Snow School (aka "Snow Craft One" or "Happy Camper") started easily enough, with about two hours of classroom lectures on hypothermia and frostbite, with only a few graphic pictures. Then, we (10 students + Brian, our instructor) climbed onto the Delta (shown below, coming to pick us up), grabbed lunch from the kitchen, and headed off to the middle of nowhere (actually, only a few miles from town).
After learning how the stoves worked, checking our food and gear, and eating lunch in a hut, we gathered our gear, moved to an open area, and started making camp. This entailed setting up tents, building a snow wall upwind to protect them:
The "kitchen" was a pit to stand in, a flat area for the stoves, and another snow wall upwind, to keep out the wind:
That's Brian in the kitchen. Brian also showed us how to dig an emergency snow cave:
One of the 'students' decided to finish this, and sleep in it.
Building snow walls was interesting. You start with an undisturbed patch of snow, and dig a trench along it. Then, you use a snow saw (a regular wood saw would work fine too) to cut the snow into blocks about 1 foot by 2 feet. Then, you can put a shovel underneath the blocks, and pop them out of the ground. With a little care, they come out intact, and can be easily built into walls, etc. They are easy to saw into special shapes, so one can easily fill in the irregular areas.
Setting up camp took most of the afternoon. Afterwards, Brian handed us a radio, bade us good night, and headed back to the I-Hut. This photo shows our camp, from the upwind side.
We were lucky with the weather. It was fairly warm, right around freezing, and mostly not too windy. However, as we were setting up camp, it began to get windy, and, by the time we cooked dinner, it was gusting up to 30 miles/hour. This made eating rather difficult, since we had to remove ones gloves to be able to use the plastic spoon to eat out of the freeze-dried food package. One of my roommates in McMurdo said that it was 40 below when he took the class. That must have been rough.
It was also cloudy; this made the snow rather featureless, and it was pretty hard to see the contours of the snow; you couldn't, for example, easily see the edge of a depression, and you had to be careful walking. The lack of contrast also shows in the photos; it is hard to see our snow walls, for example.
Aside from the slightly cramped tents, sleeping was pretty comfortable. We learned the importance of smoothing out the area underneath before setting up our tents. Our sleeping bags were overkill for the temperature, and we left the tent door open, partly because we were warm and our feet were hanging out.
Breakfast was pretty limited, due to a packing oversight. Then, we took down the tents, packed up camp, and headed for the I-hut. This was "Car Camping;" Brian transported most of the gear in a sled behind a snowmobile.
In the I-Hut, we learned about the HF (5-10 MHz) and VHF radios. The VHF radios are line-of-sight, while the HF radios (designed for military use), with appropriate antennae have a transcontinental range, as the signals bounce between the ionosphere and the ground. The HF radio has two roughly 50 foot long wires that are spread out to form a center-fed half-wave dipole antenna; there are alligator clips on each wire that can be removed, to shorten the antenna, to tune it to different frequencies. Since only 6 frequencies are used here, it works pretty well.
Then, it was time for the infamous "head in a bucket" exercise. The buckets simulate white-out conditions - zero visibility and lots of wind noise. Brian, our instructor, went to the bathroom, and never came back. We need decide what to do. We have a rope which can be tied to the building; as long as we hold on to it, we won't get lost. However, how do you coordinate a blind search party? We send two people out to try to find the bathroom; I'm one of them. We will try to follow the line of stakes leading to the bathroom (placed ~ 15 feet apart, to avoid just this scenario) to see if he has taken refuge in there. We find the 4th stake (missing the first three), then get the rope tangled in it, until Brian stops the exercise. For our second try, we send out the entire group, spaced ~ 6 feet apart (we tie loops in the rope to facilitate spacing and holding on). We will try to spread out in line and do a circular sweep. This goes surprisingly well, until we reach the line of flags to the bathroom. Some people want to keep going, while others want to stop, as we had discussed. We end up with a v-shaped 'line.' at which point Brian ended the exercise. He did say, generously, that we might have eventually found him, if he was in the area that we were searching. The clear lesson is not to get lost.
We moved on to the survival bags that are carried on all flights, etc. They contain supplies for two people for 3 days - sleeping bag, tents, stove, food, etc.).
Then, back outside for our 'final exercise. Our plane has crashed and the pilot broke his leg. What do we do? We quickly split up into groups, erecting the tent, keeping our injured pilot warm, building a snow wall, starting a fire to melt snow, etc. I set up the VHF radio. Instead, of calling in an emergency, Brian asks me to radio the South Pole (850 miles away) to ask what the weather is there. The South Pole Ops center is obviously used to these calls; it's a balmy 14 below (probably Fahrenheit).
After that, we clean up, wash dishes (fortunately inside) and board the Delta for the ride back to town. There, we put away everything, refill the food boxes for the next party, and watch a helicopter safety video and try out helicopter seat belts before being dismissed.