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Notes from the Field
Follow a conversation with Allen O'Bannon, a NOLS winter instructor who is currently in Antarctica teaching for the Field Safety Training Program (FSTP). FSTP trains people working on the ice to be safe and comfortable in the extreme arctic environment.

Allen O'Bannon stands in the frozen world he's now calling home.

Leader: What exactly does FSTP do?

O’Bannon: We do training for people who are going to be working outside on the ice, from scientists, to mechanics, to general assistants. We teach courses on sea ice safety, GPS, altitude and crevasse travel.

One of our main courses is a two-day course called Snowcraft One (a.k.a. happy camper), where we teach all the basic survival skills necessary to use a survival bag (a large bag containing all the essential necessary for two people to survive for three days in a storm). This means we teach them about environmental injuries and prevention; how to use a stove to boil water (you would be surprised by the number of people who don’t know how to boil water when it’s cold); how to set up a tent; and how to build snow walls and sleep warm and dry. Then they get to sleep out in a snow mound city.

The next day we debrief how the night went, talk about risk assessment, and cover how to use a radio. Then we run them through two problem solving scenarios, one where they have to find someone lost in a whiteout (we put five-gallon buckets on their heads to simulate this), and the other where they have to set up a camp and boil water all within a half hour. They may even have a hypothermia case thrown in.

FSTP is also responsible for search and rescue on the continent, so we train once a week for this down on the ice. We also go out and support different science groups that are in need of mountaineers. Basically, we go out as safety officers and guides with the science group and help them accomplish their work. This is one of the perks of the job as we get to travel to different places and do some exciting work.

Leader: How did you end up with the job?

O’Bannon: I applied with Raytheon Polar Services ( I talked with the people doing the hiring and eventually found myself on a plane heading to the ice.

Leader: What kinds of skills will you be using down there? Any NOLS skills?

O’Bannon: I’ll be using my teaching, mountaineering, glacier travel, GPS, winter camping , and ground penetrating radar skills, which is basically crevasse detection. On one of the projects, I am supporting a traverse to the South Pole.

Leader: What’s it like—what you expected, or entirely different?

O’Bannon: It’s pretty much like I expected, having talked to lots of folks who have been down before. A number of NOLS Instructors have been to the ice or are going soon. This year FSTP has both Louie Sass and Susan Detweiler working here. Vince Gordon is down as a snowmobile mechanic. Chas Day, Nancy Pfeiffer, and Lucy Smith have all worked in FSTP. Spore Meuwissen, Kevin Pusey, and Thane Lever are also among some of the others who have worked on the ice.

Leader: How long will you be there?

O’Bannon: My deployment starts September 30 and will end sometime around the mid to end of February.

Leader: Did your winter expertise prepare you at all for what you’re doing down there? How is it the same as winter backcountry living? How is it different?

O’Bannon: Well, in a sense most of what we do is easier then a NOLS winter course. We do not spend as much time outdoors and we pretty much drive everywhere. One of the reasons I like the search and rescue aspect is that we actually get out on the snow and move around on our own power. We teach a lot of the same skills as a NOLS winter course, but we just don’t get to spend as much time practicing them, and people do not get to be proficient. But hopefully they learn enough to stay out of trouble and deal with it if they don’t.

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