Today's class includes 18 Happy Campers: among us a naturalist, a sheet metal worker, a self-identified computer geek, and six firefighters including Ed Asher, a heavy-armed, quiet-spoken former marine, and Angie Johnson, a wavy-haired Wisconsinite, also here as a firefighter, who introduced herself at the beginning of class with the simple comment, "I don't camp."
We're spending the night on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, a 600-foot-thick tongue of ice that oozes from Antarctica's coastal glaciers onto the Southern Ocean, sweeping around the southern rump of Ross Island. Somewhere far beneath our feet laps a layer of ocean water. The ice that we stand on drifts three feet per day on that water. The ice surface, sculpted by wind into the likeness of layered, Monument Valley sandstone, spreads toward an unbelievably flat horizon to the south and east.
Cold wind cuts through my fleece. I jab my shovel into the snow, pull on the parka that I'd shed earlier, and rub away the fog that has frozen onto my sunglasses. I hack away at the entrance tunnel of our quinzie.
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Earlier this afternoon Galen Dossin and Kevin Emery, our two instructors, drove us to our campsite several miles from McMurdo. They immediately called our attention to the inviting spot several hundred yards away where the ice reclines gently off the hills of Ross Island.
"There are monster crevasses over there," warns Galen as he points out faint horizontal lines striping the hills. The unseen threat suddenly snaps into focus: Those telltale lines crisscross not only the hills, but also an area of flat ice that lies in front of the hills, much closer to us. Those crevasses have swallowed at least one McMurdo resident in recent years. Some gaps are hundreds of feet deep and hide beneath brittle crusts of snow.