Thursday, 24 September 2009

Bananas and Brown Dogs on Ben Nevis

The summit plateau may be infested with banana peel, but an even greater hazard plagues the area surrounding the Ben Nevis North Face car park at Torlundy and the approach up the Allt a'Mhuillin; they are practically paved with excrement.

Ben Nevis reflected in the calm waters of Loch Eil (February 2007)

The John Muir Trust announced this week that as many as 1,000 banana skins may be found on the summit plateau of Ben Nevis. The trust are not concerned that hillgoers may slip and tumble to their deaths; they are more worried about the environmental impact, claiming that the peel may take up to two years to degrade.

The specific issue of banana skins has been debated hotly on also has a more general thread about the issue of littering on Ben Nevis. Both have touched on the related topic of inconsiderate defecation in the hills in general and on Ben Nevis in particular.

Ben Nevis north face. Northeast Buttress (February 2006)

As Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis has some of the most reliable winter climbing conditions and as such it attracts more climbers than any other. Most weekends between December and April will see literally hundreds arrive early at Torlundy to set out for a day's sport. It is this early start combined with caffeine, pre-climb nerves and a complete absence of toilet facilities that lead so many to indulge in inconsiderate al fresco bowel evacuations.

Ben Nevis north face ice climbing. Comb Gully (March 2007)

I am keen to see a waterless composting toilet installed at Torlundy, having had the pleasure of using such toilets while walking Tasmania's Overland Track. Recently I spotted what I took to be a similar facility in Scotland at Abriachan (I took a photo of Abriachan, but not the actual toilet). These toilets are engineering marvels and deserve to be more popular. A solar powered fan draws air down the pan to aid the composting process and this also results in a significant reduction in olfactory impact.

Composting toilet in Tasmania's Cradle Mountain National Park (2002)

Sadly, the provision of a composting toilet would not rein in the behaviour those who willfully seek to contaminate the outdoors. I don't think that many people would deliberately allow the brown dog to scratch and gnaw at the door until they had carried their foul cargo into the countryside, however, it would not surprise me if, having been caught unawares, some people try to exhibit, rather than conceal, their output. I am sure that we have all seen the results of this type of behaviour in public toilets - shit on the floor beside the pan or smeared up the walls. The perverted minority reponsible for such depraved acts are sure to be represented among hillgoers - for example there was a thread some time back on about a jobby right in the middle of the Ben Nevis path and I have seen one in the Glencoe carpark with my own eyes.

Now I enjoy an outdoor dump every bit as much as an indoor one, often more. I keep one of those military-style folding shovels in my van so I can ensure that any unexpected brown visitors are given a decent burial.

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Saturday, 19 September 2009

Ski touring in the Swiss Alps: Bernese Oberland via the Jungfraujoch

The ski mountaineering playground of the Bernese Oberland is hidden from the alpine ski resort of Kleine Scheidegg by the forbidding ramparts of the Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau. The buildings of the Jungfraujoch – Europe's highest railway station - nestle like turrets or battlements on the ridge that connects the Jungfrau to the Moench. They provide a halfway house between the familiar world of buildings and trees and the unseen realm of the Oberland, with its glaciers and kilometre thick ice, an echo of the Karakoram lurking in the middle of Europe, like a stowaway in a ship’s hold.

The Jungfraujoch is visible in the col between the Moench and the Jungfrau. Kleine Scheidegg is in the foreground, just right of centre. The Eiger is out of shot to the left.

As we awaited the Jungfraubahn at Kleine Sheidigg, the sun popped into view, perfectly and centrally located in the col between the Eiger and the Moench. All that had been shaded was now bathed in light. As the sun's rays caressed my face I felt that our timing was auspicious, astronomically perfect, as if we had arrived just in time to catch the light of the solstice illuminating the back wall of a neolithic tomb.

The Jungfraubahn (Eiger railway) with the hotel at Kleine Scheidegg and the Eiger in the background. the train goes through the north face of the Eiger, stopping at windowed galleries en route.

The impeccably situated Konkordia Hut overlooks the Korkordiaplatz, a vast desert of snow-covered glacial ice, radiating legs like a starfish up into the flanks of the surrounding 4000ers. The hut was built perched on a ledge, 70 m above above the kilometre thick ice of the glacier. Now the ice has thinned, increasing the climb to the hut to 120 m. Access up the sheer rock face is provided by a disconcerting metal stairway, of the type found snaking their way up the sides of chemical plants. The only concession made by the ladder builders was the provision of a single banister, always on the outside. Between the inside edge of the stairs and the rock face yawned a disquieting gap.

The Konkordia hut is to the right of this photo, above and to the left of the obvious gully that splits the lower face. The infamous hut ladders can be seen zig-zagging up the face to the left of the gully

A shadow danced before us on the snow. Looking up I saw a butterfly flutter overhead, carried from another place and another season, a rare meeting with a fellow life form in these practically deserted hills. What fate for the insect up here in this land of ice and rock? Perhaps it would it traverse the Oberland faster than us, the wind carrying it from winter back into spring. A trio of choughs greeted us like ravens on the summit of Wysnollen; had the butterfly succeeded in running the gauntlet of their yellow beaks?

On the summit of Wysnollen

Euphoria engulfed me as I skinned up the Konkordiaplatz. Teams ahead were swallowed by the white desert, dwarfed. The North wind carried a carpet of spindrift across my path. Occasionally a lone spiral pirouetted in front of me. Ten thousand years ago the great Moor of Rannoch may have looked similar to this. If the Konkordiaplatz were to turn to lochan-studded moorland, what would the rest of the world look like? Clouds began to form; a dark shadow below the glacier tricked me into seeing a lochan, into glimpsing the future?

Skinning up towards the Hollandia hut and the long descent to Blatten beyond

This trip took place in the winter of 2009 (March 16th – 20th).

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Sunday, 13 September 2009

Alone in the Wild

Take one man, issue him with a camera, drop him in the midst of grizzly country and leave him there, fretting about the risk of bear attack, for three months. This is the wonderfully simple formula for the Channel 4 series 'Alone in the Wild', the first episode of which was broadcast on Thursday night.

California's High Sierra just after dawn

I found it compelling viewing, having experienced this primal bear fear at first hand while backpacking in California's Yosemite National Park. We had taken dehydrated food in order to minimise the weight of our packs, but my friend Mark was so horrified by the unmistakably vomit-like appearance of our Mexican chicken meal that he refused point-blank to eat it. As darkness descended I harangued him to consume his share, painfully aware that the scent of his uneaten food was wafting through the surrounding forest, acting as a beacon for any bears in the vicinity.

North American National Parks are as full of rules and regulations as they are of bears, and we had been well informed about bear danger. One must not keep any food or other odiferous items in the tent. There was no suggestion that a bear would be interested in food that had already been eaten, so they must be wary of the smell of people. There must, then, be a tipping point at which a bear's fear of humans is overwhelmed by its desire for food. I expect that a couple of pounds of pork links would do the trick, but what of more minor smells, such as that produced by the Mexican chicken that I had spilled down my front? Would that embolden a bear sufficiently to slash our tent canvas with his sharp claws and make off with my soiled shirt?

Half Dome from the approach

It was imperative to fill the bear cannister - a black plastic cylinder which the bears, lacking thumbs, are unable to open - and get it away from the camp. Our stuff wouldn't all fit in the box, so we put our non-food items - bug spray, soap, toothpaste, tobacco - in a stuff sack, which we hung half-heartedly from a puny tree. The unfinished food felt dangerous, like a cartoon bomb with a hissing fuse. We placed it on a boulder in front of the tent, then retired for an uneasy and broken sleep, unexpectedly tormented by bear-related thoughts. During the night I was woken by a loud bang vibrating through the ground. In my dozy stupor I attributed it to falling rocks.

In the morning bear tracks were evident all around. The audacious beast had even deposited a stool 20 feet from our tent. I realised with a start that the bump in the night had been caused by a bear resuming its four-legged stance after plucking our stuff sack from the tree. Gingerly, we followed a trail of chewed possessions until we found the shredded remnants of the bag. Perhaps the brute had been upset by a mouthful of mosquito repellent or tobacco, perhaps he had picked up the scent of our leftover food, every scrap of which had been carefully licked from the bag.

Bear attack aftermath

The chap on the programme, Ed Wardle,  recounted a story that a bear expert had told him just before he set out on his Yukon adventure. Two men were camping when a grizzly pulled one of them away, presumably with the intention of eating him. Cocooned in his sleeping bag, he was powerless to resist. Fortunately all ended well, his quick-thinking friend shot the bear dead. Even though my own encounters were with less ferocious black bears I am glad I didn't know that story at the time. I'm planning another trip to bear country next summer – hopefully by then I will have erased it from my memory!

Half Dome from Clouds Rest Summit

Half Dome. The cable route is visible to the left of the photo. Hikers are (just) visible near the top.

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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

One wedding and an operation

Haven't had any time for blogging this week due to just having had one of the most eventful weeks of my life, crammed full of highs and lows.
On saturday I got married - a great day and a great relief that all went well. On monday morning we took our daughter into hospital to have her hip dysplasia fixed. Developmenal hip dysplasia (DDH) is a relatively common condition in which the hip bone is not properly seated in its socket. Normally it is picked up early - in which case it is easily treated - but unfortunately in our case it wasn't picked up until she was 16 months old, leaving surgery as the only option.
More disturbing than the prospect of the surgery itself is the week of traction that precedes the operation. It was heartbreaking to see our lovely daughter, fresh from her flower girl duties, trussed up in a system of bandages, ropes and pulleys that would not look out of place in a medieval torture chamber. Fortunately she has proved to be extremely adaptable and is as happy as can reasonably be expected.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining - I've had to think pretty hard to find the bright side of my family honeymooning in the hospital while I honeymoon separately at home but at least I have plenty leftover pork from the wedding hog roast to sustain me!

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