The BIG CHILL in Antarctica – Of Blizzards & Emperors, Part 2

On our second morning at Penguin Camp, I had come to learn that getting out for breakfast was no simple feat. While we must keep warm, a cardinal rule for Antarctic travel is to avoid perspiring: exposure to subzero weather turns sweat into ice with highly undesirable consequences. Unfortunately, while the tent might not necessarily be toasty, the super insulating -40°F rated sleeping bag is. Basically I would wake up every morning in a sweat wearing just the base layers.

While waiting to dry out, I would enjoy another quintessential Antarctic camping experience. To avoid suiting up for the bathroom while in an expedition tent, mastering the Art of the Pee Bottle is imperative. For those unfamiliar with expedition tents, they are low slung tents made to withstand high winds, snow, and the cold for travel in extreme weather – the keyword being ‘low’. With barely enough height to kneel in, trying to elegantly perform the equivalent of Moroccan mint tea pouring inside the tent without causing a toxic spill was a tall order. Only after those preliminaries were over could I tackle the business of getting dressed.

2 emperor penguins standing outside tent
Imperial Guards.

My tent (# 1) was in a primo location, steps from the blue and white Club House, as seen here. Emerging from the tent, I was startled by 2 emperor penguins chilling out a few feet away. Found out there were always random penguins wandering by as our camp was on their way to the sea.

Antarctica camp community tent bulletin board
Penguin Camp vitals.

The Club House bulletin board gave us the all-important weather forecast, penguin colony visitation hours, meal times, and menu. The weather report showed deteriorating conditions, with overcast skies and winds doubling to 15 knots (17 mph or 28 km/h) by the afternoon.

The morning outing had pleasant weather, even though -15 C (5 F) can hardly be considered balmy in anywhere but the Antarctic or Arctic Circle. Apparently the penguins had moved a bit further so it was a slightly longer slog with our sleds.

Two emperor penguins facing each other with crossed beaks
Face off.

If a female emperor penguin is interested in a male, she will face him and the pair will mirror each other’s movements. Found this couple sheltering by an icy outcrop having a literal tête-à-tête.

Emperor penguin chick looking inquisitively couple feet from Antarctic visitor
Are you my Mommy?

While Penguin Camp guidelines ask visitors to maintain a 5 m (15 ft) distance from the penguins, nothing prevents them from approaching us. In this case, the chick was checking out a red and black penguin…

1 emperor penguin standing by a piece of wind carved ice
One Is The Loneliest Number.

There aren’t too many glacial features around the penguin colony but I found this interesting outcrop of wind carved ice with a lone emperor penguin nearby.

Caught some funny moments of the penguin chicks before returning for lunch. A stream of penguin chicks, accompanied by a couple adults, were crossing a shallow gully. One of them did a face plant, got up and waddled off nonchalantly as if nothing happened. Another penguin chick started begging for food by backing up to the parent, bobbing its head, but it soon got distracted and wandered off with its playmate to the other side.

Back at camp, we were greeted by unwelcome news – Casper, our Norwegian camp manager, announced that a bad storm is expected tomorrow with high winds. The prognosis was that if we didn’t leave by 7 pm, the next flight window would potentially be 3 or 4 days later, and failing that, in 8 days. It looked increasingly like Hotel Antarctica…

At least Casper assured us there was plenty of food, so no penguins on the menu! Our decision would hinge on when we could be reasonably sure of flying out. While waiting for more definitive weather outlook from the Union Glacier Camp meteorologists, we set out for a potential last trip to the penguin colony in late afternoon.

Emperor penguins bending over to preen themselves
Taking a bow.

The wind had picked up and started to blow drifting snow, a totally different scene from the sunny day before. Adult penguins were busy preening themselves in anticipation of inclement weather.

Emperor penguin lying on snow with an ice and snow covered face
Cryotherapy – the Best Skin Secret Ever!

Saw this penguin enjoying an ice facial… The conditions were getting worse, and an increasing number of emperor penguins tried to get out of the wind.

Emperor penguins in blustery weather
Baby it’s Cold Outside.

Some penguins that were standing looked a bit stressed. Of course that was just my interpretation – I understand they can survive in temperatures as low as -40°C (-40°F) and 250 km/h (155 mph) blizzards. So this is practically tropical for them!

Emperor penguins lying down in droves to get out of the wind
Take it lying down.

An amazing sight – a snowy field of penguins on their bellies as the wind intensified under the leaden sky.

Emperor penguin chicks wandering around in blustery weather
Cruising the ‘hood.

It was surprising to see plenty of chicks still wandering around. Tragically, we also saw a number of dead and dying chicks on the snow, a brutal reminder that the unforgiving Antarctic environment is Darwinism on steroids.

Flight crew digging plane out of snow drifts
Men at Work.

There’s always a Basler at Penguin Camp so guests can be flown out ASAP. Jim, the pilot, and his crew were constantly digging it out during our stay. Since the plane has to be flight ready at all times, it was moved twice during the storm to make sure all systems were working properly.

Got word we could leave potentially on Friday, and with a high degree of confidence on Saturday. We unanimously opted to stay. The group’s hardy souls went out after dinner for another colony visit. I hung out at the Club House and eventually went to bed accompanied by howling wind and driving snow. I cocooned with a hot water bottle, another necessity for civilized Antarctic camping!

Camp bulletin board with weather forecast of upcoming blizzard
Winter Is Coming…

It was a crazy day and only the weather section was updated – Whiteout conditions, with sustained winds at 40 knots (46 mph or 74 km/hr), gusting to 50 knots (58 mph or 93 km/hr). On the lighter side, the weather report was graphically embellished to commemorate one of the day’s highlights.

Trouble started when I overslept. I finally woke up at 11 am to a raging blizzard, with one of the camp guides hailing outside my tent. Yoshi had come to check on me. Thinking somehow the storm was supposed to peak between 11 am-2 pm, I wanted to stay put, but she persuaded me to head for the Club House. While Yoshi helped empty my snow packed boots, I tried to expedite dressing by skipping some layers, but she was adamant that I wear my goggles.

As I got outside, I understood why. It was like all hell had broken loose. Visibility was down to a couple feet and I could barely hear her above the roaring wind. It was a full-blown whiteout and the Club House that was 10 paces away had totally disappeared. Meanwhile the gale force wind was driving stinging snow at my face even with the goggles on. It was also pushing me back further with every step I took. Yoshi was zipping up the tent while she reached for me with the other hand, but a blustery gust pushed me away as I tried to grab for her. With each of us weighing slightly more than an emperor penguin, we were blown in different directions. Nature was in charge.

It crossed my mind there wasn’t anything around to hang onto, especially with zero visibility. Hmmm, maybe I could snag a penguin as anchor somehow?? Luckily, Casper materialized out of thin air at that moment. By then I had no desire to go anywhere but retreat to the tent. My face hurt and I was totally disoriented by the blizzard. Unfortunately that wasn’t a safe option. So they each grabbed one of my arms to help me go against the wind. With Casper continuously telling me to ‘just look on the ground and walk forward’, I staggered the 5 longest yds to the Club House steps and unceremoniously plopped in, exhausted.

I didn’t realize till later that the wind was blowing me away from the Club House, but even now it felt to me a really intense rather than frightening experience. Maybe it is because that’s what I expect Antarctica to be – a harsh and hostile land… Of course having a tourist go missing could be bad for business, so I was hoping should I be lost, that ALE’s staff would find me somehow before I turned into a popsicle – but I certainly didn’t want to test the limits of their rental polar gear!

In the comfort of the Club House, we chatted about the blizzard. This recording was made inside a tent in the early morning. Crank up the speaker volume to the max and the wind was actually several times louder. Some in our group had trouble sleeping even with ear plugs on, while others worried about their tents getting blown away. I accepted that to be what a blizzard is like, covered my head and mostly slept through it, awakened occasionally by the increasingly violent wind.

It was easy to get lost in the whiteout – one of our camp mates saw my tent on the way to breakfast but got turned around and ended up at another tent much further away. Luckily she found a guide rope there, so eventually made it to the Club House for her hard-earned meal.

Another group member lost a pair of down feather pants while getting out of her tent – as she was handing it to some camp staff, a strong gust snatched that away, never to be seen again. We memorialized that event on the bulletin board: running joke was, there could be an emperor penguin wearing flaming red down pants somewhere out there!

The rest of the day saw ALE’s team of 10, including Noah Strycker, our naturalist guest lecturer, busy shoring up the Club House, plugging snow leaks by the kitchen (as shown in the video), knocking down ice from the roof, securing the structure’s perimeter, endlessly digging out tents and mopping floors. I felt bad for the staff – Casper’s beard was frozen to his goggles and one of the guides had icicles hanging off her neck buff, but there was obviously not much I could help them with.

The Club House was a Kafkaesque scene with the half-frozen staff constantly streaming in and out, trying to hang up an array of soggy gloves, beanies, and jackets to dry while the tourists carried on eating, chatting, or dozing off, as if sitting in the midst of an Antarctic blizzard was normal. Festooned with dripping gear, the tent’s tubular supports vaguely resembled Tibetan prayer flags, and I idly pondered how much spare clothing was needed to change out wet ones at that pace.

To everyone’s relieve, the winds calmed noticeably after dinner. Food was a cursory affair since Chef Pan was busy with other pressing matters all day. Luckily fine dining wasn’t on our minds as we all wondered what adventures await in the coming days…


Please send me your thoughts

  • It was a great adrenaline rush even if it were chilly and a tad windy out in the blizzard ;] Glad I had the pix to remember the trip by.

  • What a chilling adventure!! So grateful everything went smoothly and you were able to share your experience and photos with us 🙂