- 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.
Last year I made three New Year's Resolutions:
- Get better at dealing with money.
- Run a marathon.
- Make a first ascent in the Greater Ranges.
Number 2 was an obvious success: I finished the Edinburgh Marathon in 4:24:04, and raised nearly £900 for the Against Malaria Foundation. I'd been hoping to get a slightly faster time than that, but I lost several weeks of training to a chest infection near to the end of my training programme, so in the end I was very happy to finish under 4:30. The actual running was... mostly Type II fun, but also much less miserable than many of my training runs, even at mile 21 when I realised that literally everything below my navel hurt. Huge thanks to everyone who sponsored me!
Number 3 was an equally obvious failure. My climbing partner and I picked out an unclimbed mountain in Kyrgyzstan and got a lot of the logistics sorted, but then he moved house and started a new job a month before we were due to get on a plane to Bishkek. With only a few weeks to go and no plane tickets or insurance bought yet (and them both being much more expensive than we'd expected - we'd checked prices months earlier, but forgot how steeply costs rise as time goes on), we regretfully pulled the plug. We're planning to try again in 2016 - let's hope all the good lines don't get nabbed by Johnny-come-lately Guardian readers.
Number 1 was a partial success. I tried a number of suggestions from friends who appear to have their financial shit more together than me (not hard), but couldn't get any of them to stick. I was diagnosed with ADHD at the end of 2014; I don't want to use that as an excuse, but it does mean that some things that come easily to most people are genuinely difficult for me - and financial mismanagement is apparently very common among people with ADHD. The flip-side, though, is that I have a license to do crazy or unusual things if they help me be effective, because I have an actual medical condition.
I've now set up the following system:
- my salary (minus taxes and pension contributions) is paid into Account 1;
- a couple of days later, most of it is transferred by standing order into Account 2;
- all bills are paid from Account 2 by direct debit, and Account 2 should maintain enough of a balance for them to always clear;
- money left in Account 1 is available for spending on day-to-day things;
- if I pay for something on a credit card, I pay it off from Account 1 (if small) or Account 2 (if big) as soon as possible;
- Account 2 pays interest up to a certain ceiling; above that I'm going to transfer money out into a tax-efficient Account 3, which pays less interest but which doesn't have a ceiling.
I'll have to fine-tune the amount left in Account 1 with practice, but this system should ensure that bills get paid, I can easily see how much money I have left to spend for the month, and very little further thought or effort on my part is required.
While I was in there, I took the opportunity to set up a recurring donation to the Against Malaria Foundation for a few percent of my net salary - less than the 10% required to call yourself an Official Good Person by the Effective Altruism movement, but I figure I can work up to it.
It's too early to say whether the system will work out, but setting it up has already been a beneficial exercise - before, I had seven accounts with five different providers, most of them expired and paying almost zero interest (in one file, I found seven years' worth of letters saying "Your investment has expired and is now paying 0.1% gross interest, please let us know what you want us to do with it.") I now have only the three accounts described above, from two different providers, so it should be much easier to keep track of my overall financial position. Interest rates currently suck in general, but Accounts 2 and 3 at least pay a bit.
I've also started a new job that pays more, and wormwood_pearl's writing is starting to bring in some money. We're trying not to go mad and spend our newfound money several times over, but we're looking to start replacing some broken kit over the next few months rather than endlessly patching things up.
What else has happened to us?
I had a very unsuccessful winter climbing season last year; I was ill a lot from the stress of marathon training, and when I wasn't ill the weather was terrible. I had a couple of good sessions at the Glasgow ice-climbing wall, but only managed one actual route. Fortunately, it was the classic Taxus on Beinn an Dothaidh, which I'd been wanting to tick for a while. I also passed the half-way mark on the Munros on a beautiful crisp winter day in Glencoe.
One by one, my former research group's PhD students finished, passed their vivas, submitted their corrections, and went off, hopefully, to glittering academic careers or untold riches in Silicon Valley. Good luck to them all.
In June, I did the training for a Mountain Leadership award, the UK's introductory qualification for leading groups into the hills. Most of the others on the course were much fitter than me and more competent navigators, but the instructor said I did OK. To complete the award, I'll need to log some more Quality Mountain Days and do a week-long assessment.
In July, we went to Mat Brown's wedding in Norfolk, and caught up with some friends we hadn't seen IRL for far too long. Unlike last year, when it felt like we were going to a wedding almost every weekend, we only went to one wedding this year; I'm glad it was such a good one. Also, it was in a field with camping available, which really helped to keep our costs down.
In July, I started a strength-training cycle. I've spent years thinking that my physical peak was during my teens, when I was rowing competitively (albeit badly) and training 15-20 hours a week, so I was surprised to learn that I was able to lift much more now than I could then - 120kg squats versus around 90kg (not counting the 20kg of body weight I've gained since then). Over the next few weeks, I was able to gain a bit more strength, and by the end I could squat 130kg. I also remembered how much I enjoy weight training - so much less miserable than cardio.
In August, we played host to a few friends for the Edinburgh Fringe, and saw some great shows, of which my favourite was probably Jurassic Park.
In September, we went to Amsterdam with friends for a long weekend, saw priceless art and took a canal tour; then I got back, turned around within a day and went north for a long-awaited hiking trip to Knoydart with my grad-school room-mate. There are two ways to get to Knoydart: either you can take the West Highland Line right to the end at Mallaig, then take the ferry, or you can get off at Glenfinnan (best known for the viaduct used in the Harry Potter films) and walk North for three days, sleeping in unheated huts known as bothies. We did the latter, only it took us six days because we bagged all the Munros en route. I'm very glad we did so. The weather was cold but otherwise kind to us, the insects were evil biting horrors from Hell, and the starfields were amazing. It wasn't Kyrgyzstan, but it was the best fallback Europe had to offer.
In October, I started a new job at Red Hat, working on the OpenStack project, which is an open-source datacenter management system. It's a huge, intimidating codebase, and I'm taking longer than I'd like to find my feet, but I like my team and I'm slowly starting to get my head around it.
That's about it, and it's five minutes to the bells - Happy New Year, and all the best for 2016!
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.
2. Start making (and testing!) regular backups of my data. I'm now backing up my tweets with TweetBackup.com, but other than that I've made no progress on this front. Possibly my real failure was in not making all my NYRs SMART, so they'd all be pass/fail; as it is, I'm going to declare this one not yet successful.
3. Get my Gmail account down to Inbox Zero and keep it there. This one's a resounding success. Took me about a month and a half, IIRC. Next up: Browser Tab Zero.
4. Do some more Stanford online courses. There was a long period at the beginning of the year where they weren't running and we wondered if the Stanford administrators had stepped in and quietly deep-sixed the project, but then they suddenly started up again in March or so. Since then I've done Design and Analysis of Algorithms, which was brilliant; Software Engineering for Software as a Service, which I dropped out of 2/3 of the way through but somehow had amassed enough points to pass anyway; and I'm currently doing Compilers (hard but brilliant) and Human-Computer Interaction, which is way outside my comfort zone and on which I'm struggling. Fundamentals of Pharmacology starts up in a couple of weeks, and Cryptography starts sooner than that, but I don't think I'll be able to do Cryptography before Compilers finishes. Maybe next time they offer it. Anyway, I think this counts as a success.
5. Enter and complete the Meadows Half-Marathon. This was a definite success: I completed the 19.7km course in 1 hour and 37 minutes, and raised over £500 for the Against Malaria Foundation.
6. Enter (and, ideally, complete...) the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon. This was last weekend; my partner and I entered the C category. Our course covered 41km, gained 2650m of height, and mostly consisted of bog, large tufts of grass, steep traverses, or all three at once; we completed it in 12 hours and 33 minutes over two days and came 34th out of a hundred or so competitors. I was hoping for a faster time, but I think that's not too bad for a first attempt. Being rained on for the last two hours was no fun at all, but the worst bit was definitely the goddamn midges, which were worse than either of us had ever seen before. The itching's now just about subsided, and we're thinking of entering another one at a less midgey time of year: possibly the Original Mountain Marathon in October or the Highlander Mountain Marathon next April. Apparently the latter has a ceilidh at the mid-camp, presumably in case anyone's feeling too energetic. Anyway, this one's a success.
5/6 - I'm quite pleased with that. And I'm going to add another one (a mid-year resolution, if you will): I notice that my Munro-count currently stands at 136/284 (thanks to an excellent training weekend hiking and rock climbing on Beinn a' Bhuird); I hereby vow to have climbed half the Munros in Scotland by the end of the year. Six more to go; should be doable.
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.]
"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.
1. Start tracking my weight and calorie intake again, and get my weight back down to a level where I'm comfortable. This morning it was 12st 1.9 - not terribly high in the scheme of things, but it's almost as high as it was when I first started dieting (though I think a bit more of it may be muscle now) and it's definitely high enough to negatively impact my sense of well-being.
What went wrong? Well, I'm gonna quote from Hyperbole and a Half: "trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn't going to work." A scheme for weight loss that depends on willpower is similarly doomed if you're too depressed to stick to it. So this time I'm going to try to make changes to my eating habits that require less willpower. Any suggestions would be most welcome.
2. Start making (and testing!) regular backups of my data. I lost several years of mountain photographs last year when the external hard drive I was keeping them on died: I don't want that to happen again.
3. Get my Gmail account down to Inbox Zero and keep it there. It's currently at Inbox 1713, most of which is junk, but it's just *easier* to deal with an empty inbox, and not have to re-scan the same old things to look for the interesting new stuff.
I have a few more Ambitious Plans, but they don't really count as resolutions:
1. Do some more Stanford online courses. I'm currently signed up to Human-Computer Interaction, Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Software Engineering for Software as a Service, and Information Theory. Fortunately they don't all run concurrently!
[BTW, they're not all computing courses: wormwood_pearl is signed up to Designing Green Buildings, for instance.]
2. Enter (and complete!) the Meadows Half-Marathon in March. I started training for this back in December, but then I got ill and Christmas happened, so today was my first run for a while and it wasn't much fun. Never mind; I've got time to get back on course.
3. If that goes well, enter (and, ideally, complete...) the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon. As I understand things, it's basically two 20km-ish fell runs back-to-back, with a night camping in between. Oh, and you have to carry all your camping kit with you. In the high classes people do the whole thing at a run, but in the lower classes (which I'd be entering) there's apparently a bit more run/walk/run going on. Philipp and I did nearly 40km in one day on the South Glen Shiel ridge in November, and then went for another hike the next day, so I should be able to at least cover the distance. Providing I don't get too badly lost, of course :-)
The only way to progress in anything. The trick, of course, is not biting off enough to cause you damage.
UK mountain weather forecast aggregator
The Mountain Weather Information Service do an excellent job, providing weather forecasts for all the mountain areas in the UK - most weather forecast sites only give forecasts for inhabited areas, and the weather at sea level often differs in interesting ways from the nearby weather at 1000m. However, their site's usability could be better. They assume that you're already in an area and want to know what the weather's going to be like for the next couple of days¹, but it's more normal for me to know what day I'm free to go hillwalking, and to want to know where I'll get the best weather.
So I decided to write a screen-scraper to gather and collate the information for me. I'd heard great things about Python's BeautifulSoup library and its ability to make sense of non-compliant, real-world HTML, so this seemed like a great excuse to try it out; unfortunately, BeautifulSoup completely failed me, only returning the head of the relevant pages. Fortunately, Afternoon and ciphergoth were on hand with Python advice; they told me that BeautifulSoup is now largely deprecated in favour of lxml. This proved much better: now all I needed to handle was the (lack of) structure of the pages...
There's a live copy running at mwis.assyrian.org.uk; you can download the source code from GitHub. There are a bunch of improvements that could be made to this code:
- The speed isn't too bad, but it could be faster. An obvious improvement is to stop doing eight HTTP GETs in series!
- There's no API.
- Your geographic options are limited: either the whole UK, or England & Wales, or Scotland. Here in the Central Belt, I'm closer to the English Lake District than I am to the North-West Highlands.
- The page design is
fuglyseverely functional. Any design experts wanna suggest improvements? Readability on mobile devices is a major bonus.
- MWIS is dependent on sponsorship for their website-running costs, and for the English and Welsh forecasts. I don't want to take bread out of their mouths, so I should probably add yet more heuristics to the scraper to pull out the "please visit our sponsors" links.
- Currently all HTML is generated with raw
While I was developing the MWIS scraper, I found it was annoying to push to GitHub and then ssh to my host (or rather, switch to a window in which I'd already ssh'ed to my host) and pull my changes. So I wrote the World's Simplest Deployment Script. I've been finding it really useful, and you're welcome to use it yourself.
[In darcs, of course, one would just push to two different repos. Git doesn't really like you pushing to non-bare repositories, so this isn't such a great idea. If you want to know what an industrial-strength deployment setup would look like, I suggest you read this post about the continuous deployment setup at IMVU.]
bfcc - BrainF*** to C compiler
I was on the train, looking through the
examples/directory in the LLVM source tree, and noticed the example BrainF*** front-end. For some reason, it hadn't previously occurred to me quite how simple it would be to write a BF compiler. So I started coding, and had one working by the time I got back to Glasgow (which may sound a long time, but I was on my way back from an Edinburgh.pm meeting and was thus somewhat drunk). You can get it here. aaroncrane suggested a neat hack to provide O(1) arithmetic under certain circumstances: I should add this, so I can claim to have written an optimising BF compiler :-)
All of these programs are open source: share and enjoy. They're all pretty much trivial, but I reckon that creating and releasing something trivial is a great improvement over creating or releasing nothing.
¹ Great Britain is a small, mountainous island on the edge of the North Atlantic. Long-term weather forecasting is a lost cause here.
( Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now )
But does your khazi have a view like that? I thought not.
Many years ago, probably some time in the mid-Nineties, I watched a ten-minute documentary on (I think) Channel 4, about two craftsmen who manufactured their own knives for use in their work. One was an up-and-coming sushi chef, and the knife he was making was his first; I think it may have marked the end of his apprenticeship, but I can't remember much about his segments of the programme. The other was a maker of ballet shoes, with many years' experience. In the course of his work, he used half-a-dozen different types of knife, each with its own specific use. But the thing was, they were all the same knife. He made his knives on the Wainwright principle, you see. His knives all had to be razor-sharp all the time, so he made them from very soft steel, and sharpened them constantly. Cut, cut, sharpen, cut, cut, sharpen, switch to new knife, cut, cut, sharpen, etc. The blades thus wore away very fast, so what had started out as a large convex blade soon turned into a smaller straight blade, which then turned into a thinner concave blade, and then the tip snapped off and it became a different type of blade again. Roughly once a month, his smallest knife became useless or his largest knife stopped being useful for the largest-knife jobs (I can't remember which), and he knew it was time to forge a new large convex knife.
It was a truly great piece of television, opening doors into little worlds I'd never imagined. But I can't find it now. Living as we do in the far-off future of the twenty-first century, I'd have expected someone to have uploaded it to the 'net, or at least written about it somewhere, but I can't find it at all. Worse yet, it was part of a series; I have no idea what the other episodes covered (I think the overall theme was something like "how people in unusual jobs do their work", or maybe "the tools people use"), but I'd love to see them.
Can anyone help?
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 )
To: Dan Bailey
Subject: Coire Gaothach circuit
Dear Mr Bailey,
First off, thanks for writing Scotland's Mountain Ridges. It's been a great source of beta, and has taken me to some beautiful parts of the country and up some great routes which I otherwise wouldn't have thought to visit.
( However. )
Climbing over the lip of the corrie, the North Ridge ahead of me.