Monday, 26 October 2015

Arriving at Rothera.

Keeping ourselves amused in South America
A strong Northerly howls across the landscape. The temperature is about a degree above freezing. Sleet slants diagonally down from a leaden sky, plastering any exposed object in a layer of slush. Looking out the window today it feels like it could be Scotland, well except for the 30m ice cliff dropping into the sea that I can just about see through the mist.
This is not Scotland, this is Rothera, the main base for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), located on an island just off the West coast of the Antarctic Peninsular at about 67ยบ South. I have been here for about a week now, and will continue to be based here for the next four months or so.
Torres del Paine. Pretty good looking mountains.
My journey South started about two weeks ago. Train from Aviemore to Cambridge, minibus from Cambridge to Heathrow, flight from Heathrow to Madrid, Madrid to Santiago and then Santiago to Punta Arenas at the Southern tip of Chile. Delays due to weather meant that I was stuck in Punta with eight other BAS employees for three days.
Punta is an interesting town,  and we spent a day wandering around some of the more random shops. One of my favourite was the hardware/outdoor/weapon shop, were you could purchase anything from screwdrivers and hacksaws to chalk and rockboots to handguns, rifles and large hunting knives. I purchased none of the above.
The view from the plane when approaching Rothera.
The next day, having seen the sights of Punta, a group of us decided to hire some bikes, and cycled up into the hills behind the town. On the way back down into town my gear set fell to bits.  Rather than walking all the way back, I took up my companions offer of a tow.  A towing system consisting of three shoe laces and a belt was constructed, and we set off dodging traffic through busy streets of Punta. At this point I was beginning to think (as you might be) what could go wrong with this plan? Surprisingly nothing did go wrong, it worked perfectly, and we soon made it back to the bike shop.
Rothera from the top of the Ramp.
On our final day in Punta we hired a car and drove up to the Torres Del Paine National Park. This was a lovely spot, and a place that I would be keen to return to climb one day. The weather then improved, and the following day the BAS aircraft was able to fly us over the Drake Passage to Rothera.
A wee trip out onto the ice to learn about living and travelling in the field.
Since arriving, myself and the other new field assistants, have been busy with training and getting organised for our field seasons. Although a lot of the mountaineering aspects of our work, such as crevasse rescue, were familiar to us from our mountaineering backgrounds, there was plenty of new stuff to cover. A lot of the new stuff had to do with travel, such as how to pack and tow sledges in the field, how to rope the skidoos together in potentially crevassed terrain, and how to communicate with base. There has also been some time to get out and do some personal skiing, and last night there was a pleasant surprise when an empire penguin (which are pretty rare here at Rothera) waddled up onto the sea ice not far from base.
A lone (lost?) Empire Penguin waddle about the sea ice just behind base.

Monday, 5 October 2015

BAS Training

 A group of us went punting one morning. Here Ali Rose (a fellow field assistant), takes a shot of being chief punter, and is concentrating hard on keeping us going and not falling in (which is harder said than done). 
Back in August, fittingly when I was pottering around on the snowpatches of Ben Nevis, I got a phone call from the the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). They offered me a summer contract working as a field assistant in Antarctica. The role of a field assistant is essentially to look after scientists and help with logistics in the deep field. This is a job that I had been interested in for a long time, so I jumped at the chance.

My training for this job started on Sunday the 13th of September, and lasted for about two and a half weeks. The first week was based at Girton college in Cambridge. Everybody who is going South for the first time has to attend this. There was about 100 people with a wide variety of backgrounds; scientist, mountaineers, carpenters, vehicle mechanics, divers, doctors, radio operators etc. The training started with a general introduction to BAS, and to life in Antarctica. It then proceeded to more specific courses depending on peoples roles and responsibilities. Here I met the other three field assistants who were also going South for the first time, and who I would likely be working with. This part of the training concluded with a three day first aid course, but with a slant to Antarctic conditions.
For the first week of training we were based at Girton college in Cambridge. It was very nice, but did have a bit of a Hogwarts feel about it. 

It was then up to the peak district for a four day field course. Various more experienced field assistants turned up, and helped us teach skills such as navigation, ropework and campcraft to the overwintering staff. Although I wont be overwintering, I was still involved as a field assistant. It was also a good opportunity to get to know others who I would I am likely to be working with over the season. Various staff who had summered before, who were returning to overwinter were there. There was probably as much learning hearing their stories in the bar in the evening, as had occurred through the day.
 A search technique during the field training. Although it might look like a group of people with buckets in their heads, they are in fact wearing white out simulations devices, and are searching for a lost comrade (the man crouching on the right). 

After the field course I had a few days off, so I popped over to North Wales to see some friends and get a few routes done. The route of this mini trip was The Skull up on Cyrn Las. It was a route which I had fallen off about 15 years ago, and to be honest nearly fell off again.  It would appear that Cambridge does not do your climbing a world of good.

The fire fighter course. A group of us putting out a simulated aircraft fire.  

After Wales it was back down to Cambridge for a fire training course. This was very much a crash course, with about 6 months of normal training being squeezed into 3 days. However, it was quite good fun crawling around smokey rooms wearing breathing apparatus looking for dummies and spraying fires with lots of water. The gist of it was that is a plane crashes down there with thousands of liters of aviation fuel, and it goes on fire, there is not much we are going to be able to do about it.

Am now back in Scotland for a few days before heading South on the 12th of October. I should be back around the 20th of February. Although internet access is pretty slow in Antarctica, I will try and keep my blog updated while on base.

BAS's finest fire crew. After 3 days training, what could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Snow Patch Surveying

Iain enjoying the translucent light in the Point Five Gully snow Tunnel. 
Last Friday (the 21st of August) I was again up on the North Face of Ben Nevis to do some surveying. This time I was helping with the Ben Nevis part of the annual Scottish snowpatch survey.
The Scottish snowpatch survey occurs each year in mid/late August,and basically involves people wandering around the hills counting and measuring the remaining snowpatches. I have been involved most years since 2008, and it is something I have written about on my blog a few times. This year I was joined by three fellow snowpatch enthusiasts; Iain Cameron, Mark Atkinson and Al Todd.

As expected given the snowy winter and cool spring/summer, there was a lot of snow on the Ben. In fact there was far more than I had seen at this time of the year before, you would probably have to go back to 1994 to find a time when there was a comparable amount of snow on the hill at this time of year. 
The Observatory Gully patch is not small. The tiny green/black dot is a person. 
The biggest patch of snow on the hill (and quite possibly the biggest in Scotland at the moment) was at the top of Observatory Gully. This is the most permanent patch of snow in the Lochaber area, with snow having been here continuously since November 2006. This year it was huge, hundreds of meters from top to toe.  In fact the toe of the patch was at about 1130 metres, and you could have walked on snow all the way into Gardyloo gully, or across and up to the top of Tower Gully at 1340 metres. The depth of the centre of the patch could only be guessed at, but greater than 15 metres seems reasonable. This patch certainly won't be disappearing this year.

The edge of the Point Five Gully Patch. Not a shallow patch of snow, but probably not as deep as the Observatory Gully Patch.
We then headed down to the patch at the base of Point Five Gully. This patch was about 70 metres long, and perhaps a bit more width wise. The stream that runs down Point Five Gully had formed a tunnel through the centre of the patch. Donning headtorches (as it was very dark in the middle) we went for an explore, and managed to scramble all the way through. At the top we were able to get an idea of the great depth of the snow, again it is very unlikely this patch is going to disappear this year.

Iain near the center of the Point Five Gully Patch it was pitch black. Headtorches were required for a full traverse, fortunately we had two between the four of us.  
We finished off with the zero Gully snow patch. This is currently a comparable size to this time last year. Last year it survived for the first time in a long time (since 2001 or 1994). Although I would not say this patch is guaranteed to survive this year, I think it is fairly likely. It will depend a lot on the weather through the autumn.

Although all the data from the different areas has not yet all be collated, the preliminary results of this years the Scottish snowpatch survey are impressive. At this time last year, after the very snowy winter of of 2013/14, 281 snowpatches were counted in the Scottish hills. This year the final figure is likely to be in the region of 600 or 700 snowpatches. It will be interesting to see which patches survive to be incorporated into next winter snowpack, I suspect that some very unusual survivals are likely.
Once again in the confines of the Point Five Gully Tunnel.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

North Face Surveying

Jenny the geologist about to do an exciting abseil to have a look at some interesting contacts 
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to be involved in this years North Face survey. The North Face survey is a detailed botanical and geological survey of the North Face of Ben Nevis. This opportunity arose through my work with the John Muir Trust who own a fair bit of Ben Nevis. The first part of the survey took place last summer, and a nice little film about it was made by Dave McLeod and can be found here. The third and final part of the survey will take place next summer.

My role, was to work with Mike Pescod and his team to moutaineers to help get the botany and geology experts into the places they wanted to investigate, and help keep them safe.  This involved scrambling or abseiling into some interesting parts of the Ben, places that I would never otherwise would have visited, particularly in summer. It was great being on the Ben with these experts, they pointed out how all the rock told stories, or could say so much about the plants and ecosystems living up there. In summary what I learned was that the geology of the Ben is more complex and less well understood than I had thought, and I can now just about recognise the difference between the rare and common flowers that you get up there. I hope to get the chance to be involved again next summer. 

A starry saxifrage.  I did find some much rarer flowers, but the pictures I took of them did not come out. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Salbitschijen and Other Alpine Rock

Sophie enjoying good granite on the second tower of the West Ridge of the Salbitschijen
The West coast of Scotland does not seem to have been the ideal place to be a rock climber this summer. It has been pretty wet, with little being climbed. Therefore at the end of July I decided to head to the Alps for some sunny rock climbing. I flew out to Geneva and hired a car. My friend Sophie was coming from Sheffield and traveled by train. I met her at Geneva station after a slightly random conversation with the former Pakistani diplomat to Switzerland who was wondering why I headed to Siwzterland rather than Pakistan for my climbing holiday. We headed over to Chamonix in some really heavy rain. It was late and I was tired when we got there, and then I made the tactical error of reversing the hire car into a tree; oopps. I assumed this was going to be an expensive error, but surprisingly Europecar only seemed to charged me £18 for the large scratch/dent.

Next morning we had a wander around Chamonix trying to decide on a plan. The Alps had been having the opposite problem to Scotland this year, things had been very hot and dry. This meant there was a lot of rock fall in the mountains around Chamonix, so we were considering other options. We bumped into some friends who suggested a 10 pitch granite sport route called AlpenTruam near Andermatt in Central Switzerland. AlpenTruam proved to be a fine warm up, and a good re-introduction to the dark art of granite climbing. That evening it started raining, but we headed up the lovely Salbit hut anyway.
The very pointy summit of the Salbitschijen
The next morning things were still a bit damp, but we did a nice 6 pitch route called Me-Mo, which was the equivalent of about E2 or E3, This allowed us to get back to the hut in plenty of time to sort our stuff out. After dinner we headed over and stayed in a bivvi hut at the base of the classic route of the area, the West Ridge of the Salbitschijen. This has about 36 pitches of climbing, and various abseils as it ascends the west ridge over various towers to the spectacular summit pillar. We did not move particularly fast, but were were steady and we did get to the spectacular summit in daylight. However, descending into the thick cloud, we made a slight navigational error (by following the footsteps in the snow) and got back to the hut a bit later than we should of done. Unfortunately this meant we missed Hans's (the hut guardian) birthday drinks.

Gary seconding the 8th pitch of the very fine Hammerbrucke
By the time the sun came out again a few days later we had been joined Gary Smith; a friend who we had met at the hut a few days previously. Gary's climbing partner had headed home, so he joined us for a few routes. We decided to do Hammerbrucke; one of the fine looking rock routes on the second tower of the West Ridge. The route did not disappoint, it gave about 10 sustained pitches of rounded granite cracks and corners. This was a fantastic route, well worth doing.
The top of the Furkr pass in the rain. Luckily Gary had a van which we able to use for cooking in  that evening.
After some more mixed weather we headed to the Grimsel/Furka pass area. There we did the classic 14 pitch slab route "Motorhead". A great route, but baking sunshine led to some painful toes by the top. The next day some cloud gave some welcome shade on the final route of the trip; Sacramotion, a 10 pitch 7a above the Furka pass.  A final day was spent sorting and socialising around the Chamonix area before heading home the next morning.

All in all a successful trip, and thinking back there is little we could have done to improve it (other than avoiding that tree on the first day), I certainly did more climbing than I have done in Scotland so far this year. In fact, it was so good that I am considering going back out in September.

An Austrian team following us up the classic Motorhead. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Spring and summer cragging.

I will admit that I have not updated my blog for a little while. However, it does not feel like very much has been happening climbing wise. This summer I have been working three days a week as the Nevis Conservation Ranger for the John Muir Trust. This has been interesting and varied. Through May and June this involved a lot of environmental monitoring, which is a fancy phrase for wandering about the hills counting and measuring things. However, as I enjoy wander hills, as well as counting and measuring things, this has been very enjoyable.

     One of my survey sites,  Ben Nevis in the background.             Measuring the height of  rowan seedling. 

I had thought by only working 3 days a week I would get loads of climbing around Scotland. However, the weather has been terrible, and it has not really worked out like that.

Iain below his route. It goes up the overhanging wall above him. The first gear
just below the small curving overlap just below the top of the picture. 

Back in May, after a warm up day in Glen Nevis I headed out with Iain Small to a crag he was developing inGlen Coe. This was definitely not a warm up crag. The weather conditions were not great, but Iain was keen a very bold E7/8 wall before all the avalanche debris at the bottom of the route melted, making the prospect of falling off even more terrible. I came along as belayer and chief snow shoveller. We spent about 20 minutes flattening the avalanche debris at the bottom. The prospect of falling off the crux unprotected crux at about 30ft was still terrify, but Iain seemed to ramble up it with out too much difficulty. I fell off seconding (cold hands, or that was my excuse at least) and was only just able to swing to the rock in given the overhanging nature of the route. We also did a good E4/5 that day as well. I think Iain went back to add another E5 and E6 onto the crag with Niall MacNair.

The next trip was down to the Lakes with Murdoch. Murdoch wrote extensively about this on his blog, but I can summarise it here; the grades in the Lakes tend to be a bit stiffer than those in the North West or Wales, and some of the hard routes weren't super clean, but it was fun.

Sophie and Jon turned up at Cloggy and also climbed a Midsummer Nights Dream. Sophie about to start the run-out on the second pitch. 
A few weeks after than I had saved up enough holiday, and headed down to Wales. The weather forecast was very good, but unfortunately, it did not work out like that (it rained quite a lot). There was a fair bit of standing around the bottom of some very good routes in the Llanberis pass watching it rain, wondering if it was going to clear up. However, we did some good routes done in the pass such as The Edge of Time, Rimsky Korsakov and Surgical Lust. There was one good dry day, and so we headed up to Cloggy where we did A Midsummer Nights Dream, Curving Arete and Great Wall done.

That has been about the total of my climbing this year, but I am heading to the Alps for some hopefully sunny rock soon.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Long hard Winter.

The start of winter was a long time ago. My first day out in the snow this year was 11th of December, with my first winter route of the season being Inclination a couple of days later. Almost six months layer, on Wednesday the 3rd of June, there was still some winter activities to be had. With the cold spring, there was still loads of snow about, so I took the opportunity for a June ski tour.  I headed over towards Aonach Beag, and then down An Cul Choire. The snow was a bit damp and sticky, but it was nice to be out. Between my avalanche work, my own skiing and climbing in this country, and ski trips to Norway and Switzerland, I have spent about 100 days on snow this season.

However, my ski boots are starting to fall apart (I did buy them in 1995, and who knows how many thousands of kilometres I have skied in them) and when boot packing up a steep grassy slope on Wednesday, I fell on my face and tweaked my knee. I think it is time to give up snow for a while, and go sunny rock climbing. 

Here are some pictures of seemingly never ending winter of 2014/15. 

Murdoch on Kellet's North Wall Route. A route we back in mid-December, but I did not write about. 

Myself skiing in Glen Coe back in January (photo Tom Grant).

Looking up Observatory Gully on the 23rd of May on the day of my last winter route. Myself and Robin Clothier did a rather hollow Hadrian's Wall Direct. 

Jordan heading off down An Cul Choire on the 3rd of June. The snow was a bit sticky, but we did get a 500 metre descent in total.