mlml logo

nsf logo Powered by Blogger.
Saturday, October 6, 2007: Happy Camper School is an Understatement
I am writing this update as my fingers are still recovering from Happy Camper School. You may be asking yourself, “What is Happy Camper School?” glad you asked! Happy Camper School is a field course where three instructors teach you how to survive outdoors in the Antarctica environment. And then you actually camp out over night in this environment! Lucky for us (and everyone else who comes to Antarctica) we are outfitted with Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear that is designed to keep one warm while on this frozen continent.

Our introduction to survival bags.


The course begins with a short intro on survival bags. These bags will allow for two people to survive in the field for a couple of nights but should only be used during an unanticipated over night stay in the field. These bags have all sorts of field gear ranging from a mountain tent and sleeping bag to a cooking stove with a pot to boil snow in. After our short introduction to our survival bags we are shuttled onto a bus that will drop us off a couple of miles from McMurdo Station on to the ice sheet to spend the night.

Once on the ice sheet the Happy Camper class learned all sorts of techniques that will assist a person stranded on the ice sheet. This course had the campers try various tasks indoors in a controlled environment where the wind and cold weren’t sweeping the heat away from your skin. After several rehearsals indoors it was time for the real thing…

Before I go any further let me try and explain just how cold it is here. Think of a time in your life when you felt cold. I’m talking freezing, think you will never warm back up, icicles coming out of your nose cold. Well Antarctica is colder than that. Antarctica is the kind of cold that will put an unprepared person down in less than an hour. I once visited Massachusetts during the winter time and I thought that was cold, I now have a new found appreciation for the weather in Massachusetts. But I’ve digressed….

During the outdoor session we started off by making our structures for the night. One of the first tasks was to put up our pyramid style Scott tents. These tents are pretty neat and they are the same style of tents we will be using during our 10 day stay in the field. After Scott tents we moved on to constructing our mountain tents. These tents are similar to mountain tents but are completely water proof and can protect you from some nasty elements. Along with learning how to set up these tents we learned how to stake them down with bamboo and a couple of simple knots. The next shelter we learned how to make was a quinzhees hut or snow mound. This style of hut is made by placing a bunch of gear in a pile (as shown below) and shoveling snow on top of the pile. In order to made the quinzhees work you need to shovel several centimeters of snow on top. After all of the snow has been piled on, you dig a small hole to pull all of the gear out of and you are left with a insulated shelter that can housing two to three people.

Quinzhees hut before snow.

Quinzhees hut in the process of being built.

The fourth kind of structure we learned how to make was a snow trench. Just like it sounds, you dig into the snow and make a cavity for your body to fit into. Bryan and Marcus were two of about five people who slept in a snow trench. Surprisingly, snow is a great insulator and neither one of them froze over the night.

Here is a picture of Bryan digging his snow trench.

Marcus is sleeping in style with his two person snow trench.

In order to protect our structures from potential high winds we built a snow wall. Our snow wall was made of up of blocks that are similar to igloos. We dug out a couple of feet of snow and started to saw out blocks using blades. It sounds easy enough but cutting snow in below freezing temperate is challenging.

Here are one of the instructors showing us how to cut snow blocks.

A half finished snow wall.

It’s about 8 or 9 pm and the instructors left us happy campers, with all of our new skills, to spend the night outdoors. The next task ahead of us was to light our mountain stove to start boiling water. Lighting a stove was one of the task that we did indoors and was pretty straight forward in the confines of the instructor hut but this task proved to be very difficult outdoors. It is amazing how hard it becomes to light a match with frozen fingers let alone try to get a stove to start. At this point gas leaking from the fuel canisters, the wind has picked up (which drives the temperature down further) and I can’t light a match to save my life. Luckily, things start to go our way and we got two stoves lit while others worked on two more. With boiling hot water, campers are enjoying hot drinks and warm food in their bellies. It how now reached about 11 pm and people are slowly drifting off to their structures to get some sleep.

I went to bed around midnight and crawled into my mountain tent for the night. Each happy camper was given two sleeping mats, a down sleeping bag and a fleece liner for the bag. I cram into my sleeping bag only to find that it is freezing cold because it has been outside all day. As I lay there trying to go to sleep I get that sneaking feeling, I have to pee!!! Instead of getting out of my warm sleeping bag to endure the -26 degree F0 weather I decided to perform the pee-in-the-bottle trick our instructors told us about. I proceeded to pour out the rest of my water bottle, rolled over and did the deed into the bottle. After I was done I closed up my new pee bottle and put it in my sleeping bag to provide me with a little warmth. About a minute or two later I started to feel something wet down my back side and it dawned on me that my pee bottle was leaking! It is so cold here that liquids that are exposed to the air freeze up instantly and this is what happen to my bottle. The second I opened up my bottle the threads froze up and didn’t provide an adequate seal and this lead to my leaky pee bottle. So there I was with a wet bottom/back and starting to get cold. One of the things they teach you about a down sleeping bag is that you do not want to get it wet because once it is wet it no longer keeps its insulation. Then enters Adam Green. Adam had given up on trying to make a quinzhees and was going to take up shelter in one of the mountain tents. He told me he was waiting for some water to boil to sleep with (another cold weather trick is to boil water at night, put it in a water bottle and put the bottle in your sleeping bag to keep you warm at night) and I asked him if he would boil me some water as well. I gave him my non-pee bottle and 10 minutes later he returned with a hot water bottle for me and this bottle kept me warm thought out the night. No longer cold, I tried to get some sleep but I was only able to get an hour or two. It seemed like the instant I feel asleep I would wake up reminded that I was outside…. camping… in Antarctica.

Finally 6:30 am rolls around and people start waking up from a long night. Campers started to boil water and break down camp. At about 8 am the instructors come to our camp and we follow them back to the instructor hut. We debrief about the night and each talked about what helped us get through the night, and of course I shared my pee bottle story. After the debrief we did a couple more simulations one of which was a missing person search during a full on white out. A white out can hit at a moments notice and when it does you won’t be able to see your hand in front of your face. In order to simulate this experience we wore stylish buckets over our head as we searched for one of our instructors. We were in teams of 10 and were all tied to a rope as we fumbled our way onto the ice searching for instructor Kevin. This was a frustrating experience as it was so tempting to lift the bucket and look for Kevin but the buckets were party of the simulation. No more than 10 minutes later we found Kevin and returned him back to the warmth of the instructor’s hut alive.

This pretty much concluded Happy Camper School and we packed up all of our gear and hiked back to our pick up station. So after what seemed like the longest night I have every experienced, I am fortunate to have the understanding of what it feels like to spend a night outdoors in Antarctica for a couple of reasons. First, this coursed showed me that I am fully capable of spending a night outside in the event of an emergency. I am fully confident that I can sleep outdoors in this inhospitable environment. Second, I now trust my ECW gear more than ever. The technology that is behind this gear can save your life if used properly and this class helped establish this in me. And third, I got to experience the beauty of Antarctica from a perspective that I could only dream of. There was a point when I walked away from the camp and had some time to myself to take it all in. This place is amazing and I feel so fortunate to be here. This time alone allowed me to reflect and to think about the many other things going on in this world and I am just one of them, living on a frozen continent for the next 10 weeks…

Nicholas surviving Happy Camper School.


thanks for all the details!! sounds amazing!

wishing you the best and all safety

xo - jb

Great leaky pee bottle story.... I hope to hear more. Let's hope for no more leaky pee bottles in the middle of the night because that wouldn't be cool.

Post a Comment!

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]

This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. ANT-0619622 ( Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.