Learning to survive in Antarctica’s great outdoors

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3 May 2021

Learning how to live and work safely in the coldest, driest, windiest place on earth isn’t a skill set your average Kiwi has. However, everyone who travels to Scott Base needs to learn exactly that - to keep themselves, others and the environment safe. Antarctic Field Training (or AFT) is where it all starts.

Programme Support Supervisor Matt Brown explains

The point of Field Training is to give people the basic skills they need to survive in Antarctica.

They need to know what the hazards are, our lifesaving rules, essential survival skills; like how to erect a shelter, how to call for help, keep warm, fed and stay hydrated. They also need to know our environmental code of conduct, how we respect special areas and manage things like waste.

We take everyone who comes to Scott Base out into the snow and ice for Antarctic Field Training, because there really is no substitute for the real deal. Anybody can put up a tent in a classroom, but it’s a bit more of a challenge when it’s -30degrees, blowing 30 knots and snowing. You pick up urgency and quickly learn that anything you put down outside isn’t going to be there when you go back for it – probably not a bad life lesson overall.

Antarctic Field training is led by a Field Training Instructor, a professional guide with skills and expertise in alpine and Antarctic environments. They take groups of between two and ten people through the two-day field training course.

Everybody completes full field training at least once, then a slightly scaled down version known as a ‘refresher’ every year. For return Antarcticians full field training is required every five years.

The training begins in the classroom where we introduce new team members to information about our life saving rules, no-go areas, what the different flags mean, how to best use our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing system, how to use radios and satellite phones to call for help and also talk about the inherent dangers of Antarctic weather. We then look at the contents of our Antarctic Survival Bags, anyone who travels off base will be required to carry one with them.

This is followed by an excursion outside to familiarise the team with the local terrain and the sea ice transitions in front of Scott Base. We generally incorporate a little scenario or two using the Antarctic Survival Bags. This really gets people thinking and working as a team to use the equipment they will have with them. It’s a great way to test people’s learning and ensure they have picked up the practical skills they need.

People who come to Scott Base all have really diverse backgrounds, so additional scenarios are added or removed tailored to each group’s experience, and where they might be heading in Antarctica. We also look at what other National Antarctic Programs are doing, what new technology is available and are constantly evolving the programme.

Stove lighting is always interesting, a lot of people have never lit a Primus stove before, but that knowledge is vital because without a stove you can’t make water or hot food. It is also an opportunity to teach people about their clothing and the different aspects of their kit that act as PPE, such as using leather gloves. Teaching these skills in a controlled environment under the close supervision of the Field Trainer Instructor helps people understand any risks and corrects or mitigates any problems.

The final element of the training is the overnight outing where we head to our AFT camping ground on the ice shelf, around 10km from Scott Base. During the overnight trip the team learn to put up a Scott Polar tent, light a Primus stove, build an igloo or a camp kitchen and also get to experience sleeping outdoors in Antarctica, which is pretty special. Again, the emphasis is on safety and we talk about things like the dangers of carbon monoxide when cooking indoors and how to check your mates for signs of hyperthermia. Added to the basics of setting up a camp you are also taught how to build an emergency snow hole and use crampons and ice axes to traverse difficult terrain safely.

For some, it is literally the first time they’ve ever been camping, so to have that opportunity to go camping in Antarctica is pretty special. Not many people in the world can say they’ve camped overnight in full sunlight in Antarctica. The cool thing is that not only is it vital from a health and safety perspective, but it also can be a huge confidence booster as well as a great team building experience.

Field training is just another example of how Antarctica New Zealand lives its values of caring for each other and the environment.