These two pairs of undies are part of a large collection of equipment and personal items used by Antarctic adventurers James Castrission (Cas) and Justin Jones (Jonsey) on their ‘Crossing the Ice’ Antarctic expedition to the South Pole, 2011-2012.
You may rightly notice that the pair on the left does not look like your average pair of underpants and it would not be remiss of you to ask what the unusual thing attached to them could possibly be…
The answer is simple and unexpected. It’s a stretchy head band called a ‘Buff’. However the story behind why such an item was attached to this pair of undies is much more complex, revealing a tale of harrowing discomfort, innovation and triumph against the odds.
It requires an enormous amount of preparation and planning to engage in an unsupported expedition of the nature of ‘Crossing the Ice’. Alongside organising funding, the logistics of travel and practical training, deciding what equipment and clothing will be worn is central to the planning process. The versatility of each piece of clothing to be taken is considered with selection criteria including an item’s ability to withstand considerable wear and tear, its breathability, weight and how practical it is to wear whilst engaging in physical activity.
These undies ticked all the boxes for Cas and Jonsey. Designed by New Zealand Company, Icebreaker, they are made out of long wearing and breathable merino wool. They were designed to dry quickly when washed, trap extra body heat for warmth without any extra weight and naturally remain anti-bacterial, meaning that as they did not hold odours, they required less frequent washing …
Interestingly, Cas and Jonsey were not the first to discover the suitability of woollen underwear for Antarctic adventure. Between 1911 and 1914 explorers on Sir Douglas Mawson‘s Australian Antarctic Expedition wore fetching “onesies”, made of English Jaeger wool, underneath their Burberry Trousers and jackets. Despite a century between this Antarctic expedition and Mawson’s, both sets of adventurers found the insulating properties of wool unsurpassed.
Unfortunately for Cas, the superior materials and thoroughly considered design of these undies made little difference to the fact that they simply did not suit his body shape and he suffered badly from unappealing chafe as a result. Towards the middle of the adventurers’ expedition, Cas’ chafe became infected and consequently the adventurers had to stay in their tent for two days while they waited for the antibiotics Cas was recommended, to take effect. These two days were torturous for the adventurers. The time provided a welcome respite from the drudgery of their gruelling daily trek, but every hour spent waiting for Cas’ infection to heal meant less distance covered on the trail and less chance of them successfully finishing their expedition.
Cas’ video diary clearly reveals the intense frustration he felt as a result of his circumstances. Not only did the adventurers not have time in their rigorous schedule for such a setback, but Cas clearly describes that even after all of his careful training and preparation his body was failing him in a manner which was relatively out of his control. In their meticulous preparation for a ‘worst possible scenario’ incident, the adventurers had packed a medicine kit full of items including severe pain relief medication (including morphine), numerous bandages and swabs, antibiotics, dental amalgam and even an epi-pen. However, simple items such as anti-fungal and anti-bacterial cream, which Cas desperately needed for his infection, were only included in small amounts. This deficit meant that the creams they did have had to be rationed, causing Cas’ injury to heal more slowly and the expedition to fall further and further behind.
Deciding that failure simply wasn’t one of the options they wanted to consider, once Cas had recovered from the worst of his infection the adventurers brainstormed how they could practically stop his problem reccurring with the limited materials they had . The inventive and unusual answer was to use materials in their tiny sewing kit to attach Cas’ Buff to the front and back of his undies in a way that resulted in them fitting much more snugly. This solution proved to be amazingly effective and on the 26th January, 2012, alongside Norwegian explorer Aleksander Gamme, Cas and Jonsey proudly completed their expedition, becoming the first in history to ski unsupported to the South Pole and back.
If you would like a chance to see these infamous undies alongside other clothing and equipment taken by Cas and Jonsey on the ‘Crossing the Ice’ expedition, come along to ‘Clothes Encounters’ a new exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, open daily until the 4th May, 2014. Alternatively, you can watch the adventurers’ award winning documentary ‘Crossing the Ice’ (showing online at ABC iview until the 8th December, 2013), which provides unique insight into the highs and lows of the adventurers’ harrowing journey as they trek for 89 days across the frozen landscape of Antarctica.
Information provided by James Castrission and Justin Jones, March 2012.
James Castrission, ‘Extreme South’ (Australia: Hachette, 2012)
Peter Fitzsimons, ‘Mawson and the Icemen of the Heroic Age’ (Australia: Random House Australia, 2012)
Written by Rebecca Anderson Powerhouse Museum curatorial volunteer under the supervision of Margaret Simpson, Curator of Science and Industry, November 2013