Saturday, November 03, 2007

Camping at -51 F

This post is going to be long. Even if I don't write that much, I have a lot of pictures. I'm not sure the pictures will ever do the experience justice though. In fact, I'm sure they won't.

In order to get on the best morale trips (helicopter flights, penguin colony visits, a trip to the Dry Valleys or the Penguin Ranch, fishing), you need to attend a couple training classes. One of those is Sea Ice School to learn if the sea ice is safe to travel on. Another one is Happy Camper school to teach you how to survive in an emergency. However, you are only allowed to take them if your job requires them. It is a shame because a lot of people get passed over for the best trips just because they aren't qualified. For example, dining assistants don't need them and often get sent to them as a morale trip so their next time out they can go somewhere cooler. I figured my job did not require those classes, but I asked my boss about getting into both of them this past Tuesday anyway. He found a way to make it work and just four days after I asked, I found myself signed up for Happy Camper school.

Happy Camper school is a two day class in the field. You leave at 9am and return at 4pm the following day. You travel with two instructors and twenty students. The instructors teach you the basics, help set up a basic camp, and then around 6pm leave the students for their own nice warm hut with a stove. We have radios in case we need to reach the instructors, but the main idea is that we learn to fend for ourselves. There are simply too many field sites and not enough time to train everyone properly so they are really trying to teach self reliance as well as the basics of outdoor survival.

After a short introduction in town to what we would be doing, we headed out to our field camp. There were two skidoos waiting for the instructors to haul our stuff. We had to walk the last half mile to their hut. I think this was to get us used to being outside and to show how much walking can do towards staying warm.

Once at the hut, we got to dig into our lunches - hummus-cheese sandwiches, quesadilla, chocolate chip cookies, granola bars, juicy juice, pretzels, crackers, and all types of hot drinks. The body spends a ton of energy keeping warm. At colder temperatures, it takes more energy to stay warm. Therefore, we were encouraged to as much as we wanted.

Our final indoor meal in the instructor hut

After a quick lunch, our instructor Cecelia acquainted us with our camp stoves. Some people were already pros and others had never attempted to light one. I'm not an expert, but when my turn came around my 1950s era strike anywhere matches (not just because they don't make them anymore, but because the matches might have been that old) would not light. My group decided I would work on non-cooking tasks around camp that night.

Learning to cook with gas

After our quick lesson in stoves, we were leaving the indoors for the final time in the next 24 hours. We have no way to warm up except whatever shelter we could put get put up and warm things we could cook. Some of us were really excited. Others were less so.

Less excited

More excited.

They did provide two major accommodations for us in the field. The first one was the survival kits that no one is ever without in the field. Those survival kits include food for two people for three days, two sleeping bags, two sleeping bag liners, two sleeping mats, a shovel, a saw, and a tent. The other one was a make shift bathroom. This next picture is a reminder for kids at home why we don't drink the yellow snow. All over Antarctica, the yellow flags mark urine zones.

Bathroom facilities

After our bathroom break, our instructors used skidoos to haul our gear to our camping site. We, once again, got to walk out. It warmed us up though so I can't really complain.

Fully loaded skidoos with our gear

Castle Rock, the backdrop for our camp site

Our first task at camp was to erect two Scott tents. One was double layered and would be used to sleep three people. This was the warmest shelter we had. The other single layer tent would be used for cooking out of the wind. We accomplished both of these tasks easily with ten people per tent. That is going to become a theme for most of setting up camp. Twenty people can setup camp in a hurry. It would take substantially more time with only three people.

A Scott tent.

Our next task was to build our quinzee (mound snow hut or snow cave). The first step of this process was to take all of our sleeping gear and put it into a pile in the middle. Then, we proceeded to cover the entire pile with a meter of snow. This took two hours for twenty people and only slept three people. Those three people might be the best off in a storm, but what an effort to get it moving. Our instructors said quinzees are usually used for long term camps. Burying our sleeping gear didn't just give us less to empty out of the quinzee, I think it also made we would finish it after our instructors left.

Stacking our sleeping gear to be buried.

Buried sleeping gear being checked for proper burial depth

Towards the end of burying our stuff, people were losing steam. Our other instructor, Karen, headed on top of it to encourage everyone to throw snow at her. I think she got more than she asked for, but it also made everyone finish the task a little bit quicker. After letting the quinzee settle for a couple hours, we were set to the task of retrieving our sleeping gear which would also hollow out the quinzee. I can't imagine how much effort it would take without out stuff in there to make it easier.

Karen egging us on

To dig out our stuff, we made two holes in the quinzee. One was meant to just get our stuff out and would be filled in. The other one, the entrance, came into the hut from below the floor of the hut. This would cause the coldest air to be trapped below the sleeping floor of the hut which was just lower than the ground outside the quinzee. Finally, we smoothed out the floor of the hut and poked holes in the ceiling for air. I was more than a little worried when they started jabbing at the ceiling with a pick axe to make holes. I can't remember the weight of a square meter of snow from my avalanche training, but I knew it was a lot and didn't want to be underneath it. This is where I ended up sleeping.

The temporary hole to retriever our sleeping gear

Putting on the final touches to the quinzee

That is me climbing out of the deep entrance hole to the quinzee

While we waited for the quinzee snow to settle, we were set to task to building two snow block quarries and building camp walls. These walls would be used to block the wind. Often the cold is pretty bearable in Antarctica, but the wind chill makes things unbearable. Making a snow cube is incredibly easy. Saw around a sizing board to make sure you have an evenly sized cubes and then break it free with a shovel. The height of the cube will vary depending on where the shovel went in, but you can just saw that other side down.

Snow cube quarry

As we were finishing up our snow walls, our instructors went around and checked everyone for the final time for signs of cold weather injuries. A couple people were close to getting frost nip, the last step before frostbite and we had only been outside for eight hours. We still had sixteen to go!!

Building our city walls to defend against our enemy, the wind

Checking for frostbite.

Our final task before our instructors left for the evening was to put up five mountain tents. These are pretty similar to your normal camping tents, they just have more strings to keep it tied down in the wind. We got these up pretty quick and then we had a final powwow in the lee of the snow walls and then we were on our own. During the powwow, we had a camp leader chosen to make sure we finished everything, maintain order, and take care of communications.

The powwow was so warm my camera fogged up.

Our new leader, Major Jeff Hedges

After a couple more hours of work, we had put the final touches on our camp.

Looking at our camp from the South

Looking at our camp from the East

Now that we were done working, some people got to cooking. Others went for a walk. Some sat around and talked. Others huddled against the wind wall to try and stay warm. Others decided to further enhance their snow structures. Others explored their artistic outlets. Some even played frisbee. A frozen 175g disc throws like a 225g. It's a rock. Make sure to catch it.

< Farah with some wall huggers reflected in here goggles

Snow mustache

Artistic outlets

Dinner was interesting. We were each given a freeze dried meal to eat. We were warned to make sure that it sat with boiled water for ten minutes to rehydrate our meal. I did and by the end of the ten minutes my meal was already luke warm. The hot chocolate faired much better, but only because I got to drink it right away. After dinner, I went for a long walk, tossed the disc, and then headed in for the long, cold night.

I got settled into my sleeping bag pretty well. I had a nalgene full of hot water to help keep me warm through the night. I kept on everything but my outermost layer. It was definitely a bit cold changing, but once I was into my sleeping bag things warmed up pretty quickly. After my two quinzee mates came in, things got even hotter and I considered shedding another layer. I probably should have.

In the middle of night, I woke up and needed to go to the bathroom. This involved the major ordeal of getting dressed. The biggest problem is that anything not in your sleeping bag is now frozen solid. This includes my normally warm boots. Instead they put my feet into such a deep freeze that they didn't warm up until I showered the next afternoon. I had two sets or toe warmers that I tried using when in the morning, but neither one worked because they expired in 2002. I'm going to have a talk with my boss about giving those to me. No matter though. I made it home with all my toes. However, my ordeals weren't done.

When I got into my sleeping bag, the zipper broke. It had been unzipping all night which was irritating, but this time the area behind the zipper busted open. Without my outer sleeping bag closed up, it was very, very cold. I finally got the zipper fixed, but I had cooled off quite a bit.

When I sleep, I need fresh air. The problem with getting fresh air down here is that to let it in you also let in a cold that might cause frost bite. I spent a while trying to get it just right so that only my mouth was exposed while my head was under my jacket.

When it was time to wake up in the morning, I had no idea. People thought I slept in, but really my feet were so cold from the last time I put them in my boots that I didn't want to risk it again until everyone was awake. I had heard footfalls all morning (they carry through the snow), but it only sounded like a couple people. It turned out that it was everyone. The snow magnified the footballs, but quelled any voiced. It was kind of surreal. I tried to get a couple picture of inside the hut, but none really did it justice. Imagine, three men with sleeping pads being able to sleep far enough apart to not touch each other. We could have put two more as long as everyone was willing to snuggle.

Black Island and Mt. Discovery

Other odds and ends:
The instructors suggested that to avoid getting up to use the bathroom that everyone should have a pee bottle. I guess they are pretty standard issue for mountain trips and mandated on some Antarctica trips. (In the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, you can't even spit on the ground. It has to go into a human waste bottle.)

If your body is cold, it needs fuel to reheat itself. We were told to leave a Snickers bar in our pocket so that if we got cold we could eat it to heat back up. If you left it out it would be so cold, you would not be able to bite into it. Earlier in the day, I opened a regular chocoalte bar to eat. It had been in a warm spot so it came out edible enough by the last square, I could no longer bite through the chocolate without it sitting in my mouth for a while.

The morning was pretty quick. We got up, packed up camp, and then they came to get us on the skidoos. We headed back to the instructor hut and then went through a couple more scenarios. The first one included radioing to the South Pole with an HF radio. Then, we put buckets on our head to simulate an Antarctican storm. We then had to locate a lost team member and bring them back to base with only a rope. That was pretty interesting. The last one was simply a review of what to do in a jam - set up a tent, build a wall, radio HQ, and make some tea.

When we finally got back to base, we did another hour of training on helicopters. Neat stuff. I'm not sure I'll get to go on a helo ride, but I'm working at it. One kind of intersting thing was that when we got back, we found another group who was learning how to use stoves and set up a tent in the warmth of the building. I'm not sure why we did it in the field, but no matter. It made for a better experience.

When we got back, we heard from a number of people that they were worried about us. The weather they received on base was as bad as anyone had worked in since getting here. They couldn't believe that we had done Happy Camper school and survived so well, especially since the temperature dropped to -51 F with the windchill.

Mt. Erebus, an active volcano near our camping site. The white cloud from its top is steam.


  1. Sounds like you had quite the camping trip!!! Interesting how a snow cave is made. Like all the pictures you are sending, More exposed rock than I thought there would be. Did you get any tips on how to keep boots warm at night?

  2. I have a few choices to keep my boots warm:
    1) Sleep with them in my sleeping bags
    2) Sleep with your boot liners, but my boots didn't come with liners
    3)Use toe warmers, but my toe warmers failed
    4)Don't take them off and sleep with them

    Next time, I won't just rely on toe warmers. I'll have a couple options ready.

    Wait for a couple months then you'll really see a lot of exposed rock. They think this is going to the first year the sea ice melts all the way back to base since iceburg B-15 bottled up the entire sound and locked the sea ice in about five years ago. -Brody

  3. wow, some pretty amazing stuff.
    I have a few questions.

    What is a Dry Valley and why can't you spit or pee there?

    Is the reason it took 20 of you 2 hours to build the quinzee because you were novices? What would happen if there were only 5 of you. Fewer people and less stuff to bury.

    I assume the wind always blows from the south. THat must be cold.

    How are the folks at Amundsen-Scott doing? What did you talk about on the radio?

  4. i'm blown away. pictures, the camp site, the consistency of the snow!! crazy cool!! blown away. for you, more literally. what a kick...

  5. Wow. Just... wow.

    Now I know for sure that I'm too much of a wuss to try any serious winter camping.

    Thanks for the pics, too - it looks amazing!

  6. Wow, I am freezing just thinking about it!!! Now I feel like a real loser complaining when it is 31 degrees outside in the morning. Congrats on surviving your ordeal and good luck getting a helicopter ride!

  7. tallE,

    I'll do a full post on the Dry valleys later. Hopefully, after a visit. Basically, they are a place in Antarctica that doesn't freeze. I think the bodies of water stay liquid all year due to their chemical content. You can't spit or pee there to protect its fragile ecosystem.

    If we were building a quinzee with just three people, it would take all day or possibly two days to do it. You only do it for long term camps. Instead of burying your stuff, you just make a huge pile of snow which adds a substantial time to how long it takes to make it because you have dig that much more snow out from the inside. Even experts can't move snow any faster than novices, so it should still take a substantial amount of time to build one as an expert.

    The wind doesn't always blow from the South, but usually it does. It is definitely cold. The wind is the real deal breaker on temperature. On a nice day, the wind can take the temperature from 20 to -20.

    The Amundsen-Scott people seemed to be doing well when we reached them on the radio. Their winter people are excited to finally be getting out of there. Even a week's delay can seem like an eternity after 9 months holed up.

  8. i haven't read every entry (YET!) but this is by far my favorite (so far). you guys definitely went through some antarctic bootcamp...bbrr