I know I’ve done my share of complaining about how cold and snowy this winter has been, but I’ve recently decided that maybe winter isn’t all that bad here in Pennsylvania. I talked to my United States Airman grandson Michael recently after his return from a week of arctic survival training in northern Alaska. Although he characterized the week as “a lot of fun and a good learning experience,” I’m sure that his idea of fun and mine are totally different!
After flying into Fairbanks and having classroom instruction and preparation for their expedition, two groups of 30 airmen, their instructors, medics and an impressive amount of gear proceeded three and a half hours north until they were on a frozen summit near the Arctic Circle. From that point they began hauling gear such as tents, trailers, stoves, snowmobiles, wood burners and life rafts and began setting up the instructors’ and medics’ shelters. The airmen continued to another area and began the task of setting up immediate action shelters for themselves that would enable them to survive the night in minus 20 degree temperatures, with low winds, which turned out to be the best conditions of the week.
They used ice cutting saws to cut blocks of snow and ice that were stacked to make wind walls, then they dug down near the base of the wall to make their sleeping area for the night. Conditions worsened overnight as the wind increased to 60 miles per hour, creating a wind chill near 80 degrees below zero, necessitating better shelter for the rest of the week. They dug trenches, added to the block walls and used a parachute as a roof. They also made snow caves by digging at an angle near the base of a snowdrift and then forming a rounded roof. The most complicated shelter they made was an igloo, filling in the cracks between ice blocks with packed snow and ice. The airmen used sleeping bags designed for 60 degrees below zero, and inflatable rafts for beds that they closed around themselves. Michael said they were still pretty cold in spite of the shelters and the sleeping bags.
Dressing properly and avoiding sweating were the keys to survival. He wore a wicking layer next to the skin, then a wool base layer long sleeve shirt, then a down jacket, covered by a down hoodie, covered by a turtle hood that encircled his face completely except for his eyes. He found that his eyelashes froze several times and he had to carefully wipe the ice off of them. Any exposed flesh would be frostbitten in about 5 minutes, so it was critical to keep covered and dry.
His legs were layered with light thermal pants, covered by heavier thermal pants, finally covered by a Gortex outer layer that blocked the wind. With all those clothes on, going to the bathroom had to be a major production! For overnight, he kept an empty anti-freeze container handy for that purpose. Problem solved!
Since most of their waking hours were spent doing physical labor, some sweating was likely to happen. In that case they were to “layer down,” or begin removing layers until they quit sweating. On the other hand, if feet or hands started getting cold, they needed to run laps until they warmed up, but not to the point of sweating.
Another thing I wondered about was the food. They were issued MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) but of course the foil packets were frozen solid. If you planned to have something thawed out enough to bite it, then you had to sleep with it between the layers of your clothing. That was pretty much like sleeping with an ice bag! He said eating frozen chicken noodle soup wasn’t exactly a treat, but it was satisfying. He said “When you’re in the mindset for the job, you don’t eat much.”
They carried a water bag for hydration. They put a small amount of water in the bag to start with, then added more snow/ice after each drink. The bag was carried between the layers of shirts so body heat would melt the snow. He said they didn’t worry about the snow being polluted because for mile after mile there was absolutely nothing around. Although he didn’t eat much, he did drink about 5 liters of water a day.
If face masks, socks, gloves or boot liners became wet, it was important to change them promptly. The wet articles of clothing were placed in the bottom of the sleeping bag so body heat could dry them overnight. Body heat was also used to keep batteries or digital devices from freezing. They were placed under the belt between the layers around the waist.
The area where they were had no vegetation and no animal life at all, although he did send pictures of a single scrawny tree that was doing its best to survive. Sunrise occurred around 10:30 in the morning and it took about two hours before the sun completely rose above the horizon. Then at 2:30, sunset began, and it took another two hours to finally set. In winter there are about 6 hours of daylight, and in the summer about twenty hours.
During most of the week, there were 60 mile per hour winds and a wind chill of minus 80 degrees. On their last day there, the temperature was minus 5 and someone commented, “Hey! It’s warming up!”
Of his Arctic Survival Mission, Michael said, “It was a great experience living out in the barren Arctic environment. I thought I knew what cold was, but I sure was wrong!”
Just a reminder. Our military personnel, active or veterans, all deserve our sincere thanks for their service. Even if they didn’t have to survive arctic temperatures, they’ve all made significant sacrifices to serve their country.