Field travel training and sleeping out in a bivvy bag at Bechervaise Island.

Chip Bagging Mawson Style

Its official, Lydia has been off station.

Written by Lydia Jean Dobromilsky.


The time has finally come and I have flown the red shed. On Saturday Gary, Heidi, Jens and I spent the morning learning navigation down in the Ops building. It actually made a lot of sense to me this time. The last time Heidi had given us a lesson on navigation was when we were on Mt Wellington, Tasmania. Trying to teach the 14 Mawsonites navigation after a sleepless night in a bivvy bag, with the onslaught of giant mosquitoes trying to share the bag with us was a great effort of Heidi’s behalf. Some of the information was retained but I think most people were thinking of a nice hot coffee and relief from the mosquitoes instead.

So once we breezed though navigation we went up for the weekend brunch, and well I think we all over ate just to compensate for the fact it might have been dehydrated rat packs for tea. I was in charge of getting some food so I made sure it was one of the things I remembered to take. Who needs a toothbrush? (Yes mum I did forget it again.) I chose beef hot pot with naan breads and chocolate muffins for dessert. It looked like it would be a hit with the crew. Because we were going into the field we are not allowed to take chicken products to eat because they may contain poultry diseases that may be spread to the birds and penguins down here.

We then went and packed our survival packs with all the gear needed for the sleep-over, picked out our quads and started to tie down our packs. My gallant steed was quad 016. I knew from the moment I saw him that we were going to get along fine. I tied down my packs, set up my maps and GPS in front of me so I could reference them while we were on our epic journey and did my pre-start checks. Once we were all ready we started up our quads and headed down to get the grey waste water containers. When you are in the field you are to take everything back with you this includes going to the toilet, bear in mind the temperatures are in the minus so everything freezes.

We all did a last double-check and made sure we had a hand held radio with a spare battery, that we had written up our intentions on the trip boards, turned our fire tags and radioed in to VLV Mawson (Comms) to tell him that the epic journey was under way.

The journey

Now the journey was to be begin, we were headed for Bechervaise Island from Mawson station it’s a really intense and challenging track that is 3km away. Now you may laugh but this was my first time off the station so it did seem like it was intense and challenging, no not really it was a beautiful leisurely drive on the sea ice that was dusted in about two inches of newly formed snow it looked like icing sugar on top of a cake.

The weekend before there was an Ice drilling team that headed out to Beche (that’s what us locals call Bechervaise Island) they drilled a series of holes into the sea ice to prove that the thickness of the ice was over 600mm, and submitted their findings to Kingston to have the sea ice opened to vehicles.

Anyway back to the epic journey, driving on sea ice is a surreal experience we were fortunate to have the sun starting to set and the clouds were starting to change from white to shades of violet and pink, we stopped quite a few times for pictures at one photo stop we were in front of the glaciers that we look at from our dining room window, they were an intense light blue that was really contrasted against the white of the snow that had fallen earlier on in the week.

In front of these Glaciers is a patch of sea ice that the snow just doesn’t get a chance to stick to because the Katabatic winds roar down from the plateau and take any snow out to sea with it. I looked down at the frozen sea water and could see about 30cm down into the ice, it was amazing there were little bubbles trapped in the ice. The surface of the ice wasn’t flat but dimpled kind of like a foam eggshell underlay that you put on your bed and there were hairline fractures running through it in all directions, in this area the sea ice had been measured and was 1000mm thick so there was no threat of falling through and getting trapped under ice.

We continued on with the journey and went around a number of the islands out of Horse Shoe Harbour, Heidi was taking us on a familiarisation of the recreation limits of Mawson Station. The snow covered Islands looked like wrinkled elephant skin with the cracks filled with pure white snow. We continued on our way to Beche and went around another Island, Heidi stopped us and showed us a lead crack (headland) crack that had formed between two of the islands it was really interesting to see the result of the pressure that has built up under the ice from the sea water that hasn’t been frozen and is still moving underneath.

A night at Bechervaise Island

We finally arrived to Beche it was a semi-steep incline over some rocks on the gallant steed and we were finally home for the night. The big orange Googie’s stood out against the brown of the rocks, they defiantly look like a B-grade movie alien ship even with the little legs that attach to the rock below, I had a bit of a giggle when I saw them. When we arrived we were greeted by James and Aidan, they had come across from Mawson on cross country skis and were taking a well earned rest. We all went for a wonder up the hill to look back at Mawson station and the surrounding mountains it was breath takingly beautiful, the sun was still setting so it cast a purple hue over the snow and mountains in the back ground. Pictures just don’t do it justice. We then wondered back down the hill and said our goodbyes to James and Aidan and started to unpack our gear.

Tonight was going to be mine and Garry’s first night out in the elements in a bivvy bag (it reminds me of a chip packet) we were really excited. We grabbed our shovels and set out to find a patch of snow that we would dig out to become our sleeping quarters. We found a nice patch of snow about 45 meters from the Googie’s and started to dig our bed, whilst digging we decided that it would probably be easier if we made a queen sized patch of snow and shared the area. We had to dig down about 40cm and with the snow we were excavating out we put it around the sides of our bed kind of like a head board, Heidi said that the higher we could build this the better wind break we would have because the wind would get pushed up and over us. It took about an hour and Garry and I decided that it was a pretty good bed set up, Heidi agreed with us so went back over to the Googie.

Jens was busy getting some water on the boil as he had already spent a night out in a chip packet so he opted for the warmth of the Googie over another night out in the cold. The main Googie was set up really well. It felt like a holiday shack, just a perfect size for four people. We had a cuppa and a chat then we headed outside to show Heidi what we remembered about using a MSR fuel stove. We had a demo on the Aurora Australis when we came down but that was about two months ago, I did manage to remember how to put it together (with a little help from Heidi getting the fuel to flow) I had the stove blazing in no time, Garry then put together the other one and got that ablaze. Once Heidi was satisfied we could use the stoves she allowed us to head back into the Googie where we cooked dinner.

Jens had put a pot of water on the boil so we could cook dinner, Heidi put the naan’s in the oven to warm up and we thought that mashed potato would go nicely with it so Jens whipped up enough mash to feed about ten people, a bit of over kill but the meal went down a treat. We then sat around chatting and laughing till about 9.30 and it was time to go set up for the sleep out in the chip packet.

Sleeping in a chip packet, well I can honestly say that it was kind of fun. We grabbed our survival packs and headed over to our queen bed and started to unpack our sleeping gear. First we got our bivvy bag (chip packet) with a foam mat inside and rolled it out mine was bright red (cheese Dorritos red) we then unrolled our sleeping bags and put them inside.

Now one thing you need to remember is it’s cold −12, windy and snow does melt and makes things wet, so when you are standing in your nice warm freezer suit and Baffin boots looking down at a chip packet with a sleeping bag in it, your brain is telling you that you’re mad if you are thinking of taking off those warm outer clothes to sleep in that and well I did agree with my brain but some things just have to be done. So off came the freezer suit (don’t worry mum I had thermals and work clothes on under the freezer suit) and the boots I threw them into the chip packet with me and I climbed into the sleeping bag, I pulled my survival pack in after me then pulled the drawstring to the bivvy bag shut. I turned my head torch on and had a look at my set up. If you are claustrophobic I would suggest you don’t turn your head torch on and have a look. There were teeny tiny ice crystals starting to form inside my chip packet from my breath, it was really pretty but I also knew that it would make things really damp if I touched the sides in my sleep.

I then proceeded to have a giggle to myself I’m in Antarctica in −12 with 34 knot winds sleeping in a waterproof chip packet. I could hear Garry say “are we really doing this”? So we both burst into laughter and started chatting and having a laugh like little kids. I would like to say I had the best sleep ever but well that would be a lie. I think I might of had an hour-or-so sleep; the winds started to pick up overnight so the poor old chip packet was rustling so loud it was making sleeping impossible. I decided at 5:30 after looking at the watch quite a few times that I was going to get up, so I turned on my head torch and tried to find my freezer suit. What I was greeted with was truly beautiful. The whole inside of my chip packet was crusted in a sea of ice crystals, my pillow was covered in them, it’s like it had snowed inside the chip packet over night. The gross thing was I knew that they were all Lydia made crystals from my breathing over night. The next minute I could hear Garry “Lydia are you awake” I said yes and I’ve decided I’m getting up he thought that was a great idea. So we both emerged from our chip packets and promptly started to pack up after having another giggle.

In our chatter we had woken Heidi up. She had camped out in a single person tent that she has been trialling for Kingston. It looked like a great set up, a big step up from chip bagging it for the night so we started having a chat with her as well.

Once we were all packed up we went back to the Googie, Jens had been awake for a while and had put the kettle on so we all had a hot cuppa, we cleaned up the Googie packed up our gear and headed back home to the red shed. The quad bike ride back in the morning was different. The sun doesn’t rise till around 10am now so it was still dark when we headed back. We followed Heidi as well as keeping an eye on our GPS. The soft glow of the light’s around Mawson station were a welcome sight. It was a great trip and one I will remember for a long time. Thanks for making it enjoyable Heidi, Garry and Jens. I can’t wait for the next trip.

Rumdoodle and beyond

Field Travel Training

In mid May four Mawsonites (Ewan, Greg, Aiden and myself) met with our FTO (Heidi) to plan two nights of ‘Field Travel Training’ around Rumdoodle and Fang Huts. Several responsibilities were divided up so that we could get off to a smooth start the following day. Between us we gathered enough food for two dinners, 20L of water, a generator, fuel, two ‘grey water’ containers (one for dish water, one for urine) and a satellite phone. Personal gear included our survival bags and a day pack containing items such as a radio, camera, spare batteries, spare clothing, a thermos and food for breakfast, lunch and snacks. I opted to trial the cryo-vac machine on toasted sandwiches. Not only did this result in flattening half a loaf worth of toasties down to an economical wafer thin volume, but reheating could be achieved by simply bringing the toastie to the boil in a saucepan of water. The finished product would not have looked out of place next to the Chicco Rolls in a Service Station.

On Monday morning we began at station with some navigation theory, which we would then go on to practice out in the field. Delving deep into the functionality of the GPS, we programmed in way points to create a new route, and made a ‘bread crumb’ trail which could then be followed in reverse to the point of origin. We also discussed the implications of magnetic north at Mawson station being 67 degrees west of grid north (corrections must be made after taking a bearing from the map, or when triangulating your location from the surrounding landscape). We also discussed the use of an Iridium satellite phone and the emergency call function of our radios.

After writing our trip intentions on the station whiteboard, turning our name tags and radioing ‘Comms’, we set off on quads for Rumdoodle Hut. Much of field travel training involved ‘hut etiquette’ and there are a few key points to note, such as turning on the gas supply to heat the hut and to boil toasties. Remembering to turn the gas off before bed is even more important. Other safety measures include monitoring the hut’s carbon monoxide levels, radioing ‘VLV Mawson’ at Station and recording intentions in the hut log. The toilet must also be set up on arrival and packed up on leaving. What goes in must come out, of Antarctica, that is.

Aside from Navigation we were able to practice ice axe skills, including self arrest techniques and cutting steps into a snow slope behind Rumdoodle. We were also lucky enough to get the opportunity to walk up to ‘Gunbarrel Pass’, a funnel like pass near Rumdoodle through which the wind absolutely tears. Mawson veteran Dave McCormack had mentioned this place in his inspirational talks on The Aurora Australias and it gave us a connection to his stories and a deeper context to his passion for Antarctica.

In the evenings we enjoyed cheese and biscuits with a glass of red wine, and played the World’s longest game of 500 (this ran over two nights without a winner). The night at Rumdoodle was almost wind free — a rarity around here — so we made the most of the clear skies and bright moon for photo opportunities. Overall, it was a nice balance between learning new skills and relaxing away from Station. I think we all felt rejuvenated for the experience.

James Chappell