Happy Camper

Last night, I slept on the ice.

Many workers in the US Antarctic Program participate in the Field Survival Training Program (FSTP, pronounced F-Stop), better known as Snow School and even better known as Happy Camper.

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The idea behind the course is to give us skills that could save our lives in the case that we are at some point lost or trapped in the Antarctic Wilderness, whether at a very remote field camp or traveling off South Pole Station to work with surveyors for a day trip (don’t worry Grandma, I don’t think either of these situations apply to me). There was some pretty tangible stuff in there, skills I feel I could employ winter camping at home, and some really intangible and theoretical stuff, like Risk Management. Which makes sense in theory and is really quite pragmatic, but if I were lost in a whiteout/blizzard/shark attack I doubt I would stop to consult this graph:

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We did classroom type stuff for the first part of the morning and had calorie-intense lunches: Reuben sandwiches, chicken soup and french fries. After stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort, we put on extra fleece pants, donned our balaclavas, used a flushing toilet for the last time and filled our water bottles. The weather was hazy and overcast, which was a good thing because weather like that usually traps warm-ish air above us. The actual temperature was somewhere between –20 and –30 F, with windchills between –40 and –50 F. Perfect camping weather.

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We loaded up the Pisten Bully (car camping, Antarctica-style), and headed out past RF about a mile and a half, to the End of the World. The first thing we did was set up an emergency shelter in case the weather turned bad, a common and fast occurrence in Antarctica, although much more of a risk at McMurdo than here at Pole. This was a Scott tent, designed by Robert Falcon Scott himself, a ridiculously heavy yellow canvas monstrosity that can evidently withstand Antarctic storms, heavily drifted snow, 150 MPH winds, and atomic bomb detonations. We learned how to place a bamboo T-support to prevent tent stakes from ripping out in high winds, how to make an ice wall from igloo blocks cut with a saw from a little ice-quarry, how to best build a galley hole/wind wall, how to best build a toilet hole/wind wall, and how to dig and protect a sleeping trench.

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Putting in a T-support. I felt like I was digging a grave for the family gerbil.

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We had to stop for a body-needs-calories-right-now break. The chocolate was frozen, ridiculously hard. You had to suck on it for minutes at a time to warm it up so you wouldn’t break a tooth.

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Then we set up mountaineering tents, which are more like what are in the off station emergency survival bags.

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Trench digging:

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Explaining the finer points of building/sleeping in a trench:

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The galley (which was actually really nice: take note, winter campers).

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Dehydrated dinner:

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The loo:

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And finally, we were finished working and ready for bed.

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I slept in a Scott tent with Sven the Swedish Scientist, on an open snow floor on top of 2 mat pads, 2 flat sleeping bags, my parka, and inside of a sleeping bag with a fleece liner. I filled my drinking water bottle with boiling water and snuggled up to it. In the beginning, I felt the heat from my body seeping down into the ice little by little, and fidgeted for an hour dreading the night ahead. And then, I fell asleep so hard that I didn’t hear the LC-130 land or Sven get up to pee or other campers wandering around awake for no reason at 3am. I slept through the night, which almost never happens to me here.

In the morning when the other campers started to wander around, I awoke to the sounds of footsteps, deep, resounding creaky screeches in the snow, and a creak-creak-creak-FWOOMP as someone compromised the structure of the ice shelf beneath them and the whole ground shifted a bit.

Morning (the same as evening, but clearer, and the sun had rotated 90 degrees in the sky):

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Antarctic Sunbathing:

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We packed up and the Pisten Bully came back to bring us home to learn about HF Radio Ops and search and rescue techniques. I’m glad to be done, but Happy Camper was pretty neat.

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7 thoughts on “Happy Camper

  1. Cool, Kiell – very cool! (pun intended) If you didn’t get below -32° F, then I still have the family record from 3-4 Feb 1979 in Maplewood State Park, Pelican Rapids, MN. If it did get lower, I graciously concede the Title to you, and Holly refuses to allow me to consider a re-match.

    One question and/or comment- you do realize that you would have to stay here at home to take advantage of this training in a MN winter?

    Take care, give Daniel a squeeze (and tell him to put a hat on) and keep up the beautifully evocative prose…

  2. Oh, how I love reading about your adventures. They are so other-worldly to me and I’m so proud of both of you for pursuing this! A treasury of memories worth more than gold is yours!

  3. How many went camping? Does the snow trench get covered when in use? Does Daniel get to do a “Happy Camper” or are the IT folks too “cool” to be cool? Could I think of a comment that wasn’t a question? Can I use your sleeping bag in the basement since you have a better one there?

  4. KIELL, WHAT AN EXPERIENCE! HUGE VALUE TO FUTURE SOUTH POLE WORKERS RE SLEEPING OUT. YOUR WRITINGS ARE SO USEFUL TO KNOW WHAT TO
    EXPECT(ENDURE) LOVE, NANCY LEUSSLER

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