March 17, part iii: Camping on Antarctica

Following the spectacular kayaking and encounter with the whale, there’s time for a talk from Lynn about the different sorts of glacier and iceberg ice we are likely to see, and then PB briefs us about camping. We decide to go tonight and postpone the whisky tasting. There is an opportunity to go camping for two nights in different locations, but since we can’t take any kind of food or provisions onto Antarctica – not even, incredible as it sounds, malt whisky, we will have to do the tasting on-board, while the other brave/foolhardy ones go camping tomorrow. Why can’t we do the tasting on Antarctica? Well, apart from the no-provisions rule for the likes of us, there is the real and present danger of hypothermia, so alcohol in this harsh environment is a strict no-no.

Photos of Camping

With an early dinner inside us, we gear up once again and by the time we’re ready, it looks like we’re about to follow in Shackleton’s and Mawson’s footsteps. Admittedly, the sleeping bags, tent, and ground mattrasses bulk things up, but they are essential kit. Can the same be said about the iPods and spare batteries for the camcorder? We double-check that we have extra supplies of all Cim’s meds, and board the zodiac.

We head for an ice-covered island in a sheltered bay with huge, dynamic glaciers reaching around and stretching across the bay behind. We survey the ground, check for crevasses and areas of good snow for the snow cave. It was a relatively warm +2 degrees C, making some of the snow quite slushy and giving the builders a tricky time.

As romantic as sleeping in a snow cave sounds, we decide a tent would be a better option and manage to find a two-person variant with a tricky pole construction. Very soon we have the skeleton built but it looks more like a Russian space station than something in which we could comfortably spend the night in sub-zero temperatures.

Night begins to fall quickly and by my reckoning, we’re 7 pegs short of a stable tent. That’s not meant to be a statement about our lack of mental stability, but given what we’re about to do, might well be taken as such. Worryingly, just about everybody seems similarly short in the tent fixings department. It’s time for our secret weapon: LED baseball cap lights.

Suitably enlightened, we’re off on a hunt, and are the envy of the camp. Not for our great tent, but for our incredible headlamps. Especially poplular is the setting with two red LEDs that makes us look like those hooded creatures out of Star Wars that creep around in the forest in some outpost of the empire. Even Nik with access to all the technogizmos he has in his cosmanaut training wants to swap his super-duper real-explorer deals for our free-with-a-packet-of-rice-crispies efforts. Well, not free, but you get our drift.

Speaking of getting our drift, the snow cavers look about ready and it feels like it’s starting to freeze, which is good news as far as the cave goes. It will freeze solid and so won’t collapse and suffocate them. Always preferable, I’d have thought. The hunt for tent pegs proves fruitless and there are no stray penguins to use as spikes in their stead. However, the tent seems stable enough.

There is one more construction to make and Pete obliges by setting up the ig-loo. As well as not being allowed to take provisions, to the ice we are not allowed to leave any, erm, deposits. Around the rocks at the back of the site, a bucket is set up for our convenience, so to speak. It has a spade shaft balancend across the rim for a seat. All contents will have to come back with us to the boat (frozen, with any luck).

Soon it’s dark and there’s just the tricky transition from clothes and boots to the sleeping bags. At 22.30, clad in only thermals and socks we snuggled up in the cosiest sleeping bags I’ve ever experienced. I must admit, I wished I’d smuggled my hip flask over but we consoled ourselves with the thought that whisky would probably only make us get up in the night for a visit to the ig-loo, and we didn’t want that, did we.

Well, too bad. We drifted off to sleep easily but woke at half past midnight, each of us knowing the other was awake and bursting for a pee. I was going to write “we’ve all been there, not wanting to get up to go to the loo”, but I’m hazarding a guess that you haven’t been quite in the situation we now faced: getting out of a toasty bed, finding your snow gear to trudge through the snow to find a bucket with a spade handle balanced over the edges. Still, my bladder wasn’t doing any reverse assimilation of urine and neither was Cim’s and the zodiac wasn’t going to collect us for another six hours, so we had to brave it. We’re going outside, we may be some time…

Cap lights set to full beam, we easily find the ig-loo, but so it seems so had most of the rest of the camp. The bucket is practically full already, and I feel like I’ve been for four pints of London Pride. I’m glad, once again, of the advantage afforded to men of being able to stand. I can see Cim working out strategies for balnacing the spade handle seat without dangling items of clothing too low. Amazingly the bucket doesn’t overflow and we return triumphant to the warmth of the tent and sound sleep.

Reveille at 5.40 and straight into breaking camp. It goes like a breeze except for one member who wants a bit of a lie-in. Despite this, we are ready for our zodiac pick-up and head back into the mist to the Professor and breakfast.

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