Camping

Trip Start Sep 09, 2008
1
7
10
Trip End Feb 16, 2009


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Flag of Antarctica  ,
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Most people love camping.  Good friends, starry nights, cold beer, warm fires, maybe a guitar and definitely s'mores.
 
Camping in Antarctica doesn't involve any of these.  It does feature some things that are almost as good, like inconceivably fierce wind chills and several hours of shoveling out a place to hide and shiver violently until the sun shifts slightly overhead (what the rest of the hemisphere would call "dawn").
 
If you don't keep yourself covered with several layers of synthetic material, you'll get frostbite.  If you don't keep moving vigorously, you'll get frostbite.  If you don't consume enough calories at a steady enough rate, you'll get frostbite.  If you fail to remember any two of these or don't foresee numerous other potential problems, you'll probably get hypothermia and die, or maybe just get frostbite bad enough that the tissue in your extremities become necrotic and must be amputated.
 
Some of us knew all of this, and still wanted to go.  I guess this is one of those reasons they call Polies crazy.  Still, it was a great time, an experience I won't soon forget.
A couple of Pisten Bullies (snow tanks that carry about eight people and drag their gear behind) carted our group of twelve a few miles north of the station.  Everything is north of the station, by the way.  There was a little ice in the air, so we couldn't quite make out the fuzzy dots of home in the distance.  It's funny how living in a modern little ecosystem that we've created can allow us to forget that we are surrounded by such an inhospitable, vast plain of nothing.  Camping out there reminds us, and I can't imagine the absolute desolation that someone doing this "for real" must feel.
 
We had a few experienced snow campers in the group, one a mountaineering guide who taught us everything we needed and was basically our mom for the night.  The group also included a couple of guys from Miami and Texas who hadn't ever seen sub-zero temperatures.
 
We had camp stoves, food, hundreds of pounds of cold weather gear, and several mountain tents.  Why use tents, though, when you could carve your own elaborate palace out of the ice?  We set to work almost immediately, ten young men, one young woman, and one middle-aged RN, all coordinated in an effort to have fun, and maybe even survive.  Our goal was simple enough:  to construct snow shelters to harbor us for the night.  Getting there, though, proved difficult, complicated, and very time-consuming.  But it was tons of fun as we were all flung back into childhood, playing in the snow and eventually reduced to giggles as we pushed our bodies well past exhaustion.  It had been a long week of work, but nothing could stop us from spending about 7 hours making our little homes in the midnight sun.  We were all conscientious enough to avoid full-fledged frostbite, but we definitely noticed the cold and a few of us (including yours truly) ended up with sunburn on whatever parts were left uncovered for a few minutes.  Mind the hole in the ozone layer.
 
My crew of three (including KiwiDave and Jonathan the Californian) actually managed to sleep for a few hours in our painstakingly constructed "Quinsey."  It began as a large pile of gear and bags which we covered in snow, packed down, covered again, packed again, etc.  Eventually we dug a hole and pulled the gear out, then excavated inside until it was large enough to comfortably sleep three.  The entrance hole was the hardest part, beginning in a 7-foot-deep pit, then worming upward into the Quinsey itself.  This serves as a cold air trap, so that all body heat generated stays inside the higher elevated hut.  Getting through was a major pain at first though, and a couple of times I thought I was stuck and the whole thing would collapse on me.  Quinsey huts are not for claustraphobics.
 
I think I was probably the most comfortable, because I awoke last of the whole camp, with one of the guys' head poking up through our narrow entrance, yelling at me.  His group had not slept a wink, and when I emerged, groggy and shivering, I saw why.  Their ambition surpassed ours, and they had become the first group to ever, as far as I know, create a full-on igloo while camping at the South Pole.  It was magnificent.  Impressive, sure, but I'm glad I got some sleep in my snowcave.
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