As I have told you before, at this time of year the sun never sets in Antarctica. It can be disorienting at first and then after a week or so you begin to realize that there is no way to get oriented to permanent sunshine, so you just stop trying. I will add to this, that McMurdo Station is no place to be if you don’t wear a watch, or at least have a clock app on your cell phone. I have neither. But I have not been late for anything yet. I am so jazzed about everything that happens here that I am routinely early.
So, when the team was finally set up in the camp, tents made, kitchen cooking and safety plans in place, our facilitator Paul drove off in the only vehicle we had. He didn’t go far, in fact we could see the vehicle and the outpost he was staying at from where we were. It was tempting to go over in the night and crash the place. We knew it had a heater, and that we could all fit in there, but the challenge of actually sleeping outdoors overnight in Antarctica is something none of us was willing to trade. We did discuss walking over there and serenading Paul with some Christmas carols (yeah, that was my idea) but we decided against it when we realized none of us knew all the words to anything. So out came the shovels and the igloos rose and the holes went deep into the ground. We must have worked at it till nearly midnight. That was quite a fete considering that three of our company had just gotten off of the night shift prior to starting the Happy Camper class. Tough guys. They had been awake for over 36 hours and where still going strong when I crawled into my tent at 12:30.
This was the true moment of self reflection. I had no doubt that the tent was set up correctly, as Alyssa, my partner has lots of experience with camping and is in fact an outdoor guide in Alaska when she is not here. The hard part was willing myself to actually take off clothes before crawling into the sleeping bag. The big heavy bunny boots would have to go, and I knew that the ice buildup on my Carhart overalls would melt and cause problems inside the bag, so those had to go too. But it was maybe 15 degrees outside and only slightly warmer in the tent. I had taken Paul’s advise, and walked around the camp site till I felt warm, and all the effort I had exerted during the evening cutting the trough for Alyssa’s borough paid off. I was warm. I crawled in and the sleeping bag rewarded me almost immediately. I pulled the balaclava over my eyes and was asleep in about 2 minutes.
I awoke some time later to the sound of the wind rustling the bottom edge of the sleeping bag and noticed that my nose was itchy. I reached up to scratch it and knew I had a sunburn. Not the worst I’ve ever had, but definitely a bad one. I had used sunscreen in the morning before the class work, and applied it a second time when we got out on the ice, but didn’t judge how much had warn off during all the exertion of digging in. You really can’t forget about how intense the UV rays are. And despite the low ceiling and the heavy cover of clouds, the reflective light coming off the snow did just what it wanted to; found a home on my white Irish skin. More sunscreen, and thank God it has aloe in it. I would be OK for the rest of the day.
Part of the plan was for our acting team leader to call Paul in the morning (8:30am) on the radio he left with us. Paul insisted that we hit our check-in time promptly as it is a critical safety issue for McM Base operations anytime a team leaves base. He also insisted that we strike the camp and load up our gear to be ready to reload the Hoaglan at 10 sharp. We did. And we were ready. Sort of. One of our guys had dug such a nice cave and covered it so well that he was able to sleep through the entire morning, despite the noise and laughter that we other ten were making while striking camp. It was Paul who actually did a head count when he arrived. Then we had to go and find the guy that was missing. Once he was up it only took a couple of minutes to load his gear and we were off again. Lucky for him, Paul has eleven fingers.
Then came the Remote camp again. We all sat inside to warm-up while Paul demonstrated the various types of radios we need to be able to use for emergency communication. It was not critical knowledge for the camping we did the night before, but it would be necessary for any of us who would be working at a remote sight for any length of time. Then came the bucket test. It is a drill to help us prepare for the white-out conditions that happen here on a regular basis.
Strong winds can turn loose snow into a sandblaster, and visibility can be reduced to a few feet in front of you. Even really big buildings, brightly colored, can be invisible under these conditions. So how do you prepare for that? You put a bucket over your head and walk outside the building. The object of the test was for the team to recover a “lost” teammate who went missing during white-out conditions. One of the firefighters who was on our team came up with an excellent strategy. With the 100 foot emergency rope that was in the Remote, we each were to move out the door at five foot intervals. The foremost man was to walk in the direction of the out-house, and as we all strung out behind him, we would create a human chain that could safely cover the ground to look for our lost man. We would then sweep like the second hand of a clock around the perimeter of the Remote. Unfortunately, the disorientation that comes with walking with a bucket on your head created a dependence on the sense of touch. Our front man never let go of the wall of the Remote and lead the rest of us entirely around the building…not out toward the out-house:)
We all had a good laugh, and Paul was very understanding. This was not his first rodeo. The urge to cheat and lift the bucket to see was overwhelming. The broken terrain of windswept ice and snow made footing treacherous at best, and the very real fear that if anything went wrong you may become a casualty as well, made all of us pay much more attention to the conclusion of this exercise. The risk to the many outweighs the loss of the one. Be smarter than the storm. Avoid putting yourself in harms way. And while I am editing these very important lessons for this post, believe me when I say I will not forget what I have learned. The sunburn got me even though I was prepared for it. I was able to stave off the frost bite by recognizing the tingle and changing my gloves. I even used all of the information possible to build shelters that would fend off a storm. But when a real storm hits you must be capable of some very hard decisions. The best decision is to not put yourself at risk.
When we finally arrived back at McM we put away the team gear, replenished the stock of foods we had eaten and thanked Paul for a very important and well lead team building exercise. And then I went to the Hospital for some much needed Aloe Vera. Not to worry. Tonight is the masquerade ball, so no one will know that I’m burned until Sunday.