Saturday 30 November 2019

Christchurch and McMurdo

Christchurch Cathedral still showing the damage of the earthquake. 
As I type the tops of the  mountains across the frozen McMurdo Sound peak out through various layers of cloud. A few patches of blue sky are visible. Looking out over the sound the Sound everything is a shade of blue, white or gray; the colours of Antarctica. I am back South. I am currently back at the main USAP (United States Antractic Program) base McMurdo near the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf at about 77 degrees South. I am down here this year as one of two field guides working with nine scientists planning to do some research on the Lower Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica. This is one of a number of joint BAS/USAP projects working on the Thwaites Glacier region this season.

I have been on station for about two and a half weeks now, and it is almost a month since I left the UK. The journey down was a long one; Heathrow to Dubai, Dubai to Sydney and they Sydney to Christchurch. The original plan had been a stop over of a couple of days in Christchurch, but weather delays and issues with aircraft meant this became a week. This gave me the opportunity to relax, and explore the city and local area.

Street art in Christchurch, in this case on the side of the cinema.
Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake in 2011. There are still plenty of reminders of the damaged done, one of the most moving ones I found to be the cathedral. The gable wall of which collapsed to leave a gaping void into the building. Over 80% of the buildings in the central area of the city either collapsed or had to be pulled down. Many building have been rebuilt in a modern style, but many empty areas where buildings once stood remain. Despite, or perhaps because of, all the damage and rebuilding the city has an upcoming vibrant feel about it with some great murals painted on the side buildings. There was also a large modern bouldering wall, a place which I visited quite a few times. I managed a couple of trips out to the coast; it was sunny and I went swimming in the warm sea; it was great. I had been keen to head up to Castle Hill, one on New Zealands best bouldering areas, but unfortunately it rained the day we had hoped to do that.
The flight South on the C-17. Not a small aircraft. 
Finally the day came when the planes were ready and the weather was suitable. The scale of the USAP operation is much larger than the BAS operation, and the planes used to take people to the continent reflect this size difference. We flew on a C-17, which can carry more ten times the number of passenger that the BAS Dash 7. I think there were about 120 people on the flight that I was on. This is more people than the total number of people at Rothera at the busiest I have seen it.
The view down to McMurdo from the top of Observation Hill. Discovery point is the  low promontory on the back left of the picture.  
In terms of the size of the base, McMurdo is also an order of magnitude larger than Rothera (and for that matter pretty much every other individual base on the Antarctic continent). There are currently about 950 people of base. In some ways it runs in a similar way to Rothera, but in some ways it has to run differently due to the different scale. There is a lot of bureaucracy,  if you need something you can't just nip over and take it, or informally ask someone a lunch time. Thing are done through certain channels here. All cargo going on an aircraft from here has to go into the cargo system three days in advance, or five to nine days if it is at all considered hazardous (which a lot of relatively benign things are). You package it up and then it disappears off to be staged ready to be loaded into planes. Due to the times when you can collect various pieces of kit, and the different ways various items are processed, you never really see all the kit that you are taking in one place at one time.  The potential for forgetting something important seems larger here than it does at Rothera.
Scott's Discovery Point hut with McMurdo Sound (still frozen solid) and the Ross Ice Shelf in the background. 
Some tasty snacks remain in Discovery Point hut. 
To make up for the delays in Christchurch, and to get the cargo in the system, as well as fit in all the required training courses, the first ten days or so that I was in McMurdo were pretty hectic. However, I did have a couple of evenings free, and manged a visit to Discovery Point hut. This was built back in 1902 by the British National Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott.  The hut is not far from base, and I had headed down there a few times after work. It is normally locked, but on one occasion I happened to be passing when there was a tour going on which I was able to join. In the cold and dry conditions it feels like not much has changed since it was left since the days of Scott and Shackleton.

The current plan is that next week myself and three others will make up a reconnaissance group to be flown to the proposed sites on Thwaites Glacier to check for crevassing and, if suitable, start setting up camp. The first step will be to fly to Waste Divide; field camp and logistics hub similar in function to (but much larger in scale) Sky Blu. This had actually been planned for the middle of last week. However, the weather has been poor, and all the flights to Waste were delayed. This is the Thanks giving weekend which on an American base is a holiday meaning that nothing will be happening until Monday at least. The weather forecast is still pretty mixed after that, and so I am not sure when we will actually make it out into the field.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Another summer over.

This year I spent much of the summer in Fort William working in an office. This was my first summer in the Fort for a few years, and to be honest I found it quite midgy, damp and busy. I definitely prefer winter!
I managed a bit of rock climbing in Scotland, but not a huge amount and certainly nothing that I felt warranted writing about. Perhaps the highlight of the summer was a trip to Alaska. It was a work trip, and I spent the first week or so working up on the North Slope. I then stayed out for a week or so after to do my own thing. I didn't do any climbing, but did a bit of general rambling around some glaciers, stayed in a small mountain hut for a few nights, had a day rafting and just generally pottered about. Alaska has a very wild feel about it, and is somewhere I would like to return to.
The Pilchers Perch hut in the bottom corner of the shot, not a bad outlook. I stayed there for a couple of nights.
Portage glacier. I did a bit of rambling around and went for quite a nice walk down to the Lake below the glacier. 
After finishing work in early October I managed a ten day sports climbing trip to Spain. I went to the area around Oliana, an area that I had not visited before. It is hard not to get inspired  by the crags out there in general, and in particular in the crag Oliana itself. There were a lot of  really impressive routes there, some that I would love to project. It was a great trip, and I despite not really having done much over the past few years, seemed to be climbing reasonably well.
Myself (on the skyline) climbing at Tres Ponts. I though Oliana was a more impressive crag, but for some reason did not take any pictures of it. 
A few days after returning from Spain, winter arrived on the Scottish hills.
Winter arrived in Scottish hills in late October. 
I was quite busy in preparing for another stint in Antarctica (something I will write about soon), but did manage a quick morning jaunt up Aonach Mor, and was pleasantly surprised to see how much snow there was. It seems likely that the lasting snow of the winter had arrived. Unfortunately it came a bit late for the snow patches in the West Coast hills, the last of these seems to have melted around the 5th of October. However, over in the Cairngorms, the sphinx patch in Gardh Coire Mhor does seem to have survived, but only just. I didn't have time to head over to have a look at it myself, but my friend Iain Cameron did, and writes a good summary of his adventures here

I did manage a day out over in the Cairngorms before leaving.  Over the last eight months of so I have been doing a bit of work with SAMS (Scottish Association of Marine Science) developing instrumentation to monitor snow conditions.  Just before I left a manged days work to installing some test equipment in the Cairngorms to monitor development of the snowpack over the winter. The BBC picked up on the story, it can be seen here.

Installing snow measuring equipment with staff from SAMS

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Slim picking for the August Snowpatch Survey.

Back in March I wrote a blog post about the low amount of snow in the hills for the time of year, ( At the time I said that I thought it was unlikely any patches would survive through the summer. Given the recent annual snowpatch survey, it thought to would be a good time to post about how things have developed, and re-look at the question of how likely it was that any patches would survive.

The annual snowpatch survey is something I have written about before. Since 2008 each year, around the 20th of August, a survey of the surviving snowpatches in the Scottish hills is organised by Iain Cameron and carried out by a team of volunteers. This year there was not very many patches to survey. In fact it was only the third time since the snowpatch survey started that no patches existed outwith the three mountains that consistently hold the snow the longest; Ben Nevis, Aonach Beag and Braeriach.
The Observatory Gully snowpatch not looking overly impressive on Sunday the 18th of August 2019.  
To show what it can look like, the same snowpatch on the 20th of August 2015. 
On Sunday the 18th, after a slightly delayed start due to heavy rain, I headed up to the North Face of Ben Nevis. I knew there would be no snow left below Zero Gully, so I went straight to the base of Point Five Gully. There had been snow at this spot few days previously. However, by the time I arrived it had all gone. I think this is the first time I had seen this spot free of snow in August. I then continued up Observatory Gully to the narrows, the site of the longest lying snow on the Ben. Here I did find some snow, but not much. There was a patch which was about eight by eight metres. The patch was still there the following Sunday (the 25th), but it is unlikely it made it to the start of September.

The following day Iain Cameron headed over to the Aonach Beag patch and reported a fair bit more snow than on the Ben, the patch was 35 meters long by 25 meters wide.

The following Sunday, the weather was a beautiful. My climbing plans fell through at the last minute, so I went for a amble over to the summit of Aonach Beag having a wee peek at the snow patch for myself on the way past. Although it did not look like it had melted much since the previous weekend, it was still quite small for the time of year. Given it size, the consensus is that it is likely to last into October. However, survival for this patch would likely to require some good heavy October snowfall.

Although I didn't head over to the Cairngorm myself, reports from Braeriach reports said there were a few patches remaining, the largest one being around 40 meters long. Again, survival possible but will require some cool weather and early autumn snows.

So as compared to March, I am slightly more hopeful that one or two patches might just survive, it might all be down to when the lasting snow of next winter arrives.
The Aonach Beag patch on Sunday the 25th. About 35m long and 25m across. Could possibly survive, but at the moment I would say the odds are against it. 

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.