We began with some ropework, specifically how to walk across a crevassed area. To do this one needs to be harnessed and roped together with another person. The two people then walk some distance apart so that if the person in front plunges into a crevasse, the person behind has time to bury their ice-axe into the snow and hang on for dear life. There is some debate among the experts over whether it is better to be the person who plunges or the person who doesn’t plunge, but this is a debate I will probably never learn the answer to since there are no crevasses on Bird Island. We also learned what to do should you find yourself dangling on the end of a rope halfway down a crevasse (climb back up it), or supporting your friend who is dangling on the end of a rope halfway down a crevasse (pull them back out). To pull them back out you construct an ingenious mechanism called a z-pulley which requires a substantial quantity of rope, some carabiners, a couple of rope ascending devices and five pulleys. The upshot of this is that, when walking through a crevassed area, you need to carry more gadgets on your belt than Batman.
Alistair dangles over the Derbyshire countryside, pretending it is a crevasse.
Mike explains the theory behind 'hanging on for dear life' to Katie.
The next part of field training was a demonstration of a primus stove, an essential piece of Antarctic field kit which has not changed much since the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. Scott probably warmed his last mug of Bovril over a primus stove. Shackleton no doubt fried his seal steaks over one too. Primus stoves burn paraffin, the advantage of which is that it is not particularly flammable and therefore very safe. Should you spill paraffin all over the floor of your tent and then drop a lit match into it nothing much would happen. The disadvantage of paraffin is that it is not very flammable and primus stoves are therefore a bit of a bugger to get going. First the stove is pumped up to raise the pressure in the fuel compartment, then some meths is added to a little cup around the pipework and burned to heat up the fuel inside (this is the ‘priming’ part). After repeating this process several times the paraffin in the pipes should be hot enough to burn and the stove can be lit. However, if the paraffin is not burning properly it will produce carbon monoxide and kill you. So on the plus side it is unlikely that you will accidentally burn down your tent, but on the minus side there is a good chance that you will accidentally poison yourself. No wonder they called it the Heroic Age.
Another part of the field course was ‘how to find a fallen colleague in a blizzard’ training, for which you need a bunch of people, a rope and some goggles painted white on the inside. The goggles were to simulate the blizzard, so would not be required in a real-life blizzard situation. One person was sent to hide among the heather and then the rest of us had to find her, without peeking. The main thing I learned from this exercise was that if you are going to look for someone in a blizzard then you really ought to discuss your strategy first rather than just starting, otherwise you are nothing more than a bunch of blind people staggering around holding onto a rope. I had very little idea what was going on during the ‘rescue’. Apparently we were tracing a series of arcs and semi-circles to cover a large area of ground, but I quickly grew disoriented and had no idea where we had been or where we were going. Communication along the rope was poor, with bellowed instructions from either end quickly dissipating in the wind. We did eventually find the casualty, but only because the instructors started giggling when one of us nearly bumped into her, and I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen in a real rescue situation.
Katie was pleased with her new skiing goggles, but they ultimately led to disaster.
So now I am fully trained to cope with a wide range of Antarctic emergency situations, and could even light the stove to brew a cup of tea afterwards. Who said Antarctic exploration was difficult? It’s as easy as falling down a crevasse.
Team South Georgia enjoys some post-Antarctic-pre-deployment-training drinks.