travel

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tour of Mont Blanc part 2 by Jerry Gillham

DAY 7. REFUGE BONATTI TO LA FOULY

Distance 21.73km, ascent 1473m, descent 1897m, time between hostels 6hr 10min.

A promising start with a partial rainbow on the Grande Jorasses, the view from the refuge.

An early breakfast and start after a very good sleep. It was cloudy outside and felt constantly on the verge of rain. We headed out in lightweight windproofs for a pleasant traverse of the hillside, crossing streams and heading through trees until we had to descend at the head of the valley as there was an uncrossable ravine.

Clouds pouring over the col and into the head of the valley, swirling round like a waterfall.

Then immediately back onto zigzag ascents up to the next refuge, We sheltered from the wind and mist behind it while eating a few snacks before tackling the major up. This was through increasingly thick cloud and not so warm so just a case of powering on through. We got good views back down the valleys but up near the Grand Col Ferret visibility dropped to around 15m. We caught up with the French girl we'd been chatting to the previous evening who was also carrying full camping kit, and at the top talked to a pair of Americans who warned us that the weather in the valley we were dropping into was even worse. So, throwing on our waterproofs, we headed down into Switzerland.

Descending into Switzerland.

This was a nice descent, not too steep, very green and even going and, as the cloud did begin to clear it started to warm up. We stopped for a coffee at the refuge at La Peule and then continued traversing the slope before dropping down around Ferret. That bit of the journey was full of trees, flowers and birds and I was a bit sorry I hadn't gone with the extra weight of binoculars and ID guides.

We stopped a while beside the river where I dipped my feet in, ate some nuts and tried to do a handstand. The path carried us along beside the river into the little village of La Fouly, a pretty little town with supermarket and ATM (though everywhere in Switzerland accepted Euros anyway).

We checked into the Hotel Edelweiss, certainly the poshest and most expensive accommodation so far, however it seemed that's just Switzerland. We were still in a small dorm on the very top floor. We picked up ice cream and refreshments and took them down to the river where we entertained ourselves skimming and throwing rocks in.

Dinner was a nice ratatouille and a disappointing chicken curry. As it was served early we walked into town where celebrations were being held for national Swiss day. Not much was happening at the big marquee so we went back for a beer, but when we came out of that bar there was a brass band approaching us menacingly from the far end of the street, driving us back to the marquee, clearly the centre of events.

We sat down in the beer garden with a view of proceedings. Paddy wanted a glass of wine but they'd run out of large glasses so he got served two small ones, which was an amusing sight. Overhead was a fireworks display and then a line of flaming torches carried down the slope by the children of the town. We were worried it was all going a bit wicker man as they crowded round the unlit bonfire, but the only people getting too close to that were the guys pouring petrol over its base. It lit with a proper 'woosh' and I swear I saw one guy rolling round on the grass trying to put himself out, but no one else seemed bothered about it.

Like any regional celebration you're not used to it was utterly bewildering fun.

 

DAY 8. LA FOULY TO CHAMPEX

Distance 20.22km, ascent 989m, descent 1148m, time between hostels 5 hours.

Maybe the best breakfast of the trip - good bread rolls, cheese, an apple and a cappuccino option in the coffee machine. We weren't in a rush and departed about 8:30, heading first for the supermarket to get some bits to lunch.

The day took us north up through the Val Ferret, winding through forests on either side of the river. Not far out of La Fouly, at one of the stream crossings, we deviated from the track to go and explore a waterfall, running up close to dry and dip our heads in and get soaking wet in the process. Luckily it was a warm, if not properly sunny, day.

Camera care before waterfall enjoyment.

We did have proper showers every evening, but not were as invigorating as this.

We gradually lost height as we wound through the villages of Praz de Fort and Issert, picturesque but slightly odd little places. Lots of beautiful wooden buildings but a good number with ramshackle balconies, skewed doors and antlers or stuffed animals mounted over them.

Looking down on the village of Issert and up to the col where Champex lies.

From Issert the track went across the valley and unexpectedly steeply up through the woods to Champex. It was hot climbing, though the locals had thoughtfully placed a series of sculptures at the side of the path - local wildlife, flora or mythological beasts.

Furious wooden marmot. Mind you, it appears he's been interrupted at a rather personal moment.

Up at Champex we stopped for our lunch. Paddy and I split a huge chunk of breadin half, hollowed it out and packed in as much of the excessive amount of cheese and lettuce we'd bought as was physically possible. The end result was tasty but it felt like one had to dislocate a jaw to bite into it. Ric ate nuts, as he had done at every stop for the past week.

We walked through town to find our accommodation, Gite Bon Abri, about a mile past the last buildings and deep in the woods. Also I'd forgotten it wasn't open until 5:00. That meant it was a slightly frustrating half hour or so, walking and waiting, though I was happy as I'd found bilberries nearby. We spent a short while incompetently playing table tennis on an outdoor table before stashing our bags and heading back into town for a drink.

We'd booked accommodation in a tent that night (one supplied with camp bed and blankets) to reduce the price a bit. Upon returning we found we were the only people booked in to it so were able to spread ourselves out a bit, though we wondered how it would keep out the cold or sound of cowbells.

Yes, that'll keep the cold out.

All mod cons.

Dinner was a chilli. A good one. Maybe my favourite meal of the trip, but then I like chilli. The place felt more of a hikers hostel and the staff there spoke good English and were very helpful and welcoming. Another group were drinking beers with a drop of grenadine in the bottom. I wanted one. I don't know if this is a Swiss thing or what but from now on it's a drink I'll associate with Switzerland.

 

DAY 9. LA FOULY TO TRIENT

Distance 16.58km, ascent1677m, descent 1839m, time between hostels 7hr 20min.

It was a cold night in the tent, though the cows did stop moving around (except for one mad one) and I only felt cold when I woke up if the blankets had slid off, though I did sleep in a thermal and hat. Woke up fairly early with the light shining in and some chickens that I thought was Paddy making silly noises. 30 years I've known that man and I still can't tell the difference between him and some chickens.

For the first time in a week our journey started with a chairlift. It took us a little way off the main route and we had to drop down again to miss the main path, but it cut off about 400m of ascent and gave us some great views down on the Val Ferret we wouldn't have otherwise got.

Views north from the top of the chairlift.

We dropped down a big piste track, rounding the corner to see the all route ahead become a seemingly unbreakable wall of rock at the head of the valley, the col barely a dent in the jagged skyline. An immense view and one I was very looking forward to approaching, knowing it would be difficult but excited to see what it would be like. The path up from Arpette wound its way up through trees and meadows, between boulders and back and forth over the stream.

Stopping in shock at the task ahead.

Gorgeous views but still no obvious route through.

We probably would have been quicker if we hadn't had to stop and check under every Christmas tree in case there were presents there.

Feeling high up in the mountains.

As we pulled above the tree-line we started to have to wind our way through steeper and steeper boulder fields. I felt the need to try a diversion, climbing a small knoll to attempt a good photo of the path from a different angle. Unfortunately I found no simple way of rejoining the path without losing the height I'd gained, so embarked on a long circuit round the edge of the valley, through a maze of huge boulders that took much longer than I expected. I rejoined the path for the final incredibly steep push, the zig zags crammed in so closely you could high five the person on the next one.

That's the Fenetre, that little dip in the ridge. Just all these rocks and that near vertical slope to get past first.

A tiny figure pushing onwards across the snow patch gives the boulders a sense of scale.

The Fenetre d'Arpette is well named. Like a window cut into the ridge, it's only a few meters wide yet the views from there are stunning; back into the lush green valley or ahead to the Glacied du Trient with the rest of the massif laid out beyond. We took a lot of photos up there, climbing around to get a better view and enjoying the feeling of success.

The Fenetre d'Arpette.

Awe-inspiring views from the Fenetre.

It took about 3 hours to ascend. Three hot, sweaty hours so we enjoyed the chance to dry off a bit in the breeze. I ate a lime that I'd been mocked about buying to rehydrate, and very much enjoyed it. Much less I enjoyed Paddy revealing to us (in every sense) a huge rip in his shorts. As we descended the incredibly steep west side, in places more a climb than steps, I could only pity the poor people ascending, partly because of the effort going in, partly because of the views they must be getting of Paddy's pants and inner thigh.

The Glacier du Trient stretching down the valley the way we were headed.

It got really pretty down through the trees and I kept turning round to admire the view of the glacier (though averting my eyes from Paddy, lest I should catch a glimpse of his unmentionables).

Scenery changed by the hour, exposed rock to forest to meadow.

We stopped down at a path-side cafe for refreshments and those of us who needed to changed shorts. It was much busier here with people coming up for day walks to admire the glacier. Continuing along we wandered along a flat, well-built path with a constructed water channel running its length. At one point it appeared to be driving a pair of hammers, though for no purpose other than to make a hammering sound.

These crotchless shorts are great for ventilation, but consistent wearing of them will end with you on a register somewhere.

Turning off on a smaller path down to Trient I learned some useful Italian; "non, non, pee-pee" apparently translates as "traveller! do not approach any closer, for a lady is urinating on the path". A handy phrase. Once she had finished we were allowed to pass and enjoy our descent into Trient and Auberge Mont Blanc. There was a good combination of sun and wind so a good chance to get a bit of washing and drying done. Paddy's shorts went the same way as his boots, and so did one pair of my socks.

The postcard village of Trient.

Dinner was a tomato and cheese fondue with potatoes. I was glad I'd picked it over the rice and pork option as it was much more exciting, and if there was any evening we could justify artery-clogging amounts of cheese it was this one. We were sat beside the same Israeli family we'd been beside for dinner at Refuge Bonatti and there were several other folk we recognised from the last few days.

We had a couple of drinks to celebrate our time in Switzerland and played Connect 4, at which it turns out Ric is a master. 

 

DAY 10. TRIENT TO TRE LE CHAMP

Distance 18.66km, ascent 1383m, descent 1261m, time between hostels 6hr 10min.

Which boots to wear today?

There were a few options for this days route, but we decided to go for the long one for the potential views. This meant retracing our steps for the first few kilometres, back to the cafe where we'd stopped yesterday. On the path I found a dead mole, the second I'd seen in two days. I mused on what tragedy might be befalling continental moles. From the cafe we crossed the river and started zig zagging up through the trees. It was cool in the shade but as we broke through the tree line it got hot and turned into a sweaty slog up to the refuge at Les Grandes.

Heading up the valley.

Well paved mountainside.

The ascent continued for a short while afterwards, including terraces carved out of the side of the cliff. Once over them it turned into a very pleasant undulating path, working its way through boulders and miniature trees.In one direction we were looking back to the glacier and col we'd passed yesterday, and ahead we could see the valley and Trient, where we'd ascended from.

Trient, where we started the day, in the valley.

As the path approached the col there was a small patch of snow which most people were walking around, but which Ric and I decided to strike out straight across. It was a traverse of some difficulty and cold enough to numb the hands.

Making things unnecessarily difficult.

We stopped at the col for a can of coke and a short break. It had taken just under 3 hours to reach.

Crossing the border back into France, with Mont Blanc gleaming in the sun.

From the refuge there we traversed beneath the peak beside it and dropped to another col before heading back up to the Aiguille de Posettes. This was a nice little path through broken rocks and low shrubs that reminded me of the Forest of Bowland on a sunny day. From this little peak we got great views of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley.

Looking east from Aiguille de Posettes.

Mountains, blue skies, and Chamonix below us.

The track down was a series of steep drops and sharp turns that were hard on the knees so we took our time getting down to Tre le Champ and Auberge la Boerne. We were early enough to get a sandwich and a beer for lunch. You could tell we were back in France as you got a 65cl beer for 6E rather than the 40cl we'd been getting in Switzerland.

It is a charmingly weird hostel, an absolute wooden rabbit warren, rooms all different sizes and crammed in wherever possible, seemingly defying physical space like an Esher painting, or like Jareth's palace in Labyrinth depending on your frame of reference. We had our own room, which would have been nice to spread stuff out in, except by the time I got to it that had already been done.

It started raining and then a thunder storm passed overhead. We sat and watched it a while before heading to bed. It was very hot during the night, we tried opening the windows but one just opened onto the corridor and the other onto an adjacent room, through which Paddy passively observed a naked Frenchman.

 

DAY 11. TRE LE CHAMP TO CHAMONIX

Distance 15.17km, ascent 1040m, descent 1407m, time between hostels

It was still rainy in the morning so we didn't hurry off, especially with the rather cramped porch where everyone was getting ready. Ric, Paddy and a nice Danish girl called Leah, who we had been chatting to the previous night, headed off on the main TMB trail through the woods and to the ladders, chains and half-pipes of the via ferrata. I however had a plan for getting above the cloud that involved going up the horrendous-looking path we had observed on the descent yesterday. The others were not keen as it involved starting the day with 46 zig zags, then a more gradual ascent along the exposed balcony overlooking the valley.

Now what is unappealing about that path?

As good as the weather got.

Knowing the number of turns was a big advantage as I was able to count them down as I ascended, knowing how far I was getting. Near the top of steep part I encountered a young ibex who was completely unconcerned by my presence, trotting slowly ahead of me then stopping to et beside the path. As I was walking to the audiobook of Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife it seemed appropriate that the ibex was my spirit guide / daemon, urging me on.

Guide me young ibex. Oh, you've just stopped to have something to eat. Well maybe I should do that too.

The gentle slope at the top of the zig zags should have provided amazing views but visibility was actually around 15m. There were a lot of streams swollen with all the rain that needed deviations from the path to find dry ways across.

I ignored the first turn off to Lac Blanc as it was still wet, but in the 5 minutes to the next sign the cloud cleared a bit, and the sign said it was just 45 minutes away, which I reckoned on doing in 30, so I went for it. The weather didn't improve any more but there were some fun bits along the route with ladders and wooden steps. I reached the hut at Lac Blanc about 10:30, 2 hours after setting off, which I thought was pretty good going. There I met the first people I'd seen since the very bottom but didn't hang around to chat as the weater worsened.

The picturesque Lac Blanc.

I texted the others with an ETA for the refuge where we'd agreed to meet and started off down the slope, half jogging on the flatter parts. It's a part of the trail I'd love to do again as the number of lakes and interesting rock formations looming out of the mist would normally have called for further investigation. I knew I was getting closer to civilisation a I passed pistes, ski lifts and large groups of guided walkers. Then out of the mist emerged the imposing La Flegere station, looking for all the world like an abandoned farm building from a zombie film.

I stopped for a large coffee in the fancy, spaceship-like cafe and waited the 20 minutes for the others to emerge out of the rain. Grateful for our hot drinks we sat around an discussed our plans for the rest of the day: 1, a slow descent through the trees back to Chamonix, 2, a quick, steep descent then a walk back along the valley floor into Chamonix or 3, cable car down then a quick walk along the valley floor and in Chamonix in time for pizza for lunch.

Unsurprisingly we went for option 3. I felt I'd had a really good walk that morning and was only going to get wetter and colder as we headed slowly down the track. Plus my quads were beginning to stiffen up and I wanted a pizza. Leah decided to stay in the refuge up the hill for the night so the three of us headed down into the valley, walked alongside the river and sat down to our celebration lunch. Ric complemented his with a very cognac-heavy French coffee. 

It turned out our accommodation, back at the Gite Vagabond, wasn't open until later, so we ended up wandering around the town checking out sales in the gear shops and stopping for another beer, once again ending up sitting next to the same Israeli family we had almost been travelling with. It was interesting seeing a few other familiar faces pass by too, wondering who was finished and who on their penultimate day, who had been out up the hills that morning and who had sacked it off for a rest day.

 Worth paying a bit more for a private room so we could get a bit of drying done.

Worth paying a bit more for a private room so we could get a bit of drying done.

That evening we celebrated further with an excellent curry and a few more drinks.

Tour of Mont Blanc... done.

Where next?

Tour of Mont Blanc part 1 by Jerry Gillham

DAY 1. CHAMONIX TO LES HOUCHES

Distance 15.90km, ascent 1625m, descent 1658m, time between hostels 5hr 30min.

Departing the Gite Vagabond after breakfast we walked up the road to the and got the cable car out of Chamonix and up to Planpraz, having decided we'd get stuck straight into the exciting walking rather than spend out first few hours trudging up the lower slopes. We were thrust straight into steep ascent though and within 20 minutes there were red faces all round, however by the time we hit the col, after avout 40 minutes, we were into our stride.

Team photo all fresh-legged and raring to go.

The top bit there felt high, with rocky spires and snow patches while atmospheric patches of mist drifted over the top of the ridge, cooling us slightly from the hot sun.

Snow patches around le Brevent.

Short via ferrata sections.

The descent felt long and I was glad firstly that I wasn't doing it with tired legs and secondly that I wasn't carrying full camping kit. Down through the woods we went, on twisting, narrow paths. Down past the an animal park and a big statue of Jesus and onto some slightly confusing tracks that took us into Les Houches and the Gite Michel Fagot. 

The guide book said this place was self catering only so we went and bought stuff from the supermarket. Then found out it wasn't, so put most of it aside for the next days lunch and went for pizza instead.

 

DAY 2. LES HOUCHES TO REFUGE DE LA BALME

Distance 26.4km, ascent 2694m, descent 1993m, time between hostels 9hr.

We had to stop immediately after breakfast as Paddy's boots were falling to bits. He wanted to ignore it but as the sole was coming off and we wouldn't pass any more shops for at least 2 days we persuaded him to invest in a new pair.

These boots will not last.

Again we started the day with a cable car journey and this one was memorable for all the wrong reasons as Paddy again disgraced himself, dropping a smell so bad we genuinely thought he'd shat himself.

Escaping to the clean mountain air we dropped over the railway track to join the TMB variant route down through the woods, across a Himalayan style bridge and up through lovely flower meadows to the Col de Tricot.

Looking ahead to the Col de Tricot, the gap on the right.

The Himalayan style bridge.

This was the first of the long, sweaty ascents we would get used to over the circuit but, as with them all the view from the top was stunning. The alpine visage was interrupted by the sight of Ric and Paddy, topless, eating ham from last nights abandoned meal. Is there anything creepier than half-naked men shoving fistfuls of cheap ham into their sweaty faces? Close by meanwhile another trekker got hassled by sheep.

A steep descent to Chalets de Miage was celebrated with a refreshing cola drink before the hot but short ascent to Chalets du Truc where we had our lunch; bread, cheese and a big box of cherry tomatoes. It did then mean I had a big bag of rubbish to carry but c'est la vie as they say round these parts.

Looking back to the descent from Col de Tricot from the next col.

Down through some forestry tracks until, at La Frasse, we had to decide whether to continue with the variant route or to drop down into the valley to meet the main trail. We opted for the former so started slogging uphill again. Half an hour later we had a similar choice that resulted in Ric and I heading up the steep zigzagged path into Combe d'Armoncette while Paddy took the main track straight on.

Good paths to walk along high above the village of Les Contamines.

Our ascent wasn't too bad as the path was decent. After about 40 minutes it struck off south along a really pretty route that seemed carved into the mountainside. It weaved in and out of the trees so there was limited shelter when it started to rain. Then came the hail, with balls the size of Birdseye frozen garden peas. The intensity increased as the thunder started so we threw on our waterproofs and picked up the pace, looking for better shelter.

Hail, rain, thunder.

The storm didn't last long but just as it was abating we came across a torrential stream of mud and rocks moving downhill fast in the flash flood. It looked a bit problematic so we spent a while sizing it up before finding a spot upstream where we could use our poles to help us leap across.

A problem.

The path then ascended to the refuge at Grande Roche de la Tete. Placed on a dramatic spur with views both ways down the valley it looks like it'd be a good place to stay, only a short walk from the next glacier. With it being the middle of summer we had booked all our accommodation in advance to be sure of having somewhere to stay so we had to press on. The track down was tough on the knees as it wove down very steeply through the woods, crossing some impressive gorges, and happily the sun came out again. We caught up with Paddy and trudged up the last hour or so of dirt track with aching legs.

Weary legs making the final ascent.

After a quick shower we sat down to dinner; soup, polenta, chicken (I realised that in the interests of getting well fed I wasn't going to worry too much about being vegetarian if the choice wasn't immediately available).

 

DAY 3. REFUGE DE LA BALME TO REFUGE DES MOTTETS.

Distance 13.71km, ascent 1165m, descent 994m, time between hostels 6 hours.

The elderly Scandinavian couple on the bunks below us had been awake for at least 45 minutes making noise by the time I decided to get up but apparently that wasn't enough time for them to get dressed as the image that greeted me that morning testified.

Clear morning views towards the Lost World.

With weary legs from the long day before we set off immediately up the hill, in and out of the shade as the sun rose over the hills in front of us. It took about 90 minutes to get to Col du Bonhomme up a path that was sometimes bogy and sometimes well eroded, through rain as much as people.

The paths were generally well marked, with TMB labels, destinations and often predicted walking times. Although we had a map and a guidebook we rarely consulted them apart from in the evening when researching the next day.

Looking up toward Col du Bonhomme.

The beautiful Col du Bonhomme.

 A hot day was ideal for for drying pants and socks. The other advantage of drying underwear like this is that you feel safer leaving your bag unattended, knowing that only the most desperate pervert would think of rummaging through it.

A hot day was ideal for for drying pants and socks. The other advantage of drying underwear like this is that you feel safer leaving your bag unattended, knowing that only the most desperate pervert would think of rummaging through it.

At the Col we continued up to Col de la Croix and then up the variant route towards Col de Fours. This was some of my favourite walking of the entire trip as the path rose slowly through proper mountain landscapes, with snow patches and fresh amazing views around each corner.

Heading higher, toward the Col de la Croix.

The clouds were rolling in and out, adding to the atmosphere and sense of occasion as we crested the Col de Fours and saw the valley below, into which our continuing adventures would carry us.

Clouds adding to the atmosphere.

Shame about the pylons.

Col de Fours.

Leaving the other to rest at the col I dashed up to the Tete Nord de Fours only a few more minutes up the hill. At 2756m it was the highest altitude of the trip and the full 360 degree views were superb; the valley we had ascended and the one we were heading into as well as Mont Blanc itself, mostly obscured by cloud but just for the odd second poking through.

Descending the col was via a rather rough path, though Ric and I found it much quicker to throw ourselves down the snow patches, to the amusement of others and numbness of ourselves.

Walking poles are not as good as ice axes for arrests, but are more effective than just digging hands in.

Down the valley flowed a beautiful river, cut into the layers of rock that used to be sea bed, thrust up by tectonic forces to create the Alps themselves. The flower-filled meadows around it were also home to our first marmots.

Gollum, taking a break from fishing in the stream.

The final half hour of the day took us down a few dirt track zig zags then up the base of the next valley, past bathing French families enjoying the mountain streams and spreading themselves across the entire road. The Refuge des Mottets is attractively situated at the head of the valley. Our accommodation block was a big old cow shed with mattresses down both sides. Unlimited showers and a well built washing block although the lack of toilet seats seemed an unnecessary saving. That and the poor quality of the toilet paper were compensated for by a genuinely impressively powerful flush. Best of all there was a donkey outside that was rolling around in the dirt as we arrived and then, as we sat outside with a beer, started simultaneously braying like a foghorn and farting.

Refuge des Mottets.

Comfy and cosy bedding in the old cow sheds.

The place was busy for dinner but there were still plenty of beds free. Dinner was soup, beef boulion, rice and potatoes, with a little trifle. During the meal one of the staff played an old French song on a punch-hole accordion music box thing and a load of people loudly sang along while we chatted to an American about other treks and long bike rides.

 

DAY 4. REFUGE DES MOTTETS TO REFUGE DE RANDONNEUR

Distance 20.00km, ascent 1242m, descent 1204m, time between hostels 6hr 20min

A good nights sleep and an early start meant we were zig zagging up the hill in the shade and in fact needed the first 20 minutes to warm up, though the cloudless skies informed us we were in for a hot day. The ascent didn't feel too long or arduous, with the gradient easing toward the top.

The Col de la Seigne, looking east into Italy.

The view as we crossed the Col de la Seigne, entering into Italy, was something to behold; green valleys and glaciers, Mont Blanc just shrouded in cloud but the spires of those just below it, like Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, looking like an impenetrable fortress.

Stopping for smoko just below the col.

There was a chill wind blowing so we didn't hang round and set off down into the valley, passing cyclists and horses carrying large amounts of kit, and a museum explaining the formation of the valley and the Mt Blanc massif. 

Looking back up the way we had come from Lac de Combal.

Below the Refuge Elisabetta we dropped into the flat-bottomed glacial remains of the valley that developed into the very pretty Lac de Combal. Taking a slight detour we climbed up the steep slope of moraine to look down on the blue-green Lac du Miage. Goats were patrolling round the edge and we had an argument over whether all houses are basically the same or not.

Lac du Miage.

We retraced our steps and headed up the south side of the valley. This was a tough one, sheltered by trees at first but for the most part a long slog up an exposed slope in the glare of the mid-day sun. The gradient wasn't even that steep and the altitude gain less than what we'd done previously but I think with the heat and the fact that we'd put all our attentions into the first ascent of the day we underestimated this one.

Looking east towards where our route wends its way.

The views were worth it though. Mt Blanc was still in cloud but the twin glaciers; du Brouillard and du Freney, were in full view, with the Refuge Monzino perched between them. The Glacier du Miage, which takes up a huge swathe of the map, is nought but a remnant, a scar of moraine debris where the ice once was.

Glaciers and debris where glaciers once were.

Winding our way down the edge of the slope we passed some nice pools and plenty of wildlife; more marmots, chough, redstarts, kestrel, grasshoppers and crickets and loads of butterflies including a lovely swallowtail.

Eventually we reached the ski area above Courmayeur where the path started to be criss-crossed by lifts and pistes. Odd to see them in the summer. The ones here were less of a blot on the landscape than elsewhere but still made the place look artificial compared to the relative inaccessibility of the morning.

We stopped at Refuge Maison Vielle for a beer and a sandwich. On one side of us was a life size plastic cow, on the other a good looking couple in matching cycle gear, sitting beside their bikes for a photo shoot before putting it all in the back of a pickup and driving off. 

The price of beer remained constant all the way round, but sizes would vary. This was one of the best.

10 minutes down the road was our accommodation for the night; Refuge de Randonneur. This was possibly my favourite of the places we stayed though it's difficult to properly say why - modern feeling dorm room but still with character and a great patio on which to relax. At dinner we chatted to a couple of Belgian guys about the music in the hostel the night before, football, motorbikes and how brexit was nothing to do with us.

 

DAY 5. REFUGE DE RANDONNEUR TO REFUGE BERTONE

Distance 9.41km, ascent 854m, descent 781m, time between hostels 4 hr 10 mins.

Descending into Courmayeur.

It took about an hour to descend the steep, dusty track through the forest. At the bottom of the valley we wandered into Courmayeur and paused at the tourist information office where Paddy found a map. Our priorities were 1, cash machine (those beers had dented our predictions) 2, bits of food, specifically bags of nuts, and 3, new flip flops for Ric whose previous pair had gone the way of Paddy's boots. We were successful with the first two, then had one of those tiny coffees about which the Italians are so fanatical.

Making friends with the locals.

Trying to fit in.

We started out of Courmayeur about 11:00, heading up the big hill to Refuge Bertone, about 700m above the town on a rocky spur. It was swelteringly hot but thankfully we were shaded by trees as we struggled up for about 90 minutes. From the top we got a good birds eye view of the town and plenty of wildlife in the form of butterflies and a few lizards.

Refuge Bertone sits on top of the central hill.

Refuge Bertone in the foreground and Courmayeur below.

We sat outside having a few drinks and nice, if expensive, pasta as the sky clouded over and the water started falling out of them in the shape of small drops. Quite a lot of it so we ended up sheltering inside for much of the afternoon. It was a bit of a strange place - very busy when we arrived so we accepted the lukewarm welcome. Not much English spoken bar one very helpful lady who seemed to be doing everything while the rest just sat behind tills. Dinner was very good; a pasta started then cheese-topped polenta, beans and stew. We were sat with a French doctor who was trying to get round the whole think in 4 days, right when we were trying to justify having a couple of short days mid-trip.

It continued to rain loudly during the night, and thunder, and we had the loudest snorer this night too.

 

DAY 6. REFUGE BERTONE TO REFUGE BONATTI

Distance 12.32km, ascent 1048m, descent 988m, time between hostels 4hr 40min

It was a light rain when we set off that morning, but it soon eased and we climbed out of our waterproof layers. There was still a low cloud layer obscuring the mountain tops, a shame because the guide book had promised us expansive views of the massif from here.

A wet start. The umbrella proved a worthwhile piece of kit, keeping its occupant dry but not overheated as waterproofs can do. So long as it wasn't windy.

We took the high variant route, I think we were the only people to do so that day as we didn't see anyone else for the majority of the time. The initial push up the ridge was steep and muddy but as we passed the crest it it eased up, though still ascended slowly to Tete Bernada and Tete de la Tronche before descending steeply to Col Sapin where a family of kestrels hung in the air, apparently watching our arrival.

Like walking in the Lake District.

We dropped down and crossed the stream before heading uphill again to Pas entre deux Sauts, or Porks enter Dork Storks as Paddy pronounced it. The other two started down the slope while I went for the half hour round trip up to Tete entre deux Sauts, a short climb up a steep, grassy slope, rewarded with with a 360 degree view of cloud-decked mountains and the valleys we had both come down and were going up.

Looking back from the Tete entre deux Sauts with the route we had just come, the previous valley, and the Grande Jorasses to the right.

Dropping down I enjoyed the solo walk down through the meadows of Vallan de Malatra. There were loads of marmots about and I got a good view of a very young one as it ran across the path in front of me, looking like a chunky squirrel. The bird life included a lot of wheatears which are always nice to see.

View of the Grande Jorasses from the Refuge Bonatti.

I arrived at the Refuge Bonatti about 1:00. A nice place with a modern mountain hut feel - well built, warm and very accommodating. Not enough toilets and the drying room didn't really dry anything. Dinner was very good; salad, soup, veg quiche with mash. The first place to feel prepared for vegetarians.

I made sure I noticed my alimentation behaviour to the staff as soon as possible.

999 and out by Jerry Gillham

After 999 days on Bird Island (by as detailed a calculation as I feel it's worth doing), it is once again time to leave. I was only due to be down there until April this year but with Lucy taking a break before her second winter it made sense for me to stay on a bit longer. Now, because of the way the ship schedule works, as she's been dropped back at Bird Island I've been carried round to King Edward Point on the South Georgia mainland to spend a few weeks here before I can get back to the Falklands and home.

The departure from Bird Island was as hard as it always is. Thankfully with the extra two months I managed I got to enjoy a good chunk of winter and in the last week especially we had whales and leopard seals feeding close in to shore, and some magnificent days out in the hills. 

Waving goodbye. Amazingly a leopard seal came and followed the RIB out from the bay.

Bird Island outlined against the evening sun. It was only an overnight ship journey round but I was still very grateful for calm seas.

Straight to business at King Edward Point with some Search & Rescue kit familiarisation.

Though the weather through most of the week was rough, with strong winds, the weekend brought calm and clear skies... and chances to get out and explore.

Looking across the calm waters from King Edward Point to Grytviken and Mt Hodges.

Accompanying Lewis, the fisheries scientist, over to Myviken for a bit of outdoor work.

Exploring the local travel areas with Roger and Becky, the station leader and the doctor. Here nipping up Orca before returning to tackle Mt Hodges, the big one in this pic.

Looking straight down on Grytviken from Orca. The base at King Edward Point is round the coast, just about visible through the cloud layer that rolled in and out as we were watching.

Emerging into the sun at the top of Mt Hodges.

We finished the walk by moonlight as this huge, yellow super-moon cast its reflection on the calm inlet.

Walk out to winter by Jerry Gillham

After a few weeks with the temperature hovering around zero, with the snow slowly melting, getting slushy and freezing into vast sheets of ice that made getting around quite problematic, we got a fresh dump of snow followed by a few days of clear weather.

Precisely what I'd been hoping for as it gave me the chance for a few good days out up the hills; picking different routes, revisiting favourite views and generally enjoying the cold weather, before I once again have to leave Bird Island.

Only a few weeks off midwinter, the sun only hits the peaks at about 11:00, so you don't need an especially early start in order to see the shadows dropping away. This wandering albatross had an early morning visit from both parents, a relatively rare occurrence at this time of year as they're off fishing independently. It was nice to see them stick around together for a few hours.

The view from Molly Hill. When working with the giant petrel and penguins I would rarely go up here as it was always a bit out the way, however I've become fond of it this season. It's a tough climb through big tussack grass but worth it for the views.

From left to right we have the sugar-loaf-like Tonk, La Roche with the station and local bays below it, the mountains of South Georgia across Bird Sound, and down to the right the snow-covered Round How.

One of my rambles was to the field hut to check supplies over there. Our water situation wasn't particularly useful as these nalgene bottles had frozen solid (though I was impressed they hadn't broken). Luckily I had a bottle of fresh water with which to make a cup of tea.

One day in particular the snow was lying thick and the wind had dropped. It was a clear morning so Ian and I decided to scale one of the peaks. There's nothing too large on Bird Island; La Roche is 356m and Gandalf just 290m. But when you consider the island itself is no more than 1km wide that means a pretty steep ascent in places.

Early morning light catching the South Georgia mainland as we make footprints in the fresh snow.

Pausing to admire the scenery.

The north ridge rises and falls in thin wedges, like the plates on a a stegosaurus's back. While the north side drops almost vertically into the sea the safe routes up the accessible south often look perilous from a distance, but once on them are pretty safe.

It feels a different world up here. Thanks to Ian for the photo.

Wondering if there's a simple route up La Roche from here, one that avoids 300m drops into the sea, corniced ridges, solid ice and loose snow. Turns out there wasn't.

Still, there were some good patches for practicing ascents and descents with crampons and axe. This photo may have been tilted to add drama to the situation. Thanks to Ian for the photo again.

Ian's photo again, of me basically crawling up the slope as we searched for a good route outside of the out-of-bounds areas.

The west side of Bird Island from part way up La Roche.

From where we were it wasn't too dramatic but from where James was, on station, it's difficult to differentiate what's cliff and what's not. Thanks to him for this photo.

Finally, the more common way of descending the slopes in winter. Tim, just up and right of centre, making rapid progress back to base at the end of his albatross checks.

Enter the Ice by Jerry

15th and 16th November

We hit the ice on 15th November. There were a few large 'bergs around the previous evening so many of us were up on deck early, excited at the increasing number and variety of sizes and shapes. Huge, flat-topped blocks, smaller amorphous chunks and the most dramatic ones with spires and turrets rising like something from a gothic fairy tale, evidence of where they'd been eroded by the waves and then rolled over. Dotted amongst these were the first bits of land we'd seen in three days. Bleak, dark islands. Just rocks in the ocean, perilously steep and ice-covered with emotive names like Inaccessible Island.

On the horizon what looked at first like a silvery line, possibly a reflection of the distant sun, resolved itself as the edge of the brash sea ice. It was a very definite line, before which there was open ocean carrying ice fragments and after which was compacted ice fragments with the occasional stretch of open water. There was tremendous excitement on deck as we all crowded round either the bow or the top deck viewing platform to enjoy the moment, around 11am, when we heard the first crunch of ice being pushed against ice as we edged our way into this new domain.

Irregularly shaped blocks of ice measuring ten to thirty meters across, standing just fifty centimetres clear of the water, dominated the surface. The gaps where they don't tessellate being filled in with the broken fragments that have been sheared off when they grind against each other. It's the gaps we want to aim for, slipping between the big blocks rather than trying to break them apart. As we got further in the gaps got smaller and the big blocks closer together. Progress slowed and by the afternoon it wasn't unusual for us to be stopping, reversing slightly and altering direction by a few degrees before pushing forward again. In our wake the open water marking the route we'd taken quickly closed up as the ice spread itself out again, possibly in smaller fragments carrying a little red paint.

An unanticipated but pleasing aspect to being in the ice is how smooth the journey feels. Gone are the nausea-inducing rolling seas, replaced by a smooth, slow glide interrupted by jolts that rock the ship like airplane turbulence. We made a maximum three knots through this, compared to the twelve we can do in open water.

The last hour in open water gave us our first views of whales on this trip. Distant spouts of, we think, minkes. Leaping clear alongside the ship, travelling in small groups were a few penguins; gentoos, chinstraps and, once we got into the ice, adelies. We saw more of them standing in small groups on the larger bergs or moving through the ice field like trains of ants crossing a particularly broken up patio. Dotted around too were crabeater seals, sleeping peacefully or putting their heads up to see this big red monster carving through their domain.

Twenty four hours later we broke free, back into open water. The way the ice has these very definite boundaries, controlled by wind and ocean currents, seems bizarre. There's no gradual change, it's an instant jump from one world to another.

The cloud-covered peaks of Coronation Island had been visible for some time but as we drew closer to Signy, our first port of call, the mountains seemed to get bigger as the cloud got heavier. Eventually we pulled up within reach of our destination, surrounded by spectacular steep slopes and glaciers plunging into the sea.

One of the first really spectacular icebergs.

A line of white on the horizon slowly resolving itself into the edge of the ice.

Eerie towers rising through the broken surface.

Pushing its way slowly through the ice, the RRS James Clark Ross.

Crabeater Seal.

Adelie penguins, pushing themselves along on their bellies.

Snow, reducing the visibility until it was nearly complete white.

Meanwhile... inside the ship.

While the cracks are useful for us to push our way through on the ship for some of the residents they provide more of an obstacle to a smooth journey.

The mountains of the South Orkneys near Signy. Spot the crabeater seal on the nearest ice.

Some of the 'bergs were large enough to have little lumps and valleys to hide in.

Looking over the pointy end of the ship to where it was breaking through the ice.

Adelie penguins, up to no good.

Love those little white rings around the eyes.

Snow petrels accompanied us the whole time we were in the ice, whizzing round and round the ship, looking for marine crustaceans near the surface where we'd disturbed it.

At times it looked like you could have got out and walked across the ice. I think if we were here at the end of autumn, rather than spring, I'd have been concerned (and secretly excited) at the prospect of getting stuck.

Amazing colours of the icebergs (mostly white and blue).

This is a long exposure photo of us edging through the pack at night. 

When traveling through the ice at night these two huge spotlights move around as the skipper picks out the smoothest route. This is a long exposure photo of us edging 

Nearer the edge of the pack the gaps between ice get bigger and the channels open up.

Groups of chinstrap penguins accompanied the ship heading through the narrow channels of open water.

One cheeky adelie hanging out with the chinstrap penguins.

Absolute mirror-calm seas gave the place a somewhat spooky air. I spent a long time thinking about Scott, Shackleton and the others, but also people like James Cook and James Clark Ross himself, after whom our ship is named. They were amongst the first people to sail these seas, back when whatever was over the horizon was truly unknown.

It's difficult to get into pictures just how it feels to be in this environment, with ice as far as you can see, Even in a big, modern comfy ship you feel a sense of vulnerability. Like, if the weather turned against you there is nothing you could do to prevent it.

Jerry

The Falkland Islands by Jerry

7th to 12th November

Having been through the Falklands before I was keen to explore some new parts, specifically some of the hills to the west of Stanley. Saturday was clear and sunny so the ship's doctor and I headed that way, through the town and all the way to the end of the inlet upon which the harbour and town is based. That in itself took about an hour and a half. Striking off across the moorland which makes up the majority of the island terrain we headed in a fairly straight line for the top of Mount Tumbledown. The exposed rock, reaching out of the grass at the top, belies a series of ridges running across the northern part of east Falkland. 

Views from the top of Mt Tumbledown.

Scrambling though this we got spectacular views back down to the ship and west across the rest of the island. As we sat and ate our lunch we were approached by a confident turkey vulture watching us with interest.

Turkey vulture in the foreground, cloud rolling over Stanley in the background.

Further along we came to a memorial to those killed on the mountain in the 1982 war. While we were enjoying scrambling round in shorts and t-shirt on a sunny day, with minimal kit and provisions, it was difficult to imagine it any different. Yet it was impossible not to try and imagine being up there cold and wet, sleep-deprived, desperate and under fire. Whatever your thoughts on the conflict itself, the horrors those on Mt Tumbledown and the surrounding peaks endured is quite a thing and should not be forgotten.

The memorial cross on Mt Tumbledown.

As we arrived back at the ship a few hours later we met the rest of the station staff and marine scientists who had travelled down on the long, long flight via Chile. Understandably everyone was in need of a good shower and long sleep, but that didn't prevent us exploring and enjoying the rest of our time around Stanley.

I managed to paddle in the sea at surf bay and two trips round to gypsy cove, seeing a total of five Magellanic penguins and a few Peale's dolphins as well as the smaller Falkland songbirds. One of those trips was called short due to heavy rain while the second needed a quick March to get back to the ship just two minutes before shore leave was cancelled. 

An informative sign at Surf Bay.

I managed more paddling in the sea at berthas beach while the ship was refueling. Commerson’s dolphins were surfing back and forth along breaking waves, their little black and white bodies showing up in the clear blue waters.

Dramatic clouds over Bertha's Beach.

Further along the beach a small colony of Gentoo penguins walked up the sandy beach and through a grassy field, dodging sheep to get to their nests. The combination of penguins and sheep is an amusing and confusing sight.

Gentoo penguins amongst the sheep.

Before our proper departure we had to return once again to Stanley to pick up a replacement crew member, covering for illness, before we could properly set off south on Thursday evening.

Off to sea!

Waving goodbye to Stanley and the Falkland Islands,

Jerry

Traveling South by Jerry

4th to 6th November

We're on our way south. Three years ago, when first starting with the British Antarctic survey, it was only once I was actually on the ship and leaving the Falkland Islands that I felt it was really going to happen. Until that point it all felt a bit like a dream or a mistake. This time it's equally exciting though feels a lot more familiar, like returning home.

Our epic journey started on Wednesday with an immediate hold-up. Severe weather in the Falklands meant our flight got delayed by nine hours so we were put up in the basic hotel at Brize Norton for the night, rising by five the next morning for an early check in. I'd travelled down from Cambridge with another ten, mostly bound for the science cruise that the ship will undertake around dropping summer staff on the islands (or we'll get dropped off around the science cruise, relative importance of each depends on who you are talking to). Between us we had a huge amount of extra luggage; massive bags and boxes full of personal gear and science equipment that hadn't been ready to put on board when the ship left the UK in September. With all the extras I'd accepted I checked in my own body weight in luggage.

The journey down to the Falkland Islands is two nine-hour flights with a short stop off at Ascension Island to refuel. This is the first time I've been through Ascension when it's not been dark or foggy and even though we were not allowed to leave the departure area, 'the cage', I could enjoy the strange views over the bleak lowlands and artificial cloud forest higher up.

The view from the cage out at Ascension Island.

It was midnight by the time we arrived in the Falklands and three by the time we'd retrieved our mountain of luggage, loaded it onto the minibus and got to our B&Bs in Stanley. That night in a comfy bed was luxury.

The next day we moved onto the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross. With a crew change as well as us arriving it was a hive of activity. Luckily I had no duties so wandered into town to enjoy an ice cream in the sun.

A military band playing under the whalebone arch in Stanley.

Jerry