Antarctic winterers’ training

(Story)

As part of our preparation for the 18 month Antarctic mission, the wintering teams of Bird Island, Halley, King Edward Point and Rothera stations of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) had a week long outdoor training in Derbyshire, UK. However the sessions focused on more or less the same outdoor skills that are used by mountaineers, these were all placed in the very special context of the Antarctic environment, which made the whole training different from those I had before, and so assumed it might be interesting for you too. Please consider that this post is a story and not an advice, the descriptions are neither detailed nor accurate enough to be used as a training material.

Weather and risk assessment

The scope of the training was the safe outdoor operation in the special environment of the Brunt ice-shelf in Antarctica: a large, flat, floating ice attached to the Antarctic continent and bordered by the Southern sea. The weather of the shelf is harsh: temperature from 0°C to -50°C (32 to -58 °F), wind speed up to 150 km/h (80 knots), typically dry air and precipitation in form of snow. The primary source of danger is the cold itself, which can be the direct cause of frostbite and hypothermia, and the indirect cause of incidents related to the „getting to home syndrome”, which has the main symptoms of hurry, bad judgment and corner cutting and results last-mile incidents. The feeling of cold is not simply related to the temperature but also significantly effected by the wind speed and the precipitation, therefore the weather, which can also obstruct both the sight and hearing and change the terrain by moving large amount of snow, has a massive impact on the risk level in general. The other big natural source of danger are the crevasses: these disguised, always hungry ice-cracks can swallow skiers, sleighs and even huge machines without problem. However, the two scariest dangers are man-made: the carbon-monoxide and the uncontrolled fire, both side-products of the efforts to create a livable environment in that vast frozen desert.

However the last fatal incident involving BAS personnel was a leopard seal attack a few years ago, it was a unique and unforeseeable incident – even though BAS has significantly limited the research diving and completely banned the recreational diving – so it is rarely mentioned as a lecture example. The risk that caused the most fatal incidents in the last couple of decades all over the Antarctica was the carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Clothing

Since the main source of risks is the cold, we started with the protection against it, which is the clothing. Similar to most outdoor kits the clothing has three main functional groups: the sweat extracting base layer, the air filled heat insulating inner layer, and the wind-proof, physically durable outer layer. Since the body is continuously generating the heat this system can protect from hypothermia even in extreme cold. The user cand adjust the temperature by taking on and off some of the inner insulating layers according to the weather and the physical activity. The difference between digging a hole on the sun in a calm weather and then getting on the ski-doo and travelling with 30 km/h (17 mph) getting in and out the shades of a patchy sky can be huge. The clothing has to cover the whole body because even if the core temperature is normal any exposed part of it can suffer a frost-bite, especially if the overall clothing is insufficient, in which case the body heat retreats from the outer regions to the core by narrowing the capillaries. If the temperature of any body part reduces to -2°C (28°F) the blood starts to freeze and it slows down then stops the circulation of the effected body part resulting numbness, insensibility and finally the death of the tissues starting from the surface. Frost-bite can be prevented by systematically covering the whole outer surface of the body with insulating and wind-proof material: hat, scarf, balaclava, mask, ski goggles, gloves, and socks overlaying each other and in multiple layers if necessary. BAS provides a tested clothing kit for all its workers travelling to the Antarctica, which can protect its user even on the coldest days. The reason for cold injuries is therefore typically human error such as misjudgement of the weather conditions, unpreparedness for weather change or leaving certain parts of the body exposed to the cold, most typically the ear, nose and cheek.

There are still numerous frost-bite injuries happen at the Antarctic stations of BAS. One of the previous winterers told me the story that he arrived back from the work and found a small dark spot on his cheek. He rubbed it and it fell of leaving a ugly and painful wound behind. It was a frost-bite between the ski-goggles and the mask and he did not even feel any of it.

Shelter

The secondary protection against cold is the shelter, which enables us to warm up, eat, work and sleep comfortably. Shelters can be found in many forms in Antarctica. The Halley station is a modular building complex powered by its own generator. There are other buildings powered from generators, like the emergency living module, the science cabooses and the temporary container camps used during the relocation of the station. Since these buildings are heated one just enters them and can immediately rest and stay in comfort. The second type of shelters are not powered from generators, but they are fireproof and have good ventilation so they can be heated up using primus stoves. A typical example is the pyramid tent similar to those what Scott used a century ago, but the halfway caboose between the present and the relocation site is also like this. Pyramid tents are generally packed and pulled on a sledge behind the ski-doos in all cases, when a party goes away from the station even if they cross only the 23 km (14 mi) distance between the two Halley sites, since if a bad weather comes in during the journey, the best choice is generally to make a camp and wait until it goes. Although these tents are not the light-weight 5 sec types, they are still relative simple to pitch, spacious enough to house two or three persons and equipment, has a high attic where clothes can be dried and they are absolutely bomb-proof, so one can sleep well in them even in the greatest storm sweeping down the ice-shelf. The primus stove itself is an old, reliable construction, almost the same that was used in the heroic age of Antarctica. It is powered by kerosine and generates a massive amount of heat, which is vital for melting ice to get water for drinking and cooking. Their disadvantage is the they potentially generate CO that is a colorless, odorless gas that can accumulate in the air of the tent and if breathed in, it blocks the oxygen transportation capability of the blood and leads to sleepiness, unconsciousness and finally to drowning. To prevent this, the tent has to always have a good ventilation, and stoves has to be always observed by someone. BAS has also modified the primus stove to generate the least possible CO and provided gas sensors with multiple alarm levels for all stoves. The third type of shelter provides solely protection against wind a precipitation, which is enough to enable a good night sleep in the thick sleeping bags provided with them. These light-weight tents and bivy-bags are used only when the weight is a limiting issue, so generally on airplanes and with skis. Light-weight packing is not typical at the Antarctica due to the harsh and changeable weather: redundancy and reserves are the pillars of survival. These shelters provide more than enough protection against the Antarctic conditions if they are used well. So the training was mainly a user’s manual and a practice opportunity for us.

A weather windows is a short time period with flyable weather between long periods of not flyable weather. For a field party that was forced to stay in the tent for days due to the bad weather this window is the opportunity to escape from the field and get home, thus this is a typical source of incidents caused by hurried preparation. A few years ago a field party had to pack in hurry to reach a weather window and a fire extinguisher got somehow into an unlabeled bucket. After they landed and emptied the plane the bucket ended up in the waste incinerator container, where one of the operators dropped it into the fire. The extinguisher blew up and triggered a major incident alarm on the station. Fortunately nobody has injured.

Rope technique

The Brunt ice-shelf is a large glacier flowing off the Antarctic plateau into the sea. It is floating on the top of the water and moving away from the continent pushed by the upper part of the glacier fed by the heavy snowing at the coastal regions. As it moves North it slowly melts from its bottom and every now and then parts are breaking off it and drifting away as ice-bergs. This continuous movement creates crevasses in the ice-shelf from the width of a few centimeters up to multiple meters. Since many of these crevasses are covered by snow, they pose a significant danger to lone travelers, and even though there are ways to detect these crevasses using probes, ground penetrating radars, and satellite images, the best practice is still that multiple travelers connect to each other with rope, no matter if they are travelling on skis or ski-doos. Since there are no mountains at the Brunt ice-shelf, the rope technique training focused mainly on the glacier related skills. We learned how to connect to each other, stop the other’s fall, install anchors, abseil down and climb up on the rope and how to pull our mate out of a crevasse alone with a 5:1 pulley system. However there are multiple ways of doing these, BAS preferred to standerdise both the techniques and the equipment, so one can find the same kit at every stations, cabooses and field packs and able to use them immediately. This standard kit containing carabines, ice-screws, slings, pulleys, jumars, prusiks and a belay plate, is hanging on everyone’s harness who travel outside the station perimeter. In case of a ski-doo travel, the vehicles are connected to each other and the drivers are connected to their vehicles. Compared to what I learned before about these techniques I found the BAS standard a very simple a reliable way that can be quickly learned and applied by anyone. This is very important, because on a field work it is typically the field guide who walks in the front, so if someone falls it will be likely him/her, and will have to rely on his/her partner to hold them and pull them out if necessary.

Once a field party was travelling back to base and one of their ski-doos broke down, instead of waiting for the mechanic they decided to travel the rest of the distance together on the operating ski-doo. A couple of miles from the station they fell into a crevasse and both died. This very unfortunate event is an example of the getting-to-home syndrome, due to which they neglected the glacier travel rules. It also shows that crevasses can be dangerous even on the well known areas close to the stations.

Navigation

Antarctica is a place larger than Australia with the population of a town, so one thing you definitely want to avoid is getting lost there. Moreover, navigation on the featureless Brunt ice-shelf can be extremely challenging. There are no roads, no electrical wires, no rivers, no forests, no hills or valleys, between the sea and the edge of the continent the area is really like a desert. If even the weather comes in with its typical white-out caused by fog or snow-blast, the navigation becomes almost impossible, you might just leave your tent to ease yourself and you might never find it again. Your footprints are covered by snow, you see less than a meter away and your voice is blown away by the wind, what would you do? To experience these difficulties we had to walk up and down on a field with a bucket on our head trying to find certain points. The experience was shocking, even walking straight for 10 meters was almost impossible without the visual confirmation. But there are some techniques that can help in these situations and we were practicing these afterwards. A compass makes a major difference in the accuracy of walking straight. I managed to approach a small pile of rocks in 50 meters distance by walking slowly and stopping regularly to correct my heading. It was a slow process, but I didn’t get lost. Cubic and spiral search can help a lot too if you get lost with no map or compass, both consist of a small number of straight steps and 90° turns to sweep the area around you, the only difference is that with the cubic search you always return to the starting point, while with the spiral search you are getting gradually away from it by widening the circle of search. One thing we couldn’t experience on the fields of Derbyshire was the panic. Getting lost is a terrible feeling and by the efforts to quickly get back on the route again most people act in hurry and without thinking. The best practice tells that in case you are lost, you have to stop, take some extra clothes on, rest, eat, drink and try to calm down, and only after all these should you start finding your way. Of course technology can aid the navigation a lot: the field parties are equipped with compass, maps and GPS, the frequently used routes are indicated by flag lines and the perimeter of station on indicated by containers, and even if you manage to get totally lost, you can still contact the others, as for advice or settle down, get protected from the wind and wait for the rescue team or until the weather gets better.

A field assistant told me that he had been camping in a blowing snow so strong that they had to belay each other when they went to ease themselves outside the tent, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to find the way back.

Communication

Out of all the modern technologies used at the Antarctica the communication is the one that has reduced the risks the most significantly. Nobody is alone out there any more. The team members can continuously talk to each other on the VHF radios, the field parties regularly contact the stations by HF radio or call any number in the world using the iridium satellite-phone, and all stations have a direct line to Cambridge through the satellite link. We have been trained for using all these communication devices, which wasn’t that hard in fact. The VHF radios are simple walkie-talkies, you switch to channel 6, press the button and talk. The HF radio is a bit more complicated, because the frequency has to be selected manually and the antenna has to be adjusted accordingly, which requires a little playing with it, but in return it is very powerful and cheap communication, since the radio waves are reflected by the ionosphere it is not only possible to contact the base from hundreds of kilometers, but the signal can be sometimes picked up even on the northern hemisphere. The iridium phone is really just like an old mobile phone, you turn it on, wait for the signal and then dial the number, although both the price of the device and the call is many times the price of a mobile phone system. The satellite link between the stations and Cambridge is always alive so to call the office you only have to dial an extension and you can talk as you would do to the next room.

Actually, I always wanted an iridium phone for my mountaineering trips in case of emergency, but it was too expensive for me to buy one. In this respect I will be less cut from the world in an Antarctic field journey then between the Swiss Alps.

Search and rescue

If one of the above goes wrong that generally does not mean a huge trouble. If you fall into a crevasse, your mate will hold you and pull you out. If the carbon-monoxide accumulates in the tent the alarm sounds, you turn off the stove and generate some ventilation. If bad weather comes you stop, pitch your tent, sit and drink tea until it goes away. If you loose the path, you get your GPS, or map and compass and find your way back to it. In most cases a professional field guide is always with you if you are outside of the station perimeter, but even if not and you are in doubt, you can call the station any time and ask for advice. At least two or three things has to go wrong before you get into trouble and at least one of these is generally a poor decision you made. In this case, when you cannot resolve the situation yourself, you have to rely on the rest of the team. There is no mountain rescue team, no firefighters or police down there. It will be the station leader, the field guides, the chef, the doctor, the plumber, the electrician, the engineers or the vehicle mechanics who will go and help you out of the trouble. That is why we were all trained how to sweep areas in team in case the range of hearing and sight is limited. How to provide first aid and how to transport the injured person back to the station. This is a tricky thing though, because people tend to get into trouble in bad weather, and bad weather is not something that you want to go out and search for others. Also, sending out a rescue team means that there are then a dozen people walking outside in that bad weather, who has to look after themselves, each other and even search for the missing person. This is why the first thing someone in trouble should do is to find shelter and keep in touch with the base, because it can take a while to carry out the rescue.

A previous winterer told me that it happened to her that she walked along the flagline back to the station, but suddenly she couldn’t see the next flag from the blowing snow. The best she could do is to sit tight and contact the base. Fortunately, they quickly located her and they sent out a man on rope to get her back to the station. If she would attempted to find the next flag and got lost, it would have taken much more time to find her.

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One thought on “Antarctic winterers’ training

  1. Pingback: Ready for Antarctica | GABOR|GEREB

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