Monday, 24 January 2011

Living the dream in Alaska

Over the last few years Bruce Parry has become one of my favourite television presenters. I was introduced to his work through the documentary series 'Tribe' in which he spent time living with a variety of indigenous peoples around the world. The aspect of 'Tribe' which I found most interesting was his participation in rituals, including the consumption of psychotropic plants. Often these substances were administered using unconventional methods. One image that sticks in my mind was when a shaman used a blowpipe to fire some form of powdered plant material - like a snuff - directly up Bruce's nose. Another involved taking a highly concentrated tobacco enema. The most memorable was when a shaman ejected a foul object from his nose - it may have been a grub, or simply a foul plug of shamanic mucus - and got Bruce to scoff it down.

I don't have any suitable images to accompany this post so here's an entirely unrelated holiday snap taken in Arches NP, Utah last April. 
I've been enjoying Parry's latest series about the Arctic. One of the defining features of Bruce's film making is that he always engages with the locals and makes an effort to see issues from all sides. For example in a previous series  about the Amazon he did a day's work chopping down trees in an illegal logging camp and another working in an illegal gold mine. Neither of those looked particularly appealing but in last night's episode was about Alaska and featured not one but two unorthodox career choices that seemed to present an attractive alternative to the 9 to 5 corporate lifestyle that so many of us pursue nowadays. 

He spent a few days with a salmon fishing family who use the purse seine  technique to harvest enormous quantities of salmon. They maintained that their fishery was highly regulated and entirely sustainable and if this is indeed the case it looked like an idyllic lifestyle. I have always been under the impression that fishing is very much like farming; lots of hard work for a modest financial reward. This was different. In three months of fishing they would make literally millions of dollars, leaving the rest of the year free for a long break in Hawaii followed by a winter of powder days at their home in an Alaskan ski resort. 

Next up was an eccentric community of gold miners who spent the Alaskan summer  living in beach cabins, panning for gold on an industrial scale. They had enormous hoovers mounted on makeshift rafts. One miner would man the raft while the other donned a wetsuit and guided the inlet pipe over the sea floor, sucking up a mixture of gravel and gold. The work looked hard but the rewards were high; one or two troy ounces of gold - each worth US$1300 USD - per day. To prove the point Bruce donned a wetsuit and bagged himself US$200 worth of gold in an hour.

This programme provided a refreshing jolt to my world view. I was slow to enlist in the world of organised work, my primary focus during my early twenties being travel and adventure. All that interested me was seeing as much of this fantastic planet as possible. Many people pursue this lifestyle full time, drifting round the world, working no more than is absolutely necessary. I came to the realisation during my last long trip that the poverty and insecurity that goes hand in hand with such dedicated avoidance of structured work can become every bit as stressful and dissatisfying as the rat race. 

I'm not about to sign up as a fisherman or a miner anytime soon, but watching these modern day frontiersmen has opened my eyes to the possibility of a different mode of living, that of funding a lifestyle of affluent leisure through concentrated periods of satisfying, non-corporate work in the great outdoors.  That truly would be living the dream.

Monday, 17 January 2011

A Photo in the Hand is worth a thousand in the Hard Drive

I have recently rediscovered the joy of the printed photo; the excitement of returning home to find a pack of prints on the doormat. It's just like the old days before digital photography, but with one important difference. Each image is a perfectly crafted work of art; carefully selected from among dozens of its peers; lovingly straightened, cropped and tuned. The end result is infinitely more satisfying than an image on a screen could ever be.

The Devil's Garden, Arches NP, Utah, April 2010. Of the thousands of pictures I took over three weeks in Utah this is my favourite. The essence of desert is here, its beauty lying in the sparsity of the vegetation, each plant and each rock perfectly placed, as in a zen garden.
I was awed by the vivid red rocks of the Colorado Plateau, but the Americans I spoke to invariably mentioned the otherworldly greenness of Scotland, which they cited as one of the main reasons that they wanted to visit. There isn't much green in this view of the snow peaks of the Arrochar Alps,  taken from the shore of a frozen Loch Fyne on January 7th.

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Monday, 10 January 2011

Back in the saddle on Beinn Dearg

Hemingway stated that there are only three sports: motor racing, mountain climbing and bull fighting, all other pastimes being mere games. Mountain climbing - the only one of Hemingway's sports in which I participate - covers a huge and diverse range of endeavour, all the way from a gentle summer afternoon's hillwalking at one end to extreme alpinism at the other.

Scottish winter climbing sits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain the attractions this bizarre sport to the uninitiated. It is often uncomfortable and frightening. It always makes obscene demands on your time. A day's sport involves rising in the middle of the night, driving for several hours, then walking in to a remote coire with a heavy pack for several more hours to find yourself at the bottom of a route by 1000 hrs, if you are lucky. At this time of year that leaves six hours of daylight, so it almost inevitable that you will be completing your descent in the dark. It doesn't take too much in the way of unexpected delay - route finding difficulties or icy roads for instance -  for night to fall before the technical climbing is complete. Despite- or perhaps because of - these hardships, a good winter day  repays this effort and more. For a winter route is a true adventure; once committed the route fills one's awareness completely, there is a tangible feeling of  memories being indelibly etched onto the consciousness, to be drawn on later in defense against the humdrum and the mundane. 

Toddy setting off on  Penguin Gully, Beinn Dearg

The trouble is that very often one is not rewarded with a good winter day. Many factors can conspire against success, but the main difficulty is in the prediction of conditions.  There are few experiences more deflating than arriving in a coire to find the buttresses black and dripping, with no routes in acceptable condition. This deflation arises not just from the feeling of having wasted the physical energy expended on the day, it is also the mental energy that has been invested during the preceding weeks: poring over weather forecasts, avalanche forecasts, guidebooks and maps;  scouring discussion forums and blogs; juggling work, social and family commitments so that they can be dropped at a day's notice when the the stars align. For conditions are fickle; some routes may be in condition for only a few days a season, others may be climbable only once in a decade. It is disappointing to waste energy by heading out on a poor day, but that is nothing compared to the pain of having to spend a perfect winter day at work. The stress of walking this tightrope between glory and  disappointment can result in a winter angst so all-consuming that it is often a great relief when spring comes and the ice tools can be stowed away for another season.

For a variety of reasons I have drifted away from winter climbing over the last few seasons, notching up fewer and fewer routes each year. Last season I didn't even attempt to go climbing, investing my energies in ski mountaineering instead. Ski mountaineering is has many selling points: less equipment is required, reducing both bag weight and preparation time. One can move much faster, reducing the need for early starts. Skiing is not frightening. But the main advantage of taking to the hills on ski is it provides the opportunity to soak up the precious winter sun. The winter climber is perversely compelled by his thirst for ice and frozen turf to grovel in the cold shade of north-facing coires while the ski mountaineer is up on the ridges basking in sunshine. We see so little winter sun here that it seems criminally wasteful to deliberately avoid it.

Happily leaving the ice behind for some more reassuring  frozen turf
Back in September I was inspired by Pete Macpherson's record of his previous season and decided that I would climb again this winter. On the 3rd of January I followed through on this threat, arranged a strong and highly motivated climbing partner and headed to Beinn Dearg, our sights set on Penguin Gully. We found two good ice pitches at the bottom of the gully but the snow on the easier upper section looked to be incomplete and so we traversed off to the right instead of finishing the route. The ice turned out to be quite variable, sometimes providing trustworthy placements  and sometimes cleaving off in disconcerting dinner-plates.This  fine day out had two effects on me. Firstly it confirmed my long-held suspicion of ice as a climbing medium,  secondly it restored my urge for winter climbing.  I fully intend to indulge further this season, with turfy routes in remote northwest venues and late season Nevis classics being top of the hit list.. 

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Monday, 3 January 2011

Solar Arc

We are blind to much of the wonder of the natural world. The beauty of great nature writing  is that it can open our eyes to this unseen splendour and provide us with the vocabulary needed to describe phenomena which might otherwise pass us by.

In his book 'Arctic Dreams' Barry Lopez describes how reflection and refraction of light by ice or water particles in the polar sky can give rise to a variety of arcs and halos. The most spectacular is the sun dog, rainbow patches that appear 22 degrees from the polar sun. You can see from the picture in the link that the sun dogs describe two opposite edges of an incomplete circle. This image shows a complete solar halo. Lopez notes that such features can also be observed in the part of the sky directly opposite the sun and that they are not limited to the polar regions, also being observable in the temperate latitudes. This piqued my curiosity and I have been on the lookout ever since.

Two days after Christmas I photographed the solar arc above while descending from Cul Mor in Assynt. It is in the sky to the north, directly opposite the late afternoon sun. It's a pretty subtle effect and would have been easy to miss had I not been primed by reading Lopez's book.

It was a grand day to be on the hill; still, though not as clear as had been forecast. Some high cloud resulted in the landscape being selectively illuminated by shafts of light, further accentuating landscape features that had already been rendered unusually prominent by a combination of low winter sun and residual snow lying in the gullies and hollows.

North to Suilven, Quinaig and Canisp from Cul Mor
To the south, in front of the Fannichs, a curtain of cloud spilled a low ridge. Sgurr Mor is prominent just right of centre.

South to the Fannichs from Cul Mor

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