- Make a first ascent in the Greater Ranges. Same plan as last year: we've found some 4000m mountains in Kyrgyzstan with no recorded ascents, we've applied for financial assistance from the Mount Everest Foundation (who exist to fund this sort of thing), I've booked the time off, I'm learning Russian via a combination of night classes and Duolingo (befriend me here!), and I'm training in earnest. Speaking of which:
- Get my body mass below 70kg, from a starting point of 81.2kg on New Year's Day. I want to retain a few kilos of body fat, because food is heavy and burning fat on a route is way better than burning muscle, but every extra gram of body mass will have to be carried 2000m up a mountain, at altitude, as fast as possible. If you've never done hard physical work at altitude while overweight, let me share a secret with you: it is Not Fun. I'm tracking my weight using the Libra app for Android, which implements Hacker's Diet-style smoothing on your noisy daily weigh-in data; calorie intake via MyFitnessPal; and calorie expenditure via a FitBit exercise-tracking band, because MyFitnessPal's calorie-per-hour estimates for most forms of exercise are laughably high. FitBit can sync calories-burned to MFP, which I currently have set up; Libra doesn't sync to either of them, which is annoying, but I really want the trend rather than the raw weight data. FitBit also have a native food-tracking system, so I may ditch MFP at some point.
- Show up for work in a timely fashion. This is something I struggle with horribly at the moment. I almost always arrived in time for our morning standup meeting at my last job, but now I'm working remotely as part of a distributed team, and we don't have any equivalent for that. I've just signed up for Beeminder and created a "Do Less" goal with units of "minutes late to work", and a fairly generous weekly target; we'll see how that goes.
- Actually do some work while I'm there. Not sure how to make this SMART or how to achieve it. The Pomodoro technique is... moderately effective, if I actually start doing it (which is much easier if I show up not-too-late in the morning). RescueTime integrates with Beeminder, so I could set myself a goal for "spend more time looking at an IDE, terminal or job-related websites" (or one for "spend less time looking at blogs and social media"). By the way, a pet peeve: if you're reading about the Pomodoro Technique and thinking "sounds interesting, but 25 minutes isn't enough" then you are not the kind of person who needs it. 25 minutes is a major challenge for some of us.
- Read an average of one book a week. You can follow my progress on this one at Goodreads.
This summer Andy and I headed back out to the Alps; this time we went to the Chamonix valley, home of Mont Blanc and widely acknowledged as the death-sport capital of the world. We were unlucky with conditions - we arrived right after a week of rain, which meant all the high slopes were loaded and avalanchey, and then we lost several more days to bad weather mid-trip - and we generally had a less successful time than last year. In the end, we bagged one 3700m summit, did an easy (but very enjoyable) rock/scrambling route on the Aiguilles Rouges, went hiking a few times and retreated off two more mountaineering routes. Nonetheless, I feel like I learned a lot; here's my belated attempt to set some lessons-learned down in writing.
Double-check your packing
Andy and I had both moved house shortly before the trip, and in the post-move chaos a few things got left behind. You don't want to spend the first day of your holiday dropping 70EUR on a new pair of softshell trousers, or discovering on the first route that you left the new bottle of suncream at home and brought the nearly-empty one from last year instead. Similarly, I couldn't find my less-tight pair of rock shoes before departure; my tight bouldering shoes got really painful after three hours on the Arête des Crochues.
I don't know what exactly changed, but fitness was a much bigger problem for me this year. Age, weight gain, my asthma getting worse, longer routes, reduced workout frequency, all of the above? Whatever it was, I often found myself struggling to get enough air (which in turn meant I couldn't drink, which in turn meant I couldn't eat). I've since beefed up my base exercise schedule, and will try to do more sport-specific workouts (hillwalking, trail running, climbing) in time for next year's trip. If I need motivation, I flash back to how dreadful I felt on Pointe Isabelle.
We knew in general terms that we needed to do more research, but didn't know how to operationalise that, which meant we couldn't research effectively. Having lists of routes you want to do is good, but what you really need is if-then planning: IF conditions are X, Y and Z, what routes will be in good nick? IF we're at the Foobar hut, what is there to climb in the area? What are the mixed routes, the ice routes, the snow routes? Which routes face in which directions, and from which directions are the approach routes threatened by avalanche? This is the kind of knowledge that lets you move quickly to handle a change in conditions without losing another day to book-scouring.
Compare as many guidebooks as you can
We screwed up on the Arête de Table du Roc because we got to the top of the ridge and found ourselves confronted with an unexpected brèche. We then wasted a long time arguing about where we were before finally deciding to make a long and rather unpleasant abseil down our route of ascent. As it turned out, the route down from the summit proper would have been much easier and less threatened by rockfall. We'd been unable to work out from the Alpine Club guidebook which bit was the summit, but when we got back to the campsite we discovered that it was completely obvious from the topo in Gaston Rébuffat's 100 Finest Routes. Rébuffat's book is a bit large to carry up the mountain with you, but if we'd read the description more carefully in advance we might not have had that problem.
After another season doing classic winter routes in Scotland, particularly the Liathach and Aonach Eagach traverses, my Alpine ropework was a lot more fluid. I'm seconding last year's recommendation that Scottish-style winter climbing is great training for Alpinism.
The Aiguilles Rouges are great
We did the Arête des Crochues in the Aiguilles Rouges (the sub-3000m massif on the other side of the Chamonix valley from the Mont Blanc massif) near the end of our trip, and had a great time: it reminded me a lot of the Skye Cuillin. In retrospect, we should have done this right at the beginning: it would have been a good way to start acclimatising and get our fast-and-light heads on.
The French-language guidebook we had for the Aiguilles Rouges was funny to our British eyes: it gave a topo so detailed it would have its author thrown out of the SMC, apologised for the lack of pitons on the route, and suggested that we might find it amusing to find the route by following rock polish and crampon scratches. Heaven forfend! Who ever heard of such a thing?
Take a non-climbing guidebook
There's a huge amount to do in and around the Chamonix valley when the weather's too bad for climbing. Hilary Sharp's book Chamonix Mountain Adventures was an excellent investment, taking us on some great (albeit damp) hikes. The dinosaur-tracks hike was particularly good. The Alpine Museum, by contrast, was rather disappointing.
To péage or not to péage?
Most of the French autoroute network consists of toll roads ("péages"). If you're driving all the way across France, the tolls mount up fast. As an experiment, we tried avoiding toll roads on the way back. This added about four hours to our journey, but meant we actually saw some of the beautiful French countryside instead of the unchanging embankments that surround the autoroutes. The free Routes Nationales, like their British A-road counterparts, vary a lot in quality: in northern France they're usually wide, fast, straight and pretty, but in the mountains they're usually narrow, full of hairpin bends, and rather frightening. I'd suggest driving on N-roads between Calais and Dijon, and using the autoroutes for getting between Dijon and Chamonix.
There's lots of climbing in Bulgaria
A group of Bulgarians in our campsite kept giving us the hard sell on the merits of Bulgarian rock and winter climbing. To be fair, it does look good, and it's a much cheaper country to travel in than France. So, Bulgaria is now on our list of possible climbing destinations.
Take a pair of approach shoes
I took a pair of fell-running shoes last year and didn't really use them, so this time I left them behind. This was a huge mistake: they'd have been incredibly useful for hiking and the walk-in/out from the Aiguilles Rouges route. I've never owned a pair of purpose-designed approach shoes, but I'm sure a pair of those would have been even better.
Leave plenty of time for hut walk-ins
Mostly because of our lack of effective research, we often found ourselves deciding on a hut with only just enough time to walk in to it, leading to a rushed walk-in and an arrival in the middle of supper. This is a Bad Thing: you want to arrive early so you can ask the hut guardian about recent ascents and conditions, and so you can scope out the start of the route. We lost a lot of time stumbling around in the dark at the start of our attempt on Pointe Isabelle, and this might have made the difference between success and failure.
The other mistake we made on that route was not leaving enough time for the walk-out: given the conditions we probably made the right decision to go down when we did anyway, but it didn't help our decisionmaking that we had to be back on the other side of the Mer de Glace by a certain time in order to not miss the last train.
Eating on routes
We still haven't found an eating-on-routes system we're really happy with. This time we experimented with having a chalk-bag full of snacks each and grabbing a quick bite every so often; I think this helped. We also discovered Nakd bars, which are great, and which can be cheaply and easily duplicated at home :-) I'm wondering if Soylent would be good for mountaineering: put some in your hydration bladder, sip constantly without the need to stop or get anything out of your sack. I'm also considering Plumpy'Nut, or some home-made approximation, and Mike Prior-Jones introduced me to BiFi Rangers and Carazza mini-pizza-sandwich things, which are tasty, shelf-stable and savoury - sometimes you don't want something too sweet. I've since used these with success on the An Teallach ridge in Scotland.
[More photos here!]
I was chatting on Twitter last night about the disaster on Everest earlier this year. Michael Story asked me if "climbers mostly think Everest industry = Gomorrah?", and I found it hard to give an accurate answer in the form of Tweets. This post is that answer. I should first explain that though I've read several books about high-altitude climbing and Everest in particular, I've never been to Nepal and never climbed in the Greater Ranges; I'm very happy to be corrected by people with more direct knowledge.
Before we talk about Everest directly, we should talk about the notion of "good style" in climbing, which climbers sometimes grandly call "ethics". The best style of ascent is something like this:
- climbing a technically challenging route
- from the ground up, in a single push, using only what you carry with you
- using only your hands and feet to gain height, not artificial aids
- without using prior knowledge of the route
- without using protective gear ("free-soloing")
- and leaving no trace of your passage.
In short, you should be self-reliant. An ascent in this style is not always feasible, but the closer you can get to it, the better the style of your ascent. In particular, climbers will usually use ropes and protective gear, because dying can mess up your whole day. However, even here there's a hierarchy: if you place protection and use ropes but don't weight them ("free climbing") then you could, in theory, have free-soloed the route, so this is better style than either falling or using gear to gain height ("aid climbing").
The requirement is that you should climb in as good a style as you can, and that you should climb a route in at least as good a style as the first ascensionists used (it's perfectly OK, for instance, to aid-climb most routes on El Capitan). If you can't do that, goes the reasoning, you shouldn't be there: go and climb a route that's within your capabilities rather than bringing the mountain down to your level. The key texts here are Reinhold Messner's The Murder of the Impossible, Lito Tejada-Flores' Games Climbers Play and Cesare Maestri's Compressor Route on Cerro Torre (assuming a 300m line of bolts in a rockface with a diesel generator hanging off the top can be a "text").
You might object that these rules make no sense, or that if you climb in a way that violates my idea of "good style" then you're not reducing my enjoyment of my own climbs in any way, as long as you keep to the "leave no trace" rule. To which I say: welcome to the stupid world of human ingroup/outgroup dynamics and shibboleths. I subscribe to these rules to the extent that I think they enhance my enjoyment and capture something important about what mountaineering gives me, but it's certainly possible to be overzealous in their application - see almost any UKClimbing.com forum thread.
Now let's compare the ideal ground-up on-sight free solo climb described above to the typical guided ascent of Everest.
- the route, while physically very difficult, is technically straightforward
- it's climbed "siege style", by establishing a number of intermediate camps and stocking them with gear; worse, this is done by hired porters
- clients make liberal use of bottled oxygen (it's hard to imagine a clearer case of "bringing the mountain down to your level")
- clients pull on ropes fixed for them by Sherpas
- clients are guided up by guides who have intimate knowledge of the route, and make no mountaineering decisions themselves
- tents, oxygen bottles, human waste, dead bodies, etc, are all left in situ (though this is improving).
Given all that, it should be clear that the climbing subculture would look down on guided Everest ascents even if they didn't kill Sherpas in such numbers.
[The word "Sherpa" is ambiguous; it means a minority ethnic group that lives in the region of Nepal and Tibet near Everest, but is also used as a shorthand for "high-altitude porter". High-altitude porters are the highly-skilled people who carry loads and fix ropes above Base Camp; on Everest they are mostly, but not exclusively, ethnic Sherpas, who have various genetic adaptations which make them better able to do hard work at high altitude than most people. Ethnic Sherpas often use "Sherpa" as part of their names. From now on, I'll use "high-altitude porter" or "HAP" when referring to the job, and "Sherpa" when referring to the ethnic group.]
Now, let's talk about safe working conditions.
The standard Nepalese route up Everest goes through a region of broken glacier called the Khumbu Icefall. It's an objectively dangerous place: exposed to avalanche from above, full of ice-cliffs ("séracs") that could collapse at any moment, and riven with crevasses. Navigation through the ice-fall is complex, and must be completed quickly to minimise exposure to avalanche and sérac collapse. Many clients will not have the mountaineering experience to navigate the Icefall safely on their own (stories abound of clients putting on crampons for the very first time when they get to Base Camp), so at the beginning of the season a cross-expedition team of HAPs called the "icefall doctors" find a safe-ish route through the Icefall and prepare it for clients, fixing ropes along the route and bridging crevasses with ladders. As Jon Krakauer explains here, Western clients and guides now spend much less time in the Icefall - and consequently are at much lower risk - than twenty years ago: liberal use of bottled oxygen and prophylactic drugs means they need to take fewer trips through the Icefall to acclimatise for the summit. But someone still needs to fix the route through the Icefall, and make the necessary trips through it to stock the upper camps; this falls to the HAPs, who consequently have a fatality rate between 4 and 12 times that of US military personnel in Iraq.
This really gets to the core of why so many climbers find the Everest circus distasteful. Mountaineering is about challenging yourself in a beautiful environment, sure, but it's also about self-reliance and intelligent risk-management. If you're going to pay someone else to make all the decisions, remove all elements of technical challenge, and do the most dangerous bits for you, what's the point? Summits are meaningless, but the process of attaining them is not; guided Everest climbs dumb down that process, and risk people's lives for a goal that has had all the point sucked out of it.
[I'm talking about Everest guiding specifically, not the wider mountain-guiding industry. I've hired guides myself, and had some great days and learned a lot from doing so. But there the dynamic is different, more like hiring an instructor.]
I said above that the Icefall is an "objectively dangerous" place. This is climbing jargon, and it means that the dangers (like avalanche) are largely uncontrollable. There are undoubtedly more things that could be done to increase safety for HAPs (Krakauer's article suggests a few), but the Icefall is never going to be a safe workplace. The only way to manage risk in the face of objective dangers is to ensure you spend as little time in the danger zone as possible. But the entire business model of the Everest guiding businesses works against this. If you're going to take inexperienced clients on a siege-style ascent of the mountain then you need to fix a route through the Icefall and transport kit for all the intermediate camps through it. Someone has to do that. Per Krakauer, HAPs can earn between $2000 and $8000 in an Everest season; starting wage for a guide at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. is $125 per day entry-level or $250 for someone with the extremely prestigious and difficult IFMGA certification (and someone guiding on Everest is likely to be more experienced, and consequently better-paid). I'm not privy to Himex's accounts, but I doubt they're an obscenely profitable concern: mounting large-scale expeditions to countries with little infrastructure is an expensive business (small-scale Alpine-style expeditions, by contrast, can be done remarkably cheaply, even in the Himalayas). Paying Western rates to do the amount of dangerous load-carrying that a siege-style ascent of the standard route requires would vastly increase their costs, quite possibly to the level at which the business model would become unsustainable.
Now, let's talk about sex work.
As I tried to demonstrate above, Everest guiding is inescapably bound up with the existence of poor people who'll accept very low wages (by Western standards) to do an unavoidably dangerous job. I understand there's an extensive literature on the ethics of constrained choices under capitalism: if Sherpas can make a good living (by their standards) doing a ludicrously dangerous job, are their Western clients exploiting them? This, as various people pointed out on Twitter, is somewhat analogous to sex work, which is also a dangerous job which many workers are forced into by lack of better options. In both cases, reducing the choices available by banning the dangerous one seems unlikely to be a win. But I think there's one big difference: working as a HAP on Everest is unavoidably dangerous, and I'm not at all convinced the same is true of sex work. I'm on shaky ground here, but AIUI the dangers of sex work are mostly human in origin, and we can hope to make things safer for sex workers by, for instance, changing the surrounding legislation; no law you can pass will stop a house-sized lump of ice from falling off the mountain and triggering an avalanche.
[In the spirit of increasing available choices, let me put in a plug for Sherpa Adventure Gear, a Sherpa-owned clothing firm who do most of their manufacturing in Nepal, donate a portion of their profits to a scholarship fund for Sherpa children, and make really good kit.]
I got back from my first climbing trip to the Alps a bit over a month ago. My friend Andy and I spent two-and-a-bit weeks in the Écrins climbing routes graded Facile and Peu Difficile, and generally having a blast. I'd wanted to go to the Alps for years, but I'd heard so much about how hard and scary Alpine climbing was that I consistently failed to get a trip together. This year I finally overcame my fears and disorganisation and made it out there, and I found that low-grade Alpine mountaineering (the stuff I was interested in, in other words) was much easier, more fun and less scary than I'd been led to expect. I wish I'd gone five years ago.
Some of the stuff I read beforehand was useful (in particular, I recommend the BMC's DVD Alpine Essentials, which does a wonderful job of demystifying Alpine mountaineering), but I was still left with some misconceptions and gaps in my knowledge. Here's some of what I wish I'd known back then; the usual disclaimer applies.
There is absolutely no need to go to the Dolomites first
People kept telling me that I should go to the Dolomites and do lots of long rock routes before attempting the high Alps. I'm sure the Dolomites are lovely, but this is nonsense. If, like me, you want to do low-grade mountaineering on high mountains, go and do it. Experience of 10+-pitch rock routes is not necessary; I doubt it's even very useful. Moving together on scrambling terrain in big boots is a different skill.
It's nothing like the books
Climbing memoirs and films concentrate disproportionately on the super-hard routes and the times when Everything Went Wrong. It turns out that there are plenty of easier routes too.
Guidebook times are perfectly achievable
I received differing advice on this. All the books and DVDs stressed the importance of completing routes within guidebook time, and only increasing your grade/altitude/length once you were doing so. However, most of the people I spoke to said that this was an unrealistic aim. One guy even said that 1.5x guidebook time was a more reasonable target, but that I (as a Slow Climber) should allow double. In the event, we did almost all of our routes either within guidebook time or only a few minutes over. On the one exception, the South Ridge of the Aiguille Centrale de Soreiller, we took 4.5h versus 3h, but (a) the time quoted was for the shorter variation of the route, and we did the longer variation, (b) we deliberately decided to pitch the exposed summit ridge rather than moving together, having assessed the glacier below and deciding it would be safe to descend later in the day.
It's not that scary
All the books said "you need a few days to get used to the sheer scale of the Alps". I really didn't find this. Granted, the Écrins are not the tallest part of the Alps, but the exposure levels were at most about double what I'm used to from Scotland, and I felt pretty much at home. In fact, I found fear-management much easier than on the average UK roadside crag. If you can handle the Cuillin Ridge, you'll be fine.
That said, learning the Litany Against Fear is not a bad idea. It actually helps, and as an earworm it beats the hell out of Brown Girl in the Ring.
The days needn't be that long
Similarly with the oft-repeated advice that Alpine days can be really really long. Our longest day was ten hours (although we stopped back at the hut - it would have been more like 14 if we'd descended to the valley the same day); I've done 13-hour winter days in Scotland, and 14-hour days in summer. Or 18-hour days if you count epics. There are obviously plenty of very long routes in the Alps, but you don't have to do them. Pick a shorter route and move fast.
I suspect that most advice to newbie Brit alpinists is aimed at hot-headed wannabe Sheffield hardmen. The exposure's huge and the days are long if you think that 10m of gritstone is a long route. Which reminds me of the time I was climbing Curved Ridge in summer with three friends, moving roped together, and two know-it-alls with Yorkshire accents told us that they'd been climbing for thirty years and what we were doing was "not a recognised rope technique". Hey, how about you (a) fuck off back to Stanage, and (b) pick up a fucking book? I'm sure if you ask nicely in the climbing shop they'll help you with the big words.
You'll spend a lot of time downclimbing
The voies normales are, almost by definition, the easiest routes up the mountains. Hence, if there were an easy route off the top, you'd have climbed that instead. You may be able to abseil some sections, but there's no guarantee of this.
It's surprisingly warm up there
My previous experience of climbing in snow and ice had all been in Scottish winter conditions, where your fingers are usually painfully cold, touching the rock ungloved will chill you to the bone, hydration tubes freeze solid, and if you stop for more than a minute you'll need to layer up or dance about or both to keep warm. This was not the case in the Écrins. I did most routes in just a base layer, with my thin belay jacket coming out for summit stops or the occasional fixed belay in the wind. My hardshell only got used during rainstorms in the valley, and my outer gloves were entirely unused. Softshells were more useful: in particular, my Rab Sawtooth softshell trousers were excellent.
On the Barre des Écrins, a guide asked me "do you get many days like this on Ben Nevis?" "Oh yeah, we get some sunny days, even in winter." "No, I meant with the wind!" "Oh, right. In Scotland, we don't consider it windy if you can hold a conversation."
Staying hydrated is hard
Non-freezing hydration tubes make it easier to take a drink without stopping - and you will have very few stops if you're doing it right - but we kept running out of water in the heat. The lack of stops also means you can't do much to adjust your layering system if you get too hot. On our first route - which took a mere 4.5 hours hut-to-hut - I drank the whole of my 2L hydration bladder, then knocked back a 1.5L bottle of water on my own back at the hut.
We also struggled to eat enough on the routes; we never properly hit the wall, but we were definitely suffering from depleted blood-sugar on several occasions. My normal strategy is to scoff chocolate biscuits and sandwiches on belays, or eat while hiking, but this doesn't work when you're moving together on class 3-4 terrain, need your hands to make progress and can't spare the time to stop. I suggested filling our drinking bladders with Gatorade or something similar to Andy, but apparently when he tried that on a previous trip he lost a tooth. Suggestions?
Lassitude is a real thing
I was astonished how little energy I had down in the valleys. The heat sapped the power to do anything except lie about and drink tea.
You'll do a lot of traversing
It turns out that
- you have muscles in the side of your calves
- they're used a lot when you traverse steep slopes
- almost nothing else trains them.
You'll need to switch very quickly between belayed climbing and moving together
File this one under "try not to stop for any reason" - you quite often reach a spot where you can belay the leader over a tricky bit, but the second wants to move off immediately once the rope comes tight. This argues for the use of direct belays off spikes, a technique which horrified me when I first saw it but to which I quickly became accustomed.
Fitness is useful, but you don't have to be an elite super-athlete
I had an ambitious training plan, involving half-marathons and marathons and mountain marathons, but due to various injuries and illnesses and my local gym closing down and other such excuses, I utterly failed to go through with it. Consequently I headed out to the Alps well below my usual level of fitness and carrying about 15kg of excess weight. About a week before I went out, I ran 10km and got delayed onset muscle soreness, so long had it been since I'd done any running. And, you know what? I was mostly fine. The walk-ins to the huts were hard, largely because we were doing them in the heat of the afternoon (see above, "lassitude is a real thing"), and I was pretty spaced out with tiredness on the descent from the Barre des Écrins, but I managed. More fitness would definitely have helped, sure, but lack of fitness wasn't (usually) the limiting factor.
Alpine star fields are amazing
Install a star-map app on your phone before you go. Trust me on this.
So what would be a really useful training plan for that sort of trip? I suggest the following:
- Do as much hillwalking as you can. If it involves some scrambling, all the better. Practice traversing steep slopes.
- Practice climbing easy routes in big boots.
- Practice downclimbing easy routes in big boots.
- Practice climbing with a full bladder (once again, you don't want to stop if you can avoid it).
- Do lots of long, grade I/II Scottish winter routes: the kind of thing where you want to move together. This was the only part of this training programme that I actually did, and I'm extremely grateful for it.
- Practice your French (or the language of whatever country you're visiting). High school was a long time ago for me, and it's embarrassing asking "Parlez-vous Anglais?" all the time. Also, the English-language guidebooks are selective and concentrate a lot on the more aspirational routes; reading the local guidebooks will give you more options.
tl;dr Alpine climbing is the Best Thing Ever. All the fun of Scottish winter climbing without the hot aches.
Me on my first Alpine summit, La Grande Ruine 3765m. More photos here.
High: My old Codeplay colleague Ally Donaldson's FAT-GPU workshop. He was talking about his GPUVerify system, which takes CUDA or OpenCL programs and either proves them free of data races and synchronisation-barrier conflicts, or finds a potential bug. It's based on an SMT solver; I think there's a lot of scope to apply constraint solvers to problems in compilation and embedded system design, and I'd like to learn more about them.
Also, getting to see the hotel's giant fishtank being cleaned, by scuba divers.
Low: My personal low point was telling a colleague about some of the problems my depression has been causing me, and having him laugh in my face - he'd been drinking, and thought I was exaggerating for comic effect. He immediately apologised when I told him that this wasn't the case, but still, not fun. The academic low point was the "current challenges in supercomputing" tutorial, which turned out to be a thinly-disguised sales pitch for the sponsor's FPGA cards. That tends not to happen at maths conferences...
Crush: am I allowed to have a crush on software? Because the benchmarking and visualisation infrastructure surrounding the Sniper x86 simulator looks so freaking cool. If I can throw away the mess of Makefiles, autoconf and R that serves the same role in our lab I will be very, very happy.
Goal: Go climbing on the Humboldthain Flakturm (fail - it turns out that Central Europe is quite cold in January, and nobody else fancied climbing on concrete at -7C). Get my various Coursera homeworks and bureaucratic form-filling done (fail - damn you, tasty German beer and hyperbolic discounting!). Meet up with maradydd, who was also in town (fail - comms and scheduling issues conspired against us. Next time, hopefully). See some interesting talks, and improve my general knowledge of the field (success!).
Bane: I was sharing a room with my Greek colleague Chris, who had a paper deadline on the Wednesday. This meant he was often up all night, and went to bed as I was getting up, so every trip into the room to get something was complicated by the presence of a sleeping person. He also kept turning the heating up until it was too hot for me to sleep. Dually, of course, he had to share his room with a crazy Brit who kept getting up as he was going to bed and opening the window to let freezing air in...
It was often uncomfortable, often painful, particularly for the first month, but other days were pure joy, a revelling in the sensation of movement, of strength and wellbeing. My regular headaches stopped. For the first time ever, I got through winter without even a cold. I felt incredibly well, began to walk and hold myself differently. When friends asked "How are you?", instead of the normal Scottish "Oh, not too bad," I'd find myself saying "Extremely well!"
On other days training was pure slog, the body protesting and the will feeble. The mind could see little point in getting up before breakfast to run on a cold, dark morning, and none at all in continuing when it began to hurt. Take a break, why not have a breather, why not run for home now?
It is at times like that that the real work is done. It's easy to keep going when you feel strong and good. Anyone can do that. But at altitude it is going to feel horrible most of the time - and that's what you're really training for. So keep on running, through the pain and the reluctance. Do you really expect to get through this Expedition - this relationship, this book, this life for that matter - without some of the old blood, sweat and tears? No chance. That's part of the point of it all. So keep on running...
The real purpose of training is not so much hardening the body as toughening the will. Enthusiasm may get you started, bodily strength may keep you going for a long time, but only the will makes you persist when those have faded. And stubborn pride. Pride and the will, with its overtones of fascism and suppression, have long been suspect qualities - the latter so much so that I'd doubted its existence. But it does exist, I could feel it gathering and bunching inside me as the months passed. There were times when it alone got me up and running, or kept me from whinging and retreating off a Scottish route. The will is the secret motor that keeps driving when the heart and the mind have had enough.
[From Summit Fever.]
The Ball Game
This game is a particular favourite of Josie, but Haggis finds it boring. The kitten takes a ball (usually one made of silver foil), and bats it around with its paws and carries it around in its mouth. The game has a very complicated scoring scheme which we haven't worked out yet, and ends when the kitten gets bored.
This game has a variant called Fetch, recently independently reinvented by Josie. We are, as you can imagine, unreasonably proud of her.
The "It's My $object, Get Your Own" Game
This is a game for two kittens. One claims possession of an object of some sort and then growls threateningly at the other whenever they come near. This is often combined with...
The Sponge-Hunting Game
A favourite of Haggis. The normal habitats of the Common Sponge are the kitchen sink and the cupboard under same. Haggis waits patiently for the appearance of an unguarded Sponge, and then grabs it, drags it all over the flat, and finally disembowels it on the living-room carpet, all while growling deeply. Finally he garlands his tail with pieces of the Sponge's entrails, as befits a mighty hunter such as himself.
The Red Dot Game
The Red Dot Game starts with the bipeds crashing around the flat, uttering ritual cries of "where the bloody hell have you hidden the laser pointer?" This stage is very important for Building Anticipation.
Once the initial phase is over, the Mysterious Red Dot appears! The cats then chase the Mysterious Red Dot around the flat. This used to be a very high-energy affair, with the kittens leaping up walls and chasing round and round (and round and round and round) the living-room carpet to get the MRD; it has now evolved into a more strategic game, with the cats sneaking up on the MRD using all available cover before suddenly pouncing on it.
The Wall Game
A variant on the Red Dot Game, to be played during the summer months. The MRD is replaced by the reflection of my smartphone on the bedroom wall as I attempt to check my email before getting out of bed. Josie in particular can attain impressive heights while leaping to grab it.
The Fly-Catching Game
When a fly is sighted, the hunt is on! Points are awarded for catching and eating the fly, but also for knocking over ornaments while chasing after it. Anything belonging to the landlady scores double.
The Climbing Game
As befits natives of Skye, the kittens loves to climb things¹. Haggis is undoubtedly the stronger climber, having made the dramatic first ascent of Bookshelf Route (K6c) in the living room. Josie's no slouch, though, with the FA of the closet testpiece Warm Jumper Shelf (K6b+) to her credit. Both kittens eschew the standard training paraphernalia of campus- and finger-boards in favour of a 3m tall cat tree covered in sisal. They also exclusively climb solo and barefoot; not for them the ethical grey areas of headpointing or piton use!
Haggis is a promising drytooler, too, having completed the bold Wormwood Pearl's Leg Route.
Haggis's current project is the futuristic Boiler Roof Continuation in the kitchen; the line follows the standard Fridge Route onto the summit of the Crockery Cupboard, then continues it via a massive dyno over the kitchen sink onto the top of the boiler. From there a tricky and exposed dyno should lead to the long-awaited FA of the Catfood Shelf. His previous attempts to reach the Catfood Shelf via the Ornament Shelf below have always failed at the crux roof move from the Ornament Shelf onto the Catfood Shelf; the line is rarely in condition, depending as it does on the seasonal drift of the Kitchen Table.
When Haggis finally completes his project (no doubt celebrating with his trademark Sending Yowl), you can be sure it will be extensively covered in the climbing press.
The Tummy-Tickling Game
This is a game for one kitten and one biped. The kitten lies on its back, as if to say "Look! I have a tummy!" The biped must say "Yes! You have a tummy!" and then start tickling it.
The kitten may eventually get bored of this and walk away. Possibly.
The False Tummy-Tickling Game
This is a game for one kitten (who we may without loss of generality call "Haggis") and one biped. Haggis lies on his back, as if to say "Look! I have a tummy!". The biped, assuming that Haggis is playing the Tummy-Tickling Game, will start to tickle it. Whereupon Haggis says "And I also have TEETH AND CLAWS!!!!" and start using them on the unsuspecting biped's hand.
Thick gloves are advisable if you want to play this game for any length of time. Alternatively, it is possible to distract Haggis with a chewable watch-strap.
The cats love to watch KTTV (the view out of the kitchen window). They also love its affiliate station KTTV-2 (the view out of the bedroom window), which shows nature documentaries. They particularly like documentaries which involve BIRDS. Their favourite is to watch KTTV in HD, by climbing onto the windowframe when the window is open. This leads us to a new game which Haggis has recently invented:
The Scare The Crap Out Of The Bipeds By Climbing Out Onto The Windowsill Game
¹ If you recognised the title of this post as a nod to Lito Tejeda-Flores' classic essay The Games Climbers Play, you're absolutely right.
"Would you like some money towards another Glenmore Lodge course for Christmas?" said my Dad, some time in December. I thought about last year's course for about half a second and said "Yes please!". This time I signed up for the five-day winter lead climbing course, and had five fantastic days climbing: Wednesday in particular was one of the best days I've ever had in the mountains.
Below are some of the things I learned. Usual rules apply: I am not a qualified mountain guide, and these notes may contain errors. Use your own judgement.( Read more... )
Fiacaill Buttress, taken after we climbed Jacob's Right Edge on Wednesday.
More and larger photos here.
Caveats: both were in the indoor wall rather than on real rock; the F7a was on top-rope, and I needed one rest on the rope; the F7a was a pinchy, balancy slab, which, while not my absolute favourite type of climbing¹, is pretty close to my favourite; and the boulder problem was solved by spotting a crazy but low-energy sequence² rather than by executing burly or elegant conventional moves. And I went back on Friday intending to do the F7a cleanly, but failed to get beyond the crux.
But still, a kill's a kill, and it's nice to be making progress. Hopefully if I keep training then I'll be able to drop the caveats, and after a while sending F7a or V4 will cease to be an exceptional event.
No progress on the winter climbing, alas: the weather in the Highlands has been minging for the last couple of weekends. Next Sunday, hopefully.
¹ That would be crimpy, balancy slabs.
² For those of you following along at home, that sequence was (from a sit start): left foot up; underclings for left and right hands; stand up on left foot and reach left hand up high; bring right hand up to the hold on top of the big volume; waist jam; match left elbow to right hand; rotate body 135 degrees right; head bar; rotate body 55 degrees further right; facing outwards, move left hand to where your left elbow is; smear both feet off the top of the volume below your left hand; sit on the hold where your left hand is; leisurely reach both hands up to touch the final hold, ignoring the tempting but unnecessary sloper near the ceiling on your right. I suspect this was not a sequence the routesetter had in mind.
Day 1: walking in
The course was great fun, and I learned a lot; here, in no particular order, are ( some of the lessons I learned. )
0501 Notice that I am not in fact wearing any jumpers. Must have forgotten to put them on.
0502 Put on jumpers. Go back to sleep.
0600 Alarm goes off.
0602 Get out of sleeping bag, put on trousers and jacket. Roll up sleeping bag and camping mat, eat breakfast, brush teeth. Meanwhile Elsie brews coffee.
0630 Strike camp. Unable to see signs of snowmelt beneath where we'd slept. All hail the Airic.
0645 Depart car park. Drive past "No fires, no overnight parking, no camping" sign on our way out.
0700 Arrive in Coire Cas car park, already starting to fill up with skiers and climbers. Based on conditions, decide to change route to Milky Way (grade III, out of a possible XI). Text girlfriend to inform her of change of plans, so that our ( mangled corpses may be more easily located in the event of an accident. )
Edit: Reddit discussion thread.
Idea 1: Direct Action
There's an idea prevalent among some s13ns that once we can emulate whole human brains on a computer, the cost of doing so will inevitably drop rapidly until we can all run millions of virtual copies of ourselves at greatly accelerated rates. Furthermore, this cost-drop will be a positive feedback loop: as emulation becomes cheaper and quicker, the uploads of the scientists working on it will become more numerous and smarter, leading to faster and faster progress. They predict civil-rights battles between uploads and humans still running on wetware: why should a wetware human have the right to consume energy and space sufficient for a city full of uploads?
To which I say "hyeah, right". First, I believe that the brain is probably taking advantage of quantum processes in its functioning (or perhaps, as Penrose suggests, even exotic physics that we don't yet understand), and that a software emulation would therefore need to be hugely detailed. So let's start off by assuming that whole-brain emulation is hard. Massive datacentre per brain, consuming a small city's worth of electricity, kinda thing. And this in a resource-constrained, Peak-Oil-and-climate-change environment. Let's throw the s13ns a bone and suppose that an upload runs a bit faster than wetware - 25%, say. Now, who would be uploaded in such a scenario? Not, I would think, the scientists. We're talking either those who have great personal wealth and income, a strong desire for immortality and little concern for the welfare of others, or those who stand to make a great return on investment by being just that little bit faster than their competitors. The super-rich and financial speculators, in other words.
Now, who thinks that this would make our society less unequal?
The story would take place in a datacentre: two activists have broken in with the intention of destroying an upload's computational substrate as a protest against the uploads' increasingly iron grip on the levers of power. Though they try to rationalise their actions as property damage and legitimate civil disobedience, they know emotionally that what they're doing is murder - and, though there's no case law either way, the uploads would probably get it prosecuted as such.
[There's an obvious problem with this setup: the banks would have a strong financial incentive to fund upload research once uploading proved viable, so the technology would get better. But perhaps not at the rate, or to the extent, that the s13ns predict: the existing uploads would want to keep the technology exclusive. I don't know if this is a fixable problem.]
Idea 2: Mark 12:18-25
18Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; and they asked him, saying, 19Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man's brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. 20Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. 21And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. 22And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. 23In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife. 24And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God? 25For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.Two brothers are mountaineering in a remote region of the world, days from the nearest habitation. The elder is newly married; his wife is waiting anxiously for him back at home. The brothers are caught in a storm, and take shelter in a snow cave. The elder brother succumbs to frostbite, and then hypothermia. He falls asleep, expecting not to wake.
And then he wakes up. His eyes slowly focus, and he sees that he's in some kind of doctor's clinic, but the machinery looks far too advanced for La Paz. Maybe too advanced for London, come to that. Weird furniture, too. His eyes focus a bit further, and he sees the anxious faces of his brother and his wife - but they don't look quite right, they're somehow... ageless. And their body language is wrong.
It turns out that he's been dead for seventy years. He died in the cave, and his younger brother had to climb down and trek out alone. United in their grief, his brother and his wife - no, his widow - bonded and eventually married. They raised children together, and lived a long and mostly happy life together. And then his body was discovered again, and it turned out that there was just enough of his frozen brain left for the new medical technologies to resurrect him...
( The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf )
( A Song of Stone, by Iain Banks )
( No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Graham Bowley )
( Nurse on Call, by Edith Cotterill )
( In which we compare their contents, find worrying discrepancies, and attempt to draw more generally applicable conclusions )
We've just got back from a weekend rock climbing in the Lake District. wormwood_pearl had previously mentioned that she might, if things were going well, be interested in leading her first outdoor climb: I'd offered to teach her the important skill of constructing belay anchors (the attachment points by which you hold a falling climber) a few times over the preceding week, but she'd always been too tired, had a headache, needed to wash her hair, etc.
And so when we sat down on the train and discovered that she'd forgotten to pack a book for the journey, I informed her that she had fallen right into my trap, that I was now going to teach her how to construct belay anchors, and that there was no escape :-)
Unfortunately, a train compartment is a very bad environment for teaching the confusing part, which is how to use your ropes, slings etc to rig up an anchor and attach yourself to it securely: you really need to spend some time actually doing it, ideally at the crag. However, there's a bit of theory you need to know, and that can be easily explained in ( the space of a short blog post. )
Back in the train compartment, I gathered all these thoughts together, thought about the best place to start, and said "How's your trigonometry?" wormwood_pearl wordlessly took the pen and paper from me, and wrote out
SOH - CAH - POZORVLAK IS A FANNY >:(She then completed this mathematical tour de force by drawing a right-angled triangle and labelling the sides "1", "2" and "".
I concluded that she wasn't in a receptive frame of mind.
[While I'm here: the first thing that should be shown in trigonometry class, and a gif version for those whose browsers don't support Canvas.]
Said climbing magazine¹ claimed that part of the reason is that mountaineering is one of the few sports that can be pursued to a high level (or indeed any level) without Islamic dress codes getting in the way.
I can't decide if that's really cool or just messed up.
Edit: some background to my befuddlement is perhaps necessary. In his memoir Mountaineering in Scotland, W.H. Murray talks about a dog of his, who had been up innumerable mountains with him - indeed, she was a better slab climber than he was - and easily met the criteria for joining the Scottish Mountaineering Club, but was barred by reason of her gender. Species was no obstacle. This was despite the many pioneering ascents which had been made by women in both Scotland and the Alps by this time.
¹ which is, of course, Western, and thus perhaps not in possession of the full facts.
wormwood_pearl: God, why am I so tired? I'm pretty sure I'm not pregnant.
pozorvlak: Yeah, I'm pretty sure you're not pregnant too. But if you are, I shall endeavour to love it as if it were my own.
*glares some more*
*glares a bit more for good measure*
I haven't been going down Alien 2 and seducing all the hunky boulderers! But, imagine if I did - the baby would come out all triangular. And you'd be there at the birth, shouting "Go on! Send it!"
wormwood_pearl: Though it would have the umbilical cord, so technically it would be a roped climb...¹
pozorvlak: *boggles some more, goes off to do more climbing*
wormwood_pearl: [pursuing him] And I'd be shouting "Oi! No wirebrushing!"
¹ As she remarked later, the placenta wouldn't be up to much as a belayer. Though it might be OK as a bouldering mat...