Merino in pole position

28 March 2012

Australian adventurers are taking Merino wool on a journey from the North Pole to the South Pole, proving it is a fibre of all seasons.

Pat Farmer salutes the Arctic during his “Pole to Pole Run” to raise money for International Red Cross.

“With over 30 years working in the outdoors, almost two thirds of which were in the Arctic and Antarctic, I've seen a lot of 'wonder' fabrics come and go. But few make their mark like Merino wool.”

So says Eric Philips, a pioneering spirit in Australian professional adventuring. In 2004 the Arctic explorer was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for services to polar exploration. Together with his companion Jon Muir, he was the first Australian to ski to both the north and south poles.

He has guided numerous successful treks in the polar regions. In 2011 he guided ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer on the Arctic leg of Mr Farmer’s Pole to Pole Run from the North Pole to the South Pole and early 2012 the couple reunited for the final leg of the run from Antarctica to the South Pole.

After a helicopter delivered the four-man team to the North Pole in April, Mr Philips and his team trekked on foot, each man dragging sleds, for 40 days – nearly 800km across the ice – to Canada. Then in January 2012, 21,000 kilometres from where he took his first icy step, Mr Farmer planted a Red Cross flag into the icefields of Antarctica. Crossing 14 countries, snow fields, jungles and deserts, the 48-year-old ultra-marathon runner averaged about 80 kilometres per day to raise $100,000 for the international Red Cross.

Both Mr Philips and Mr Farmer were kitted out with baselayers of 100 per cent Australian Merino wool, produced by Tasmanian manufacturer Smitten Merino.

“We wore a range of Merino thermals including T-shirts, long sleeve crews, leggings, zip neck tops and wool fleece pants,” Mr Philips said.

“Merino works great when layered in extreme environments like the North Pole. I prefer to wear two to three layers of lightweight Merino than one super heavyweight top. This gives me flexibility to have my core temperature just right by peeling off layers or adding them depending on the conditions.”

“The clothing was fantastic, it performed perfectly. I used the thumb loops for the first time and they were really helpful in keeping my fingers warm.

“Pat also loved the Merino apparel. He wore it all the time – all day and night.”

Mr Farmer is no stranger to the benefits of Merino, having worn Merino-based SportwoolTM apparel on his record breaking runs around Australia in the late 1990s.

Expeditions at the North Pole come with many potential challenges such as freezing temperatures, blizzards, pressure ridges of broken ice to clamber over, open water to raft across, and even polar bears – with Mr Philips carrying a Ruger 30-06 rifle in case of polar bear attack.

But halfway through the expedition he experienced every polar explorer’s nightmare: slipping through thin ice into the bitterly cold waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Luckily he managed to scramble out of the water quickly. And fortunately he was wearing Merino baselayers; the natural crimp of Merino fibres create a lot of very small insulating air pockets that help keep the wearer warm in cold conditions, even when damp.

“Without a doubt, Merino dries quickly, especially when it is a fine lightweight Merino. It keeps you relatively warm when wet – even after taking a plunge into ice cold water!

“Merino offers excellent protection from extremes of temperature. I've worn it on ski expeditions to both the north and south poles and there's no comparing the superior warmth and feel of wool.”

Another reason Mr Philips admires Merino apparel is due to its effective odour control.

“There's no comparing the smell; unlike synthetics, Merino wool doesn't retain the odour of accumulated sweat and grime, and that's a great bonus, particularly when an expedition drags from weeks into months.”

Unpleasant odours during exercise are caused when sweat degrades. The complex chemical structure of Merino wool actually locks away these unpleasant odour molecules, which are then released on washing.

When Mr Philips is not helping out with the Pole to Pole Run to raise money for International Red Cross he lives in Hobart with his wife and two children and operates his successful adventure travel business, Icetrek Expeditions. Drawing on his experiences of adventure and survival, he is also an accomplished raconteur and motivational speaker.

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