Castle Rock

We were bumped off our flight back to Christchurch at the last moment to cut weight on the plane so it had a chance to take off, giving us at least one extra day in McMurdo.  Since we knew there was zero chance of flying out later in the day, Liz and I decided to make the best of the delay and do the Castle Rock hike here in McMurdo.  The delay means the earliest I can be back home is Sunday the 13th because there are only three flights between Sydney and Los Angeles each week.  That sucks a lot, but it meant we got to do this hike, so it wasn't the end of the world.  And it was a beautiful day for it.  33 degrees F, almost zero wind, and enough clouds to keep us cool during our ascent.  Here are a bunch of pictures chronicling the adventure.  Enjoy!

Above town we found a disc golf basket when looking for the start of the hiking trail.  Yes, that's right - there's disc golf in Antarctica.

We headed the wrong way at the start of the trek, but we got to see Obs Hill from the back.  There was a patch of pretty red rocks to break the monotony of brown and black everywhere.

It's been really warm here in McMurdo.  Above town where the hike starts there was a giant lake of melted snow.   Not a big deal, except that it was the first open water we've seen in months.

The hike is mostly along a snowy peninsula up to Castle Rock, a prominent rocky outcropping a couple miles out of town.  The trail (rather, snow) started out in pretty rough shape.  Lots of ice/rock craters to twist an ankle in.  But it only lasted a quarter mile or so and then cleared up for a nice pleasant walk.

Getting pretty far above town now.  Obs Hill is the pointy hill in the background.

Apple 1 - a survival hut a mile into the hike.  It's out here in case hikers get caught in surprise weather.

Inside the Apple.  Rations and survival gear to last long enough to get rescued in case anyone gets stranded out here.

Castle Rock first appeared after reaching a crest just past the Apple.

Around 2:30 we heard a plane and turned around.  It was the LC-130 headed to Christchurch (the black speck in the middle of the picture).  We were supposed to be on that plane... ah, well.  Perhaps tomorrow?

As we got closer to Castle Rock the clouds started breaking up  to reveal the base of Mount Erebus another 25 miles away.

Another Apple at mile marker 2, just shy of Castle Rock.

This one was a little bigger inside.

Finally made it to Castle Rock.  Now, to find the way up...

Rounding the corner, we finally spotted a trail to head up.  This is still more or less the front face.  The trail was around back and little less steep.  There were ropes anchored to the rock to help us up and down, though. 

At the summit looking back towards town.  Obs Hill is the tiny triangular peak just to the right of the left-most rock outcropping.

Me at the Castle Rock summit, with looming Mount Erebus in the clouds.

Rocky islands in the sea ice behind me,

A cool volcanic rock we saw on the way down.

After climbing back down we looked back at a seemingly endless line of flags marking our way.

Standing at the base of Castle Rock after climbing back down.  And we only got a little sunburned despite packing our sunscreen in our palletized bags.  Take THAT ozone hole!

On The Way Home... and MAIL!

I made it safely to McMurdo, but it was quite the adventure.  First, the plane was late arriving at Pole by a couple hours.  This part was pretty common.  (It makes it hard to believe you're actually leaving until you're in the plane, though).  But we DID leave, and three hours later we landed on the Pegasus White Ice Runway 14 miles or so from McMurdo Station.  Unfortunately, there was a storm in the area some time last week that blew a lot of black dust from a nearby island onto the runway.  Black things absorb infrared radiation really well and heat up as a result, which is bad when black stuff is on ice...  Couple that with lots of sunny and warm weather and the Ice Runway turned into a slushy pitted death trap for planes to land and take off on.  Needless to say our landing was pretty bumpy.  We were definitely on ground at some point and hit a big bump that made us go airborne again for a few seconds.  But the plane eventually came to a complete stop.  Flight one of five checked off the list (but only 1,000 out of ~10,000 miles traveled)!

The LC-130 that flew us from the Pole to McMurdo this afternoon.  You can see the entire airfield is a slushy mess.  Apparently it's in considerably better condition than this time last week.

It turns out that a southbound flight from Christchurch had landed just minutes before us, which included a couple more SPT'ers on their way down to Pole.  After catching up and filling them in on what's going on we started assembling in the transport that would eventually take us to the station (14 miles and ~ 90 minutes away given the conditions).  But with passengers and air crew from two flights all trying to get to McMurdo at once there wasn't enough room.  So me, Brad, and Liz were told we had to wait for the next transport and spent a while in the galley out on the runway.  Eventually we were picked up in a van... but the road back to the station was in such bad shape that the van couldn't drive over most of it.  Instead, we were pulled on an enormous plastic sled by a tractor.  The funny part was that we drove onto the sled from the side so we headed down the road sideways.  With all the craters and grooves in the road we were shaking and rocking back and forth like crazy.  It felt like being on a boat.  We saw some nifty stuff on the way back, though.  Some holes from the melting ice were four or five feet deep (imagine hitting one of those on a landing!), and there was even a lone emperor penguin hanging out a few feet off the road.  Apparently it's been there for several days just molting.  We went by too fast for me to get pictures, but it was far enough away for any pictures to be pretty boring.  Sorry, folks.

Walking around on the runway we were sinking in three or four inches.  Imagine weighing as much as a fully loaded cargo plane and try landing and taking off in this muck...  no surprise flights have been delayed and canceled lately.

When we got back to town we got our baggage weighed and were told we were all on the passenger list for tomorrow's flight to Christchurch... but that they were likely going to have to cut the list from ~30 to ~ 15 due to some medivac priorities.  Luckily, we found out only an hour or so ago that we all made the cut for the flight tomorrow.  So we're still scheduled to be out of here and in Christchurch by the end of tomorrow!  It's certainly not a given we'll fly tomorrow, but it's looking really good!

Lastly, I promised long ago that anyone who sent me mail at Pole would get a mention in a blog post.  Mail has been slow the past few weeks, but I slowly collected a number of postcards.  I got one from a fellow SPT'er Amy Bender, who left Pole several weeks ago.  Amy tells me she got to be in the cockpit of the LC-130 when it landed in McMurdo... lucky!  Thanks, Amy!  I also got a Christmas card from Bonnie Brewer, the mother of a good friend from childhood (and a valuable and active member in the band boosters for good ol' Grayling).  Thanks, Mrs. Brewer!  I received a really cute postcard of a cat doing yoga.  It didn't have a name on it, but the message was a hand-drawn picture of our cryostat, which we all call El Gato Negro.  This one MUST have come from Abby Crites, a fellow SPT'er and Receiver Team member last year when we installed the camera for the first time.  Abby couldn't come down with us this year because she's working hard on finishing up her Ph.D. thesis.  She was dearly missed at Pole, but we all wish her the best of luck in becoming Dr. Crites! Thanks for the postcard, Abby!  And finally, I received a postcard from a college friend Jen Lee containing several awesome questions from her Girl Scout Troop in Chicago (which I've already written about).  Thanks, Jen and Troop 20515!  Feel free to ask more questions any time, in the comments here or via email: jason.henning at  (and that goes for everyone).

Okay, that's all I have for now.  With any luck luck this time tomorrow I'm freshly showered in my hotel room in Christchurch!

A postcard from fellow SPT'er Amy Bender.

The Christmas card I got from Mrs. Brewer!

A cat doing yoga...

...No signature, but the picture of El Gato Negro could only have come from Abby Crites!  Good luck, Abby!

The postcard from Jen Lee and Troop 20515, showcasing an exhibition hall during the World's Fair of 1893 in Chicago.  I believe this building was torn down after the Fair as it was built with temporary materials, but it was eventually rebuilt to last and is now the Museum of Science and Industry just a few blocks away from my alma mater, the University of Chicago.