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My Snow School Experience

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– I think part of the magic of this being my second trip to Antarctica is how, thus far, it has been completely unique to my last trip. In 2004, I came to McMurdo in January. The weather was consistently warm and if ever we were cold while standing on the ships observation deck, it was just because we were passing a large outlet glacier and feeling the wind rush down its front. Arriving in McMurdo in November, I have to say it was colder than I remembered, windier than I remembered and friendlier than I remembered. Also, I only recently witnessed my first Antarctic snow!!

Since I was on a cruise for the duration of my last trip, I never had to cross one of the unifying stepping stones of everyone who works here, be them firemen or astronomers: I didn’t go to snow school. Snow School, or Happy Camper, is an overnight trip to the ice during which those new to Antarctica learn basic survival skills and come to appreciate some of the subtle differences between camping in the Midwest and camping on an ice sheet. My trip began December 2, with 17 other students in tow. The morning was spent listening to lectures but in the afternoon we walked out to the Happy Camper supply shed and began to set up camp. Right as we headed outside, it began to snow again!

Posing in front of Erebus Volcano on the way to Snow School.

After we had learned the basics of different shelters one can build on the ice, we were left to our own devices. During that time, our only responsibility was to cook dinner in our snow kitchen. Building in the snow, it is easier to build down than up. We began by expanding the kitchen so that there would be benches on either side of the preparation area. In the end, the area was able to accommodate at least 15 people at a time, allowing them to sit out of the wind and enjoy a hot beverage or some re-hydrated meals.

Eating our re-hydrated dinners in the kitchen we built by digging down into the snow. I slept in one of the Scott Tents in the background.

The food at our snow camp was not at all fresh or good! Amongst our rations for the evening we found a chocolate bar that was dated 13 years ago!

Amongst our food rations, we found a chocolate bar that expired 13 years ago. Here, Tim smiles before trying the chocolate. He was not smiling after.

Another group of creative individuals decided to build an arch out of snow. I helped in the beginning, popping the blocks of snow out of the quarry and also was there to assist in placing the keystone block which supports the weight of the arch, but much of the work was done while I was off cross country skiing for the first time in my life!

Happy Campers putting the finishing touches on our snow arch. At about 11pm the sun came out and smiled its approval on our construction.

When the time came, I chose to sleep in a Scott Tent, the design of which is over 100 years old. Having recently read about the early Antarctic explorers during my layover in Christchurch, I thought I would try-on a piece of their lifestyle. The tent has 4 poles that form a square base and meet at the top in a pyramid. Unlike modern tents, the base is not attached. It’s just a tarp you throw over the snow after the exterior has been propped up. We learned how to dig into the snow to make anchors for the tent that would neither rip it nor let it blow away. I can’t say I was particularly warm in the Scott tent, but I wasn’t any colder than the last time I went camping in Pennsylvania in April.

Even if I get to return to the Ice and become a Happy Camper once more, it will never be the same. The people I spent the night playing in the snow with are pretty amazing folks. And this experience alone was worth coming halfway around the world.

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5 Responses »

  1. 15 year-old chocolate bar…. yummm.

    Okay… you guys look entirely too warm in these pictures!

  2. The scenery looks pretty amazing and desolate as one would expect in Antartica. However you all seem to be in very high spirits and ready to explore. I am eager to hear more about your adventures.

    Happy Camping : )

  3. The pictures and reading about your adventures make me feel like I need a hot drink, a pair of long johns…..a blanket…a pair of electric socks……a big fur covered Columbia hat……….

  4. Man, that is the exact opposite of Arizona! I haven’t seen snow in quite some time! I wonder if I could teach snow school, lol : )

  5. Great story. I’ve always wanted to visit the true land down under.