We came to probe its mystery, to reduce this land to terms of science, but there is always the indefinable, which holds aloof yet which rivets our souls”…
wrote the Australian geologist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson of Antarctica, that majestic yet formidable continent located at the southernmost point of our planet, in his 1930 book ‘The Home of the Blizzard’.
My own closest brush with Antarctica thus far was earlier this year. It involved spying minute icebergs from the porthole of a rumbling Boeing 747 as it fought the trade winds, performing a semi circular loop between Sydney and Johannesburg over the Southern Ocean, near the edge of the Antarctic continent. Thus until recently I couldn’t even imagine what it must feel like to experience the mixed sense of wonderment, reverence and foreboding that Mawson, and many travellers to Antarctica since, have expressed of their first hand contact with this majestic and severe frozen continent.
However my position as an intern in the curatorial department of the Powerhouse Museum has changed that to a great extent. I have had the amazing opportunity to view a close and personal snapshot of the experiences of two incredible Australian men in their late twenties whom, on Thursday 26 January 2012, became the first pair in history to make the unsupported trip from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again. These men were James Castrission and Justin Jones, childhood friends, known fondly to their friends, families and followers as Cas and Jonesy. Their adventure involved man-hauling sledges of up to 160kg 2,270km for 89 days, in temperatures as cold as minus 40°C, in the footsteps of British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, and Norwegian explorer, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, 100 years earlier.
More specifically my work as an intern has involved researching and documenting the recent donation to the Museum under the Australian Cultural Gifts Program of the state-of-the-art 21st century equipment taken with Justin and James on their Antarctic adventure, ‘Crossing the Ice‘. This was done under the supervision of Margaret Simpson, Curator of Science & Industry, as part of my Master of Museum Studies degree at The University of Sydney.
The acquisition of this collection as a complete package from one expedition has been something of a first for the Museum and is especially interesting, as the adventurers have donated almost every single item taken with them on the trip. Items include large custom-designed sleds, (not dissimilar in design to Mawson’s sledges used on the AAE); Overland skis; a tent; and speciality clothing designed for polar conditions, such as goose down filled anoraks and large fur-trimmed mittens. There are also personal and seemingly everyday items such as socks and underwear, which were thermally designed and constructed out of merino wool (each washed, dare I say it, only once during the entire trek due to the hardship of obtaining water in the freezing conditions).
Other donated pieces of kit vital to Justin and James’ adventure include first aid supplies, tool kits and sewing materials. The really interesting aspects of their equipment are the numerous repairs and obvious wear and tear which provide so many fascinating stories about these objects. Justin and James’ also modified much of their gear before they left for Antarctica to make it more suitable for their adventure. One of my favourite examples is an Icebreaker GT260 long sleeved thermal top made out of merino wool which Mia Ballenden, James’ fiancé (James had become engaged to Mia his girlfriend and their Dietician, just before embarking on their adventure), attached pockets to in order to hold the adventurers iPods and headphones. Justin and James used their iPods to play music, podcasts, meditation tapes and audio-books (favourites included the Harry Potter Series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) whilst they were trekking in order to escape the monotony and stress at some level.
The collection also incorporates a range of state-of-the-art 21st century navigation and communication equipment. This includes GPS units and satellite phones, charged on a Brunton 20-Watt foldable solar panel recharge system which the adventurers strapped to the side of their tent on clear days.
Working for a brief while at Australian outdoor equipment company, Paddy Pallin, I came to understand that equipment such as this is designed to aid adventurers in such extreme situations and can make a big difference to the success or failure of an expedition. Yet an expedition of this kind requires much more of adventurers than a lot of fancy kit. It requires an incredible strength of will and extraordinary endurance. One does not enter into a polar journey such as this lightly, especially where suffering and danger are assured.
Justin and James’ previous adventure ‘Crossing the Ditch’, which involved them making the first ever kayak crossing of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand in 2007/08, gave them a taste for the emotional feelings associated with isolation they expected to experience and the necessary strength of will which they would require. Time spent in northern Canada and the New Zealand Alps allowed them to learn how to use their gear (both James and Justin had to learn to ski specifically for ‘Crossing the Ice’). While time spent dragging truck tyres attached to chest harnesses up steep hills and along beaches in balmy Sydney allowed them to prepare physically.
Unfortunately there was nothing that was able to truly prepare the adventurers for the severe lack of sleep, food deprivation (the men lost a combined body weight of 55kg) and physical exhaustion they experienced on their adventure. Justin and James’ blog posts and videos sent from their tent in Antarctica graphically and honestly described their highs and lows and how they combated katabatic winds, sastrigui (sharp irregular wave like formations formed in the ice), injury, whiteouts, mirages and of course the lethal threat of crevasses.
On his video diary towards the end of their trip an emotional James said:
This place has taken a part of me that I’ll never get back, the amount of suffering and pain and accomplishment and achievement, I’ve never ever felt this in my life, it’s the commitment to keep on going and the commitment to one goal, it’s something I will never forget and this is going to give me strength for the rest of my life.
Each object from the Crossing the Ice collection, (right down to the spare tubes of super glue and spools of thread saved for repairs) is a valuable document of this great feat of human endurance and incredible strength of will. The collection also stands as a record of Antarctica as we know it today. A fierce and desolate yet awe-inspiring continent which has the potential to tell us so much about the history of our planet, yet whose future in the face of global warming, remains so unsure.
Working on this collection has been both fascinating and inspiring and I for one greatly look forward to the immanent publication of ‘Extreme South’, James’ account of their experience Crossing the Ice.
Published by Rebecca Anderson, Museum Studies Intern, The University of Sydney.
Information provided by James Castrission and Justin Jones, March 2012.
Sir Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930).