Gearing up for Antarctica in New Zealand
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- The bunny boots seemed to weigh a ton at least. The fuzzy-backed mittens were too big, even with leather gloves inside them. And the simple truth is nobody looks great in insulated bib overalls.
Yet this ungainly-looking gear is coveted, because it is designed for trips to Antarctica. And one of the rituals before any journey to "The Ice" as veterans call the southern continent, is an hours-long session to try on polar clothing.
As birds twittered outside in balmy weather on Wednesday, dozens of scientists, workers and a few journalists struggled into the utilitarian fashions meant to keep them functioning at McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic Program's biggest Antarctic base.
The try-on took place at the program's Clothing Distribution Center, a warehouse-like facility near the Christchurch airport that is crammed with parkas, boots, caps, socks, gloves, snow-goggles and other materials -- along with hundreds of bright orange bags to stuff them in.
For the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo, participants must wear or hand-carry on board: a water bottle, a pair of leather gloves, a pair of furback gauntlet mittens, one pair of polar fleece pants, one pair of wind pants, two pairs of wool tube socks, one set of expedition-weight long underwear, one set of lightweight long underwear, a pair of insulated rubber bunny boots, a gigantic red polar parka and a yazoo cap with flaps that makes even the most elegant wearer look goofy.
WALK ABOUT IN BUNNY BOOTS
And it all has to fit.
Fit is important, since what passes for slight but bearable discomfort in a temperate climate or a stuffy fitting room can be life-threatening in the harsh winds and bone-chilling cold of Antarctica.
The mental test for those trying on the gear is, if the flight has to land somewhere unexpected, what do you want to have with you to keep yourself warm and safe?
"Don't just try the boots on, you should walk around in them as if you were trying on a pair of heels," said Maureen Harris, who helped with the fitting for the contingent of women getting ready for Thursday's flight.
The acid fit-test for the overalls and much of the long underwear? Make sure you can squat in it.
Many of those heading south on this week's trip are there to monitor environmental programs that watch for the effects of global warming. Others, especially those headed to the South Pole, are working on astronomical projects. Those who will spend long hours outside opt for the insulated overalls with extra padding at the knees.
The whole outfit, which also includes glove liners, a pair of mittens, snow goggles and more polar fleece items, costs about $600 per person. Everything gets returned when participants return from Antarctica.
The CDC contains some 160,000 items worth a total of $4.5 million, according to supervisor Michael McIlroy.
It is part of the International Antarctic Centre, which includes a museum that aims to give tourists a taste of Antarctica, with "backstage" penguin encounters and a ride along the streets of Christchurch in a tracked vehicle called a Hagglund.
Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters Environment Correspondent based in Washington, is reporting on Antarctica on a National Science Foundation Grant.