Wednesday, 24 April 2019


The cornice picture! Even in poor snow years impressive features can form.  I took this shot of fellow avalanche forecaster Graham Moss in early February. 
Well, that is another winter over. As described in my previous blog post, it was, in general, a poor winter in terms of conditions. From a personal climbing point of view it was also poor, it was the first winter since I was at school which I have failed to do any winter routes for myself.  There were a number of reasons for this beside the poor conditions. However, I won't go into those here.
As usual my main jobs through the winter was as a forecaster for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.  During the lean snow periods the work is definitely a lot easier, but less satisfying, than during periods when there is a significant avalanche hazard.

Doing snow science on Aonach Mor in February. Very pleasant!
I also did some work for the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). The purpose of this work is to improve the snow depth measurement of their SIMBA device ( )
SIMBA is a device which essentially automatically measures snow and ice depth, and relays the information back in essentially real time. They have been used to sea ice for a number of years, there are quite a few deployed around the arctic, and now there is progressively more interest in using them for snow depth measurement. We had one of these devices out in a couple of locations on Aonach Mor, and because I was regularly up there was able to check the readings it was giving. It produced some interesting results that need a bit of interpretation at times, something I have enjoyed working on.
What the Alps should be like, snowy and sunny. The final steep approach to the Aosta hut (Photo Adam).
At the end of the winter I decided to head out to the Alps for some ski touring. I enjoy hut based ski touring, it is an enjoyable way to travel through the mountains. Also allowed me to get a bit of skiing done, something that it feels like Scotland has failed to deliver this season.
Challenging conditions on the Otzal tour. 
This trip I teamed up with another Fort William resident, Adam Macintosh. Adam was planning to head out to the Alps for over a month in his van, and was willing to pick me up at the airport.  The Eastern Alps had had a lot of snow back in January, and so we decided to head to Austria. I had never done the Otzal tour, so we decided to do that. Unfortunately, when I arrived the weather forecast for the whole of the Alps was poor. However, we decided to head up into the mountains and try a slightly shorter version of our planned tour. In the end it all just about worked out and we had a decent tour despite some challenging weather and snow conditions.  At one point Adam announced it was the worst snow he had ever skied! Although it was pretty bad, he later admitted that perhaps he had seen worse at Nevis Range. On the final day we did manage to summit Wildspitze, the second highest mountain in Austria, just before the weather deteriorated again.
Sally, myself, Casper and Adam on top the the Tete de Valpelline. Dent d'Herens and the Matterhorn in the background. 
Lunch stop on the Vallee Blanche. 
Next it was over to Italy where we met up with another couple of Fort William residents; Sally and Casper. Again conditions were quite challenging with a high avalanche forecast issued. However, we did manage a two day tour above Aosta including an ascent of the Tete de Valpelline. This gave great views over to the Dent d'Herens and to the Matterhorn. Finally it was through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Chamonix where on the last day of the trip (for me at least) we skied the Vallee Blanche, a classic long ski decent which I had not done before, on a lovely day and found some good snow.  After that Sally, Casper and Adam headed their own ways (to do some more skiing), and I headed back to the Fort William to start my summer job. That however, is for a blog about another  season.
The walk way up off the glacier to Montenvers. On the way up they have plaques on the rock showing the level of the glacier at different times. I was shocked to see how much had gone since I was last there. This shot is taken at the level of the glacier when I was last on the Mer de Glace in 2001. I would estimate the glacier had lost not far off 100 metres of thickness since then!

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Snow Patch Predictions 2019

The North Face of Ben Nevis on the 1st of March. Not very wintry!
Although the exact date will vary from year to year, it is around this time of year that the volume of snow in the higher Scottish coires reaches it's maximum. Snow cover is something I am interested in and have written about previously on my blog. However, during the past couple of years I have been away in the Antarctic for long stretches of time, and thus have not been a bit less focused on Scottish snow. This year I plan to remain in Scotland for the summer, and am taking a bit more of an interest in Scottish snow.
This winter has been an unusual one to say the least. There were periods in late February when there was very little snow on the hills. In fact conditions felt more like the early summer than the middle of winter.  In early March winter returned with a vengeance with loads of snow falling over about a ten day period. However, was that enough to catch up with other winters in terms of snow volume? Below is a picture of Coire an Lochan of Aonach Mor taken a few days ago. 

Coire an Lochan. 23rd of March 2019. 
How well the snow patches last into the summer, and whether they survive into the following winter depends a number of factors. However, I would say that snow depth at this time of year is the strongest predictor of how much snow if any will survive through to the following winter. This is particularly the case when the snow depth is either unusually large or small.

Below are pictures of the same place for every year going back to 2008. All the photos were taken late March or early April. I would say that this year has the least snow. Other poor years are 2017 and the years 2010-2012.

In 2017 all the snow melted in Scotland. In the summers of 2010 to 2012 snow patches did survive through the summer, but in general they were very small by the time that lasting snows of the following winter came. A slightly warmer summer, or if the lasting snow had fallen a week or so later, then the patches may not have made it.

Despite the fact that it is a low now year, there is actually a fair mass of snow there see a post I wrote for the SAIS Lochaber blog;
However, I think it would take a combination of an unusually cold snowy Spring followed by a cool dry summer for any snowpatches to survive through to next winter. I don't think it is likely they will survive this year, but am hoping to be proved wrong about that.
2018- One snowpatch survived the to the following winter.
2017-No snow survived to the following winter.
2016-Seven snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2015-A good year!.Seventy four snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2014-Also a good year. Twenty one patches survived to the following winter. 

2013-Six snowpatches survived to the following winter. 
2012- Six snowpatches survived to the following winter. 
2011-Two (tiny) snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2010 Six snowpatches just survived to the following winter. All were very small. 
2009 Six snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2008-Twelve snowpatches survived to the following winter.

Saturday, 5 January 2019


North Cove on a calm day.
It is just after New Year and I have been back from Antarctica for just over a month now. I am doing a few days avalanche forecasting and seem to have settled back into life in Fort William.
When I initially returned I had headed out to Spain for some sports climbing. From a grade point of view this was not a particularly successful trip. However, from the point to view of enjoying some warmth and remembering the feeling of moving over rock it was great success. It made me realise how much I had missed rock climbing during the past few years of living constant winter.

Since returning I have been thinking about the two winters I did in Antarctica, and whether I would do another one. At the moment I have no fixed plans to return to Rothera, BAS have a full selection of field guides employed for next Antarctic winter. However, who knows what opportunities might arise in the future.

At the moment I am content to be back in Scotland despite the current lack of winter conditions. I now have access to many of the things I missed at Rothera; the freedom to go out when and where I want, fresh fruit and veg, a climbing wall. If I get bored of Scotland, then there is plenty of things I would like to do around Europe from ski touring trips to more sports climbing. However, over time the appreciation of those things will fade as they become part of normal life and I suspect I will start thinking of Antarctic.

I found life in Rothera over the winter is quite easy. The work was not too stressful, the working day not too long,you didn't have to worry about shopping and there was a professional chef to prepare meals. These things made life at Rothera pleasant, but  they are not the things I will dream about. What I think I will miss about Antarctica is a bit more subtle, something I find harder to describe; the crisp clarity of the air during an Antarctic dawn, the empty silence of a frozen sea, the sense of smallness in a very large and very empty content. Perhaps it could be best described as a sense of awe of the place. Whether or not I go back, I have selected some photos which to me show this sense, I hope that you like them.
Mountaineering on Orca.
Skiing on Bond Nunatak 
A winter trip camp by moonlight
Mountaineering in the Stokes Peaks.
Nacreous Clouds
Rhyder Bay by moon light. 
A lonely figure drags a sledge across the sea ice. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

End of winter.

First contact with the outside world after the winter. A Chilean twin otter calls into Rothera as part of a medivac. 
As I type this my time in Rothera is nearly over. I am due to fly out of here in a few days time. 
Admirals house where I lived over the winter. 
This year winter came to an end a bit sooner than expected. Unfortunate when I was on my field guides winter trip (discussed in the previous post) one of the winterer's became ill. It was decided to evacuate him as a precautionary measure, and we returned from out trip to help out. Fortunately a fair bit of work had already gone into snow clearing from the runway. At this time the BAS planes had just started their journey South from Canada where they were being prepared for the coming season, and would not be at Rothera for another two weeks or so. The Chileans offered their services. A Chilean twin otter flew down from King George Island, picked the patient up and evacuate him to Punta Arenas, and then on via commercial flights back to the UK. Our first contact with the outside world after the winter was a brief chat with the Chilean twin otter pilots. 
One of the best things about the arrival of airplanes at Rothera is fresh fruit. 
It was not long after that the the BAS planes began arriving. To me the arrival of the planes is a significant moment in the Rothera calendar. On the one hand it marks the end of winter, and to some of the freedoms which winter allows. On the other hand the arrival of new people with their excitement and enthusiasm for Antarctica is infectious and a good reminder of what a unique place Antarctica is. Another thing that the planes bring in is a delivery of fresh fruit which, being five months or so since the previous delivery, was very much appreciated.

Rock climbing in Antarctica. Another advantage of the arrival of spring is warmer temperatures allow a bit or rock climbing. The rock tends to be a bit shattered, but there are a few decent routes about. Mark Scales on an E2 on the Dark Side crag. 
Like last year, this year I was given the task of opening up Fossil Bluff. Fossil bluff is essentially as aircraft refueling center on Alexander island, about 200 miles South of Rothera. I spent about 10 pleasant days there. The weather was generally a bit mixed so I didn't get as much recreation as I did last year, but it will still a nice change. After that I was hoping to get the opportunity to travel a bit further South to Sky Blu or beyond. However, a combination of weather an other factors prevented that from happening. However, the extra time that gave me the opportunity to get out to do some rock climbing. The rock itself is a bit shattered, but the views are good! 

Bluebell Cottage at Fossil Bluff, a nice spot to hang out for a few days. Unfortunately the weather was pretty mixed when I was there this year. This photo was taken on the only really sunny day.
Working hard! Some days we would get various visitors passing through. On this day conditions were poor at Rothera, and we had various pilots and passengers stuck at the bluff for a few hours. They didn't seem to mind too much 
Life in Bluebell cottage. On poor weather days a fair bit of reading and knitting went on in the cottage. At the time I had a rather substantial Antarctic moustache, which was later chopped off in preparation of returning to the real world

Friday, 5 October 2018

Winter Trips

Myth campsite at night. Myth is the triangular peak on the left, and Legend the impressive rocky peak in the centre. 
One of the best aspects of being a field guide here at Rothera is the winter trips. All the overwintering non-field guides get a couple of weeks during the winter when they are assigned a field guide  and get the opportunity to head out to do some climbing/mountaineering and/or skiing. One of these weeks is pre-mid winter, and one is post-midwinter.  I missed most of the pre-midwinter trips as I only arrived here in the middle of May. However, I have recently returned from the last of my five post-midwinter trips.
Chilly! The thermometer broke shortly
after this picture was taken.
The first of the post midwinter trips was in late July. I was with Aurelia. Also out that week were Tom S and Jack. We decided to join forces and head through the McCallums Pass to the West side of the island, and camp near Bond Nunatak. We skidooed over in  and set up camp in reasonable conditions. Over the next few days the temperature kept on dropping. My thermometer broke at about -34C. Fortunately, Tom and Jack also had a thermometer.  The coldest they observed was -37C, although it may have been colder then that in the middle of the night. At those temperature life becomes hard work. However, we did put the effort in and got some good ski touring done. The skidoos also struggled in the cold, with one of Tom and Jack's skidoos refused to start.
Nice evening light when returning from a ski tour near Bond.
It was thought that a generator to warm the engine might help get the broken skidoo going. It was arranged that another two field guides, Tom L and Julie would skidoo out and deliver a generator. They arrived the following day with the promised generator, and a few other treats from base (the daily crosswords from the previous few days). The crosswords were solved successfully.  However, the generator was not enough to get the skidoo going. With bad weather forecast for the following day, it was decided that the best option would be to pack up and drag the broken skidoo back to base, a method which worked surprisingly well. After four days out in the coldest conditions I have seen on Adelaide island everybody was pretty wiped out, and enjoyed the comforts of base for a few days.
Alex near the top of Myth. 
The second and thirds trips I had were with Alex and Dan respectively. In both cases the forecast was for a few days of good weather followed by poor weather. In both cases it was decided to head over to the West side of the island and camp at Myth. This must be one of the most impressive campsite on the island as it is overlooked by the aesthetic pyramid of the mountain Myth, and by the impressive West face of Myth's bigger brother, Legend. In both cases we manged to climb Myth by the classic North West ridge. With an extra day of good weather Dan and I also managed a trip down to Carvajal, the old British base which was given over to the Chileans in the late 1970's. It is a summer only base, and most of the buildings are locked up. However, it is interesting to have a look around, and there is a refuge which is open.
James doing a bit of crevasse exploring. 
 My fourth winter trip was with James. The weather was looking a bit dubious, so we decided to stay on the Rothera side of the island, and managed a couple of good days climbing in the Stokes peaks before the weather turned bad. In hindsight this had been a good plan as another team who had decided to head over to Myth ended up being stuck out for the next ten days or so.
Above a sea on cloud on the summit of Wolf. It was great weather for the first couple of days of James
trip, it was terrible weather for the rest of the period. 
My final trip was a field guides only trip. Myself, Mark and Tom L headed back round to Myth. We had a few days of decent weather, and managed to climb a couple of the larger peaks on the island. These were Mount Barre and Mount Liotard. Both are aesthetic pyramidal peaks, and are mountains I had wanted to climb since I first arrived at Rothera back in 2015.
Mark and Tom descending from the summit of Mount Barre. 
We also managed the to ski up and down the smaller, but still very pleasant Snow Ditti one afternoon. We tried to climb one other classic ice routes of the island, Nath Path. Unfortunately it didn't really have any ice on it, and we ran out of time and bailed off after three pitches. We then returned to base to sit out a period of bad weather. When conditions improved again we managed one final pleasant day doing some climbing on the North Face of Biff, a mountain not too far from Rothera, before having to return to work.
Making the first full ascent of one of the Gullies on the North side of Biff 
I think I was most satisfied with our ascent of Mount Barre, as it has a lovely, rarely climbed peak. Also I first heard about BAS about 30 years ago from a family friend, George MacLeod. He had given a slide show about his time working for BAS in the 1960's. Along with another well know Scottish climber, Johnny Cunningham, George had made the first ascent of  Mount Barre back in 1962.

Altogether it was a pretty successful series of winter trips, and I achieved a lot more interesting stuff on the other side of the island than I had managed last winter.
Mark and Tom near the summit of Snow Ditte. Mount Liotard is the obvious peak on the right. We climbed it via the
South ridge which is the ridge the between the sunlight and the shadow. 

Monday, 27 August 2018

Sea Ice

A lonely figure drags his sledge across the ice.
One of the most interesting, enjoyable although, at times, frustrating aspects of my work as a field guide at Rothera is dealing with the sea ice.  Every winter the sea around Rothera freezes to some extent. If and when the ice is deemed to be strong and stable enough, we are allowed out on it for both science and recreation. I love being out on the ice. However, sea ice is hazardous and fickle material, and BAS are understandably cautious about what and where we are allowed on the ice.

Last winter was a very poor winter for the sea ice, and so I was really hoping for a decent sea ice season this year. Things did get off to a good start with a some cold and settled periods in June during which the sea froze. Over the next couple of weeks there where a few windy days, but the ice survived. The ice was deemed solid enough to venture onto in the more sheltered Hanger Cove for testing purposes on the 26th of June. The results were encouraging, and over the next few weeks other areas were tested and deemed suitable of science, and even a little recreation. The marine team got to go out and cut dive holes in the ice, and then go diving. They also managed some CTD sampling through the ice. The ice thickness was consistently between 30 and 40cm, and everything was looking good.
Marlon and Aurelia from the Marine team drilling to test the thickness of the ice. 
Kate cutting a dive hole in the ice in Hanger cove in late June.  
 Marlon and Aurelia about to go ice diving a couple of days later. 
By mid July, the sea ice situation was looking very promising, I remember thinking it would take a pretty substantial and prolonged storm to blow the ice out. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we got For the best part of a week winds of 30 to 60 knots howled down from the North. The ice survived the first few days, but then began to break up. By the flag up ceremony on the 21st of July, most of the ice to the South had blown out, and a couple of days later it had all gone. However, the ice to the North the ice hung on. Conditions suddenly changed again, the temperature plummeted again that the sea almost immediately refroze. Another cold and settled spell was followed by another mild and stormy period which blew out some, but not all, of the new ice. Since then there have been a few more colder days, and a few more blows. This has left a complex pattern of ice of different ages and thicknesses in different areas. Some area the ice is very solid,  in other areas we are now back to open water.

 It feels like quite a variable season ice wise, with good conditions rapidly giving way to poor conditions and vice versa. The forecast for the next few days is relatively calm, and am hoping for some more chances to get back out on the ice. However, one things I have learnt down here is that the Antarctic weather can be highly variable and unpredictable beast, so who knows what will happen.

A team on a short recreational trip onto the sea ice. 
Field guides testing the ice out in South Cove. The wharf and some of the marine science buildings can be seen in the background. 

A satalite image taken on the 22nd of July. The area of open water is clearly seen from it's much darker colour. Rothera is located on the peninsular on the top left of the area of open water. Due to a number of factors the sea ice around Rothera breaks up sooner than in other areas.