Happy Camper School – Snow Survival Training – Day One

Happy Camper School – Snow Survival Training – Day One

Forget everything I said about yesterday’s nice weather on Ob Hill.  I walked to the post office this morning and immediately picked up the clues that the weather was going to change.  Everyone kept saying that a storm was on its way, and snow flurries in the air along with lower visibility were my first indications that changes were on the way!At 8:15 this morning I reported in for the first day of “Happy Camper” snowcraft training.  This 36-hour training is required of everyone going out of McMurdo to a testing/work site and for those going into a field camp.  Though I’ve done this training on my two previous trips, I’d day today’s Happy Camper School truly gave me more of a real Antarctic experience.  Come along while I explain some of the key points, activities, and adventures of this HAPPY Camper experience!

We started indoors, with two hours of orientation and information delivered by our instructors, Jen and Suz. What fantastic teachers they were…from start to finish.  Jen hails from Washington State, where she has been a climbing instructor on Mt. Rainier and has guided many other groups in the Pacific Northwest.  She has a college degree in snow hydrology and watershed science, with a focus on snow.  Antarctica is the perfect place for her to be!  She also goes out on the teams that assess the ice and snow in the McMurdo Sound region. Everyone on the teaching staff at the Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) is well prepared for search and rescue as well as having some sort of wilderness first responder or paramedic background.

The second instructor, Suz, has spent 9 seasons on the ice.  This is the 8th season with the U.S. Antarctic Program. She spent one year guiding for a private company, spending her season on Mt. Vinson which is the highest peak on the continent of Antarctica.  Her other experience has been with FSTP.  She has a college degree in biology and environmental studies and is also a naturalist/outdoor educator.  She’s worked with Outward Bound and NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and been doing technical guiding since the late 1990’s.  She’s got heaps of experience in backcountry skiing and mountaineering.  With Jen and Suz leading us, I knew we were in good hands!

The board below shows some of our plans for the day/night.  Some of the first topics we covered were risk assessment and management.  Not only is this important in everyday life situations, but it becomes even more critical to assess and manage risks in an extreme environment such as what you find here in Antarctica.  There are some objective hazards such as weather, crevasses, glacial risks, sea ice, and the sun.  Subjective hazards (those more under our direct control) would include:  lack of training, dehydration, hunger and fatigue, poor communication, poor self-awareness, poor situational awareness, and having too much of an ego (thinking a lot of yourself and your abilities).  These human factors can lead to many issues and dangers in an extreme environment, so it is important to talk about how to mitigate the risks and work together as a team to be safe at all times.

Knowing that there are risks and working hard to identify them BEFORE an accident or issue arises is critical to safety.  We talked a lot about the probability of risks and the consequences of those risks.  Jen and Suz had us take part in a risk assessment exercise where we had to evaluate a situation and determine what could have been done to be more safe.  It was a good way to begin to process the information they gave us….to apply it to a real-life situation that could happen here on the ice.  In our scenario, the people involved were not prepared, did a poor job communicating, and also did not watch the weather changes to make the necessary adjustments in their schedule or plans.  All of these things could save someone’s life.


We learned about cold weather injuries and illness.  Managing our comfort and warmth are fundamentals for prevention.  Basically the guidelines in cold weather environments:  WEAR a lot, EAT a lot, DRINK a lot, and MOVE a lot.  Being aware of the two basic body parts, core (center part with your vital organs) and extremities (legs, feet/toes, arms, hands/fingers) is important.  We reviewed the basic signs and treatments for hypothermia, which is the lowering of the body’s core temperature.  Noticing mild signs such as fine motor shivering, personality changes, loss of fine motor control, and someone having the “umbles” (mumbles, fumbles, stumbles, or grumbles) is the first step to recognizing that a person on your team might be suffering from hypothermia.  If left unwatched or untreated, a severe case of hypothermia would lead to a fragile condition where the person might appear dea, have a very slow or weak pulse, have a blue/cold appearance, be unresponsive, and can even lead to cardiac arrest.

For the mild case (and can be applied to even stronger cases) of hypothermia, you need to change the environment of the person involved. Get out of the wind, get dry clothing and provide insulation.  Hydrate (provide liquids for the body) with hot drinks.  Eat things high in sugar or carbs.  Exercise and move around…..get up and get MOVING! Providing external heat sources and aggressively re-warm that person or yourself if you feel too cold.  In summary, we were reminded to KNOW your environment and BE PREPARED!  Jen and Suz could not stress that enough.

Finally, we were getting outside and on our way from McMurdo to the ice shelf where we’d be getting more information and spending the night. A Delta (giant transport vehicle that holds about 20 people and gear) picked us up at FSTP and transported us to the ice shelf.  Notice the blue sky in this photo?  Well, that was really going to change in the next few hours!  Around here they say that if you can see weather developing or storm clouds coming from the south by Black and White Islands, then you have a couple of hours before weather really changes in McMurdo.  Most of the storms come from the south.  What you’re not seeing in this photo is that the sky to the south didn’t look so blue and sunny….something was on its way!



Our first stop in the field was the instructor’s hut (called I Hut) where we did a few more training exercises, including how to light a one-burner camp stove. We’d need this knowledge later on this evening and tomorrow morning if we were to get anything to eat or hot drinks.



Our orange duffle bags were only part of our “gear” for this camp-out.  We also grabbed gear bags and filled them with 2 thermal sleeping pads, a sleeping bag rated for low temperatures, and a “cozy” which basically was a fleece sleeping bag liner.  The sleep kits were loaded onto a large sled hauled by our instructors riding on a snow machine.  We schlepped our orange duffles and walked the rest of the way to our “campsite” near the outhouses.

Suz talked with us about our overall plan of action, which included what was to be built and how we’d go about setting up our camp for the night.  Notice…sky is still blue!


Putting up the Scott tents (named after explorer Robert Scott) was the first set-up task.  We were to have two Scott tents in our camp tonight.  Each tent had to be anchored by burying bamboo poles attached to our guidelines coming from the tent. These bamboo poles had to be perpendicular to the the guidelines to provide maximum strength.


Next task, learning to saw out snow blocks to be used in the construction of a wall to block the wind in our camp.  This wall would be critical for the smaller expedition tents, which are very flimsy compared to the heavy canvas of the Scott tent.  It’s relatively easy to cut these snow blocks, and we made a sort of assembly line to cut, lift out and transport the blocks to the wall-building site.


It was not easy hauling a full sled of snow blocks and often someone had to push the sled from the back to get us going.  I’m getting some help from another Happy Camper in the photo below.  Notice the sky now….?  It’s really cloudy and visibility is getting worse.  It also began snowing while we were working.  Since we were active, it didn’t feel that cold.  Keep the body moving and you stay warmer!


Here is the wall-building process in action!


Dave Monk (on the left in the photo below), my fellow education outreach colleague was at Happy Camper School with me!  He’s shown here placing and leveling blocks for the wall. This structure had to be built 4 rows of blocks high, to sufficiently block the wind at our camp.


Behind the wall of snow blocks, we set up 6 expedition tents.  I helped with that task a lot as well, since I have a lot of experience setting up tents and camping. It’s a LOT harder to do this while your hands are in gloves/mittens, and many times we had to quickly take off our mittens to tie a knot or secure a tent pole.  Again, all guidelines needed to be secured with a bamboo pole buried under the snow.  These tents could blow away very easily if not secured.


One of the last things Jen and Suz showed us how to do was dig a trench to sleep in.  I want to point out that the trench is marked with flags so no one will fall in it accidentally.  Our visibility was quite poor by this point and the light was “flat” which means that we could not pick up the definition in the snow.  Everything looked flat and equal, although there were many bumps, hills, drifts, and ripples in the snow. It was easy to fall over in the snow because we’d trip on those bumps along the way.


Once we got the main structures up and everyone had tasks to do, members of our group started the stoves to heat water for hot drinks and dinner.  This was no easy job, because winds had really kicked up.  While the people in the “kitchen” were busy, we all helped set up tents, make snow blocks, and set up camp.  It was about 7:30 in the evening by the time hot drinks were even a possibility.  But, we had stopped several times throughout the afternoon to re-fuel with granola, nuts, chocolate, sandwiches, and water from our own bottles.


Not a very appetizing meal, but I tried the mushroom pilaf.  It was not fully re–hydrated and only luke warm, so VERY unappealing indeed.


Here is a closer look….not so yummy if you ask me!


We were getting frosty from our hours and hours of being outdoors working!  I still wasn’t very cold though, because we had kept moving all afternoon and throughout the early evening.


One job I took on was to flag the route from our camp (seen below) to the outhouses.  We had both a men’s and women’s outhouse.  Although it doesn’t sound that important to flag a route, it was actually VERY important later on as our weather deteriorated and visibility went down to almost nothing at times.


Our deluxe bathroom facilities!  Outside…..(notice the large drifts around the outhouse…it was a challenge just getting down to the outhouse!)


And, the inside….


Husmann students….I braved the cold and wind for this photo!!!!  I think I am starting to look really cold about now!


Look at this line-up of Happy Campers behind our snow block wall…trying to get out of the wind.  We were in “Condition 2” and if you forget what that is, go back to my previous blogs for more information. Our winds were at 51 mph during this time and overnight, and our temps were 15 degrees F (0.4 with wind chill).  Visibility at this point was extremely limited.


Just sitting around for a few minutes could result in a later of snow accumulating on our parkas, snowpants, and boots as seen in the two photos below.



At about 11:00 pm we got into our Scott tent.  Dave, Irina (a Russian scientist observing the WISSARD Project) and I shared a Scott tent for the night.  With all of our gear and bags it was pretty crowded.


This was my view for most of the night (since I didn’t sleep much).  I’ll tell you more about the night in the tent in my next blog entry.  For now, I want to sign off and head to lunch here in McMurdo….out of the wind and elements.  Stay tuned for part two of Happy Camper School.  I’ll post it later today.


28 responses to “Happy Camper School – Snow Survival Training – Day One

  1. Looks like you were busy setting up camp. Did you practice any emergency search skills as before? What were the topics of conversation while you were all sitting around not sleeping and “killing time”?

    • We were really busy setting up camp and that helped keep us warm! As part of our training prior to heading into the field we talked a lot about emergency procedures. Our instructors stayed the night in the We were really busy setting up camp and that helped keep us warm! As part of our training prior to heading into the field we talked a lot about emergency procedures. Our instructors stayed the night in the I-Hut, which isn’t too far away and is along a flagged route. We had a radio to notify them in case of emergency. While we were all hunkered down behind the wall during dinner and after that, we talked about our families. jobs, where we were from, etc. Our group was pretty diverse and we had WISSARD personnel, along with people who did all sorts of jobs in McMurdo…from ktichen/dishwashers to National Science Foundation (NSF) employees in the technology department. I liked having such a wide range of people to meet and work with. We had great teamwork going on!I-Hut, which isn’t too far away and is along a flagged route. We had a radio to notify them in case of emergency. While we were all hunkered down behind the wall during dinner and after that, we talked about our families. jobs, where we were from, etc. Our group was pretty diverse and we had WISSARD personnel, along with people who did all sorts of jobs in McMurdo…from ktichen/dishwashers to National Science Foundation (NSF) employees in the technology department. I liked having such a wide range of people to meet and work with. We had great teamwork going on!

  2. Good golly, are you crazy????????? It does seem fascinating. Stay warm and have a good time. Linda

    • Hey Linda! Yes, I think we were all a bit crazy during this “camp-out.” Today it was beautiful again…sunny, little to no wind and warmer temps. I’m actually glad (now that it’s over) to have had a more Antarctic camping experience than a blue-sky, sunny day!

  3. That weather looks intense! Hope you’re holding up okay and that the blue sky comes back! That hypothermia is definitely something to look out for though… glad Jen and Suz are keeping you safe!

    • Hi Jules! Great to hear from you! I’m holding up just fine. Happy Camper school reminded me of all of the camping and backpacking I’ve done with you and the family, and also with friends. Well, except for the freezing cold, the 51 mph winds and the snow flying everywhere! I’ll take Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry camping any day! Miss you! Love, Mom

    • Hi Hugh! So great to hear from you! Yes, it’s a bit different here than sunny Florida. Keep reading about my adventures and I hope you are having a super day! WARM regards, Boop

  4. hi its super windy it looks hard to stand its really cool oh and take a picture of the submarine making the whole

    • Yes, it was SUPER windy! Did you watch the video…? I hope so. I’ll take lots of photos of everything, you can be sure of that! 🙂

  5. Hey Betty,
    Your pictures are absolutely the best. Keep ’em coming. I love to read your narratives but the pictures really help me understand and visualize your experiences. Thanks so much for taking the time to keep us updated.

    • Thanks Mal….I love including the photos as well…I know it gives my readers a better sense of the conditions and events going on, since it’s sometimes hard to imagine what it’s really like down here in Antarctica. Keep the emails and comments coming! I miss you!

  6. Looks like a lot of fun. I would love to experience. The girls are amazed that you are actually there. Have a great time and we will be checking up on you. XOXO

    • Hi Kari, It’s great to hear from you! Keep those girls and your class following the blogs each day. I’d love some questions from Husmann students. Best way to do that is email at: trummelwissard@aol.com Happy Holidays to everyone back at Husmann!

  7. Hi Mrs Trummel! It’s the students in Mrs. Atkinson’s class! We thought this blog entry was really fascinating. We were wondering what it was like when you had to sleep in the trench? We were also wondering how the sun could be a “hazard” outside. We think it is funny it is called “happy camper.” We would call it “scary, freezing camper” school! We feel bad you had to eat that mushroom pilaf; it didn’t look good to us either. It’s spirit day today so we loved seeing the Husmann banner in Anarctica! We will be visiting this site as a part of our stations, so students will write back soon. Stay warm!

    • Hi Mrs. Atkinson and Class, It’s so great to hear from you. I am glad you are reading my blogs. I liked your revised name for “Happy Camper” school. It certainly was more of a “Scary, Freezing Camper” school that night, wasn’t it?! I’ll tell Jen and Suz, our instructors, about your new name for the class the next time I see them around the station. 🙂 I didn’t sleep in the trench, remember, I just crawled in to check it out. I would have a hard time sleeping in such an enclosed place, unless it was an extreme emergency and I had no choice.

      The sun can be a hazard because it can be very bright and it reflects off of the snow and ice and cause snow blindness. This can be a temporary condition, or you can severely damage your eyes. The second way the sun can be a hazard is that people can get very sunburned. We wear sun screen if we’re going to be outside for any length of time.

      I’m really happy that it was spirit day today at Husmann….what great timing for me to put up that photo of the school banner. I miss my friends at Husmann and I hope you will write back soon. Keep reading my blog posts!

  8. Hi Mrs. Trummel,
    It’s Willem from Husmann. Those winds made our storms here seem like nothing. Do you have storms like those often?

    • Hi Willem, it’s so GREAT to hear from you! Yes, weren’t those winds incredible in the videos I posted? It was quite a night camping out. We do not have storms like that very often this time of the summer season, but they could happen at any time. The weather here can change very quickly and we always have to be prepared with our ECW gear close by. Since I’ve arrive at McMurdo Station we’ve had mostly nice, sunny days with lighter winds. Our highest temperature so far has been 39 degrees F….ABOVE zero! I’m wearing my lighter ECW coat instead of Big Red, at least here in town. When I leave McMurdo Station I take Big Red with me because I never know when the weather will change suddenly. Please tell your whole family hello for me! I miss you all. Happy Holidays! Love, Mrs. Trummel

    • I’ll be safe and warm in my dorm room Linda, until we head into the deep field camp near Lake Whillans. Then I’ll be camping in a tent for 2-3 weeks. I hope we don’t get a crazy storm like the one during Happy Camper school. Love you! xo Mom

  9. Pingback: Cool student research? This is downright cold | NIU Today·

    • That was, by far, the wildest weather we’ve seen so far! Figures that it was the ONE night I had to camp out here. No worries, when we go to the deep field camp I have to camp for 2-3 weeks. Stay tuned for that adventure!

  10. I really like your pictures and videos and I also heard that there is a hundred year old shelter in Antarctica and mabe your science buddies found it.So how is it going in McMurdo station.

    • Hi Jerry,
      Thanks and I’m glad to hear you like the photos and videos. There are several huts/shelters that are 100 years old now. They are protected as special historic places, so people can’t use them as shelters…only to visit and take photographs. They are cool places though! It’s going great at McMurdo Station. I am busy with my science buddies and I hope you will continue to read about our work here! I see you have another comment below…I’ll respond to that one now. 🙂

  11. The class and I had alot of fun in class.We went to gym and music and we got are recorders.We played snowball fight in gym and we practiced playing the recorders in music.We had a social studies test today on the states and capitols.Mrs Gabel said we all did great on the test and im so happy that I got to see you on Skype today.I hope you have a great time in Antarctica see you later.Bye.

    • Hello again Jerry! Your “snowball fight” in gym sounds awesome and I can’t wait to hear how great you all are at playing the recorder! You have weeks to practice until I get back there…so get going! 🙂 Glad to hear everyone did well on the Social Studies test. Keep on studying hard. It was AWESOME to see the class this morning on Skype. I miss you all so much! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Love, Mrs. Trummel

  12. Hi Mrs. Trummel, You’re lucky that you got to go to Antarctica! I think I’d like to go there someday. See you soon! Jordan Tress

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