Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Happy Camper Gets Frostbite

In the last entry, I mentioned the upcoming Snow Craft Training, affectionately known as "Happy Camper". I went and had a great time. Unfortunately, my fingers didn't enjoy it as much as the rest of me. More about that in a minute.

Happy Camper started with classroom education on camping in the snow environment. We discussed shelter, proper clothing, sun exposure, frostbite and other survival topics. There were 20 students in the group and two instructors. All the students showed up with their ECW and extra gloves, mittens, hats, and other protective gear.

After the classroom training we filed out to the transport vehicles (a Delta and a van) and loaded them with our personal gear and some camping equipment (stoves, and food, mostly). After a brief stop at the galley to pick up our lunch, we were off to the field. Our ride took us out onto the Ross Ice Shelf. We unloaded from the Delta and transferred the gear to a sled towed by a snow mobile. We then walked 20 minutes to a small hut where we received a briefing on how to set up, care for, and repair the camp stoves. The ones we used ran on a small cylinder of white gas (Coleman fuel) that is pressurized with a small integrated hand pump.After some more classroom training, orientation and lunch we loaded up the sled with sleeping bags and marched out into the open ice field. Once there we were taught how to set up a Scott tent, build a quinzee, pitch a mountain tent, build a wind wall of snow blocks, and use trenches as sleeping shelter.
I made a short video that shows the building of our quinzee but am prevented from uploading it because of limited bandwidth. We mounded up all the bags, covered them with a tarp, mounded snow, let it set up for a couple of hours, tunnelled into it, dragged out the bags, and voilá, it is done.

We used the snow blocks to build a wind barrier wall.

Later, our instructors departed. We had to figure out a method for firing up the camp stoves, melting snow, and then boiling water. The boiled water was used for instant coffee, tea, instant hot chocolate, or instant hot spiced apple cider. The hot water could also be used to rehydrate dehydrated meals. There were also candy bars, mixed nuts (just like us), and "gorp" - a trail mix-like conglomeration of nuts and chocolate chips. I ate just from this latter group of foods plus some hot chocolate. Almost all foodstuffs were years past their expiration date (e.g. "Best if used by: 07-05").
The view of Mount Erebus and its almost constant volcanic plume was spectacular. The wind carries the plume in a sideways drift, making the plume look like a cloud. In this shot you can also see a helicopter on a training mission.

I chose to sleep in a mountain tent. I've slept well in these in the past and hoped for the same experience this time. Alas, that was not my fate this trip. I slept fitfully, waking often. Footfalls of other campers were very loud in the snow and the almost constant sunlight was a distraction. I wore thermal wool socks on my feet and glove liners with hand warmers inside on my hands to keep everything warm at night. My feet felt great and never bothered me, but my hands often felt cold and would wake me. When I got up in the morning and got dressed, I noticed that my fingers were hurting when I tried to tie my bootlaces and didn't fit easily into my gloves. After reassembling in the hut, I removed my gloves and, to my horror, found frostbitten fingers. See the photo of my left hand.The third, fourth and fifth digits of both hands are frostbitten. You can see the color change at the last part of the fingers The pinkies are the worst on each hand. This is a classic example of first and second degree frostbite. It is also an example of how, despite taking all the precautions, it can still occur. Fortunately, after some blistering and peeling, they will heal fine. Right now, they have no sense of touch (I wouldn't feel a pin-prick) but are very painful deep inside and very tender if pressure is applied. Because of this, the entire blog entry was made with my two first fingers and thumbs in a hunt 'n peck style of keyboarding.

The rest of the morning consisted of VHF and HF radio training, simulating a search and rescue under white-out conditions, risk management discussions, and leadership education. Our return to base was uneventful and used the same vehicles.


ZShuGirl said...

Well Big Brother, never a dull moment with you!! I'll rub it in a little more and let you know that today was a wonderful 87 degrees!! I love you!

Bubba's Sis said...

Ouch!!! Not the best place for camping, I'm thinking....but maybe that's just me...

Anonymous said...

Good it was just your fingers!

Ron Hill said...

Damn! That's kinda scary when you do what they say and wear the right stuff and you still get second degree tissure injury. Be careful.

Anonymous said...

What an incredible adventure. Hope your hands heal with no complications!

eyedoc said...

That's awful! Look at it this way: Everything will heal and you've got a great story to tell!!

Anonymous said...

I'm new to your blog, I'm Larry Symonds half brother. Seeing that you have snow knifes or saws. I wonder why they didn't show you how to construct a igloo. An igloo is much drier to sleep in because the snow lets water past thur the walls, where as a snow cave has ice walls that when the temperuture rises inside to near freezing, the walls drip making every thing wet. And an igloo is faster to build.Ray Waters/

JCH said...

Dear Dr. Shuwarger,
Sorry this was so late first I
did not know how to do a comment and then I forgot to. Thank you for the awesome bookmarks (I chose the one with a picture of Antar- tica on it) they are so cool! I am so sorry about the frostbite that has to hurt!
From Mrs. Shuwargers student,

RPM said...

Dear Dr. Shuwarger,
I'm in Mrs. Shuwarger's fifth grade class. Sorry about the frostbite.Do you think that the tips of your fingers could have gotten hot and they sweat and then the air made them cold so you got frostbite? I have a another question for you, is McMurdo Station run by the government or a private company? Hope your fingers heal fast.


Polar Doc said...

To RPM and Mrs. Shuwarger's Fifth Grade Class:

I don't know if my fingers would have sweat at all in that really cold place. As for the question " McMurdo Station run by the government or a private company?", McMurdo Station is US Government property on Antarctica's land. The National Science Foundation (NSF) runs McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and Palmer Station as part of the US Antarctic Program. The NSF contracts out to Raytheon Polar Services Co. and military units the job of actually running the stations. Everything here is owned by the federal government, except the land upon which we sit, which belongs to no country. For further information, see

Anonymous said...

In reply to the question Anonymous (Ray Waters) posed regarding igloo use/instruction in the USAP Field Safety Training courses;
1. Our courses are centered around a Survival Bag that is required when traveling away from any fixed Station/camp. These bags are for emergency situations only and luckily are seldomly used. But when the situation requires us to break them open and use the contents, the environmental conditions are usually quite nasty; high winds and super cold temps. Setting up the included mountain tent is by far the quickest we to create a shelter.
2. While Igloos and Quinzees are fun to build, they take a long time to complete. Also, some areas are not condusive to the ice block cutting that the igloo requires; either sugary-type snow or Dry Valley areas void of snow altogether.
3. The timeline that we have to inpart all the safety and survival skills/information is already jam packed; we teach in two days what NOLS and Outward Bound teach in a week. So for us, getting the important and relavent information across in a streamlined way is our best practice.
Great question and yes, igloos have their advantages. Personally, if I didn't have a tent to use down here, I would dig a trench and climb inside.
Brian Johnson
Manager, Field Science Support

NRH said...

You are so unfortunate to get frostbitten! By now I bet it's almost healed, though. What are you going to be for Halloween? An eskimo? Just kidding!
Happy Halloween!

Sharon Diamond-Myrsten said...

I've spent the past hour reading your blog. Awesome!! Sorry about the frostbite, though.