Sometimes forgotten at the bottom of the globe, Antarctica surfaces in the popular imagination as a sort of fantasy—of wintry landscapes and adorable wildlife—or, increasingly, a rhetorical figure for climate change, so it is surprisingly easy to forget that Antarctica is an actual place, one that has attracted scientists and explorers for its rich ecosystem and history. Lincoln Ellsworth (1880–1951) was a famous polar explorer, as well as a benefactor of the American Museum of Natural History, who helped to map the vast, still-unknown geography of Antarctica. Between 1933 and 1938, Ellsworth surveyed thousands of miles of Antarctica from the vantage of a plane and, along with his crew, trekked across the surface of the continent to gather specimens of the wildlife that they found there. His explorations shed a light on the mysterious region of the earth, and the attention he received in the U.S. press sparked readers’ interest in the far-off region of the earth.
Although remembered more for his flight investigations, Ellsworth’s on-the-ground travels contributed much to science’s understanding of the Antarctic. His set of crampons facilitated his explorations. These spiked, metal foot soles attached to the bottom of his boots and allowed him to cross icy surfaces without slipping. They are stamped Attenhofer, Zurich. Attenhofer was one of dozens of such winter sports and mountaineer gear suppliers operating in Switzerland in the early 20th century. Adolf Attenhofer was a skiing champion, who became a ski and skiing equipment maker and developer from the 1920s to the 1950s.
These Attenhofer crampons were likely something that Ellsworth put on unthinkingly every day, and yet they were also vital to the success of his mission. The tools and equipment at an explorer’s disposal shape what sort of information they can gather, what places they can access, and how they can transport their findings. More than mere memorabilia from the expedition, these crampons enabled some of the knowledge that Ellsworth was able to produce during his encounters in the Antarctic.
Written by Daniel Pfeiffer with assistance from AMNH staff
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