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Surviving the night outdoors in the Antarctic

opinion

By Will Hine in Antarctica

Published: 6:38AM Monday January 20, 2014 Source: ONE News

"I am just going outside and may be a while".

They're said to be the last words of Captain Lawrence Oates, one of Robert Falcon Scott's party racing to be the first to the South Pole in 1911/12.

The men made it to the pole but only after a group led by Roald Amundsen made it first. Scott's diary recounts how weeks later, on the return to Ross Island, an unwell Oates walked from his tent to his death, after sharing those last words with his friends.

He gave his life so that the others might have a chance of surviving, however they too succumbed to the polar conditions in the weeks ahead.

I thought of Oates' words, of him striding to his demise in a blizzard, and of his body frozen beneath the snow, as I Iay on the Ross Ice Shelf. The wind was blowing hard over my head and the temperature was below zero.

I was one day into my Antarctica visit and on an overnight course in outdoor living and survival, a prerequisite for anyone planning on travelling into the wilderness. Modern polar travel is infinitely safer than in Oates' day but not immune from risk.

Our class started with half a day in a classroom going over mundane but important instruction: what not to wear so as to avoid frostbite, how to light a camp stove and the selection of bedding.

Then we rumbled onto the Ross Ice Shelf in a tracked Hagglunds vehicle. It resembled a prehistoric armoured troop carrier but without the armour. It bumped and shuddered for just over five kilometres before grinding to a halt in a spot under the shadow of Mount Erebus. The colossal volcano, topping out at almost 4000 metres, seemed within touching distance.

Actually, it was a good 40 kilometres away, but down here it's difficult to measure distances without objects like trees and roads and buildings as points of reference.

The vista admired, we set to work building camp. Up went six tents, with snow shovelled around the sides to prevent icy draughts. Each was positioned in a way that would minimize the effect of the 10 knot winds.

Then it was time to build a kitchen, complete with walls and seats and tables. We were shown how to saw big blocks of ice and stack them to build a windbreak.

The area behind the windbreak was excavated to provide the building materials and also to provide us with a pit to eat in. Terraces were carved out as a place to sit and place our stoves.

After dinner we took a trip to a place called Castle Rock - an enormous outcrop perched on the spine that leads from Scott Base to Mount Erebus. Photographs were taken and collars raised against the now buffeting wind.

Back at camp, we headed to bed. For four of us though, that plan didn't involve the confines of a tent. Instead, we each elected to dig a snow trench to sleep in. We built them by digging out a rectangular cavity, not unlike the hole into which a coffin might be buried. The similarity was noticed and mentioned a few too many times for comfort.

The excavated bricks were used to build a windbreak on three sides, providing relief from the now 20 knot winds that were sweeping through camp.

We ventured into our holes, donning hats, neckwarmers, gloves, thermals, and of course, a substantial sleeping bag. The temperature was about -4 degrees but -15 with windchill. Although draughty the hole was surprisingly comfortable, and my hopes of surviving the night went from probable to near certain.

Disconcerting though, was the blue sky and racing white clouds over my trench at 1am. The Antarctic summer sunlight is unending. It penetrated through the cracks in my poorly built ice wall and slipped in around the edges of my sleep mark. It kept me awake till 2am when exhaustion finally claimed me.

That same sun would have hung over the blizzard that consumed poor Captain Oates. I like to think its rays may have broken through the maelstrom and shone on his face as he breathed his last.

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