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I've just found out that polar bears don't live in the Antarctic, I shall still keep my wits about me though... you can never be too careful.
Turns out that every day's a school day after all.
You can't really take too many pairs of gloves on a 900 mile walk to the South Pole.
Inner gloves should be supple and not too thick, enabling you to work with them on. They should also be smooth-skinned, so they last longer (especially with lots of velcro and other nasties to snag then on). Inner gloves need to be worn religiously when handling metal objects in the cold, or your hands will stick to the metal.
Outer gloves should be brought in at least two different sizes, for different conditions.
Mountain Equipment's Leather Guide or Couloir gloves have a hard-earned reputation for their warmth and durability. Mine have never let me down and will be my every day glove on the expedition.
For really cold conditions, I'll be using RBH Design's incredible Vapor Mitt (above). These massive mitts are superbly put together by a family run business in Connecticut. They have an internal vapour barrier layer which stops sweat from your hands degrading the insulation. They have a cult following and are reckoned by many polar travellers and mountaineers to be the warmest mitts on earth. It may be impossible to do anything remotely intricate whilst wearing them, but as protection against frostbite, they're second to none.
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We love our tent. Which is lucky really as it's our only source of refuge at the end of another interminable day's hauling. It gives us warmth, respite and a feeling of control in the face of elements that conspire quickly to strip you of life if you have no shelter.
We'll be sleeping in a dead plush Hilleberg Keron GT tent (below). These tents have more polar pedigree than a husky pet food shop. They're seriously robust, brilliant in the wind and simple to erect when all around you is blizzardy pandemonium.
The tent is modified with the addition of snow flaps, on which snow is shovelled to keep the tent secure, the mosquito nets are removed (not much need in the Antarctic, is there), a clothes line is put in place along the central spine for drying kit. The tent poles are fixed in place and taped together into two half-sections to avoid breakage caused by failing to insert each section fully into the next. We also cover the floor with foam matting for insulation.
In addition to piling snow onto the snowflaps, the tent is secured by digging our skis and poles into the snow, sometimes completely submerged as "deadmen", and using them as anchor points for the guys.
Cooking is done at the opposite end to the entry/exit, at which we dig a knee-height trench so we can sit up whilst taking our boots on and off and doing any necessary maintenance or repairs.
You'll see in the picture below that I'm wearing a headtorch. This was during training in Norway (in horrible conditions - hence all the wet clothes hanging up in the tent). We won't need these down South due to the 24 hour sunlight. We'll be swapping them for good quality eye masks instead.
Another indispensable item for life in the tent, is a good pair of tent booties. These are basically heavily insulated tent slippers which keep our feet warm inside the tent, can be worn outside for brief sorties and generally relieve our feet of the bulk and strain of our skiing boots. Ours are supplied by Mountain Equipment Co-Op in Canada and they're a joy â light, dead toasty and just a total relief to put on at the end of the day.
As for the call of nature, we each have a pee bottle for when we're caught short in the night. I've been very careful to source orange nalgene (a robust, transparent plastic) bottles for this. None of our drinking bottles are orange, which should stop any unfortunate drinking from the, er, wrong bottle. If not, well that's polar recycling for you.
You can travel to the Pole in large Alfa boots with huge quantities of insulation and really restrict your chances of getting frostbitten toes. However, they are heavy and are inefficient for cross-country skiing, which is how we will be travelling. Given the enormous distance we need to travel, we have therefore decided against Alfa boots. Instead, we'll be using dedicated back country ski touring boots made by Alpina.
Fit is critical and the boots are a size or two larger than our normal shoe size in order to accommodate lots of socks and our feet swelling during the expedition. Mine are size 48! Tom Jones of Euroski kindly supplied the boots.
Inside the boots we will wear thin inner socks, thick outer socks, made largely of merino wool so they retain warmth when wet. When it gets really cold, we will wear vapour barrier liners between layers of sock, to stop our sweat freezing in the boot's insulation. RBH Designs make an insulated vapour barrier sock using the same "vaprthrm" technology as their gloves, which I found warm and very comfortable when training in Norway.
The Alpina boots do not have a huge amount of insulation, so we have glued and screwed some insulated gaiters to the grey plastic strip running along the sole. The gaiters were a nightmare to source because almost all insulated gaiters are for mountaineering use rather than cross-country skiing. In the end we had to import them from Canada via the great Mountain Equipment Co-Op (www.mec.ca). We are constantly experimenting with different insoles for both warmth and support.
If you don't sleep well, your body doesn't recover well from the day's exertions in time to perform all over again. The effect snowballs over 80 days on the ice until exhaustion takes over.
A key danger on extended cold weather expeditions, is your sleeping bag losing its insulation. Goose down is the material most commonly used for sleeping bags in the Antarctic, as it has the best weight/insulation ratio available.
However, it loses pretty much all its insulation (or to be more accurate, its ability to "loft" and trap dead air between you and the cold air outside the bag) when it gets wet. Some synthetic materials are as warm, and can retain their insulating abilities for longer when wet, but are heavier and less compressible.
As we'll be hauling around twice our bodyweight in sleds (known as pulks), weight is a massive issue and so down gets the nod.
The problem is that your body's natural processes can unwittingly turn your lovely warm and light down sleeping bag into a bed of ice over time. Our bodies give off insensible sweat when we sleep, even if we aren't aware of it. This can build up in your sleeping bag and will cause real problems if you don't do something about it, or if your bag has a so called "waterproof" shell on the outside. As likely as not, the claimed breathability of the protective shell will fail at extremely low temperatures, trapping the water in the down and turning your bag slowly but surely into an ice cube.
One way of countering the problem is by sleeping in a vapour barrier liner, which is a sealed, impermeable liner that stops any moisture entering the bag from your body. However, they tend to be clammy and in some cases as noisy as a crisp packet. We'll be bringing vapour barrier liners as a matter of caution and because they boost the temperature rating of the sleeping bag on really cold nights.
By the same token, the sleeping bag shell should be water resistant to a degree, as you don't want any water or soup spillage to ruin part of your bag's insulation. Materials such as Pertex Endurance are a great compromise. It breathes well, keeps the goose feathers from escaping and protects them from splashes, whilst being light and strong.
As for the design itself, we've all gone for Rab bags, due to their superb design, light weight, strength and no frills practicality. Will uses a Polar Expedition bag, which is incredibly warm but not the lightest, whilst Henry and I have gone for the Summit 900 bag (above), which is still dead toasty but a tad lighter. It all depends on how hot you sleep. Although the temperature outside will be viciously cold, especially with the windchill, inside the tent there will be a greenhouse effect due to the 24 hour sunlight of the Antarctic summer (as long as there are no clouds), which means that our sleeping bags need only be good for -25C. If we need more insulation on overcast nights, we can use extra clothing.
We'll each be sleeping on two Thermarest mats. The bottom mat is called a Ridgerest and is made entirely of foam. Next up is an inflatable mattress. The thicker the mattress, the warmer and more comfortable but the heavier to lag around. I favour a large women's Prolite 4 mattress, which is the same size as the men's regular but has extra insulation.
Thermarest Prolite 4 - in pink for the ladies
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