Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

Happy Camper School

I have been looking forward to “Happy Camper School” since I found out that I was going to Antarctica.  I saw many pictures of smiling people learning how to survive in the wilderness of Antarctica.  I looked forward to the white out drill — walking around with a bucket on my head trying to find a lost friend.  I thought (and now know) that the survival skill would be useful, but anticipated a good weather classroom.  When I arrived on base, everyone warned me about how hard and cold the experience would be.  We were allowed one bag, which I packed full of all of my warm outdoor gear and an extra ground pad.  The ground pad idea came from a winter camping trip with T.J.  Winter camping in that context was camp on snow in above freezing weather. 

Before I start with the pictures and story, there are a few things you need to know.  The first is that I always tell T.J. that I like to camp, and I like the cold but I DO NOT winter camp.  The second is how the weather in Antarctica works.  It is classified as three conditions.  Per the station handbook:

Condition 3 is defined as having winds less than 48 knots, wind chills warmer than -75 F, and visibility greater than 1/4 mile.  This is considered the normal weather condition in McMurdo.  Checkout with the Firehouse is not required for vehicular travel.

Condition 2 is defined by one or more of the following conditions:  winds speeds of 48-55 knots, wind chills of -75 to -100 F, or visibility of less than 1/4 mile.  You must check in and out with the firehouse by radio prior to leaving town and upon your return.  No recreational travel is permitted outside of town.

Condition 1 is defined by one or more of the following conditions:  wind speeds greater than 55 knots, wind chills colder than -100 F, or visibility of less than 100 feet.  Only “mission critical” travel is permitted, with approval from the RPSC site manager and the NSF Station Manager.

As you can probably imagine by now, I had quite an experience.  We had an amazing group of 20 people in the survival class with me.  The teamwork and good attitudes made the weather not seem so bad.  We started out in Condition 3 weather and learned how to start camp stoves, set up tents and create a wind wall.

Setting up Scott Tent

The yellow tent is a Scott tent and is the same design as the tents used by the Scott expedition 100 years ago.  It is the strongest tent for the Antarctic environment.  After putting two Scott tents up, we proceeded to build a wall to protect the smaller mountaineering tents (which are not made for t his weather).  As we started to build, the winds picked up and the visibility decreased. 

Building a wind wall to protect the tents

Working as a team to build a wall

We got the rest of camp set up in wind and cold.  The rest of the tents were set up along the wind wall for protection.

Mountaineering tents

The weather cleared for dinner and we cooked next to another wall that we built to protect the kitchen.  We ate freeze dried packets that we added boiling water to.  I had the Sierra Chicken (because I like the sandwich).  It tasted nothing like the sandwich.  I did drink a lot of hot water.  I had trouble staying hydrated throughout the day because my water bottle kept freezing. 

A break in the wind allowed a pleasant dinner

We were also treated to a nice sunset.

Sunset behind Mt. Discovery


This is the tent I slept in

I had a cold and partially restful night.  The worst part of the entire experience was running to the bathroom 100 yards away in Condition 2 weather.  I awoke to a crazy white out and high winds.  There are few images to document this.  I was a little nervous as I approached the trenches that three people slept in and found the below scene.  They were safely under there in their little beds.  I plan to do another post on trench sleeping soon.

Trenches after a stormy night

This is the condition we had for taking down tents (My first Condition 1)!

Packing up camp

We completed our course for the day and proceeded to walk toward our pick up point in continued white out conditions.  This was after setting up HF radios outside to practice our communication skills with McMurdo in an emergency.  They were able to give us the weather – Condition 1.  I guess Happy Camper is “Mission Critical.”  Luckily so was picking up the Happy Campers.  The shuttles had to call a surveyor to find our exact location in the white out.  But, we were all brought back to McMurdo safely!! 

Condition 1 White Out (There are 18 people in that huddle)

We did not have to do the drill with a bucket on our head.  They decided we lived it, and passed!

6 responses

  1. Amy

    That reminds me of some of the stuff I had to do in Korea in the Army, but I can only imagine that the pictures only convey a tiny bit of the conditions. Cold seems like an understatement. “Happy” sounds like wishful thinking. Anyways, it sounds like you are having a lot of fun. Thanks for all of the great pictures. Amy

    October 10, 2010 at 12:55 AM

  2. Wendy Mayer

    Jessie. Your Mom gave me your website address and I check it frequently as I have to live through you as I am certain, I am NEVER going to Antartica. I DO NOT LIKE THE COLD and although the pictures are amazing and I am enormously proud to know you, I will have to take your word for it that the experience is amazing. Please stay safe. When do you get to see TJ again? I can’t believe that the two of you are on such an adventure. What’s next? Mars? Love, Wendy

    October 11, 2010 at 11:21 AM

    • Thank you! It is an amazing adventure. I can tell you that I never want to camp in the cold again. I am having fun though and enjoying short hikes followed by a warm nap. We think T.J. is leaving Seattle November 17 and then should be at McMurdo 5-7 days after that. He will hopefully be at McMurdo for 2 weeks before taking a flight to WAIS divide. I will then see him in February. We have large, WARM travel planned for March! Glad you are enjoying the adventure through the blog. I am having fun keeping it updates.

      October 11, 2010 at 11:35 AM

  3. marisa lord

    Awesome photos!

    October 11, 2010 at 11:42 AM

  4. Lila Minnich

    OH…..MY…..GOSH!!!!!!!! I can’t imagine what you are all going through! What wonderful memories you will have to LOOK BACK ON!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 13, 2010 at 3:52 AM

  5. Mom

    Hi Jess – Thank you for your wonderful images – I love reading your blog. Que: I am curious about the shuttles getting lost finding you At the end Happy Camper school (quite the euphemism!) if the weather had been better, would you have walked back?

    October 13, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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