Monday, 9 September 2013

Dreaming of Mont Blanc

I am lying on a worn mattress, face up, looking at the wooden slats that run two feet above my face. The wood is so close that my nose feels pressed into the grain, against the rafters of the hut. Next to me, Steve and Katie pretend to sleep on the alpine bunk. For me, it is futile. I cannot sleep. Two Spanish mountaineers talk fervently in the room, spitting out thick words and jangling their climbing gear. I give them a piercing look for making so much noise but it's pointless; there is no etiquette here anymore. It's just a resting place for mountaineers who wait to battle on the slopes.

I look around to see other alpinists sprawled out across their bunks. These men and women look jaded, their faces sculpted by sun and wind over years. They have aged like the mountains they have grown to know. One day, I hope to look the same. Tomorrow, I will not recognise these people. Tomorrow they will be armoured with rope, torches, spikes, axes and helmets while they work. They will wear brightly coloured jackets, and to me they will be another danger on the hillside to watch out for. I roll over. Pff.

I am resting in the Cosmiques hut, French Alps, due to rise in three hours time to climb the highest mountain in Western Europe. Months ago I did not care for this ascent. But now I understand what it means to climb Mt Blanc, standing at 4810 metres above sea level. I understand how the mountain fits into the history of alpine mountaineering and the development of Chamonix town.

In reality, I am another consumer, hungry for fast food alpinism. Does it matter? There is an addictive mix of excitement and anticipation flowing through my blood like a recreational drug. Images of overhanging seracs, the size of a two storey house, flash through my mind. They are perched on the Tacul face waiting for me to arrive. I imagine the feeling of being avalanched and having to ‘swim’ for survival. I explore every possible outcome of the day ahead. I feel ready. All of these risks, which months ago gave me fear and self doubt, now charge my body with an intense energy to climb.

The room is hot and the tatty curtains flowing by the window are the only sign of a breeze in this place. I don't want to sleep; I want to climb Mont Blanc now.  

The summit dome 12/7/2013

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Last Wilderness

This was a draft article, penned in April 2013. The comment and analysis was based on original research using academic and internet sources. The author retains exclusive rights to the work.

Attempts to drill for Arctic oil prove that governments must act together in protecting Polar Regions

Image source:


The icy landscape surrounding the poles is often described as the last great wilderness. This is a strange turn of phrase, because in reality, the Arctic is anything but ‘barren’ or ‘empty’. It is bursting with life. Think of the BBC’s Frozen Planet series. So, when the big oil firms continue to drill for crude oil in the fragile environment of the Arctic, a debate ignites over the risk of pollution and the value of the ecosystem.

Drilling in the Artic presents challenges. In December 2012, Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore rig the ‘Kulluk’ beached onto an island in Alaskan waters as it was being towed back to the US. According to media reports, rough seas meant that towboats could not regain control of the rig and it hit rocks on a small island in the Gulf. Luckily, the Kulluk’s fuel tanks remained intact and no oil was spilt, but it’s another incident to suggest that the harsh conditions of the Arctic increase the risks for drilling. If a spill does occur, with low temperatures and storm events it may not be possible to begin clean-up operations for days or weeks - known as the oil spill response gap.
These operations in the Arctic Circle are made financially viable because of a high oil price, linked to our insatiable demand for the crude stuff. If prices fall, as in the financial crisis of 2008, the industry suffers too. Approximately 25% of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves are found in the Arctic. Shell has invested nearly £3.1 bn to date on their Arctic drilling programmes, but as the events in 2012 showed, their success in the region has been limited so far and they were forced to halt operations in Alaska in February. Environmentalists were overjoyed.

Adding heat to the debate, governments in the US and the UK have played a regulatory role in Arctic oil, which has been met with public support. The US Department of the Interior launched a full investigation into Shell’s 2012 activities, concluding in March that the organisation was underprepared for the testing Arctic environment. The federal government report does not suggest that Arctic drilling is impossible, but that more time and money must be invested into the planning stage before drilling should occur. It sends a clear signal to oil firms that safety is key. MPs in the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee have echoed these concerns, calling for greater transparency and public scrutiny of Arctic drilling plans. Across the Atlantic, Greenland’s new administration has stopped issuing new licenses for drilling, in a move celebrated by Greenpeace and other NGOs.

Where does this leave the industry? Shell’s previously unrivalled reputation for technical expertise in harsh environments has been damaged by the episode in Alaska, but they are not the only one forced to re-think. The Norwegian state company Statoil cancelled its drilling strategy for Alaska in March, following the demise of Shell in the region, as revealed in an interview with Bloomberg news corporation. Statoil does not expect to make a decision on Alaskan drilling until at least 2015 now, with the potential for operations to kick start in 2020.

Controversially, while western governments cast doubt on the safety credentials of the big oil firms, drilling in the Russian Arctic is set to expand. In a press release on 8 April, the Russian energy giant Gazprom revealed that its subsidiary company, Gazprom Neft, was to sign an agreement with Shell for joint working offshore of the Siberian coast. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte were present at the signing in Amsterdam, owing to the scale of the new pact. This development has been criticised by leading conservation charity WWF, who see the move as exporting failures from the United States to Russia.

The developments in Arctic oil drilling prove that the regulation of oil reserves in the Polar Regions is marred by complexity. There are obvious issues such as: who owns the rights to Arctic resources? Who should have a say in their exploitation? And what are the risks of pollution? In times like these, governments must turn to international institutions like the Artic Council for reprieve. Through a global dialogue, national governments can decide whether drilling for Artic oil is a good idea at the present time, or if it’s even necessary at all. This is challenging for international relations and energy security, but it’s a crucial step that could determine the future of the last great wilderness. Until then, we can only hope that the oil doesn’t spill.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Sad news for Chamonix Valley

Severe prognosis for alpine region as climate records show decline in snow below 2000m

Kim Willsher published an article in the Observer last weekend, which reports on current climate research by meteorologists in Chamonix. 

In short, climate records show that increasing temperatures are having visible effects on the alpine landscape below 1000 metres. Accumulations of snow below this altitude have decreased by 40% in the last fifty years. These trends are expected to continue with long term climate change. As Willsher acknowledges, Chamonix is lucky in that many of its ski resorts operate at higher altitude, where the effects will not be so acutely felt, but this is not true of all resorts in the Alps.

Additionally, scientists are monitoring the changes to high altitude glaciers in the area and there is clear evidence of glacial retreat: the Mer de Glace has lost 65m of depth in the last 20 years and 300m in length since 1996. When I was trekking along the Mer de Glace last July, I was surprised to hear that the glacier was considered the largest in the Western Alps. It was a thin, mere film strip of ice coated by rubble deposits from the adjacent slopes.

The top image shows my view from the Mer de Glace railway station at 1913m. In the bottom picture, I was hopping over crevasses on the dry glacier surface with two guys from Flight of the Frenchies.

For climate scientists, glacial retreat is a simple, physical change to the environment that reflects a fluctuation in climate. It's easily observed, and it's easily understood by the public. This helps to explain the recent success of Chasing Ice - a documentary film I saw in Leeds - about the attempts of photographer James Balog to capture glacier retreat in the Artic Circle, using time lapse photography. The film combines his personal story with images depicting the beauty, scale and ultimately the fragility of ice masses during climate change.

It does make me question the morality of using an energy-intensive, artificial indoor ice wall when the ice out there is melting around us (see Ice Ice Baby). But hey, maybe we'll need more indoor ice climbing centres in fifty years time when the world is a few degrees hotter... ?!

Just as the causes of this global issue are bound up in human activity, so the effects for the Chamonix Valley are inextricably linked to people. There are obvious socio-economic impacts for tourism in the area, as the quality and availability of snow depreciates. Willsher makes reference to this in her article.

So, here's another story telling me that the effects of climate change are distributed unequally. Some regions in the world may experience increasing precipitation levels, but for the Alps it seems to be thaw all the way. Read more by the IPCC for clarification on this. Certainly, meteorologists suggest there's a difference between low and high altitude slopes, so it'll be interesting to see how localised the impacts really are.

For climbers and mountaineers, it brings a stark message that we can't hide from this by jetting to the Bernese Alps or sailing to Greenland. We're in it together. Climate change is having a detrimental impact on the mountain playground within our lifetimes.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Ice Ice Baby

Ellis Brigham Vertical Chill review

Pictures from my recent trip to the Ice Wall at Ellis Brigham store, Manchester. Thank you to the staff at Ellis Brigham and the Merrell reps who organised a free climbing session for the Leeds Uni Hiking Club.

Ellis Brigham offer the latest climbing equipment for hire, and I was pleased to test out the DMM Apex axes (pictured). 

The ice wall is made using a mix of waste snow-ice from a nearby indoor snow dome, and this snow is plastered to the walls. Large refrigerator fans maintain the temperature at -12 degrees C. The ice is heavily pockmarked and can be climbed without swinging axes/kicking crampons in, just using simple placements more akin to the mixed game. Because the ice is plastered on it's likely to break off in large chunks, which can be infuriating at times if you're trying to hone a fine axe swing. A overhang obstacle also provides a few laughs.

Essentially, for 8 metres of ice climbing in the centre of the Manchester conurbation, it's a great facility and you can't expect an indoor centre to imitate the beauty of ice as Mother Nature makes it. The equipment and staff are great, though the climbing can be limited. Perfect for beginners and those needing to re-unite with their tools.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Live Better by Consuming Less?

This post borrows its title from Tim Jackson's (2005) work on sustainable consumption.

Newcomers to this blog may have the read the article published on UKC this week: A New 'Style' Of Climbing: The Eco-Mountaineer

I wrote the article at Christmas last, after a lot of academic reading on low consumption lifestyles. The UKC article throws up a multitude of global issues (rising population/climate change) and presents sustainable consumption as a theoretical answer to many of these problems.

It's great that UKClimbing is willing to host this kind of debate on its website and I'm forever grateful to Jack Geldard for this.

If you're interested in these ideas, have a look at the video clips below and put 'voluntary simplicity' in your search engine.

I'm off to Fort William on Thursday...  yes, in shared transport before you ask! Hope you have a good week.