As a part of our field training we are required to spend a night sleeping out under the stars. Yup, out under the stars, in Antarctica. And it’s just about as much fun as it sounds.
Any time we travel off station we take a survival bag with us, the majority share of which is just sleeping equipment: one or two sleeping bags (depending on personal preference — I’m a two sleeping bags kind of guy), a sleeping bag liner, and a bivouac sack or ‘bivvy bag'. The bags that the Australian Antarctic Division provide are a large nylon sack with something akin to a yoga mat rolled up inside it. The theory is that should the expeditioner become isolated during bad weather, they can whip the bivvy off their pack, throw it down and hopefully get both themselves and the rest of their pack inside before the bivvy blows away. Our night out using the bivvy as shelter is to demonstrate that, should the worst happen, the bivvy will keep you alive.
Unfortunately for us, the weather was perfect for our training and we had ample time to set up without the bivvy becoming a sail. I meticulously chose the smoothest, most sheltered, sweetest patch of rocks I could find. I carefully laid out my bag, and piece by piece built a home away from home. Being my first night out in the wild I went all out to avoid being cold. Between the ground and my body there was the bivvy bag, bivvy mattress, my summer sleeping bag, my winter sleeping bag, my winter sleeping bag liner and several layers of clothes. When it was finally time for bed (around 2200) I carefully arranged my equipment for optimum ease of access should I wake in the night which meant my survival bag was used as a wind breaker and, to prop the bivvy off my face, boots on my other side to provide more support, gloves and neck warmer on my left, and a snack, urine bottle and head torch to the right. And most importantly, ready access to a set of earplugs and an eye mask. I whipped off my bulky outer layers, struggled into all the sleeping kit (quite a mission, I suggest you try it), and snuggled in to the most comfortable rocks. Comfy and cosy, I settled in to sleep.
WHACK. WHACK THWACK WHACK!
I'll tell you this for nothing: gusting wind against a bivvy bag is a sleep killer. I wasn’t worried though as the plastic is away from my face and my trusty ear plugs should keep the super-loud chip packet noise at bay except, I've lost them. Somewhere in two layers of sleeping bags, a survival bag, two big winter boots, and all my other survival stuff, is a tiny packet of misplaced ear plugs. Oh.
WHACK THWACK WHACK!
At this point I knew that sleep simply wasn’t going to come without some noise damping. I start tearing down my kit, struggling, twisting and turning, with the bivvy plastic resting on my face and two sleeping bags constricting me, and my big winter boots everywhere, and rocks moving and the cold wind gusting in. Nope. It’s dark, it’s confined, I can’t move and I can’t make space. Not going to find them. Better to just give up and try to sleep.
Thwack whack whack.
Thirty minutes later I've reached breaking point again and I’m searching, twisting, cursing, becoming more and more uncomfortable and frustrated but, there are only so many places to look inside a bivvy bag, and only so many positions you can twist into. Time passes and I yield again, give in to my body’s demand for rest, settle in to a somewhat less comfortable nest than I had first constructed.
Thwack. Again. Half an hour of fruitless sheep counting and I’m broken. The search begins anew, and again there is no reward for my efforts. I decide to break free from this unforgiving cycle and try something different. I move my pack to above my head to try and stretch the bivvy out, move my boots and wedge them in place holding the bivvy high. I tighten the bivvy exit to reduce surface area. I hide my head under all the sleeping bags, and burrow, one ear pressed to the rocks beneath and the other stuffed full of sleeping bag. Finally I’m curled in foetal position, body roasting, awkwardly perched on rocks that I have shifted in my frenzy. My careful planning is a distant, mocking memory. In one last ditch attempt for some blessed silence I grasp the bivvy in my bare hands and twist, hold it close to my face, create enough tension that it can no longer THWACK in my face.
Sweet stillness prevails.
I can tell you one thing with certainty: sleeping while clutching a fistful of taut, −20°C plastic to your face is non-starter. Sure, sleep might come. I think I did actually drift off once at this point. And the moment I did, I released the bivvy.
… thwack …
It’s now 0030 and I can hear one of my companions snoring, oblivious to the turmoil in my mind. Two and a half hours of pure stress and frustration have passed. I reach for my head torch and start to disassemble my once-palace, determined to find the cursed earplugs or die trying. And lo, there under my survival bag, in a place I've searched four times already, lie the ear plugs. Frozen solid.
Finally a problem I can solve. Full with the light of hope once again, my heart singing, I place the packet against my skin to warm. Minutes later the earplugs go in, and I find my well earned rest.