Besides a small pit room in the modules, being a Winterer brings all sorts of routine changes.
Since we are expected to survive for a whole Winter in Antarctica by ourselves, unlike the rest of the people here that are down just for the Summer, we have a whole additional training plan just for us.
First aid training, field survival, crevasse rescue, navigation and even metal tower climbing and rescue. Most of these training sessions are Saturday morning. During Summer, the first morning of the weekend is a work one (we have to use as much Sun as possible), but us Winterers are normally setting up tents, hanging from steel towers while rescuing a very “life like” dummy or learning how to give salt water injections to one another.
In one of my first weekends around here was spent 20 km away from the base, pitching canvas tents in the middle of the snow plains. We left the station Friday afternoon with a snowcat full of people, a sledge full of luggage and a couple of skidoos following the convoy. In that sledge we took tents, loads of dehydrated food, climbing equipment and an homemade grill.
The purpose of that weekend was as much instructional has it was of leisure. Onde of the first things that we train upon was how to pitch a pyramid tent in the snow, just like the ones that we carry in the survival sledge every time that we get away from home. Its not that complicated but it is heavy work, with lots of shoveling snow around. These are quite heavy tents and there’s a whole technique to prevent them to fly away from us with the first gusts of strong wind. After all, they are supposed to provide shelter if we get surprised by a storm, which can be pretty violent around these parts.
With the tent set up, next step is to get some water. In the rest of the world we would have to find a river or a like of sorts and carry buckets of water around the place. Here, all we have to do is put our head outside of the tent…literally. We are surrounded by frozen water and all we need to do is melt it first and is ready to drink. These tents are prepared for us to light a small querosene stove, that we use to melt the snow, boil the water and warm up the joint in the process.
With hot water we have food. Most of out tent food is dehydrated and in convenient individual packets. Besides these ones we also have lots of cans and other surprisingly lasting things. In fact, most of these food is way past its expiration date, but by my own experience, its still delicious. One of my best tent meals ever was a fantastic 2001 vintage “chilli con carne”. Can food is prepared to survive a nuclear war and the dehydrated food spends most of its life frozen. And there are not that many germs that can survive in these temperatures so its uncommon to get spoiled food around here.
The Saturday, after a balanced dehydrated breakfast, was spent on nice walks to enjoy the landscape and training crevasse rescues.
In Antárctica, when we walk around places that we don’t know, the rule is to tie yourself to another person and leave a good few meters of rope in between. If one step where he shouldn’t had, the other is user as an human anchor. Antarctica, and specially ice shelves, are ridden with crevasses – holes in the ice surface that can be as small as only to bury you to the waist level or can be underground caves. Some are visible from a distance, but most are hidden under a thin layer of snow.
If one of us get swallowed by one of these hidden caves and gets knocked out during the fall, the other one – the anchor – gets in a bad position since being stuck to a limb body doesn’t allow much room for maneuvering. As such, we also learned a series of techniques to get the fallen one out of the hole. They are too complicated to detail here. Lets say that it involves a couple of pulleys, some funny knots with the rope but, if it is done properly, is like pulling a bucket out of the well. Because we can face this situation, we walk around the snowy plains with twice our body weight in mountaineering gear.
By Saturday’s end we did another mythic Antarctic barbecue. There’s something appealing about having half of an empty fuel drum, full of burning scrap wood in the middle of the snow. We brought a lot of stuff for the barbecue – food, wood, an improvised grill made out of an empty AVTUR drum. We even brought sauces such as ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. But we had to forget about plates and cutlery…
Well, we could have rescued the plastic plates and forks from the survival kits inside the tents, but as good Winterers that we are, instead we improvised with what we had at hand: planks of wood. We had some relatively clean and splinter free planks that we could use as plates. And, come on, there aren’t that many germs around here. If fire kills everything, why should ice do it too? I even bet there are some gourmet restaurants out there were you’ll pay top money for eating something out of a 4×2. Anyway, it was funny to see 13 people eating stake and grilled vegetables out of construction materials. To make it even more interesting, we were all sharing a single swiss army knife between us since it was the only decent blade that we had around capable of cutting through meat.
Sleeping outside in a canvas tent in the middle of the Antarctic Summer is not a good idea. The canvas of these tents is bright orange, to make it easy to see in the snow of course, but that makes the inside of them, with the Sun hitting the thing 24 hours per day, looking like the inside of a cheesy bar, where we had the questionable decision of sitting just behind the bright orange “Ladies Night” neon sign. Sleep in these conditions in no small feat. Is like trying to take a nap with your head inside an open refrigerator.
And then it was Sunday. After a pair of almost sleepless nights, we packed the tents and the rest of the junk and got back to base.
It was a leisure weekend but I needed the rest of that Sunday to recover from it..