On the Ice With Education Week, Page 2

By David J. Hoff — January 10, 2001 8 min read
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Assistant Editor David J. Hoff and Photo Editor Allison Shelley continue to file dispatches from Antarctica about their experiences and those of the teachers they are there to chronicle. In the entries below, they find that outdoor-survival training is an unexpected treat and discover the pleasure of the “boondoggle"—that is, a trip or event that gets you out of the research station.

Jump to January 6 | January 10

Gear is off-loaded from a Nodwell tracked vehicle at the beginning of Happy Camper Snow School on the ice shelf.
-Allison Shelley

Snow Mound City, Antarctica, (Jan. 6)—As soon as we arrived at the McMurdo Research Station two days ago, we received a notice that we’d be attending “field-safety training” the following morning. It sounded ominous. We’d be learning how to survive in the fiercest weather conditions on the planet, and we’d be required to stay overnight on a section of sea ice called Snow Mound City. It’s named for the igloos, snow trenches, and snow caves built by the survival-skill classes that take place in the area throughout the summer research season.

A Happy Camper pulls a sled full of supplies across the snow.
-Allison Shelley

In truth, the course may be the most fun to be had on the continent. You get to learn how to build snow shelters and set up every kind of tent used in the U.S. Antarctic program. You’re fed as many sandwiches, chocolates, granola bars, and other snacks as you can eat. If the weather is fair—say in the 20s with light winds, as it was the past two days for us—it can be the highlight of an Antarctic visit. Everyone at McMurdo calls it Happy Camper School. Anyone who will travel far from the main research station is required to take it; anyone who has been working since October in the kitchen, firehouse, or any of the support services wants to take it. For them, it’s a vacation.

Field Safety Instructor Forrest McCarthy briefs the group on safely anchoring a Scott tent.
-Allison Shelley

The overriding message at Happy Camper School is that Antarctica is unlike any other place on Earth. The storms are more hazardous, the topography more dangerous, and the sun more intense than elsewhere.

Things are rarely as they seem. As Ty Milford, one the professional mountaineers who leads our course, shows the mountains in surrounding areas, he points to Mount Terror to the south, at the end of a long, flat sheet of ice on which we stand. The mountain appears to be about a day’s walk away and looks as if it could be scaled easily. In fact, it’s about 30 miles away and 10,600 feet tall. With no trees, hills, or buildings in our view, there is nothing to put the giant mountain in perspective.

View through the ruins of an ice wall.
-Allison Shelley

It’s just another example of how disorienting everything can be when you first arrive on this continent. The biggest change is the cycle of the sun. During the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, it never sets. Instead of arching over the sky during the day, as it does in North America, it simply circles around the sky. Consequently, after we set up camp on Friday afternoon, I have this overriding sense that we need to start boiling water and cooking dinner. My instincts from camping in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter trick me into believing that the sun will set soon. We have all night to cook.

Snow Mound City, the location of snow school, at the end of the day, with Castle Rock behind.
-Allison Shelley

After dinner, the slight wind that has cooled us all day dies down. With the temperature approaching 30 degrees, we peel off our heavy parkas and enjoy the evening in our fleece jackets. Some among us strip down to their long-underwear shirts. A small group of us take a hike. We can see our destination a mile down the road (though it looks closer), and we know we can return to camp before darkness comes—in about six weeks.

At 10 p.m., I know it is time for bed because I start yawning. I go into the tent, climb into the sleeping bag, and pull a hat over my eyes. It is the only darkness to be found for hundreds of miles around.

McMurdo Research Station (Jan. 10)—When you arrive on a sea-ice runway, Antarctica appears to be a vast wilderness. Mountains surround you, and when it’s clear, you can see ranges 60 miles away. You ride in a bus across the ice of the Ross Sea, which is covered with a blanket of pure white snow. The beauty shocks you.

About 20 minutes into the drive, the bus climbs a hill. The vast whiteness of the sea ice gives way to a drab, brown volcanic ash. The bus crests the hill, and you see the McMurdo Research Station.

A view of McMurdo from Observation Hill.
—Allison Shelley

The complex of buildings looks more like an industrial zone than a piece of the most remote continent on earth. The campus is speckled with military-style buildings of several bland colors, and includes a waste-management complex with compacted trash, compost, and recycling that await shipping back to the United States.

Its residents usually call it “Mac Town.” But this time of year—when temperatures often sneak above 32 degrees Fahrenheit—its nickname becomes “McMudhole.” (The weather during our visit has been below freezing, leaving little mud to dodge as we make our way around town.)

Most travelers in the U.S. Antarctic Program pass through McMurdo. The population nears 1,000 people this time of year, including the scientists who work in their labs and the employees who keep the place running.

On the morning after my arrival, I figure out not everyone wants to be in McMurdo. I sit at breakfast with Timothy Welch, a biologist who was on my flight the day before. I quiz him about the research on penguin physiology that he’s here to conduct. He says his camp was right near the airfield.

“So you’re going to go back and forth every day,” I ask.

“Nah, we stay out there,” he responds. “Nobody wants to be in town.”

Every day, I see that. If it’s not a scientist staying at a field camp, it’s a firefighter or a computer-network specialist in search of a boondoggle—a trip or event that gets someone out of McMurdo. People want to venture out because here they get little of the beauty that lies on the other side of the surrounding hills.

At our outdoor-survival training, the crew released from the kitchen for the weekend acted as if the camp-out was the best thing to happen since they arrived in October. One fireman left camping school early because he was the winner of a lottery for a helicopter ride around the area. Now that a U.S. Coast Guard ship has arrived here, people are hoping to be selected in a random drawing for a cruise through the channel that the ship chopped in the ice of McMurdo Sound.

Other boondoggles occur merely because individuals, like me, are in the right place at the right time.

On Wednesday afternoon, my colleague Allison Shelley and I revisit survival training to catch up with Kevin Lavigne, a Hanover, N.H., teacher here for a National Science Foundation program in which science teachers participate in scientific research specific to Antarctica. (Editor’s note: Listen to a narration of the walk to survival training. Requires the RealAudio Player.)

We decide to stay the night because there’s plenty of room in the snow structures still standing from our and other classes. Sleeping in the blue light created by sunlight reflecting off a roof made of snow is more appealing than the windowless dorm room in McMurdo. Call it a boondoggle.

This morning, though, the instructor announces another treat.

The Penguin Pool has been home to a dozen juvenile penguins involuntarily taking part in a research project.
—Allison Shelley

The Penguin Pool, one of the camps on the sea ice, radioed him and asked that he inspect a pool of slush forming on the edge of that camp. As one of McMurdo’s safety officers, he needs to check it out.

We hop in his tractor-like vehicle and rumble over the snow for about 15 minutes. Waiting for us at the camp are Timothy Welch and Torre Knower.

The instructor looks at the slush and quickly tells them not to worry. The ice underneath is firm, but people should avoid walking near it. Their biggest problem, he says, will probably be seals poking through and disturbing the penguins they’re observing in the pens next door.

They’ve already experienced that, they tell us. The seals entered the pools the researchers created for the penguins to swim in. Although the researchers boarded up the pool, there’s still enough air for the invaders to lie underneath the boards and rest. A few minutes later, we hear deep breaths and gentle snores from underneath the water.

The instructor’s work is done, but our boondoggle continues. We and the other campers get out our cameras. Timothy and Torre, who’s also a biologist, are happy to tell about their research.

Their team found the emperor penguins as chicks after the birds’ rookeries abandoned them. Now, they’re 5 months old and about 40 inches tall. The researchers observe them while they learn to swim in the pools.

These five-month-old emperor penguins are part of a research project measuring their migratory patterns and response to exercise.
—Allison Shelley

When the researchers break camp next month, they will place transmitters on six of the penguins’ backs. One is already wearing the device in a trial run. The researchers are hoping they can trace the birds’ migration. They know little about penguin behavior because it’s difficult to catch and mark them, the way many researchers do with seals here.

Even if the transmitter works, it will be gone in a year, after the penguins molt their feathers for a new season, Torre says.

After we all sign the guest book at Penguin Pool, we jump in the vehicle and drive away. The boondoggle is over. It’s time for the rest of survival training, and eventually a return to McMurdo.

Photography made possible through a generous donation of digital equipment from the Eastman Kodak Company (


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