Well that was just too cool!
I am not being sarcastic. This was a FANTASTIC experience. Though the weather was bad when we started the day at only seventeen degrees, we spent the first three hours or more indoors watching power point presentations about sunburn, frostbite and hypothermia. That was OK, except that to go on the Happy Camper experience they insist that you dress for the worst possible conditions and insist that you show up in ALL of your Extreme Weather Clothing (or EWC). So we sat there and pulled off layer after layer of clothing to avoid bursting into flames.
Then, not only did we gather our own gear, but the team gear we would share during the trip, which included 3 five gallon water containers, six emergency bags which were already onboard the Haugland vehicle, two 40# boxes of edibles, with lots of yummy things like instant oatmeal, coffee, tea and cider pouches, freeze dried “dinners in a pouch”, granola bars, gorp and CHOCOLATE BARS!!! All the good stuff that takes minimal effort to prepare with little more that water and a hot camp stove. And I’ll tell ya, Quaker Instant Oatmeal is damn good stuff first thing on a Saturday morning, after a day like we had Friday. There were six camp stoves (one for every two members of the team. That’s correct! There were 12 people on the trip, not just the three that I knew of from the initial email. The facilitator Paul Koubak, three women, and eight men.
We loaded everything and everyone into a Hoagland, which is a segmented tracked vehicle specifically designed for snow and ice. It is most commonly seen at ski resorts shuttling VIPs around, or grooming the runs after fresh snowfall. By this time the weather had improved a bit. The temperature had risen into the mid twenty’s and the wind had tapered off considerably. The sun felt warmer despite being hidden by a very heavy low hanging cloud cover which stuck around almost all day. We drove about half an hour…not far at all considering what I told you in my Thursday post. I probably walk that same distance everyday just running the bag printer at work. It’s the fact that in this case, this distance is heading directly out onto the Ross Ice Shelf which causes me a little concern. Below us was about 200 feet of compacted snow and ice, and below that was 200 miles of the Southern Ocean: Perfectly safe.
Along the road to our final destination, we stopped at one of the supply stations that are scattered around within strategic distances from McMurdo Base. These locations are know to anyone who works in the area and can be used in case of severe weather as an outpost rather than risk driving all the way back to McM in a white out. For today, it is our lunch stop and the training station for camp stoves. Apparently they frown upon teaching a bunch of beginners how to light propane fueled canisters inside the big base, and figure if things go poof it will be easier to replace this one little garage on skis, rather than loose the whole Scientific Research building. (Makes perfect sense to me.) We also take on a Scott tent, (named for the famous explorer) six two man tents, our sleeping gear bundle, which hold two sponge like mats, a sleeping bag, and a smaller sleep sack made from wool or fleece, which you slip inside the sleeping bag because that $10 cloth thing is easier to launder that the $400 REI sleeping bag that needs to be dry cleaned. They didn’t tell us that out loud, but there is a budget down here and the Feds are a bit stingy these days. I am not complaining either. I like to be warm when I sleep, and this was promising to be a cold night. Extra layers is extra good for me.
When all the preparation was complete, we threw all the new bundles into the back of the Hoagland and, surprise! There was no room left for all of us to ride. So we all walked the last 300 yards or so to our final destination. Except Paul who drove the tracks. That walking was actually a good thing because we applied one of the first rules of cold weather survival: KEEP MOVING. We were all quite warm when we got to the camp site. It is a strategy that comes in handy just before you turn into bed at night, get some light exercise and warm your self up before you climb into the bag. The bag doesn’t warm you. YOU warm the bag and it returns the favor.
Soon as we arrived we began setting up our tents beginning with the massive Scott tent. It has a base of 10′ X 10′, and cones up to a good 9′ tall, like a banana yellow teepee. There are vents near the top so that in bad weather we could all gather inside it and still use the camp stoves if we needed to. It also has flanges around the base so that we pile snow atop the flange and that prevents wind from creeping into the tent. We just had ropes to hold down the pup tents, but driving a stake into the snow is about as useful as teaching a penguin to jitterbug, so Paul taught us how to make buried T-stakes. They work great! It would take entirely too much time to write out in this post, so I just deleted it and you’ll just have to ask about it when I see you.
Now I am a newbie to the camping world, but several of the team are not. Even when the perfectly good tents were all set up, five of the guys and two of the girls opted to do ice dugouts. Literally digging a whole into the ground to get below the wind, and allowing the snow to trap your body heat. Ice is in fact an excellent insulator, so long as you are not directly in contact with it will reflect your body heat and warm a small area just fine. That may all be scientifically proven, but I chose to sleep in a tent regardless.
Then Paul cracked out the shovels and saws and taught us how to cut snow blocks and how best to dig the ice caves with very narrow openings across the top and widen them as you go deeper. And the nature of the snow here is perfectly suited to this kind of cutting and stacking. Aside from the ski slopes, I have never been in a place where you could actually build with snow. Especially in Pueblo where it all melted away before suppertime anyway.
Well, by now it was almost 7pm and the sky was still a pitiful grey with a land visibility of about 10 miles, but a cloud cover so low that none of the mountain tops could be seen in our area. That was sad because we were out on the ice sheet surrounded by a whole lotta nothin’. I am certain that if we could have been there on a blue sky day that area would have been amazing. I may, in-fact, go back there if I can on a clear day just to get some more great photos that I can’t show you. sigh…but I digress.(BWAA-HaHaha!! I can now!)
It was 7pm and we were all wired-up. Paul was taking the Hoagland and leaving us to fend for ourselves. We were all giddy with the chance to make ice tunnels and igloos and wind-breaks out of snow blocks. And WE DID. We all pitched in and helped each other. First we dug a kitchen and used the cleared out blocks as a retaining wall and wind block to warm the cooking area. Then David our team mate who is a chef in the McM galley got to cooking for us. Well, actually it was just boiling water, but he did have to keep the camp stoves running and that was saying a lot under these conditions. I took up a shovel and worked with Alyssa, the woman who was teamed with me at tent making, was really keen on digging an ice chamber, so I offered to help her with that. It was a blast! She came to McM to work in the Communication Dept. manning the radios that are so important around here for keeping track of everyone. Perhaps it was just the insanity of digging a coffin like structure that made it all so funny but we laughed like school children talking about interior design and how to paint the interior with “a nice eggshell or antique white”. When we were done, she had a retaining wall/windbreak, the dugout, a tunnel leading to a veranda with a window box seat and a set of stairs leading up to a Japanese garden. It really turned out quite nice. All cut from the snow and ice. We are submitting the video to MTV cribs this evening. Yes there are pictures. No you can’t see them.
I’m laughing so hard, that I’m starting to feel woozy. I think I need some ice cream. I’ll finish this story in the the next post.