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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival
October 31, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Grytviken, South Georgia Wind: 1.1 knots, N
Latitude: 54 degrees 17'S Air Temp: 30-45°F
Longitude: 36 degrees 30'W Water Temp: 30-41°F

Cathren Warner fitting Bob Wallace Cathren Warner fits John Mack with his costume before filming aboard the James Caird at sea.
"I cannot imagine how they survived, it's just phenomenal," says Cathren Warner, costume designer for NOVA's large-format film about Shackleton's expedition currently in production in the Antarctic. Warner has special insight into the day-to-day battle against the elements waged by Shackleton's crew. A designer for feature films, large-format films, and commercials for the past 15 years, she specializes in period films. In order to create historically accurate costumes for the film's recreation scenes, she researched period Antarctic "kit" extensively.

"I loved the research process, reading expedition books and journals to find references to clothing, and examining archival photos," enthuses Warner. "Then I went to England to study actual clothing in the archives of the National Maritime Museum and Burberry's, which was just fascinating. "Burberry's outfitted the Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, and Mawson Antarctic expeditions, and supplied Warner with the same type of cotton gabardine fabric used for their coats.

The standard issue gear for Shackleton's crew members included Jaeger woolen long underwear, a woolen pullover sweater, woolen trousers and coat or vest, a wool muffler and balaclava, wool socks, fur mitts, and either leather hobnail, cotton-gabardine, or reindeer-fur finnesko boots. The outfit was topped with a Burberry's cotton gabardine coat.

Dress-me-up-Simon Mountain guide Simon Abrahams demonstrates what it takes to brave the Antarctic elements:
Layer 1: Base layer of moisture - wicking thermal top, shorts, liner socks, thick woolen socks, waterproof insulated boots with thermal insoles
Layer 2: Wind-resistant, thermal fleece bibs
Layer 3: Medium-weight fleece jacket
Layer 4: Fleece neck gaiter, windproof / waterproof / breathable bibs
Layer 5: Fleece balaclava, heavyweight fleece jacket, moisture-wicking glove liners
Layer 6: Windproof / waterproof / breathable shell jacket, windproof fleece gloves
Layer 7: Ultraviolet A/B blocking sun goggles, SPF 45 sunblock, waterproof / windproof / breathable insulated overmitts, radio, waterproof immersion bibs and jacket with insulation and built-in flotation, ski pole

"Shackleton's men must have been incredibly uncomfortable," speculates Warner. "Wool holds water and doesn't wick moisture away from the skin, so they would have been wet and chafed from the scratchy wool. There's a possibility that the build-up of soot and seal blubber on their unwashed skin over such a long period could have provided some protection, but not much. And wind blows right through it. The gabardine coat would have supplied some wind and water resistance. But it's no wonder that frostbite was a problem for them."

The period clothing is so inefficient, in fact, that Warner designed the costumes to accommodate a base layer of clothing made with modern moisture-wicking, wind-resistant fabrics. In addition, since the film's skippers would be sailing replicas of the Endurance lifeboats on the rough Antarctic seas, where immersion could mean hypothermia in minutes, the costumes also accommodate an immersion suit underneath.

Modern Antarctic kit is designed to be lightweight and comfortable, which is essential for expedition members like mountain guide Simon Abrahams. Abrahams has worked in the Antarctic often since 1992, when he first joined the British Antarctic Survey as a field guide. In 1996-98, he overwintered for 18 months while based at Rothera Station. He's part of a team of guides assembled by polar experts David Rootes and Nick Lewis. The guides ensure that the film crews work in this environment safely, and an essential element of survival is clothing.

"The key is keeping warm and dry, and wearing layers you can take on or off through the day," says Abrahams. "Conditions change so quickly here. This gear would easily take you to -100°F."

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Question of the Day
What kind of ship will you take to the Antarctic?

    Previous Questions

Answer to October 28 Question of the Day:
Past expeditions have traveled on foot, dog sled, skis, wind-power, the newly invented motor car, ponies, and even bicycles, and each had their drawbacks. What method of travel will you choose for your expedition?

I led the first dog-sled expedition that crossed Antarctica. This was Shackleton's dream in 1915, but he was stopped when his ship the Endurance was crushed in the sea ice. I choose the longest route, which was just a few miles short of 3,800 miles. We left in the northernmost region of the Antarctic Peninsula on July 27, 1989, and arrived over 220 days later on the eastern side of Antarctica at the Russian Base of Mirny on March 3, 1990. We left in mid-winter and traveled through spring, summer, fall and into the beginning of the winter season of 1990.

On my dog-sled expedition of 1989-1990, I chose an international team of five other men. We were all from different countries—Quin Dahe (Peoples Republic of China), Keizo Funatsu (Japan), Jean-Louis Etienne (France), Victor Boyarsky (Soviet Union), Geoff Somers (Great Britain), and myself from the United States. Our average age was over forty, and we were all experienced in cold weather. Also there were 30 dogs. We traveled on skis with three dog sleds; each one was pulled by ten dogs. We trained extensively before the expedition, and we all had lived together during this long training period. The dogs also went through a long training period. The success and safety of an expedition depends on this training.
—Will Steger is a polar explorer and author who led the first transcontinental dog-sled expedition that crossed Antarctica.

Sound of the Day
Helicopter landing on the Laurel:
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View Expedition Maps


Survival Training (October 19, 1999)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)

Photos: (1) Rob Meyer; (2) Kelly Tyler.

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