“… all kinds of schemes were in progress for adapting our sledging-gear and instruments to the severe conditions. Nobody was idle during the day, for, when there was nothing else to be done; there always remained the manufacture and alteration of garments and crampons.”
The Home of the Blizzard’, Sir Douglas Mawson, 1915.
When Australians, Justin Jones (Jonesy) and James Castrission (Cas), successfully completed the first unsupported return journey to the South Pole, on 26 January 2012, they were in a sense, following in the footsteps of pioneers from years past.
Explorers a century before them were determined to navigate a vast, icy land for scientific and geographical purposes. This era in modern history was known as the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic Exploration, a term used to describe the twenty-five year period of Antarctic discoveries from 1897-1922. However, unlike their predecessors, Justin and James were equipped with the latest 21st century equipment and clothing, especially designed and made for extreme polar conditions. Or were they?
Prior to embarking on their expedition, Justin and James had spent three weeks on a pre-Antarctic training course with polar guide, Matty McNair and family, in the Canadian Arctic town of Iqaluit on Baffin Island. The McNairs, internationally recognised polar experts, shared their wealth of experience and knowledge on cold weather survival with the two young Australians. They also realised that both men would need to learn the fine art of sewing to tackle the numerous modifications required for their clothing and equipment. Modifying almost all their clothing and equipment, meant that everything had to be “polar friendly”, which in layman’s terms meant that any equipment or gear handled whilst in the middle of extreme weather was able to be physically manipulated while wearing their thick polar mittens.
One of the items modified was their ‘Smith Phenom Turbo Sensor’ ski goggles, designed and made by Smith Optics Inc., Idaho, U.S.A. and manufactured from polyurethane and silicone. These ski goggles were worn with a high point beanie and neoprene face mask and were an essential form of eye protection against glare or “snow blindness” and the incessant, howling winds. However, on Day Eleven of the trek, after days of struggling with all the tell-tale signs of the flu, including the constant flow of a runny nose, James was able to apply his sewing skills by attaching a fabric nose flap to the goggles, allowing him to blow his nose “bushie” style whilst wearing his polar mitts.
Further modifications were made to their skiing equipment. Their ‘Rottefella NNN BC Manuell’ ski boot bindings, manufactured from stainless steel and plastic, were designed specifically for optimal ski control and stability in challenging environmental conditions, such as those experienced in Antarctica. Approximately twenty hours of labour was spent modifying the ski boot bindings by the two adventurers and project manager, Dave Johnston, including adding a loop to the bindings making them easier to operate whilst again, wearing their mitts.
My favourite item of modified equipment would have to be the ingenious and simple design of the compass holder or mount. The men’s compasses were essential for navigation from their starting point at Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and back again, particularly during periods of whiteouts, blizzards and 100 kilometre per hour headwinds. The compass mounts were made from nylon, plastic and rubber by Justin and James during their pre-Antarctic training session with the McNairs. They were made from old sledge runners and sat 30 centimetres in front of each of the men’s waists. The compass holders were designed so that the adventurers were free to have both hands on their ski poles, while reading their compasses at the same time.
Additionally, further modifications were made to Justin and James’ shell jackets by sewing fur ruffs to the collar, necessary for extra insulation and protection from plummeting temperatures and howling winds, replacing small buttons on their clothing with larger buttons, which enabled the men easier access whilst wearing their mitts, increasing the strength of their Back-Country skis by adding an extra layer of laminate, which in turn would distribute their weight evenly over the skis preventing them from sinking further into the soft snow, while creating a safer travelling experience over the fragile surfaces of crevasses.
This post provides just a small insight into the numerous and varied modifications made to Justin and James’ gear and equipment, thereby allowing them to successfully complete the first unsupported return trek to the South Pole, and keeping the spirit of adventure and human endurance associated with the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration alive and relevant in today’s world.
Written by Christina Salopek, MAAS volunteer, March 2015