There is this wonderful man I need to tell you about. His name is Rex. Well, formerly it’s Reckly, but he asked that we call him Rex. Rex was the head waiter in the only restaurant on the ship, and he is fantastic! You see, there are two ‘groups’ of people on the ship. There’s the expedition crew, who are responsible for making sure passengers ‘see’ Antarctica. And then there’s the ship crew, who are responsible for making sure we enjoy our time onboard.
We got to know Rex pretty quickly. He is from Indonesia and has a wife and family at home. He comes to Antarctica each season – November to March – and lives on the ship. He will go back and forth through the Drake Passage dozens of times, not talking to his family for ten days at a time, and not seeing them for months. But what was so cool about Rex is that he remembered each of our names, knew how we liked our coffee, knew who was usually seasick or sleeping in. He knew us.
After an already intense 24 hours of zodiacs, penguins, and kayaks, we prepared for our daily briefing. Each day, the expedition leader would hold a 45-minute briefing for all passengers. We would learn about the plans for the next day, expected weather conditions, and how to prepare. These briefings were usually held right before dinner, and on this particular afternoon, after a full first day of adventure, we were given the exciting news that those who had signed up to camp in Antarctica would be sleeping on a nearby island that night!
We had a giddy dinner with Rex, talking excitedly with him about the adventure ahead of us. When we asked him if he would camp, he chuckled and said, “Oh no, I am from Indonesia!” his words expressing that he would never venture outside of this ship and into the cold.
The activity itself had been a long time coming. A few months ago we had gotten an email that enough spots had opened up for us to camp. We immediately said, ‘Hell yes!’ and couldn’t have been more excited. Text messages were rampant in our group for months, everyone so thrilled that we would be sleeping on Antarctica! We bundled up in a few extra layers for this event, knowing that the sun would attempt to set for about three hours and it would get colder than the daytime hours. I wore three pairs of pants, two shirts, three coats, and four hats. I stuffed a few hand warmers in my socks before putting my boots. Oh, and I intended to sleep in all of this too.
It was pretty cloudy when we loaded up into the zodiacs with our ‘bivvy bags.’ A bivvy bag is designed specifically for sleeping in the conditions of Antarctica. It has a waterproof and windproof outer layer, a mat to help ease the pain of the ice, a sleeping bag (that actually works), and an inner liner to help make it cozy.
When we got to the island where we would be sleeping, John met me and we did another piggy back ride. I am so grateful to John! Julie carried my bivvy bag to a flat spot that we all thought looked nice for our camping experience. There were five in my group and we lined up our bivvy bags in a tight and straight row, thinking we might need heat from each other and wanting to stay close.
John sat me down on a small stool we had brought (and previously bio-secured) while others from the group and crew dug out small holes for our bivvy bags to lay in. It’s best that they go right below the surface of the snow to help protect against any wind.
Julie helped us each into our bivvy bags, which you should understand is no easy feat with the amount of clothing we each had on. We took off our muck boots, which would serve as a pillow for the night, and climbed into the inner liner, and then into the sleeping bag, attempted to get our bodies flat on the mat, and then she zipped us up inside the bivvy bag, which goes around your entire body, head included, like a body bag. All five of us, lined up in a row, zipped tight for the night with only an air vent at the top of our bivvy bags.
“This will be fun!” I thought as we all laid down. We’ll tell stories, and listen to the sounds of the animals in Antarctica. If we want to open our bags, we can see the stars, completely unpolluted by light or other pollution.
About an hour or two later, and I don’t even remember it happening, we were all in bivvy bags, zipped as tight as they could go, as the winds outside increased to 30 mph, the temperature dropped, and snow started falling. The small vent at the top of my bag, meant to let only fresh air in, became a secret hole for wet and cold snow to blow in, leaving my face to get splattered with water that froze to ice.
I suddenly felt like I was suffocating. It came out of nowhere but I had to get out of there. I had so many clothes on, including my life jacket, and being confined in this bag made me feel like I was going to die by suffocation. I hollered at Julie and she opened her bag to unzip the top part of my bivvy sack. I gasped for fresh air. I ripped off my life jacket and laid it outside of my bivvy bag, hoping it didn’t blow away and knowing I’d have to dig it out of the snow in the morning. I started to unzip my jackets while I laid on my back, unable to place my body in any other direction. I would just lay on them as a cushion and hope that I could get through the night with a few less layers confining me in my bivvy bag.
Earlier in the night, Julie had asked me how my ‘muck boot pillow’ was working out. I responded, “Oh, it’s great. I’ve got four hats on! Who needs a pillow?” So I removed some of the hats as this panic attack ensued, knowing I needed to feel some freedom. I did the same with my thick gloves, freeing up my hands to at least allow me to open and close my bivvy bag on my own. I placed all of these smaller clothing items next to my torso, hoping they would still be there when morning came, because really, how far could they go? Once I calmed down a little, I realized how warm it really was inside my bivvy bag. I wasn’t cold once, not ever throughout the night, outside of the ice snow that pelted against my face.
As the wind picked up, it became almost impossible for us to hear each other. We started a chain of telephone. If my mom, who was on one end, wanted to know how Tony was doing, on the opposite end, she would ask Natalie (my sister), who would ask Julie (my other sister), who would ask me, and then I would ask Tony. I’d get a response, and then pass the message back down. The messages started to become grimmer and grimmer as the night went on. At one point, I asked Julie how Natalie was and I got a response that she was crying in her bivvy bag.
The wind coupled with the snow started to create large drifts that blew over our bags and settled on top of us. It was a heavy wet snow and I would push it off with my legs only to have Julie push it back on me. We were so close together that there was nowhere to put the falling snow, and we were literally getting buried on Antarctica in our bivvy bags. The sounds of the pelting sleet, the feeling of being buried alive, the minutes ticking away so slowly created a fear in virtually every camper that was so empowering there was no escape outside of tears and panic attacks. We discovered over the course of the next few days that even the biggest, strongest, most brave looking people camping on that island that night admitted their defeat. Everyone cried out of complete and utter fear for their lives.
Our zodiac pickup time was scheduled for 5:45 am. To no surprise, the entire group of campers – about 50 people – were awake, packed, and lined up, ready to get on their zodiacs by 5 am. The group was not in good condition. People had lost their boots and life jackets in the snow. One woman peed in her pants because she couldn’t make it through the difficult conditions to get to the 5-gallon bucket that served as a toilet, just a few meters from where she was staying.
I asked everyone in our group how they were doing. The silence was deafening and the sounding exhaustion from everybody, hanging on for life, protruded through my bones. Finally, Tony spoke up. “This was the worst night of my life. It’s a fucking nightmare that won’t end.”
Julie piggy backed me to the edge of the island where we waited for the zodiacs. Days later we discussed how she was able to do this, tired from the night and walking through snow that would often fall out from under her feet, making holes two to three feet deep, all while carrying me on her back. We both agreed, “It was the only way we were going to get out of there.”
I stared at our ship, which didn’t seem too far away yet felt like a world away. I watched, wondering when we would see the first zodiac come off the deck and towards us. Didn’t they know how badly we needed to get back? Didn’t someone tell them that things were so bad for us? Finally, the first zodiac started drifting towards us. And shortly after, there was six more behind it. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Finally, I can go home.
When I first arrived to the camping island, John piggy backed me to my campsite. During the short walk, he told me, “Once you get into your bivvy bag, you will regret every minute of what you are doing. But the next day, once you get some rest, you will be so glad you did it.” I hung onto these words throughout the night as I cried, panicked, and pictured my death certificate – Cause of Death: Camping in Antarctica. It took each of us a few days, but eventually, one by one, we each started to admit that we were glad we went ice camping. It was, hands down, without a doubt, the most memorable thing I’ve ever done.
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