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Antarctica's required course is the Happy Camper School of survival

Do not go untrained into the 24-hour summer light.

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2008

An ice wall is made by sawing blocks of compacted snow. At the Happy Camper School, new arrivals learn and practice skills that help them make ice walls.

Douglas Fox

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McMurdo Station, Antarctica

I nearly decapitate Ed as I heave a shovelful of snow over my shoulder. "Sorry," I say – again.

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We're standing in a hole barely big enough for both of us, digging a snow cave called a quinzie, sort of a sunken igloo. We hope to sleep in this thing – but things don't look good: Four feet down we've hit a layer of compacted snow that repels shovels like Kevlar. This isn't the way you expect to spend one of your first nights in Antarctica, but here we are on a swath of ice the size of Rhode Island, learning to survive without so much as a tent for shelter. They call it Happy Camper School: a rite of passage for new arrivals at nearby McMurdo Station, the American research base on Antarctica's Ross Island.

A thousand souls populate McMurdo during the Austral summer from November to February – not just scientists, but also pilots, plumbers, burger flippers, and everyone else needed to keep a small city ticking. Down here, even a job like plumbing can transform into a survival epic in the blink of an eye. Just a few days before our mid-November class, a caterpillar-tracked truck caught fire while traveling on the sea ice. The passengers escaped the flames, but were stranded without shelter 15 miles from town. It's no wonder that anyone whose job might take them away from McMurdo must first attend Happy Camper School, a hands-on exercise in surviving overnight in one of the harshest spots on Earth.

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.

• • •

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.

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