Generally, I am happiest camping when there is good beer, a few rowdy dogs, a roaring fire, and a gaggle of good friends along. So, when the company I work for made it mandatory for everyone to attend a two day snow craft school and they called it “Happy Camper”. I figured I would hate it because it has nothing that makes camping enjoyable. And usually when mandatory training contains the word “Happy”- it is anything but.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Come to find out that there are four things you should do continuously when cold weather camping:
- eat (fats or sugars)
- if you get damp or cold- change clothes
Are you kidding! I could medal in devouring fats and sugars, drinking copious amounts of cocoa, and wandering around- even when I am not cold.
Happy Camping school started with a morning of classroom training. We covered how to light the temperamental little stove (which was just a Mazol Tov cocktail with a stove burner), the basics of risk management and camp protocol, and how to avoid cold injuries. (See the four awesome things to do above) Then we loaded all our gear up into Piston Bullies and drove about a mile away from the station. It was a cloudy day, so we couldn’t see the berms, or the station which made it feel like we were far, far away.
Our first task was to build a snow wall. It seemed pretty easy. Dig a trench to work from, saw little blocks, tug them out with a shovel, stack them on top of each other and Voila! A snow wall. We had some talented craftsmen on our team- carpenters, fire fighters, plumbers, and electricians and yet, our snow wall looked like a a gaggle of drunk toddlers built it.
Corey, the Happy Camper guru, said at one point, “Ok finish one more row and then lets to call it good. Don’t worry if you are someone who has to finish things- we just need to move onto other things now.” I think it was his nice way of stopping the snow carnage, since we obviously were getting no better at snow wall building.
We were masters at melting snow and setting up tents though. Then we had the option of building a snow trench to sleep in. Think of a snow trench as a little snow grave topped with blocks of snow. I chose the tent option, but helped with the igloo building. Which took the same skills as snow wall building. Thankfully the igloo looked smashing and two folks actually slept in it.
After all the snow shenanigans we made dinner. I am totally on board with the ‘cooking’ part of snow camping. You shovel snow into a pot, melt it, then pour it into bags of dehydrated food. Easy peasy, except the Beef Stroganoff smelled exactly like my dog, Gunny’s, geriatric dog food, so I passed on that. There was a bag of Mushroom Pilaf that was really delicious, but, for some reason, no matter how much I ate the bag never emptied. It was a dreadful magic trick that ended with me not liking mushroom pilaf very much.
The restroom was a pee flag and a bucket behind a snow wall. Another Happy Camper Class built that snow wall before we got to camp. Each and every trip required that I remove my coats, my vest, my gloves, my neck gaiter, my hat and drop my Carharrts. Using the bathroom basically was an adventure in going commando on the polar plateau, behind a snow wall, with the temps at 35 to 40 below. This activity did not jibe with me maintaining a happy camper attitude.
Except for the trips to the loo, the only time I was incredibly cold was in the tent trying to fall asleep. Most of me was comfortably warm (feet, legs arms), but my hip was freezing where it touched the sleep pads on the ground. I know people throw the word around “freezing”, but I am not kidding. My hip was so cold I thought it was on fire. I tucked mittens, an extra fleece, a sleeping bag liner under me. I changed all my long johns, took off , and then put back on my Carharrts. I drank a Nalgene full of warm water, I ate a candy bar, and then tried to eat a frozen peanut butter sandwich that turned out to be way more frozen than I expected. All this commotion made me have to go to the bathroom. By this point my friend, Mouse, probably felt like he was sleepingin a tent with an over-active hamster, because I was scritching about and making so much noise. At some point I fell asleep only to wake up sweating. Obviously, I have some work to do on my cold weather sleeping skills.
In the morning we played some white out scenarios. Since it was a beautiful clear morning the “white out” was created by placing a bucket over our heads and wandering around on the end of a rope ‘searching’ for our lost comrade. It was suppose to be serious and a learning experience, and our team discussed in great detail what we would do if our friend was missing. It seems that our first inclination was to rifle through all their things and wait for the storm to die down. Which, come to find out, is a perfectly acceptable option.
After staggering around with mop buckets on our heads, we broke down camp by filling in all the trenches and pushing over the igloo. When we were done, except for a few intact snow blocks, it looked like we had never existed at this place in Antarctica.