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December 31, 2010

Snow Camping in Antarctica

Can you really sleep in a snow cave?

The US Antarctic program recognizes most people who journey to this frozen continent are not as comfortable in snow as they need to be to survive an emergency situation. Therefore, anyone who will be going into the field is required to spend 48 hours in "happy camper" or snow school.

We were told to report to the Science Support Center at 0900 hours dressed in all of our warmest clothing. We were to bring a water bottle and a change of clothes - all other necessary equipment and food would be supplied.

For snow shelters we created a quinsy hut - a low-tech version of an igloo. We piled our duffel bags in a heap and on command from the instructors, covered them with a couple of feet of snow. We left this mound to sinter, or freeze solid, in the sunlight and went off to get even more up close with the snow.

Next we created a screen to protect our tents from the intense Antarctic winds. Our instructors emerged with snow saws and shovels and we began sawing, digging and carrying blocks of snow to build several protective walls around our tents.

At nightfall, it was time to dig a small door in our "snow heap" and remove the duffel bags from its center. Jim volunteered to be the first one into the tube shaped doorway barely big enough for his shoulders. He dug his way in and began handing out the bags. In about half an hour Jim reemerged covered from head to toe in snow, grinning from ear to ear. Mission accomplished, we had a snow cave large enough to sleep several members of our group. Around 7pm, our instructors - satisfied they had shown us the basics of snow survival quietly disappeared back to the warmth of their hut, leaving eighteen snow neophytes to survive the night outdoors.

Soon we were all in our sleeping bags completely enclosed and protected from the environment by snow. What had earlier been our "enemy" was now our blanket. I drifted to sleep enjoying the blue light penetrating the snow walls. I was surprised by how cozy and warm the cave was and slept like a little bear in my corner of the cave.

Jim, however, had a very different Antarctic experience.

We awoke huddled inside our snow cave after making it through the frigid Antarctic night. I was happy, wrapped in the warmth of my sleeping bag, while Jim greeted the morning shivering and huddled amongst the frozen clothes in the bottom of his bag.

We struck camp and headed to the instructors hut for a debriefing. One person pointed out how surprisingly warm the fleece sleeping bag liners kept them. "Fleece liner?" interrupted Jim. "What are you guys talking about?" Apparently Jim's sleeping kit was devoid of one of the warmest pieces. "I had no idea there was supposed to be a fleece liner included, I guess that's why everyone else is so chipper this morning?" Jim quipped.

Acting on the false assumption that everyone else was as miserably cold as him in their sleeping bags, he kept his mouth shut all night so as not to appear to be whining. The instructors used this as an example of how important it is to be forthright about your condition in an extreme situation, at which point Jim asked for more cocoa.

Overall the second day of snow school found our team closely bonded and full of the confidence gained by passing such a difficult test.

- Betsy Y.

* Betsy Y. is a teacher at Phoenix Country Day School and a research technician for the U of Arizona. She's writing to us from Antarctica where she is participating in the TEA program (Teacher's Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic.) She will be conducting daily sampling of arctic snow for chemical analysis, launching weather balloons to sample ozone and gathering other meteorological data. Her trip takes her out of her classroom for a few months but she has created a suite of lessons to help her students understand the science that is being conducted. She's hopeful the excitement of this adventure will inspire the kids to become scientists and explorers.

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