Camping under the sun

A bivy sack is a huge, waterproof sleeping bag. And it’s all that separated me from the Antarctic snow when I camped out on the continent.

My mom and I decided to sign up for the overnight without knowing much what to expect, except little sleep. It turned out to be an amazing way to experience late and early hours on the continent, and to hear the sounds of Antarctica all night long.

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Setting up camp at 10:30 p.m. All the guests set out sleeping bags on the ice, while the guides set up three tents in case of an overnight emergency (there wasn’t one.) 

To prepare, we all were assigned a set of sleeping bags. I say set because we had three. The inner lining was fleece, the middle layer was a thick down sleeping bag and the outer was the bivy.

We got to land, a stretch of snow on an island off the peninsula, just after 10 p.m. and it was as light out as it had been that afternoon. During the summer months the sun doesn’t really set in Antarctica and the daylight lasts until about 12 a.m. when it turns to a twilight for a few hours.

Once on the snow mass we picked out sleeping location and set to digging a hole, which was meant to block the wind during the night.

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Sweet dreams. Proudly standing over my bivy and sleeping hole. 

I spent about 45 minutes tamping down a large rectangle with my boots, and eventually using a shovel to make the bottom flat. My sleeping pad and bags fit perfectly.

Because the sun doesn’t really go down the sunset in Antarctica is long and subtle. The colors were pastel and transitioned slowly, over hours. The snow we camped on was a low-grade hill that backed up to a steep mountain that was covered in snow. Two guides snowshoed to the top to evaluate the avalanche danger, which they decided was minimal.

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The scene from our camping location. The photo was taken after 11 p.m.

Getting into my sleeping bag took about 15 minutes. I stripped off all my outer wear, keeping on only a pair of long underwear, fleece half-zip, wool socks and a hat. The less clothes you wear the warmer you are. Then came the process of closing it all up using three separate drawstrings. Eventually I shut my bivy so that only my mouth, nose and eyes poked through. Then, I lay still.

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Bivy sacks and sleepers dot the ice before bedtime. 

All was quiet. I could hear no sound but my own breathing. I looked up through my sleeping bag at a light, cloudless sky. I sat up a few times to watch the sunset progress, and take stock of my surroundings. It was one of the few times on the trip when I had time by myself.

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The view behind my sleeping spot. I am wearing an orange bivy and green sleeping bag on my head. 

It didn’t stay quiet for long. All night I could hear the crash and boom of glaciers calving. The continent is so harsh and powerful. Lying on the ice you get the sense of its danger – the cold weather, the breaking ice – but also its beauty. It is so untouched by man and at almost every location I wondered whether I was one of the first to walk here.

I didn’t sleep well and woke up every few hours to the same silence. When I started to get cold I would put a handwarmer on my chest. By 5 a.m., when I got up, frost had formed on my bivy and was melting into my breathing hole. By that time the sky was bright and the sun was out in such full force I had to wear my sunglasses.

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Rise and shine. Waking up in Antarctica. 

The snow around our sleeping bags, that had been loose and dry the night before, hardened overnight. It turned to a rough crust and no longer did we sink through when we walked.

After rolling up our sleeping bags, my mom and I went to the water’s edge. It was so bright, quiet and serene. Unlike the bustle and activity of the afternoon, the Antarctic wildlife seemed to enjoy the alone time of the early morning. A single seal wriggled over some rocks in the shallows. A lone penguin preened standing in the water.

Would I do it again? I’m not sure. But sleeping on the ice gave me a real sense of how tough the animals are who live it day in, day out.

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