For my last day in Antarctica, I decided to hike out to Castle Rock, which is a big volcanic rock jutting out of the ice shelf. It is one of the only places outside of McMurdo that the station employees can visit, although you have to take a one-hour course in “outdoor recreation safety” (which breezes over what was covered more extensively in the Antarctic Field Camp Training course). The trail out to Castle Rock is part of the McMurdo trails system, which, unfortunately for the station workers, does not offer too much diversity, and the Castle Rock loop being the only trail out into the ice. The part that we hiked (out to the Rock and back) covered 6 miles, but doing the entire loop would have been 9 miles.
Some people also get driven out to the Rock with skis, and ski the 3 miles back to the station. I really wanted to ski there, but unfortunately they were not being rented out this late in the season. 😦
Hiking out to Castle Rock alone isn’t allowed for safety’s sake, so I went along with Dr. Emslie, Larry, Dr. Smykla, and my Antarctic friend Lee (an atmospheric science grad student from Univ. of Wisconsin – Madison). We left McMurdo around noon, after having filed the all-important foot plan and picking up radios at the fire station. The foot plan included putting down a definite time back, and if we weren’t back by then, then the Search and Rescue team would be assembled and the whole station would freak out. They were adamant about hikers sticking to the flagged path, because the snow field is riddled with hidden crevasses that some straying hikers have fallen into. Leaving McMurdo, we climbed up and up and up a gigantic hill that left me out of breath, and then we were on ice.
The first mile and a half was a relentless uphill slope, and hiking up through the snow is quite tiresome, trust me! To my great relief, at the top there was a wanogon (also called an “Apple”) emergency shelter for warming up and resting. I didn’t need warming up, I was actually really hot after the effort, but resting was definite at that point.
The apple was a really nifty little circular insulated shelter with two shelf beds and two drop down tables. It also had a stove in it (in case of a weather emergency), and a guestbook with some very entertaining entries. There was also a survival guide permanently jammed open to this page:
After a few minutes of rest, we all cooled off pretty quickly, so we left the shelter to continue the hike. After another mile, there was another apple, which we didn’t stop at because it was basically in the shadow of Castle Rock – we were so close!
We finally reached the rock itself, a beautiful, looming orange-brown volcanic creation breaking up the whiteness of the snow and ice all around us. We paused at the bottom for a moment to take in its greatness, and then climbed up the steep snow hill to its very base. I’m not going to lie; I was more than a little intimidated when I saw the thin, precarious trail snaking up between the crags. The McMurdo recreation site classified it as expert. I thought about this as I stood taking in the strong winds, the height of the rock, and how the combination of the two didn’t exactly equal safety…and hesitated. Yes! I hesitated. But only for a second, because I was determined to at least attempt the climb. We also had Larry, our expert mountaineer, on hand to mitigate any possible disasters.
So maybe I am exaggerating a little bit…but nothing could beat the feeling when I finally crested the last rocks and emerged out into the openness of the top of Castle Rock, with its magnificent view of the sea ice and snow fields. We spent some time admiring the view and enjoying a snack and then headed back down. The climb down was somewhat harder, because it involved backing down steep craggy (and icey) bits with only a rope in hand to keep from slipping or falling. But we all managed to make our way back to the bottom.
We then began our hike back to McMurdo. My legs, knees, and hips were sore already from walking on the snow. Little did I know I would be in pain for the next few days! But it was definitely worth it for such a wonderful last take on Antarctica. I was so sad to be leaving…but I felt that someday, somehow I would find my way back.
We got back into McMurdo about 5 pm (and before our alloted time was up) and went to the firehouse to check back in. After resting for a little bit, we had our last dinner in McMurdo, which was a nice steak dinner (it was Sunday, after all!) and we even got freshies – salad! That was a real treat.
After dinner I had to finish packing all my bags for Bag Drag at 8 pm – everyone flying the next day was to bring everything they owned to be weighed and marked and loaded up. I couldn’t believe it was finally time to leave – the whole month went by too quickly…but I do feel that I made the most of my time there, and I have lots of pictures and videos to refresh my memories as time passes. My next post will be my reflections on the trip and Antarctica!