The Polar Museum is full of curious objects designed to make living and working in the hostile polar regions easier. In fact the collection started out more like a resource centre where prospective explorers could come and see equipment that others had used and share ideas (and perhaps even borrow something…). Not surprisingly, some items were tried out once or twice and never used again, but we still have them in the collection, along with the comments that people made about them which are recorded in our accession register.
One of the fringe benefits of doing a thorough condition survey of our objects is that we get to see some peculiar one-offs that we might never have noticed before. One that caught my eye was this combined snowshoe-ski (Y: 2011/36):
This was an experiment by the Falkland Islands Dependency Service aiming to get the best of both types of snow footwear – but apparently “they worked in neither capacity”!
Another oddity is the “racket ski” (N: 127) originally designed in the 1930s by George Seligman, an eminent glaciologist, for use by porters in the Himalayas. From the top it looks like a rather stubby ski:
But on the underside it has an unexpected covering of velvety fabric!
When you look closer you can see that there are actually two strips of fabric with the nap pointing in opposite directions. This prevents the skis from slipping either forwards or backwards, as the bristly fabric pokes into the snow. This technique was borrowed from the Lapps and the Inuit, who know a thing or two about snow travel, and used fur on the underside of boots and snow shoes in a similar way.
The telltale wire and small screws show where it was once hung up on display in the old style museum, for explorers to see the construction – many of our older objects have similar traces of historic display methods. The other ski in this pair has the wire on the other side so the pair could be hung next to each other showing the top and underside.
The advantage of racket skis was that “they require absolutely no skill in use, and a man, quite unversed in ski-ing, can put them on and walk straight away with them, the only precaution necessary being to keep the points from digging into the snow….Racket ski are superior to snowshoes in that it is not necessary to lift the foot or to walk with feet far apart, and their smaller width makes traversing on steep slopes much easier. They are particularly valuable for use in the neighbourhood of camps and for taking observations, being far less cumbersome and less likely to get mixed up with tripod legs and the like than ordinary ski.”
These racket skis actually made it off the drawing board and were manufactured briefly by Lillywhites in London, but were apparently not widely used.
The most bonkers-looking “ski” in the collection by far is this one:
It was made during the British Graham Land Expedition (Penola) in 1934-7 for crossing treacherous sea ice – and it too has spent time hanging on the wall in the old style Polar Museum:
It consists of a short bit of wood wrapped with fur, with a leather toe strap to hold a boot. A pair of these would work by spreading the weight, and the fur was there to prevent slipping. The ski is very thick and heavy but only 63cm long. Personally I think you would have to be very brave or desperate to go out on treacherous sea ice wearing these. Not surprisingly this particular design never caught on – but several slimmer versions without the fur and with more complex foot straps were developed and manufactured in the 1940’s. So appearances can be deceptive!