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No doubt you will have mulled at length over what ten things are indispensable for an expedition to the South Pole. If for any reason you haven't, here are our suggestions.
1. RBH Designs insulated socks and mitts
We will encounter three main dangers on the expedition: hypothermia, crevasses and frostbite. Anything that lessens these dangers is a godsend.
RBH Designs is a small, family-run business in Connecticut which designs some amazing cold weather gear. The key to their designs is the use of their patented 'vaprthrm' technology. This is essentially a stretchy vapour barrier liner which is lined with a comfortable, wicking lining. It serves two functions. It minimises evaporative heat loss (i.e. heat loss caused by cooling when we sweat) and it stops the layers of insulation outside the vapour barrier being degraded by sweat.
In my experience RBH's gear is made to a very high standard, is comfortable and very, very warm. Sure, the insulated socks might look a bit odd and yes, it's very hard to use your hands for anything beyond gripping ski poles when wearing the mitts, but they offer greater protection against frostbite than just about any other products available. Gold dust.
2. MSR XGK EX stove
If our stoves fail, we can't melt snow, which means we have no water to drink. Nor can we warm the inside of the tent, boil our food or dry our clothes. So if our stoves are unreliable, we're in big trouble.
MSR's XGK stoves are difficult to light (they tend to give off a massive, tent-devouring flame if done wrong), very loud (think mini afterburners on full chat), have very little flame control (they're basically on or off) and are not the lightest. But they are very probably the most robust, reliable expedition stoves ever made. That means everything to us.
3. Xmarx pulks
We will be pulling around double our bodyweight in supplies behind us in pulks designed by the Dutch adventurer and polar explorer, Marc Cornelissen.
Marc's pulks have quickly earned a strong reputation amongst polar explorers for their robust, efficient and stable design. We were treated to a service beyond first class when we picked up our pulks from Marc's warehouse in The Netherlands, en route from England to Norway for some training. Marc drove an hour to meet us at 5am in the morning to hand the pulks over to us - with a cigar each!
Once in Norway we soon started stress-testing the pulks. Henry fell 10 vertical feet with his fully-loaded pulk down a ravine in a snowstorm. Miraculously, neither he nor the pulk (which narrowly missed his head) came to any harm. We were all amazed.
4. Merino wool baselayer
The idea of wearing woollen underwear for 80 days whilst walking 900 miles, conjures up images of hairshirted pilgrims. Fortunately, merino wool is a luxury, not a penance. It's very fine and soft next to the skin, especially compared to some of the more plasticky synthetic base layers.
A base layer's main aim in life is to wick sweat away from the skin. There are a number of synthetic base layers that do this very well. However, they tend to smell like Bigfoot's nappy if worn for any length of time, which can have a noticeable effect on morale over 80 days in a tent.
This is where merino wool reveals its magic. However long you wear it, merino wool never seems to smell bad, due to its natural odour-eating properties. It is also exothermic, which means it generates heat when wet (I have no idea how, but I love it). Finally, it's a natural product unlike the synthetic alternatives, which are made from petrochemicals. Sheep wouldn't be seen dead in anything else.
As for the makes, we'd recommend Icebreaker (above) or smartwool. For those seeking even more warmth, try Brynje's arctic extreme double layer thermal underwear. I've never worn it myself, but the Norwegians swear by it. It's basically a layer of merino wool with meraklon net underwear beneath it. The net underwear traps air for insulation and allows moisture to pass through to the merino wool outer, where it can evaporate.
5. Mountain Equipment Co-Op Booties
This is not the most technical bit of kit we're taking. Nor the most indispensable, strictly speaking. But if you asked me which bit of kit I most looked forward to using each day and therefore grew to love most, it's these simple tent boots. After 10 hours trudging around in cross-country ski boots hauling your worldly goods behind you, there is something extremely rewarding and comforting about putting on these big insulated slippers.
MEC's boots are great because they're cheap, robust (they have a synthetic filling which stands up well to getting wet), seriously warm and have a good sole which allows you to use them outside when nature calls. My new best friend.
6. Thermarest Trekker Chair
We're each allowed one item of luxury. It must weight under 1lb (400g). My luxury is a tent seat, courtesy of Thermarest. Basically, it's a piece if cunningly shaped and buckled material into which you shove your inflatable mattress, creating a chair which stays upright as long as you sit in it.
Not being that flexible, I really dislike kneeling and I canât think of anything I'd rather bring with me than a seat. And it only weighs 300g. Let me know if you have any bright ideas for my remaining 100g.
7. Ipaq Expedition PDA with Contact Software
One of the factors which makes Antarctic expeditions so difficult is the sheer cost of getting there and back, due to the continent's extreme remoteness. This means expedition members have to battle hard to raise the funds to get there and back.
A good website, with live updates reporting on the expedition's progress, is a vital tool for fundraising. Humanedgetech supply expedition-tested communications packages which will allow us to post daily reports with photos on our website, updating our families, sponsors and the world at large on how we're getting on.
Typing may be the last thing we want to do after an exhausting day's hauling, but it gives us a vital means of communication from an uninhabited world. We'll make sure our daily reports are as informative as possible â there's no excuse not to with such amazing technology at our fingertips.
8. Hilleberg Keron GT tent
Our tent will be our home and refuge for 80 days. Hilleberg is well known for making very robust, stable and easy to operate tents. We'll be taking their Keron GT, which is their flagship expedition design. It'll take 3 men with ease, is simple to erect and is very tough. It's also great at withstanding a battering from the wind.
We've modified our tent in a few ways. We've added flaps on which to shovel snow to keep the tent in place. We've removed the mosquito nets and put up a clothes line along the centre, for drying kit. We've also added a foam floor for insulation. Home from home indeed.
9. Swix Mountain Poles
For practically all our kit, we're after the lightest and toughest products available. However, one of these criteria is by definition usually at the expense of the other.
The Swix Mountain Poles have a simple brief. They don't need to be adjustable or gimmicky in any way. They just need to be really strong and light, which they are in abundance. What's more, they look wonderfully retro with their leather handle and basket, reminiscent of the poles our forebears would have used on the original Nimrod Expedition.
10. Toilet paper
Indispensable. No further explanation offered.
I've just found out that a polar bear has a top ground speed of at least 25 miles per hour or around 40 kilometres per hour, either way that's fast.
Given that there aren't very many trees at the South Pole for heroic explorers to climb very quickly I am now starting to have second doubts.... answers on a postcard entitled 'how to look suitably heroic on occasions of imminent danger' will be gratefully accepted by at least one member of the team.
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.
Click here for the next installment.
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.
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