Aberdeen to Ft William; off-road coast to coast cycle by Jerry Gillham

With the possible exception of one face-smashing over-the-handlebars incident I've been enjoying being out on the bike since getting back north. In search of a simple, good value, easy-to-arrange holiday I headed up to Scotland to enjoy a week or so of riding up there.

DAY 1. HOME TO ABERDEEN TO PORTLETHEN

 Packed and ready to go, with train tickets attached to the front.

Packed and ready to go, with train tickets attached to the front.

Leaving the train station at Aberdeen there's some pretty hectic traffic so I just walked along the pavement until I had crossed the River Dee and was on less busy roads and National Cycle Network 1. Almost immediately though there was a road closure so I had to miss a nice-looking bit of the coast. Still, there was another few km between the cliffs and railway that were pleasant riding.

 Narrow channels in the sea cliffs, populated by Kittiwakes, Eiders and traffic cones.

Narrow channels in the sea cliffs, populated by Kittiwakes, Eiders and traffic cones.

 Distance 17km, ascent 208m.

Distance 17km, ascent 208m.

DAY 2. PORTLETHEN TO BALLATER

Half and hour after setting off I had travelled 4km but barely moved anywhere due to missing the first turn and almost immediately getting lost in an industrial estate. The next hour was a frustrating one as each time I got going I met another road closure from where they're building a big new road out of Aberdeen. After a few diversions and backtracking I headed straight north to reach the River Dee at Peterculter and there the NCN 195, the Deeside Way.

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Most of the day from here was spent on this cycle way which alternated between roads and well-made tracks.

 After Banchory I headed through forest on the south side of the river before getting back onto the NCN again. The River Dee is lovely and was well used by walkers and anglers.

After Banchory I headed through forest on the south side of the river before getting back onto the NCN again. The River Dee is lovely and was well used by walkers and anglers.

 Stopping for lunch in Westertown Wood after an enjoyable little down hill through the trees.

Stopping for lunch in Westertown Wood after an enjoyable little down hill through the trees.

I arrived in Ballater early afternoon and spent an enjoyable couple of hours relaxing in the sun, eating a huge and delicious vegan ice-cream, before checking into the absolutely superb hostel there. 

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 Distance 86.2km, ascent 802m.

Distance 86.2km, ascent 802m.

DAY 3. BALLATER TO TOMINTOUL

Heading south of the river through Dalliefour Wood I pretty much straight away came to this:

 Which bridge? I don't think I'm going over a bridge.

Which bridge? I don't think I'm going over a bridge.

 Oh, that bridge. Joke's on you, I'm not going that way.

Oh, that bridge. Joke's on you, I'm not going that way.

 No, instead I've got a whole barrier across my route.

No, instead I've got a whole barrier across my route.

 Apparently it was too near the river bank and had eroded away. Thankfully I could sneak through a small path between fallen trees.

Apparently it was too near the river bank and had eroded away. Thankfully I could sneak through a small path between fallen trees.

Continuing on the road I was overtaken by a few teams of road-riders from the RAF before I crossed the river again and found yet another road, the main link for my route, closed. I continued a while thinking I could bypass it on a dirt track, but got the wrong track and ended up at a farm in the middle of nowhere. Identifying my location I turned to head back and found my rear tyre was flat. I repaired the puncture and put everything back together but then couldn't get the required pressure in the tyre, and every time I tried more air would come out than go in. I tried my spare inner tube in case it was a dodgy valve but came to the conclusion it was duff pump. At this point it was starting to feel a little like a horror film, that I had come to the wrong remote farm and now couldn't leave.

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Eventually I decided I had no choice but to head off slowly with under 15psi in there. It wasn't much fun but it also wasn't far to Balmoral. I wasn't expecting any help from the queen but here were a good number of campervans in the ca park, many with bikes on the back. I found one that had its owners present and ended up borrowing a foot-pump off a German tourist to get my tyre back up to pressure.

Following that close call I headed straight along the main road back to Ballater where I bought myself a new pump and inner tube. Then, having travelled 34km to end up back where I started, I set off again. This time a different direction on a small road up Glen Gairn. Where the road turned into track there were big signs saying 'welcome to the moors' and the heather-covered slopes became home to lapwing, oystercatcher and curlew, some of whom had chicks hiding at the edge of the track. A water vole also scuttled across the track in front of me which was a nice surprise.

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I continued on tracks up alongside the River Gairn, slowly gaining altitude and sweating in the sun. I didn't hang about as I was aware how delayed I was. When I reached Loch Builg though I was happily back on track and, having not seen anyone for hours, felt comfortable enough that I could strip off and go for a swim.

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After having to push a bit around the loch I got about 15km of straight downhill almost all the way into Tomintoul.

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Down in Tomintoul I checked into the hostel and went straight to get a beer and food.

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 Distance 79.3km, ascent 968m.

Distance 79.3km, ascent 968m.

DAY 4. TOMINTOUL TO RYVOAN BOTHY

 A shorter day and one that started with no road closures, just a big, long uphill interrupted by a push alongside a river where the track disappeared for a while.

A shorter day and one that started with no road closures, just a big, long uphill interrupted by a push alongside a river where the track disappeared for a while.

 Ten a great descent all the way to Nethy Bridge where I picked up some food.

Ten a great descent all the way to Nethy Bridge where I picked up some food.

 Loch Garten. I didn't have time to visit the osprey centre but enjoyed a snack beside the beautiful stillness.

Loch Garten. I didn't have time to visit the osprey centre but enjoyed a snack beside the beautiful stillness.

 Heading back up into the mountains.

Heading back up into the mountains.

 Ryvoan bothy. There were plenty of people around during the day, and early evening, but I was the only one staying that night. Sitting outside that evening was glorious; warm, calm but with enough breeze to detract midges, at least two cuckoos calling. 

Ryvoan bothy. There were plenty of people around during the day, and early evening, but I was the only one staying that night. Sitting outside that evening was glorious; warm, calm but with enough breeze to detract midges, at least two cuckoos calling. 

 Distance 44km, ascent 583m

Distance 44km, ascent 583m

DAY 5. RYVOAN BOTHY TO KINGUSSIE

 A rather cloudy start for a change.

A rather cloudy start for a change.

 An enjoyable early descent to Glen More.

An enjoyable early descent to Glen More.

 Followed by some extremely enjoyable riding through proper Scottish forest.

Followed by some extremely enjoyable riding through proper Scottish forest.

 Loch Eanaich / Einich was just to the south and looked pretty dramatic on the map and had a track leading all the way up to it, so I decided to make a diversion.

Loch Eanaich / Einich was just to the south and looked pretty dramatic on the map and had a track leading all the way up to it, so I decided to make a diversion.

 It was quite a ride in with plenty of ascent and crossing of fords.

It was quite a ride in with plenty of ascent and crossing of fords.

 The spectacular Loch Einich.

The spectacular Loch Einich.

 Looking serious.

Looking serious.

Dropping back down towards the forest I headed toward Loch an Eilein and then Inverdruie, where I stopped at a lovely cafe for coffee and cake having arrived in the half hour period between the end of breakfast and start of lunch.

 Heading back up through the forest and then down through more managed woodland I arrived at Feshiebridge, site of many happy family holidays when I was young.

Heading back up through the forest and then down through more managed woodland I arrived at Feshiebridge, site of many happy family holidays when I was young.

 I headed quite far up the beautiful Glen Feshie before cutting up following forestry roads. The problem with following forestry roads is that they're often different to what appears on your map, thus a few wrong turns. There was also one long back-track as I realised the path I optimistically thought I could use to link two valleys was clearly too boggy to navigate by laden bike.

I headed quite far up the beautiful Glen Feshie before cutting up following forestry roads. The problem with following forestry roads is that they're often different to what appears on your map, thus a few wrong turns. There was also one long back-track as I realised the path I optimistically thought I could use to link two valleys was clearly too boggy to navigate by laden bike.

 I ended up coming down an exciting single track through the woods, something I'd feel more comfortable doing on a sturdier, not fully loaded bike. From there it was just a case of cutting across to Kingussie where I spent a very pleasant evening catching up with Chris about mountains, wildlife, conservation and Skomer and Skokholm days.

I ended up coming down an exciting single track through the woods, something I'd feel more comfortable doing on a sturdier, not fully loaded bike. From there it was just a case of cutting across to Kingussie where I spent a very pleasant evening catching up with Chris about mountains, wildlife, conservation and Skomer and Skokholm days.

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 Distance 89.3km, ascent 1,247m

Distance 89.3km, ascent 1,247m

DAY 6. KINGUSSIE TO BLACKBURN OF CORIEYAIRACK BOTHY

The forecast was for thunder and rain, but there was some uncertainty as to when it would hit. It seemed sensible to make an early start and get on with it rather than making too many interceptions. I took a direct route along General Wade's Military Road, one of the 18th century constructions that criss-cross the highlands, built to facilitate rapid troop movements to put down the Jacobite rebellions.

 Heading up the River Spey I found myself in the middle of Scotland.

Heading up the River Spey I found myself in the middle of Scotland.

 Passing the Spey Dam reservoir I was heartened to see a pair of osprey, but the first rumbles of thunder and dark clouds ahead were less welcome a sight. I soon felt the first spots of rain and with no immediate shelter had little option but to peddle into it. It could see it looking clearer a few km ahead and within half an hour I had passed through, with a big climb ahead of me to dry off.

Passing the Spey Dam reservoir I was heartened to see a pair of osprey, but the first rumbles of thunder and dark clouds ahead were less welcome a sight. I soon felt the first spots of rain and with no immediate shelter had little option but to peddle into it. It could see it looking clearer a few km ahead and within half an hour I had passed through, with a big climb ahead of me to dry off.

 Back on the military road and approaching the high point of Corrieyairack Pass. The final zig-zags needed a bit of pushing. Not so much the gradient that was the problem as the terrain and getting a good grip with the rear wheel.

Back on the military road and approaching the high point of Corrieyairack Pass. The final zig-zags needed a bit of pushing. Not so much the gradient that was the problem as the terrain and getting a good grip with the rear wheel.

 Over the top it was a long, fun downhill that passed some lovely green valleys.

Over the top it was a long, fun downhill that passed some lovely green valleys.

 I reached Blackburn of Corrieyairack bothy at about 2:00 and within half an hour it started raining hard again. A couple of walkers dropped in to shelter until a break but other than that I didn't see anyone, hiding inside as the rain continued on and off until well into the night.

I reached Blackburn of Corrieyairack bothy at about 2:00 and within half an hour it started raining hard again. A couple of walkers dropped in to shelter until a break but other than that I didn't see anyone, hiding inside as the rain continued on and off until well into the night.

 Whiling the afternoon away with maps, journal and cup of soup.

Whiling the afternoon away with maps, journal and cup of soup.

 Trying to dry my clothes off. It didn't really work as I had next to no wood and coals that had already been used at least once.

Trying to dry my clothes off. It didn't really work as I had next to no wood and coals that had already been used at least once.

 Distance 57.3km, ascent 1,025m

Distance 57.3km, ascent 1,025m

DAY 7. BLACKBURN OF CORIEYAIRACK BOTHY TO FORT WILLIAM

It started off foggy and although the clouds looked lovely hanging low over the lush green valleys it did feel like it could rain at any moment.

 I headed down toward Fort Augustus following a mix of unmarked tracks until I found a sign to a waterfall. Another sign took me on a stupid path down to the main road but only by trapping me inside someone's estate. For the second time this trip I had to wait beside automatic gates until, as if by magic, they opened on their own.

I headed down toward Fort Augustus following a mix of unmarked tracks until I found a sign to a waterfall. Another sign took me on a stupid path down to the main road but only by trapping me inside someone's estate. For the second time this trip I had to wait beside automatic gates until, as if by magic, they opened on their own.

 Fort Augustus is nicely located at the south end of Loch Ness, but strangely I couldn't find anywhere with a view of the Loch without trespassing onto the property of expensive lodges.

Fort Augustus is nicely located at the south end of Loch Ness, but strangely I couldn't find anywhere with a view of the Loch without trespassing onto the property of expensive lodges.

 There are nice lochs there and plenty of movement along the canal. I got some food and a weather forecast and then headed south west on the Great Glen Way. 

There are nice lochs there and plenty of movement along the canal. I got some food and a weather forecast and then headed south west on the Great Glen Way. 

The going was pretty similar to day one; mostly flat along a well made track. Not so many walkers and not so warm. I felt pretty tired this day though, physically and mentally, and a large part of the journey through the woods alongside Loch Lochy felt like I was going uphill all the way.

I cut off toward Loch Arkaig and the bothy at Invermallie.

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 Distance 57.9km, ascent 545m.

Distance 57.9km, ascent 545m.

At this point I had a look around Invermallie bothy, a well constructed building with several rooms, but also scattered packets of food, packaging and, the last straw, a half full / empty pint of beer. I went and sat outside to eat my lunch and consider my options:

  1. Stay here, tidy up a bit, make myself comfortable, have another quiet night in a bothy.
  2. Stay here, whoever left this mess comes back, we probably don't get on.
  3. Head round the loch to have a look at a couple of the other nearby bothies.

After about two minutes of relentless midge attack I added a fourth to the list: feck off into Fort William, and immediately went for that option.

The next few miles were straightforward as I continued down the Great Glen Cycle Way into town. I had a look at the backpackers hostel but it looked like student accommodation and by this point I really wanted my own comfortable, quiet room with a good shower. I ended up heading to the Travelodge, eating an early tea at the Wetherspoons next door and heading to be about 9:00.

 I'd been getting quite close to the bike but this felt a little too much. However it's what they recommended, despite the difficulties that entailed getting it up through the lift.

I'd been getting quite close to the bike but this felt a little too much. However it's what they recommended, despite the difficulties that entailed getting it up through the lift.

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 Distance: 27.8km, ascent 267m

Distance: 27.8km, ascent 267m

DAY 8. FORT WILLIAM TO LOCH OSSIAN

I woke up feeling very refreshed and, after breakfast at Morrisson's was ready to get started. Even though I'd technically reached my destination I had another two days until my train and the forecast was good.

 Getting out of Fort William was hard enough up some steep roads toward Lundarva. There I joined the West Highland Way.

Getting out of Fort William was hard enough up some steep roads toward Lundarva. There I joined the West Highland Way.

 The West Highland Way is a well made track but not the easiest to cycle along which is perhaps why I met zero other cyclists. Plenty of walkers though enjoying the last stretch of their trip into Fort William.

The West Highland Way is a well made track but not the easiest to cycle along which is perhaps why I met zero other cyclists. Plenty of walkers though enjoying the last stretch of their trip into Fort William.

 I stayed high above Kinlochleven when then WHW dropped down, worth it for the views alone as I continued to slog up the track to Loch Eilde Mor.

I stayed high above Kinlochleven when then WHW dropped down, worth it for the views alone as I continued to slog up the track to Loch Eilde Mor.

 It was a nice track until about here. Picking my way across stepping stones should have been a warning about the lack of track to follow, in fact at times I found it easier to ride down the shingle river bank than across the ditch-ridden bog.

It was a nice track until about here. Picking my way across stepping stones should have been a warning about the lack of track to follow, in fact at times I found it easier to ride down the shingle river bank than across the ditch-ridden bog.

 I was planning on bivvying or bothying but after pushing, carrying, dragging the bike as far as Loch Treig I thought I'd head down to the Youth Hostel at Loch Ossian and see if they had a bed for the night. They did and it was one of the most picturesque, delightful places I've stayed.  A lady there told me if I wanted a beer or wifi to head up the road. I looked at her like she was taking the piss but she insisted there was a licensed cafe at Corrour railway station, the remote station with no real roads leading to it.  Well it turns out she wasn't lying and I was able to get a beer and a curry. Fantastic.

I was planning on bivvying or bothying but after pushing, carrying, dragging the bike as far as Loch Treig I thought I'd head down to the Youth Hostel at Loch Ossian and see if they had a bed for the night. They did and it was one of the most picturesque, delightful places I've stayed.

A lady there told me if I wanted a beer or wifi to head up the road. I looked at her like she was taking the piss but she insisted there was a licensed cafe at Corrour railway station, the remote station with no real roads leading to it.

Well it turns out she wasn't lying and I was able to get a beer and a curry. Fantastic.

 Distance: 49.4km, ascent 1,070m

Distance: 49.4km, ascent 1,070m

DAY 9. LOCH OSSIAN TO FORT WILLIAM

Swapped my brake blocks over before heading out as they were looking a little worn, then headed back past Loch Treig and once agin onto a path rather than track.

 It's not the remotest place in the world but even in summer some of these routes are very rarely walked and don't have phone reception. You could quite easily get into trouble there.

It's not the remotest place in the world but even in summer some of these routes are very rarely walked and don't have phone reception. You could quite easily get into trouble there.

 At least when you get to tracks like this there's no way you can cycle it, the most frustrating ones are where you're constantly on and (falling) off.

At least when you get to tracks like this there's no way you can cycle it, the most frustrating ones are where you're constantly on and (falling) off.

 Time to stop and appreciate the local wildlife.

Time to stop and appreciate the local wildlife.

 The joy of being back on the path at Lairig Leacach Bothy, passing a load of paratroopers and, shortly afterwards, a long downhill.

The joy of being back on the path at Lairig Leacach Bothy, passing a load of paratroopers and, shortly afterwards, a long downhill.

 The Wee Minister, a surprising presence at the side of the road on a clear day, apparently terrifying approaching from the north on a foggy day.

The Wee Minister, a surprising presence at the side of the road on a clear day, apparently terrifying approaching from the north on a foggy day.

 The Kubrickian corridors of Leanachan Forest were fun but as with most forest tracks they weren't properly marked on my map. There are cycle routes through here but the signage at the east side is best described as frustratingly inconsistent, so I headed out and down to Spean Bridge for some lunch.  For my return to Fort William I didn't fancy navigating back through the forest or dodging traffic on the A82 so cut north west a bit and back onto the last stretch of the Great Glen Way, repeating my last stretch from two days ago.

The Kubrickian corridors of Leanachan Forest were fun but as with most forest tracks they weren't properly marked on my map. There are cycle routes through here but the signage at the east side is best described as frustratingly inconsistent, so I headed out and down to Spean Bridge for some lunch.

For my return to Fort William I didn't fancy navigating back through the forest or dodging traffic on the A82 so cut north west a bit and back onto the last stretch of the Great Glen Way, repeating my last stretch from two days ago.

 Distance 56.4km, ascent 617m

Distance 56.4km, ascent 617m

And that's it. The next day I had a relaxing breakfast then a somewhat farcical train journey home with delayed and replacement trains, never mind negotiating the cramped lifts of Glasgow station.

Total distance: 564km, total ascent 7,327m

Football on South Georgia by Jerry Gillham

One of the highlights of this last summer has been the number of football games we fitted in. Behind Grytviken there's a pitch, with proper goals, that was built by the whalers when the station was operational. There's a few idiosyncrasies about the pitch; although there's a ditch around it that keeps fur seals away one does have to get used to the other pitfalls; the gravel end, the boggy end, the actual mudbath, the bit where the vegetation is so deep you have to really get under the ball and hook it up. As I was playing I wasn't able to get any photographs. All these are by other people who I hope I have credited correctly, please let me know if not.

Jump straight to the video.

After a few kickabouts our season started properly when Thies and Kicki mentioned to a friend, an expedition leader on the German cruise ship Bremen, that they would like a game. He promised to bring a few of the crew along but when the day arrived he sadly slipped and injured himself in the warm up. Like Glenn McGrath in the 2005 ashes, we took inspiration from this and put aside pre-conceptions about the Germans beating us on penalties.

 Stunning location for the pitch.

Stunning location for the pitch.

 Josh powering through the burnet. We have our own white Grytviken kit with king penguins on the front like they're sponsoring us.

Josh powering through the burnet. We have our own white Grytviken kit with king penguins on the front like they're sponsoring us.

 As they were a person down Kicki went on their side for the first half. As we built up a lead she swapped with Thies, giving them one of our best players. Her first action as part of our team was to nullify his threat by barging him to the floor and clinging on so he couldn't move.

As they were a person down Kicki went on their side for the first half. As we built up a lead she swapped with Thies, giving them one of our best players. Her first action as part of our team was to nullify his threat by barging him to the floor and clinging on so he couldn't move.

 She wasn't the only person to give Thies a hard time for defecting.

She wasn't the only person to give Thies a hard time for defecting.

 One of the problems with playing on burnet; it tends to stick. Several of us chose to wear old pairs of socks and just throw them away rather than pick out all the burrs at the end.

One of the problems with playing on burnet; it tends to stick. Several of us chose to wear old pairs of socks and just throw them away rather than pick out all the burrs at the end.

 KEP 7 - 1 Bremen, and happy faces all around.

KEP 7 - 1 Bremen, and happy faces all around.

Next up came the crew of the HMS Clyde. This time we were up to 10-a-side and the full pitch, which meant the quagmire end. I sprinted through that in the first few minutes and spent the rest of the first half thinking my lungs were going to burn through my chest.

 Some spectators heading off for a walk while the rest line up for a corner.

Some spectators heading off for a walk while the rest line up for a corner.

 KEP 4 - 0 HMS Clyde. A tough game.

KEP 4 - 0 HMS Clyde. A tough game.

Word of our victories had got around and the crew of the Pharos fancied their chances, thinking their mixture of British steel and South American flair would lay waste to our British / Irish / Kiwi / German / Swedish journeymen. Upping the ante they arrived in full warpaint.

 This game started to get physical pretty early on. Tommy and Chris blocking well here while Kieran and Paula could be relied on to put in a agricultural tackle on anyone getting too close to goal.

This game started to get physical pretty early on. Tommy and Chris blocking well here while Kieran and Paula could be relied on to put in a agricultural tackle on anyone getting too close to goal.

 Zac, adding a bit more pace to our attack, while the whale-oil tanks mean you can never forget the unusual context of our location.

Zac, adding a bit more pace to our attack, while the whale-oil tanks mean you can never forget the unusual context of our location.

 As many have found out this season, you'll not find a way past Jim.

As many have found out this season, you'll not find a way past Jim.

 Joining the two spectators were Miriam's two rodent-monitoring dogs, watching on while their handler didn't let playing in wellies hold her back.

Joining the two spectators were Miriam's two rodent-monitoring dogs, watching on while their handler didn't let playing in wellies hold her back.

 Once again Thies managed to spend quite a lot of time on the ground.

Once again Thies managed to spend quite a lot of time on the ground.

 Dale, one of our star players, thumping a header into George's goal.

Dale, one of our star players, thumping a header into George's goal.

 You know you're not under much pressure when your 'keeper is able to take time out to relieve himself mid-match.

You know you're not under much pressure when your 'keeper is able to take time out to relieve himself mid-match.

 KEP 9 - 0 Pharos. A comprehensive victory.

KEP 9 - 0 Pharos. A comprehensive victory.

Our final game of the season was against the crew of the Ernest Shackleton. I'd sent them a cocky email about us being unbeaten, though that hubris quickly dropped as they arrived when we were missing Thies, Kicki, Zac, Tommy and Paula. Going on board I found a younger, healthier crew than I was expecting with a sheet on their noticeboard detailing positions, while they'd made their own kit too.

They didn't seem to buy my explanation of our tactics or formation; it's quite fluid, basically the person with the most energy chases after the ball, the person with second most tries to keep up with them and those too tired hold back in defence.

 We started off both playing in white, with the first few minutes being an utterly chaotic mess before they removed their tops and played in their black thermals.

We started off both playing in white, with the first few minutes being an utterly chaotic mess before they removed their tops and played in their black thermals.

 Oli and Dale, scorers of five goals between them, celebrating the first.

Oli and Dale, scorers of five goals between them, celebrating the first.

 One of my favourite things about the matches has been Jamie's coaching. Of Josh. Turning up to the match like an underachieving dad taking it out on his son. Every time Josh touched the ball or advanced slightly up the pitch there would be a loud 'JOSH! GET BACK'.

One of my favourite things about the matches has been Jamie's coaching. Of Josh. Turning up to the match like an underachieving dad taking it out on his son. Every time Josh touched the ball or advanced slightly up the pitch there would be a loud 'JOSH! GET BACK'.

 KEP 5 - 1 Shackleton. I think our hardest game of the year and the only time we conceded a legitimate, and very well taken, goal.   See the video of this game in all its brutal, skilful glory.

KEP 5 - 1 Shackleton. I think our hardest game of the year and the only time we conceded a legitimate, and very well taken, goal.

See the video of this game in all its brutal, skilful glory.

So at the time of writing this KEP team is unbeaten. We won't have the same personnel available next season but we'll welcome any challengers.

December - the busiest month? by Jerry Gillham

December felt hectic busy with more and more people on station - the vegetation and rodent monitoring teams, scientists studying soil and flora around the retreating glaciers. All had their own specific requirements regarding accommodation and movement around the local area.

 Our zoologist Kieran headed off to Stanley to visit the dentist so I helped cover some of his work. At this time of year the key job was visiting the fur seal beaches at Maiviken to take photographs every other day. Upon his return he counted all seals.

Our zoologist Kieran headed off to Stanley to visit the dentist so I helped cover some of his work. At this time of year the key job was visiting the fur seal beaches at Maiviken to take photographs every other day. Upon his return he counted all seals.

 The new team got on with their duties including learning the boat handling and regulations. Here the doctor Cat and boating officer Jim power away from the Nordenskjold Glacier.

The new team got on with their duties including learning the boat handling and regulations. Here the doctor Cat and boating officer Jim power away from the Nordenskjold Glacier.

 It was difficult to relax with so much work so I had to make a real effort to get away. Fraser and I got out to Sorling Hut on the Barff Peninsula one afternoon. As it looked a nice evening we headed off straight away to climb Montebello, a small but interesting peak with a challenging ridge near the top.

It was difficult to relax with so much work so I had to make a real effort to get away. Fraser and I got out to Sorling Hut on the Barff Peninsula one afternoon. As it looked a nice evening we headed off straight away to climb Montebello, a small but interesting peak with a challenging ridge near the top.

 The 800m+ Black Peak to the right and Nordenskjold Glacier to the left.

The 800m+ Black Peak to the right and Nordenskjold Glacier to the left.

 The next day was one of the best I have had on South Georgia. We got up early and headed up Ellerbeck Peak, one that we attempted in September but were turned back by thick cloud. The views down on the glacier and interior of the island were breathtaking.

The next day was one of the best I have had on South Georgia. We got up early and headed up Ellerbeck Peak, one that we attempted in September but were turned back by thick cloud. The views down on the glacier and interior of the island were breathtaking.

 It was another challenging mountain, with a fair bit of scrambling.

It was another challenging mountain, with a fair bit of scrambling.

 Pretty much 360 from the top.

Pretty much 360 from the top.

 I think this is one of my favourite photos.

I think this is one of my favourite photos.

From the top we dropped down and across Sorling Valley, through two passes, walking quickly but it was a long way. Our plan was to get picked up on the east side of the peninsula as the boats were out, dropping off the rodent team. I had my radio on so could hear all their discussions about where they were landing, how much kit they had.

 Dropping down into Ocean Harbour we met builders Adrian and Dale who were hard at work fixing the door to the hut.

Dropping down into Ocean Harbour we met builders Adrian and Dale who were hard at work fixing the door to the hut.

 Fraser cooling down inside the hut.

Fraser cooling down inside the hut.

 A day or two after that we headed out for another night off station. This time we decided to bivvy over at Sappho Point, so setting off after work we walked over to Maiviken and up over the ridge. There we encountered a big bank of sea fog. We continued, taking our time going down an unknown slope to a location we couldn't see until we got there. Then we couldn't find any fresh water that wasn't occupied by seals so ended up walking round for what felt like hours. Still, it was a good night and the next morning the sun woke us up with the view we had hoped for.

A day or two after that we headed out for another night off station. This time we decided to bivvy over at Sappho Point, so setting off after work we walked over to Maiviken and up over the ridge. There we encountered a big bank of sea fog. We continued, taking our time going down an unknown slope to a location we couldn't see until we got there. Then we couldn't find any fresh water that wasn't occupied by seals so ended up walking round for what felt like hours. Still, it was a good night and the next morning the sun woke us up with the view we had hoped for.

 Another night I bivvied out with Becky, Roger and Charlotte. We walked the few hours over toward Curlew Cave and found a spot with a great sunset.  (photo by Roger Stilwell)

Another night I bivvied out with Becky, Roger and Charlotte. We walked the few hours over toward Curlew Cave and found a spot with a great sunset.

(photo by Roger Stilwell)

 The next morning Charlotte and I dropped down to the cave before heading back for work. It would be a good place to camp out but not in peak seal-breeding season and we could barely get into in because of the territorial residents.

The next morning Charlotte and I dropped down to the cave before heading back for work. It would be a good place to camp out but not in peak seal-breeding season and we could barely get into in because of the territorial residents.

 Pre-Christmas we had the traditional decorating of the church, complete with mince pies and mulled wine.

Pre-Christmas we had the traditional decorating of the church, complete with mince pies and mulled wine.

 Posing for xmas photo number 1.

Posing for xmas photo number 1.

 Xmas photo number 2, in our bar prior to dinner.

Xmas photo number 2, in our bar prior to dinner.

 We all chipped in to cook dinner, which was spectacular. Boating officers Bob and Jim took responsibility for carving the meat.

We all chipped in to cook dinner, which was spectacular. Boating officers Bob and Jim took responsibility for carving the meat.

 40 people crammed in the dining room, cheers!

40 people crammed in the dining room, cheers!

November - new arrivals & a big ellie fight by Jerry Gillham

November marks the real start of summer on South Georgia as it's when the bulk of the seasonal visitors arrive - the builders, museum team and this year just four new BAS staff; two technicians, boating officer and doctor taking over from those who were departing.

 To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

 We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the  National Geographic article here . I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt.   The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the National Geographic article here. I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt. 

The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

 The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.  A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.

A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

Shortly after we returned from our trip to St Andrews (see last months blog) I had one of the best wildlife days I've had on South Georgia. In the morning we'd been out in the boats, dropping people off over at Husvik for some field work. Dave and I had been in the RHIB and got some amazing close views of Humpback Whales as we turned off the engines and drifted for a while. 

 Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

 They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

 They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

 The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

 Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

October - another St Andrews trip by Jerry Gillham

I'm writing this 6 months after it all happened (bandwidth availability dropped massively over summer) so it probably won't be that wordy, just a few captions to illustrate the photos from October.

 Early in the month I took part in the Antarctic cooking challenge; like the movie competition this involved using 5 dedicated ingredients, chosen across a few stations, to create a culinary masterpiece. Some stations took it very seriously, I went a bit mad trying to get three of the ingredients (sausages, rice and cornflakes) into one dish.   This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.  1. Take frozen Quorn sausages down to the workshop. Wrap them in baking paper and put them in the vice. Using a CLEAN bit, drill a hole lengthways down the middle of them.  2. Make a nice bit of risotto, to suit yourself. Ensure it is not too liquid.  3. Funnel the risotto into the sausage holes. This is difficult and for some I ended up cutting them in two and then using the risotto to glue them back together again.  4. Use either some more sticky risotto, or egg, coat the sausages and cover them in cornflakes.  5. Cook them, I can't remember how long. About 30 mins at 180c probably.  6. They were quite nice, though I think it's very dependent on whether the risotto is any good.

Early in the month I took part in the Antarctic cooking challenge; like the movie competition this involved using 5 dedicated ingredients, chosen across a few stations, to create a culinary masterpiece. Some stations took it very seriously, I went a bit mad trying to get three of the ingredients (sausages, rice and cornflakes) into one dish. 

This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.

1. Take frozen Quorn sausages down to the workshop. Wrap them in baking paper and put them in the vice. Using a CLEAN bit, drill a hole lengthways down the middle of them.

2. Make a nice bit of risotto, to suit yourself. Ensure it is not too liquid.

3. Funnel the risotto into the sausage holes. This is difficult and for some I ended up cutting them in two and then using the risotto to glue them back together again.

4. Use either some more sticky risotto, or egg, coat the sausages and cover them in cornflakes.

5. Cook them, I can't remember how long. About 30 mins at 180c probably.

6. They were quite nice, though I think it's very dependent on whether the risotto is any good.

 Early in the month a lot of the snow had already disappeared. At least that, and the longer evenings, meant I could get out running a bit more. Brown Mountain was opened up as part of the single person travel limit - a great option to get you a bit further off station.

Early in the month a lot of the snow had already disappeared. At least that, and the longer evenings, meant I could get out running a bit more. Brown Mountain was opened up as part of the single person travel limit - a great option to get you a bit further off station.

Fraser and I had been planning a trip to the Barff peninsula for a while, partly to check and update medical supplies in the huts, but also as a late holiday. We had grand ideas of skiing between huts but, as seen in the above photo, nowhere near enough snow remained.

Instead we concentrated on having a good walking holiday, fitting in a few peaks as well as huts and bays. We were dropped off one wet mid-afternoon at Sorling hut and straight away took the 2 hour tramp over to Hound Bay. There we warmed up with a large helping of Steve's chilli, which we'd scrounged earlier in the day, appearing at his house apologising that we wouldn't be there for dinner but hopefully holding out tupperware boxes.

 Heading from Hound Bay to St Andrews we headed straight up the hill and, as the weather was good, just kept going up Mount Fusilier. I think this is just below 800m, and is one of the largest peaks within our travel area. To do that straight from sea level is no mean feat but it was a relatively straightforward slog up, rewarding us with this great ridge along the top. You can just see Fraser on the peak, looking back towards the central spine of South Georgia's Allardyce Range.

Heading from Hound Bay to St Andrews we headed straight up the hill and, as the weather was good, just kept going up Mount Fusilier. I think this is just below 800m, and is one of the largest peaks within our travel area. To do that straight from sea level is no mean feat but it was a relatively straightforward slog up, rewarding us with this great ridge along the top. You can just see Fraser on the peak, looking back towards the central spine of South Georgia's Allardyce Range.

 Looking the other way we were staring down on St Andrews bay. Tempting as it was we didn't just slide down a snow slope all the way onto the glacier, though couldn't help thinking what an amazing route down that would have been if we had brought skis.  Just where the river enters the ocean you can see a speck that is the Hans Hansson. There was a party on board of scientists and tourists. We showed them the hut and Dion, the skipper, kindly gave us a bottle of wine.

Looking the other way we were staring down on St Andrews bay. Tempting as it was we didn't just slide down a snow slope all the way onto the glacier, though couldn't help thinking what an amazing route down that would have been if we had brought skis.

Just where the river enters the ocean you can see a speck that is the Hans Hansson. There was a party on board of scientists and tourists. We showed them the hut and Dion, the skipper, kindly gave us a bottle of wine.

 Most of the king penguin chicks were a comparable size to the adults, though still wearing their big, fluffy brown coats that shone gloriously in the late afternoon light.

Most of the king penguin chicks were a comparable size to the adults, though still wearing their big, fluffy brown coats that shone gloriously in the late afternoon light.

 King penguins returning to the colony in the evening. It was really dry there so lots of dust, sand and feathers being kicked up which gave a strange, almost other-worldly, feel to the place (though will admit I have altered the colour balance in this photo to make it appear a bit more Martian).

King penguins returning to the colony in the evening. It was really dry there so lots of dust, sand and feathers being kicked up which gave a strange, almost other-worldly, feel to the place (though will admit I have altered the colour balance in this photo to make it appear a bit more Martian).

 Unlike my last visit, this time we were spot on for the big bull elephant seals defending their territories.

Unlike my last visit, this time we were spot on for the big bull elephant seals defending their territories.

 Sitting in one place for an extended amount of time I could start to pick out the boundaries of each bull's harem. They spent most of their time bellowing and sleeping but were actually very aware of what was going on. When another male approached slowly out of the sea, hoping to steal a chance at mating with one of the females in the harem it didn't take long for a good beachmaster to spot him and chase him away.   I didn't see too many fights, and none that went on too long, though wait for next months blog if that's what you're after.  Often the females would call out when a new male approached. I guess from an evolutionary point of view it's in her interest that the males fight, or at least square up, as the biggest and strongest will get to impregnate her. If she has a male pup from a dominant adult he'd have a better chance at growing up and passing on her genes. As something like only 1 in 100 (and I've seen 1 in 1,000 quoted elsewhere!) male elephant seals manage to breed successfully that's a lot of incentive to only mate with the best.

Sitting in one place for an extended amount of time I could start to pick out the boundaries of each bull's harem. They spent most of their time bellowing and sleeping but were actually very aware of what was going on. When another male approached slowly out of the sea, hoping to steal a chance at mating with one of the females in the harem it didn't take long for a good beachmaster to spot him and chase him away. 

I didn't see too many fights, and none that went on too long, though wait for next months blog if that's what you're after.

Often the females would call out when a new male approached. I guess from an evolutionary point of view it's in her interest that the males fight, or at least square up, as the biggest and strongest will get to impregnate her. If she has a male pup from a dominant adult he'd have a better chance at growing up and passing on her genes. As something like only 1 in 100 (and I've seen 1 in 1,000 quoted elsewhere!) male elephant seals manage to breed successfully that's a lot of incentive to only mate with the best.

 As we were doing a few peaks and quite a lot of walking we'd packed light. That means dehydrated meals. Thankfully we have a pretty good selection, topped up with a few drops of tabasco, couple of cubes of cheese and a few olives or jalapenos they're all you need.

As we were doing a few peaks and quite a lot of walking we'd packed light. That means dehydrated meals. Thankfully we have a pretty good selection, topped up with a few drops of tabasco, couple of cubes of cheese and a few olives or jalapenos they're all you need.

 As well as updating the medical kit I was on a mission to clear out old food from the huts. There were a few bits in the army ration packs going off; tins going a bit dodgy on the inside, Rolos leaking caramel all over the place, dehydrated mutton I can't see ever being used.  The garrison left in 2001 so some of this food is pretty old. In fact I found a few soups older than Kieran.

As well as updating the medical kit I was on a mission to clear out old food from the huts. There were a few bits in the army ration packs going off; tins going a bit dodgy on the inside, Rolos leaking caramel all over the place, dehydrated mutton I can't see ever being used.

The garrison left in 2001 so some of this food is pretty old. In fact I found a few soups older than Kieran.

 Amongst the gems, an old-style Double Decker and my favourite type of chocolate bar, a Milk Chocolate.

Amongst the gems, an old-style Double Decker and my favourite type of chocolate bar, a Milk Chocolate.

 After a morning amongst the seals and penguins we set off back for Sorling. It was a stunning day so we took a detour and went up the seldom visited Mt Skittle. This isn't a tall peak but was quite challenging in terms of scrambling and route-finding. It's off the main route and has probably only been climbed a handful of times.  Looking at this photo you can Mt Paget, the highest South Georgia peak, toward the left of the range. In front of it and a third the size is Mt Fusilier that we did the day before. Our route back is in between that mountain and the range cutting across from the right.

After a morning amongst the seals and penguins we set off back for Sorling. It was a stunning day so we took a detour and went up the seldom visited Mt Skittle. This isn't a tall peak but was quite challenging in terms of scrambling and route-finding. It's off the main route and has probably only been climbed a handful of times.

Looking at this photo you can Mt Paget, the highest South Georgia peak, toward the left of the range. In front of it and a third the size is Mt Fusilier that we did the day before. Our route back is in between that mountain and the range cutting across from the right.

 This was a long afternoon; just over 20km, just shy of 1,000m ascent, just less than 5 1/2 hours. Upon reaching Hound Bay I couldn't be bothered walking up and down to find a shallow place to cross the river so just took my boots off and waded through.

This was a long afternoon; just over 20km, just shy of 1,000m ascent, just less than 5 1/2 hours. Upon reaching Hound Bay I couldn't be bothered walking up and down to find a shallow place to cross the river so just took my boots off and waded through.

We arrived at Sorling Hut as it was starting to get dark but still had enough time to sit in the sun and have a quick beer from the supply we'd stashed there on the way out. The next morning there was cloud sitting at about 400m. We headed for Ellerbeck, a peak we'd been told good stuff about but unfortunately the clouds never cleared. On reaching the lake and start of the ridge we decided it wasn't worth it as we wouldn't get any views and it would potentially get quite dangerous if we couldn't pick out a good route. So we dropped down toward the edge of the Nordenskjold glacier.

 This glacier is huge, standing out on all the aerial shots of South Georgia. We didn't approach too close in case a chuck calved off on top of us or, more likely, making a huge wave to wash us away. I don't know how recent maps Strava uses but I was tracking us on this walk out of interest and at this point it put us 1,500m up the glacier. That's how much it's retreated but unfortunately I can't say in how long.

This glacier is huge, standing out on all the aerial shots of South Georgia. We didn't approach too close in case a chuck calved off on top of us or, more likely, making a huge wave to wash us away. I don't know how recent maps Strava uses but I was tracking us on this walk out of interest and at this point it put us 1,500m up the glacier. That's how much it's retreated but unfortunately I can't say in how long.

September - birthday and more peaks by Jerry Gillham

September started off with my birthday. Although I didn't want anything special doing Bob made me an excellent meal complete with a crumble better than any cake. The guys presented me with a couple of home made gifts too - an amazing carved wooden albatross skull and a unique drinking vessel made out of a redundant search and rescue radar transponder. I proposed a fancy dress night at the bar with the theme of 'post-apocalyptic eighties music video', giving rise to a number of strange outfits.

 Dave looking fabulous.

Dave looking fabulous.

 Kieran looking like a legend. There's not too many photo from that evening that I'm happy putting online.

Kieran looking like a legend. There's not too many photo from that evening that I'm happy putting online.

 Neil attempting, and failing, to master the lung tester.

Neil attempting, and failing, to master the lung tester.

It can't have been too chaotic a night as I made it out the next day. Paddy, Fraser and I headed to the nearby Spencer Peak.

 This ridge is pretty close to station and not massively high but pretty narrow and technical in places. Good fun and amazing views.

This ridge is pretty close to station and not massively high but pretty narrow and technical in places. Good fun and amazing views.

 End of the line, looking down on Maiviken.

End of the line, looking down on Maiviken.

 Looking back from the peak toward the Allardyce Range that makes up the spine of South Georgia. Mt Paget, the highest at 2,935m, is on the left.

Looking back from the peak toward the Allardyce Range that makes up the spine of South Georgia. Mt Paget, the highest at 2,935m, is on the left.

Before Neil departed we made the most of the good weather and had a last group trip up Mt Duse.

 On the approach the way up is fairly clear; that snowy gully on the right of the highest point. It just looks a little... vertical.

On the approach the way up is fairly clear; that snowy gully on the right of the highest point. It just looks a little... vertical.

 Steep sections near the top, looking down on base and the fisheries patrol vessel.

Steep sections near the top, looking down on base and the fisheries patrol vessel.

 Just before the top you climb through this little tunnel where a big boulder is balanced above you.

Just before the top you climb through this little tunnel where a big boulder is balanced above you.

Mid month Kieran and I headed off on holiday to St Andrew's Bay, see the last blog post: http://www.manraisedbypuffins.com/raisedbypuffins/standrewsbayholiday

Upon our return station was significantly busier as the crew of the yacht Novara, including some pretty renowned expeditioners, had made friends with everyone on station. As the first yacht of the season their arrival was an exciting time and it was great to meet such a friendly and interesting bunch - we welcomed them up to the bar and they gave us a few presentations of trips they'd taken through and climbing around the North West Passage. Read about their trip here: https://www.sy-novara.com/

 Novara cutting through the thin ice on the bay as it approaches the jetty at Grytviken.

Novara cutting through the thin ice on the bay as it approaches the jetty at Grytviken.

 The busiest the bar has been for a while.

The busiest the bar has been for a while.

Much of my work this month has been finishing off winter projects and preparing for new arrivals. I've been able to dedicate a little time to helping Paddy and Bob with jet boat maintenance, mainly handing tupperware boxes of oil back and forth as we drained the tank.

 Getting the jet boat out of the water is relatively simple when it's this calm.

Getting the jet boat out of the water is relatively simple when it's this calm.

 There is no comfortable way of working in the engine bay. If you think Paddy is standing up here you're mistaken.

There is no comfortable way of working in the engine bay. If you think Paddy is standing up here you're mistaken.

By the end of the month much of the snow had disappeared. Disappointing as it is to put the skis to one side I have been able to start running again. It's also nice to be heading out without excessive amounts of kit. Fraser, Vicki and I had one of the best days heading over to Camp Peak before dropping down to Curlew Cave. 

 Camp Peak isn't particularly large or difficult, but it is quite far away and the approach involves a few steep passes.

Camp Peak isn't particularly large or difficult, but it is quite far away and the approach involves a few steep passes.

 Toward Camp Peak, the furthest point on this part of the peninsula.

Toward Camp Peak, the furthest point on this part of the peninsula.

 Looking back toward Maiviken again, from the other side this time. Spencer Peak and the ridge we did at the start of the month are just across the bay.

Looking back toward Maiviken again, from the other side this time. Spencer Peak and the ridge we did at the start of the month are just across the bay.

 Dropping down to the coast and crawling through another tunnel to get to the dramatic Curlew Cave.

Dropping down to the coast and crawling through another tunnel to get to the dramatic Curlew Cave.

 It would be a great place to bivvy so long as you avoided peak fur seal season, and especially if you remembered your home-made calzone.

It would be a great place to bivvy so long as you avoided peak fur seal season, and especially if you remembered your home-made calzone.

St Andrews Holiday by Jerry Gillham

It's not too long now until the end of winter. It's only a couple of weeks until the first boatload of summer staff arrives. We've all been trying to fit in holidays before that, so early September Kieran (the higher predator scientist) and I headed off to St Andrews Bay for a few days. We were due to head out Monday to Friday but the long range forecast for the end of the week wasn't good, so we packed up quickly and the others were kind enough to drop us at Sorling Hut on the Saturday.

That afternoon we hiked over to Hound Bay and spent the night there. Sunday morning greeted us with rain, as Bob had warned us the night before, but it wasn't due to last so after we'd packed up early we sat around the hut waiting for it to pass. It did soon enough but left some low-lying clouds that gradually cleared in dramatic ways as we pushed up to the col. The melting snow had left the ground underfoot rather unpleasant; the grassy bits weren't too bad but above about 200m the vegetation ran out and we found ourselves hopping between big rocks to avoid the sticky mud. It was a relief when we hit the snow another 100m further up.

The view down on St Andrews Bay from a peak just a little further up from the col. The Heaney Glacier is the biggest of the three that flow down towards the beach, you can see the previous moraine lines it has left outlined by the snow. The penguin colony is the small (from this perspective) dark patch beside the beach, just this side of the frozen lake.

Kieran celebrating reaching the col. Though the descent wasn't easy we knew we weren't far from dropping our bags and getting a cup of tea at the hut.

One of reasons we'd come was to catch the elephant seals fighting over territory. Although there were several big old males around there weren't any ladies for them and they were happy waiting on their patches of beach, exerting energy only in throwing sand over themselves to stay cool.

When I'd visited with Paddy in April there had been a whole range of penguin chick sizes, this time there was a bit more uniform with very few small or nearly fledged ones. King Penguins have a strange 18 month breeding cycle so every three years (if they're successful) they'll lay eggs at the start of winter. Chicks hatched then have a real challenge growing up during the cold months and many don't make it, so these were pretty much all chicks from eggs laid the best part of a year ago. They were grouped together in a series of creches for warmth and protection, looking from this outcrop like a badly organised army batallion.

Adults returning to a creche have to push through hundreds of chicks in search of their own. They call out and I'm sure they're using other senses to locate them as the chicks don't mind who they get food off and will often chance their wing on any returning adult.

St Andrews faces east so it's always worth getting up for sunrise. Not only is the light right for more spectacular photographs but the penguins start their journey down to the sea at first light. Mind you they then stand there for hours staring at the sea, some walking back and forth along the beach all day.

They often seem reluctant to enter the water, almost like the ones at the front of the crowd are pushed in as the scrum gets too much. There is safety to be had in entering the water in numbers, though it's not unusual for a group to swim out then turn round and come back in on the next wave.

The beach is quite dynamic with wave action and rivers of meltwater altering it each day, so the penguins are always having to find new routes. I was waiting at the bottom of this bank on my own, looking out to sea when I felt the sand move behind me and turned round to see this procession marching down the slope.

Although cold that first full day we had was absolutely stunning weather. I spent my time heading into the colony for a few hours then going back to the hut for a warm drinks.

The hut warmed up nicely with the Tilley lamp going. In the evenings we ate dinner rapidly, reviewed our days photos and had a laugh over a few drams. I also got a fair bit of reading done - having thrown my kindle in my bag I got through three short stories by Philip K Dick, Philip Pullman and JG Ballard. 

The next day was overcast, windier and significantly colder. I didn't go as far from the hut and returned more frequently for warm drinks. I consequently spent more time on the rocks at the end of the beach and was able to enjoy the morning traffic jam of penguins at a different spot.

From here I could watch them jump into the water as a crowd and then, moments later, explode out in a mass of flapping and splashing as they crossed a little channel.

On this particular rocky outcrop there was no single place they'd emerge so I was waiting for long periods while they'd come up somewhere else. But my patience was rewarded when one huge group came out of the water right next to me, completely oblivious to my presence in the chaos of their own making.

The king penguins aren't great climbers unlike the macaronis for instance, that have large claws for gripping the rock and strong legs for jumping uphill. It's not uncommon to see the kings using their beak as a climbing tool, hooking it over any thing spot they can get a grip. They also use it as an extra limb to help push when standing up. It's always a little surprising to see as you think of them being quite delicate parts of the anatomy, if not the beak itself then the face anyway.

One of the reasons the penguins were so hesitant to enter the water and so keen to emerge in a big group. I saw at least two leopard seals hanging round this patch.

Some of the leopard seals are pretty fearless and equally curious. This one spent a few minutes checking me out from different angles before apparently deciding I wasn't food or going to steal its food and therefore of no interest. Even through I was quite safe on the rocks there's something thrilling about being evaluated by an apex predator.

The penguins weren't as safe as me though and we saw a few being thrown about as the leps had a good feed. Always looking for a meal, the giant petrels weren't far off, in fact at times they looked like mere centimetres from the lunging leopard seals huge mouths.

Having had two and a half excellent days at St Andrews, and with the weather due to turn we decided to pack up and depart, eager to get back to station before the wind picked up and stopped the boats coming out. Instead of stopping half way at Hound Bay we thought we'd push all the way through to Sorling so we'd be ready from that afternoon or early the next morning.

We decided on a different route back to avoid the steepest, iciest, potentially avalanchey slope. Crossing this one wasn't simple though, especially with the gusts blowing through, catching your big rucksack and knocking off balance.

It took 4hr 40min to get back, not too bad given the conditions but it wasn't a pleasant walk. We were heading into the wind the whole way so as well as carrying a big rucksack it felt like someone was in front, pushing you back with every step. Still, there was relief as we reached Sorling Hut and were able to sit down with a warm drink and some food.

That warm food was my last veggie ration pack. In the next couple of hours the sea refused to die down so we realised we were there for the night. Time to search through the stock of hut food to find what was on the menu. I made do with a packet of 'fresh' pasta (from 2011) supplemented with a couple of cup-a-soups. We were picked up the next morning, back for a shower and fresh bread.

August - movie making & more skiing by Jerry Gillham

August started with the annual Antarctic 48-hour Film Festival. I've had great fun in the past parodying Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but this year we went for something a bit more original; a fun satire of Brexit based on the idea of South Georgia trying to leave Antarctica.

It's available to view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StB1ftK6wcM

Neil and Dave ill-equipped to deal with the cold in the old whaling station.

Fraser taking a break with some personal reading material. I like the straight lines and symmetry in this photo, I'd be happy with making this the new South Georgia flag.

Fraser, Neil and Bob preparing for filming in the surgery.

Unfortunately our UK-centric storyline, combined with a scattering of in-jokes and oblique references, together with dodgy sound quality on the original edit, meant we were never going to score highly amongst the wide range of stations of various nationalities that did the judging, though I hope some of the European stations appreciated the point we were making. 

Congratulations to Rothera and Bird Island, the other UK stations, who made some highly entertaining movies, the latter performing very well in the voting.

I ended up spending several weeks going back through the footage and improving the sound quality, cutting and adding until I was properly happy with it. Reviews so far have included 'it looks like you had fun making it', 'you had a hard act to follow' and 'your acting hasn't improved', while several friends have avoided speaking to me since I sent them the link.

 

August also gave us some of the best days skiing of the winter. One weekend especially, after a particularly heavy snow-fall on the Friday, was spectacular.

Fraser on the slopes of Brown Mountain. The flat area below is the snow-covered Gull Lake. Visibility was often poor but where the snow was deep enough it was so easy to turn it didn't matter what the slope was like.

Clouds clearing as we returned to Grytviken. As it was just so good we ended up heading up Deadman's Pass to continue skiing instead of returning to base as planned.

Shameless skiing selfie. It's not light-weight skiing here; you never know where there's going to be rocks poking through the slopes and while we take every care to avoid potential avalanches you can never guarantee anything, so each time we've been out I've carried avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel as well as helmet and, because I've become a bit paranoid, spine-guard. The result is that I look much more extreme-sport than is justified.

The next day Fraser and I set off early while everyone else was enjoying a lazy (hungover?) Sunday. Our initial smugness took a dent as the visibility was pretty shocking.

It cleared however as we ascended toward Echo Pas and then an un-named peak beside it.

From the summit we had great views down to station as well as most of the travel limits of the peninsula, and then an awesome time heading back down.

When the snow's not been too deep to make walking difficult we've had some good days out hiking too. Although looking toward Petrel here, Vicki and I got up Narval, just out of shot. It's one Fraser and I went up early in the summer via a ridiculous route. This time we did the simple one but with the snow, ice and strong winds about it was just as rewarding.

On a better day we headed back over to Stenhouse, possibly the most spectacular peak in the local area. That ascent up what looks like a vertical gully above and right of Vicki is a proper challenge. It's been good to do a few days needing crampons and ice axe for their intended purpose rather than just carrying them as extra safety gear.

Those two days out counted towards the 2017 Race Antarctica. In previous years this has been organised from Cambridge to get BAS folk competing as teams to rack up distance equivalent to crossing the continent. With people moving on I took on the challenge of organising this years event, but only for those South. We had seven teams of 4 trying to complete the distance from Falklands to Bird Island, to KEP, to Rothera, to Halley and the Pole. That was about 7,000km - in 5 weeks! A bit much, most teams managed 30 to 40% of the distance but the BI team absolutely smashed it.

Activities were weighted so spending an hour on the exercise bike, rowing machine or running would be worth equal amounts. Skiing, cardio exercise and ascent gained also counted towards the total. Hopefully it gave people a chance to get rid of a bit of midwinter weight and get a bit of a routine going in the gym.

 

Finally, one of the most exciting events in August has no photographs to corroborate it; heading back from dropping people off for a holiday on the Barff Peninsula I was driving the jet boat when some way in front of me I noticed a black line rise and fall. It didn't take long before I realised it was either an orca or another whale maybe waving a flipper. I chose to shout the first and ran to alert Paddy and steer from the raised platform outside the cabin. I was correct, it was a big male orca though it only appeared once or twice more and never very close. Kieran and Bob in the RHIB noticed a second, a female, further off behind us so we slowly turned around and keeping revs low hung around the same place looking out for them. 

I guess they were feeding as we only got a couple of brief views, and always far from us and the spot they'd last surfaced. The final view we got was the best, both surfacing together in front of the sunlit glacier before disappearing for good. No photos but happy memories.

July part 2 - skiing & leopard seals by Jerry Gillham

One of my key reasons for coming to KEP was the opportunity to get out on skis. There's no lifts or skidoos to get you uphill so you have to do all the hard work yourself, you have to earn your turns. It's a long time since I've done anything but downhill skiing so I spent quite a lot of time and money investing in new boots, bindings and skis when I was last back in the UK.

This was the first day I headed out on skis. It's just in our local, single-person travel area where I've been loads of times before but the feeling of being out exploring was such a good one.

A nice patch of rock-free snow is a bit of a rarity. This is where we practiced ice-axe arrests a month or so ago so I knew it'd be pretty smooth and a good angle, worth the detour to get there.

One of the first bigger trips was when Fraser and I headed up to the VHF repeater on the ridge behind station. It's about 500m ascent and was an exciting bit of route-finding both going up and down. I was pleased I'd followed the advice about not spending a huge amount on the skis themselves as I picked up a fair few scrapes and scratches.

This is taken just beneath the final push, you can see the antennae on the skyline. It was a narrow chute to come down, especially for the first descent of the day. 

Fraser's photo from the same place as the above but looking the other way toward Mt Hodges and the interior of the island.

Fraser, Neil and I headed out for a planned longer trip up one of the peaks. As it turned out we got as far as Glacier Col and found the peaks had been blown bare. Still, we got a good descent back through a few little gullies. Though with some unexpectedly deep drifts we also fell over a few times.

I'll hopefully fit in a skiing holiday later in the winter, possibly hauling our kit by pulk. So on a slightly crappy but snowy day I decided to put in some practice by taking some food over to stock up the tsunami shelter. I learned that it's not as simple as it seems, especially the steep uphills and almost every downhill.

It's been a good month for leopard seals. Only three sightings, which is fewer than we'd get in a day sometimes on Bird Island, but they were all great ones and I didn't have the pressure of trying to get specific photographs of them.

The first was off down Moraine Fjord when we were in the rib, and kept lifting itself high out of the water, spy-hopping to get a better view of us.

The second was as Paddy and I were bringing the government officer and post master back from a fishing vessel. It was hanging around near a belt of sea-ice and as we slipped past came to investigate us, repeatedly swimming underneath the boat in the crystal clear water.

The third was probably the best yet. Paddy and Bob were working down on the boat when they heard a loud snort behind them. This lep kept poking it's head up through holes in the ice, staring at them for a few seconds then dropping back underwater and coming back up at another ice hole. This continued for the best part of an hour. It wasn't aggressive or nervous, just curious the whole time.

It seemed like an effort to push up through the ice at times.

Leopard seals can be identified by their unique markings. This one has a spot roughly in the shape of Africa just below his bottom lip. I've compared it to a few photos of other leps that have been about but it doesn't seem like a regular visitor.

When he was a good 10m away I slowly slid my GoPro under the ice on the end of a long pole. I got a whole load of video of him distant and disinterested but was rewarded with this one quick look straight into the camera.

Easy to get caught looking the wrong way... Bob and Paddy less on the ball than Vicki.

July saw Matthew's departure after his fourth year here. One of the things he brought down this year was a higher class of pizza, with two proper stones for the oven and a paddle. On his last week he hosted a pizza-making class so we can continue with the technique if not quite the high standard for the rest of the year.

Dave putting the finishing touches to his pizza, while the queue builds up.

Getting into character with the wig and especially dodgy facial hair.

Captain Phillips / any sort of maritime theme leaving party. I was dressed as what I imagine the captain of the Costa Concordia looks like. Top prize went to Fraser for his cryptic crossword style cap-tin (of pineapple slices) phillips (head screwdriver).

Dave showing Matt the appropriate respect.

July part 1 - Petrel, SAR and boating by Jerry Gillham

Despite it feeling like a quiet month in the aftermath of midwinter and still in the midst of the cold, short days it turns out quite a bit happened in July, or at least I’ve got plenty of photos from what did happen. So I’ll split the months blog into two.

The month started with a fun ascent of Petrel Peak, Fraser, Paddy, Vicki and I fought our way through the snow and occasional ice patches to reach the summit.

Kicking steps up the snow slope, it never looks as steep as it feels when your legs doing all the work.

After the climb out the valley you hit a fairly flat bowl. Petrel has two peaks, the most interesting and photogenic is the pointy one directly ahead of us in the middle of the photo.

Fraser contemplating the route to the summit. Petrel looks impossible from virtually every angle. From here we headed up to the ridge on the left, along and up that, then below the peak itself and back at it from the far (easier) side.

Up on the ridge, Petrel looks closer and marginally more accessible, but that ridge to get there gave us some problems and needed quiet a lot of route-finding and doubling back. Paddy's photo. Note July has been a month for experimenting with facial hair - this look is certainly better than one that will feature in July part 2.

Vicki and Paddy looking at something in the distance. In the background is the higher of the two Petrel Peaks (by a couple of meters); covered in loose rock and ice and not much of a fun climb even in good conditions, we decided this day it wasn't worth it.

Paddy, Vicki and I ascending the pyramid summit. In the summer we were amazed at how simple this route turned out to be. With snow and ice it was a little tricker. Summit height is about 600m. Fraser's photo.

We didn't hang around at the top as we could see the clouds closing in. It didn't start to snow until we were down in the bowl and approaching familiar ground. Still, the hard snow on these steep little slopes were good for a) sliding down, practicing ice-axe arrests and b) getting some good practice walking in crampons, as here. Fraser's photo.

Search and rescue practice is an ongoing training exercise. We’ve done a few tabletop scenarios and doc schools but this was the first time we put them all together and went out in the field. To complicate matters the casualty in this session was the doctor and I was pretending to be a visitor meaning Vicki, as deputy station leader, was responsible for co-ordinating the incident while Kieran was the lead first aider. They, and everyone involved, did extremely well and Fraser was safely recovered all the way back to the surgery. Even though you know these are only practice sessions they are still always stressful as there is a lot to remember. However well it goes there are always things you learn and little improvements you find you can make. There are so many different factors that could occur there is no one fix-all response so you have to do a lot of dynamic planning and responding and best reason for doing these practice sessions is to give you that confidence and ability to keep a calm head in a real emergency.

Fraser had 'broken his leg while playing on the old whaling station'. I was sent out as the quick response, taking the bike and pedalling round to meet him with a big orange blanket and some warm clothing. Shortly afterwards the main team arrived and splinted his leg up.

As we could have an incident anywhere off station we practiced bringing him back on the boat. Loading him from the jetty was relatively simple - next time it might be a RHIB pick up and mid-water transfer.

With several people managing holidays on separate peninsulas and the krill trawlers (which need inspecting by the government officers) there has been quite a bit of boating this month.

This was a weird day to be out - the snow fell so heavily it was sitting in a layer on the surface of the sea. Clearing it off the boats took a while but driving through it was simple enough...

... until it got sucked up into the cooling system and the engine overheated. Kieran watching on as Matthew fixed it.

One last thing Matthew wanted to do before departing was test whether he could take the jet boat into Moraine Fjord. This channel, although it is over 100m deep in the middle, can be just 4 or 5m and forested with kelp at the mouth. Normally we only take the RHIBs in there but with one due to go out for servicing we need to have a plan to use the jet as a back-up boat in case of any problems. So, with permission from Cambridge, we set out one sunny day on a test run.

Cutting through the line of kelp, hoping not too much gets sucked up into the jet units.

In front of the Hamberg Glacier. We kept our distance in case of calving events but didn't catch any. Shortly afterwards we did get a leopard seal swim past, checking us out.

Stepping out the boatshed door on 19th July it took me a moment to work out what was different, then I sussed it - the sun was shining on my face while I was on station. Although we don't get anything like the full days of darkness that's expected further south we are in the shade of Mount Duse, so it can be two months without the sun on base. Feeling it's warmth again is something special.

Tied up alongside here is the Fisheries Patrol Vessel, coming in to pick up pax and post in between searching for illegal fishing.

Holiday - some peaks, some hut time by Jerry Gillham

Getting the chance to spend time on the adjacent peninsulas is one of the major perks of being at King Edward Point. We get a few weeks of holiday each year and have a large travel area to explore full of rarely summited peaks, secluded bays and comfy huts.

Matthew (boating officer), Neil (field guide) and I headed over to Corral Hut on the Barff Peninsula for a break shortly after midwinter. The hut is close enough to the shore so packing light isn’t a priority, we tried to keep it to a minimum but with ski kit and clothing for every eventuality it requires a couple of trips to unload it all.

Corral Hut - a fairly new build so weatherproof, comfortable and big enough for three.

Dropped off just before lunch on Monday we were able to make a brew and unpack before Neil and I headed up a local couple of peaks; a bit of a scramble with some spectacular skies and cloud formations adding to the great views.

The first challenge was crossing the mostly frozen river, it took quite a bit of walking up and down the banks before finding somewhere secure enough that you didn't just fall through.

Dramatic mid-afternoon skies over Ranger Ridge, looking north west toward the tip of the peninsula and the entrance to Cumberland Bay. We'd be back here later in the week.

Despite no need to pack light we’d not prepared food, instead relying on dehydrated ration packs. The Mountain House ones we use contain the occasional dodgy batch but each one I had was great, admittedly topped up with a dash of tabasco, bit of cheese and, in the custard, a few crumbled biscuits.

It's been over two months since the sun shone on station, so I took my opportunity to relax in its warmth in the evening window of opportunity. Neil's photo.

The weather on Tuesday morning was calm and bright if not sunny. We headed out early aiming for Black Peak, at 807m one of the highest in the travel area. Going was fairly heavy as the snow, not enough to merit skis, was of the sort that offers you hope that it will be frozen enough to support your weight before breaking through the crust two out of every three steps. 

Jackets on as the wind picked up.

Looking ahead to Black Peak, the second dark triangle from the distant right.

The further we pressed on the stronger the wind got, blowing straight at us, testing how much we really wanted this peak. As we got closer I found I was putting on more and more layers - windproof under my jacket, bigger gloves, buff, glasses, hat and hood - to keep the cold out. When we reached the first top it was difficult enough to stand up. I tried taking a few panorama photos but was being buffeted about so much I couldn’t hold my hand steady enough. 

The unnamed summit beside Black Peak, which is the one we're looking across to in this photo. Beyond it you see down to the fjord and part of the Nordenskjold Glacier.

We traversed the short ridge to the top of Black Peak proper, climbing up the exposed ridge to avoid the potential wind-slab on the snowy side. It was a short celebration at the top before we quickly started heading down.

Views of the glacier, Mount Paget Massif and Cumberland Bay from Black Peak. I think I've said it before but looking back from this peninsula you really get the impression that King Edward Point is the only barely habitable speck of land at the edge of the world.

Quick summit selfie. Neil's photo.

About 45 minutes later the clouds gathered and it started to rain on us. Hard and wet, I had good but lightweight waterproof gear that I knew probably had an hour at best before I started getting wet, and that was less time than walking that we had left. Thankfully it lightened and then stopped before then and by the time we got back I was pretty much dry again. Still, very glad to be back at the hut with the primus stove and tilley lamps going, warming the place, drying our kit off and heating some much-needed food.

A picturesque sunset with which to finish the day.

On our evening call back to station we were told the weather for Wednesday was looking wet and windy. It was decided we wouldn’t worry about an early start and in the end it was so unpleasant outside we spent all morning and early afternoon sitting round the hut, reading and drinking coffee. 

Hut life. Neil's photo.

It did clear up later though and I went over to explore Sandebugten, the next little bay around the corner. Only a short walk but some very pretty scenery and views down to the huge Nordeskjold Glacier at the head of the fjord.

Thursday was a better day again, though at -5 significantly colder. We again started early and headed up the valley and over the pass Neil and I had descended on Monday. Our intention was to check out Ranger Ridge, a small (max height 409m) but challenging looking ridge toward the very tip of the peninsula. 

Back at Ranger Ridge.

I feel I should edit the face of God (or at least WG Grace, as Python did) into the sun on this one.

In getting onto the start of the ridge we decided to ignore the potentially easy option and test ourselves with a bit of scrambling / climbing. This turned out to be a bit more than we were expecting, and though was accomplished easily enough took longer than it normally would - partly regularly brushing snow and ice off the steps and partly through repeated testing of every hand and foot hold. The rock here is not good for climbing, being constantly exposed to freeze-thaw conditions it splits and crumbles at the slightest suggestion sometimes. 

Neil scrambling up the first part of Ranger Ridge, looking down on Lurcock Lake.

Traversing the ridge was fine though even here there were more technical bits than expected. As we approached the first of the two main peaks we suspected they were more than just South Georgia steep, they were actually impassable. Neil and Matthew are both significantly more experienced climbers than me and I was prepared to wait it out or look for a way around if they wanted to press on, but the sensible option was clearly to call it a day. 

Point of turning back.

There’s nothing like considering what could go wrong to make you err on the side of caution; flaky rock, snow and ice, no additional climbing kit, not many hours of daylight left, chances of being rescued if something went wrong: practically zero. We call it lining up lemons on the slot machine of doom - when too many things, even little things, are going against you they can easily club together into one potentially fatal omnishambles so you need to know when to draw back.

Descending the ridge proved as problematic as the ascent looked, with plenty of walking backwards and forwards to find the best route down. With the rock as it was it took a lot of waiting for each person to move on their own, rather than risk kicking debris down onto them.

Slowly finding a route down.

Once back on flat earth we had a quick snack, agreed that we’d made the correct decision as if we’d had to come down that with an injury or in the dark we’d have been in real trouble. We headed toward the coast and back round through tussock, bog and meadow. Nearer to Corral we dropped onto the shore and had to dodge patches of ice and an alarmingly high number of big male fur seals, unseasonably up on the beaches, maybe checking out potential places to try and hold a harem.

A complete change of scenery to tussock, bog and meadow.

Reindeer tracks. Although it's several years since they were here they've left their mark. We took care looking for evidence that any remained but nothing. It shows how long it takes the slow-growing vegetation to recover.

Friday we had a leisurely breakfast and cleaned up the hut before being picked up. It was wet and grey but as we were ferried back across to station the sun broke through and we got a quick bask in it before getting home.

Midwinter celebrations by Jerry Gillham

And so it was time for the annual Antarctican celebration of midwinter, the shortest day of the year, celebrated since the very first days of polar exploration as we look forward to the days getting longer and the sun returning to shine on the station.

This is a dedicated week off work, although daily checks continue and we were on standby to carry out any boating work should any of the fishing ships have arrived for inspections.

The first big event of the week was the midwinter olympics, with competitors showing off their talents in the track and field. Paddy (boating officer) won the welly wanging, subsequent drugs tests revealing significantly higher than the acceptable trace levels of Guinness. Neil (field guide, newly arrived Halley refugee) took home the gold for the caber toss before Fraser (doctor) won the javelin with an entirely new throwing technique that he has quickly patented.

Dave (electrician) giving it some with the welly-wang.

Moving into the track events the three-legged race ended in dispute as both Paddy-Jerry and Fraser-Kieran claimed victory. The lack of a clearly defined finish-line was, in retrospect, an oversight. The was further controversy in the pulk-pulling as team Jerry-Paddy was the victim of subterfuge, with others holding onto the back of the sledge. Although the final was close Bob (mechanic) raced home dragging Fraser on his sledge despite the best efforts of Kieran (zoologist) trying to haul him down whilst dragging Vicki (fisheries scientist).

Later that evening I put on a pub quiz, with cocktails to be claimed for niche station knowledge like how many doors in certain buildings and guessing the total weight of cheese on station. I rounded it off with a totally self-indulgent guess the song intro round, all badly played on the banjolele, kazoo or stylophone.

A quiet strumming start and then giving it my all on the kazoo for the Baker Street sax solo was much more fun for me than anyone else.

I was on earlies on midwinter day itself so had done the building checks, made a big cooked breakfast and laid out the stockpile of presents I'd accumulated before the others awoke. Through the year we've been left various crisps, chocolates and drinks by visitors, well wishers and non-wintering staff, some of whom had been very generous indeed (Robbie and Adrian can't go without mention) so what could have been an expensive night was actually exceedingly well supported.

At mid-day we had our traditional mid-winter dip, a dash into the sea followed by an even quicker dash up to the sauna. No heroics for anyone, it's alarming how quickly freezing limbs stop working. Thankfully we were able to properly warm up, helped by Emma and Steve (government officer and partner) providing a mug of mulled wine each.

A little close for comfort but a grand way to warm up.

Early evening, with everyone dressed very smartly, we started our gift exchanges. The midwinter present-giving is a very old tradition; we draw names at random and just make a gift for one person. As always, the dedication, imagination and talent was jaw-dropping.

Midwinter gift collection.

Vicki made me an awesome lamp with copper pipes and sea-glass that looks like tree bark or, because it's so long since I've seen a tree, fronds of a kelp forest. I did a big painting of the local peninsulas for Neil who, with only two days since his arrival, created a lovely wooden ski pole for Fraser, who had made another lamp, this one based around an albatross x-ray. There were photo books, models of the boats (one making use of the broken blender parts to give it a working propellor), beautiful carved shot glasses and a life-sized metallic king penguin with toilet roll holder attachment.

Admiring the penguin Bob made for Kieran.

We'd all chipped in making a big roast dinner. I'd done the cauliflower cheese, yorkshire puddings, parsnips and sprouts (ie. stuff I'm quite particular about how I like it and don't trust other people).

Fraser suturing bacon onto a reindeer leg.

Sitting down to midwinter dinner.

Stuffed full of food we retired to the lounge to listen to the BBC's midwinter broadcast, exceptionally produced by Cerys Matthews with a heart-warming range of good wishes from, amongst others, David Attenborough, Michael Palin, John Carpenter (director of The Thing, traditional midwinter viewing) and Bill Bailey, who'd written a song specially for the occasion.

Dave testing his new shot glasses with their creator Paddy.

The week was wrapped up with the bar crawl, with people making their own place around station. From the upside-down bungee challenge in the boatshed to the frankly disgusting Deja Pu, the creepily decorated laboratory to Paddy's tiny Irish bar, Dave's frankly mental drawing challenges and finishing off with my erotic book club - because there's no better way to round off an evening than getting people to read out badly-written sex scenes from a collection of smutty books inexplicably filling our library.

Challenge 1. Climb up the rope, attach to the bungee cord, pull yourself along as far as you can and place the sponge on the velcro strip.

Sample bags, toilet roll and bog brushes dangling from the basement pipes, drinks served from a toilet... it was difficult to enjoy this bar.

Kieran getting angry that no one could get his perfectly clear illustrations.

Pep for erotic book club

Start of winter by Jerry Gillham

Midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic, is almost upon us. Everyone has been spending the last few weeks (if not longer) working on their gifts, trying to tie up odd jobs so they can enjoy some time off, and trying to make the most of the start of winter. 

May was a pretty quiet month. With the toothfish ships at sea and the krill ships not arriving until next week (probably right in the middle of our celebrations) the boats have been off the water for a bit of maintenance. A few pairs of people have been off on holidays and on station we've been counting everything. Our annual indents cover all the field kit, stationary, comms, computing, domestic, cleaning, food & catering goods. Sometimes you can work with a few other people to get big chores done, other times you just put some music on and start looking through draws, making piles of pens.

Here's a few random photos from the last couple of months that haven't fitted into any other blogs:

One of the tasks we had in March / April was supporting a party doing asbestos and oil assessments of the old whaling stations at Husvik, Stromness and, pictured here, the largest one at Leith. These sites are fascinating but prohibitively unsafe so we're not allowed to get much closer than this.

Young rebels, Bob (mechanic) and Dave (electrician) having ridden their bikes round to Grytviken to consult with builder and former BAS technician Andy. It's only about a kilometre around the track between King Edward Point and Grytviken but it can be the longest part of any long walk and if you're doing it repeatedly it's nice to be able to mix it up a bit with the bike.

A day out exploring Repeater Ridge and making a try of Mount Spencer started with a walk over to Maiviken. Fraser (doctor), Vicki (fisheries scientist) and Bob looking at the route ahead, with Fraser preserving his energy by not wasting time turning round.

A steep ascent up the scree left us sweating and panting but gave great views down on Maiviken, the study bay for the gentoo penguins and fur seals.

We didn't get to the peak of Mount Spencer as the ridge pretty soon got quite technical - a bit too much for flaky rock and no kit. Still found it a challenge to traverse around the edge.

Another day out and exploring the edge of our travel limits with Fraser, Matthew & Paddy (boating officers). We are restricted to a few small peninsulas but it still makes a very expansive area - you'd have to be here a good few years to experience it all. This direction we found another technical ridge marking the end of our day's walk. From here we got a great alternative view down to Upper Hamberg Lake, the glacier above it and the peak at the back is Mount Sugartop.

A decent bit of snow on the ground, but a grey day so Vicki, Dave, Paddy, Kieran (zoologist) and I went off to do a short hike up the small, local Brown Mountain. It turned out to be a great day for some ice axe training that quickly turned into a sledging competition.

"Now, this is where we keep all of our meat. You got 15 rib roasts, 30 ten-pound bags of hamburger. We got 12 turkeys, about 40 chickens, 50 sirloin steaks, two dozen of pork roasts, and 20 legs of lamb."

Today. We had this big dump of snow earlier in the week but today was the first time I've got out in it. Partly because of work but mainly because that slope at the other side of the bay is above the only track out of King Edward Point and is rather prone to avalanches, so I let it settle a bit first.

It's still deep, fluffy snow so I opted for the board rather than the skis. Turns out it's still too deep. I got a couple of good runs down when sticking in a rigidly straight line but pretty much every time I tried to turn, which I'm not very good at anyway, it dug into the deep snow too much and threw me on my arse. Still, it's not a bad way to spend a lunchtime.

Stenhouse Peak by Jerry Gillham

There's a phenomenon in the hills around these parts known as 'South Georgia steep'. It is the uncanny ability of the peaks to look unclimbable, almost vertical, on approach, only to be fine once you get to them. Recently we went for Stenhouse Peak, a 540m summit a few miles from station that was the perfect example of this.

It took about two hours to get here, up and through one of the passes then traversing a wide scree slope. At this point the ascent looks impossible; it's up that snow-filled gully that looks like it might in fact be loaded and overhanging.

We were well equipped with axes and crampons but the snow was good and we didn't need the latter. Once the lead person (Matthew this time) had borne the brunt of the work kicking footsteps it was just like walking up steep stairs of snow.

Taking it slow and steady was clearly the best course.

Once up the gully it was a relatively simple push up to the narrow summit for lunch.

Fraser and Paddy modelling proper explorer haircuts.

Paddy, Fraser and Matthew victorious at the top.

Matthew starting the descent down the gully while Fraser and Paddy put on crampons. Again, it's not as steep as it looks here and although we did a bit of deliberate sliding down it was never too fast or out of control.

Back working with the Giant Petrels by Jerry Gillham

Working with the giant petrels was my favourite part of the job on Bird Island. Now I'm management and there's not so many of them nesting in the vicinity of King Edward Point it's rare I get to enjoy their aggressive / serene / maniacal / ridiculous behaviour. So when it got to the time of year for Kieran, the higher predator scientist, to go through their nesting grounds weighing and measuring the chicks I of course volunteered to help.

As well as getting up close with the birds it's a good excuse to get across to a a few less-well-travelled parts of the island.

Kieran approaching a giant petrel chick. Hopefully by this size and age they're past the point of vomiting to defend themselves, instead relying on their massive beak with which to bite you, but that's by no means a rule true to every bird. The trick is to approach and grab it quickly, minimising stress and ensuring minimal handling time.

Me in front of the Lyell glacier. These photos were taken at Harpon, a bay and hut over the other side of the peninsula from King Edward Point. It's about a two hour walk and the first time I'd been over that direction. It was also one of the first really snowy days we had though for most of it I wasn't as cold as I was here. Once down at sea level however we had the cold winds coming in off the ocean mixing with other cold winds coming down off the glacier.

With the boats in the water I was able to swap Kieran for Vicki (fisheries biologist) for the walk back. Away from the coast it warmed up again and as the sun dropped we got some great views down on the Lyell glacier. Normally this is all covered in debris, a dirty brown colour, but with a fresh fall of snow it looked dramatically white.

A sunnier day on the Greene Peninsula and I got hands-on with the birds again. I'm not putting any weight on the bird, merely using my legs to keep it still so I can measure the beak and then weigh it. These chicks aren't far off fledging and getting the weight of chicks at the same stage each year is a good indicator of the general health of the population, obviously in a summer of abundant food they'll be heavier and more likely to survive that first winter.

As with much of the work I used to do the predators at the top of the food chain are studied because it is a simple way of getting an idea of the health of the whole food web, but these measurements will only form a data point on a long term (decades-long) study into trends.

Bill measurements are used to determine sex with males having longer ones, in some cases over 100mm. 

Another day, a cold one again, heading out to the Greene Peninsula. It's only a short journey across by boat and up a fjord with a very shallow moraine entrance, so only suitable for the RHIB. The first job of the day was to get ashore and retrieve a VHF that one of the team had left on the beach the previous week.

Down the end of the fjord we took the opportunity to have a closer look at the Hamberg Glacier, unlike the Lyell which is large, dirty and sprawling through a valley this one is jagged, white, bleak and squeezed between a couple of rocky peaks.

 

Jerry

St Andrew's Bay by Jerry Gillham

One of the best things about being at King Edward Point is that we get to go on holidays. Not too far - just away from station for a few days on one of the neighbouring peninsulas. After a busy end to the summer I was certainly ready for mine. I'd tried to get one in January but that was at the height of the comms blackout and I cut it short to try and fix that, though wasn't much use.

So at the end of March, Paddy (boating officer) and I headed out to St Andrew's Bay. This is one of the highlights of South Georgia, any time you've seen king penguins on a nature documentary there's a very good chance it'll have been filmed there.

It was an early start, just as the sun was rising, when we set out in the boats. Well wrapped up in our boat suits as the journey can take the best part of two hours. It's not too bad inside the jet boat but we'd volunteered to do this on the RHIB, mainly so whoever took it back wouldn't have to be in there the whole time. It was a calm enough journey round - any big swell or change in the weather and we'd have had to head for home or shelter in one of the bays as this journey took us outside of the safety of the local travel area and down the coast with nothing to our port side but the southern sea until you reach Africa.

It was shortly after 9:00 when we jumped off the boat and waded ashore, the others departing quickly to pick up a few field workers and head back before the weather changed. With a boat drop-off we'd been able to bring a few extra luxuries (pre-cooked dinner, crate of Guinness, loads of camera gear). It took a few runs to get it up to the hut but the sun was shining clearly as we sat and had a cup of tea.

It wasn't long before we got together our camera gear and headed over toward the king penguin colony.

With an estimated half a million birds here on undulating terrain it's impossible to get a photograph that truly does the place justice. For what must have been the first hour we just wandered round the edge of the colony, sitting where we got a good vantage point and just observing in genuine awe the spectacle. I'd heard all sorts of good stuff about St Andrew's and it truly lived up to the superlatives.

With so many penguins about it was difficult to know where to point the camera. I didn't have any specific photographs I wanted to take to for much of the time was just sitting watching the interactions between adults, chicks and each other.

The vast majority of king penguins I've seen before, especially those at Bird Island, were mainly moulting or lost. But these ones seemed more confident on their breeding ground. Sitting at the edge of the colony I'd be passed by streams of individuals who were unconcerned by my presence, though some did wander up to investigate.

Down the far end of the beach there were off cuts from one of the three glaciers that pour into St Andrew's Bay. It's long been an ambition to stand on an iceberg, but with them being slippery, usually surrounded by cold water and liable to tip over at any opportunity I wasn't sure I'd get the chance to do so. However this one was free of the last two issues and not so slippery I couldn't climb it.

The Mercer is one of the three big glaciers that roll down into the bay. I walked up to take a good look at it, though didn't have the kit, people or permission to clamber about on it.

Sometimes the colours and curves of the king penguin makes it impossible not to try and do arty photos.

The majority of the chicks were medium sized and forming little creches. King penguins lay an egg every 18 months, which may be unique in the bird world. Although those that are hatched at the start of winter have a very tough early life it means there's every stage of development on the beaches most of the year round, from eggs to nearly moulted chicks starting to enter the sea.

Although there's movement in and out the sea all day the early mornings and sunset were the best times to see trains of penguins walking down the beach, looking for the perfect place to enter the water - maybe somewhere safer form the risk of leopard seals, maybe somewhere easier to navigate in or out from, maybe a weird penguin tradition.

The hut is located about 500m away from the colony, far enough to avoid disturbance both to the birds and to the hut's residents as the colony can be quite noisy and smelly. In the way is this river which we crossed with ease on the first day but on every subsequent crossing it had risen a little higher as the warm (well, above freezing) weather melted the glaciers a bit more. By the end we'd tried so many places, boots, wellies and bare feet and none were truly satisfactory.

As with most of South Georgia you can't just look at one part - you focus on the penguins and before you know it you're staggered by the mountains behind them.

We quickly got into the habit of getting up at sunrise to catch the best light, having a few hours with the penguins, coming back for a late lunch, doing a bit of reading or a short nap, lunch, more penguins and then back for dinner before it got dark. Then a few drams and ready for an early night.

The hut at St Andrew's is fantastic - cosy for two people but with bunk beds, separate rooms for wellies and storage. It's rustic and full of character but clean and dry. I know that looks like mould on the walls but it isn't. Perhaps historically but not now. The visitor book makes reference to problems with rats stealing food and leaving a mess, thanks to the eradication it sounds a much more pleasant place to stay now.

Cooking is on a big old primus stove and light is from a tilley. It feels good to cook on them, like you're properly living the wild, hut-dwelling lifestyle. 

After two and a half days we had to start heading back. The first obstacle is getting out of the plain, up a very steep scree slope that just when you think is done turns into what at first glance appears to be a wall. Then you start scrambling up it.

We were well loaded down with kit, both carrying large rucksacks on our back and day-sack sized ones on our front. Partly because we had a fair amount of camera gear each but in these locations you have to carry a good amount of safety kit with you. If we'd got into trouble (weather, injury etc) on the hike back we could be a few hours away from a hut and, depending on the weather, several days away from a pick-up.

From the top of the pass looking down on St Andrews Bay and the Mercer glacier. The hut is toward the coast, bottom left of the green plain. The flat grey area above the green is all penguins.

We split up the walk back with a night in another hut, this one at Hound Bay is a lot newer than the St Andrew's hut, with four beds and a gas oven! We still cooked the rehydrated meal packs, livening them up with a bit of bread, cheese and spice.

The next day we walked back to one of the beaches from where we got picked up. It was nice to back on station where I could have a warm shower and something other than rehydrated food, but it was an excellent trip. I shall certainly be going back in the autumn when the elephant seals start fighting for control of the beaches and giving birth, while Paddy is going back next week.

Jerry.

It's been a while... by Jerry Gillham

It's been a busy few months, and for a long part of it we were without any comms as the phones and internet went down for about six weeks. But I've now got a bit of time in the evenings to try and catch up with my blog.

It's the start of winter now; there's a bit of ice in the bay, the fishing ships are around and there's currently only nine of us on station. We're having to draw the blinds around 5:00 in the afternoon and people are starting to get on with making midwinter gifts.

Here's a few photos from earlier in the year, I'll try and put up some more soon.

Erny (mechanic / temporary boating officer) and Kieran (higher predator scientist) checking out an impressive iceberg. Taking the boats past the ice and down towards the glaciers is fantastic, especially when you get these big ones with their crazy shapes. On a calm day you can hear the fizzing and cracking of the tiny air bubbles in the ice all around you.

Fraser (doctor) on the top of Petrel peak. We pretty much came straight up this one, walking up the snow rather than scrambling up the scree. Petrel has two peaks, the other, slightly higher one is a not-so-nice balancing act up some crumbly rocks but this one, the more spectacular looking, is actually really solid and pretty simple.

With Bob (mechanic), Thies (yachtsman / builder) and Fraser up one of the many no-named peaks within our travel area. To the right of the picture, covered in debris is the Lyell Glacier and before that the deep green Lyell Lakes. The central peak behind us is False Minden, a peak just over 1,000m that is right on the edge of our travel area. Thies had done it before but no one else had and it was very tempting.

Matthew (boating officer), Dave (electrician) and Kieran up the top of Anderson Peak on a cloudy day. It cleared up enough to give us some nice views down towards Maiviken.

Matthew investigating an ice cave that has reduced in size dramatically since he first came down in 2013. Then you could stand up in the entrance, today you can just about crawl through a tunnel if you don't mind getting your knees a bit muddy and your back a bit wet.

This was shortly after the day on the no-named peak when we decided we'd head out early and attempt False Minden.

Fraser and Thies high up False Minden. Although Thies had climbed this peak before he kept changing his mind about the route, often saying we should have done it slightly differently. Still, without his guidance we'd probably have turned back.

Nearing the summit and feeling the height as we looked down on the top of the glaciers. It was such a warm, sunny day we'd had to repeatedly fill up our water bottles in streams.

Looking down on Hamberg Lakes and Hestersletten. The colour of these glacial lakes amazing, as is the way it changes as the water filters from one to another.

Fraser moving along the top ridge, with Mount Sugartop looking close enough to reach (though actually another 1000+m of Himalayan-style ascent).

Stopping for a quick lunch break on the top, looking down on Lyell Lakes. This turned into a pretty epic 10 hour day but was worth the tired legs, sunburn, cut hands and knees (some of that scree is sharp stuff) for the views.

Days out over Christmas by Jerry Gillham

A few photos from South Georgia taken over Christmas and New Year

Christmas Day was amazing. The weather was just unbelievable. We'd had a bit of a party the night before with a carol service at the old whaling station church, then a traditional meal with everyone enjoying themselves.

On the 25th three of us headed up Mount Duse, just behind the station (that you can see with the red roofs. To the right of the bay is Grytviken and the museum and post office were open that day as cruise ship Le Soleal was in, unloading passengers to look around the whaling station.

Fraser, Kieran and me on the top of Mt Duse.

No one really knows why Fraser was dressed as Neil Buchanan, but it did give us this excellent photo opportunity.

We returned in time for the builders' barbecue - a fabulous affair that went on all afternoon. The blue containers were dropped in to give shelter from the wind while the white container is a permanent fixture as it contains our sauna.

Boxing day wasn't quite as sunny but was still clear so this time we headed up Mt Hodges, detouring slightly to Orca on the way. Here Grytviken sits directly below us while King Edward Point is on the spit further out. The path over to Maiviken is on the left and the Gull Lake on the right powers out hydroelectricity generator.

The weather deteriorated slightly as we reached the top of Hodges. Again you can see a large cruise ship in the bay - it was a busy time of year for the museum and post office staff.

Coffee envy at the summit.

Part of the on-site training has been learning to crew and cox the RIBs and jet boat. There are two of each and the jets, seen here, are used primarily as the harbour launches. This day we'd picked up people from their holiday and were doing a bit of familiarisation around the local area. This included getting up to the Nordenskjold Glacier and taking GPS readings near the edge, tracking it's retreat.

With a bus weekend ahead Fraser and I headed out on a Friday to stretch our legs before more work took over. We didn't pick the nicest of days; what should have been amazing views were shrouded in cloud, but it did mean we occasionally stumbled across treasures, like this tiny glacier up near one of the cols (Glacier Col in fact).

Elephant Seals are forming their big wallows as they moult. Noisy, stinking places they are nevertheless very amusing to watch.

Following that slightly miserable day we awoke to several inches of fresh snow and glorious sunshine. It was so warm that by mid-afternoon there was barely any left.

The first bit of snow shovelling of the season to clear the walkway.

Matthew clearing the snow off the jet boats. That day we had a cruise ship, a ship bringing new people and cargo, and the auxillary fleet's Gold Rover who had personnel wanting to be ferried ashore. So there was plenty going on. The following day the HMS Portland was in, in atrocious weather, and he racked up over 60 nautical miles moving passengers between the ship and Grytviken.

First update from South Georgia by Jerry Gillham

After about three years on Bird Island I’ve moved on. Admittedly not very far - I’m now stationed a little further south at King Edward Point research station on the South Georgia mainland.

As is now tradition I left the UK in early November, travelling down to the Falklands on the MOD flight from Brize Norton via Ascension. We didn’t have long in Stanley this time and a few hours of that was spent meeting the government and getting me sworn in as a magistrate. That’s right, I now have an official piece of paper giving me (limited) magisterial powers. Part of the recognition of sovereignty claims relies on having a structured legal and judicial system so out on South Georgia the government officers double up as police and the station leader fulfils the role of magistrate.

We sailed across from Stanley to South Georgia on the fisheries patrol vessel; the government-funded ship that travels round the islands incognito in search of illegal fishing vessels. The ship and crew will be regular visitors during my year out here so it was good to get to know them early on.

I’s only about four months since I was on South Georgia so as we arrived into King Edward Point it felt like that time at home and in Cambridge had been the break from normal life rather than the return to it. The old team greeted us and were very welcoming, allowing a day off before getting down to the hurried hand over; attempting to pass over all their knowledge about the station and their jobs in just three weeks.

Toward the end of that period we had the RRS Ernest Shackleton arrive for relief, bringing all our food, fuel, building, science, medical, computing and domestic supplies. Unlike Bird Island, where all the cargo is manhandled across from the tender, down the jetty and into the buildings, here they were able to unload a few containers straight onto the wharf and from there we picked the crates and pallets up with the JCB. Everything coming in has to be fully biosecured to prevent invasive species; rats and mice are the obvious threats but insects and seeds are probably more likely so each piece of cargo has to be unpacked by hand in a secure room.

RRS Ernest Shackleton in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia.

We celebrated the end of relief and the last days of the old team with a big barbecue by the boat shed before waving them off.

The departing team all aboard the Shackleton.

Waving goodbye to the ship and the old team. The flare preceded a surprisingly incompetent Mexican wave.

King Edward Point is a significantly bigger and more complex station than Bird Island. There’s just eight British Antarctic Survey staff; two scientists, two boating officers, a mechanic, an electrician, a doctor and me. Alongside us we’ve two government officers, a postmaster, five museum staff working for South Georgia Heritage Trust and a team of six builders as well as a couple of visiting scientists. The base can hold a maximum of 50 people but we’ve maxed out at just over 30 so far. 

Our travel area is pretty big and includes some pretty gnarly peaks and ridges, I can’t wait to get out and explore it a bit more.

Ascending Mt Duse, just behind the station, the edge which is just about visible in the bottom right.

The views from the top of Mt Duse.

A few old staff, new staff, doctors, postmaster and visiting scientist atop Duse.

Jamie recreating one of the famous photographs Shackleton / Hurley from the Endurance expedition of 1914. Looking down on the whaling station at Grytviken and Gull Lake from an outcrop of Duse.

Marine scientist Vicki crossing Penguin River on route to monitor Giant Petrels.

The key wildlife differences between here and Bird Island are 1. no nesting albatrosses about (barring a few light-mantled on the cliffs) and 2. loads of elephant seals. As we pulled in to the bay Kieran, our new higher predator scientist, exclaimed in a high pitch voice ‘look at the size of them!’. Most of the big ones have departed now and the pups are independent for the first time. These weaners are forming their own little gangs, wallowing together in the shallows or mud, sleeping all cuddled up in a cacophony of burps, farts, snorts and growls.

Good size (but not enormous) bull Elephant Seal amongst the ice.

Elephant seal weaners relaxing around the remains of the old whaling station.

Discovery Point and a relatively recent shipwreck now populated by seals.

The death of one poor Elephant Seal put means a feast for the Giant Petrels.

Still my favourites, the Giant Petrels are so charismatic with their dinosaur / turkey / banshee poses, running and sounds.

Higher predator scientist Kieran and doctor Fraser counting chick-containg Gentoo Penguin nests over at the study site at Maiviken.

Healthy Gentoo chick - all belly with tiny head and wings at this age.

Higher in the Alps by Jerry Gillham

Walking the Tour du Mont Blanc was brilliant, but most of the way round I couldn't help looking up towards the snow line and rocky outcrops and wonder what it was like up there. Well this week I had a chance to find out. I'd booked on an alpine climbing course with KE Adventures, with the aim of improving my climbing and mountaineering skills.

Arriving back in Chamonix after a frustrating journey where nearly everything that could delay me did, I was pleased to find my accommodation, at the Yeti Lodge, comfortable and welcoming and the other two guys on my course, Rob and Brian, friendly and easy going. That night we met up with our guide / instructor, Neil, a good-natured and reassuring presence with 40 years experience of climbing around Chamonix. He checked over our kit and issued us with bits I was hiring rather than fly out with them - helmet, harness, crampons, ice axe.

Day 1; rock climbing.

So Neil could get an idea of our competency levels we went to a large crag near the road in downtown Chamonix for some climbing. It's a while since I've been properly climbing rather than just scrambling so there was some old stuff for me to remember (belaying, different ways of tying in) and some new bits to get to grips with (new rock shoes, though we did also do a few routes in big mountain boots). 

Busy times on the crag.

It was pleasing to see Brian, Rob and I were all of a similar level, challenged but completing a series of increasingly difficult routes.

 

Day 2; ice skills.

With all our ice gear we ascended the Grands Montets lift and walked out onto the glacier. First priority was feeling comfortable walking around in crampons and then roping up to move around safely. This is stuff I've done before but I was able to push myself onto steeper gradients and harder surfaces.

Playground for the day.

Clearly a popular place for training.

We moved to a wind-pocket where there was a good, steep slope where we could try a bit of ice climbing. This was supposed to be a fairly big part of the course but unfortunately for us there were very few appropriate places where it could be done, partly because of the time of year and partly because of the very warm summer we've had; much of the snow was soft and unreliable (planned expeditions to summit Mt Blanc couldn't go ahead, while rockfalls had been much more regular than usual. There have been multiple fatalities this season and our guide was wary of following the planned programme too closely, luckily with his vast experience and extensive contacts he was able to come up with alternatives that were at least as exciting).

Neil, showing us how it's done.

Our short ice climbing experience was great and it's something I hope I'll be able to expand on in the future. We also did some crevasse rescue training, setting up pulleys. It's something I've done before with BAS but was good to refresh myself and on real snow. We took the rope back home and set one up again in our flat, as well as a bit of knot-tying practice.

Setting up a crevasse rescue system.

Much conversation was about the strange people you meet on the slopes, particularly a preposterously alpha-male Canadian who worked in the Middle East and his much younger Thai partner, whose cartoon child-like voice made us all uncomfortable, though not as much as their poor guide.

 

Day 3; Aiguille du Coches traverse.

With the weather reports dubious for later in the afternoon we headed up the Aiguille Rouge side of the valley early, up the lifts to Index. A short walk and ascent up a steep scree slope put us on a sharp ridge where we roped together and started working our way along. A mixture of scrambling, climbing and lowering down with picturesque clouds drifting across the ridge and green valleys below. I really enjoyed this route, much of it is the sort of thing I would try to do in the Lake District or Scotland, but with narrower routes and steeper, bigger drops so I was glad to be roped in.

Ominous clouds over Mt Blanc.

The ridge ahead.

Looking back and watching the next lady mocking us by racing through untethered.

We finished with a descent to Lac Blanc, glisading down through the snow patches to reach the beautiful blue lake where I had been a month earlier in thick cloud and unrelenting rain. It was nice enough to stop outside for a coffee but the walk down to the lift station at Flegere was, once again, in the rain. We had timed the day well.

Down through the snow.

That evening we ate out as the Yeti Lodge chef, who had provided some amazing vegetarian food, had a couple of nights off. It was back to the all-too-common France, reacting with confusion and fear when I asked if there was a veggie option. Salmon? No. In the end I had a plain omelette, which was fine, but the massive bowl of profiteroles made up for it.

 

Day 4; glacier traverse.

Neil picked us up and drove through the tunnel to Courmayeur where we caught the swish gondola up to the high station at Pointe Hellebronner. We had to climb over a gate to get out onto the glacier where we knitted up with crampons and ropes. Happily tied together we started the crossing to the Aiguille du Midi, the high lift station over Chamonix. Crossing our first crevasses I had a slight giddy feeling as I looked down and saw basically nothing underneath my stride. Further down, where the glacier was spelling over an outcrop and the crevasses were larger and less predictable we followed an established route across snow bridges, marvelling at their shapes and the contrast between the white cliffs and black holes.

The sun beat down on us for the next few hours as we trudged slowly across the snow, stopping to admire the view and listen to Neil talk about climbs he'd done on the towering rocky cliffs and people he'd known who'd been lost amongst them.

Looking back across where we'd walked, from the hump on the right.

After a few diversions to look at the base of the Cosmic Arête and a potential ice climbing spot (where the snow was clearly too soft) we approached the Aiguille du Midi. Before we could reach the lift station however we had to ascend the narrow snow arête. For me this was the scariest moment of the week. As we set off I looked left to where the the snow fell away down a hundred metre slope and out onto the glacier. The edge of the path had holes through it where ice axes, put down for support, had poked all the way through the thin lip of ice. Glancing to the right I could see the snow slope dropping away, getting steeper for about 50m, then the next thing was Chamonix, the best part of two and a half kilometres below us. That was enough to make my head swim a bit so I made a very conscious effort to just stare straight ahead, concentrating on planting my feet firmly in the footsteps made by others, watching Brian move in front of me and matching his pace to keep the rope between us taut. 

Approaching the narrow footsteps up the arete.

Though it felt it that ascent didn't take long and at the top we de-knitted and enjoyed the views. Neil had to rush down to get the bus back to pick up his car, while we stepped out onto the terraces. Aiguille du Midi felt a bit mental; at the Pointe Helbronne there were several others with climbing gear and those who had gone up for the view looked at us with interest, one lady even took a photo of us as an example of 'proper mountaineers' (I didn't want to shatter that illusion with the truth so played along). Yet at Midi I really felt we were the odd ones out as groups of Chinese pushed past us, snagging themselves on our gear, sunbathers indecently exposed themselves and at least one person was carrying a rotisserie chicken. 

The view down into Chamonix. The drop I was trying to avoid looking into on the arete.

Come on France, if you're going to pass laws about what people can and can't wear I think there's an obvious candidate here.

That evening we ate out again and properly overdid it with nachos, veggie burger and a huge Hoegaarden. 

 

Day 5; to Switzerland.

We met a second guide, another Neil, and drove through to Champex in Switzerland. From there we caught a lift and walked up for about two and a half hours to the Cab d'Orny, a high mountain hut and one I'd considered a diversion to when doing the TMB last month. I was glad I hadn't as it was a steep, hot ascent in places, though with marvellous views back across Switzerland and forward to glaciers and peaks.

Cab'Orny beside the glacier and little lake.

After a while relaxing and acclimatising at the hut we headed to the cliff behind it for a little more rock climbing, not entirely unsuccessfully using the hut's crocs as approach shoes. There was enough time for three short pitches and a brief abseiling set up before we had to be back for dinner.

The hut was fairly quiet with a few more climbers and a larger hiking group, a mixture of Swiss and Americans. I slept well that night, feeling used to being on thin mattresses in big dorms.

 

Day 6; Aiguille d'Orny.

The cabin, first thing in the morning.

We started early and walked uphill for about 30 minutes to the base of the cliff. Brian roped up with new Neil while original Neil (origineil) lead me and Rob. The Rock was good for climbing - clean and dry gritstone with plenty of handholds. Yet there were some tricky moves that required time, effort and the problem-solving approach I most enjoy about climbing.

Aiguille d'Orny, 3150m.

We were chased up the cliff by an elderly Swiss guide and his client, frequently sharing the tiny belay points with him, indeed more than once I was feeding out the rope while sitting back in my harness a tight rope or sling the only thing keeping me there. Those were the occasions when it wasn't best to look down.

Looking down.

Looking up.

We ended up doing eight or nine pitches and the whole climb took us about three hours. Near the top we hit the sun and a view to the north that included looking down on the Fenetre, one of the most impressive cols from the TMB. When I reached the top I found the rest of our group already up there as well as two girls who'd come up from the other direction, with the Swiss pair arriving shortly it felt quite crowded, five of us on a point no bigger than a standard dining table. For that reason we didn't hang around, abseiling down the opposite side that we'd ascended, manoeuvring across the top of the cliff and then changing back into mountain boots to walk down the scree slope and gully. 

At the top. See the cabin in the top right

We were back at the hut for midday where we enjoyed a relaxing drink before the hot descent back to the car and back into France. We said our thanks and goodbyes to the Neils and enjoyed a final meal at the lodge.

 

It was a thoroughly enjoyable week - good company, a guide I felt safe with, old skills improved and new ones learned, every day pushing myself in some way.