Monday, January 7, 2013

Penguins and Castle Rock: January 6-7, 2013

Sunday morning I was woken up as my third roommate turned on the lights and moved out of our room. Since he was only around for two days, and we were never awake and in the room at the same time, this marks the first roommate I've ever had that I never actually met.

After lunch, I walked out to Hut Point. As I was passing Discovery Hut, someone walking back told me that there were two penguins swimming around in the open water just off Hut Point. I hurried to where I could see, and then spent the next half hour or so watching the two penguins as they swam around, diving under the water, coming back up and swimming around, and generally having a fun time. It was nice to finally see penguins up close. About ten minutes after I arrived, JohnE came out to Hut Point as well, so we both got some good penguin pictures.

I then went back into town and attempted to meet up with the people from Minnesota I'd met last week that were planning to watch the Vikings/Packers game in the Coffee House Theater. Nobody was there (I was late, because PENGUINS, so they must have gone somewhere else). Instead, I watched the game and worked on my talk for Wednesday. At least I got a bunch of powerpoint slides made!

JohnE and I had dinner with some of the BLAST grad students. They had plans to head out to Castle Rock, a few miles out of McMurdo, on a hike later that night. After arranging with JohnE to cover the second half of our shift by himself, I decided to join them and brought my warm clothes over to Crary with me.

We set out for Castle Rock a little after 10:00pm McMurdo time, and stopped by the Firehouse to officially check out and get an emergency radio. Our party of five consisted of four BLAST Grad Students--Tristan, from Northwestern, and Steve, Natalie, and Laura from the University of Toronto. The Castle Rock loop starts by walking up a road in McMurdo, and climbing to the top of the road near Arrival Heights (which you can also get to by walking up along the ridge that leads to Hut Point). From there, the path is clearly marked with flags and pretty well-maintained. 

The path goes along the top of Hut Point Peninsula (which McMurdo is basically at the tip of), so we could see Sea Ice to our left and the Ross Ice Shelf (including LDB!) to our right as we walked along the path. Eventually, we caught our first glimpse of Castle Rock out of the clouds. 

On this part of the loop, Castle Rock is about three miles from the top of the hill. We made pretty good time, and made it to the base of the rock without any problems.

The trail we were on runs alongside the east side of the rock, but the best place to climb (also, the place with a rope) is on the north side. We made our way up around the rock on a small trail near the edge of the rock.

Eventually, we got to a point where it was time to start heading upwards.

The climb up wasn't terribly hard, but I imagine it would be pretty bad if snow and ice were involved. Eventually, we reached the top, and were treated to a very nice view of Mt. Erebus.

We also were sure to stay away from the edge, since the way straight down looked like this:

Once we'd had a nice break at the top and were ready to move on, we carefully climbed down the rock (this is where the emergency rope became very useful). 

Then, it was time for the fun part to begin! From Castle Rock, the trail heads downhill to the Ice Shelf. This is basically the only place around McMurdo where people can go skiing or snowboarding, but we opted for a much more fun form of transportation downhill: cafeteria trays.
No trays were harmed in the making of this photo.

Sledding downhill is a lot of fun, and we were able to get going pretty fast. The initial bit near Castle Rock was good, but the slope of the trail levels out a bit soon afterwards. Towards the end, however, there's some really good downhill sledding. Unfortunately, I missed out on the best parts, since I was unable to obey Rule #1 of tray sledding (hold on to your tray!) and my sled made it to the bottom of the hill about ten minutes before I did. Oh well.

Once we made it to the bottom, the way back wasn't particularly exciting. We walked along the rest of the hiking path until it met up with the main road on the ice shelf. This is the road we would take to work out at LDB every day, and also serves the airport at Pegasus Field. We saw a Delta loaded up with pallets of luggage heading for the airport on our way in.

Eventually, we reached the transition near Scott Base, and from there it was just a matter of getting up the Scott Base hill and back into McMurdo. We returned to town around 3:15am, having hiked a little under 10 miles. After a snack and some hot chocolate, I went to sleep.

After lunch on Monday, I had started doing laundry when JohnE told me that he'd been out to Hut Point and that there were a couple of penguins lying around out there. I hurried out there, and climbed up the path from Discovery Hut to Vince's Cross, right at the tip of Hut Point. Unexpectedly, I found my self face-to-face with a Skua, about five feet ahead of me just sitting on the path. 

Since the official rule is that if you're close enough to an animal that it's reacting to you, you're too close, I started to slowly back away. The Skua didn't seem to care one way or another that I was there, so I was able to make it to the top of Hut Point on the other path. There, as promised, were two penguins just lying around on a piece of sea ice. Since they seemed to be taking a nap, and it was really windy, I just took a couple of photos and went back inside.

Otherwise, Monday wasn't too exciting. BLAST, which has a limited supply of liquid helium on board, just ran out, meaning that basically their scientific observations are done (almost right on schedule). They'll basically wait until the payload is in a good spot for recovery before cutting down. All but one member of the BLAST team is leaving in the next day or two, as soon as they get a flight out. Sean and Thomas have arrived safely in Christchurch, and will hopefully arrive here in McMurdo sometime tomorrow.