Craig Ormiston is a chronic adventurer. So it comes as no surprise that he signed up to camp on the ice in Antarctica with Quark Expeditions, a company that focuses on polar adventures. To him, it was a bucket-list item that absolutely had to be checked off.
It all began just after dinner on a mid-November evening. He and a few dozen of his fellow Ocean Endeavor passengers boarded Zodiac boats and made their way to the campsite. The skies were clear. The temperature was 32 degrees Farenheit. And there was next to no wind.
“We arrived right around sunset, so everything started to glow with warm pinks and yellows,” he recalls.
The snow-covered campsite, right next to the water, was quite a sight. There were snowy peaks as far as the eye could see. And it was blissfully quiet. The only noises were the occasional petrel squawking as it passed by, gentle waves washing over pebbles on shore, and chunks of ice bobbing up and down in the beautiful but frigid water.
Ormiston, a resident of Denver, Colo., is no newbie when it comes to life in the outdoors. With the Rockies right in his backyard, he’s spent many nights on top of mountain peaks. Plus, he’s camped in deserts and in Yellowstone National Park with geysers as the backdrop. However, he had never camped in the coldest, driest, windiest place on the planet. Until now.
That said, when it comes to spending a night on the ice, what exactly does one pack? Surprisingly enough, his supplies only amounted to a bivy sack, a heavy-duty sleeping bag made to withstand sub-zero temps, a sleeping mat, his phone, a few heat packs and his camera.
There were no tents and no snacks. In fact, no food whatsoever, so as not to disturb the delicate ecosystem. And the bathroom facility was simply a bucket surrounded by snow. The point here was not to make an impact on the pristine landscape and to experience nature at its best.
The first step was to dig a coffin-sized hole in the snow to help block himself from wind. Antarctica is known for its strong katabatic winds that seem to pop up out of nowhere and sweep down the glaciers. Once that's done, Ormiston soaks up the solitude that is Antarctica. It’s one of the few places in the world to truly escape manmade noises. No cellphone ringtones, Facebook updates, or any such distractions to ruin the moment.
“It's simply a special experience few people get to have,” he adds.
Camping among the penguins
As with most things in Antarctica, you never know what you’re gonna get. While campin,g you might hear seals throughout the night, whales feeding or glaciers calving. Better yet, it’s not uncommon to wake up with a penguin or two staring at you.
“I remember waking up Christmas day, and there were penguins scattered in between almost every bivy sack,” says Jimmy MacDonald, an expedition guide with Quark Expeditions. “They were just taking the night off there, too. We’ve had Weddell seals within 15 meters (about 50 feet) of people sleeping. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the seals singing and making those strange burping noises. It sounds crazy spooky.”
Although Ormiston didn’t have any wildlife encounters during his excursion, he says there were plenty of memorable moments. “We did wake up around 1 a.m. to the epically dramatic thunder of avalanches directly above us,” he says. “For about five minutes, ice calved in sequence and had little sign of stopping.”
Fortunately, there was a ridge separating the campers from the slopes. Never fear, though: The guides prepare for any situation and only lead trips when the conditions are 100 percent safe. They’ve led camping trips for more than a decade, and come prepared with a shore barrel filled with shelters, emergency food, water, climbing rope, long-range radios and flares. Plus, the cruise ship (loaded with hot chocolate, a hot tub and sauna) is always nearby.
Of course, camping isn’t the only draw during an Antarctic cruise. Ormiston was also busy getting one-on-one time with penguins, riding in Zodiac boats and whale-watching. Earlier that day, in fact, Ormiston was on an intense mountaineering excursion. So by the time 11 p.m. rolled around, he had no problem drifting to sleep.
“I cannot say that it was restful sleep and it did not last very long — maybe 5 hours — but I definitely slept,” he says.
Anyone can do this
The good news? You don’t need to be in excellent shape to cross this unusual camping trip off your bucket list. It’s something most anyone can do, from 8-year-olds to grandparents, no experience necessary.
“Digging your own hole and crawling into your bivy sack presents the only physical challenge, but otherwise, it's an entirely tame experience,” Ormiston explains.
“For a lot of people, it’s the fist camping experience in their life,” MacDonald says. “It’s not like camping in winter snow in North America where temperatures are way below zero. The weather here is often quite mild. A warm night here is plus 3 degrees (about 37 degrees Farenheit).”
“I think most sign up for the bragging rights,” MacDonald adds. “To be able to say that I’ve spend the night in Antarctica is pretty cool.”
Stephanie Cherng, who was on the same camping excursion with Ormiston, concurs. “I think it was a combination of my love for the outdoors and camping, as well as a fear that if I didn't try something so once-in-a-lifetime, I'd regret it.”
It’s such a rare opportunity to get to camp in Antarctica, she says, that many people jumped at the chance.
Consider this: Only about 40,000 people make the trek to Antarctica each year, let alone go camping on the ice. It’s still pretty uncommon to meet people who’ve visited this wild and mysterious continent.
Ormiston says it’s really impossible to put the experience into words. The scenery is grander than anything you could possibly conjure up in your imagination. In other words, to really snag the wow factor, it’s something you must see for yourself.
Ormiston sums it up well: “There are two types of people in this world: those who opted out of camping because they prefer their regular dose of beauty sleep and others who take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities as they present themselves,” he says. “If you're considering camping in Antarctica, you should just do it.”
If you go…
Be sure to pre-book a spot. Camping is a popular activity, and there are only 60 spots available during any particular voyage.
The Antarctic cruising season is from mid-October to late March. Not all voyages offer camping, so be sure to check this ahead of time.
For more information, visit quarkexpeditions.com.