Castle Rock Tanning Club


I’m kind of hungry. Feeling exhausted. I hiked Castle Rock today. I’m wearing a Hawaiian floral shirt and Canadian themed ‘We The North’ pajama bottoms. Susan, Cam, and some other people are all sitting in here watching the new Kingsmen movie–it’s pretty engaging.

* * *

My alarm clock wakes me up at 1015. I roll out of bed, pee, and brush my teeth. I talk to the old lady on the phone from 1045-1130 and then head downstairs to the galley for a fantastic brunch. The cheese platter is lit: I eat a Monterey Jack Cheese, a smoked cheese, and some other cheeses. Everything is awesome, I get a nice piece of prime rib with some horseradish. Pita chips (stale), guacamole. Fruit smoothie. Bit of coffee. I shovel it all in quick, I’ve got to meet some IT People for our hike at 1200. I sit down at a table with some friends, telling Tim about my hiking plans over brunch.

“Not sure if I can make it in time” says Tim. I look up at the gigantic Antarctica clock hanging up on the wall of the galley and see that it’s 1149.
“If I’m not at the firehouse by 1205 then leave without me.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll stall them a little bit”. I say.

I bus my tray and get my ass upstairs. I’ve got 9 minutes to get to the firehouse. I throw on my Extreme Cold Weather Gear (ECW), and get over to the firehouse. It’s 1200 on the dot when I get there. I walk into the check-out area, only to find out that I’m the only one there.

“Just meeting some people here…checking out for Rutsky”. “Oh, was that the foot-plan supposed to leave at 11?” says the fat man behind the counter, swiveling lazily in his chair to face me. “Yeah, that’s us.” I say. “That ship has sailed. They got tired of waiting, so they went like this” giving me a big thumbs down and making a raspberry sound.” Thanks dickhead, I think to myself. “So you gonna find a wingman to go with you?” he says. “I just happen to have someone in mind” I say, walking out of the firehouse.

Fuck em all, big and small–that’s what my Grandpa used to say. I get back to my room and look up Tim’s extension on the Intranet. It’s just a big long list of names followed by their work extension, room extension, pager number, and if they’re a day sleeper or have a day sleeping roommate–well thought out, simple, effective.

The phone rings a few times and then he picks up.
“Still down for Castle Rock?”
“Hell yeah!”
“Okay man, swing by my room when you’re ready, #233.”
“Sounds good man”.

Before long, Tim knocks on the door. “Ready to rock? “Yeah!”. We head downstairs, making a run through the galley to raid the grab-n-go coolers. I settle on a piece of challah french toast, while Tim grabs a bunch of Chex Mix packets. We descend the stairs from the galley into the main entryway AKA ‘hand wash area’ which kind of this de-facto crossroads that you end up running into everyone at. There’s always a few people staring at the flight information screen like zombies, getting updates on their flights off-continent, to the South Pole, or various other stations and camps. Weather impacts all of these flights and they’re often delayed–day after day.

We see Brittany–the station’s only hairdresser–down there, looking at the flight manifest. She’s on the verge of tears–poor girl. She’s been NonPhysicallyQualifed(NPQd) after saying too much at the medical center, and is getting sent home. She really doesn’t want to go, but it’s not up to her. It’s for something really silly too. She was looking for her name on the passenger manifest, and they hadn’t even updated it with her name–they were really moving fast. “Maybe there’s some sort of mistake”. She’s still kind of in the denial phase. I hold out my arms and give her a long hug–she needs it.

It’s been nearly 30 minutes since I initially got back from the firehouse–and now we’re finally out of there. We walk over to the firehouse and back into the check-out room for the second time today. It takes the guy behind the desk about five seconds to register that I’ve returned with a wingman.

“OK, I’m back. I’m ready to check out”.
“Oh, did you file a new eFootPlan?”
“Uh, no. I already made one.”
“Oh…we cancelled that one. You need to file a new one”
“OK. Can’t we just do it here?”
“Ohhhh no” he says, shaking his head left to right.
“Nope, can’t do it here” he says. He’s really reveling in it. I feel like I’m in an episode of South Park–the Time Warner Cable one specifically.
This guy really is a pain in the ass.

We have to walk back to where we started at Bldg. 155 to log into a kiosk computer. “I’m gonna get some Red Bulls” says Tim. “I got this, I’ll file the footplan” I respond. I log in and file the footplan right quick. Tim still is in the shop. I walk over, and he’s just in the middle of explaining that two of those four Red Bulls are for a friend. You’re only allowed a ration of two Red Bulls a day down here, and the store girl doesn’t fully believe him.

He’s got the bulls, and we’re finally ready to get the heck outta here–It’s 1300. So we set off. I want to grab my water bottle from my office, so we stop at the Network Operation Center (NOC) and I give Tim a tour of the data center. It’s a bunch of servers and stuff, it’s the heart of the station’s network. I grab my sippy nozzle water bottle–one of those ones where you push a button and the nozzle flips up–and we get out of there.

We start walking uphill, out of the station. We walk up past the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) where Tim works, he wants to pop in and see if he can grab a speaker. We enter, walking through a dark hallway, almost in complete darkness. He tries the office door, it’s locked. “Ah damn. Well, want a tour?” Sure, I say and we open the double doors to the floor of the VMF.

It’s a huge garage, the biggest damn garage I’ve ever seen. The ceilings are like 50 feet tall, and there’s got to be like 12 vehicle bays. This is a place that giant cranes, tractors, and machinery gets worked on alongside the relatively tiny Ford F-250s. There’s an oil room, and it’s just…full of oil. “We go through a lot of fluids here” says Tim. The garage is completely empty on this Sunday–the day of rest for most of the station. There’s a giant tractor engine on the floor of one of the bays, hoisted there by one of two giant cranes that move around the garage by sliding on steel girders.

Part of the VMF

We depart shortly after, walking back through the dark corridor before seeing the blinding brightness of that Antarctic sun. We walk down that muddy road, climbing upwards into the hills and out of town. We pass the haz-waste dump and its big white bunny tent labeled ‘Building 250’. Some barrels ratcheted tight on pallets are on one side of the road. We continue upwards–I’ve never been this way.

Soon, we follow the curve of the road, a giant pile of rocks comes up on the left side of the road. We’re officially out of town now. I glance behind me at the distant McMurdo–shitstained buildings upon beautiful mountains and sea ice–it’s a beautiful day.

We’re getting closer to the ‘golf ball’ a great white radome NASA operates. Other radomes that are hidden by the hills become visible as well, including a big black one I’ve never seen before. We continue onwards, the radomes getting bigger as we get closer to Arrival Heights–a restricted area.

Soon enough we come upon the turn-off for Castle Rock. We cut right, cya later radomes. A few minutes later and the sound of snow crunching under our boots returns–we’re out of the mud. It feels nice.

NASA’s ‘golf ball’ radome on Arrival Heights.

There’s a bunch of icy patches on the snow, and Tim eats shit a few times. A beautiful blue frozen pond is on our left, an ice as blue as my eyes. Past the pond is a ridge surrounding it, over top of which we can see the mountains of the Antarctic mainland–The Royal Society. As we continue upwards, the view only gets better.

The iciness continues to increase, so naturally Tim and I try to run and slide down the icy patches. My big red and standard issue snow overalls are pretty slick, so I slide right down the ice. Tim is less slippery, his denim Carhardt gear offering a little more friction. I record Tim’s slide down the ice, and of course I stop recording right as he eats shit on his way back up–such is life.

We continue onwards, beautiful white snow all around us as we move further and further up the hill. We come upon one of the warming huts, or ‘apples’ as they’re colloquially called. They looks like apples. We check out the inside, finding a bed, desk, sleeping bag, and a log book.

Warming Hut Apple
Warming Hut AKA Apple
Inside of the apple

I peruse the logbook, seeing that the group of five in the distance ahead of was the the ‘RAID drill crew’ (Rapid Access Ice Drill), and then before them were two entries from my original party–those impatient ones. Two weeks ago it looks like Kirsten and Kevin had a wine and pizza date nite. We wonder how many people have banged in here. It’s sweaty in here, my sunglasses fog up quickly.

Castle Rock ahead, with Mount. Erebus in the background.

We carry onwards. It’s all beautiful white snow around us as we march up the hill. We continue over the hill, seeing the huge Castle Rock in the distance. It looks..deceptively close. Small dots ahead of us reveal the true scale of the landscape, ant sized people off in the distance.

To the left is the Ross Sea Ice, and to the right is the white barren Ross Ice Shelf, with the tiny groupings of building in the distance making up William’s (Willy) Airfield and Long Duration Balloon Facility (LDB). Mt. Erebus is off in the background, smoking faithfully like the Marlboro Man. A small little red dot in the distance is another “apple”. We continue onwards, armed with nothing but good conversation.

We talk about life, and more importantly–Mexican food. Tim tells me a crazy story about his boss’s daughter. We continue on like this for about an hour, eventually reaching The Rock. We turn left, climbing the grade up to the rock. The sound of snowmobiles becomes present–how strange. Not long after you hear them, you can smell them. I spy one going up the hill to the base of the rock. We continue ascending up the hill on foot, staring in awe at the massiveness of the rock now that we’re right up on it. It looks like a rock could just snap off and crush me an instant. It’s 100 feet of shear volcanic rock–the same color of all the soil around town. This is just one gigantic piece of dirt.

Castle Rock

We dodge more icy patches, making it up to the rock and finding eight snowmobiles all parked in the snow. There’s a bunch of people wearing big reds standing upon the rock ledge to the right of mighty Castle Rock. We follow their lead, scrambling up the rocks and mounting the ridge. As we get upon it, we see the beauty of the Ross Sea Ice. Wow…it all comes into view, looking so vast and beautiful. I can see the sprawling sea ice, and for the first time I can see where the water meets the sea ice. I can see the ocean, and the mountains on the other side of it: Sharp, stark, and grand.

Ross Sea

There’s this group of people who came on snowmobiles. They’re all wearing their ECW, four of the group members were even wearing bunny boots. Bunny boots totally suck. They’re big, clunky, and exhausting to walk in. Their sole purpose seems to be to keep your feet hot and sweaty. My pair will be under my bed for the forseeable future.

This older fella with the group seems to be their tour guide, which is kind of strange. The whole snowmobiles up to Castle Rock thing is strange as well, but we’re going with it. One of the people in the group has these cool silver Anon snowboarding goggles on, we overhear him saying that they’re “pretty good for finding meteorites with”. Whatever the heck is going on with these people, they must be important.

Surrounded by beauty on all sides, I bust out my camera, taking photos of everything.

Snack time. I dig into my top left pocket–the one above the USAP Logo sewn onto my jacket–to retrieve that piece of challah french toast I took from the galley earlier. I nibble away at that sweet piece of kosher french toast, feeling satisfied.

I’m using my 10-22mm lense for the wide shots, and the 55-250mm for distance shots. It’s all fairly breathtaking. The group of red parka laden individuals lingers, also enjoying this beautiful place. The temptation to venture up further looms, but we have to control ourself a little around these people. Can’t look like we’re having too much fun, that’s simply not allowed down here.

Castle Rock Spot
The spot

There’s this ridge, a little lip off the side of the rock formation, and then a steep drop off, this hill sinking right into the Ross Sea–currently frozen over. Tim lies down on the ridge, his feet slightly over the edge. The lip is maybe a 35 degree slant downwards, essentially a slide right off the cliff. I join him on the lip, him and I both lying on the volcanic rock on the edge of the formation, looking out into the vast unknown.

“Man, I just want to have some of this vodka, but I’m not sure if I should around these people” says Tim. A few minutes of idle banter pass between us before there’s a lull in the conversation. “Fuck it, I’m getting the flask” says Tim.

He gingerly climbs up off the slide, cutting through the group of red parkas to his issued denim Carhardt jacket. I continue to stare out at the scenery, my camera parked to the side of me. A minute later he carefully eases himself back down to a laying position on the slide–flask in hand. He gently places the flask up on some rocks between us. Everything about our position here is precarious.

I feel like it’s as if we’re sitting beside each other at a movie theater, but Planet Earth: Antarctica is playing live right infront of us, a shared flask on the ‘armrest’ between us. Tim pulls out a can of Red Bull, placing it gently on the slide. Miraculously it stands upright, seeming oddly secure. It’s like this ledge was placed here just for this purpose.

Tim perched lying on the lip

We’re completely oblivious to the group of people milling around four feet behind us, the lip we’re laying on shielding us from them–it’s just us and nature. It’s beautiful out today, so beautiful that we’ve long shed our jackets. I’m wearing just a floral t-shirt with overalls on. I’m getting some color, my dark arm hairs beginning to bleach blonde in the sun. I could come back here and do some tanning.

Just then Tim says “Man, we could tan out here”.
He practically read my mind.
“Yeah dude! Castle Rock Tanning Club–CRTC” I respond.

And that was all it took. We formed the CRTC right there. Plans were made for follow-up visits, logos, picnic gear, and tanning cut-outs. Why not get a tan in one of the most unlikely places in the world to get one. The flask and Red Bull gets slyly passed back and forth. We can hear snowmobiles firing up, and not too soon after, we can smell it as well. The VIPs were heading off. As they take off into the distance, two birds appear. They swoop around right near us. Fear sets in–these are Skuas, the scavenger of the Antarctic, and vicious attacker of meal trays. We tense up a bit.

Upon second inspection, these birds are no skuas. They’re completely white and not nearly as large. They’re beautiful. “What the…what birds are these? They’re extremely white!” Tim and I leap up with excitement–well as much as you can leap up when you’re perched on the side of a cliff. I grab my camera–wide lens on–and start snapping away. “I’m gonna get the zoom lens!” I yell excitedly. “Do it!” says Tim as I’m scrambling over the edge back over to my camera bag. I’m fumbling with the lenses, try to get that zoom lens on quick. Twist, click–It’s on. I raise the lens up, and pop off the lens cap. I look through the viewfinder and start focusing…just as the birds fly over the top of Castle Rock…Damn it.

“Ahhh…” we looks at each other with the disappoinment that usually elicits a ‘dang’. We wait about 30 seconds on the ready, flexed in anticipation for their return over the top. I slowly lower my lens–those birds were gone. They must have just come to see what the commotion was down there with the snowmobiles. “Of course they fly away just as I’m ready”.

A mysterious white bird. (Snow Petrel)

We climb back onto the slide, swigging more vodka and Red Bull. I use the zoom lens to photograph some features of the sea ice. I find a lone hagglund driving on the ice, looking like a speck of dust all the way down there.

We laugh it up, enjoying the great weather. I’m suddenly cognizant of the time. We’ve got to be back by 18:00 or else they’ll send a search and rescue team to come find us. I lost the radio back on the trail so I can’t extend our footplan. 16:10 rolls by and the breeze starts to pick up. It’s no longer tanning weather. I climb off the lip, the breeze up here getting pretty chilly with just a t-shirt. I throw on my big red and zip that fucker up.

A lonely hagglund out on the sea ice.

Time to roll out. We walk back down the way we came, passing some skiiers. We crack jokes and take pictures. I’ve really gotta pee–can’t hold it any longer. I’ve forgotten my “P Bottle” so I awkwardly ask Tim if I can use his. There’s no one else around, even though we can see for 50 miles. I unscrew the cap and relieve myself into the bottle, filling it up about a quarter. I put the bottle back in Tim’s bag, feeling bad that he has to carry my pee around with him.

Further on down the trail we come back across the frozen blue ice lake, and I’ve gotta piss again.

“Yo dude…can I hit that bottle up again?” I ask.
“Yeah dude, I’m dancin’ here”.

I nearly overflow the Nalgene sized bottle, an inch of “head” coming right up to the rim of the botttle. “It’s like I’m at the doctor’s office” I joke. “Leave it on the back of the toilet” laughs Tim.

A black radome

Onwards. We pass another group. “Hey, you guys didn’t happen to lose a radio?” the girl says to me. “Yeah, there it is!” I say excitedly, taking back radio #16, distinctive for its powder blue penguin duct tape wrapped around it’s antennae.

We continue onwards, walking downwards. A black radome and two white radomes are on the ridges around us. Beautiful mountains up on the horizon past that. We slide down the ice again for old times sake and then carry on. We continue down towards town, walking on gravel now, the snow behind us.


McMurdo from afar.

McMurdo comes into view as we round the bend, a blight upon the beautiful landscape.
It looks like a shanty-town.

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