Alaska Training Adventure

Alaska Training Adventure

29 Jan 2015

Note: This story was also published on the NC Wing website.

On 26 Dec 14, three members of the Sugar Valley Composite Squadron, North Carolina Wing, along with one member from the Virginia Wing, took off for an eight-day adventure in Alaska. They attended the Alaska Wing Emergency Services & Snow Extravaganza (ESSE): a cold-weather operations course for Civil Air Patrol members. Based on the USAF “Cool School” Curriculum, the ESSE teaches the fundamentals of cold weather survival and allows operators to practice their field skills under challenging conditions.

The big adventure is the bivouac in the Alaska winter where the students and staff have to build shelters from a minimal packing list of a limited 24-hour pack plus a sleeping bag. This is designed to teach the difference in camping and survival, because a situation can go from camping to survival in minutes.

ESSE participants built a snow cave to keep warm at night. (Picture from Carnes family.)

ESSE participants built a snow cave to keep warm at night. (Picture Lt Paul A. Carnes)

One of the skills learned that participants from North Carolina might not think of is using snow to make the survival outcome better. They worked together to build a snow cave as a team. This consisted of shoveling a snow mound up to the size of a small car and then digging an entrance and sleeping space. C/Capt Casey Carnes and C/TSgt Eve Allen slept in the snow cave. 1st Lt Patricia Allen, after helping the team with the snow cave, set off to build a snow coffin which is an area dug out of a snow bank, covered with a tarp, and then insulated with snow to hold in body heat. 1st Lt Adrian Carnes, after helping the team with the snow cave, built a tarp “A” frame, in the short Alaska days of five to six hours of daylight. Along with the cold, the short days made life challenging for all. The body wants to go to sleep shortly after dark, and in the area of Alaska they were in, the sun came up little after 10:00 and when down a little before 16:00. All this darkness made a long, cold night and hard conditions.

Staff, to help them get through the long night, cold, and 48 hours of 700 calorie intake, gave each person a Snickers bar and a story of the first ESSE. Major Sam Ogilvie told of wearing everything he had in his sleeping bag and still could not stop shaking in the -20º temperature with high winds. “My suck meter was maxed out,” he stated. He pulled out his frozen Snickers bar and started eating it and for that moment he got a very small treat, but it changed his outlook. It went from, “This is so hard and I hate it” to, “This candy bar is the best candy bar I ever had.” The mind is the most important thing to survival and to go from, “This is so bad” to, “It’s okay,” can make all the difference in life and death when it’s a matter of survival. It is striking how people let things seem bigger than they really are and get the best of them. Breaking it down in the end, the only things needed to survive are: 1) hydration and 2) 98.6º body temperature.

The team learned some new skills to put in their “survival toolboxes.” The most powerful one was mindset. Others skills included discovering that water bottles freeze from the top to the bottom, so store it upside down so it can be opened and provide water. Phones, cameras, and radios must be under one layer of clothes to keep them warm and working. The cold kills the batteries in them if they are not kept warm. Keeping feet dry is important. A trick to dry socks is to turn them inside-out and leave them out in the cold to freeze. Pop the frost off to have dry socks to wear. It is more difficult to build a fire in the snow when fire turns snow to water, so planning is the difference between getting warm or having a cold night. Lastly, it was learned how far one can really go with very little food and no heat. If you can keep dry and your mind in the game, it is camping, not survival.


One comment

  1. Maj Matthew Phillips /

    Great article, Cadet Carnes! Thanks for sharing your adventure with all of us.

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