One way to be a Happy Camper…

by wonderfullyrich on November 16, 2005

Is to freeze on permanent sea ice. Well not really freeze. Actually most of the time I was perfectly toasty. For those of you who don’t quite remember, Happy Camper (actually called Snowcraft I) is a two day survival school for people who might need it here on the Ice. So you might ask why I’d need it as a PC tech. Don’t I just sit around an office all day? Well no, I actually get around town more then most office jobs and in fact computers break out in the field (in this case meaning outside of McMurdo) and they might just need to send a tech out there. Now to get to a field camp normally means air transportation of some sort (helo, twin otter, LC-130). Any air transportation in Antarctica brings a more life threatening risks if a crash occurs. To mitigate those risks, we do happy camper school.

Crashes, break downs, or getting caught on a hike can mean that you won’t have much and you’ll have to survive out in the extreme cold for hours or days while Search and Rescue can find you. In 2003 Antarctica apparently had a helicopter down where the pilot and helo tech were stuck out in the dry valleys. That incident could have been much worse, but the SAR leader was just up valley and there was a SAR exercise going on at the time. Critical resources were assembled quickly, which was especially critical as flying conditions in McMurdo shut down for weather for 8 hours before another helo could get them out. (A few hours after the rescue was completed the weather shut down flights for 3 days.) Had the patients not been evacuated north when they were, one almost certainly would have died. This was just a hard landing (apparently there’s a difference between a hard landing and a crash that I’m unsure of) and I haven’t found details on what actually caused the crash, but it seems likely that it was either mechanical or more likely weather related.

In general though Happy camper, even in light of the reasons they created it, it is considered to be either a highlight of your time on the ice, or the miserable part of your time. (As a side note, they created this program approximately 40 years ago and haven’t changed it much since, or so I understand)

For me it was fairly happy and warm, but very exhausting.

What’s funny to me about this whole procedure is that they get you all set up to go out in your Extreme Cold Weather gear and people give you all sorts of tips on what to wear and do while your out there, but before they do anything, the sit you down in a room for 3 hours and make you listen to your instructor repeat himself/herself and beat you over the head while you fall asleep. (And they know they cause narcolepsy, but seem pained to change it.) So we listen about cold, and how to stay warm, how to tell if your going to die and avoid it, etc. Eventually we get on a big orange bus called a delta (made in 1982, though it feels like it was a 1960’s piece of equipment) and run off to the camp site. Then we learn some more in another well heated room, set fire to it–or rather someone try with the stove for dinner. We then go off to put up our tents, make an quinzee (aka snow cave) and a castle wall (a siege of wind awaits us), re-hydrate dinner, and enjoy the night.

Now our camp woke up in Condition 2 making tear down more fun, but no body bitched. In fact no one bitched the entire time we were there, no on complained about the lack of work another wasn’t doing, or the fact that one person got the quinzee and another got a tent, etc. This was amazing and a unique experience for me.

After tear down, we tromp back to the well heated room near the camp site and listen about various radios McMurdo and the South Pole uses for several hours, try them out and then pile back on the delta. The best part of that was sleep on the 30 minute ride home, but then we had to go in and stare wide eyed at a video about protecting Antarctica and Helo safety. Thank goodness we were let free and went home to sleep…

All in all I loved it and would do it again in a heart beat, and maybe I’ll have the chance here in another couple of years. (We have to retake the whole course once ever several years, in between we’ve got refreshers.) Now I’ve skimmed to make this shorter (and it’s still long) but perhaps you’d like a short video of my experience. 3 1/2 minutes and 10 megabytes. (for those of you who downloaded it earlier, you’ll want to see this for the extra footage of snow cave spelunking)

You can find another happy camper video at

I’d also recommend a few pictures from Mykle, my PC Tech shop cohort a photos from his experience… (rather different then mine)
The bucket is to simulate condition 1.
(His blog can be found at )

From a quasi-harsh place.

P.S. The weather right now (at 7am) is +12F ambient with a 5 knot wind making it +12 with wind chill. Clear skies and unlimited visibility, which makes this look like a pretty good day.

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