Rediscovering Ross Island: Getting Ready with Survival Training

Plate 3: White Out – This was a classroom exercise in which we had to devise a rescue plan for someone lost in a whiteout. Photo by Paul Wallace.

Written by Dan Rasmussen

Two days isolated in the frigid expanse of the Antarctic desert lit by 24-hour sunlight with only survival equipment—at McMurdo Station, this is known as “Happy Camper School”.  Our two enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructors, Susan and Ben, led us (Paul, Erin and me) through the essential training necessary to stay safe, happy, and warm in the harsh, unforgiving Antarctic environment. Our training started in the toasty comfort of a classroom in the Science Support Center, but we soon transitioned to the barren Ross Ice Shelf, several miles from the hustle and bustle of McMurdo Station.  We were greeted there with our first, astounding views of Mount Terror and the imposing Mount Erebus, two of the four volcanoes we are studying.

Vivid images of frostbit extremities, shown in the classroom, made me eager to follow Ben’s key piece of advice when we got to the ice:  don’t stand for being even slightly cold, do something to stay warm.  Most crucial to staying warm is our ECW or extreme cold weather clothing.  Our instructors also stressed the importance of being well fed and hydrated with hot, sugary food and beverages.  Also, keeping open lines of communication within a group is essential for safety.

Plate 2: Trench Building – Working hard on building my snow shelter. Photo by Erin Phillips Writer.

In Antarctica, setting up camp is not just simply throwing up a tent.  First, we put up an emergency Scott tent, a remarkable teepee-like shelter that’s been used here since the days of the earliest explorers.  On the windward side of the tent, we built a wall out of igloo-style ice blocks to act as a barrier for high winds that come from the south across the polar plateau (Plate 1).  We then pitched our sleeping tents and started an almost constant cycle of boiling water for hot food and drinks.  I was keen on having a more survival-like experience and built a snow cave where I spent the night (Plate 2). The next day was spent learning how to safely deal with both emergency situations such as whiteouts (Plate 3) as well as essential know-how like working safely around helicopters in the mountains.

Plate 1: Ice Wall Teamwork – Paul and Erin working together to build the camp’s wind barrier. Photo by Dan Rasmussen.

All of this training has really helped me to gain the confidence necessary to work in the extreme conditions of Antarctica.  With the training well underway (sea ice and high altitude training are next), I’m getting excited to start fieldwork and delve into the science, which will be the topic of my Master’s thesis and Erin’s PhD thesis.



Meet the Author
A Professor at the University of Wyoming and a former tenured Research Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Kenneth W.W. Sims uses isotopic and chemical tracers to study geologic processes in the earth and other planetary bodies. Ken has over fifty peer-reviewed scientific publications focusing on the study of mantle melting, oceanic and continental crustal genesis, volcanology, hydrology, planetary core-formation, climate change and oceanography. Dr. Sims earned his BA in Geology from Colorado College, his MSc from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico; and his PhD in Geochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Ken’s field experience ranges from ocean floor geology, using submersibles and remote sensing techniques to geological studies of active volcanoes at high altitudes in technical terrain. Academic awards include: the Estwing Outstanding Senior Award at Colorado College, an Outstanding Student Instructor Award from the UC, Berkeley, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar Fellowship, three Mellon Awards for innovative exploratory research and the Kincaid School 2012 Papadopoulos Fellowship. In addition to his academic career, Ken is an avid climber and has been an alpine guide for over three decades with extensive experience in technical, high altitude and cold weather mountaineering in Antarctica, the Alaska Range, and the Andes of Peru. These technical climbing skills have enabled him to collect young lavas and gather volcanic gas data inside active, remote volcanoes across the globe, including Erebus Volcano in Antarctica; Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua; and Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo Volcanoes in DR Congo. Using isotopic and geochemical data measured in these hard-to-get-samples Professor Sims’ ultimate goal is to better understand the genesis and evolution of Earth’s volcanoes, with an eye toward predicting future eruptions. Sims’ research and scientific expeditions have been featured in National Geographic Magazine; Oceanus; Popular Mechanics; New Scientist; several children’s books and magazines; NHK Japanese Public Television (Miracle Continent Antarctica- Mt Erebus), National Geographic Television (Man versus Volcano); and, the Discovery Channel (Against the Elements). Professor Sims is a featured scientist on National Geographic Explorer Site For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see