Castle Rock Hike: Last Day in Antarctica

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.

hiking out to Castle Rock

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.

beginning of the trail

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

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:

hey, you do what you gotta do!

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!

Castle Rock

at the base of the Rock

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.


climbing up

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.

rewarding view from the top

the team at the top

Castle Rock conquered!

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.

walking back - in the shadow of Castle Rock

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!


9 responses to “Castle Rock Hike: Last Day in Antarctica

  1. I like how you are the only one fashionably wearing a personal jacket ;). haha.

    Next stop, Mt Whitney! your going to be my new mountaineering buddy 😀

    • I don’t know what I was thinking! I WAS going to wear my ECW jacket…but I thought it might be too warm. Oh well…

      Mt Whitney: BRING IT ON! (haha, I hope I can be that brave once I’m standing at the base of it!)

  2. Eva,

    Sorry you can’t be staying longer. I sure have enjoyed reading your posts and seeing all the great pictures. I look forward to seeing and hearing more when you return.


    • I will have to find my way back, somehow, someday….
      and there are lots more pictures to show so when I get back you can be sure I will have a special slideshow ready for the fam!

  3. I really like your blog, it looks so cool! Hope you are having a great time down under.

  4. Bruce MacNeill

    Out of interest, I free climbed Castle Rock back in 1969, there was no trail then and we didn’t bring ropes. On the top we found a coffee can buried under some rocks which contained a list of others who had been there. I left my beer ration card in the can. I was just wondering if it was still there. If it’s a tourist site now, it’s probably long gone.

    • I guess you could call it a “tourist site” – many of the McMurdo workers hike out to Castle Rock on their “Moral Day”, since it is one of the few places that you can go off-base without having taken the Antarctic Survival course. I wasn’t aware of any buried time capsule…it may have been there, or not, but if it was then I wish I had known!

  5. Bruce MacNeill

    EVA, it was a shot in the dark. We probably shouldn’t have climbed the thing but the guy who talked me into it said everyone did. When we got to the top and found the coffee can there were, I think, 6 names on it so I’m not sure who “Everyone” was. We were probably the reason there are restrictions now but that’s another story. Thanks anyway. Bruce

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