I’m a Happy Camper!

Well folks, it finally happened! Amy followed Russell into the Salad Room on Thursday and he squinted at the menu I have taped to the wall, then looked at me and asked if I wanted to go to Happy Camper over Friday and Saturday. If you think I hesitated for even a second….well, actually, you’d be right. I also walked over to peer at the menu and made sure I could prep ahead for all the vegetarian entrées over the next two days so that Sarah wouldn’t be left in a lurch. Then I said, “Hell yes!”

I spent the rest of Thursday furiously prepping, thankfully realizing at the last minute that I needed to attend the mandatory Redeployment Meeting being held that day at 4pm as that was the last one I was going to be able to attend since I’d be out of Town for the next two days.

The Redeployment Meeting was mostly giving us information on how we could file for COBRA continuation of benefits, what the costs would be, and how to pass our room inspection. There was also some information on how to contact our Travel Department in order to change our tickets if we wished. That was the interesting part for me. I mostly spent the meeting writing notes back and forth to Roger, who had fortuitously chosen to attend the same meeting, about our plans for the night. He had been about as jealous as expected by the news that I was going to Happy Camper since he’s wanted to do it since he got here but hadn’t been given the chance by the Fire Department.

In general, it seems like the Fire Department kind of screws over its firefighters. The majority of boondoggles like Sea Ice Training, Happy Camper, Dive Tending, etc seem to go to the Lieutenants and the dispatchers, while the firefighters who volunteer in the station laundry, washing dishes or pots, or, if you’re Roger, helping with actual food preparation, hope to earn enough goodwill to be allowed to go. Thus far, it doesn’t seem to be working for many of them.

At any rate, Roger and I decided we’d go to Scott Base only to go to the store – he wanted to buy gloves, I wanted to buy a bottle of wine – then come back to McMurdo and go to Southern for some shuffleboard, then back to his dorm to watch some Top Gear before I headed to bed for a relatively early night, since I had to be at the Science Support Center classroom with ALL my gear by 0815 the following morning.

Well, the best laid plans, as the saying goes… To make a long story short, one drink at Scott Base while we waited for the shuttle started a night of drinking that resulted in only the second proper hangover I’ve had since I’ve been here. It also resulted in one of the best photo bombs ever!

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However, the late night was particularly unfortunate as I had made plans to meet Maddy, one of the winter cooks who had arrived on Christmas Eve, for breakfast at 0630. The plan was to discuss what to pack for Happy Camper since we would be going together.

I managed to show up on time to breakfast but I was unable to do much more than sip very delicately at some coffee and cringe a bit as I recalled certain parts of the night before – telling off a certain Kiwi mechanic…the shot of Southern Comfort and Lime…a young man confessing “feelings” for me and then trying very determinedly to walk me home (all 200 feet)….

After a half hearted attempt at eating some eggs, I finally gave up and went back to my dorm and began packing my orange ECW bag according to what Maddy and I had discussed and the advice others had given me. The weather was beautiful outside – warm and sunny and clear skies – so I opted to wear my lightweight thermal top and bottom, a tech fabric running T-shirt, a fleece zipup, my windpants, wool socks, and bunny boots. I would carry Big Red. I packed the heavier weight thermal bottoms, a fleece pullover, my Aran sweater, three more pairs of socks, my regular hiking boots, three pairs of gloves, my hat, neck gaiter, sunglasses and ski goggles, two water bottles, reusable handwarmers, disposable handwarmers, Leatherman, a book, some snacks, my portable French press, my military-issued wool blanket, a pillow, my baby blanket, and a variety of travel-sized toiletries that I doubted I’d need but figured I’d back anyway. A final check and I was on my way out the door. Next stop: the FSTP classroom!

Once we had all gathered in the classroom, we met our instructor – Ned – and introduced ourselves. There were nine of us total, but only six were required to be there because their work was taking them into the field. Linda was documenting some technological advances in ice core sampling and drilling for the Ice Drilling Program at Dartmouth and would be going to the WAIS field camp. Carlo was a professor from the University of Venice and would be doing something relating to environmental science that was taking him to the WISSARD project site. The other four – Audra, Rachel, Scott, and Jon – were going to the Dry Valleys to study 4000 year old mummified seal remains; they were thusly christened Seal Team Four (a name that Roger doesn’t think is funny but I do). Of the last three, there was Maddy and myself from the galley but also Justin, one of the Dining Attendants we work with from time to time – we were the “moralees”.

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As the whiteboard indicates, we then spent the next hour or so discussing risk assessment and management, how to recognize and treat cold-related injuries, and how to dress appropriately for the dangerously mercurial weather in Antarctica. Then we finally got to go pick up our lunches for the next two days (dinner and breakfast would be taken care of at the campsite) and load the Delta for our ride out to FSTP’s field classroom.

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Our sick ride.

Our sick ride.

As I said, the weather was GORGEOUS and the views of Erebus and out across the Ross Ice Shelf were phenomenal

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After we unloaded the Delta, it was time for lunch so we headed into the classroom. Because I worked Midrats with Todd (my Castle Rock companion), he made me a special bagged lunch: nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches since he knows they’re my favorite.

Me and my sandwiches - I look greasy because I'd just reapplied sunscreen.

Me and my sandwiches – I look greasy because I’d just reapplied sunscreen.

After lunch, we learned how to assemble and use the Mountain Safety Rescue Whisperlite stoves.

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It’s a pretty basic assembly which is why they’re so ideal in survival situations – there are very few pieces and so there are very few things that can break and if something doesn’t work, there’s usually a pretty quick fix. We then got to take them outside for a trial run in actual weather conditions (which were still gorgeous, in case you couldn’t tell).

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Then we went back into the instruction hut for a lesson on “sleeping warm”. Step one: preheat the engine! Once your bed is set up for the night, throw a couple of handwarmers into the sleeping bag liner and zip it up, folding the sleeping bag over top of it. Then go for a walk or jog/shuffle or do jumping jacks in place. The warmer you are when you get in bed, the warmer you’ll stay. It’s also handy to have an extra water bottle to fill with boiling water. Screw the cap on tight and throw it in the bottom of the sleeping bag near your feet. Alternatively – and I’m not joking about this – if you’re in a pinch, you can use your pee bottle once it’s filled. Remember, that pee is coming out of your body at a pretty high temp. Fortunately, I brought an extra water bottle in addition to my pee bottle so I wouldn’t have to resort to such measures.

Then, as you get undressed, place your outergarments underneath your sleeping bag so that they don’t freeze during the night – your body heat will keep them warm. Damp socks and gloves should, unfortunately, be placed on your chest, next to your skin. As clammy as that sounds, it is the best way to get them dried out. Then get into bed, zipping up the sleeping bag first and then the sleeping bag liner. Pull the sleeping bag hood over your head and use the two drawstrings to adjust the opening so that the head from your head does not escape.

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After that demonstration, it was time to head for the famous Snowmound City, where we would be spending the night. As it was only a few hundred meters away, we walked while Ned took all of our gear over with the snowmobile. I had goosebumps at the idea of sleeping “under the shadow of Erebus”, figuratively speaking, particularly as it loomed so majestic in the blazing sunlight.

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Once at the campsite, Ned opened the supply milvan kept onsite and loaded up some sledges with the assortment of tents we would learn to put up and we manhauled them over to an empty patch of snow.

The two types of tents we’d be working with were a Scott tent and a “Mountain” tent. The “Mountain” tent is just a regular camping tent but they needed some way to designate it as not a Scott tent so… A Scott tent, on the other hand, is so called because it is the same basic design that Scott and his men used over 100 years ago. After all, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and the design has continued to prove a formidable match for polar weather. It is a double-walled, pyramid construction with ventilation holes at the top so that, if you needed to, you could cook inside the tent.

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Ned showed us how to put up both types of tent by using “dead men”. I can only assume that the device gained this name through the use of actual corpses at some point in history but for our purposes, sticks of bamboo about 8 inches long served perfectly. You see, you can’t drive tent stakes into snow as you would into solid ground. Instead, you loop the tent lines once around said piece of bamboo (or a dead body, if you’re an explorer in the 1900s). The bamboo is then placed in a hole about six inches deep and wide enough for it to lay flat, then covered over and tamped down with snow, leaving the loose end of the tent line above the surface. By gently pulling up, you can actually tighten the lines and tie off the loose end to the taught end, effectively securing the tent to the ground, even in the face of Antarctic winds.

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To provide additional wind protection, we were next instructed in the construction of a snow wall. The wall would act as a windblock, ensuring the tent stayed erect and warm(er). Now, anyone who has played in the snow has probably heaped up a huge pile of snow, packed it down, and called it a wall. Or else you had those plastic molds you could pack snow into and you’d get a perfectly formed brick with which to construct an igloo. Well, in Antarctica, if you have a saw, all you have to do is saw into the snow in a roughly square shape and pull out a brick. Ta-dah! P.S. This is extremely hard and sweaty work so be sure to take lots of breaks to eat chocolate and trail mix and reapply sunscreen.

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Now comes my favorite part! We divvied up the sleeping spaces in the tents amongst those who wanted them – Maddy took the Scott tent, Carlo, Audra, and Linda each took one of the Mountain tents so they began construction of a “kitchen” and “dining table”. The rest of us set about digging out our shelters for the night. You see, another perfectly acceptable form of shelter is a snow trench. Ideally, the opening is dug slightly shorter than your body and just wide enough for your hips to get through. Then once you’ve dug down deep enough, you dig out the sides and back wall enough to fit your body comfortably. Ned cautioned us to dig out the sides and back wall more than we thought was necessary because otherwise every move in your sleep would knock snow onto you. I cannot tell you how much hard work this was or how much fun it was!! We all had different designs so taking a break from shoveling meant going to look at each others’ work and argue over whose was superior.

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I have to say, I found my snow trench incredibly comfortable once it was completed and so did my baby blanket! By the way, I love that I have a piece of fabric that has come with me on all my adventures my entire life…maybe someday I’ll write a children’s book about The Adventures of Corner Blanket….

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Around this time, Ned informed us that he’d be departing for the night as he’d be sleeping in the instruction hut. He assured us he’d be no more than a few hundred feet away and he’d have the snowmobile. He also left a radio – assigned to me – and a spare battery with instructions to check in at half seven that evening and half seven in the morning. Then we were on our own to continue digging, make dinner from one of an assortment of camping-style, just-add-boiling-water type meals that is kept in the Food Box for Happy Camper, and hang out. Also in the box were snacks, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, instant oatmeal packets and instant soup packets. Certainly no one would be going hungry – all we had to do was set up the stoves in our “kitchen” and melt some snow!

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Other than our half seven radio check, there wasn’t much to fill the evening except reading and talking. I found myself wishing I’d brought a Frisbee or a guitar or something. Justin and I chatted about galley life and our coworkers and his past experiences on the Ice and we talked with Seal Team Four about their background and their research. Finally, about half past nine, I decided to head to bed.

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In accordance with our lesson in sleeping warm, I scattered my reusable hand warmers in my liner, tucked my extra water bottle of hot water into the bottom of the bag, and went for a brisk stroll to brush my teeth and pee – fortunately for the latter, I did not have to use my pee bottle as there are outhouses a fair distance away. I then returned to my trench, stripped to my long underwear, tucked my windproof coveralls under my bag, spread my Big Red over my bag, and tucked my iPhone (which would be my alarm clock), the radio and extra battery and my camera under my pillow to stay warm and prolong battery life.

Can you see me??

Can you see me??

I then zipped up in the correct order and slipped my eye mask on. The eye mask was key since I had decided not to roof over my trench with snow blocks. Not only will this protect you if it starts to snow during the night but it will block out the ever present sunlight – remember, the sun doesn’t go down during the summer. It was so beautiful out that I couldn’t imagine it starting to snow but I was worried about how bright it would be, even in the shade of my 5 ft + trench walls. But my eye mask is awesome, to which both my father and Tiffany can attest having borrowed it on separate occasions, so I slipped off to sleep very easily, snugly warm in my trench dug in the snows of Antarctica.

To be continued….

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