From opposite ends of the timeline: some interesting procrastination

This post isn’t academic. It’s about a couple of videos that I watched this week when I should have been working on my literature review.

We’ve all been there when we’re trying to proof-read something and mysteriously find ourselves browsing a random page on the internet. Often this is just plain old procrastination and is generally something that we try and stop ourselves doing. I personally have been experimenting with the pomodoro technique to curb my own procrastination – look out for a blog post on this in the near future.

But sometimes a bit of procrastination is a good thing and can introduce us to new ideas, or explain old ideas to us in a new way. And sometimes it can be less enlightening and more entertaining (so many cat videos and buzzfeed lists come into this category). Yesterday I had one of those rare procrastination moments that was both enlightening and entertaining. So I thought I’d share it with you.

I was on Twitter, a regular procrastination location for me, when I found myself clicking on links to two videos. They were both on the website of the British Mountaineering Council and were about the experience of two very different people tackling a challenging in the great outdoors. The protagonists couldn’t really be more different: one is a little girl of perhaps 3; the other was Sir Chris Bonington, an 80 year old mountaineer of no small renown. I think you’ll enjoy their different but ultimately very similar experiences of the hills. Perhaps these videos will even inspire you to get out and climb something, even if it’s only a short hike uphill to the pub!

Video #1: First Ascent by Katrina Brown (Entered into the BMC Women in Mountain Adventure Film Competition 2015)

Video #2: Sir Chris Bonington: The Old Man of Hoy

 

Alps trip Part 2: Glacier safety drills

Aside from hiking up to various glaciers looking for possible field sites, I was also in the French Alps to refresh my glacier safety skills. So my Dad and I spent two days out with our mountain guide friend Simon Abrahams (check out his twitter account) to brush up our safety drills.

There are two key safety issues for working on glaciers: cold or exposure injuries like hypothermia or frostbite; and falling into crevasses. Cold injuries are best dealt with via preventative measures, like proper layering to keep warm and ensuring that you drink enough. I already know a fair bit about this from my previous Antarctic fieldwork, so we were focusing our training on preventing crevasse falls and on crevasse rescue techniques.

Crevasses are cracks in the surface of the ice that can be several metres wide and many metres deep. At the end of the melt season, when there is little to no snow, crevasses are obvious and easy to avoid but during the rest of the year they can be covered by snow bridges. This makes them hard to spot and very dangerous because snow bridges that are thin or weakened, e.g. by warm weather, may collapse under a person’s weight. Baring in mind that glaciers are often in remote areas many hours from any help, it’s therefore important for everyone working in these environments to know how to get themselves or a friend out of a crevasse.

We didn’t fancy practicing our rescue drills in an actual crevasse (too dangerous!), so we nipped up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to find a suitable edge to stand-in as a crevasse lip. In this case we found a wind scoop, formed by snow blown around the base of a cliff, which did nicely. Our practice involved throwing a rucksack tied to a rope (simulating our unfortunate friend) over the lip of the wind scoop and taking it in turns, under Simon’s guidance, to set up a snow anchor and pulley system to haul the bag back up. The idea was to simulate the worst-case situation of rescuing a team member who has fallen into a crevasse and is unconscious or otherwise badly injured and unable to get out on their own. This situation is why you usually work on ice in teams of at least three people, because setting up the kit and hauling someone out of a crevasse on your own is very hard work. This is especially true in the cold and at altitude or if you weigh less than them, as will almost always be the case for me.

The wind scoop we’d chosen to practice on was at the bottom of the Col du Midi, below the Cosmiques hut. Getting there was a little hairy – you have to walk along a narrow ridge to descend from the Aiguille du Midi and at this time of year it is icy and easy to slip off. I was glad to be wearing my new & extremely sharp crampons!

 

Once off the ridge, we reviewed best practice for glacier travel in crevassed areas and set off for the wind scoop. After a bite to eat (yummy quiches, why are French bakeries so much better? No offence Greggs), Simon ran us through the techniques for hauling an unconscious person out of a crevasse. Having learnt these previously from my Dad, it was very useful to have them reviewed by a professional mountain guide and to be introduced to some modern kit that I’d not come across before. I had definitely picked up some bad habits and out of date techniques. I do need a bit more practice though – so I’ll be bullying some rock climbing friends into letting me hang them over the edge of a crag in the Peak District in order for me to ‘rescue’ them repeatedly!

 

The next day was a bit wet and windy so we didn’t brave the heights and confined ourselves to the Chamonix valley floor. I wasn’t too sorry as I’d developed a horrible altitude headache on the ascent back up the Aiguille du Midi ridge the previous evening and didn’t fancy getting another one. A clear demonstration of the woes of going straight up to an altitude of 3,800m without proper acclimatisation.

A quick trip out to a local crag to practice jumarring and assisted crevasse rescue was the order of the day. Jumarring is a self-rescue technique using a mechanical ascender in order to climb up the rope and get yourself out of a crevasse. It requires a bit of coordination to get right and does involve a lot of sitting in your harness with one leg up at an awkward angle. I’m sure we entertained the local mountain police, who were also out practicing their own rescue skills, as we swung around halfway up the cliff trying to jumar up the rope and keep balanced at the same time.

 

I’d like to say a big thank you to Simon for going over all these techniques with us and to him, Dee and the girls for having us to stay!

 

p.s. If you want to know more about crevasse rescue and glacier safety, I will try and post something more comprehensive at a later date. Otherwise I’d recommend looking for instructional videos on websites like UK Climbing and YouTube (search for ‘crevasse rescue’, ‘ascending a rope’, ‘glacier travel’ etc.). But before venturing out to anywhere icy I thoroughly recommend getting proper instruction from a recognised mountain guide or attending a suitable course. Some useful sites with info on courses for UK based readers are the British Mountaineering Council, British Mountain Guides and Mountain Training.

 

Here are a small selection of other photos from my Alps trip. Enjoy!

Alps trip Part 1: Field site reccy

Once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between blog posts and once again this is because I’ve been very busy. This time my excuses are buying a house (a worryingly adult thing to do!) and a short trip to the Alps, which is the main subject of this post.

My Dad and I drove out to Chamonix in the French Alps where we stayed with Simon Abrahams, a mountain guide friend of Dad’s (check out his twitter for lots of nice pics of mountains). Both Dad and I were rusty on our glacier safety and crevasse rescue techniques so this was a grand opportunity to have Simon run through these drills with us. I also needed to road-test some new crampons that were replacing Dad’s old 1970s spikes that I’d been using previously. The impossibly difficult bindings of these retro crampons were often the source of a lot of colourful language at the end of a long day on the ice! I am not sorry to be shot of them.

After our tiring drive (sleeping in the car is always a bad idea), we decided to break ourselves in with a bit of a hike. I wanted to check out the Mer de Glace as a potential field site, so we decided to traverse across to the glacier from the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 m above sea level), before descending back to Chamonix. The walk took around 6 hours, giving us a bit of acclimatisation time at a reasonable altitude.

 

I was impressed by how much the Mer de Glace has retreated and down-wasted over the last 150 years. The sign in the photo below indicates the level of the glacier surface in 1820 and you can see how much lower the ice is now. My Dad could see a huge change from the last time he visited in the 1980s and I could even see a reduction in the glacier’s size since I was last there in 2009. Evidence of climate warming in action!

 

This dramatic shrinkage is shocking but exactly what I’m looking for in terms of my own work – I need accessible glaciers with significant recent retreat. Clearly the Mer de Glace has the retreat box ticked and it even has a train service right up to the ice, bingo for accessibility! Even better, we have numerous paintings, sketches and photos (like the ones below) showing the extent of the glacier at its most recent advance, during the cooler period of the Little Ice Age at around AD 1800.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).  Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 and a zoomed in view of the snout position, with the snout marked by the white arrow.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).
Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 with a zoomed in view of the snout (marked in the main image by a white arrow).

 

On other hikes, I also had a look at the Glace des Bossons and the Glacier d’Argentiere as possible field sites. However both of these glaciers have retreated so much and so quickly that they have exposed polished bedrock and scree slopes around their snouts, which would be too unsafe to work on. When we were up near the Glacier d’Argentiere we witnessed 3-4 ice falls on the glacier snout over the course of around 20mins. I’d certainly not be keen to be getting up close to that!

 

So it looks like the Mer de Glace is going to be the optimal field site for me, if I decide to work in the Chamonix valley. Now I just have to write up some grant applications and work out the logistics!

 

 

A trip to Exeter for the QRA Postgraduate Symposium

This week I’ve been at the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) Postgraduate Symposium, hosted by the University of Exeter’s Geography Department. This is an informal PhD student-only conference that gives Quaternary postgrads the chance to meet up and do trail runs of posters and presentations in a chilled-out atmosphere. I went along because I’d heard it was a good laugh, to get some more presentation practice and to spend this year’s remaining research training grant.

The conference started with an optional field trip to Dartmoor on Wednesday, led by the incredibly knowledgeable Dr Tim Harrod. Unfortunately for those of us on the fieldtrip, the weather was against us and it tipped it down on and off all morning. This limited our options as we didn’t want to spend too long outside the nice dry minibus and the low cloud meant that we couldn’t see much even when we did venture outside. Still, the misty cloud did lend a nice atmosphere to the landscape, very ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’! Tim more than made up for the inclement weather with his interesting insights into the area’s history, geography and geology. A particular highlight was the visiting the Bronze Age village at Grimspound with its resident Dartmoor ponies. After a tasty pub lunch, the weather improved and we were able to escape the minibus to have a look at the local peat and to climb one of the area’s granite Tors, which was warm in waterproof trousers but worth it for the view from the top. In the evening after the field trip the other delegates arrived and we had our welcome drinks before heading into town for large and surprisingly cheap pizzas at the Old Firehouse, which is apparently an Exeter institution.

Thursday saw the start if the conference proper, which consisted of a range of postgrad presentations and posters as well as a keynote talk by Prof. Dan Charman about career progression post-PhD. We also received a tour of Exeter’s new palaeo fire lab, including a demonstration of burning things in one of their instruments. Everyone loves a bit of fire so this went down very well! Friday was similarly structured, with the last of the postgrad talks followed by the QRA PG AGM. One of the primary aims of this session was to choose a new junior PG rep (congrats to Nottingham’s Jack Lacey) and to choose a venue for next year’s Symposium. I was particularly pleased with the choice of Cambridge as this is my home town and because having Jenny Roberts as chief organiser means that we should have a strong showing of ice and climate/ ocean postgrads. Maybe we’ll even get a look into the ice core rooms in the British Antarctic Survey (if we’re lucky and promise not to touch anything)!

One thing I have to say about this year’s meeting in Exeter is that the food was great. Most of us were staying in some very posh undergrad halls (I couldn’t get enough of the rooms – so much nicer than the prison block I lived in during my 1st year!), which did a particularly good cooked breakfast with nice sausages and even fried bread. I hadn’t had fried bread since I was a kid and had completely forgotten how good it is with baked beans. Then of course there were the pizzas that I mentioned above and the very yummy conference dinner that came with a respectably large amount of wine. And of course there are the obligatory cakey treats during the coffee breaks; we even had a Devon cream tea on Thursday. Honestly it was worth the registration fee, which was very reasonable, for the food alone. Thanks have to go to Nicole Sanderson and the rest of the Exeter team for doing such a fantastic job arranging all of this.

So if you’re reading this in 6 months’ time when the advertisements for the next QRA PG Symposium come out, then I’d definitely recommend that you go along. There will be interesting people, some kind of field excursion, nice food and it is a great chance to air your research in a low-stress environment. See you in Cambridge!

 

Time out: Skiing in Norway 2014

Everyone needs to take the odd holiday – even PhD students! However, my family are not ones for spending lazy days on beaches or by the pool. Instead we go in for a more active kind of break, in this case throwing ourselves down mountains with planks strapped to our feet. What could be more relaxing?

My Dad, my brother Alex and I hopped on a plane at stupid o’clock one morning and headed out to Hemsedal ski resort, around a 4hr drive from Oslo in Norway. The snow in Norway this year has been great and a cohesive snowpack means there hasn’t been the nasty avalanches that we’ve seen in the Alps. So lovely soft and safe snow for playing off-piste! It is noticeably colder and much windier than the sunny slopes of France or Italy, but then you can’t have everything.

Hemsedal is a fun little resort; home to the craziest skiers in Norway I’m told. The snow parks certainly lived up to the rep with some of the biggest jumps I’ve ever seen. No way was I going over those – I’m sure they were not a lot smaller than the ones used for the slopestyle events in the Sochi Olympics. Happily there were several snow parks with less intimidating jumps, which were a lot more to my liking!

The resort is also known for its nice wide pistes which are totally deserted during the week. This is because Norwegians mostly ski at the weekends, leaving the resort practically empty Monday to Thursday. Which is just what we like as wide empty pistes = you can go crazily fast without fear of hurtling into anyone. Our motto is that high speeds are fine if you’re only endangering yourselves. Although that mind-set did cost me my appendix, which I ruptured during a high-speed ski crash whilst racing my brother back in 2011. But luckily no internal organ-damaging wipeouts this year.

Whilst the downhill skiing was great, the highlight of the week was definitely trying ski-sailing. We took the train along a short section of the famously scenic Oslo-Bergen route to Finse, which is a small village at the foot of the Hardanger Ice Cap. This is the base of Ronne, a friend of my Dad who happens to be top kite and sail skier. I think he holds a world record for the fastest kite-skiing trip back from the South Pole to the coast of the Weddell Sea. Although I may be totally confusing who holds what record, my Dad knows a lot of these kinds of people!

After taking some small sails for ‘walks’ near the village to get the feel of them, we got some skis on, strapped on bigger sails and were off across the frozen lake towards the Ice Cap. You can get up some serious speed, even on a relatively calm day we were absolutely whizzing along. And the potential for strong gusts certainly kept us on our toes, or off-them as happened to Alex when a strong gust caught him off-guard and dragged him in a belly slide across the snow.

I was surprised to find that handling the sail was pretty straight-forward to pick up – although I have done a fair bit of dinghy sailing and a spot of windsurfing before, which probably helped. The sail is strapped to a bar which is itself attached to your harness by a pivoting clip, so it does handle a lot like a windsurfing rig. Also like windsurfing, when you get good you can try doing jump turns and hopping off the top of things, like ridges and hills. Would love to try a steep off-piste descent rigged up to a ski sail, no need to worry about going off short drops as you could just float down! And the speed you get skiing downhill plus the wind in your sail is pretty sweet. It had me applying the brakes fairly heavily to get myself back in the driver’s seat when the speed got a little too much for comfort. On more than one occasion the sail was in control of me, rather than the other way around.

So I guess the take-home messages of this post are: go skiing in Norway, it’s really cool; don’t ski too fast unless you really dislike an expendable internal organ; and if you get the chance to try kite-skiing or ski-sailing then absolutely do it!

 

Iceland Fieldwork & Road Trip 2011

Before I start I’d like to point out that Iceland is simply the kind of place that defies description. There are volcanos AND ice and, in several places, volcanoes under ice. It’s pretty cool. Plus for extra geography geekiness – Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the Eurasian and North American Plates are slowly pulling apart. We walked down the gorge between the plates, in some areas you can even scuba dive through the gap. Seriously awesome geology in action (I refer you to the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘geogasm’).

Before I get to talking about what I got up to I need to thank Gordon and Fran for letting me use their photos. Some of my own also feature, but I realised that I had somehow not taken any photos of several important places/ things and had to call on these guys for back-up. So merci beaucoup! As you go through the gallery you’ll see details of who took each photo in the captions.

The Fieldwork Bit

As part of our assessment at Edinburgh, we had to work in a team of three to produce a small fieldwork study on or around Eyjafjallajökull in South Iceland (that’s the volcano that caused all the European flight chaos in 2010). We were in the field for two weeks or so and the whole show was run by Prof. Andy Dugmore and his team of academics and PhD students. My fieldwork group decided to map the geomorphology of the Seljalandsá river above the impressive Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The hunch was that the waterfall is too greatly undercut for the relatively small volume of water currently flowing over it; perhaps this could be the site of a palaeo jökulhlaup?

For those who are not familiar with glacial hazard management, jökulhlaups are floods that suddenly surge out from underneath glaciers – the word in Icelandic literally means “glacier leap” because the ice surface lifts as the water passes beneath it. In Iceland the most common cause of these floods is the eruption of a volcano buried under ice. The heat from the eruption melts a load of the ice, creating a lake that jacks up the glacier until a critical level is reach when the water suddenly flows out as a jökulhlaup. These are no laughing matter cause a lot of damage and destruction. We even had to be temporarily added to the Icelandic government’s emergency text alert system. Apparently, if the volcano erupted during our stay we each would have received a text along the lines of ‘run for the hills, but not the one currently spewing out ash and noxious gases’.

Back to the science. Our research involved producing a series of river cross-sections and a long profile from the source of Seljalandsá to the waterfall. It also involved looking for potential palaeo-flood deposits by digging some holes and studying exposed sediment sections. We were keeping a look out for tephra (ash) layers in the soil as these can be linked to specific eruptions and used to relatively date any flood deposits that we came across. Although limited for time, we did get enough data to conclude that Seljalandsá probably was a palaeo jökulhlaup route. As well as the waterfall, there is a convincingly massive gorge and some suspicious-looking flood deposits – now we just need the Edinburgh academics to go back and confirm our findings. And we even managed to sneak in a fair few naps and Disney sing-a-longs during the fieldwork and the write-up. Productive time management!

The Road Trip Bit

After our fieldwork was done, eight geographers decided to brave the high alcohol prices and stay on a bit longer for a wee Icelandic road trip. Our first stop was Reykjavik where we picked up the dodgy hire cars (from the appropriately named ‘Sad Cars Rental’). To say that the cars were not the finest is massive understatement – the one I drove allowed you one of steering or breaks, but never both. At one point we had to jump-start a car in the pouring rain up in the hills using jump leads borrowed from a passing coach. And they didn’t get on terribly well with gravel roads (there are a lot of gravel roads in Iceland). We really missed the university’s Land Rovers! But the dodgy car mechanics were the only bad thing and having transport gave us the freedom to stop off at every glacier, beach, lake, waterfall or geyser that we passed.

I think I’d have to say Jökulsárlón was probably my favourite place. It’s a lake in front of a calving glacier snout. Calving is the process of ice bergs breaking off from a glacier, so this lake was absolutely filled with ice bergs of every shape and size. Incidentally, this is the place where they filmed the car chase on ice for the Bond film “Die Another Day”. One of the boys (you know who you are) decided to go for a swim a climbed up onto a berg – big mistake, the water was close to freezing and the ice shredded his hands and knees. We had to apply plasters, towels and hot chocolate pronto! But it did make for some suitably heroic photos. The beach outside the lake was also good for pictures, black sand strewn with ice bergs. Very photogenic!

Throughout the whole trip we were all massively geeking out at all the cool landscapes, you could tell we were physical geographers. But even if you’re not a geographer I would recommend that you check out Iceland, it’s an awesome place. Stick on some suitably dramatic music (the Jurassic Park theme, Lord of the Rings theme etc.) and go do a spot of Icelandic adventuring of you own.

 

Norway 2011

Gallery

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, I wanted to study the response of a glacier to recent climate change for my final year dissertation. First off, I had to find a nice glacier with plenty of available data in a straight-forward area to go and visit for some fieldwork – much easier said than done!

I eventually settled on Nigardsbreen, an outlet glacier of the Jostedalsbreen Ice Cap in Norway. Jostedalsbreen is the largest ice cap in mainland Europe and Nigardsbreen has the advantage of being only a 1hr hike from the nearest road. Plus the nice folks at the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) have a whole heap of data on it, which they very kindly allowed me to use for free. Along with more free data from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, this allowed me to analyse the response of the glacier to the increasingly warm climate from 1980-2011.

An essential component of this research required me to visit Nigardsbreen and map to glacier’s snout at very high resolution. Luckily, I was awarded a grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and was able to borrow all the scientific gear for free from Edinburgh Uni. Otherwise I could never have afforded to go!

So off I went with my dad and brother drafted in as field assistants/ general dogs-bodies. Luck mostly wasn’t with us – poor weather (think lots of rain and a nice dose of strong katabatic winds off the ice cap) plus knee injuries for both me and my brother, who had to be sent back to the UK in the end. But we did get the data I needed over a gruelling three weeks and arrived home the day before my 21st birthday. Not that I was up for much celebrating by that point!

Anyway, I found a marked retreat of the glacier since the early 1990s that correlated nicely with the temperature records. Good news for me but bad news for the glacier. If you are interested in my results then drop me an email (address available here), or alternatively there is a hard copy of my dissertation in the library of the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh. For the rest of you – here are a selection of nice fieldwork photos.

p.s. Big thanks to Astrid who ran the campsite we were based out of. She literally couldn’t do enough to help us and was just fantastic. If you ever find yourself in the area, I definitely recommend her campsite and cabins as well as her sister’s (or possibly some other relation’s) hotel. Here is her website.

All the Norwegian scientists I spoke with were also great and very generous with their data. There are so many nice people just across the North Sea!

Glacier Country, New Zealand 2013

Gallery

Between my undergraduate and PhD studies I took the chance to do a spot of travelling, starting with 6 weeks backpacking around New Zealand. Clearly I had to go and check out the South Island’s famous glacial geomorphology. So I hopped on a bus down the West Coast and made sure to visit Milford Sound and one of the more accessible glaciers (I choose Fox).

These photos show a few of the dramatic glacial landscapes that I came across – believe me you could publish whole books of NZ landscape photos, in fact people already have. It’s like the best bits of the UK but without all the people and ugly infrastructure. Just as cold and wet though, you can’t have it all!

Antarctic Fieldwork 2012

A few snaps I took on expedition last season to the Patriot Hills, West Antarctica.

I was part of a three person team collecting surface ice samples and shallow ice cores on the blue ice below the Patriot Hills. The gas trapped in these samples is being analysed to inform our understanding of the region’s long-term climate. The expedition was run by the University of New South Wales as part of the Ellsworth Mountains Project – look out for publications of the results by Prof Chris Turney and Dr Chris Fogwill. These guys are currently sailing back to Antarctica to follow in the footsteps of the great Aussie explorer Douglas Mawson, you can follow their expedition’s progress here.