Snow Survival School: Part 1

Nov. 24, 2012

McMurdo Station is the largest base in Antarctica, with over 900 people living and working there during the peak of the summer season in January. Since it is a coastal station at sea level, it stays much warmer year-round and generally ranges from 31 to -10°F (0 to -10°C) during the year. I will be living and working at Concordia Station on the High Antarctic Plateau, which is much colder (-13 to -112F) and higher up on the continent (comp. elevation of 12,460ft). I’ll fly to Concordia station later this week, but in the meantime I’m at McMurdo to complete the ‘Field School Training Program’ that teaches Antarctic researchers how to survive in the weather conditions and colder temperatures I may encounter in the field. Since I’ll be working farther away from McMurdo/ the coast, I’ll also be farther away from help in case something goes wrong, and it’s important to be prepared.

The first day of Field School is spent in a classroom at McMurdo, teaching us how to use our emergency equipment (how to light a fire on a fuel burner, how to set up a Scott tent in case the weather turns dangerous when we are working outside and we need to camp overnight, etc.) and learning how to recognize the signs of frostbite. The next day we pack up, drive out on the Terrabus to a beautiful location somewhere near McMurdo Sound, and are dropped off to spend the next two days living outside and surviving in the cold with our gear. A few people in my field school class get to work setting up the tents while I start on the snow wall, a series of snow bricks that will act as a wind break and help prevent the tents from blowing away/ keep us all warmer by blocking out the wind at our campsite.

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IMG_5960We start building the snow wall by digging a step down into the snow, then cutting blocks out of the snow surface, loading them onto a sled, and taking them to the site of our wall.

IMG_5976Meanwhile, the others get started on our tents.

IMG_5967Our snow wall in progress. Eventually it will help protect the tents from the wind.

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The snow wall takes a while to build and eventually the others have finished with the tents and chip in to dig out snow blocks and pile them onto the wall. Our wall only needs to be about 3ft/1meter tall in order to block out most of the wind, so finally when we’ve completed the wall we can start our secondary tasks, like building a secondary snow wall around the area where we will cook our food (so that the fire we’ll build with the fuel burners is able to stay lit in the wind). Once we’ve built the snow wall, set up our tents, and started melting snow over the fire to make drinking water, our instructor tells us the fun part- we’re spending the night here out on the ice shelf, and if we want to stay in the tents, that’s ok. However, if we want to ‘really’ experience Antarctica, he’ll teach us how to dig snow pits so we can sleep in the snow and be prepared for conditions where we may not have tents with us at all. I opt for the snowpit. It’ll be an experience.

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 IMG_5302Our finished snow wall

IMG_5973Snow bricks

IMG_5964The inside of our camp

IMG_5235Melting snow for drinking water in our snow-kitchen

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The basic concept of a snowpit is to dig a narrow hole in the snow, just long enough to lie down in and just deep enough to sit up without having your head above the surface. The smaller your snow pit, the warmer you’ll be because the snow itself is actually insulating against the cold air temperatures above your pit. It takes me about two hours to dig my pit (while occasionally wandering around to check on the progress of my snowpit neighbors and see what ‘styles’ they used), and I’m slightly out of breath during the digging, but it’s fun and I’m excited to sleep overnight in an ice sheet in Antarctica. A few people make intricate designs for their pits, but I choose to make a simple pit with a staircase leading down to my sleeping den. (In the video I describe making my staircase for ‘aesthetic purposes’ because I wanted it to look more like a ‘house’ and less like a gravesite.) This design was then covered by long snow blocks across the top as a roof. That’s another reason to keep your snowpit narrow; the wider it is, the harder it will be to build a ceiling out of snow bricks, because the bricks can only be so wide before they’ll collapse in the middle.

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DSCN0527 My snowpit, with a very simple design, but big enough to fit a 6ft tall person comfortably inside, and deep enough to sit up in without hitting the ceiling

IMG_5260 Fellow field-school scientist Cedric made a fancier design for his snowpit

IMG_5298…while on person in the group made an enormous snow shelter, because he didn’t want to sleep underground. This one is impressive, but we wouldn’t actually build shelters like this if we really needed to stay warm.

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Eventually my pit is finished, I eat a dinner of instant soup made from the snow we melted in our kitchen, and I run a few laps before jumping into my sleeping bag so that I’m as warm as possible before spending the night in the snow. Since there’s 24hrs of sunlight in Antarctic summer it’s still as bright as day when I go to sleep, but I’m tired from building two windbreak walls, helping to bury the sides of the tents so they don’t blow away, and digging my snowpit, so I fall asleep pretty quickly. Hopefully I’ll stay warm through the night.

As soon as I can get the bandwith access, I’ll upload a few videos I took of building the snowpits!

update: Here they are! Keep in mind I was jetlagged from crossing 17 timezones, I hadn’t showered in 3 days, and I’d just spent two hours digging a ditch when I made these videos, so I’m a little out of breath, but definitely happy I’d finished my snowpit so I could go to sleep.

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Posted on 2012, in 2012 (11/24) Snow Survival School Part 1, Season 2: Life on the High Plateau. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. hi i am a student from Beathany Patel 3rd gradeclass at w.t.moore in thallahssee

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