walking

October - another St Andrews trip by Jerry Gillham

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

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

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

This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September - birthday and more peaks by Jerry Gillham

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

 Dave looking fabulous.

Dave looking fabulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 End of the line, looking down on Maiviken.

End of the line, looking down on Maiviken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The busiest the bar has been for a while.

The busiest the bar has been for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Stenhouse Peak by Jerry Gillham

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

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

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

Taking it slow and steady was clearly the best course.

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

Fraser and Paddy modelling proper explorer haircuts.

Paddy, Fraser and Matthew victorious at the top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Days out over Christmas by Jerry Gillham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee envy at the summit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.