Survival Training: Part 1

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A week after arriving at Davis (in mid-November) I was scheduled to undertake my survival training. This is mandatory training that is required for all expeditioners in Antarctica, especially those wishing to spend any time out in the field. First we had a briefing with our Field Training Officer (FTO) who explained to us the gear that we were required to take with us and the appropriate personal gear that we would need to wear and have with us to ensure we stayed warm and comfortable.

  1. Bivvy bag
  2. Sleeping bag and liner
  3. Maps, compass, safety whistle, signalling mirror, GPS
  4. Field and first aid manuals
  5. Ice axe, throw bag and microspikes
  6. Pee bottle and toilet kit
  7. Food (dinner and breakfast), snacks, mug and bowl
  8. Thermals, warm clothes and outer wind-proof layers
  9. Water bottles
  10. Part of the communal kit: stoves, fuel, pots, ice drill, first aid kit, CO alarm, ice saw, shovel

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By the time we had everything in our packs they were full and rather heavy. The average daily temperature at this time was still around -4°C so having not been hiking in temperatures this low I was a little concerned about whether or not I was going to stay warm. So I threw in a few extra things for piece of mind. By this stage my pack was around 16kg, higher than I usually walk with.

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The next morning we had an early start and made our way over to the Green Store to be weighed (with our packs) for our helicopter trip out to Crooked Lake, located in the southeastern region of the Vestfold Hills, where we would start our hike. We were then loaded up into the two helicopters and flown out over the Vestfold Hills, enjoying the incredible scenery of snow-covered hills and frozen lakes and fjords. We were dropped off at the Crooked Lake Apple (the name given to the small red field huts), unloaded our gear and started our hike with an introduction to using our map and compass to navigate our way through the hills to Watts Hut, approximately 10km to the west.

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We decided to use Ellis Fjord as our northerly guideline and everyone had a go at navigating with the compass and choosing our path through the hills. Any poor decisions or lapses in good judgement were highlighted by our FTO guide in an attempt to teach us further about navigation in such a feature-less environment. When there are absolutely no points of reference (such as trees, buildings.. etc) it is very difficult to judge distance and height so what may appear a shortcut may actually take longer than the alternative. After stumbling around in the hills, avoiding frozen lakes and huge snow drifts, for what felt like hours we finally arrived to the magnificent scenery of Watts Lake and the nearby Watts Hut. Before entering the hut for lunch we were given instruction on how to properly open a hut to avoid build ups of gas or fumes that may be present within it after being vacant for some time. Once we were satisfied it was safe to enter we all bundled in to enjoy our lunch and a cup of tea out of the bitterly cold wind.

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After lunch, we closed up the hut again and headed out toward Ellis Fjord to get instruction on how to travel on sea ice. Firstly we were shown what tide cracks look like and how to cross them safely. Tide cracks form when the water freezes and expands, causing large ridges and cracks along the shoreline. We put our microspikes onto our boots so that we could walk on the extremely smooth and slippery blue ice of the fjord and carried our ice axe and throw bag. Once we were on the ice we were instructed on how to use an ice drill and how to determine if the ice was safe for passage. Sea ice is considered safe to travel on foot if it is over 50cm thick and the fjord had been recently drilled and found to be over 1.5m thick so we were confident it was sound. As part of our procedure for travel on sea ice we drilled every 1km and walked in pairs, separated by at least 10m. This was to ensure that if anyone fell through the ice there would be others at a safe distance to rescue them. We also radioed in to the coms operator at Davis when we got onto the sea ice and every hour while we were on the ice to let them know our position. For this part of the walk we got out our GPS and followed a series of way points along the fjord to Marine Plane, where there were another set of Apples.

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2 responses to “Survival Training: Part 1

  1. All the ice axes make me think of mountaineering! Though even at 16kg your pack is considerably lighter than our mountaineering ones – I’m very impressed that the gear down there must be both considerably more hard-core AND considerably lighter! Sounds like a great exercise, and your photos are excellent.

    • Yeah we don’t really need any heavy gear, its just bulky stuff that fills your pack like a big thick down sleeping bag. We have to take all that stuff even if we’re staying at a hut, just in case we have to bivvy out due to weather or injury. The rest of the space is reserved for other critical supplies, such as cheese, biscuits and wine ;).

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