Stump’s Tent Camp

For field work in the Transantarctic Mountains, whether you are placed there by helicopter from McMurdo Station, operate within the perimeter of a remote helicopter and Twin Otter supported field camp, or are placed in the deep field by fixed-wing aircraft, you will be living in some sort of camp. The design of a field camp varies with the size and requirements of the party and with the personal preferences of the occupants.

On their southery traverse in 1902-03, Scott, Wilson, and Shackleton shared the pyramidal tent that has come to bear Scott's name. (Photo from Scott's book, The Voyage of the Discovery, 1905.)

This is how I like to set up a camp. The centerpiece of the camp is a Scott tent, that stalwart of design that has been with us since Scott used in during the 1901-04 “Discovery” expedition. With their four-sided pyramidal shape, the Scott tents of today cover a footprint 9x9 feet square with a similar height. The poles are heavy-duty, single-pieced aluminum tubes, hinged together at the top. The tent is double-walled without a bottom, but with a flap that extends out as an apron onto the snow. You cover this with snow blocks (or in the worst case, rocks) to hold the tent down, which works splendidly in the hardest winds. The poles extend about a foot into the snow beneath the level of the flaps. The tunnel entrance to the tent is a circular hole encircled by a tube of fabric that can be cinched down once a person has gone through. To me, the ideal number for a deep-field party is four. Each party member has their own sleeping tent and a Scott tent serves as the communal cook tent. What I like to do is dig out the bottom and use rock boxes as seats. (Rock boxes are a USAP standard, 12x12x18-inch boxes made of 1/2 inch plywood, with rope handles at the end.) The party members face each other, two and two. Because the floor is sunken we do not have to lean in (as much) beneath the sides of the tent. An ensolite pad helps to soften the seat. At the end opposite the entrance is the kitchen, which amounts to a set of rock boxes used as shelves and support for a Coleman stove. At the top of the tent is a flue made of a three-inch plastic tube that lets out steam and heat produced on the stove.

Interior of cook tent. Paul, on the left, looks up from a little light readng. Mugs holds a spatula, about to take the pancake out of the skillet on the stove. (1987-88)

In the 1970’s and early 80’s the individual sleeping tents (Meade tents) had a low wall and were A-frames with four poles at the ends. By the late 1980’s the personal tents were domes made by Sierra Designs.

Camp in the Gothic Moutains, January, 1981, Meade tents, a Scott tent, Nansen sleds, and Alpine 660 Ski-doos.

During the 1987-88 season, Paul Fitzgerald and I had a project in the Scott Glacier area that required climbing and collecting peaks with the highest relief that we could find. (The science of it is a story for another time.) Paul was a New Zealander who had just finished a PhD at the University of Melbourne using a technique called fission-track dating to determine the uplift history of the Transantarctic Mountains in the McMurdo Sound area. Because of the amount of climbing that we planned to do, we had two mountaineers with the party instead of the usual one. One was my brother Mugs, the other Lyle Dean. After the Herc had left us we set up camp, all of the tents strung out in a line perpendicular to the direction of the prevailing wind, with the cook tent in the middle. After setting up the cooking area, I started to melt snow for a brew, Earl Grey if I recall. The others piled into the tent in turn. This was 1987, we each had a Sony Walkman, and even I had caught up with the times. But I hadn’t seen nothin yet. As they sat down, both Lyle and Mugs whipped out a pair of small speakers boosted by C batteries that played off the Walkman. We hung the speakers about 2/3 of the way up in the corners of the tent producing a stereo quadraphonic sound space. Picture it. There we were in the middle of Antarctica, 600 miles from McMurdo, listening to cassettes we'd brought from the outside world. One of the favorite albums that season was Graceland recently released by Paul Simon. A line from The Boy in the Bubble spoke aptly to our situation and has stayed with me ever since: "These are the days of miracle and wonder." In the lead-up to the 2000-01 field season, I was requesting gear for a camp to the south of Byrd Glacier. I had not been to the Ice in 10 years and the manager of the BFC (Berg Field Center, the field party staging area in McMurdo) suggested that I might want to substitute the new Endurance tent for the Scott. It was about the same weight (60-70 lbs) she said, but had a footprint that was about three times bigger. I said, Okay. However, when I arrived in McMurdo, we added four folding aluminum chairs and two folding tables, one for cooking, the other for eating and laying out maps. Then I was reminded that the floor of the tent might sag under the pressure of the tables and chairs, so we also had to take along several 4x8 sheets of 3/4 inch plywood for a floor. By the time everything was assembled, the tent set-up probably weighed three or four times more than a Scott tent. There had been a time when I’d had a reputation for travelling light.

Camp south of Byrd Glacier, December 2000. The large tent in the foreground is an Endurance. Food boxes ring the upwind side of the tent. My sleeping tent is in the background.

For sure having a table and chairs is more comfortable (and we all grow older and creakier), but the tent was a very large space to heat with a Coleman stove, especially if there was a wind blowing outside. On a typical day we would come in from fieldwork, and fire up the stove to make water. Steam would fill the tent and at the end opposite the stove it would condense and freeze on the ceiling. If we continued to heat the space the ice invariably would melt and drip down on dinner or our maps. Enough said. Give me a Scott tent any day.

Gallery – Rocks in Ice

When rocks find themselves on glacier ice or the ice of meltwater ponds, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Due both to pressure melting from the weight of the rock, and the absorption of heat from sunlight on the warmest days of the year, the rock will melt its way into the ice, tunneling so deep sometimes that you can see the rock a foot or more below the surface.