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The scoop on ice camping?… it’s cold

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t anticipate quite how challenging it would be to simply live on ice for 3 weeks. Putting all research related challenges aside, the daily living routine demanded a lot of stamina and discipline.

For starters, I’ve never camped in such an alien environment for so long before. Wherever you’re sitting right now, let me try to bring you to this world. If you’re indoors, remove the building you’re in. In fact, remove every single building, every plant, every animal, and any other objects for as far as you can see in all directions. Flatten the ground to be a bumpy but relatively level surface and make it stretch out in all directions to the horizon. Now make the ground hard white ice. Turn the temperature down to about 32 degrees and put on a big parka, snow pants, heavy mountaineering boots, a hat, gloves and sunglasses. Look around. There’s now a white icy surface stretching as far as you can see in all directions. The only contrast against this white surface is a cluster of small colorful fabric tents flapping in the wind. You’re living here for 3 weeks. This is Earth but it almost feels like you’re on another planet. You pull out your phone to snap a couple pictures and in the process you’re reminded again that you have no service. Not that you thought you would have service, but just seeing those ‘no service’ words everyday makes you feel as if you’ve arrived in an alternate universe.

Yes, our camp is actually in this photo. It's a dot in the center.

Challenge 1: Wet and cold

With the temperature climbing just above freezing during the day and dropping below freezing at night, everything was perpetually cold and damp. Even inside the tent, there was no avoiding the icy floor. My hands and feet were frequently numb. I lived in my parka, only taking it off for a quick second to slip into my sleeping bag. Since there was no indoors and no heating, it was critical to constantly monitor body temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many hot drinks and soup in my life.

Challenge 2: Where’s the bathroom?

There was merely a bin with a toilet seat sitting out on the ice about 100 meters downwind of camp. A tarp strung up by some bamboo poles served as a make shift curtain. The wind and cold did not provide any comfort when using the toilet. I found myself frequently in the “how long can I wait to go pee debate”. Even worse, was the rotating job to change the toilet bag when it got full. Further, the waste was burnt in an incinerator since we couldn’t take it out with us. What about a shower? There was none. That’s right, 3 weeks and no shower.

The toilet
Watch out for frostbite

Challenge 3: The tent moving ritual

Every 6 or 7 days you had to move your tent. But seriously, you really did. Over time, the ground around the tent melted away. The tent footprint served as a striking marker of surface melt. Over the course of a few days, the insulation provided by the tent sheltered the ice directly underneath. While the surrounding ice slowly and inconspicuously melted away, the ice directly under the tent remained and soon the middle of the tent would be elevated on a pedestal of ice a couple of feet thick. This really shrunk the space inside the tent making it an acrobatic act to simply get in and out. The ice below the tent became a slippery, lumpy surface. Rather than a restful sleep, I’d feel more like I’d just spent the night holding some sort of yoga pose – my head and feet awkwardly sloping down with a big rounded lump underneath my back.  

I just moved my tent off this huge lump of snow that formed under it.
Drilling in my tent so it won't blow away

Challenge 4: Cooking a meal 

Meals took place in a bigger dome tent. Inside, eight chairs made a ring along the tent wall. While the food was mostly, dried, canned, or otherwise preserved to last for a long time, everyone surpassed my expectations with their creativity and ability to pull together a decent meal. Dinners often turned into long multi hour group conversations since there was little else to do in the evenings. After dinner it was time to take the dishes out and wash them in a melt stream and then also brush your teeth next to a melt stream.

It got pretty crowded in here

Challenge 5: Attempting a workout

Being someone who usually spends multiple hours each day working out, I was a bit distraught by the lack of exercise opportunities. The ice surface was so rough that it made it impossible to walk fast without slipping. Even when I accumulated a lot of walking over the course of a day, it was at such a slow pace that I didn’t feel like I’d exercised at the end of the day. Additionally, because it was so cold and there was no way to shower, I didn’t ever really want to break a sweat. On a whim, I did bring a jump rope with me and I have to say, jump roping on ice worked surprisingly well to warm up and get my heart rate going!

I wouldn't be too surprised if I'm the only person crazy enough to use a jumprope on the Greenland ice sheet
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