experience for me and I do my best to pay attention while stamping my feet to keep the circulation going. I did tell the trainer at the beginning of the session that I know nothing. Well, I’m not sure he is quite prepared for just how little I know!
With great patience (as the wind howled around us) he guides me to work with the two other people on the team to put up the Scott Polar tent. Then we put up a small survival tent as an example of what that looks like if you are caught out and have to activate your survival kit. It’s definitely flimsy looking compared with the sturdy Scott Polar tent, which is based on the early explorers’ tent style – not much about it has changed in over 100 years.
Next it is time to erect my tent. Mine is a polar dome tent, which is what I will be camping in at Cape Evans. I’m convinced this style of tent was designed by an unhappy person with a masochistic streak. It has several different parts that all need to be put together by manipulating small hooks and clips and various poles. This is quite difficult to do when you are wearing two pairs of gloves and have no dexterity. I can’t take my gloves off because the wind is so bitingly cold that I’m seriously worried I’ll end up looking like the photos I saw this morning (and we are under strict instructions to come home with all our fingers, toes and noses).
It takes all four of us to put the tent up as the wind is blowing hard and we can’t risk any of the parts flying off into the unmarked zones. I work slowly but methodically, taking about five times as long as the others to hook my ends together and wriggle the metal through the material. My goggles have fogged up and I’m wheezing with effort. I am determind to do it. The trainer doesn’t say anything but I can tell he knows it’s going to be a long slow haul to get the camp set up.
Finally the tent is pitched and we each dig snow over the snow skirts so that no snow can blow in during the night. I’m lucky to have the tent to myself as I’m the only woman on the team.
The three of us are feeling the physical exertion of setting up the tents. The weather is hammering us and it takes all our effort to walk around camp as more snow is constantly blowing in. I see one of my teammates face plant at one point as he misjudges his footing in the snow. It would be funny at any other time but I’m too tired and cold to laugh (plus I know I’ll do it next).
Next we build a snow kitchen. Again, our skilled trainer draws out with a finger in the snow what it should look like. I don’t think any of us understand but we start digging it out. Once we have dug the first part of the structure the trainer shows us how to build snow bricks so we can make a snow wall. This needs to be high enough so that we can sit behind it and be totally sheltered from the wind. He cuts the bricks with ease stacking them up for us to carry.
He casually says that it will take us a couple of hours to complete this part. Wow – it’s time to see what I’m made of. We take turns carting the snow bricks, digging the snow trench and cutting the snow blocks. No-one talks – not that you could hear anyone over the roar of the wind. When I’m cutting snow blocks the trainer gives me tips on how to do it more efficiently (i.e. I’m not doing it right and my blocks are lopsided).
It’s physically gruelling work and I can’t help thinking about the early explorers and their stories of hardships enduring the unpredictable Antarctic weather as they furthered science and exploration in the world’s most extreme environement. Truly incredible stories and inspiring for me in this moment as I dig deep (literally into a snow bank) to find some energy to keep going.
I’m fit and I’ve trained for this trip over the past few months. But you can’t train to work in these conditions. I find my mind going into a single focus. Pick up brick, walk (don’t fall on the snow), put brick on wall, walk back, pick up another brick, repeat. I think of it like a long deadlift set at the gym with only seconds of recovery on the walk back to pick up another block.
Finally, our trainer is happy with the snow wall and it’s time to get ready to cook our meal. I’m surprised to see it’s nearly 9.00pm. We have been preparing our field camp for over five hours! No wonder I’m feeling it.
Dinner is dehydrated food. I’ve brought my own as I have some food intolerances. I wasn’t hungry at this point but it’s important to hydrate and eat regardless of how you feel so I diligently eat my meal. It’s actually pretty good and feels great to have something hot in me. Along with our meal we have a hot cup of water, which helps warm up our frozen fingers. I had finally worked out the best combination of gloves after a bad start left me with frozen hands. The snow shelter does its job and we are finally out of the relentless wind.
Since it’s a rotten night our trainer advises us to go straight to bed after the meal. It’s about 10.00pm and none of us argue. My two companions head off to share their polar tent and I head to my dome tent.
I’ve already crawled into my tent several times to set it up. I’ve decided the most graceful approach is to go in head first and to exit it feet first. Well, graceful might not be the right word but it’s the only way I can do it without getting tangled. I’m wearing my full ECW (extreme cold weather) kit so it’s awkward pushing myself in through the first part of the tent. I then flop into the tent itself, bringing with me a considerable amount of snow. I don’t care. I’m exhausted.
I sit in my tent gathering my thoughts for a moment. I realise I have no idea of how to best arrange my sleeing gear so I can sleep and keep warm.
I know we are supposed to change our socks into dry ones and place our boot liners between the layers of our sleeping bags. It takes effort to do this when you are tired but it will make things easier in the morning. You also want to put your pee bottle in your sleeping bag so it doesn’t freeze. I manage to use my She-Wee chanting to myself “don’t knock over the pee bottle”. Easy to do as your fingers are frozen and you find yourself clumsily grasping at things as if you are drunk.
Finally it’s time to wedge myself into the first of three sleeping layers. I’ve kept most of my clothes on with the rationale it will be easier to remove layers than try and put more on during the night. Our trainer had advised us to fill our Nalgene bottle with boiling water and put that in our sleeping bag to help us warm up. It is pure luxury pushing that hot bottle against my frozen feet. My toes start to thaw out and the pain is excruitating but the heat from the Nalgene bottle soon makes up for it.
I pull my eye mask on over my head to block out the light (there’s no sun as such but it’s still 24-hour daylight) and settle in. Of course, I have the following either in my sleeping bag with me or in the layers between bags so it’s not very comfortable: socks, my camera, boot liners, pee bottle, water bottle (don’t mix these up!), hat, gloves, mittens, extra jacket, large ECW gloves, plus my watch so I don’t sleep in and wake to find everyone has packed up and is waiting on me.
Somehow I manage to sleep pretty well, waking in the wee hours only a couple of times.
In the morning, I successfully use my She-Wee again and know I will now have to venture to the toilet tent to empty my pee bottle. I’m dreading this but know it’s all a part of camping and I will have to use the toilet tent at Cape Evans so I may as well get used to it.
The toilet tent is a Scott Polar tent so has a small tunnel-like entry to it that you crawl through to get into the main tent. This is not much fun to wriggle into when you are wearing all your clothes. I get stuck half way in with my pee bottle in my hand and I’m staring at a red (poo) bucket and a large container about three quarters full of pee with a funnel in the top, into which I should empty my pee bottle.
I decide I can do this without going fully into the tent; this goes well and I (un)gracefully back myself out. I take some photos so I can remember to write about how much harder this is to do than it looks.
I head over to the snow kitchen for a cup of hot water and to greet the team. Everyone seems to have slept okay despite the wind whipping in most of the night. This morning it’s still overcast but there is no wind and what a difference it makes!
We pack down the camp and destroy the snow kitchen, trampling the block of snow into the ground (this took a lot less time than it did to build it).
We pack the Hagglund and head back to Scott Base. No-one says much on the way back and I think we are all reflecting on our own experiences of Antarctic Field Training.
Upon return we unpack our gear and dry out our sleeping bags and tents. I run into my team leader in the hallway and he asks me how it all went. I have to reply I need some time to process as I’m not sure how to answer.
The weather meant we didn’t have the type of AFT where you stay up telling tales into the wee hours and enjoying a whisky or two; but it was an experience. My first proper night camping in Antarctica and I managed to get through it. I learnt a lot both about the practical skills for surviving on the Ice, should you need to, and that the kindness of people should never be underestimated. From our trainer’s patience with me, to my two teammates helping out and checking in on me, to my colleague Nic thrusting an extra chocolate bar in my bag before I left, all those things added to the experience.
I’m thinking a lot about my Great Uncle Leon who spent 10 seasons on the Ice working on drilling teams. I’ve brought his memoirs with me and I re-read them. I find this piece that makes me think I had it easy on AFT and how tough those people who work to support all the science on the Ice have to be.
“Setting up our first camp in the Taylor Valley, three of us, a geologist, a driller and I had just pitched our eight-man tent, when the weather deteriorated, and for several days we were buffeted by severe gale winds measuring to over 200mph. Then a white-out came in and wind-blown snow drifted against our tent. Unless it was removed, the tent was in danger of collapsing. Taking turns with a rope attached around our waist and the other end anchored, we ventured into the blizzard conditions and with the aid of a small shovel and pick were able to clear the tent”. Leon Oliver.
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I’m grateful I had the opportunity to test myself in crazy conditions. I dug deep and got it done. I might not have enjoyed myself in the traditional sense, but I learnt something about myself and that is gold.
As my sister told me, ‘if you don’t laugh you will cry’ and ‘funny is funny’. Camping out in Antarctica is not something I ever thought I would (or could) do. Already I can look back on AFT with a smile and know I will enjoy retelling this story for years to come.