Taking a Hike on a ‘Balmy’ Day in Antarctica

Posted February 23rd, 2016 at 10:27 am (UTC-4)
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Highs can reach into the mid 40s but the US Antarctic Program still enlists the use of a Coast Guard Icebreaker to clear a path for supply vessels. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Highs can reach into the mid 40s but the US Antarctic Program still enlists the use of a coast guard icebreaker to clear a path for supply vessels. (Photo by Refael Klein)

McMurdo Station sits on the farthest reach of the Hut Point Peninsula on the southern side of Ross Island. It is located 850 miles from the South Pole, sits more or less at sea level, and has abundant wildlife — at least during the summer months.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL Refael Klein blogs about his year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

This time of year, daily temperatures at McMurdo are in the low 30s (around 1 Celsius), making it about 50 degrees warmer than Pole. On occasion, it gets windy, making it feel colder than it is, but even on its chilliest summer days, you can still walk around in a pair of sneakers. I am here for a week of rest and recover (R&R) before heading back to the South Pole for the winter, which will mean 8 months of isolation with no flights coming in or out.

The sea ice has begun to break up and, from a few points on the peninsula, you can see stretches of open water. Icebergs bob up and down with the currents and tide, forming little waves that roll onto shore and lap at your feet, tempting you to the water’s edge, and beckoning the courageous for a swim.

To prevent the casual hiker from falling into crevasses, the Castle Rock Loop Trail is marked with flags.  Castle Rock and Mount Erebus can be seen up ahead. (Photo by Refael Klein)

To prevent the casual hiker from falling into crevasses, the Castle Rock Loop Trail is marked with flags. Castle Rock and Mount Erebus can be seen up ahead. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It is tempting, but I decline. Observing the seals — there are hundreds spread out over the sea ice — and following their lead, I sit on the ground, reclining on one shoulder, resting my arm on a large, warm, black rock and gaze in half consciousness across McMurdo Sound to the Royal Society (mountain) Range, while I let my lunch digest.

To those who have just arrived from the South Pole, the mountains that surround McMurdo are perhaps the most striking feature. For two months, the largest hill I’ve climbed has been a 20-foot (6 meter) drift of snow that sits outside the east entrance of our station.

Now, mountains surround me on all sides. Large volcanic peaks spring from the ocean to over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). They are covered in glaciers and fields of basalt boulders. The eternal explorer, adventurer and peak bagger that lives inside of me pulls me in every direction my eyes happen to fall. Where do I go first?

There are a handful of hikes that crisscross the hills and coast line surrounding McMurdo. Most are just a few miles along, but each has beautiful views and can get you out of earshot of the station. My last trip here I did all of them but one.

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The jewel of the Ross Island Trail Network, and the only hike still on my McMurdo tick list, is the Castle Rock Loop. It’s a 10-mile (16 kilometer) trail that takes you across a glacier to a large basalt dike that overlooks Mount Erebus, the largest mountain on the Island. Following a class III scramble, protected with chains and ropes, to the top of Castle Rock, it then descends the glacier via a flagged route to the Ross Ice Shelf, where it eventually connects with a gravel road that runs from Scott Base, New Zealand to McMurdo.

My bag is filled with a few extra layers, a grey down pullover and a light black fleece, two liters of water, and few double-chocolate chip cookies I took from the galley. I’m wearing a green long-sleeved button-down wool shirt and a grey quarter zip soft-shell coat. I was wearing a hat, but the uphill hiking has warmed me up quickly, so I have taken it off and have stuffed it into the waist band of my pants.

The visibility is perfect and, as the dirt road leading out of “town” turns into snow, then glacier, a slight breeze begins to blow from the ocean. It’s humid out and if I close my eyes and breathe, I can smell brine.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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