Putting up camp takes an exhausting few hours. This is something we did 3 times over our 5-week field season. Even though most of the Antarctic is covered in ice, there are many places that are ice-free. At all of our campsites, we camped on bare ground, rather than snow or ice. Here’s what looks like to set up a camp in the Antarctic:
A helicopter drops us off at our new field site with our most important gear – our personal gear, sleeping bags, satellite phones, medical kit, and two “survival bags,” which include small tents, dehydrated food, a stove, matches, and a few other things that would get us through a few days if the rest of our gear never showed up. Before the helicopter comes back with the rest of our gear, we have about an hour to scout out potential places to set up our tents and mostly just wait.
The helicopter then brings us our sling load, which is a long net that hangs off the belly of the helicopter holding the rest of our gear. Things in the sling load include our three tents, food, miscellaneous gear for around camp, toilet (we’ll get to that later), stoves, fuel, a generator, and anything else you can think of that would make our camp a relatively comfortable place to live.
Once the sling load arrives, our first task is to set up our three tents. We have two sleeping tents for the four of us called Scott tents. These are teepee-like tents which were designed for use on Scott’s first Antarctic expedition in the early 1900s. Clearly the design was successful, because they’ve been used ever since!
Our third tent is a cook tent, in which we cook all of our meals and use as a community space when we’re hanging out in camp. This tent, called an Endurance tent, kind of looks like a caterpillar. That design has also been in use since Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition the early 1900s.
Even though three tents may not sound like a lot, it takes us about an hour to get them all set up, stake them into the ground, and tie out all of the lines. Once that is done, the hard work begins. As you may guess, the Antarctic can be a windy, stormy place and intense storms can roll in with only a moment’s notice. Because of this, our camp has to be ready for a storm at all times. To do this, we haul boulders (like, hundreds of pounds of boulders) onto the bottom of the tent flaps, which anchors the tent down in the event of a windstorm (several of which we experienced throughout the season). Once the whole bottom of the tent is covered in rocks, we shovel sand and gravel on top to add more weight and keep the boulders in place. Between rock hauling and shoveling, it takes at least another 1.5 hours of serious physical activity to finalize the tent set up. By then, I need to eat a Bumper Bar! (bumper bars are granola bars from New Zealand that are essentially made of oats, butter, and chocolate – each bar has something like 450 calories)
Next, we set up the bathroom. We find a large boulder (hopefully a decent walk from camp) behind which to put the toilet. This affords us some privacy whilst doing our business. We have to containerize all of our human waste (numbers 1 and 2) and bring it back to McMurdo, from where it is sent back to the United States to be incinerated. To do this, we have to urinate in our personal designated “pee bottles,” which are just 1-liter Nalgenes labeled with a big “P” and our initials (you really, really wouldn’t want to mix up pee bottles”). At our bathroom, we put a 5-gallon plastic jug to collect all of the urine. Our toilet for the other bodily function is just a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a plastic toilet seat. At least we get a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape each time we have to go! Okay, maybe that was all a little gross, but come on, I know you were curious.
The last step of setting up camp is to organize all of the rest of our equipment, most of which ends up living in or right outside the cook tent. Somehow, the helicopter always seems to land us slightly downhill from the best spot to set up a cook tent, so we end up carrying ~900 lbs of gear uphill. All of our food is packed in wooden “rock boxes,” which double as seats and tables in our cook tent. When a box is empty of food, we put our scientific samples (mostly rocks – hence the name rock box) in them to eventually be shipped back to us at UMaine. When full of food, each of these boxes is between 30 and 50 lbs and we usually have 10 full ones. Once our stove is set up in the cook tent, we’re usually ready to cook and scarf down a huge dinner!