Posted by: sioglac | Nov 18, 2011

The happiest campers

Okay, I’ll start off with the bad news: I didn’t sleep in an igloo. They cut the whole “build an igloo” part of Happy Camper School down here. BUT! I knew my lack of igloo slumber would disappoint my dear readers, so I did do sleep somewhere borderline ridiculous. Click that “Read More” button and I’ll tell you a bit about how I became the happiest of campers and show you a ton of pictures in the process…

Happy Camper School starts with a pretty standard classroom segment on general Antarctic hazards and risk management. After about 2 hours, we “geared up” (meaning put on our ECW) and hopped back in that same delta truck I took from the sea-ice runaway a few days earlier. Only this time all of our luggage was in there and it made for a really crowded ride. This is my trying to take a picture of Angie who was directly across from me:

Yeah, you can just barely see the top of her hat. It got pretty hot in there. Perhaps obviously, I fell asleep. I woke up when we stopped and we had magically ended up on the Ross Ice Shelf, home of Happy Camper and a whole lot of white:

We walked about 15 minutes to the actual camp (and by camp I mean a small hut the size of a trailer):

For location reference, that’s the backside of Observation Hill on the left

Here, we learned how to light whisperlite stoves and “sleep warm” using our sleep kit (which I’ve already told you all about).   Oh and I guess we had some incredible views:

Black Island on the left, Mount Discovery (elevation 8800 ft) on the right

Mount Erebus, home of 1 of 5 long-lasting lava lakes on Earth (sofreakingcool). There’s just a tiny whisp of smoke shrouding the peak

After lunch, we headed outside to learn how to set up shelter: Scott tents, 2-person mountaineering tents (and snow walls), and last, but not least, survival trenches. Scott tents are two walled canvas tents that are an oasis of silence during heavy winds and are the classic Antarctic expedition shelters:

Mountaineering tents are the standard camping tents, but are much more liable to be blown by strong winds, so snow walls made of bricks cut out of snow are a must. Tarun (a member of Paul Winberry’s field team) seemed a bit too eager with the saw:

You can see someone carrying a brick in the back on the right to give you a sense of brick size

We set up 7 mountaineer tents, so we needed a humongous snow wall (3-4 feet tall, 50-70 feet long). And snow trenches are glorified graves dug 3-10 feet into the snow meant to serve as emergency shelters to shield a person from an unexpected storm or generally any bad situation. That being said, snow trenches, given enough time, can turn into ornate living spaces, complete with low points to catch cold air, big flat beds to sleep comfortably, and a hole to hold your toothbrush.

Wanna guess where I slept? Yeah, I shoveled snow for 2 hours and built myself a snow trench. Did I sleep outside, buried in snow in Antarctica for a night? You bet. (Side note: I’m glad my family is only finding out about this now…) Here are a bunch of pictures from snow school with captions to make sure you know what’s going on:

It was so hot (like above freezing hot) during Happy Camper that the chocolate chips in my GORP melted in the sun. That was pretty much the last thing I expected to happen.

The afternoon light lit up the snow-surface features created by wind. I guess I’ll point out that the footprints were not caused by wind.

Before I built my shelter, we had to have dinner. And we can’t have dinner without a kitchen counter to cook on, right? So we built one. I have no idea what Angie is looking at…

It’s also hard to have dinner without a table and centerpiece. So some of the group made those. Yes, starman was our centerpiece. And yes, we basically just played in snow for hours on end.

Ben and I give Erebus a BIG thumbs up even though the smoke went away.

After dinner I dug. A lot.

Mike and Rory found a half collapsed igloo (nothing really “disappears” from Antarctica) and rebuilt it into a modified snow fort, using banana sleds as a roof

Angie started and finished her trench before me. I begrudgingly will admit hers was amazing. Her stairs were at perfect right angles, her cold air sink was deeper than mine, and her bed (with you can see below her) was amazingly flat.

I was pretty happy when my snow pile was bigger than Mt. Erebus.

And here’s the side car I made for me to sleep in. You can see that there’s a small cold air sink to the right of the bed. The perspective is hard to figure out, but there’s about 9-12 inches between the thermorest and the snow ceiling.

So that’s where I slept. Underneath about 3-4 feet of snow. Quarters were tight, but it was warm out and I actually woke up once because I was too hot in my sleeping bag. Then I woke up when some snow flakes fell on me.

Wait, what?! I’m sleeping in a desert and haven’t seen a cloud in two days. There’s no precipitation. So I open my eyes. Within the next 60 seconds, I grabbed my camera from under me (I was sleeping on my pants to make sure they didnt freeze) and snapped a picture of what I saw:

To orient you, I was still laying in my sleeping bag, looking up at the ceiling. The blue sliver is the sky and the bright white on top of the picture is the far wall of my trench. Those tree-like shapes you see are snowflakes on the roof 9 inches above me. I wish I could have given you a reference for size, but I didn’t want to risk ruining the picture (and I had been awake for about 30 seconds). They were about the size of a US quarter. They were gigantic.

The only explanation I can come up for how these formed is that my breathe provided the necessary moisture to form the snowflakes. In other words, my saliva created snow. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in science, but I think that’s really really really really ridiculously incredible.

The next day was pretty mellow. I poked my head out of the trench and saw the following scene:

Really serene. (Minus the saw.) We spent the rest of the morning breaking down camp, heading back to the hut, learning about very high frequency and high frequency radios, and going through two scenarios. One scenario apparently is pretty well-known at this point due to Werner Herzog‘s documentary on Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World, which I still haven’t seen). In this scenario, a fictional member of our team went to the outhouse when a (fictional) storm rolled in, creating a white out. We have to figure out how to locate and rescue this person using that which we have plus a climbing rope. To simulate a white out, anyone who leaves the hut is required to put a bucket over their head. Needless to say, watching someone wander on an entirely empty ice shelf with a bucket on their head is hilarious:

That pretty much wraps up Happy Camper school. And wraps up my night. It’s way past my bedtime. Breakfast ends in less than 6 hours.




  1. The snowflake picture is absolutely captivating.

    • I would say that the picture captured maybe 10% of how incredible the whole thing was.

  2. […] Always on the move, always somewhere to go, always a school to attend. Of course I went to Happy Camper school, which lasted almost 36 hours. Then there was truck driving school (I just had to get my Antarctic […]

  3. […] apparently filmed a video of us building a snow wall during Happy Camper School last week. Thought you all would be interested in […]

  4. Wait, are we not supposed to tell mom and dad when we sleep in a snow cave?

  5. […] the ice in Antarctica because it is so cold, but ice is very good at insulating (that’s why survival trenches keep you warm at night), so the ice near the bottom is not subject to the cold surface temperatures. Underneath the ~2500 […]

  6. […] the food plus some other stuff through the cargo system, and took my Happy Camper refresher (the Happy Camper course from last year, condensed into 4 hours). My brain is mush right now, so no more thoughts on the day (though you […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: