Ice climbing

Sep 25, 2011 in Chile

Ice climbing

I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.

It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.

But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.

At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.

We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.

We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.

Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.

That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.

Goat Fell

Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010

Goat Fell

After the meeting I went to the Isle of Arran to do a bit of hiking with another astronomer friend. We got the train to Ardrossan, and the ferry from there to Brodick. I didn’t know much about the island – we’d just picked it as somewhere easy to get to where we could do some hiking and climbing. As we pulled into the harbour at Brodick I knew we’d made a good choice – the hills looked rugged and inviting. We’d also made an excellent choice by deciding to stay at the Fell View guest house, one of the most hospitable places I’ve stayed anywhere on my travels.

Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. It was good walking weather. We hiked up to the 874m summit in a couple of hours, and got some fantastic views over the island. In the far distance, the ferry was pulling out of Brodick on its way to Ardrossan.

On the other side of the peak we took a circuitous route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope to an impressive viewpoint on the other side of the valley. We could see some rock climbers tackling a sheer face on another nearby hill. Our aims were less extreme, and after a few hours of good hiking we descended back into the valley.


Jun 29, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009


I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb.

Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea.

What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.


Jul 12, 2008 in Balkans 2008


I got a bus to Herceg Novi. As we drove out of Mostar I watched ruined buildings passing by, and thought that this town was one of the most shocking places I’d been. The rebuilt bridge and amazing Turkish quarter bustling with tourists seemed to symbolise reconciliation and progress, but when every tenth building was a still a shelled wreck how could there be progress?

Southern Bosnia was stunning and mountainous. The bus route went into Croatia, and the coast road was spectacular. For much of the way the road was high up in the hills, and it was like we were flying, with breathtaking views over the Adriatic. We passed through Bosnia’s tiny coastal strip, and stopped at a shop where they seemed much keener to accept Croatian kuna than Bosnian marks. Then we went back into Croatia again, requiring more passport checks. The battered and frayed state of my passport hadn’t caused problems until now but the Croatian guard looked very unhappy. He looked at it, and me, with slight disgust. “Did you vosh it?”, he demanded.

But he let me through and the journey continued. We flew over Dubrovnik; the bus there from Mostar was considerably more expensive than the ones to Herceg Novi, 30 miles further on, suggesting to me that it would be nightmarishly popular and busy. So I contented myself with a brief glimpse of the red roofs of the old town.

We crossed into Montenegro, and I changed buses at Herceg Novi. It was late evening now and in the dusk we wound our way around Kotor Bay to the town of Kotor. I walked from the bus station into town, not knowing the way at all but successfully guessing. In the old town I realised my guide book was outrageously wrong about many essential things in Kotor. It said that there would be loads of people outside the old town offering accommodation; there was one old woman who sidled up to me and said “Hotel?” but her offers did not tempt me. It said the Hotel Vardar was nice and had rooms from 25 Euros; it was very, very nice and had rooms from well over 100 Euros. Everywhere else in town seemed to be full, and I was bracing myself for a pricy night. Luckily, the receptionist there took pity on me and after phoning around a few places, found me somewhere to stay for 40 Euros, in a noisy hot room above a restaurant.

Accommodation in Kotor wasn’t cheap, but the town was pretty awesome. I went for a walk around the stone streets of the old town, and every street and every square seemed to be lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. It was a lively vibe and a hot evening. I had some food, got a drink, and took in the atmosphere.

In the morning I got up early and went to climb the city walls. They looked incredible, dizzyingly steep and soaring up into the barren hills surrounding the town. Even at 7.30am it was hot going. But the views quickly got amazing, and the higher I went the more amazing they got. The trail was exhaustingly steep, and I even began to think I wouldn’t make it to the giant Montenegrin flag at the very top. My water was running low and I didn’t fancy getting dehydrated. But eventually I made it, and spent a while appreciating the wild scenery of the Gulf of Kotor.

On my way back down I bumped into a local family, looking like they were struggling. They asked me how much further it was to the top, in broken English when they realised I was not local. I replied in broken Russian which I guessed would be more or less the same as broken Serbian. I checked later and it wasn’t far wrong. I told them it was ten minutes further, and they headed on. I returned to sea level, and got a bus to Podgorica.

Los Tilos

Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007

Los Tilos

As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, a lush forest often described in guidebooks as a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike. The views at the top over the forest were worth the effort though.

Such great heights

Jan 10, 2006 in South America 2005

Such great heights

I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink a few times already, but despite its reputed stimulant qualities I hadn’t found myself running up mountains after drinking it. But remarkably, this time I did. I don’t know what Roy put in the brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.

Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we’d come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn’t seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they’d given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.

By now I was feeling a lot less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.

Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was clearly quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising. I took a lot of photos, and felt that whatever it is I look for while travelling, there was a lot of it up here.

At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.

I was possibly more tired by now than I’d ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I’d eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn’t decide whether to eat first and then sleep, or vice versa. In the end I slept for a bit, then went out for food and ate two main courses. That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I’d been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.

El Misti

Jan 09, 2006 in South America 2005

El Misti

I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.

At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.

El Chaltén

Nov 20, 2005 in South America 2005

El Chaltén

From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.

But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of one of South America’s most famous mountains, Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some fabulous views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.

I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.

Middle of the W

Nov 12, 2005 in South America 2005

Middle of the W

My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés, one of the park’s most scenic sections. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possibly flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.

In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.

Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up soup, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.

After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a tremendous roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.

The highest man in Central Africa

Jul 19, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001

The highest man in Central Africa

The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. ‘My stomach has opened!’ he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I’d be able to find my way to the peak OK.

After about half an hour’s more walking, he said he’d stop here and wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn’t see the path ahead I shouldn’t try and go on. We agreed that he’d either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we’d been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.

For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I’d need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I’d reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who’d made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.

The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I’d find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.

Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I’d yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn’t given up that I ran the rest of the way.

Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.