One Antarctic Night
By Lola Mendez
I went camping for the first time in my life this year, which isn’t noteworthy except that I pitched a tent for the first time in Antarctica. Everyone who knows me was shocked to learn of my plans to camp on the ice. I avoid the cold and have lived in a never-ending summer for seven years.
I sailed to the southernmost continent on the world’s first hybrid-battery-powered cruise ship, Hurtigruten Expedition’s MS Roald Amundsen. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, approximately 74,401 people visited this remote part of our planet from October 2019 to March 2020. Of the ships that offer an ice camping experience, each is only allowed a maximum of 30 passengers per camping excursion.
Getting to camp on the white continent is rare, as weather conditions have to be suitable. Antarctica has been a designated nature reserve since 1991 and campers are required to attend a safety briefing. Expedition guides reviewed protocols, what to pack, and how to use the provided cold-weather camping gear. Campers can’t take anything besides clothing, a bottle of water, and camera gear.
On my cruise, over 100 passengers had entered the camping lottery. My cabin number was announced as a winner and, although I was wildly unprepared as a camping virgin, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sleep on all seven continents, even though the temperature was below freezing. I packed my faux-wool hat and a sweater made of oyster shells – as well as every pair of gloves and socks I had – to use as an insulation in my sleeping bag.
After dinner, my fellow campers and I piled into zodiacs. We zipped across the Southern Ocean to Kerr Point on Ronge Island. Upon landing, we noticed we wouldn’t be camping alone as several Gentoo penguins were gathered by the shore.
I collected my camping gear, loaded a headlamp, pad, heavy-duty sleeping bag, and a thin red tent into a sled and dragged it to my campsite. As I got to work setting up the tent on the snow I spotted a humpback whale spouting in the bay as dusk began to fade. The MS Roald Amundsen pulled behind an iceberg, leaving us happy campers in total darkness.
We hiked up a cliff through deep snow to a rocky vantage point where the excursion leader played “Shoulders” by Shane Koyczan: “This pale blue dot, this one world, is all we get. There will be no reset button, no new operating system, no downloadable upgrade. We will not be allowed to trade in our old world for a new one with climate control or better fuel efficiency. We get one shot at this.”
Listening to Koyczan’s words about the damage humanity has caused the planet while I was lying directly on one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet was a catalyst moment that recharged my efforts to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
An hour or so later, down at the campsite, I entered the tiny tent. I opted to sleep in my Selk’bag (a zip-up onesie made out of sleeping bag material) and use the actual sleeping bag as a blanket. I was quite cozy and didn’t need to wear gloves, a hat, or use the hand warmers I had packed.
Throughout the evening the Antarctic silence alternated between the soothing sounds of waves gently caressing the shore and the earth-shattering crashes of glaciers calving. In the early hours of the morning, I slipped on my rubber boots and stood outside my tent to soak in the raw environment. The clouds gave way slightly allowing a few stars to shine through. I watched in wonder as a satellite slowly crawled across the sky between pockets of clouds.
When I awoke again at 5:00 a.m., I was exhilarated. I had made it through the night of polar camping. It was spectacular to spend a night on the ice. We packed up our gear and loaded into zodiacs that took us back to the warmth of the ship where we toasted the adventure of the previous night with mimosas as humpback whales played in the waters surrounding the ship.
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