Stitching together past and present

It’s pretty late and very dark outside, and from my quiet room I can hear the rush of the wind through the base supports.  It must be around 25-30 knots, because it is just beginning to hum a little, right on the edge of my hearing.  I can’t see the landscape outside in the darkness, but I know what it must look like: knee-high spindrift flowing over the rock and under the base,  ghostly in the starlight.  My focus, however, is much closer and more mundane than the world out there.  I’m sitting sewing.  My mother would be so proud.

I have more pairs of gloves here in Antarctica than I care to count.  We were issued with several pairs of leather work gloves, two pairs of thick leather fleece-lined behemoths of which no-one is quite sure of the intended use, two pairs of fleece liners, a pair of nylon mittens and a pair of glow-in-the-dark-orange plastic gloves that have no conceivable use other than directing aircraft on the apron at the nearest airport (made of thick plastic, they harden solid within minutes in the cold, have no insulation, and are too tight-fitting to wear  anything underneath).  The leather work gloves are useful inside but are too cold and harden beyond use outdoors, and the thick leather gloves allow dexterity suited to carrying boxes or picking up horses but nothing smaller.  The most useful are the mittens over a pair of fleece liners – this keeps hands warm under a good range of conditions, but, of course, with limited dexterity.  Faced with this selection, I made sure I purchased two pairs of high-quality outdoor gloves and several other sets of linings before coming down, and most of the team fortunately followed this lead.  I have a beautiful pair of Black Diamond climbing gloves that have kept me happy (with liners) down to -40°C in the wind, and a pair of First Ascent ski-gloves that are my everyday companions.  Therein, however, lies the rub – and lots of it – after 8 months of daily use they are now having their second major surgery… which is why I’m sitting sewing.

In fact, I’m not just sewing – I’m suturing.  My aforementioned (and hopefully proud) mother taught me to throw my first few stitches, and a childhood/adolescence as a Scout gave me fair opportunity for practice. (It’s just so not cricket to have your mother sew on your hard-earned badges if you are a true card-carrying, knot-tying, woggle-weaving, Prepared, DYBity-DOBing Scout).  Medicine and a penchant for the sharper end – where holes in humans need to be repaired – have blessed me with the chance to turn so-so sewing skill into satisfactory sutures.  On a Friday night after pay-day there was always plenty of fresh material on which to sharpen my ability waiting in Casualty, having already had their brandy-and-coke pre-medication prior to whatever incident precipitated precipitation of their blood and a ride in the local taxi-with-disco-lights.  Over time, some trauma and surgical skills courses, hours in the operating theatre watching, assisting and later doing I’ve picked up some tricks that my mother probably doesn’t know, but I never envisaged I’d be using them on gloves in Antarctica.

It may seem an abhorrent waste to be using suture material on gloves, but the truth is that I was forced to dispose of a fair quantity here at the base that was well beyond its expiry date, and rather than turf it I decided that it would be handy for practice.  I can hardly expect my compatriots here to lacerate themselves on a regular basis for the purpose of maintaining my manual dexterity, so from time to time I pull out some of the old sutures and practice various techniques on the nearest piece of fillet or sirloin.  When I saw how my first repairs to my gloves, using normal cotton thread, were deteriorating, I decided to try something different.  Now, sitting comfortably with the familiar surgical implements in my hands, I lay a continuous line of sutures along a burst seam, and then reverse direction, taking tiny double-bites, inverting and enveloping the suture-line as I would double-seal a bowel anastomosis.  A final careful pass of the needle buries the knot.  Voilà!  I’m suturing my gloves back to life.

If my occupational requirements do not satisfy you, dear reader, as enough reason for a man to be doing needlework, and you feel that my Boy Scout history detracts from any rugged manly impression I might have succeeded in creating in the past, let me remind you that there is most certainly a precedent for this activity.  The explorers of the Heroic age – the men of Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson and Scott – sat by flickering light in the winter night on this same continent a century ago egaged with needle and thread.  Most of the great expeditions – and certainly the attempts upon the South Pole – relied upon a schedule which required spending at least one winter in Antarctica.  Often, in those days, the clothing and equipment was purchased by the leader or his delegates and only issued to the men during the southward voyage.  They lacked the modern materials which make our existance comparitively easy – nylon, fleece, polypropylene – and the convenience of each item in standardised sizes.  Rather, the men would take to making their own alterations to fit, form and function.  A common winter activity amongst Scott’s men while preparing for the Pole was adding layers, baffles and insulation to the parkas they wore, and repairing gloves, traces and harnesses.  Although I have the pleasure of superior technology and an electric light to work by, the feeling of connection to those great explorers and the generations of Antarcticans who have followed them is inescapable as I sit surrounded by the same darkness listening to the same cold wind.

Mind in the past, fingers in the present.  I sit and suture so that I, like those who went before, am ready for exploration when summer comes again.

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