“The problem is, when you get back, people always ask you what Antarctica is like. What do you say?” said Stu Arnold, our field trainer, shrugging and looking out across the endless white plain of the Ross Ice Shelf. After a pause, he answered his own question: “Big. White. Cold. Awesome.”
I’m with Stu. It’s big. It’s white. It’s cold. And it’s awesome.
We stayed our first night at Scott Base, but before we could go anywhere else – to the historic huts, to scientists’ field camps, for a walk on the pressure ridges – we needed to go through Antarctic field training. “If I throw you out there and get you to survive on your natural instincts, you’ll pretty much get spanked out there”, said Stu.
So our natural instincts have now been enhanced with many hours of breifings (including powerpoint presentations!) on a range of topics all around being safe on and off base. The difference between a black flag (danger, stay away), a blue flag (American fuel line, stay away), a green flag (safe route) and a red flag (hmm, also safe route). How to protect yourself from frostbite. How to use the radio. And more. After that we packed our safety gear, food and ECW (extreme cold weather) clothing and headed off base in a yellow Hagglund, a Swedish military all-terrain vehicle. About half an hour from base we pitched our tents on the Ross Ice Shelf.
With tents pitched, we used a saw to cut blocks of snow to build into a shelter wall, and used a Primus to boil water for cups of tea and our rehydrated meals. Come “night time” I pulled on my sleeping mask to shade my eyes from the all night sun and snuggled down in my four layers of bedding – a cotton sheet bag, a down sleeping bag, a synthetic sleeping bag, then a canvas cover – on my triple layer sleeping mat – a foam pad, a Thermarest airbed then a sheepskin. Luxury. In the morning, we de-mobilised (there’s a lot of military talk around here) as a thick white fog slowly crept its way over the hill between Scott Base and Mount Erebus and headed back to Scott Base.
It turns out, we were lucky with the weather – there was only a slight breeze blowing and the temperature, with wind chill, never dropped below minus 9 degrees C. Stu described conditions as “extraordinarily warm for this time of year”.
Perhaps we should have spared a thought for poor Scott. His journal entry for this day 100 years ago started with: “Camp 27. Lat. 82° 47’. The ponies are tiring pretty rapidly. It is a question of days with all except Nobby.” He shot one pony, put poor old Nobby in show shoes and carried on marching.
Melancholia? Not even. I got to drive the Hagglund back to base. Tonight we’re going on a pub crawl at McMurdo Station and tomorrow we’re going on a helicopter trip to the historic huts and the Dry Valleys. I’m having so much fun that I’m almost ashamed of myself.