Posted on behalf of Chaz Firestone
New arrivals to McMurdo undergo a grueling field training process affectionately called “Happy Camper Training,” which involves spending the night in a tent camped out on sea ice. But due to the brevity of our visit to Antarctica, we didn’t have time to spend the night, so our training session today was bumped down a notch to “Happy Picnic Training.”
Still, we got our money’s worth from the training session. When pitching a tent in Antarctica, you can’t simply drive a peg into the ground to anchor your tent’s fly, because snow is looser and thinner than land and the peg would jump out of the anchoring hole in a heavy wind. So instead, Antarctic tent-pitchers use a method called “burying a deadman.”
To bury a deadman, dig a trench about half a meter deep, wrap the fly’s strings around the peg, toss the peg into the hole, cover the hole with snow and stomp on the “grave” until it’s compact. If you’ve done it properly and laid the peg horizontally in your trench (instead of vertically like a regular tent anchor), even strong winds won’t be enough to rip the peg out of the snow. Another way to guard against the wind is to build a wall of snow bricks, which you can quarry from the snow by sawing out cubes and lifting them out with a shovel. Constructing the wall outside the door to your tent shields you from harsh winds that threaten to blow your tent away.
During a lunch break, we were joined by a skua (Stercorarius antarctica), the Antarctic equivalent of an American pigeon, at least behaviorally. Skuas (right) are the curious nuisances of the sky here, and though they’re not quite as common as pigeons, they are just as desperate for whatever scraps of food a wandering human may have. This is actually a problem in Antarctica, where environmental protection is a high priority: McMurdo residents are careful not affect the natural balance of life here, and the rule of thumb is that “if an animal reacts to your behaviour, you’re too close.”
After lunch, we finished our training about two hours ahead of schedule, so our field training specialist used the extra time to give us a treat. We all hopped into the Hägglund snow and ice vehicle that we had used to get to the sea ice and drove an hour away from our spot on the McMurdo Sound to a more remote location on Ross Island. He called this spot “the room with a view,” and told us that staffers are occasionally brought there on “morale trips.”
When we exited the Hägglund, we could see why: We emerged in the middle of a field of snow and ice extending miles in each direction, with a thick white haze percolating around us, veiling a view of distant mountains (right). The sun occasionally peeked through the overcast sky, but for most of the time we just stood there, intimately enveloped by the continent. One other journalist and I suggested we all try a moment of silence, and when the group agreed, we witnessed the most acute absence of sound imaginable. In the middle of that deafening silence, it almost felt as if we were not supposed to see what we were seeing, and that somehow we had snuck through a back door and ended up with a view kept secret to the rest of the world.
Hopefully the camera does some kind of justice to the pristine beauty of this site.