Antarctica's required course is the Happy Camper School of survival
Do not go untrained into the 24-hour summer light.
(Page 2 of 2)
Crevasses usually crack open where the ice flexes as it descends a mountainside or collides with another glacier, but isolated ones can lurk anywhere. They represent a constant, if unlikely, threat – an Antarctic equivalent to random urban violence. Here at our campsite, red and green flags on bamboo poles mark the only confirmed crevasse-free routes on the ice. Rows of these flags run in three directions from where we stand – plus a lone yellow flag in the distance, next to a patch of yellow snow.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"This snow is pretty amazing," says our instructor Kevin as he scree-scraws a carpenter saw through the edge of a snow pit. "If you want to build an igloo, this is the best place on earth." He makes three cuts with the saw, pries with a shovel, and a straight-edged block pops free. It works because Antarctica's high winds pack the snow so densely, compacting one layer of snow atop another, imparting it with naturally straight fracture lines. This sort of shovel-and-saw work forms the core of survival snow craft (shovels and saws are included in the survival bags that travelers are issued when they leave McMurdo). We'll assemble these blocks into a wall to block the wind and create a table for cooking freeze-dried meals on camping stoves. We'll also use stoves to melt snow for drinking water. It sounds simple, but there are right and wrong ways to do this.
"Don't burn the snow when you melt it," says Galen. Each snowflake contains a speck of dust around which it crystallizes, he explains, and if you cook snow directly on a stove rather than melting it in a pot of water, you singe the dust. "It actually tastes burnt."
Around 6 p.m. the instructors bid us farewell – "You're on your own until morning." As they walk toward a comfy-looking hut on the ice a half-mile away, each of us falls upon our chosen task. Some decide to play it safe and pitch tents. Others dig snow trenches three feet deep and just wide enough to lie down and sleep in. Someone calls them snow graves, and pretty soon Christian Angelici, an Italian naturalist and photographer, obliges by assembling snow blocks into a cross-shaped tombstone at the end of his. Another student carves a shelf into the wall of her trench for a water bottle and a paperback for bedtime.
The merriment stands in contrast to the situation with our quinzie. Angie and Todd Bevans, another firefighter, have shouldered much of the effort of digging it; Ed and I would be nowhere without them. But when I crawl in after two hours, I'm shocked that the chamber where four of us are supposed to sleep looks barely large enough for a medium-sized howler monkey. It's clear that despite our labors, not all can sleep here tonight. Angie and Todd set off to clean the snow drifts from another quinzie left by a previous Happy Camper class. Ed continues widening the inside of our own quinzie, kicking snow out the sunken entrance, which I heave away with a shovel.
By 9 p.m., the people who built snow trenches or went with the tried-and-true tent option have long since finished their work; the occasional shout drifts over from where they javelin-throw bamboo flags off in the distance. I crawl inside the quinzie to check on progress – this time, a pleasant surprise. Cool blue light seeps through the domed ceiling of snow. Ed has hollowed the chamber to accommodate two with room to spare.
When I finally crash in the quinzie sometime after midnight, the sun still dangles high in the summer sky, and Ed breathes quietly in his bag. As I thumb through a book of essays, I contemplate the pros and cons of lacing up my boots for a trip to the yellow flag, and weigh Kevin's endorsement of pee bottles ("I can't say enough about pee bottles," he'd instructed us. "I'm such a fan that I even have [one] in my room back in town").
It's the crunch of footsteps outside the quinzie that finally wakes me – 7:42 a.m., an hour late. Ed rolls in his sleeping bag on the far side of the chamber, dislodging a bit of snow from the ceiling inches above his head. "Pretty cozy," he croaks.
As I emerge from our warm Antarctic rabbit hole a cold wind surprises me – or perhaps the larger surprise is just how homey a snow shelter in Antarctica really can be.