Work Hard, Play Hard: A Cross-Country Ski Guide to McMurdo Station

Scotts Memorial Cross, Observation Hill, Antarctica
Scotts Memorial Cross, Observation Hill, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Scotts Memorial Cross, Observation Hill

“I’m just going outside; I may be away some time” said Captain Oates as he left his tent for certain death. A member of the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910, Oats and his three companions, including Admiral Robert Falcon Scott, succumbed to starvation and the unrelenting cold on their return journey from the South Pole.

Antarctica is a harsh continent. It is also a beautiful one.

“The land looks like a fairytale,” wrote famed polar explorer – Roald Amundsen – during the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition that successfully reached and returned from the South Pole the same season as the fatal British Expedition. Unlike Oats and Scott, Amundsen used skis.

Flagged Ski Route on Hut Point Peninsula, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Flagged Ski Route on Hut Point Peninsula, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

Ninety-eight percent of Antarctica is covered in snow and ice, a skiing paradise. And there exist only two practical ways to go skiing there. One involves spending a lot of money, the other earning some. The following is a guide to the later.

The United States Antarctic Program, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, conducts unique high-quality scientific research, maintains an active and influential American presence in the region, supports the Antarctic Treaty, and encourages international cooperation.

The logistical center of the program is McMurdo Station. Located on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound the station is the southern most harbor on earth and the hub for scientific research and inquiry of a colossal frozen wilderness.

Under the midnight sun of the Austral summer, McMurdo Station and its neighboring New Zealand research station – Scott Base – is home to over a 1,200 scientists and support personal. These hardy “Antarcticans” work 10-hours a day, 6-days a week. Despite long 60-hour work weeks, many further immerse themselves, often by ski, in the surreal landscape of rock, snow, and ice.

A Cross-Country Ski Guide to McMurdo Station, Antarctica
A Cross-Country Ski Guide to McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

A crisp Antarctic breeze, a heightened heart rate, and a dreamlike setting provide the ideal elixir to burn off stress and recharge mind, body, and spirit.

Groomed for wheeled vehicles, a system of nearly 30-miles of ice roads provides access to several airstrips and ski-ways. During the summer season (October-February), several of these roads are open to cross-country skiing and offer world-class skate skiing. Other routes (un-groomed) offer quality opportunities for classic and ski touring. On top of all that, for a few hours each week, downhill and snowboarding are possible at a rope tow operated by New Zealand’s Scott Base.

Recreation Map for McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica
Recreation Map for McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica

Castle Rock Loop

Castle Rock Loop, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Castle Rock Loop, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

A McMurdo classic, the 7-mile Castle Rock Loop is the most ambitious ski tour in the McMurdo area.

The highlight of the route is a medieval looking tower of ancient volcanic magma — Castle Rock.  The backdrop is stellar. Behind this, rocky sentinel Mount Erebus rises 12,440 feet out of the sea and dominates the landscape. To the North, the Erebus Glacier protrudes its phallic blue tongue deep into McMurdo Sound. Beyond, a series of jagged black islands, with names like Inaccessible and Big Razorback, form the outline of an ancient underwater caldera.

Weddell Seal Veterinarian Rachel Berngartt, Castle Rock Loop, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Weddell Seal Veterinarian Rachel Berngartt, Castle Rock Loop, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

In contrast to this pristine landscape, the route starts with a short walk uphill past an industrial zone that includes McMurdo’s Vehicle Maintenance and Waste Management Facilities.

The actual trailhead is marked with a large signpost at the start of the flagged route across a permanent ice field. Along the route are several red emergency shelters known as Apples.

These shelters are equipped with emergency food, a stove, fuel, sleeping bags and pads. The second shelter even houses an emergency phone.

When conditions are right Castle Rock itself may be climbed. The route does require a couple hundred feet of rock scrambling.  A fixed rope offers extra security and keeps climbers on route. The panoramic view from the summit is stupendous.

From Castle Rock, the trail heads down toward the Ross Ice Shelf. The descent requires turning or a strong snowplow. Later in the season this section is often icy and metal edged touring skis are advantageous.

Several crevasses, bridged with snow-covered plywood, cross the route — it’s imperative to stay on the flagged trail. At the bottom is the Antarctica-New Zealand Ski Hill followed by 1.5-miles of flat travel to Scott Base and a gravel road. Another 1.5 miles of walking leads back to McMurdo Station.

Ice Runway Road

The Ice Runway and Road are located on temporary sea-ice covering McMurdo Sound.The route is established every austral spring to accommodate jet service to Antarctica.The Ice Runway Road closes when sea ice conditions deteriorate, normally before Christmas.The route begins on the sea ice in front of the Station.

The ice-road heads west away from the station and swings (depending on the condition of the sea ice) to the south or north.

Skiing on along the Ice Runway Road, The Ross Sea, Antarctica
Skiing on along the Ice Runway Road
The Ross Sea, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

Though the distance can vary year to year, it is typically 3 miles each way. The Ice Runway Galley offers complimentary coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

This is a popular evening ski often done solo after work. The surface is typically slick and the skating fast. To the west the impressive Royal Society Range, including 13,205-foot Mount Lister, defines the skyline.

Willy Road

Williams Field Skiway, a.k.a. “Willy Field”, is named for Richard T.Williams, a Navy tractor driver who tragically lost his life in 1956 while operating a D-8 bulldozer that broke through the sea ice.Historically, Williams Field Ski-way was utilized during late summer for ski-equipped aircraft flying to, from, and within Antarctica.

Today, Willy Field is the launching pad for 7-million-cubic-foot super-pressure balloons.

2012 McMurdo Marathon Champion Mike Roberts Ross Island, Antarctica
2012 McMurdo Marathon Champion Mike Roberts
Ross Island, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

Capable of carrying thousands of pounds of scientific equipment, these massive Long Duration Balloons reach altitudes exceeding 111,000 feet for months at a time.

The Willy Road, that provides access to the former ski-way and balloon launching pad, is located on the permanent Ross Ice Shelf.

Glacier in origin, the 300-foot thick ice shelf floats on the surface of the Ross Sea.

From Scott Base, the Willy Road is 5.6 miles each direction. If done as a round trip tour, this is the longest ski route in McMurdo. Groomed regularly for wheeled vehicles, the skate skiing is fantastic.

From Willy Field, all of McMurdo Sound’s highpoints, including Mount Erebus, Terror, Aurora, Discovery and Lister, are visible.

Cape Armitage

Cape Armitage, Antarctica
Cape Armitage, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

Cape Armitage forms the South end of Hut Point Peninsula and the southernmost point on Ross Island.

Cape Armitage Weddell Seals, Antarctica
Cape Armitage Weddell Seals
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

The Cape was discovered in 1901 by the British National Antarctic Expedition.

The Expedition’s leader, Robert Falcon Scott, named it after Lt. Albert B. Armitage, the navigator and second in command of their ship the RSS Discovery.

The popular 4.5–mile Cape Armitage Route can be done as a loop via Scott Base and a 1.5 mile walk along the gravel road to or from McMurdo.

Alternatively, the Armitage Route can be skied as an out and back. Located on sea-ice, the terrain is level and easy, though often bumpy.

Cape Armitage Penguins, Antarctica
Cape Armitage Penguins
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

Established as a short cut for track vehicles traveling to and from New Zealand’s Scott Base, traffic on the route is light.

Solitude, detachment from the hustle and bustle of McMurdo, and large vistas of the Transantarctic Mountains, White Island, Black Island, and the backside of Observation Hill await.

Weddell Seals often lounge nearby. Feel free to take photos, but don’t disturb them. A good rule is to stay at least 25 feet away.

Emperor and Adélie penguins have also been spotted along the Cape Armitage Route.

New Zealand Ski Hill

Antarctic Field Leader Mike Roberts McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Antarctic Field Leader Mike Roberts
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

For those who prefer snowboarding or downhill skiing, Ross Island sports a ski hill complete with an old-school rope tow.

Utilizing an ingenuous and inexpensive system common at New Zealand “club fields,” users attach themselves with a harness and a clamp called a nutcracker.

From the top, there’s rarely any good snow on the gentle terrain. Regardless Antarctica’s first and only ski area is worth a visit.

Fun loving and friendly Kiwis offer a unique outdoor social opportunity. An invitation from Scott Base is required.

McMurdo Marathon

Approximately 18 miles from McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf is the Pegasus “White Ice” Runway, one of the most unique of the wheeled runways in Antarctica.The airfield sits on an approximately 110-foot thick glaciated shelf with three to four inches of compacted snow on top.

Normally closed to foot travel including skiers, the ice road to Pegasus is the location of the annual McMurdo Marathon.

Mount Lister and the Royal Society Range, Antarctica
Mount Lister and the Royal Society Range, Antarctica
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

Attracting hikers, runners and skiers, this annual event is held near the end of the summer season.

Combined with the Willy Road, the 26.2-mile course offers participants a chance to experience the vastness of Antarctica.

Antarctica Après Ski

Antarctica Après Ski
Antarctica Après Ski
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

No Sunday ski tour is complete without starting or ending at the McMurdo Coffee House.

Staffed with volunteer baristas, McMurdo’s oldest building offers a full service Coffee Bar in a friendly and relaxing atmosphere.

Antarctica Après Ski
Antarctica Après Ski
Photo: © Forrest McCarthy

For something stronger, visit the Southern Exposure Bar or Gallagher’s Pub.

The “Southern” is similar to a local neighborhood bar and a great place to meet up with friends. A local favorite, Gallagher’s hosts many activities including theme parties, bingo, karaoke, and dancing.

McMurdo Station’s ski loaner program offers a variety of quality skating and classic equipment. A small deposit is required. There’s also a ski-tuning bench complete with an iron, wax, and clamps.

Acquiring a McMurdo Ski Pass most often starts with a job application to one of several support companies contracted by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. The other option is to go to graduate school, become a scientist and pursue a research grant.

Everyone is welcome to apply.

Article & photography by Forrest McCarthy