The Antarctic Performance Test
Seb Coulthard testing the Shackleton Endurance Parka.
Recently returned from a packed sojourn in Antarctica, polar pioneer Seb Coulthard called in at The Shackleton Company’s HQ in London to tell us about his travels to hallowed Shackleton ground.
We were keen to hear his report on how our British designed and made Shackleton Endurance Parkas performed in the world's largest weather factory.
The Shackleton Company (TSC): Welcome back Seb, how long were you away for?
Seb Coulthard (SC): Five months in total.
TSC: This wasn’t your first trip to the Southern Ocean was it?
SC: No, it’s become a kind of second home - I first visited South Georgia when I was a helicopter engineer in the Royal Navy aboard HMS Manchester in 2009. I was lucky enough to take a day off and fly the entire length of the island from top to bottom. In that moment I was forever entranced by the beauty of that bleak wilderness. Since then, I’ve been back to Antarctica eight times and have become deeply immersed in its history and stories.
Icebergs encountered in Antarctica.
TSC: Many will know you for your part in The Shackleton Epic in 2013 in which you and your crewmates re-enacted the Shackleton Double (the Caird crossing followed by a traverse of S. Georgia) with exactly the same clothing and equipment that The Boss and his men had a century before - including a faithful replica of the Caird (fully documented on Seb’s website Shackletonlegacy.com).
SC: Yes. I was the Bosun - in charge of all the equipment and the boat. There’s a lot to be said for woollen jumpers… but I’m very glad that outerwear technology has moved on somewhat since the turn of the last century. In 2013 I’d never been so utterly, dangerously cold. This time in your modern lightweight parka I found myself over-heating at times!
TSC: And what were you doing down south this time?
SC: A huge amount. As a polar adventure guide onboard MS Hebridean Sky, I lectured in polar history, worked in various crew logistics roles such as zodiac driving and I led a number of mountaineering trips, including a tough one in South Georgia. It was a great experience with some outstanding people.
Overnight camp in Neko Harbour.
TSC: What was your route?
SC: We sailed from Ushuaia (Patagonia) across the Drake Passage (2-3) days to the South Shetlands and from there each trip took in a range of places with the itinerary changing according to what the weather would permit. So over the course of the trip, I visited Deception Island, South Georgia, The Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy, Port Charcot, Antarctic Sound and made landfall in many places along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
TSC: Which were the most memorable locations?
SC: We visited many fantastic locations but the highlight for me had to be zodiac cruising around Elephant Island. Just getting a glimpse of Point Wild, the exact location where Shackleton left 22 men marooned as he set sail aboard the Caird to seek rescue. Ships seldom visit this location as it is notorious for bad weather, imagine what that must have felt like to spend four months living on a desolate Antarctic beach a century ago. It was really unforgettable.
Elephant Island - it is very rare to be able to land here and ships don’t visit. It is sacred ground for Shackleton enthusiasts - just getting a glimpse is hugely inspiring. It is extremely difficult to get close but easier using Zodiacs if you’re very lucky.
TSC: What’s at the top of most peoples’ Antarctica wish list?
SC: Undoubtedly South Georgia, for the 300,000 King Penguins that nest along the west coast, for the spectacular jagged mountains that rise out of the ocean and of course its unique place in polar history. About half of all expeditions' itineraries visit Grytviken where Shackleton is buried, some make landfall at Fortuna Bay further north up the coast, in order to walk the last four miles of his mountain trek to Stromness whaling station where he raised the alarm nearly two years after his initial departure. I led a mountaineering trek up to the Fortuna Glacier for nine mountaineers last October. We were fully equipped in modern gear, with a support ship standing by, and we were physically fit. Getting a glimpse of the country Shackleton and two companions crossed in 1916, at the very limit of what was believed to be humanly possible was simply awe-inspiring. There was silence amongst the team as they placed one snowshoe in front of the other, the only audible sounds where the cracks of ice underfoot, the wind carving the landscape and the Pipits whistling from afar.
King Penguins. South Georgia has the largest concentration of Kings in the world, with approximately 150,000 mating pairs on one beach alone.
TSC: What are the challenges of multi-location working in such an extreme environment?
SC: Antarctica demands a reasonable level of skill and experience. One needs local and regional knowledge, marine and navigational expertise and a good understanding of marine wildlife behaviour, movements and habitation in order to move around and access various locations in accordance with a complex set of international guidelines and laws. Some areas are only visited 2 or 3 times per annum which is exciting but more hazardous.
There are always lots of variables to consider at all times when planning day trips - and throughout the day itself. Fast-accelerating weather conditions, fluke katabatic winds, volatile sea state, icebergs, whales and wildlife… the list goes on. There’s never any guarantee of achieving the day’s objectives so it’s vital to adapt to the conditions and the environment and set new objectives when the original ones aren’t attainable - all very Shackleton!
Northern Shore at King Haakon Bay, South Georgia. This is the terrain Shackleton had to contend with when crossing the interior of the island.
TSC: What kind of kit did you need for the typical day?
SC: A typical day is very varied. There is never any waiting around, Antarctic expedition cruising has to be very efficient in order to make the most of the weather, and the time. Each location is controlled by a visitor schedule which prevents more than one ship being from visiting the same location, potentially stressing the wildlife with an over abundance of humans! We are a foreign species in Antarctica, guests of the wildlife. Temperatures can range between -15 and +15 centigrade depending on the location. Wind speeds can go from zero to 50 knots in under 10 minutes if you get caught out! We don’t really like landing ashore in speeds over 15-20 knots. It’s a hard judgement call.
Zodiac driving in high winds with lots of sea spray can be quite tedious but, if you accept that this is the true nature of Antarctica; the largest weather factory on Earth, you can try to adjust your thinking to feeling comfortable. As a general rule though, expedition guides do their best to avoid these sorts of conditions but mother nature works doesn’t really care about you in Antarctica. Overnight camping, kayaking and photography workshops are included in a days’ activity, the human body goes from being very warm to very cold quite quickly depending on the time of day. Sea water temperatures can be as low as -1 degree, if you dunk your hand in Antarctic sea water it’s painfully cold. Regardless of activity or location we all need warm, waterproof and wind-resistant outer layers, with good layering underneath - my preference is wool for its natural drying and warming properties. Weight is also a crucial factor, multiple layers of thick fleeces are tiring and restrict mobility.
TSC: How did you test the Shackleton Endurance Parka?
SC: The Parkas were tested by four different people (guide, scientist, photographer, adventurer) in temperatures as low as -15 degrees of frost. Bear in mind we can only access the Antarctic Peninsula during the summer months (Oct - March) and so didn’t get much colder in coastal areas. Everyone was working in conditions that were cold, wet and very windy. The jacket was passed around various people with different skillsets and experience of the Antarctic and the Arctic. Each one in turn trialled the jacket in the field and handed me a feedback form.
Shackleton Endurance Parka.
TSC: What was the feedback?
SC: The general consensus was that this is a fantastic jacket because it’s very warm and very light.
I’m a bit of a geek about equipment… the reason why this jacket performs so well is down to the quality of the down and the way it lofts… most outerwear companies use a cheaper rough goose feather of up to 600 fillpower, this is a 900 fillpower European Goosedown which means that the finer feathers create far more space for warm air to collect, whilst weighing far less. The inner down is like being in the best possible sleeping bag, but the outer waterproof shell keeps the wind and wet out brilliantly.
Other people testing the jacket said:
- The coyote fur makes a real difference in the cold - it traps a micro-climate of warm air around the face which makes it much easier to breathe. You don’t need that in London, but you need it down south.
- Love the deep pockets and their position.
- “I can’t believe how warm this jacket is, it’s so cold outside – I am just wearing a t-shirt underneath!” - Pablo Brandeman (Assistant Expedition Leader).
- “With a few modifications, I would wear this jacket for logistical support work at the South Pole and (ALE) Union Glacier” - Adam Rheborg (Polar Adventure Guide/Professional wildlife photographer).
- Beautiful design, great colour, very retro! - Daniel Stavert (Kayaking Guide).
Daniel Stavert - Kayak Guide at Peggotty Bluff, King Haakon Bay, South Georgia.
Pablo Brandeman - Assistant Expedition Leader.
TSC: This jacket was a production prototype. If we go ahead into full production, how can we improve it?
SC: Like I said, it’s an awesome piece of kit, but it could be even better if:
- the very-useful snowskirt was stronger, grippier.
- the buttons were replaced with Velcro. Buttons look great but they get caught on equipment, Velcro can undone easily using a single tug from a gloved hand.
- the zip pulls were beefier for use with gloves
- there was a double zipper to allow the lower end to open = easier sat down driving a zodiac, etc.
- the waist pull used shock-cord rather than non-stretch draw cord.
- the hood was slightly bigger to accommodate a climbing helmet worn underneath.
TSC: And I suppose you’d like your initials on the breast pocket too?
SC: Haha, that would be nice.
TSC: Where are you off to next?
SC: I’m heading to Jordan to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Aqaba - often remembered as an epic battle led Colonel TE Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawernce of Arabia. In 2018 the world will remember the end of the Great European War. Part of that war was fought in the Middle East and my team are quite keen to ensure the actions of certain men are remembered too. We plan to cross a portion of desert in period kit, using camels for transport and eating greasy mutton cooked over a fire. The usual expedition I like to get involved in, empirical reenactment. We hope to produce an independent film of our activities, a first for us as a team. The team is made up of 4 lads and 5 camels, that’s it - you have to be a minimalist in the desert!
TSC: Seb, thanks so much for telling us about your trip and giving us such clear feedback on our kit - it will all be built into the next stage of development.
SC: You’re welcome. Do you have anything suitable for the extremes of the desert or the tropics?
TSC: We’re working on it.
About Seb Coulthard
Seb is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, former GB Chapter Chair for The Explorers Club, Member of the James Caird Society, joint recipient of the Royal Institute of Navigation Certificate of Achievement, and a joint Royal Yachting Association and Union Internationale Motonautique powerboat world record holder. Seb is a retired Royal Navy helicopter engineer, an Arctic extreme cold-weather survivalist and a certified IAATO field guide.
In 2013, Seb took part in the Shackleton Epic – a faithful recreation of Shackleton’s escape from Antarctica in 1916 in which Seb and crew sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia using only the equipment, clothing and techniques available to Shackleton, Crean, Worsley, McNish, McCarthy & Vincent a century before. Three members of the expedition then ventured 25 miles overland to recreate Shackleton’s pioneering mountain crossing from King Haakon Bay to Stromness Whaling Station.
Follow Seb on twitter @sebcoulthard or visit his website www.shackletonlegacy.com
Alll images coursey of Seb Coulthard.
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