Those of us going to the deep field are required to take a 2-day survival training course known formally as Snowcraft I and affectionately as Happy Camper School.
It includes spending the night on the ice shelf outside of town with gear that would typically be found in a survival bag.
We were driven out along the road to the runway where we stopped in the middle of nowhere. We offloaded our gear onto a waiting snowmobile and regrouped with our instructor. She pointed to two trailer-like buildings about 0.25 mile down a flag line and told us to walk as she took off on the snowmobile with our bags. But hey, at least she carried our bags.
So we trudged along with the line of flags guiding us so we didn’t fall into any hidden crevasses or anything (kidding, mom! mostly, anyway.) When we arrived at the buildings we found that one was a classroom and the other was a “drying hut” for extra sleep kits for those who needed them. We started with some basic orientation about where we were, the direction of prevailing winds, etc. When we were done there, we tested out some stoves (the issued ones are a lot like my dad’s old one that Clare and I demonstrated at 336 Chestnut, only with an external fuel tank). Then we were pointed to another shack in the distance re-loaded our stuff onto the snowmobile and trudged another 0.25 mile to our campsite.
When we reached the campsite, our first order of business was to set up tents. We oriented them so the doors were on the leeward side, but offset about 20 degrees to avoid snow drifts collecting at the door. In addition to the Scott tents, we also set up a few mountain tents to accommodate our full group. Next to the mountain tents, we erected a wall out of ice blocks to shield the smaller tents from high winds (just for practice since it was a beautiful day).
After we had shelter, our second order of business was to set up the camp kitchen. This task was not taken lightly. Everyone pitched in to make a fine dining area.
Following a 1-star dinner of re-hydrated food straight from the pouch, we set ourselves to the real task at hand: building our sleeping quarters. You see, tents are nice and all, but this was our big chance to become true survivalists. I may not have ever seen his show, but I’ve also never seen Bear Grylls sleep in a tent. So the Australian contingent started on their sleep quarters of choice, an igloo. The igloo instead was an incredible feat, even though they didn’t get around to closing the top before calling it a night. But note that the guy standing inside the igloo in the final photo is 6’4″ tall.
I assisted with parts of the igloo early on, but soon moved on to my own digs for the evening, literally. My bed of choice was a snow trench with minimalist curb appeal. As I was digging, a snow trench subdivision was going up nearby. The area’s really developing fast.
Basically, I spent 4 hours digging a snow trench with the help of a wood saw and shovel. The trenches looked a lot like graves, but after digging down a few feet, I widened the hole to allow for some additional living space. I added a closet (read: side cutout) to store my bag as well as a spiral staircase to get in and out. For a roof, I opted for a banana sled covered with snow. My new temperature-telling alarm clock came along for the night and the lowest temps I saw inside my trench was 25 F. Not too bad when you’re cuddled up in a sleeping bag rated for -40.
It wasn’t the best sleep I’d ever had, but it was good enough to get me through. Morning was the tricky part. The weather had been above freezing for a lot of the time we were out there. While digging, most of us had taken off our jackets since we were working hard enough to keep warm without them. But overnight, when we were moving, our wet clothes froze. We had been advised to sleep on top of our carhartts and boots to prevent this, but there was no hope. It took some doing to wriggle back into my pants and a few minutes to squeeze back into my boots. Oh, and the outhouses were reasonably far away.
In the morning we had a hot breakfast from the kitchen and then packed up camp. We headed back to the classroom where we snacked some more and warmed up by the stove before going over VHF and HF radio communications.
I was told that Happy Camper would be a memorable, though possibly miserable, experience. We had some of the best weather we could have asked for, so it ended up being more memorable than miserable. While the sun was shining and the wind was light, it was hard to fully imagine a situation where we might need to use some of these techniques, and even harder to imagine stopping to dig a snow trench in Condition 1 weather, I can see how it’s important to be ready for any situation. Plus it was just a lot of fun.