Back in the day, arctic explorers had it easy. In order to dress for expeditions, they simply approached Inuit hunters and ordered the hides of whatever animals could be killed. Frederick Cook, who claimed to be the first white man to reach the North Pole, packed hare stockings, blue-fox coats, bearfur pants, and bird-skin shirts. His rival, Robert Peary, favored seal.
To my surprise, it was far harder to outfit a reporting trip to the Arctic Circle last winter, despite modern advances such as Gor-Tex. I am the size of a fifth grader, and for obvious reasons they don’t typically make garments designed for minus-55 degrees to fit children. Finding a parka that didn’t extend to my ankles was proving a challenge. Lest my concerns about wardrobe seem petty, please note that the Arctic is the planet’s most forbidding environment, and even the world’s great armies struggle to keep their troops warm there. The simplest things, like what to eat and wear, become life-and-death matters. I was planning to observe nato exercises, and the military manuals warned of the dangers of packing the wrong gear: Fingers could turn black and fall off; hypothermia could set in; the glare from the sun could burn corneas; you could freeze to death.
Such fashion concerns are likely to be shared by more colleagues in years to come. Climate change is defrosting the high north, and thus opening up reporting opportunities in a territory once off limits for all but science writers and madmen. What follows is a cautionary tale in case you, too, need to dress for success on ice.
Since I didn’t know any Eskimo furriers, my first stop was Paragon Sports, where correspondents kit out for extreme missions. For a past assignment to the Indonesian swamps, I had purchased some nifty trousers there that were imbedded with mosquito repellent. Logic held that Paragon would stock for the climatic extreme. But when I arrived at the outlet on 18th Street in Manhattan, the salespeople reported that a recent blizzard had cleared out the winter inventory. They were now hanging up beachwear.
So it was onto Patagonia, a favorite of mountain climbers. The store was holding its annual Avalanche Sale, which sounded promising for a snowy trip. The “avalanche” turned out to be a hollering mob that fought over half-price fleece. A helpful saleswoman went on a recon mission and returned with terrible news: The lone anorak left in a small came only in lilac. Lilac. We agreed there was no way I could wear a sissy color among soldiers, and she got on the phone for half an hour to locate a women’s Das Parka in Nebraska. Aside from being black, the jacket was made of high-loft 120-g PrimaLoft® Synergy insulation throughout, additional PrimaLoft® ONE insulation in core areas, and a lightweight, PU-coated nylon ripstop shell. In other words, it was waterproof and windproof.
Patagonia couldn’t help with footwear, however. Ordinary hiking boots would not insulate from subzero temperatures; for that I had to venture down the road to Eastern Mountain Sports.
At ems, the Holy Grail awaited: a pair of Sorel Caribou in size 6. The salesman noted that the boots were rated for minus-40 degrees Celsius, adding: “They feature waterproof construction, seam-sealing, removable ThermoPlus™ felt inner boots for warmth, wool/acrylic-blend snow cuffs, felt frost plugs, and vulcanized rubber shells.” They also felt as though someone had poured cement over my feet. As I clumped about like a robot, something in my back snapped.
“They fit perfectly!” the salesman chimed.
He threw in waterproof gloves so thick they could hold their own in the boxing ring, and a balaclava like those worn by Chechen fighters. I was ready to go.
Finding the right clothes was more time-consuming than the three flights and a boat ride it took to reach my destination above the Arctic Circle. Once in the frosty fjords of Norway, I assumed all thoughts about apparel were behind me and I could focus on watching troops shoot in the snow. However, upon arrival at the barracks in Aasegarden, where nato trains its toughest men for extreme cold, I was steered to a conference room for what was billed as the most important briefing of all: The Clothing Lecture.
“Everyone must take this lesson,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Lars Sundnes, as he switched on the PowerPoint. “For a 100-percent chance of survival, 20 percent is the proper clothing and 80 percent is knowing how to use it.”
Bundle up A Norwegian Army officer at the Allied Arctic Training Center in Bardufoos, Norway, demonstrates the layers of clothing soldiers wear while conducting operations in the Arctic Circle. (Robert Nickelsberg)