Field training is an essential part of any winterer’s training. It involves familiarity with the local station area and that of the station travel area, survival navigation and travel training. As well as this, we learn to drive “Haggs” (Hägglunds) — tracked vehicles designed for remote travel, which seat four and are heated, I might add! — and quad bikes, which we ride on the terrain around Mawson. After preparations were made, including food, fuel, radios, trip plans, ablutions buckets etc, as well as personal survival and comfort, our gear was gathered, loaded and checked. We were then able to sign off station and travel onto the Antarctic plateau.
Our trip began, leaving the red shed in the morning, heading via the cane line and GPS routes up the slippery slope to Gwamm. Thankfully Ian had ripped the ice with Kathy (our Dozer who I’m told “loves blizz”) which made the route navigable. We headed to Rumdoodle Hut, stopping to admire the view, take compass bearings and become familiar with the peaks on the plateau around Mawson. Upon arrival we stopped for a cup of soup (one of many), and went through the standard hut arrival procedures, such as turning the gas on, opening vents and working out who was going to sleep where.
Once it was decided that Mel, our Field Training Officer (FTO) was the only one that would be sleeping in the hut that night, we headed out to a slope to play with our ice axes. After being taught to cut steps in the slope, which was otherwise too steep to climb, we were then to ‘fall’ down the slope in all manner of orientations (head first, feet first, face up, face down and roll) so we could arrest our descent — a bit of a challenge for Rob and I, who had never done this before. After the fun of climbing the slope many times and laying upside down, held by our feet before being released, we had a quick lesson in ice anchors. It was then back to the hut for another hot drink.
Sleeping in a chip packet doesn’t sound appealing, and wouldn’t be highest on the list of accommodation that you would choose whilst in −20°C temperatures. It involves your bivvy bag, which is a sealed nylon bag with a drawstring at one end. It is set up by unrolling the bag, which has your foam mat already rolled inside, throwing your pack in, diving in yourself, then trying to become comfortable. After cutting a “coffin” into the snow, we returned to the hut for a cup of soup, some olives (which I had defrosted in my pocket along with a bottle of Tabasco) and some soft cheese (which I think Kelvin supplied the heat for). This was followed by a curry which we reheated. Kelvin retired to his palatial Polar Pyramid, which we had all set up that afternoon between soups. Rob and I returned to our holes in the ground and set up our bivvys. Surprisingly enough, the bivvy bag, once you are inside and the drawstring is pulled tight, is reasonably warm. However, there are a couple of downsides to this sleeping arrangement… Firstly, any wind will cause the bag to shake and flap around, quite violently at times. With earplugs and a strategically placed pack the bivvy does not need to physically touch your face, which brings me to the second downside… Because you are in a small bag which is reasonably well sealed, except for a small hole near the drawstring, and the temperature outside is well below freezing, any moisture, say from your breath or sweat, will condense into ice crystals on the inner surface of the bag. This is not an issue unless the bag gets moved by the wind or something. Once this happens you have created snow, isolated to the area inside the bag and with a fair degree of certainty that it will wake you. Another issue with the Bivvy bag is getting out of the sleeping bag and dressed again. In their defense, just so I don’t insult any bags that may be reading this, they are designed as a survival tool, not as regular accommodation. Oh and I forgot to mention that if you roll around in your sleep you end up with all manner of items that you get tangled up with. A list of what you should sleep with (inside the sleeping bag) so the items don’t freeze includes: water bottle(s), pee bottle, head torch, camera batteries, boot liners, radio batteries and any damp socks or clothing that need to stay dry. Okay, enough of the bag, onto the next day…
We spent the morning firstly performing a hut search, which was a scenario where somebody had left the hut in low visibility and had not come back for whatever reason. Kelvin and I roped up and with some “blizz” in our goggles (bubble wrap), we went to find Mel, who had decided that laying on the rocks was the smart thing to do. After a quick debrief over a mug of soup we went out to play with ice screws and ice anchors, as well as gaining some familiarisation with the ice drilling and quad recovery kits. Another soup (or was that cocoa with powdered coconut milk this time?) and we were off in the Hagg to go for a walk.
We headed south and walked past a beautiful wind scour (where the ice has been eroded by the action of the wind) and then onto some frozen freshwater lakes. Parts of the surface were transparent and rocks could be seen a number of metres down through the clear ice. It’s so smooth you could almost skate on it with just your shoes. It’s an interesting feeling standing out in the middle of a range, knowing that you are the only four people within 20km. There are no buildings — only yourself and three other people relying on a vehicle, wits, and survival clothing and gear to keep you warm and alive. It’s quite breathtaking looking out on the plateau, surveying your desolate surrounds. On return from the walk, and another… soup… Rob and I set up inside the Polar Pyramid, while Kelvin set up a spot for his bivvy. The Pyramid is a tent with a design based on the tents that Scott used in his expeditions, and is quite roomy and reasonably comfortable (although the usual bits and pieces still need to accompany you in the sleeping bag).
After our dinner, we noticed an aurora which was quite bright so I decided to set up the camera for a time lapse sequence by tying my tripod to one of the hut supports and letting it go until the battery was exhausted. The result was better than I had hoped, however there is another article that I can write about aurora photography, so I won’t give a spoiler here.
Day three, breakfast, and fresh coffee (fresh beans, a coffee grinder and a filter is a must). We packed up the campsite and the hut, packed all into the Hagg and set off for Hendo (Mount Henderson) Hut. On the way we stopped to get out our maps and compasses for some more navigational exercises, remembering that we have a 67° magnetic variation here. On arrival, we found that Hendo had a small leak and spent a bit of time shovelling snow from under the lower bunks. This was followed by soup, which caused a little problem, only discovered once we had heated the hut to above freezing — the water on the roof and the walls melted and it began to rain inside (if only the forecast could predict that)! So, after a little maintenance and housekeeping, we set up our stoves outside, added water and cooked our dehydrated meals (all except for Mel — she had an exemption as she’s the trainer). As an aside, water is something that I probably took for granted until now — turn on the tap and hey presto, otherwise call a plumber. However in the field, water needs to be created by melting snow, and the most efficient way of doing this is to start with a bit of water in a saucepan and add snow. The water begins the melting process much faster than trying to start with just snow. After our rehydrated meals, which were quite palatable (beef teriyaki or beef with green beans), we set up our bunks in the hut and turned in for the night.
Our next breakfast consisted of porridge with rehydrated banana and dates, served to our FTO in bed, as well as another hot drink. This was followed by a quick ascent of one of the peaks near the hut, requiring ice axes to cut steps and a quick navigation familiarisation at the top. It’s quite a challenge to get a map out of your jacket and retain possession when the wind is blowing 30 knots! We took some photos on the top of the peak and we were then ready to return to the hut, have soup (of course) and pack up for our return to station. We followed the cane lines and GPS route to Gwamm before sighting the station and returning “home”.
Now to plan the next trip…