The training programme

Wouter van Werre | 5 Dec 2019

Before we can go searching for the meteorites, we have had to complete an extensive training program. For Romain and myself it was a very packed schedule, as we had to start from scratch. Katie and Geoff, on the other hand, had already taken some of these modules last year so they did not have to repeat all of them. The training program covers everything from how to be safe on the base, to how to record meteorological observations in the field to pass onto the weather forecasters at Rothera. Due to the poor weather the final module was delayed by a few days, but on Monday we were finally able to complete the program.

Romain already described our overnight stay just outside the base, but I thought it would be interesting to explain the different training modules we had to take since our arrival.

One of the first modules we all have to take is about aircraft safety. While the Rothera Research Station is the place where we all live and work, it is also an active airfield with the runway in the middle of the base.
Therefore we all have to be aware of the procedures for crossing the runway, how to approach the aircraft when they are on the apron (taxiway area) and how to communicate with the pilots. Afterwards we also learnt what to expect when we will be flown into field by Twin Otter aircraft.

The IT/communications team gave us a brief overview of the available IT resources, such as public computers and phone booths, as well as how to get access to the internet on personal laptops. They also introduced us to the VHF radio equipment and protocols that are in place for communications around the base.

One of the field guides walked us through all the clothing that BAS has issued to us, how the different layers work together and how to stay warm in the polar environment. All the different activities that are undertaken by the people here on base, as well as those in the field, require very different clothing systems. While we covered this before during our pre-deployment training with BAS in Cambridge, this served as a very useful reminder

Later on in the week we also went through the field medical box with one of the doctors on the station, walking us through all the medical kit available to us and how we can make best use of it.

Some of the modules, such as skidoo training and gator training are very hands-on. The gator training covers the use of the small wheeled vehicles, called gators, which are used to move around the base. By now the snow has been cleared from all the main paths around base, making these gators the perfect vehicle for moving around goods. Outside of the base there is still plenty of snow, which requires the use of the skidoos. During the skidoo training module the vehicle technicians took a group of us out on the skidoos and into the local travel area. Here we learnt how to safely operate the skidoos, particularly on slopes, where you have to be careful not to “roll the ‘doo”. They also showed us the outline of the local travel area, which is where people can move around safely on their own. This area is clearly delineated using flags and drums. We were also taught how to do the pre-start checks and basic maintenance tasks on the skidoos, which was particularly useful for us, as we will have to do these on our own when we go out into the field to look for meteorites.

One of the more surprising modules we had to take was the meteorological observations module. All field parties have to be able to record the current weather conditions and transmit these back to Rothera, especially when the aircraft are due to land at the campsite. Together with the forecasts that are generated by the forecasters on base these can be used to make decisions about the aircraft movements. We covered the basics of estimating the wind direction and velocity, the amount of cloud cover, cloud types and cloud height, as well as visibility and contrast. All these observations have to be transmitted hourly if there are any planned aircraft operations in the area.
This was a very interesting module for me, as I had no prior experience with taking structured weather observations (and I never knew there were so many different types of clouds!).

Far and away the largest group of training modules we had to take are the field modules (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). These cover all the skills required to live in a field camp and safely move across the Antarctic terrain. For example, field module 1 covers the basics of how to use the Primus stoves and Tilley lamps and how to set up a 2-person mountain tent. The camping trip Romain wrote about earlier is part of field module 2, where you go out in a small group a few kilometres outside of the Rothera base. When we were on the hillside we were taught how to put up a pyramid tent, where to put the crates with cooking equipment and food, where to put the stove and Tilley lamp and how to arrange your sleeping area. We then had to cook some food (by melting some snow first!) and we stayed the night. It is amazing to realise that the pyramid tents, the Tilley lamps, and primus stoves are all the same design as those used by the likes of Scott and Shackleton.

Geoff and Katie joined us for the field modules 3 and 4 which cover basic mountaineering and crevasse rescue skills. We practised walking with crampons, climbing up and down steep snow-covered slopes, and walking on ice. We also had to practice being roped up to another member of our group, how to arrest a fall if the person you’re roped up with falls into a crevasse, and how to anchor the rope into the ground. We did all of this outside on one of the hills just next to the base. We then went inside to practice other crevasse rescue skills such as abseiling down into the crevasse, jumaring back up the rope, and how to set up a five-to-one pulley system to lift someone out. While I found this module very interesting, and I really enjoyed the ropework and the abseiling, I do hope we never have to use these skills!

Snow stake crevasse rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Learning how to hack up a hill wearing crampons. Not Katie’s favourite part of the trip. [Credit: Wouter van Verre]
Geoff learning the ropes in rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The final training module took all four of us back outside again, this time to practice linked travel on a skidoo. With linked travel a pair of skidoos and a pair of sledges are connected by a heavy rope. This way, if one skidoo does fall into a crevasse, the other skidoo will arrest the fall. Each skidoo has a rescue sack on the back with the gear required for a crevasse rescue, which we practiced in the earlier modules. The first sledge contains all the necessities to make a base camp (known as a full ‘unit’), while the rear sledge contains a half ‘unit’, from which we can make an emergency camp.
It takes a bit of practice to keep the skidoos synchronised so that the rope is just slack, but not so slack that the rear skidoo drives over the top of the rope.

Geoff and Romain learning how to drive in linked travel with two sledges. [Credit: Katie Joy]

This is an overview of the type of training a field party might receive before heading out into the continent. There are, naturally, many other training courses available as well for those who do other jobs on station.
For example, anyone who expects to launch and retrieve boats into the sea has to learn how to drive the tractors and operate the cranes.

All in all it has been a busy week and full of training and testing our science equipment. The training courses have been very useful and definitely add a bit of confidence before going into the field.

Many thanks to all the people on station who have helped us prepare during the past week and a half!