Happy Camper

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.


The group boarding a Delta 2 on the way to our campsite. There were 10 of us, most of whom were first-year visitors who came down on the same flight from Christchurch.

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.


Our bags are packed and we’re ready to go.


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.


Our cargo line with a view of Mt. Erebus, world’s youngest volcano, in the background. Mt. Erebus is sporting a distinctive steam plume at the top. It’s about 25 miles away from us here and peaks at 12,500 ft.

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).


Setting up Scott tents, named after Robert Falcon Scott, leader of two Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century who used similar tents. They are anchored by “dead men” buried in the snow instead of stakes, so-called because actual dead men will serve the same purpose, though we opted for bamboo poles instead.


Snow wall on the windward side of the mountain tents

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.


Our kitchen featured three single-burner stoves at waist height and plenty of counter space


My contribution was much-needed pantry space.

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.

starting-the-igloo half-built-igloonearly-finished-igloo

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.


View from inside my snow trench

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.


Adjusting the frequency on the HF radio


Calling South Pole on the HF radio.

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.


On our way out of camp, we witness the final long-duration balloon launch of the season. It had a 6,000 lbs payload slated for astronomical work in the upper atmosphere

4 thoughts on “Happy Camper

  1. Love the Happy Camper story. But I think I liked camping at Meadow Lake in Pennsylvania a little better. At least you don’t have mosquitos, though.


  2. Pingback: Photos Discovered from the Ross Sea Party Expedition, 1915 | I'm Not Yet Dead

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s