Training for Antarctica

Ablation Point, Alexander Island, Antarctic Peninsula

It’s now less than two months until we depart for Ablation Point, Alexander Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, and it’s important that you’re fit and healthy. I’ve been doing lots of exercise recently, and am trying to climb a mountain every weekend in preparation! Fortunately there are lots to choose from in Aberystwyth. You also need to pass stringent medicals and attend a training course set by the British Antarctic Survey to be allowed to go. I attended the Girton Conference in September 2010, and so am excused, but am reminded of it now, as several of my colleagues are attending.

The Girton Conference, run in September by BAS at Girton College, Cambridge, aims to make sure you are well prepared for your trip South. The aim of the conference is to introduce participants to life in Antarctica, what station life is like, and to meet the other participants. The majority of people going South are not scientists; BAS needs huge numbers of field assistants, mast erectors, carpenters, builders, plumbers, pilots, comms managers, station assistants, cooks, divers and boatmen just to keep the station running. So it was interesting to meet the huge variety of people, with wide ranging experiences and careers. Most people go onto Base and they stay for different amounts of time. We met a BBC TV crew who will visit Rothera for three days, and a biologist going to King Edward Point for two and a half years. Now that’s a commitment!

We had many talks at the Girton Conference, including introducing the science, what to expect, how to cope with the isolation, not drinking too much and even relationship advice! It was interesting to learn about the different BAS bases. Halley 6, for example, is currently being built. It will walk on the floating ice shelf and be towed away from the calving margin. The legs of the Halley station can be cranked up as otherwise falling snow buries the base. Rothera is the main BAS base, on Adelaide Island, Antarctic Peninsula. It will have around 100 people at any one time over the summer. Rothera is where penguins are most visible, but you have to go to Halley to see Emperor Penguins. The smaller stations, like Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu, are only manned during the summer and only house around 4 people. The fuel drums need to marked with GPS and dug out each summer!

After the Girton Conference, you must attend First Aid Plus, a course designed and run by BASMU, the BAS Medical Unit, which comprises doctors who go South or provide support to Antarctic doctors. The first aid course is not accredited, because we learn things beyond the UK First Aid at Work guidelines, including carbon monoxide poisoning, setting broken bones in plaster cast (a very fun morning), traction splints, giving injections, and spinal boards. There is an emphasis, for some reason, on hypothermia and frost bite! The highlight at the end were the ‘casualties’ who dressed wounds up in fake gore and blood. After one incident, we were advised that rugby tackling the hypothermic and uncooperative patient was perhaps not the best course of action…

In the field, two people sleep, cook and eat in these pyramid tents. The use of paraffin stoves inside the tent carries a carbon monoxide hazard, so we learned how to use the stoves properly without poisoning ourselves. This can include digging away snow from the outsides of the ventile tent, because snow prevents the tent from venting properly. The centre has food boxes and kit, with rails in which to set the paraffin stove. This reduces the risk of knocking the stove over. However, without the boxes, the only way into the tent is to dive straight in, and hope there is no one on the other side! The ‘half unit’ consists of a ventile ‘pup’ tent, to be taken on day trips away from camp.

Search and rescue training in whited-out goggles

The final stage in the training was navigation, rope work and crevasse rescue. Some of us have some rock climbing experience, but this was quite daunting to some participants! However, the field assistants, who were instructing us, made things very clear and gave clear instructions. We learned how to tie in to a harness, walk as an alpine pair, arrest a fall down a crevasse, escape the system, abseil down the rope, jumar up, and set up a Z drag to haul an unconscious casualty to safety. The best part, in my opinion, was search and rescue training in a blizzard. We all wore whited-out goggles, and walked around the heather looking for a casualty, much to the amusement of all the passers by! The technique is to rope up, and walk in ever larger concentric circles, until you (literally, in my case), fall over the casualty.

Learning how to put up a pyramid tent on the Field Course, September 2010.

The Field Course took place straight after that in the Peak District. Here, we learned how to set up the Pyramid Tent, which will be our home for 2 months. The ventile pyramid tents are strong, waterproof and durable, and can cope with the 90 mile an hour gusts we will probably experience. The only entrance is a round hole, which can be tied up to keep out wind and snow. In cold temperatures, plastic zips and velcro break and become matted with snow and ice. The sleeping system comprises a sheepskin rug, karrimat, thermarest, sleeping bag liner and a down sleeping bag.

The Girton Conference and associated training has really begun to bring home just how far away we’re going and made it all seem very imminent. While we’re deep field, we will not be able to contact our families, and miss several important occasions – birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. We will have a HF radio call with Rothera every day, a ‘sked’ (Scheduled Broadcast). Of course, we’re well trained, and we have a field assistant (a mountain guide) to look after us and make sure we don’t do anything daft. We’re looking forward to meeting him in Rothera in November.

Learning to ascend the rope if you fall into a crevasse

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