The Antarctic climate is generally cold, dry and windy. The temperature will remain below freezing at all times. Respite will be had inside the communal and sleeping tents at Union Glacier where sun and body heat will warm the air up to 10C (50F). Outside temperatures at Union Glacier will range between -4C and -12C (25F to 10F). Windchill will make it feel colder. Unsurprisingly there is a required gear list issued by ALE for those who want to climb Mount Sidley.
This blog is about that gear. It focuses on the technical gear rather than leisure clothing. The greatest risk is that of frostbite. When the temperature is just below freezing and there is no wind, conditions can be quite benign with all that sunlight bouncing around. Sunburn and snow blindness then become the risks to guard against.
Antarctica is the windiest continent. A high pressure system tends to sit over the continent during the summer and this pushes katabatic winds off the Antarctic plateau towards the surrounding oceans. The build up of high density cold air over the ice sheet and the elevation of the ice sheet brings into play enormous gravitational energy. Where these winds are concentrated into restricted areas in the coastal valleys, the winds blow well over hurricane force. This not something, I hope, I will experience. However, the winds at Union Glacier are at least strong enough to scour away the snow so as to enable use of the ice runway there.
Katabatic winds tend to be dry. In other words they desiccate anything they come into contact with, including human skin. So normally I will be trying to ensure that my skin is covered at all times. In stormy conditions, the temperature can drop to as low as -40C (-40F). I have experienced -30C (-22F) in Finland. So this will be a similar experience.
I am grateful to Adventure Peaks for the advice provided in assembling my kit. They have also been my agent in organising the overall trip.
Feet and underwear
My boots are Millet Everest boots. These are the sort that are used on Everest and other 8,000m peaks. They are an insulated double boot with inbuilt gaiters. The inner boot is removable and can be worn by itself, e.g. around camp. As this is the only expedition that I am ever likely to need such boots, I have been able to hire them rather than buy them. They retail at around £560 a pair, though by shopping around a cheaper price can be found. With them I will wear Grivel 12 point crampons. These are steel crampons which I have had for a number of years.
On my feet I will wear both thin liner socks (Bridgedale – not shown in the photos) and heavyweight socks (Bridgedale Summit or Smartwool). Three pairs of liners and of heavyweights are needed in case they get wet from sweat and freeze.
I will have four pairs of underpants. Two are merino wool and two are of lighter material. No cotton is permitted as cotton more easily absorbs moisture, will not wick moisture away from the body and is difficult to dry in the expected conditions.
Much of my gear is by Rab. For the legs, this is no exception. All items are made by them. Well, their gear is amongst the best. Perhaps they should be sponsoring me!
Here we have two base layers with a thin polyester based thermal and a heavyweight Powerstretch base. Both can be worn together, as I did for my Elbrus ascent.
Over these I have a Rab Vapor-Rise guide pant. This is a lightly insulated and stretchy softshell. Unless it is very windy or cold I am hoping the Vapor-Rise this will be my top layer in most cases. I have bought the Vapor-Rise for the trip but it will be suitable for Scottish winter conditions.
For really cold or windy conditions, or when immobile in my tent in a storm, I then have a Rab Photon pant to go over the lot. This is of Pertex microlight construction with Primaloft insulation. It is similar to one of my upper body layers (see below). The Photon pant promises to be very warm. It has full length ankle to waist zips so can be put on or taken off without needing to remove crampons.
I am also considering taking a hardshell pant (not pictured) which I happen to have for further protection from wind.
Upper body – part 1
Here I have a short sleeve mesh base made by Brynje (bottom left), a thin long sleeved base (bottom right) and two thicker tops with half zips to assist with regulation of my temperature. When the wind is not blowing, it is surprising how little you have to wear when climbing.
The Brynje base was kindly provided free by Nordic Life whilst I was on my Norway trip last year. It is surprisingly effective with the warm air trapped by the holes in the mesh. With less material it also tends to be less smelly when worn day after day.
One, two or three of these could be worn at any one time depending on conditions. The likelihood is that just two will be worn at the same time.
On top of these, there are next the following layers. First a Rab (yes Rab) Powerstretch hoodie for warmth (bottom right above). This has thumb loops to provide protection around the wrists.
Second there is a Rab Pertex/Primaloft insulation layer. This is like the Photon pant described earlier. It is very warm and is my best bit of kit. It is very versatile and has been to the summit of each of the six continental volcanoes I have climbed so far.
Finally there is an old Mountain Equipment Goretex cagoule. This is on its last legs, but will be fine for further protection from the wind and snow.
Upper body – part 2
The final upper body layer is a Rab Expedition down jacket. The only colour in my size was red, so I do not think that there is any danger of me not being spotted when we are on the mountain!
This jacket is designed specifically for high altitude and polar regions. It has loads of pockets, including two inner ones where a thermos flask and food can be stored and not freeze. One of these inner pockets can be seen in the photo above.
Not just one hat but two beanies (one thicker than the other), a wide brimmed hat (for those balmy sunny days), a baseball type cap (with detachable neck cover), a buff, a balaclava and a face mask. With the dry atmosphere it can be important to cover the nose and mouth so that you breathe warm, damp air – the cold, dry air can desiccate the airways and cause irritation. In windy weather I will likely be wearing balaclava, beanie, face mask and buff!
After the face, the hands are at most risk of frostbite. At the bottom of the picture, there are two pairs of thin and thicker liner gloves. The blue thicker ones are Rab Powerstretch gloves. These gloves are worn under the others shown in the picture. I am required to have two pairs of each (in case of loss) so I am hoping that Santa will be providing the second set of each.
On the mid-left are some Marmot guide gloves which are suitable for benign conditions. To their right are some Marmot insulated gloves. I used these on Elbrus summit day, but they are not suitable for the worst conditions that Antarctica can throw at you.
The ones at the top are Outdoor Research Alti-Mitts. The mitts are waterproof, insulated and have removable liners (the red inner shown in the photo). They also have pockets to insert hand warmers. They are very warm and would be suitable for 8,000m peaks.
All of the gloves, other than the liners have wrist loops to prevent them from blowing away in the wind should they be taken off.
The sleeping bag is a Rab Expedition 1400. This is rated to -40C. I will also have a silk liner. This sleeping bag retails at £699 (though you can find it cheaper). Again I have been able to hire one. As for mats I will have a foam one and a Vango Aero blow up one.
One luxury I have invested in are Rab down slippers to keep my feet warm when in the tent.
I will also have earplugs and an eye mask to deal with the 24 hour daylight I will experience.
As might be expected, I will have ice axe, walking poles, harness, karabiners, helmet and various ropes and slings. Glacier travel is involved and we will be roped up to mitigate against slides and falls into crevasses.
70 litre Osprey pack, various dry bags, two sets of goggles and two sets of sun glasses with category 3 or 4 lenses, water bottles and insulation for them, 1 litre and 500ml thermos flasks (little one to go in the down jacket), insulated mug, GPS, medical kit, knife, spoon and bowl (latter not pictured) and an Adventure Peaks 100 litre duffel.
What does it all look like?
Well here is a picture.
I will have to weigh it all at some point! It will have to be carried, whether on my person or in bags or on a sled.