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.

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 http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/kenneth-sims/ For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see http://geology.uwyo.edu/kenwwsims.
  • Ken Russ

    Luv your enthuseasium at the pole. Like your training.lol
    Brav sole.

  • Erin Klauk

    Questions from the students:
    1. What is the propose of studying the non-active volcanoes in relation to the active volcanoes? (Laura)

    2. What will you be eating when you are camping? (Mike)

    3. What kind of wildlife is present in the area you will be? (Nick)

    4. What is special about Ross Island? (Haley)


  • Hi Laura, Mike, Nick, Haley, and the rest of the Laramie High School geology students,

    Thanks for the questions!

    1. We are interested in studying the older volcanoes around the outside of Ross Island because they will give us a more complete picture of why magmatism occurs on Ross Island. Mt. Erebus, the active volcano at the center of Ross Island, has been studied intensely and there is abundant information in the literature about this volcano. However, we have very little data for the volcanoes that surround Mt. Erebus, which are named Mt. Terror, Mt. Bird, and Hut Point Peninsula. Although there are scarce age data, we think that these volcanic centers were active between about 0.5 and 4 million years ago. In order to test the hypothesis that the volcanism on Ross Island is the result of a mantle plume, similar to the source of the Hawaiian Islands, we need detailed geochemical analyses of both Mt. Erebus and the surrounding volcanic centers. Contrasting the two will allow us to test whether the center of the island is overlying the hottest part of the “plume.” Our first blog post, written by Ken Sims, contains good illustrations of these concepts.

    2. We are planning to go helicopter camping at Cape Bird, on the northern side of Ross Island, for three nights next week. Food planning for camping begins with a visit to Peggy Malloy at the food room at McMurdo, which is an incredibly well organized place with every kind of food you might need for a camping trip. Peggy will help our group plan meals and pack up food to be delivered to the helicopter hanger for transport. Breakfast will likely be oatmeal with various fixings and hot drinks. Lunches are typically eaten in the field while we are collecting rocks, so we eat snacks like Clif bars, trail mix, chocolate, and the delicious newly discovered Bumper Bars (the second ingredient is butter!). Eating helps us to stay warm here in Antarctica, so we are careful to stay fueled and hydrated each day. Group dinners that we have planned include a stir-fry, a curry, and a pasta dish. A few ingredients, including raisins, olives, and cilantro, that are despised by certain members of our group will be avoided. We will also bring at least two night’s worth of dehydrated dinners, in case the weather doesn’t allow the helicopters to pick us up.

    3. We have been fortunate to see many Weddell seals during our field work. At this time of year, there are lots of young, nursing seals. The Skua, a large seabird, is also a common site. Although we have not seen any penguins yet, we expect to see Adelie penguins at Cape Bird next week because there is a penguin rookery there. Emperor penguins also reside in these parts.

    In keeping with our commitment to the Antarctic Treaty, we keep our distance from the seals and do not disturb them. We have, however, passed by seals on our way to collect samples and observed that they carry a significant amount of fat and they have what looks to be very plush, warm fur. Although they are a little awkward on the sea ice, they are elegant swimmers. The seals we saw lounging on the sea ice all had very contented looks on their faces and seemed to be enjoying the “warm” sunny day.

    4. I think there are many special things about Ross Island! It is home to the world’s southernmost active volcano, Mt. Erebus. The radial symmetry of the surrounding volcanic centers suggests that volcanism at Ross Island is the result of a mantle plume, which is the hypothesis that our scientific group is testing. The figures in our first blog illustrate this concept. Ross Island is also home to the United States Antarctic field station at McMurdo Base. The existing data set for Mt. Erebus, combined with the new data we will gather from the outer volcanic centers, make Ross Island a perfect place to study why volcanism occurs in this part of the world.

    Ross Island is simply a spectacular place, unlike anywhere that I have ever been. There are three colors here: blue sky, black rocks, and white snow and ice. Right now, it is light 24 hours a day. The views of the mountains and volcanoes in the distance are striking. When I get a quiet moment to myself on the slopes of Mt. Terror, I realize that I am sitting in a place that very few humans have ever been and that I am studying rocks that no one has examined before.

    We appreciate your interest in our expedition and look forward to seeing you when we return to Laramie.

    Erin Phillips Writer

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