Declination: She Sleeps Outside Almost Every Night…in Antarctica

Kerry Kells says she gets cold easily. Maybe she discovered that during the 169 days she’s spent sleeping in her tent since last September…in Antarctica. And, no, although she’s stationed at the bottom of the world, her job isn’t to sleep outside. That part’s personal. For work, administrator Kells deals with everything from finances to human resources at Palmer Station, Antarctica. For fun, she heads outdoors to sleep.

So, you’re sleeping outside at Palmer Station. What’s that like?
Most nights it’s beautiful, peaceful, and cool. The summer season here is daylight almost all night long with a sunset for about one and a half hours – really more like a twilight, but right now sunrise is at 6:55 a.m. and sunset is 7:54 p.m. However, it’s a long sunrise and sunset. I have a great view at my tent site.

And really, why?
To tell you the truth, I just didn’t like sleeping on Station. It was too noisy in the dorms. I tried this my first season and failed miserably as I brought a three-season tent that got beat up and damaged by the winds and UV. I camped consistently my last two seasons (’05-06 and ’06-07) once I got my setup just right.

How cold is a typical night?
Palmer has moderate temperatures compared to the rest of Antarctica. We are on the Western Antarctic Peninsula so we have more maritime weather, unlike the polar plateau, which has the extremes of high, dry, and cold weather, so temperatures are not that cold. The coldest night was 15 degrees Fahrenheit in May of 2010. It’s not the cold that concerns me – it’s the winds that can reach 70-80 mph (although we usually calculate in knots) and can change fairly quickly. Prevailing winds are from the north, which is good for me since my tent is fairly protected from the north. Winds from the south or east are not good.

What’s your setup?
I have a Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 tent. I am set up on a wooden platform on the Hero Inlet side of the “backyard” and kind of jut out overlooking the water. The “backyard” is the area of rock behind Palmer Station. I have a -20 degree North Face Tundra sleeping bag with a fleece bag liner, another sleeping bag opened on top (one of the Station bags), an old wool army blanket and another fleece blanket on top. I have a Therm-A-Rest with a sleeping pad on top of that. I get cold easily! I usually bring two Nalgene bottles with boiling water in them to warm my feet. I keep a bottle of drinking water, extra socks, a pee bottle, extra blankets, pillows in my tent. I wear a hat and glove liners to bed every night. At this time of year, I have a headlamp.

How many nights have you spent sleeping outside so far? 
I have 169 nights in my tent. I’ll have 219 nights on Station. When the winds get over 50 mph, I don’t go out – I missed two nights due to winds over 50 mph. And when I got here I had to shovel and re-shovel the first six nights. I would like to get over 200 nights in my tent, total. I need 208 nights in my tent to be at 95 percent of the time in my tent, but if I get over 200, I’ll be happy. Winds tend to pick up in April.

What’s the best part about your sleeping situation?
Peaceful and quiet, private, and a safari every night I walk out. I’ve walked past penguins, seen all kinds of birds, terns and skuas and kelp gulls, had fur seals grunt angrily at me many times en route and near my tent, one just 10 feet from me as I walked back a couple weeks ago, watched seals swimming down below my tent. I’ve even seen ice fish swimming. I can hear the peeping of the kelp gull chicks across the water on Bonaparte Point and sometimes the glacier at the end of Hero Inlet will calve. It is extremely clean, fresh air and an amazing view.

What’s the worst part of your sleeping situation?
The elephant seals can be noisy and stinky at times. They make a very loud farting/belching sound.

Are there any other “extreme” things you and your colleagues do?
Extreme stuff will get you fired. But I have done some wild ice climbing in crevasses, once dropped down over the water and climbed up a glacier face that was so solid I could barely get my ice tools in it. We do jump off our pier into the water – it’s a Palmer tradition that when our resupply/research ship the R/V Laurence M. Gould departs to go north to Punta Arenas, Chile, we jump off the pier into the water to say goodbye to those leaving.

Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.

Photos courtesy Kerry Kells

{ 3 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Erek

    This is absolutely amazing!!!!! It is wonderful that you are doing this and talk about and adventure!!! I think its wonderful when people enjoy doing things outside the box!! Good for you and keep us posted on all the adventures!!! ;-)

  • Jeremie

    One life one chance. So glad you did something like that and shared it. When some of us think they live, they are just at the bottleneck. CHEERS!

  • MtnLee

    For the record, Kerry hit night number 200 last night (4/14/12). She is an amazing camper and an incredible woman.

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