Will Steger's castle in the clouds

The world's greatest Arctic explorer unveils his greatest challenge yet

"This was my life's dream, and the first step was at least getting it sketched out on a piece of paper," he explains, gesturing over the plans. "I've lived in each of these rooms in my mind."

In Antarctica, a person needs diversions. Faced with seven months of blank white landscape littered with sharp ice, of being trapped in a tent waiting out a storm or skiing the equivalent of a marathon daily, the mind searches for any outlet it can.

One of Steger's five teammates on Trans-Antarctica, the Brit Geoff Somers, preoccupied himself with logistics, with weighing and charting. Another, Frenchman Jean-Louis Etienne, pretended to be someone new each day — a pipe fitter, maybe, or a prime minister.

Steger at work on an LED light fixture in the Homestead’s wood shop, flanked by two of his stained glass doors
Steger at work on an LED light fixture in the Homestead’s wood shop, flanked by two of his stained glass doors
The sauna and three floating cabins for guests on the Homestead’s Picketts Lake
The sauna and three floating cabins for guests on the Homestead’s Picketts Lake


The Minneapolis College of Art and Design will present Steger's designs, including the Will Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership, in the free exhibit "Inside an Explorer's Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design." Sept. 14 to Oct. 6, with a talk by Steger on Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. and a reception with Steger on Oct. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. 2501 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis; 612-874-3667.

Steger built his castle in the clouds.

His book about the expedition, Crossing Antarctica, mentions only in passing that Steger spent his space allocation for personal items on pencils and protractors, and that he would pass nights sketching. But his private journals from the trip tell the real story of how he kept himself busy: They're filled with diagrams and musings about what the building — the center — would be.

On day 117 of the crossing, Steger wrote of how, once he emptied his mind out into the landscape, the vision for what to do next would rush in.

"When ... it's real crystal clear inside," he wrote, and "there are no cobwebs anymore because you've washed everything out, then the inspiration will come to me."

Not long after, it did. Two months from the end of the seven-month journey — on January 14, 1990 — Steger recorded the dream he had experienced the night before.

"I was a Samurai ... placed on earth to protect Antarctica," he described. "I built my castle and went out into the world to meet those in power. These people I brought back to my castle —"

It was day 174 of the trek, and Steger's vision had crystallized. Further down in the same entry, he described it.

"My goal in life is to be that cue ball on the pool table that hits the 15 balls," Steger wrote. "That's ... why I'm building the center, to get myself into the position where I can make a lot of balls go into the pocket. I plan to work with small groups of decision-makers in a wilderness setting so I can help make positive changes that will affect humanity and preserve our precious environment. This will be my legacy."

Steger began designing the castle. In order to build it in his head, he conceived of it in modules — compartments that he could add or subtract in neat pieces while he skied across the frozen desert.

He wanted to get above the tree line in order to look at the stars, so he stacked the modules up six floors high. He knew that a full staircase would eat too much space, so he sketched a turret to house it. He created a utility shaft to contain all the building's electrical lines and pipes, then arranged the rooms so that any that required running water were adjacent to the utility module — the easier to locate and fix a frozen pipe.

Back in Steger's cabin, an 8-by-12 framed sketch hangs in a place of honor above his hearth. It's one of the drawings that Steger pulled from his Antarctica journals, and re-sketched when he got back in 1990. Twenty-three years later, it looks remarkably like the actual building that's going up next door.

"The expeditions were a means to an end," Steger explains, his elbows propped on the stack of castle plans. "They were all, and all along I knew it, my stepping stones to do this."

When Steger conducts his grand tour of the castle, his sentences tangle together as though he can't spit his vision out fast enough.

"The kitchen sink's here, and this is a big island for making vegetables, for people getting together to chop," Steger explains, his black Havaiana sandals flopping against the travertine tile floors as he bounces from room to room. "The refrigeration will be all solar, and here goes a beautiful table I'm making, shaped like a bean to seat 12, yellow pine that catches the yellow light in here in the morning."

Nothing Steger describes is in place yet. The pieces are all there — an unfinished kitchen sink sits beneath a two-story, egg-shaped window; a bed for a solar array is built and awaiting the panels; the top of the bean table is stored across the Homestead, in a pole barn filled with salvaged wood and prototypes.

But inside the castle, the scene is still hanging wires, stacks of wood, and holes in the wall where stained glass will someday hang.

"I know I have to be realistic," Steger says. "But this is the golden opportunity."

When he returned from Antarctica, Steger suddenly found himself launched into the position of international hero. He met with the likes of Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev; he traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress on the need to protect Antarctica's wilderness.

Between his new obligations, Steger began to set his private dreams in motion. Carrying his sketches from Antarctica, he approached engineers to turn the drawings into plans.

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