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Penguins, whales, and avalanches: Antarctica’s coolest campsite offers a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience

Passengers aboard the Ocean Endeavor, a ship that focuses on health and wellness, have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go camping on Antarctica.

(Lea Murr)

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 enabled.

It all began just after dinner on a mid-November evening. He and a few dozen of his fellow Ocean Endeavor passengers on board Zodiac boats and make their way to the campsite. The sky was clear. The temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit. And there was almost no wind.

“We came around sunset, so everything began to glow with warm pink and yellow,” he recalls.

“We came around sunset, so everything began to glow with warm pink and yellow,” a camper called.

(Lea Murr)

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The snow-covered campsite, right on the water, it was quite a sight. There were snow-capped peaks as far as the eye could see. And it was nice and quiet. The only sounds were the occasional August scratchy when it’s over, gentle waves washing over pebbles on the shore, and pieces of ice up and down in the beautiful but ice-cold water.

Camping prep

Ormiston, a native of Denver, Colorado, is no newbie when it comes to life in the open air. With the Rockies right in his backyard, he has spent many nights on the top of the mountain peaks. Plus, he is stationed in deserts, and in Yellowstone National Park with geysers in the background. However, he had never camped out in the coldest, driest and windiest place on the planet. Until now.

That said, when it comes to spending the night on the ice, what does a pack? Surprisingly, only amounted to a bivy bag, a heavy sleeping bag made to withstand sub-zero temps, a sleeping mat, his phone, a few heat packs and a camera.

There were no tent and no snacks. In fact, no food, in order not to disturb the fragile ecosystem. And the bathroom facility was just a bucket surrounded by snow. The point here is not to make an impact on the unspoilt landscape, and to experience nature at its best.

One must dig a coffin-sized hole in the snow to help block themselves from the wind while sleeping.

(Lea Murr)

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The first step was to dig a coffin-sized hole in the snow to help block themselves from the 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 the loneliness that is Antarctica. It is one of the few places in the world to really escape man-made sounds. No mobile phone ringtones, Facebook updates, or such a distraction to ruin the moment.

“It’s just a special experience few people have,” he adds.

The snow-covered campsite, right on the water, it was quite a sight. There were snow-capped peaks as far as the eye could see.

(Lea Murr)

Camping under the penguins

As with most things in Antarctica, you never know what your going to get. While campin,g you will hear the seals during the night, whales feeding or glaciers calving. Better yet, it is not uncommon to wake up with a penguin or two staring at you.

“I remember waking up Christmas day, and there were penguins scattered between almost every bivy bag,” says Jimmy MacDonald, an expedition guide with Quark Expeditions. “They were just taking the night off. We have Weddell seals within 15 metres (50 feet) of people sleeping. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the seals sing and make strange belching noises. It sounds crazy, and creepy.”

Although Ormiston, not all wildlife encounters during his journey, he says there were plenty of memorable moments. “We have woken up around 1 am to the epically dramatic thunder of avalanches directly above us,” he says. “For about five minutes, of ice calved in the series and had little sign of stopping.”

Ormiston wake up with the sound of avalanches cascading down the nearby mountains.

(Lea Murr)

Luckily there was a ridge separating the campers from the slopes. Never fear, though: The guides to prepare them for the situation and will only lead to travel when the conditions are 100% safe. She led camping trips for more than a decade, and come prepared with a shore vessel filled with shelters, emergency food, water, rope, long distance radios, and torches. Plus, the cruise-ship, loaded with hot chocolate, a hot tub and a sauna is always near.

Of course, the camping is not the only draw during an Antarctica cruise. Ormiston was also busy for one-on-one time with penguins, riding in Zodiac boats and whale-watching. Earlier that day, in fact, Ormiston was on an intense mountain climbing excursion. So by the time 11 pm rolled around, he had no problem drifting to sleep.

“I can’t say that it is restful sleep and it didn’t take very long — about 5 hours, but I’m sure I slept,” he says.

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Anyone can do this

The good news? You do not need to be in excellent shape to cross this particular camping trip off your bucket list. It is something everyone can do, from 8-year-olds to grandparents, no experience necessary.

“Dig your own hole and crawl into your bivy bag presents the only physical challenge, but otherwise, it is a completely tame experience,” Ormiston explained.

No tents are necessary on this particular camping trip.

(Lea Murr)

“For many people it is the first camping experience in their life,” MacDonald says. “It’s not like camping in the winter snow in North America, where the temperatures far below zero. The weather here is often quite mild. A warm night here it is plus 3 degrees celsius (about 37 degrees Celsius).”

“I think most sign up for the bragging rights,” MacDonald adds. “To be able to say that I spend the night in Antarctica is cool.”

Stephanie Cherng, who on the same camping trip with Ormiston, endorses. “I think it’s a combination of my love for the outdoors and camping, as well as a fear that if I don’t try something so once-in-a-lifetime, I would regret it.”

It is a rare opportunity to camp on Antarctica, she says, that many people jumped at the chance.

“I remember waking up Christmas day, and there were penguins scattered between almost every bivy bag,” says Jimmy MacDonald, an expedition guide with Quark Expeditions.

(Lea Murr)

Consider this: Only around 40,000 people make the trek to Antarctica each year, let alone go camping on the ice. It is still fairly unusual to meet people who have visited this wild and mysterious continent.

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Ormiston says that it is really impossible to put the experience in words. The scenery is grander than anything you can invent in your imagination. In other words, to really stick to the wow-factor, it is something you must see for yourself.

Ormiston sums it up well: “There are two types of people in this world: those who are out of the campground because they prefer their regular dose of beauty sleep, and others that take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities as they arise,” he says. “If you’re considering camping in Antarctica, you just have to do.”

The company running the expedition also offers rock climbing, cross-country skiing and camping.

(Lea Murr)

If you are going to…

Be sure to pre-book a place. The Camping is a popular activity, and there are only 60 places available during a certain trip.

The Antarctic cruise season is from mid-October until the end of March. Not all journeys offer a camping site, so check this in advance.

For more information, visit quarkexpeditions.com.

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