Generally, I am happiest camping when there is good beer, a few rowdy dogs, a roaring fire, and a gaggle of good friends along.
When the company I work for made it mandatory for everyone to attend a two day snow craft school and they called it “Happy Camper” I figured I would hate it because it has nothing that makes camping enjoyable.
And usually when mandatory training contains the word “Happy”- it is anything but.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Come to find out that there are four things you should do continuously when cold weather camping:
- eat (fats or sugars)
- if you get damp or cold- change clothes
Are you kidding! I could medal in devouring fats and sugars, drinking copious amounts of cocoa, and aimlessly wandering around- even when I am not cold weather camping.
Happy Camping school started with a morning of classroom training.
We covered how to light the temperamental little stove (which was just a Mazol Tov cocktail with a stove burner), the basics of risk management and camp protocol, and how to avoid cold injuries. (See the four awesome things to do above)
After assuring that we all could light the stove, we loaded all our gear up into Piston Bullies (tracked vehicles) and drove about a mile away from the station. It was a cloudy day, so we couldn’t see the berms, or the station which made it feel like we were far, far away.
The first task was to build a snow wall.
It seemed pretty easy. Dig a trench in the snow to work from, saw little blocks, tug them out with a shovel, stack them on top of each other and Voila! A snow wall.
We had some talented craftsmen on our team: carpenters, fire fighters, plumbers, and electricians and yet, our snow wall looked like a a gaggle of drunk toddlers built it. Drunk toddler having seizures while holding a snow shovel.
Corey, the Happy Camper guru, said at one point,
“Ok finish one more row and then lets to call it good. Don’t worry if you are someone who has to finish things- we just need to move onto other things now.”
I think it was his nice way of stopping the snow carnage, since we obviously were getting no better at snow wall building.
We were masters at melting snow and setting up tents though. There were several sleeping options: a snow trench, an igloo, or a Scott tent.
The option of building a snow trench seemed intriguing, until I realized it took making more snow blocks. Think of a snow trench as a little snow grave that you dig and then top with blocks of snow. I chose the tent option, but helped with the igloo building. Which took the same skills as snow wall building.
Thankfully the igloo came together smashingly and two folks actually slept in it. I think they were up to naughty times. I wish I would have slept in an igloo.
After all the snow shenanigans we made dinner.
I am totally on board with the ‘cooking’ part of snow camping. You shovel snow into a pot, melt it, then pour it into bags of dehydrated food.
Easy peasy, except the Beef Stroganoff smelled exactly like my dog, Gunny’s, geriatric dog food, so I passed on that.
There was a bag of Mushroom Pilaf that was really delicious, but, for some reason, no matter how much I ate- the bag never emptied. It was a dreadful magic trick that ended with me not liking mushroom pilaf very much.
Since we were so far away from the station, we had to make an area to pee.
The restroom was a pee flag and a bucket behind a snow wall.
Another Happy Camper Class built that snow wall before we got to camp.
To use the loo required that I remove my 2 coats, my vest, my gloves, and drop my Carharrts.
Having to pee was basically an adventure in going commando on the polar plateau, while crouched behind a snow wall, with the temps at 35 to 40 below.
The exposing my nether regions to the biting cold and all the shenanigans of removing clothes, and balancing in Carharts that are around my knees, while wearing blue boots did not jibe with me maintaining a happy camper attitude.
Except for the trips to the loo, the only time I was incredibly cold was in the Scott tent trying to fall asleep.
Most of my body was comfortably warm (feet, legs arms), but my hip was freezing where it touched the sleep pads on the ground.
I know we throw the word around “freezing”, but I mean it literally. My hip was no joke freezing. I could feel my bones aching.
My hip bone was so cold I thought it was on fire.
I tucked mittens, an extra fleece, a sleeping bag liner under me.
I changed my long johns, took off , and then put back on my Carharrts. I drank a Nalgene full of warm water, I ate a candy bar, and then attempted to eat a frozen peanut butter sandwich that turned out to be way more frozen than I expected and only succeeded in biting my own lip.
All of this commotion while sharing a tent with my good pal, Mouse, made me have to go to the bathroom. By this point it probably felt like he was sleeping in a tent with an over-active hamster, because I was scritching about and making so much noise.
FInally, I fell asleep only to wake up sweating. Obviously, I have some work to do on my cold weather sleeping skills.
In the morning we played some white out scenarios.
We discussed what we would do in a white out, if someone got lost and how to strategically search for the lost person.
Since it was a beautiful clear South Pole morning with clear skies arching to the horizons.
We created the “white out” conditions by placing a bucket over our heads and wandering around on the end of a rope, while ‘searching’ for our lost comrade.
It was a humbling and soul provoking learning experience. It reminded me, once again, that Mother Nature does not have you in mind in these environments and when bad things happen, they happen extraordinarily fast. And sometimes the best decision is sitting still.
During a white out scenario, the decision to not look for someone is probably the best initial strategy. Like in all search and rescue (Shout out to my old team, Larimer County Search and Rescue!) you have to weigh the costs and if the cost is to high: if the search will put more people in harms way, then it is best to wait and begin the search when environmental conditions are not so hazardous.
Our teams first inclination was to remain in the tent and rifle through all our lost comrades bags to find candy. We t ate their Maltesers candy and waited for the “storm” to die down.
Which, come to find out, that is a perfectly acceptable option.
After staggering around with mop buckets on our heads, we broke down camp by filling in all the trenches and pushing over the igloo. When we were done, except for a few intact snow blocks, it looked like we had never existed at this place in Antarctica.