It’s 6:30 a.m. and the mood is cheery in our red tent. We are six people in an eight-sided tent. Julie is the first to speak on this second morning waking up in the Pass.
Yesterday’s conditions were horribly blinding – both mentally and physically exhausting. But today, the sun is shining and Julie is chirpy and alert as she offers a heartfelt good morning to everyone.
Mel’s sleeping bag is beside Julie’s and I know I’m going to enjoy Mel’s morning banter. She is a bobby-dazzler even though she’s British. I think it’s the brilliant accent and nifty phrases, and her design-tastic morning hair that I admire most. When Mel unwraps her headscarf on this day, her bed head has beautifully outrageous 1960s-style volume. Many of us sport equally captivating hairdos that will all end badly in the last few days: flat, stuck to our heads and devoid of joy.
My other tent-mates, Natalie and Laura, are just rousing as I lay quiet for just a little longer. I am across from Fate, who is my new glam gal friend. She made trekking in the Arctic seem fashionable yesterday despite the torturous conditions. Maybe it’s her red coat and morning routine replete with essential oils. She’s well-prepared and efficient. I’ll eventually follow her lead but it will be days before that happens.
What I love, almost as much as the people inside our tent, is the fact that our tent is red.
It’s the only colorful one of the three tents housing our military and civilian women. The others are black and gray. Perhaps I love our tent because it reminds me of Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent.
Diamant’s book is set in the time of the Old Testament and tells the story of Dinah, the daughter Jacob who is one of the patriarchs from the Book of Genesis. Dinah and her tribe of women secretly keep their old traditions of goddess-worship alive and over the course of her life, the red tent holds the memories and stories that are passed down through the generations of her family.
While “goddess” is the furthest thought from my mind as I pull out my face cloths and run my fingers over what feels like a gently swollen face, I do embrace the energy of light streaming through the sides and top of our red tent. Like Diamant’s story, we are a group of women making memories and sharing stories with each other.
Everything in the tent has a red hue until your eyes move to the top, where the venting panels are open to provide fresh air.
The first night we closed them too much and woke feeling short of breath and anxious. Today, was much better, even though you can see more of the sky and small snowflakes escaping into our inner space. But the drafty wafts of air are tough to handle and beg me to stay just a few minutes longer in my sleeping bag.
But then I remember the hot coffee we’ll have and the fact that I was the second last one ready yesterday. Today, when our guide Ben pops his head into the tent, I don’t want to seem so disorganized. I’m comfortable being me but I know that when breakfast is finished, everyone rushes to take down the tent and I need to do my part.
Getting organized takes effort because the rituals aren’t routine at this point. Everything is simple in the Arctic but there is an order of operation to maintain warmth, efficiencies and cooperation. The business of the Arctic revolves around one central focus – survival. And, survival is divided into two parts.
The first is what happens in the red tent. It’s a safe and sacred place for eating, sleeping, and building new bonds of friendship with each other. We share and connect. But survival looks different when we leave the tent. It is about arming ourselves with the right equipment, knowing how to maximize gear efficiency, and staying alert and focused on our hiking progress. This includes everything from a carefully organized duffle bag and backpack, to ensuring your bathroom system is accessible when nature calls.
In fact, how we go to the bathroom in the Arctic is one of the most common questions I’ve been asked since we returned. The answer is complicated.
Essentially, if any part of the organizational system for doing “your business” breaks down, you risk polluting the national park or, even worse, humiliating yourself. It’s sad to think that this was my primary focus at the start of the trip.
The bathroom system is a series of steps but I’ll save this topic for another day, so I can describe it in all of its messy glory. Sharing the bathroom system without revealing my failures would also be boring. The stories are entertaining and embarrassing but these things keep us humble and have only the power we give them. Opportunities for personal growth come in the most surprising places in the Arctic, as do humility and acceptance. You quickly learn how simple life is: you can wallow in self-pity or move past mistakes; the choice is simple.
In the Arctic, there is no room for self-pity. Each morning after waking, the routine starts with searching the bottom of your sleeping bag for three things: the hot water bottle you took to bed that is now a tepid temperature, the plastic bag of fresh underwear and liner socks pre-packed for every day, and your grooming kit.
Each night, our guide Ben boils water that is used to fill a neoprene water bottle for each of us to take to bed. It heats our sleeping bag, provides comfort and helps to dry any wet gloves or items from the day before that might have become damp. Overnight, the warm bottle gives off enough heat to dry items and the water bottle in the morning helps hydrate us in preparation for the day ahead.
A few of us gathered to enjoy coffee at the end of a long trekking day (Photo credit: Shilo Adamson & TPL)
I am most excited when I reach for the plastic bag of fresh underwear and socks; it’s something I decided I couldn’t live without. Wearing the same long johns for a few days in a row is fine, even the same base layer and bra. But my underwear and socks have to be fresh. After changing into these items inside my sleeping bag, the empty plastic bag becomes my new toiletry bag for discarding paper and cleansing wipes from the day’s bathroom business. My worn socks and underwear go into a “used clothing bag” in my overnight bag next to my sleeping bag.
Inside my daily grooming kit are items for brushing my teeth (but swallow the spittle), brushing my hair, wiping my face clean with a wet wipe and adding a coat of moisturizer and sunscreen. In this big little bag, I also put away my ear plugs, my headlamp (usually worn around my wrist in case I need to see in the middle of the night), my headband for tying my hair back, my neck warmer and my two hats for keeping my head warm at night.
Other optional items I might have used overnight include a journal and pen, a battery charger and an iphone, and pee bottle that went quickly into my boot so it wouldn’t freeze and I would remember to empty it when I went outside. Frozen pee in a bottle is disastrous – it wastes too much boiled water to loosen and expel it.
Getting ready, eating breakfast and packing up the camp is exhausting even before we begin our trek. Learning to adapt to conditions means more than the cold – we’ll need to become a tightly knit team supporting each other. In the next days ahead, the red tent begins to collect stories and to make memories that we will cherish for a lifetime.