Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Quick Note on ECW


First of all, Happy Pi Day!  Gotta love the ol’ 3.1415926…

Second of all, this is the coldest day I have experienced on station so far!  We have officially hit -81F!  Wow!   At these temperatures there are very few vehicles we can actually use outside, and your soda is chilled pretty quickly sitting on the deck.  I have had several friends from home asking how you can possibly stay warm at these temperatures and how long you can safely stay out.  Hopefully this posting answers some of those questions…

ECW.  Those three letters are ingrained in every Polie – Extreme Cold Weather… gear.  When we pass through the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) on our way through Christchurch, New Zealand, we spend a lot of time getting our issued cold weather gear (ECW).  Everyone is required to pick up a basic number of items, ranging from rubber ‘bunny’ boots, ski goggles, and thick socks, to the classic and iconic ‘big red’ down parka.  You can spend hours trying on clothing items, checking zippers, and looking for other sizes.  Depending on what job you have in Antarctica, how long you will usually spend outside, and how long you are staying at your station (summer vs. winter vs. short visit), you are issued different items.  Since I’m a winter-over, I got it ALL.  Also being a winter-over, we are issued at least two of everything.  We have an emergency cache of ECW that is stored away from the station just in case (heaven forbid) the station burned down with all of our gear inside it.  If you came to the Ice without any of your own personal gear, you’d be perfectly warm and happy.  Snug as a bug in a rug.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of some of the gear that is issued.  Being a bit of a gear fanatic (and snob, I may add – hey, don’t judge), I brought down a lot of my own cold weather items.  And I’m pretty glad I did – you can never have too much ECW down here.  I came prepared with my own long underwear, fleece layers, hats, glove liners, gloves, balaclavas, neck gaiters, goggles, winter boots, socks… can you possibly put anything else on your body?  Now I wear a mix of my own gear and the issued gear.  Here’s how a normal trip outside goes:

First, I put on a pair of medium-weight long underwear, thick socks, and a t-shirt.  Next is my insulated pair of Carhartt bibs.  These bibs are serious – I highly recommend them.  I am actually going to invest in a set when I get home.  They are heavy-duty, warm, and have a million pockets.  They would be great for hanging around outside in the winter – I’m thinking ice fishing here…  The boots are next – I bought a pair of Sorel boots rated to -100F before I came down here – they’re a life-saver.  The boots we are issued (bunny and FDX boots) don’t have great ankle support and tend to have slippery soles in cold weather.  I loveeee my Sorels!  Next comes a fleece hoodie and a medium-weight down vest.  Before I zip the vest, I put on a wind-stopper fleece balaclava.  Zip!  The bottom of the balaclava gets snugly sealed into that first layer of warmth.  Next comes my medium-weight down jacket (that I got from Patagonia – I swear I’m not getting paid to say this, but it’s the best jacket I’ve ever had.  If you are looking to invest, this is the jacket for you.) and a fleece neck gaiter.  I have a black gaiter I brought from home, but I like to wear one I purchased in the store here at Pole.  It’s green, has gold decorative stitching, and clear sequins.  You’ve gotta feel like a girl every once in a while, right?  It might as well be when you’re headed outside.  After the gaiter, I put on a beautiful wool and fleece hat my parents gave me right before I left for the Ice.  Then my hood comes up, keeping the wind from sneaking down my neck, and my dark-lens goggles over it all.  The goggles I brought are pretty much worthless down here – they fog up so fast!  I have put duct tape on the bottom foam of my issued goggles to try and keep out my breath, but it’s not perfect. Lastly, the hands.  I’m still working this situation out.  I have several different kinds of glove liners, gloves, and gauntlets.  Today I wore a pair of fleece wind-stopper glove liners and my huge ‘bear paw’ leather insulated gauntlet gloves.  I used to wear just the glove liners back in the summertime when it was -20F.  It’s amazing what a different 60 degrees makes!  I think when it gets really cold (we’re talkin’ -100F here), I’ll probably opt for a pair of wool and possum liners I bought from Scott Base (Kiwi station near McMurdo), the insulating layer from another pair of mittens, and my bear paws.  And maybe hand warmers if I’m planning on staying out longer than my usual walk to ARO and tour of the roof to check instruments.  Today I actually added a soft shell jacket to my normal ‘ensemble’ to try to keep a little more of my heat from escaping.  I think it works, but the funny thing is that soft shell material sounds like a crinkly plastic trash bag at these temps.  Weird.

How long can we stay outside?  I’d say at these temperatures, a normal person should probably stay outside for about an hour before coming in at least for a few minutes to warm up.  Our Materials folks are mainly working outside on the berms, where things that aren’t currently needed are stored.  They dress a lot warmer than I do because they are out there so long.  You could stay out longer if you had to, but you would definitely need hand warmers and foot warmers!  And move around a LOT!

It’s funny, because once you reach cold temperatures, it doesn’t feel much colder, even when the mercury drops.  The main difference is that you get colder faster.  Earlier this morning I ran out to the roof of ARO to check on some instruments in just a fleece and Crocs before checking the temperature.  Sure, it was chilly, but it didn’t actually feel different.  I was amazed at how quickly I felt the cold, and then knew something was up.  Over the summer I could stay on the roof for several minutes at a time without a jacket, hat, or other ECW.  I would even go out in a t-shirt! (I know I’m crazy though – the temps were still well below zero)  Now I at least make sure my face is covered.  Air this cold is horrible for the lungs – you can damage the tissues by breathing it, giving you a horrible cough for a month or so.  Balaclavas are your friends!  I’m much more careful going outside these days.

Speaking of going outside, I’m headed back out to work on the Skua Shack, continuing to move clothes, random appliances, shoes, and costumes (we found a gorilla mask last week) into the station for the winter.  Since the Skua Shack isn’t heated and I’m planning on being out for a while, I’m definitely going to use hand warmers! 

Stay warm at home J

3 comments:

Suzanne said...

You are AWESOME, just like your weather! You also have a good head on your shoulders.......

I like the verification word that this is asking for....
"phooness". I'll have to find a way to use this very soon!

Stay warm!

David Pablo Cohn said...

Thanks so much for posting - makes me, uhhh, "polesick" for the ice.

But please post a picture of you all done up in your -81F ECW, willya?

Meg said...

This is amazing and very informative. You should post a link to your Patagonia jacket! I want to know which one you have!