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.

Help save albatross (quickly and easily) by Jerry Gillham

I'm backing and promoting this appeal from my friend who is working hard to save albatrosses  through cheap, innovative technology that is simple to use and will benefit everyone involved.

https://experiment.com/projects/can-hookpods-and-reusable-led-lights-reduce-albatross-deaths-and-marine-pollution

 Wandering albatross

Wandering albatross

In her words:

"I've recently started working for the Albatross Task Force, which is part of the RPSB and acts to stop albatrosses and other seabirds being killed in fisheries around the world. There are approximately 300,000 seabirds killed every year by fisheries! It’s a MASSIVE problem, and many species are becoming endangered, especially albatross. It would be so sad if these amazing birds went extinct because of this. After spending 2 years with them on South Georgia they became so close to my heart. I think they are incredible creatures. They have the biggest wing span in the world, they circumnavigate the globe, they can stay at sea for years on end, and can live for over 60 years. Most of them mate for life and it is heartbreaking to see them waiting for a mate that doesn’t come back because it’s probably been killed in a fishery. I’ve seen birds waiting for months, just hoping for their partner to return. Some birds won’t breed for years with another partner in the hope their mate will return. It would be an absolute tragedy if we lost them, especially for a reason we can do something about!

Black=browed albatross.

The Albatross Task Force has been working for 10 years to stop albatross dying and have had some huge success, but we still have a lot to do. We want to test out some new technology called a Hookpod, which basically encloses the hook as it goes into the water, stopping the birds grabbing it and then being pulled under the water, and drowned. It’s a really cool piece of technology and if we can prove it cuts down on bird deaths, and it’s a benefit to fishermen, then we hope to see the fleets adopt it. It would make such a difference to these birds.
The other part of the project is testing reusable LED lights to replace disposable light sticks. Fishermen use these to attract fish to the hooks, and we estimate that 6 MILLION are thrown into the ocean every year just in Brazil!!!!! It makes me feel ill to think of that amount of plastic and batteries ending up in the ocean. It would be amazing if we could prove to the fishermen that reusable LED lights are just as effective at attracting fish, better for the environment and in the long run cheaper.

 Grey-headed albatross chick.

Grey-headed albatross chick.

To start this project we need funds to buy the Hookpods and lights and ship them to Brazil. We already have £15,000 but we need another £5000. We have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise this money. If we don’t hit the target then we receive nothing and the backers don’t get charged anything. We are determined to get this project going, as it could save so many albatrosses lives. I would be so grateful if you could donate anything towards this project, and share the word about it. We only have three weeks to do it in. As a backer you will get updates of how the project is going and lots of pictures of lovely albatross.
https://experiment.com/projects/cuyijvmxwanchuskvtgh
Thanks for reading this (I know it’s a bit long) and I hope you’ll be able to help either through donating or by spreading the word. See the link for the project and a video I made to explain it all a bit better.


I hope you can help me save albatrosses from extinction!"

 Courting wandering albatross.

Courting wandering albatross.

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.

Seeing sea mammals by Jerry Gillham

We've had a good week for wildlife, with spectacular visits from whales and seals.

Southern Right Whale

Early Monday evening we were raised over the radio by James declaring he had a whale in the entrance to the bay. Quickly throwing on insulated boiler suit, jacket, boots, hat and gloves (I've learned from experience that it's far better to be a minute later and prepared than the first one there who has to leave after a few minutes to put on more layers) we rushed out to join him.

We'd had a couple of whales close in the previous few days so weren't too surprised, until we saw it blow from just behind the rocky point in front of base. This one was close in. Taking advantage of the low tide we scrambled out across the rocks until we were on one side of the narrow entrance to the bay, the other side less than 30 meters away. In between us this whale repeatedly raised it's head then dropped below the surface.

That day there had been huge numbers of gulls, terns, duck and petrels feeding in the shallows. In places you could see the pink mist where krill and other marine crustaceans had washed up close. I guess a current had a brought a swarm our direction and those that depend on it, including this whale, had followed.

It seemed such a small space for it to be feeding it we were a little worried it had swum in and got caught as the tide dropped, and were even considering what we would do if we found it lying on one of the beaches the following day.

Leopard Seal

It has been a good winter for leopard seals with several familiar individuals returning, some of them after long absences, and a number of new records. Most of the sightings have been of animals sleeping in the water, just nostrils above the surface. When we're lucky they haul out on the beaches and occasionally we see them feeding.

A leopard seal eating is one of the most exciting wildlife spectacles I have witnessed. We never see them catch their prey but if you're lucky you catch them at the point when they're pushing a penguin or small seal round on the surface, after the kill but before the feed.

Again we were alerted by James, running across the beach to where he'd seen a gathering of scavengers - skuas, gulls, giant petrels - all hovering over one point, then a big splash in the water as the thrashing began.

Leopard seals grip their prey, in this case an unfortunate fur seal, in their incredible teeth then whip them through the air, slamming them down against the sea surface. This flaying is reminiscent of the way crocodiles throw their prey around. It's brutal but compelling and an impressive show of strength.

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.

The Saturdays by Jerry Gillham

During the summer season we crowd around the dinner table at meal times, discussing our day, points of interest and news from home. In winter however, when it's dark from early evening and there's only four of us, things get more informal. TV dinners become a regular thing and meal times vary depending on when people fancy eating. Routine though is the best way to stay sane so we keep up our formal three-course meals on Saturdays.

It's nice to be able to put more thought into what you're making, maybe try something new for starter, put aside a day to preparing a memorable evening. Here's the menu from my most recent Saturday cook:

Starter: Italian-style spring rolls.

Slightly odd, they were inspired by a Gino D'Acampo recipe and by the fact that I had some spring roll casings that I'd managed to bring from the Falklands (I've never seen them anywhere else but there, they sounded like a good idea for something different).

They didn't necessarily turn out as I'd intended. One of the problems was that when dropped into the fryer the air inside them expanded rapidly and burst them open.

 A few exploded spring rolls.

A few exploded spring rolls.

 One of the better ones. There was enough for one good one each (which was roughly a 30% success rate - don't think I'll be opening my own Chinese / Italian restaurant).

One of the better ones. There was enough for one good one each (which was roughly a 30% success rate - don't think I'll be opening my own Chinese / Italian restaurant).

Main course: Gnocci roasted pumpkin and tomato sauce and chorizo (or chorizo-style quorn). Garlic bread.

This was a course I had much higher hopes for. I've made my own gnocci before but only about once a year because of the huge faff it is, despite taking as many short cuts as I can (mash tinned potatoes in the blender, mix with flour in the bread maker). Nevertheless it does allow you the joy of brightening up the meal with food colouring.

 Tri-colour gnocci in the collander.

Tri-colour gnocci in the collander.

Ok, I was pleased with how this course turned out.

 Very happy with this meal, however I won't be cooking it again for a while.

Very happy with this meal, however I won't be cooking it again for a while.

Dessert: Double chocolate brownie in white-Russian ice cream.

We've been experimenting a bit with our ice-cream maker this season, and what is more natural to make into ice cream than The Dude's drink of choice? Like many of our attempts I didn't leave it long enough to freeze properly so it was better the next day, that that was left over. The brownie recipe is heart-stoppingly calorific, so just a small chunk is enough, and it makes a great snack for taking into the field on subsequent days.

 You have to spend all day exercising to work off a piece this size (that is a normal size bowl and teaspoon).

You have to spend all day exercising to work off a piece this size (that is a normal size bowl and teaspoon).

 

Entertainments

It is the responsibility of the chef to come up with the entertainments for the night too. Often this will be a board game or a quiz... something to bring everyone together having a laugh. We have variously appropriated Monopoly, Cluedo and Guess who to give them more Bird Island relevance.

Recently Tim hosted a Saturday Nintendo night, with a set of challenges based around wii games and costumes essential.

 Usually Saturdays require a more formal attire, but rules can be waived in special circumstances. [Photo by Ian Storey]

Usually Saturdays require a more formal attire, but rules can be waived in special circumstances. [Photo by Ian Storey]

 We had to wait a while for the new Star Wars film so its screening was always going to be a special occasion.

We had to wait a while for the new Star Wars film so its screening was always going to be a special occasion.

Happy Birthday David Attenborough by Jerry

Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday was celebrated down here on Bird Island with a cake, a raised glass and a few episodes of Life In The Freezer. The second one in particular, 'The Ice Retreats', contains a large amount of footage from Bird Island; all the albatross and penguin shots are familiar.

Here's a few screenshots of David Attenborough on Bird Island, standing in the middle of Big Mac, one of my key work locations when I was Zoological Field Assistant for the penguins, rather than the tourist I go over there as now. In this sequence he described Macaronis as the loudest and most bad-tempered of all the penguins. At times I have described them in similar, but less eloquent, ways.

All copyright owned by the BBC and photos used without permission. Check out their series Life In The Freezer or the more recent Frozen Planet for the best impression you can get of Antarctica.

Obviously much has been said regarding David Attenborough's work and life but it is probably worth repeating that, outside of immediate family, he has probably been the biggest influence on me and many others down here. Not just the scientists studying the charismatic megafauna but anyone who grew up wanting to travel, explore and witness all the amazing sights the Earth has to offer.

Bird Island folklore says that the old jetty bog was his favourite toilet in the world. Unfortunately when the jetty was rebuilt this had to be removed from the end and placed near the main base, but it is a mark of respect that it is still standing, admittedly only used as a store currently but no one can bring themselves to tear it down. You can't destroy David Attenborough's favourite toilet!

Time is getting the better of it however and this season we have started working on preserving the unique features. On the ceiling was a painting done by a previous Station Leader, Sam, in 2010. A recreation of the roof of the Cistine Chapel with a few Bird Island natives splashed across it, my favourite being the gentoo penguin chick on Adam's lap. The painting has been taken down, cleaned up and framed, ready to take pride of place on the wall in the lounge.

Jerry

More ice than we could ever have gin for. by Jerry

Since the ship called a few weeks ago we've seen winter close its icy grip on the island. Normally a Bird Island autumn is damp (like the rest of the year) with slowly dropping temperatures, but this year as the nights close in the island has frozen and become covered in snow already.

We awoke one day last week to find our bay filled with ice. With not so much on the hills and little in some of the other bays it became apparent that these were all chunks of a smashed up 'berg, destroyed by the rough weather and funnelled straight at us.

Looking back from the end of the now surrounded jetty.

The amount of ice on top of, as well as surrounding, the jetty was impressive. It's very rare the waves even crash over the top of it so to dump all this there it must have been pretty severe.

It was more obvious to identify the edge of the jetty than it seems from this photo.

As may be expected, van-sized chunks of ice being repeatedly battered against the jetty didn't do it much good. It took a few days to clear enough to be able to carry out a proper investigation. Aside from a bit of buckling of the scaffold planks and the odd pole less straight than before it's stood up pretty well. The biggest relief was the lack of real damage to the grey water pipe.

Over the next few days the snow fell a bit more and we had some excellent opportunities to get out and enjoy it.

Walking in these conditions is so much different from summer. The streams are frozen so you need chains or spikes to safely get up them, the meadows and bogs are frozen too so you can walk straight across them without sinking in. However some of the muddiest bogs amongst the tussack grass don't freeze over properly, just hide themselves beneath a tempting layer of flat snow.

Watching the wildlife cope with the new conditions is always interesting. The fur seals generally love the snow, pushing themselves along, rolling over and rubbing it into their fur. But the route to and from the sea has become difficult for some.

The skuas were largely relying on carrion on the beaches for their meals. With that all buried they face a tough time.

The wandering albatross chicks are fully prepared for winter, their thick down layer will protect them through anything.

The penguins love it of course, although this gentoo looks confused about the high tide.

It's rare you can get photos of penguins stood on clean, white snow. It doesn't take long for them to mess it up. So I've enjoyed watching the evening arrival of the gentoos heading up the beach to their nesting grounds.

Although far outside of the breeding season the gentoos still gather at their nesting sites in the evenings, although attendance varies hugely depending on things like weather and food availability. They can still be very territorial, building up their nests and fighting with others who get too close.

Having a bit of fun with the larger bits of ice.

Jerry.

Albatrosses, rain and birthdays by Jerry

A few photos of the work we've been up to in the last couple of weeks before the ship call, particularly those days in between when we were expecting them and when they actually arrived (the weather was too rough to call so, with all the cargo being ready, I had a few relaxing days before starting all my post-call work).

Checking wandering albatross on the ridge. This pair were the last to lay and so the last ones to be checked for signs of hatching.

Making friends with the locals. This albatross is sat in particularly scenic spot and I already have plenty of photos of it, though not too many with me in too.

Black-browed albatross chicks, as mean-looking as their parents.

Grey=headed albatross chicks, slightly less angry-looking.

When the chicks yawn they open their mouths so wide you can almost see the squid in their bellies.

It's time of year to get ringing the chicks, unfortunately the first day we were defeated by wind and rain. It's not safe for us in the colonies and not good for the chicks who aren't as waterproof as the adults so really shouldn't be disturbed in the wet.

Poa annua is an invasive grass species that crops up on several sub-Antarctic islands. We're largely free of it, though Al found this patch this season. Removal is best done by spade, though I did pick the first day the ground froze to try it.

Young elephants seal apparently attacked by a sea monster,

Lucy, on her birthday, adopting a heroic pose under our first good icicles of the season.

The icicles didn't last too long, not least because they got broke off to make a birthday G&T extra special.

Jerry

Cargo by Jerry

Most of my work over the past month or so has been the preparation of cargo for exporting off the island. The bulk of this is waste, the vast majority of which is shipped back to the UK for recycling. Then there are scientific samples sent back to the scientists who requested them, scientific and technical equipment that gets returned for servicing, use elsewhere or sold on. Not forgetting personal cargo for those sadly leaving.

All this needs to be properly recorded; unique ID numbers, contents, size, weight, destination need to be easily identifiable for each bit. For some, such as the hazardous shipping goods (biological samples in ethanol, used aerosols, batteries) there is additional paperwork and strict rules about packaging.

This has taken a long time but it is extremely pleasing to walk round the station now and see it looking clear, right in time for stocktaking and cleaning.

Colour coded drums containing waste glass, scrap metal and fuels.

Each room had cargo for a different destination - UK, Falklands, other bases - to make backloading easier.

Hazardous packages with a whole host of appropriate labels.

FIBC bags of recyclable plastics, cardboard and cans, dragged round the front of the building the day before the ship call. The large buoys, dragged up from beaches around the island, will be found a new home.

Basic waterproofing with tarpaulins, no need to weigh them down when the seals are still looking for comfort spots.

The ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, approached Bird Island early in the week, took one look at the swell and turned round. They returned a few days later and were able to run the tender in, unloading a few bits of food, post and technical equipment with us and taking everything away.

Pulling away from the jetty with our last load of outgoing cargo.

 Before the ship departed properly though we were able to get a large group of passengers ashore. These were other BAS staff, most of whom had been enjoying the cruise up from Rothera and have seen a few sights on their way. While some were found jobs to do we tried to ensure all got up to see the wandering albatrosses and a few penguins. After a summer with six other people it was a bit of a shock to be up this hill with over 20, but I hope I hid my trauma.

Finally it was time to say goodbye to those whose time to go had arrived. Waving people off from the jetty is by far the hardest thing that one has to do on Bird Island. The walk back up to station is a jumble of emotions - sad and subdued as folk leave mixed with anticipation and excitement at what's to come.

The penultimate rib heading back to the ship, just visible in the fog.

As has been pointed out to me, when I left at this time last season I didn't think I'd be here doing this again. But I'm here for another two months during which time I'll make a start on all the stocktaking...

...but in the meantime I'll just check all the wandering albatross chicks are ok.

Wandering Albatross work by Jerry

Here's a few photos on our work with one of the most iconic Bird Island species; the magnificent wandering albatross.

Lucy, the albatross assistant, recording ring numbers for non-breeding individuals. All those in the study area, about 100 pairs, have light plastic darvic rings on their legs with a unique colour and code so we can record their presence without getting too close.

Knowing the life history of individuals means we can understand the variation in the population, an important factor when looking at how their survival and productivity will cope in differing climactic conditions.

Unpaired birds display to each other, showing off their huge wingspan (over 3m) and calling loudly to the sky.

It takes a full year to raise a chick, it's a big investment with with both parents putting in equal shifts sitting on the egg then collecting food. So picking a reliable and compatible partner is a process that can take a long time, especially if there are multiple suitors.

Eggs are laid around Christmas and start to hatch at the beginning of March. At first you just see a little hole in the egg and hear a high-pitched pipping coming from within. It can take them three days to hatch completely.

A long wait beside a bird is often rewarded with a glimpse of a tiny chick fresh out of the egg as the adult stands up. This was the first one hatched this season on Bird Island and got named Dumbledore in a competition held on the BAS facebook page.

The chicks quickly get bigger and poke their heads out. On sunny days you're more likely to see adults standing and letting them have a good look around.

By the end of the month the earliest hatchers, here's Dumbledore again, get left alone as both parents head off to find food. They may look vulnerable at this stage but they can repel any threat with a mouthful of oily vomit that will ruin a predators plumage.

Meanwhile the non-breeders continue looking for mates, showing off heir nest-building capabilities as well and size.

Jerry

Search and Rescue practice by Jerry

Bird Island Research Station has a small staff team; no more than 10 in summer and just four over winter. We have no doctor on station though all staff receives excellent pre-deployment first aid training from the BAS Medical Unit, with one or two individuals spending a few days on the front line in an A&E department to broaden their experience.

However well skills are taught they can be quickly forgotten so we try and have a training session once a week, on an otherwise quiet evening, where we go over some aspect of rescue, recovery or medical skills. One week it could be a discussion about hypothermia, then practicing putting a stretcher together, then CPR practice with our own dummy.

Learning how to put someone in the spinal board and set up the stretcher in the comfort of the lounge.

Earlier in the season we sat around the table and had a serious discussion about what we would do if someone severely injured themselves in the field. Bird Island has some steep, slippery terrain and people frequently work alone. The importance of regular radio contact is hammered home, as is the necessity of always carrying spare warm clothing and an emergency aid kit. During our table-top exercise I sat down with the Emergency Action Plan and talked through the extremely useful flow chart it contains, detailing priority actions and who to contact.

With field-work calming down a bit in the last few weeks I have been on the look-out for a good occasion to put this formerly into practice. So last Friday everyone was told to be available for the afternoon, while one of the departing staff went round the beach and lay at an awkward angle at the base of a cliff. I was able to sit back and observe the response and was pleased at the calm, organised and efficient way at which those on station, particularly the upcoming winter team, dealt with the incident. A fast search party took the emergency medical bags and warm clothing and quickly located the casualty, reporting back enough detail for a second party to head out with stretcher, spinal board and other necessary equipment. On station we had someone consulting the doctor at King Edward Point and talking to Cambridge, relaying important information to those in the field.

Assembling the stretcher and other kit upon reaching the incident.

Despite apparently serious injuries our casualty was soon back indoors, after a short stretcher ride to demonstrate how tiring it can be for those struggling along the uneven terrain. Around a cup tea we debriefed and reviewed the incident, with everyone happy and more confident in their abilities to respond to any problems, but also more aware of how difficult it can be and how self-aware they need to be in any situation.

Casualty on the spinal board. Last minute checks before transferring to the stretcher.

Jerry

Questions from schoolchildren by Jerry

A short while ago I got asked some questions from some year 6 schoolchildren (that's what? 10 or 11 year olds?) taught by a friend's mum. I was interested in the sort of thing they would ask me, what their impressions, excitement or concerns would be. It turned out they had some really good questions covering a range of topics, not all of which were that easy to answer. Here are the highlights:




Traveling to Bird Island

How did you get there and how long did it take?
How do you get there?

It’s a long journey down to Bird Island. I started from Cambridge on 4th November and flew down from Brize Norton, which is an RAF airport, though we were on a comfy commercial plane. After a 9 hour flight we stopped at Ascension Island (in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator) to refuel and then had another 9 hour flight down to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. There we joined a ship, the RSS James Clark Ross.

The crossing to Bird Island is normally three days but we had drop some people off further south first, then do some marine science on the way back north, so it was actually 24th November when I arrived – a three week journey!


Have you travelled into the Antarctic?
Have you gone to the Antarctica and if you have please can you tell me what you have done there and if you have gone to Antarctica please can you send me some pictures of Antarctica?

I’m afraid I have not set foot on the Antarctic continent yet; it is something I hope to do in the future. However the official Antarctic Circle is at 60° south and I crossed that on my journey down. We dropped a number of scientists and other staff at another station, one that was covered in snow and surrounded by miles and miles of ice.

It was amazing being on the ship, slowly moving through a sea of ice as far as you could see. Most of it quite flat, small chunks that made a bumping and grinding noise as the ship pushed them aside, but frequently we would see huge icebergs in the middle of it all, standing like blue hills. It was all quiet apart from small numbers of seals, penguins and small birds following the ship.


What were your first impressions when you arrived?

The weather was grey and cloudy as we approached Bird Island so instead of seeing it on the horizon and getting gradually closer it suddenly appeared out of the mist looking huge and inhospitable. The cliffs and steep slopes had a thin layer of snow on them so you couldn’t see any colour; it was all just grey and white with waves crashing at the shore. I didn’t think I’d made a mistake in coming but I did wonder if I had underestimated how difficult it would be. Luckily later that day the sun came out, the snow melted and it looked much nicer and welcoming.



 Life on station

Where do you stay and what's it like?

The station is located on a small beach beside a sheltered cove. During summer the beach becomes covered in fur seals that can be noisy, smelly and quite aggressive but are also very cute and fascinating to watch.

We have a few different buildings but the one we live in is called Prince House. There are 5 bedrooms so sometimes people have to share but you get your own for most of the time. We have a large kitchen with lots of modern appliances and a dining room / lounge area with comfy seats and a big screen for watching films on. There are offices and laboratories for our work and a very warm porch for leaving our wet outdoor clothes in. We have a laundry, medical room and large food stores too. In the other buildings we have further store rooms, a workshop for any building work and a big shed housing the generators that provide us with power.

Our station is quite small but it is modern, clean and warm, most of the time we just wear t-shirt and shorts when indoors. Every Friday we have scrubout, where we are assigned a room or two that we are responsible for cleaning.


Is it ever warm in the summer?
What kind of clothes do you wear?

You get used to it being cold so when the temperature gets over 5°C in the summer it feels warm, especially if you are somewhere sheltered from the wind. Walking up and down the hills can be very warming with no wind to cool you down and there are a few occasions when I’ve done it just in a t-shirt.

Most of the time we wear thermal undergarments, a thin jumper, then good quality waterproof salapets and jackets. During winter a thicker jumper or extra layer is often needed, especially if you’re not moving about much. The ground is often very wet so we have big walking boots that keep the water out and thick socks to keep our feet warm. Feet, heads and hands can easily get cold so I always carry thick gloves and hat with me even if wearing thin ones. Finally, sunglasses and suncream are sometimes essential if it is very bright, with sunlight reflecting off the snow or coming through more powerfully due to the hole in the ozone layer.


What other people are on the island?
Have you made any good friends?

This season (November to April) there are seven of us on Bird Island. Five are scientists recording data on the penguins, seals, albatrosses and other birds. A technician, who is a cross between a plumber, electrician, mechanic and builder, keeps the station running, ensuring we always have electricity and water as well as fixing all the things the scientists have broken. And I am here as the station leader, responsible for overseeing the smooth running and safe working of the station and team.

During the winter this will drop down to just four people – the technician and three scientists. I have spent two winters down here and have made some amazingly good friends. When you spend over six months with just three other people you really get to know them, to love their good sides and tolerate their bad sides, like you do your family. In such a small group everyone has to be responsible for their actions and be aware of their role in the group. So you help each other out and you know you can trust each other. I’m looking forward to having some group reunions and seeing those people in what we call ‘the real world’, the world outside of Bird Island.


What do you eat?
How can you cope without eating fresh food?

We actually eat very well down here with plenty of variety of food. With no permanent chef on station like some of the larger bases have we take it in turns cooking each night. We try and make Saturdays a special occasion with a three course meal and sometimes dressing up. Chef for the day also has to make fresh bread, so there is always a delicious smell when you get back in from the hills.
We have a few rooms full of food; mostly tinned, dried or frozen as well as a limited supply of fresh ingredients. Things like potatoes, onions, carrots will last a long time in a cool, dark place but they aren’t quite as fresh as the ones you find in the supermarkets.
There is very little we can’t make with our ingredients, a cookbook and a little improvisation. Pizzas, curries and chips are always very popular but we will always appreciate someone experimenting with something a little different. Ingredients do start to run down over winter so sometimes have to be rationed, or used in unusual ways (for instance you can make a decent pizza topping out of baked beans if you run out of tomato paste).

One of the things we miss the most is fresh fruit and salad; when I returned home last year I would sit and eat a box of cherry tomatoes like other people eat crisps. We remain healthy and get our vitamins from other food, but it is something I look forward to about getting back.


Did you spend Christmas on the Island? What did you do?

I have spent three Christmases on Bird Island and they are often strange days. It is a very busy period for work; lots of seals giving birth, albatross nesting and penguin chicks hatching so we all have jobs to do. We try and fit our Christmas around them so we will bring out our decorations the week before and put up the plastic Christmas tree. Then on Christmas day someone will cook a big breakfast before we all go out to do our jobs for the day. Whoever has free time will dip into the kitchen throughout the day to help with the main meal or make a cake. Then we dress smartly for our big evening meal, a traditional Christmas dinner with crackers and party hats. After food we may play a game or have a party but we have to be up early the next day to carry on with more science work.

We give each other cards and open the few small presents we may have been sent from home but it’s not a big present-giving time. The main celebration in Antarctica is midwinter, June 21st, which marks the point at which the days start getting longer again. Further south, where the sun never rises in the winter, this marks the point at which they start counting down to seeing it again. Midwinter parties can last all week with many games, competitions and challenges. On the British bases we do a sort of secret Santa where everyone makes a present, often spending months over it, for one other person. There are some amazing examples of arts and crafts that get handed over and they are treasured for what they mean as well as a gift.


Do you miss your family? How often do you contact them?

Yes I do miss my family, and my friends, especially at times like Christmas and birthdays. Sometimes it feels like we are a family down here as we have to live so closely with one another and at times, if someone is feeling down, we depend on each other like a good family would. I am lucky though that, although we have very slow and internet no mobile phone signal, our communications are good; I can easily phone home on a land-line and I try to send a short email or photo to my parents each week.


What would happen if one of you gets ill?

Good question. We don’t have a doctor on station like they do on some of the larger bases. Instead we have all been through some quite intensive medical training and do regular training sessions on how to deal with injuries. We have a cupboard full of medicines and several doctors always available at the end of a telephone for advice. The biggest problem here is dental; one year I had to have a three week, 2,000 mile trip to the dentist to get a tooth pulled out. That was a long time to be in pain. Make sure you brush your teeth properly.


What do you do in your spare time?

Working hours are often dictated by the animals’ behaviour so we can busy every day for weeks at a time and then suddenly more relaxed. If we have a day off and the weather is nice I like to go out with my camera to photograph the wildlife, or explore areas we don’t normally get to see. If the weather is poor I can write to people, practice a musical instrument, try some painting or woodwork or just relax with a book or TV show.

We have regular film evenings and sometimes people give talks or show photos of holidays. We have a draw full of games that are really good for relaxing and enjoying time with other people.



Working on Bird Island

How do you get around the island?
Have you ever got lost on the island?

We get everywhere by walking round the island. It is not very big (about 5km long by 1km wide) but it is steep and the terrain is difficult to walk across. There are paths that we try to stick to to avoid causing unnecessary damage or erosion but they are not easy to follow and frequently lead through mud, ponds and lumpy tussac grass. Imagine walking up slippery steps of different heights, some of which are hidden under overhanging grass. And some of them have seals hiding amongst them.
Often we walk up the slope by following the streams. These are only shallow and rocky so give good grip. During winter you can put spikes on your boots and walk straight across the frozen marshes.

Sometimes the fog comes in very thick and if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the island it can be very disorientating. I have never got properly lost but I have headed in what I thought was the correct direction only to emerge where I thought there would be a path and instead there was a cliff.


Have you discovered any new species of animals? What?

Sadly I haven’t, though I think if I collected a lot of the insects that live deep within the soil I may have a chance to. The most exciting discoveries I and others have made are when you see a bit of animal behaviour that you haven’t heard about anywhere else.
Seeing a pair of birds working together to steal an egg out from under a larger, more dangerous bird was one such thing, as was seeing a leopard seal with a penguin it had killed and was apparently saving for later rather than eating straight away.


Do you have any weapons to protect yourself from animals and if so which weapons?

I’m sorry, we don’t get any weapons, but you are right in thinking that some of the animals we work with can be dangerous and we have several different bits of equipment for defending ourselves. The fur seals are probably most dangerous as they are fast, heavy and the big males regularly injure each other while fighting. We spend a lot of time training people how to walk around them without disturbing them to remain safe, but we also carry long broom handles known as bodgers. These are never for hitting them with but it is something to hold in front of you so if you do get it wrong and one does try to bite it will only get the stick.

The albatross and other birds can also give some nasty injuries if you get it wrong while working with them. They are not being aggressive but have such large, powerful beaks that a quick peck can draw blood and easily bruise. Think of a welly boot with the foot cut off – we often use something like that over our arms to give an extra layer of protection.


Do you have any pets and what are they called?

We have to be very careful about what comes onto Bird Island as any non-native species could disturb the ones that live here. So we don’t have any usual house pets. Also we try not to disturb the local wildlife outside of what is required for science so we’re not allowed to take the seal pups or penguins as pets, no matter how cute they look.
However there are some individual animals that we get to know and they do get names. There is a skua (a bird like a large, brown seagull) with a broken wing who has lived near the station for a few years now. She is called Scratchy because she scratched the scientist who caught her to see if she could do anything to fix the wing.
As the wandering albatross chicks are sat on the same nest for around eight months and are one of the few wildlife around in the winter some of them get names, especially if you walk past them every day. One this year, known as Christopher, got his development regularly updated on Twitter.


Have you ever dug down beneath the surface?

At times I have, yes. Usually what you find is rock or smelly mud. I was collecting old bits of penguin eggshell from years past by excavating some of the stony ground where they breed and I was surprised by the large numbers of insects living under the rocks, surviving off dropped food, dead penguins and droppings.



My job


What do you do in your job?
What do you do on a day to day basis?

As station leader I am responsible for ensuring everyone is able to do their jobs efficiently, safely and correctly. If anyone has a problem they usually come to me to try and sort it out. I am the main point of communication between the station and our bosses in Cambridge, the ships and other bases so I can organise getting any supplies that are needed.
A large part of my job is managing cargo; the incoming deliveries and preparing waste for appropriate shipping and recycling. Recently I have been working on emergency evacuation plans – ensuring we have enough supplies to survive comfortably if the base burned down and we had to live in a hut or tents. I also organise training for the others, whether it’s refreshing medical knowledge or what to do in an emergency.


Do you like your job and why?

Yes, I enjoy my job for several reasons. Firstly I get to live in an amazing place. I have always liked wildlife and the outdoors and here I feel like I am in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary.

I enjoy the lifestyle; working with a small group of people who all help each other, no worries about money, travel, fashion. Almost everything I need to be happy is here.
The job itself is also very varied which keeps it interesting. I could spend one day in the office going through health and safety forms, then the next helping count albatrosses, then boxing up recycling, then out repairing footpaths.


What was your job before, was it anything to do with the job you do now?

I previously worked on small islands around the UK – the Farne Islands off Northumberland, Skomer and Skokholm in Pembrokeshire and the Shiants in western Scotland. Many parts were similar to what I do now. Although there were no penguins or albatrosses I did a lot of science work monitoring and recording British seabirds such as puffins. In those jobs I would often work with volunteers or visiting members of the public, something that we don’t get on Bird Island, but one thing about living on remote islands is that you have to learn to get on with the people around you. You also have to be resourceful and adaptable – if you need something it may not be able to be delivered straight away so you have to learn to deal without or make do with what you have. I think learning that set me up well for living down here.


Do you like living in the cold?

I still get excited when it snows and enjoy crunching through it when freshly fallen, seeing ice on the ponds and feeling well wrapped up when you can see your breath in the air. So yes, I do like living in the cold. Although I am very happy that we have a warm base where I can relax in just a t-shirt, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much without that.
There are things I miss about the warmth though – swimming in the sea, sitting outside eating an ice cream, being able to go for a walk without having to spend 10 minutes putting on several layers and big boots.



Bird Island and the wider world
 
Does global warming affect Bird Island?

Good question, though a complex one. I will try and answer it as clearly as I can.
One of our jobs here is counting the numbers of seals and birds breeding each year. This has been done for the last few decades so we can look at how populations have changed since the 1960s. As most of these are long-lived species (some albatross can live to over 50 years) it takes this long to be able to say whether there are any trends in terms of more or less of a species. Over this time period albatross numbers have drastically reduced, dropping to roughly half the numbers there used to be.
Proving that this is due to climate change is very difficult because the way the atmosphere, ice sheets, ocean and wildlife interact is very, very complicated. There are many other factors too, for instance fur seal numbers have increased massively in that time, but that is because humans stopped hunting them.

However what we think is happening is that with the earth’s temperature, especially the sea temperature, rising this is causing the ice sheets to melt and break apart quicker. The underside of those ice sheets is the main place where krill breed and grow. Krill are tiny shrimps that are the basis of the Antarctic food web. Everything that lives here – whales, seals, albatross, penguins – either eats krill or eats something that eats krill, everything depends on it. So if there is less ice there will be less krill and less food for everything else.
  

Have there ever been any earthquakes or natural disasters on the island?

The South Sandwich Islands are about 500 miles south west of Bird Island and sit on a geological fault so do experience earthquakes from time to time. We are a bit far away to feel their effects but we do have the possibility of tsunamis, tidal waves.
In my first winter we got a phone call in the early morning telling us there had been a tsunami warning and we had 20 minutes to get up the hill. So we quickly pulled on lots of warm clothes, grabbed the emergency satellite phone and headed up the icy stream in the dark. Luckily nothing happened; we just had to wait an hour before we were allowed back down. But it is something we prepare for with emergency drills and supplies located away from the main base.


I would like to know what it is like to live with penguins around you?

It’s brilliant. You can never be bored or unhappy while watching penguins as they’re so entertaining. Sometimes if I have been working with them for a few days I have to make sure I don’t get complacent about it so I spend a bit of time just sitting, watching and enjoying them. Instead of watching the soaps we will frequently sit around the window on base watching the penguins and seals.

There are down sides to being surrounded by penguins though. With a fishy diet their colonies do smell pretty bad and if you’re working there it can be a difficult smell to get rid of. The macaronis especially are particularly noisy and aggressive. You can’t be friends with them.
  

What's it like living there? Please send pictures?

I love living here. There’s something different to see or do every day, the people are friendly and helpful, the wildlife is entertaining and the views are spectacular. Hope you like the photos.
  

Rat boxes by Jerry

One of the reasons Bird Island is so important for wildlife is that it has never been populated by rats or mice. On the South Georgia mainland rats have decimated populations of the burrowing birds - the small petrels and prions - as well as terns and pipits. With the

rat eradication programme

it is hoped these species will recover, indeed the first nesting pipits have already been discovered.

There are several measures in place to combat the threat of rats. Firstly landings on the island are very restricted, provided only with special permission by the South Georgia government. The BAS ships that bring us our supplies are very rigorous about preventing rats and as everything we have comes ashore on small boxes from the tender there are plenty of opportunities for spotting rodents.

Poison-baited boxes will be around the jetty whenever we have a ship in but around the rest of the island there are a series of other rat boxes. These contain a block of chocolate wax made by melting together candles and cocoa powder then letting it harden in an ice-cube tray.

Location of rat boxes on Bird Island

As you see they are quite spread out across the island. One of my jobs is to travel round checking on them, specifically looking for gnawing marks in the wax block that would indicate the presence of rats or mice. Thankfully there have been none.

It is a good opportunity and excuse to get out to a variety of parts of the island I wouldn't necessarily travel to. 

The rat box just up from Main Bay, with nice views back toward base and La Roche.

We have other biosecurity measures to prevent more invasive species. Prior to leaving their ship and on arrival at the jetty all visitors are required to wash their footwear to remove any possible insects or seeds. Fresh fruit and vegetables are thoroughly checked, each and every potato, to remove insects, soil and mould.

Jerry.

Emergency boxes by Jerry

One of my jobs this season is to ensure that all the emergency supplies are up to date and in good condition. The biggest risk to station would be a fire or tsunami (there's a bit of geological activity in the South Sandwich islands so it's a threat, however remote). We have several systems in place to warn us about this and a good fire-suppression system, but good planning means we have to take into account the worst case scenario.

In this photo Lucy is sorting through the emergency medical box, ensuring all our supplies are in date, well sealed and we know how to use them. There are further boxes containing cooking equipment, water purification, warm clothing and shelters.

One of the other key features in an emergency would be communication so I have also been checking batteries for and testing our iridium field phones and working out ways we could charge them if we lost all power. We do have a small back-up generator offsite but having recently read The Martian I keep thinking of how we could adapt the solar chargers used to power some of the science equipment.

Of course this is all something we hope is never used, but thinking it through and putting precautions in place is very useful and really interesting.

Xmas on BI by Jerry

This is a piece written for the BAS internal newsletter that I thought I'd recreate here with a few more photos.

While others were either busy with work or taking time off to celebrate over Christmas, we at Bird Island tried our best to do both. The wildlife doesn’t stop but the occasion must be celebrated. 

Hence the morning of the 25

th

found everyone up bright and early, enjoying croissants and salmon before the seal team headed over to the study beach to record adults present and pups born that day. Bird team headed up the hill to map wandering albatross nests while back on station Ian continued to drive himself mad, counting screws for the tech indent. I worked through a few waste management chores before hitting the kitchen. 

Although I had volunteered to cook the main meal of the day I was grateful to Al and Siân for doing the meat and puddings respectively. Some may say that’s the vast bulk of the xmas dinner but they’d be forgetting about roast potatoes. And err... laying the table.

With everyone back early enough to shower and smarten up we tucked into South Georgia reindeer and all the trimmings. Later on, with bellies full, we slumped back in our chairs and played games like ‘spot the tune being murdered on kazoo and stylophone’. While that taking care of the digestive process we were soon fit for more active games, like ‘pick the ever-shrinking box of cereal of the floor with no hands’, then dancing into the small hours.

Not quite so bright but equally early people were up the following day, back to the seal beach, back up the hill, back in the tech store and office. We’re currently planning new year and the thinking is... same again.

Decorating the world's most horrible Christmas tree.

Awaiting permission to sit down.

Tim using his full height advantage to win the box game. He beat Ian and I on a flat-piece-of-cardboard-on-the-floor decider.

I don't know the name of this game but the object is to get a wine bottle as far as possible away from a line with no feet touching the floor.

The morning after? Partying too hard? No, just an evenings training on splints and stretchers in the middle of the xmas / new year period.