Saturday, January 8, 2011

Happy Camper School

Happy Camper School: English Instructor Gets Passing Grade in Survival School

Since the conditions here are so unforgiving—one can get frostbite in just a few minutes, and crevasses around camp have swallowed entire D-8 bulldozers—prior to going into the field, one must complete a two-day survival course, the so-called “Happy Camper School.”

Graduates learn how to dig survival snow trenches, operate long-range radios, recognize and treat cold-weather injuries, troubleshoot camp stoves, and all the other kinds of things that one needs to be a safe, productive member of an expedition. Here we are loading up sleds to haul our gear to a field site, where we will build igloo walls to protect our mountaineering tents from the wind.

Our teacher, Brian, shares with me a love of the Mojave Desert, and one of his favorite rock climbing sites is Joshua Tree National Park. During the summer he is the lead climbing ranger at Mt. Ranier National Park, and during the northern winter, when that seasonal job is in hiatus, he follows the sun south. Our wintertime in the US is in the summer in the far south, and in Antarctica during the austral summer Brian shows English teachers and electricians, helicopter pilots and lab techs what to do if our plane crash lands and we have to spend a night in the open. And he knows first hand what he is talking about, since he also is the head of the local search and rescue team.

We set up our camp with dedication, even zeal. We had a very elegant igloo-inspired wind wall (at least I was glad that the parts I built were true to course and didn’t fall over), and our kitchen pit in which to cook meals and melt snow for drinking water even had little pantry coves dug into the ice so we could put our stoves away out of the wind once the meals were over. Some of us slept in tents and some opted for snow caves, the most elaborate of which was eight feet deep and even had bamboo rods drilled into the walls as coat hooks! Our instructor, though, has “been there and done that,” so he left us to our projects and drove off with the snowmobile to spend the night in the search and rescue hut 21.

We practiced responding to a set of sample disasters, including the one that involves the famous white bucket dance. Winds can come up unpredictably anywhere in Antarctica, not just the South Pole, and where I am stationed now, McMurdo Base, there are hundreds of horror stories of people trapped by whiteout conditions. At the most extreme, “Condition 1,” it’s not even safe to leave the McMurdo cafeteria and try to run across the road to your dorm: you’ll get knocked flat by a 100 mile an hour gust, or just get disorientated and wander onto the sea ice. As part of one of our assignments, we had to come up with a rescue plan for a worker who had left the building in a whiteout and had not returned. To show us how easily you can get lost, we each got to wear a white bucket on our heads.

Some of the Happy Camper lectures take place out of doors, as shown in these previous shots, but some are in the Happy Camper Lecture Hall, below. This ex-Army tent has survived two wars—the Korean War and the Vietnam War—and sitting on a wooden bench inside, I halfway expected Radar O’Reilley to poke his head in and tell Hawkeye that Colonel Potter wanted to see him. Last year some of the Happy Campers were given rations dated 1994, so I guess we were lucky, as none of our food issue was older than 2001!

There is no graduation ceremony, and as with so many things in life—anybody old enough to remember the “duck and cover” drill of the Cold War?—one hopes that most of this knowledge will go unused.

The final question is, since I have been to Happy Camper School, am I now indeed a happy camper?

I am.

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