Groom with a View

View of McMurdo Sound from the Castle Rock Trail, 12 April 2012. Slopes of Mt. Erebus are visible on right horizon. Islands in center are Tent and Inaccessible Islands and Big and Little Razorback Islands. Time is about 1515 local. When the sun sets next Saturday, it won't be seen again in these parts until August.

Never say no. It’s apparently the Golden Rule of Improv, according to Tina Fey, but it’s also something I learned here on Ice Planet Hoth.

When someone asks, for example, do you want to spend the day drilling holes in the Ross Ice Shelf/building your own ice coffin and then sleeping in it/aimlessly driving around looking for penguins/going without sleep to stretch out on snow and stare up at the Aurora australis, you don’t think about how tired you are or how badly you need to do laundry. You say “Why, yes! I would love to do that, whatever it is!”

Because, the truth of the matter is, even if you end up sore and stiff from drilling holes on the Ross Ice Shelf for a day, you’ve still drilled holes on the freakin’ Ross Ice Shelf, and the view of the sun setting over Mt. Erebus was worth the next day’s pain. Besides, you brought those two bottles of 750-count ibuprofen tabs for a reason.

So, when my boss told me a couple days ago that the galley had come up in the weekly draw for a boondoggle and would I like to take the spot offered, I said “Yes! Of course I would!” and only later asked “so… uhm… what exactly will I be doing?”

I learned I’d be tagging along on an expedition to groom the Castle Rock Loop, the longest trail we have and one that’s closed during winter. I traveled half of the loop and back the night I went aurora-gazing, but it was, well, you know, dark and I didn’t really get to see anything.

An inauspicious start to the boondoggle. Following the flagged route toward Castle Rock.

I was excited about getting out of town and seeing something new, but I was also a little fuzzy on the details. It was unclear, for example, what was involved in grooming the trail and how much, if anything, I’d be expected to do. Remembering the day I spent drilling holes in ice for eight hours last winter, this morning at breakfast I asked the guy in charge of the whole operation “So, should I dress for manual labor or should I dress expecting to be ferried about like the princess I am?”

“See you… princess,” he replied with a cryptic smile.

Polar Bear Point, named for the shape of the ice formation, not for any polar bear sightings. Remember folks: polar bears=arctic fauna.

So, after wrapping up at work, I put on my puffy princess parka and headed to the meeting point, only to learn I was the only one boondoggling, and that it involved me riding shotgun in a Piston Bully for two hours while the PB plowed snow off the trail.

Personally, I can't get enough of photos of gray sky and white snow, but that may just be me.

I asked Laurence, the driver, why they bother to groom a trail that’s closed. He suggested it was to make it easier to prepare the trail for re-opening in August. And also, he admitted, “it’s fun.”

The view south-ish, toward White Island and, eventually, the South Pole

It’s also, he added, a chance to get some poor town-bound soul like myself out in to the wild. He apologized for the gloomy weather, but to me, even a gloomy day in Antarctica is still a beautiful one.

First glimpse of Castle Rock, a volcanic plug, which doesn't sound nearly as romantic as "castle rock."

Low clouds were clearing to the south and west as we bumped along the trail, but the east and north remained ominously dark. Mount Terror was completely obscured and Mount Erebus was a mere shadow on the horizon, but Castle Rock stood out against the dark sky and white snow.

Close-up of Castle Rock

When we came around a curve in the trail and looked out over McMurdo Sound, across to the Royal Societies and hints of the Dry Valleys beyond, Laurence stopped the Piston Bully for a minute and we just looked out over the expanse.

The view from Castle Rock (slope on right), across McMurdo Sound towards Mt. Discovery on the horizon. Alas none of the photos of the distant glaciers came out, but this shot does manage to convey at least some of the beauty.

He named all the glaciers for me (though I knew most of them already… ahem. Ice Nerd!) and told me about his trips to field camps over on the tantalizing opposite side of the Sound. Then it was bump-bump-bump along the trail back to town, two hours gone by quickly but not to be forgotten.

Looking back at Castle Rock as we begin our descent back to town

I live in an amazing place. Thank you, Antarctica.



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