Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Happy Camper and the Antarctic Igloo

It was a mere few days on the continent when I found out that I was required to participate in something called "Happy Camper". I couldn't help but let my imagination run wild about the tortures involved with such a sarcastically named program. As it turned out, Happy Camper was a 1 day Antarctic survival course catered to researchers who would be at risk of getting stranded somewhere out on the continent. I was part of the 2 man team that would recover the telescope once it had landed. This would require a flight of over 100 miles from McMurdo Station, which in turn sealed my fate as a participant of Happy Camper.

The first morning of the program was surprisingly low key. There were 20 participants and 2 teachers and we all met in a classroom in town. For the first 2-3 hours we got a crash course in Antarctic survival. We covered the basics of staying warm which boiled down to: eat a lot, drink a lot, sleep a lot, wear a lot, and uh…treat others how you would like to be treated. Ok so I'll admit that I forgot the 5th one. Anyhow, after all the classroom work, we headed out to the field where much of the remainder of the class would be held. We were off to spend a night camped out on the ice.

The campsite was about 5 miles from McMurdo and was literally located on the ice from the Ross Ice Shelf. The first thing they showed us was how to set up camp. This involved setting up mountaineering tents, a Scott tent (very warm, teepee style polar tent), and making snow blocks which would be used to set up a wall to block the wind on the tents. I've sent up plenty of tents before, but the snow block thing was really neat. Because it is so windy and cold most of the year, the snow is densely packed and very dry. We simply used hand saws to cut into the snow. It cut like foam: very clean lines and easy to saw into. The blocks were then popped out of the ground and were stacked to create a wall large enough to shield about 10 tents from strong winds.

One of the more adventurous sleeping methods attracted a few of the campers. The concept was to dig a snow trench, which in a scary number of ways compared to a snow grave. The snow trench was dug about 6 feet down and was not much larger than your body length and width. At this point, a small side car was carved into the wall of the trench about a foot off the floor. The idea was to create a cold-sink, which is creates a place for the densest, coldest air to settle while you sleep above in the relative warmth. I was briefly tempted into digging a trench for the night but opted for a 3rd option: an igloo! A fellow happy camper from New Zealand shared my passion for dome-like sleeping structures and we went to work. It took 2 or 3 hours before it was inhabitable, but by 11PM, it was pretty much perfect. Well minus the huge gaps between the blocks where snow and wind could blow through. And the roof that was made of sleds. And the persistent fear that the whole structure would collapse on us while we were sleeping. But besides that, it was basically perfect.

That night before I crawled into my sleeping bag, I was truly bracing for what would likely be the coldest night of my life. I activated a couple hand warmers, tossed them in my bag, and drifted off to sleep. It was either the incredible quality of our igloo, or the fact that it was about 35 degrees and sunny and you almost literally could have slept out in the open on the snow without getting cold, but the record for 'coldest night sleep' went unchallenged. You remain champion for another day 'night sleeping on my buddies couch in his freezing apartment with a t-shirt as a blanket'. May you forever go unchallenged.

In hindsight, my Happy Camper experience was incredibly positive! It was hands down the most enjoyable day in Antarctica to date. Plus, I learned how to melt snow into drinking water, tend to hypothermic comrades, and look so busy making an igloo that I wasn't asked to help make dinner. If these aren't the life skills that we all so desperately need, then I don't know what are.

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