Camping in Antarctica-Day One

6 Jan

Who would have thought ANYONE would want to go camping in Antarctica?

Well, one of the boondoggles (morale trips for us workin’ folk down here) that I got chosen for was to attend Snow School I also known as ‘Happy Camper.’ I’ve heard horror stories about frost nip and frost bite; limbs breaking or falling off, sleeping in a snow shelter, and eating expired and tasteless chocolate bars. Well, it was all of that and more!

We met at FSTP for our classroom portion.

FSTP stands for Field Safety Training Program. They conduct outdoor & survival training as well as leading the Search and Rescue Team.

Our two instructors were Billy and Greg. Both had a great deal of experience in cold weather camping and outdoor adventures. Billy, from NZ with this killer accent, was an outdoor guide in NZ and Greg was an outdoor guide from Alaska.

In the classroom portion, we talked about the two purposes of this training; to learn extreme cold weather survival as well as extreme cold weather field camp living. We talked in detail about the potential challenges with extreme cold weather exposure (ie: frost nip, frost bite, hypothermia, dehydration, etc.), what precautions to take for prevention, as well as what to do in the event one of these should unfortunately occur. Many thoughts were running through my head and I became a bit anxious about my next 24 hours of Antarctic camping. Doesn’t sound so happy now does it?

We continued talking about outdoor safety with an indepth discussion about the contents and usages of the emergency bag. We got to take apart the ‘demo emergency bag’ and look at how it’s all used. I am not sure I knew what half of the stuff was even called before today, but I feel in the event of an actual emergency, I could manage.

At that point, we loaded up our belongings, picked up food for the next day and headed out to camp. When an opportunity arose, I volunteered (not knowing that I was in for). Luckly, it was people to ride out to camp in the Haaglund (see photos below). It was pretty cool, a bit bumpy (I should have worn my sports bra), but a great experience.

There are not good shocks on this mode of transportation.

Camp was out on the sea ice, but not more than 3 miles from town. We had a beautiful view of Mt. Erebus (yes, the live volcano down here) and georgous skies. The weather forecast said there would be a high of 36 degrees and would get down to 21 degrees that night. It seemed reasonable for a night camping in Antarctica, right?

Beautiful skies and Mt. Erebus...doesn't it look really close?

When we arrived at our camping site, we picked up our sleeping kits (extreme cold weather sleeping bag, a mat {for a smidge more comfort than sleeping on packed snow}, and two Army-like blankets) and then headed to the I-Hut (Instructor Hut). This is the location where the Happy Camper instructors spend the night. It’s completely enclosed with two heating units and two beds. They are really roughing it!

Next, we dined on some of McMurdo’s finest leftover pizza (compliments of yours truely) as well some deli and PB&J sandwiches for lunch. Not knowing what dinner was, I should have eaten more or taking a sandwich for later. I was in for a big culinary shock!

We then learned how to assemble, use, and troubleshoot a ‘cooker’ or a camping stove. We got a chance to put them together and take them apart and practice lighting them safely. These were pressurized and I’d not used one of these before. It took some practice, but fortunately of the nineteen other campers, eleven of them were from the Fire Department. I felt a bit more safe. (Not too much though because the Fire Department is known for burning popcorn often and setting things on fire.)

Now it was time to play outside. We set began to set up the Tents. First we set up the Scott tents. These tents are named for Robert Falcon Scott who was a British Royal Navy officer that lead two Antarctic Expeditions in an effort to reach the South Pole. He died while returning from the South Pole from exhaustion, hunger, and exteme cold. (Makes you wonder about how good the tents are!) These tents are commonly used in Antarctica or in really extreme cold weather camping. They are made to protect you from harsh temperatures and wind. As a group, we set up both Scott tents in the event that the conditions became extreme and we needed further protection from the elements.

Billy demonstrating how to set up the tents and best utilize the 'berthing canal.'

We then moved onto building the mountain tents; a bit less protection from the elements, but still great protection compared to sleeping under the stars. They were very simple to assemble and set up and I felt a nice sense of accomplishment having set up tents last summer while traveling around NZ (Thanks Linda!). I did learn some new techniques for tying ropes and how to anchor them to snow.

Before finishing our neighborhood of tents, we learned how to build a wind blocking wall. Billy showed us the variety of ways to do this and how to determine where the best location for the wall would be.

Building the wall with such precision and detail was very important.

We all worked really hard to build the 'best ever' wind wall.

We moved onto the kitchen…some of our fellow campers build a kitchen and Greg showed us how decorate it and exactly where to put the stove and how to ensure we always had water, both hot and cold.

We were then educated on building snow shelters. In some cases, there is not time to stop, prepare the ground, and set up a tent or maybe the conditions won’t allow for that to happen. A snow shelter is designed to protect you from the elements and keep you safe.

Billy showed us the most common type of snow shelter...a grave (yes it's as morbid as it sounds, but it keeps you warm and dry.

Here are other examples of more complex snow shelters.

This georgous igloo was build by previous happy campers, taking over 8 hours.

This one had a fancy foyer…


Now it was my turn to build: Valerie and I decided we would dig a square out and build up the sides.

Started from square one.

We kept digging and digging. It's a good thing the weather was awesome!

We found a tarp that would be a perfect covering for our one story condo. Here is the finished product.

We were very proud of our accomplishments. It was hard work!

Since that was so exhausting, I decided it was time for dinner. I headed the kitchen and examined my choices. I decided on Sierra Chicken. Not the best choice for a culinary treat, but the best of the worst.

Barbie dined with us, but opted out of eating dinner. I think she was the smart one!

Dinner was…well…a dehydrated meal; full of protein, carbs, and fiber. Doesn’t that sound like a deadly combination for someone camping? It wasn’t too flavorful and didn’t really look appealing, but it provided nourishment and sustinance. I guess I’ve eaten worse!

After dinner, we sat around the kitchen table (the snow box in the middle of the kitchen) and chatted. I learned a bit more about my fellow campers. There was some self revelation and bonding. It was a very nice evening.

Unfortunately, the inevitable happened. Dinner and all the water I was drinking to stay hydrated had gone through my system and I was forced to use the outhouse. Another exciting point on this adventure.

The 'lou' with a view!

The throne...for the royalty in all of us! Notice the hand sanitizer to keep the ick away.

This was the 'view' portion of the lou.

So the throne was not warm or soft, but it was better than squatting over a hole (which by the way is not allowed here according to the Antarctic Treaty). And I was pleased to see the hand sanitizer. The only pickle with that was the need to completely have the sanitizer absorbed into your skin otherwise it would greatly increase your chances of getting frost nip or frost bite.

To conclude the activities of the day and to help ensure I would sleep well that night, I took a nice walk with the three other ladies of the camp; Valerie, Sue and Claire. We walked around the neighborhood, about two miles and chatted about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.

Taking in some additional beautiful scenery...Castle Rock in the distance.

Now by this point, even though it was only about 10pm (yes, still complete daylight), I was exhausted and it was time for some shuteye! I headed in for the night with my suitemate Valerie, into our cozy condo for two.

My nice new bed for the night. Not a Sleep Number like the Mariott offers, but I had plenty of layers to stay warm.

Note: The shovel is what’s in the center of our condo. It serves two purposes. One, to allow us to dig ourselves out if in the unfortunate event our foyer/doorway gets snowed in, and two, to ensure a little stability and support if it snowed all night or blew a great deal of snow and caused the tarp to cave in. Just a little safety precaution. It should be an interesting night!


3 Responses to “Camping in Antarctica-Day One”

  1. Renae March 13, 2010 at 5:47 am #

    thanks for ur one day adventure it helped me heaps with my school project yr 6 antarctic adventure i hope i get marked well thanks heaps

  2. Joe April 28, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    Just surfing. Great pictures! Brought back memories. I wintered-over in ’84 while in the Navy. I went through the snow survival training too. Your pictures and narrative brought back pleasent and adventurous memories. Good job.


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