Dressed for all occasions

January 14, 2010

Being inappropriately dressed in Antarctica can be life threatening. However, being appropriately dressed takes a lot of time and an exceptionally good memory.

Pauline AskinWith over 40 items of clothing to track, it’s par for the course to see an expedition member walk in and out of our base three or four times retracing their steps to find a missing part of their polar apparel or backpack.

The conversation between expeditioners goes like this:

“What did you lose?” asks a concerned colleague.

“My glasses, my gloves, my balaclava, my backpack. I had them in my hand two minutes ago. I’m sure I left them on the table,” replies the frustrated expeditioner as he fossicks for the missing items in base hut, leaves and returns still fossicking.

This “deja vu” ritual can occur four times before the victim eventually finds what they are looking for and usually it’s nowhere near where they thought they left them.

For those of us living outdoors the comedy of errors begins in our tent.

I’m only 5ft 4 inches, but when I stand up in my polar tent I feel 10 foot tall as my head hits the roof.  It’s a great source of amusement and motivation feeling I’ve grown so tall overnight. You see, it’s necessary to stand up in my tent to have space to remove and apply layers of clothing.

Often after putting on layers, I realise they are in the wrong order, as socks under thermals are not the most effective and hat before balaclava or glasses after headgear just don’t work.

So, off come the clothes and I begin the dressing process again.

Finally, when all the layers are applied in the correct order, boots are fitted with chains, coat zipped up, suncream and gloves on, it’s time to climb out of the tent to walk to our base, the Sorenson hut.

Having got caught up in two sets of drawstrings the first few days of living in a tent, I quickly discovered entering the Antarctic air is best done in reverse.

This entails going down on all fours and shoving one foot out into the snow, followed by the other. This minimises the chance of being stuck halfway between the inner and outer lining of the tent with my hood jammed somewhere I didn’t know existed and only my Irish pride preventing me from shouting “Help…will someone please release me”.

After a night in below freezing temperatures, it’s necessary to visit the toilet — affectionately known as “Delaney’s Dunny” (dunny is Australian slang for toilet and it’s named after the man who built it).

Having spent the last 10 minutes getting dressed and then walking only 200 metres to “Delany’s”, it’s time to remove half of your clothes.

“Delaney’s” can only be described as visiting the best room in the house, as the outlook from this tiny (rather odorous) spot, spans uninterrupted view of Commonwealth Bay and the MacKellar Islands.

But the danger of distraction can cost you dearly, losing you an enormous amount of time and the risk of snow blindness.

Going to the toilet in such a tight spot, it’s vital you undress without letting the straps of your overall, gloves, glasses or sleeves fall into one of the buckets.

So items have to be placed carefully. It’s not unusual to see a pair of glasses, gloves or a fleece top hanging from a rusty nail in Delaney’s.

I recently spent half a morning looking for my sunglasses. I retraced my steps from my tent to the Sorensen hut five times looking carefully in the tent, Delaney’s and the hut over and over, costing me valuable working time.

I could have sworn I left them on the dining table.

In the end, I had to go back to the tent and resort to wearing snow goggles to prevent snow blindness. Trying to shoot a television interview wearing snow goggles that took up half of my face was rather comical.

Later that day, determined to find my glasses, I went back into “Delaney’s”  to look just one more time and here were my sunglasses,  sitting on top of the hessian sack I had so carefully placed them on — safe, sound and just waiting to be retrieved.

Ah, the idiosyncrasy of life on the ice, where laughter makes an excellent survival tool.

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