Articles tagged with "mountain"
On Christmas Day I’d tried to cycled to Farellones, but given up after starting to get cramp due to dehydration on a savagely hot day. On New Year’s Day I tried again.
Again I planned to leave extremely early, and again I failed, but I failed a little bit less badly and I was on the road at 8.15am. And whereas last week I’d had the feeling quite early on in the ride that I might not make it, this week I felt right from the start that it was going to go well. It was strange to cycle the same route again so soon and a lot of the way to Corral Quemado felt pretty boring, but much easier than it had last week. Then, I had expected there to be lots of cyclists and there were almost none; this week I thought there would not be many and there were quite a few.
I got to Corral Quemado a bit more quickly than I had done last week. The weather was perfect, sunny and clear but still cool by 10am when I got there. So now the hard work started, and it was awesome. I powered up the first 8 curves, as last week, then found the section to curve 9 far easier and powered up the next 6 as well. Then began the long slow drag up to curve 15, which was way easier than last week, with no dehydration or cramp to contend with. I got to Yerba Loca at curve 15 and stopped to fill up my water bottles. There were a couple of other cyclists there, and some people out for a new year drive. “Tired?”, one of them asked me. “Nope”, I said. “Arrogant jerk”, he probably thought. But it was true. I didn’t feel at all tired and I knew I was going to make it to the top.
I refilled my water bottles and headed on. Things got tougher, with fewer hairpins and more long harsh gradients. And here there were lots of huge and vicious flies, which kept on biting me. I kept on wondering why I had a sudden sharp pain in my knuckles, only to look down and see another fat fly biting me through my gloves. But they were easy to deal with, unable to disengage before I swatted them. I must have killed hundreds.
After a long slow ride up with few hairpins, I reached curve 26, two miles from Farellones. I was getting slow at this point, tired but really loving the climb. 40 minutes after curve 26, I got to Farellones.
I had some lunch and then headed down. It had taken me 4h45m to get from my house to Farellones, and it took me 1h45m to get back. 3200m of climbing was a great way to start 2016.
Sadly the camera’s memory card filled up and the video stops at turn 28
I’d been up the Valle de las Arenas before and it had been awesome. I’d wanted to go back for ages, and this weekend some friends were in the mood for a hike, so we decided to head up there.
It was incredibly different to my last trip. In late autumn, the valley was barren and we could drive a long way up it, so that we only had a couple of hours to hike to get to the glacier. Today we had to start from a lot further back, firstly because after a very rainy winter, the valley was still full of snow. And secondly because there was now a huge building site at the foot of the valley. There had just been a few portacabins there 18 months ago but now the road was blocked, and a sign said that cars needed permission to pass. We didn’t, so we parked and hiked up the valley from there. It was a fantastic hike in the thick snow.
I climbed Manquehue two years ago, when my back was still fragile after surgery. That time, we’d climbed from La Piramide via a route that goes most of the way to the top of Cerro Carbón. Today, with a friend who often visits Chile and loves getting out into the hills, I tried the route via Via Roja.
The route via Carbón had taken us about 4 hours in total to get to the top at a very relaxed pace. Starting from Via Roja was supposed to take less than 2 hours. I arranged to meet my friend at 11am, and I thought I would cycle to the start of the climb. I set off at about 10.30, and by 11am I was on Via Roja, a mile and a half from where we were meeting. But what I hadn’t checked was how high the end of Via Roja actually was. It’s just over 1000m above sea level, so I had a 400m ascent to do. It was a great ascent but tough going with an average gradient of 7.5%. By the time I reached the end of the road, my friend and her friends had got bored of waiting and set off.
So I set off on my own. It was an amazingly steep climb, much tougher than the route via Carbón, but also much quicker, and after an hour and a half I got to the top, not too far behind my friends.
Going down was much tougher on the loose and slippery ground. We somehow ended up a little way from the route we’d taken on the way up, on a much steeper and more precarious path. So it took pretty much exactly the same time to get down as it had to go up. The cycling was a different story. It took me about a quarter of the time to go back down Via Roja as it had to go up it, and I carried the momentum all the way home. In total it took me 5.5 hours to get from my house to the top of the mountain and back.
I got up early the next morning, and was on the way up the trail to the top at 6.30am. It was a cool morning and I knew I’d made a good decision stopping for the night instead of climbing in the hot afternoon. I made fast progress, and by 8am I was at the only difficult bit of the climb, a rocky section over a narrow ridge. It wasn’t always easy to see the best way over, and I was really glad I had gone down to San Carlos de Apoquindo last year instead of continuing in the dark. It would not have been nice trying to clamber over the rocks by torchlight.
On the other side, it was a short and easy walk to the summit. I got there before 9am and felt happy to have finally got here. It had been my target for four years.
I headed down. By 11.30 I was back at my camp, and I packed up. At 12, three friends passed by – they were climbing in the one day while I’d preferred to spend a night camping. I said hi to them and carried on down. The way to San Carlos was steep and dusty, and with only one pole it was miserable going. I kept on slipping and progress was slow. Just after I’d slipped yet again and put my hand into a thorny bush, I met another friend who was heading to Alto del Naranjo. I feigned enjoyment, and carried on down. I ran out of water before I got to San Carlos and was incredibly thirsty when I arrived. Luckily there was a tap there and I drank several litres before heading home. I drank many more when I got there.
I found a great place to camp, with no-one else around. It was really nice to be up in the Sierra de Ramón with awesome views of the city. And even though I was nearly 2000m above sea level, it was still a warm night. I watched the sunset, saw the city light up, and the stars coming out, and after that I slept well.
I’d tried to climb Provincia before with three friends, but we’d set off too late in the day and only got as far as Alto del Naranjo before lack of daylight stopped further progress. A year and a bit later, I finally got around to having another go.
But again I left too late in the day, and this time it was summer. Setting off at 1.30pm was a huge tactical error, and it was compounded soon after I left Puente Ñilhue when one of my hiking poles snapped. So my hike was extremely tiring in the heat, and more difficult than it should have been with only one pole.
But after three hours I was at Alto del Naranjo. No snow on the ground this time, and the summer days were long so I still had plenty of time to get to the top. However, I didn’t have plenty of water. I’d refilled at the last opportunity, and I’d been carrying nearly 5 litres, but it was hot going and I was using up my supplies quickly. I decided to head a bit further up than Alto del Naranjo but not to go to the summit until morning when it would be cooler.
It had been totally clear when I started climbing but clouding over during the morning. By the time I got to the top it was starting to rain. I was going to go to the very highest point, but there was a sign asking people not to, so I didn’t.
I was planning to walk back down again but then it started hailing. Two tourists from New York were there, they had a car and they offered me a lift down. It was a better option than three hours walking in the hail.
It was a great hike up the mountain. But it was pretty weird to arrive at the top after a few hours in the wilderness to find all the telescopes there. It was like I was arriving for work, and I felt like I should be checking the daytime calibrations and working out the schedule for the night.
After acclimatising at Hale Pohaku, I headed back to Mauna Kea early the next morning for the actual climb. The trip to Hale Pohaku had definitely helped – I had felt a little bit out of breath walking around the day before, but I felt fine today and climbed quickly. There were fantastic views of Mauna Loa, with all the old lava flows clearly visible.
I’d started 2014 with a trip up Cerro Carbón, and I did the same for 2015. I wouldn’t have minded climbing Manquehue instead or as well, but it was a hot summer’s day and these hills aren’t so much fun when it’s incredibly dry and hot. So I left the house early and was on the trail before sunrise. It was a little bit cloudy first thing, which made for a cooler start to the hike, and also created epic sunbeams over the Sierra de Ramón when the sun came up.
It was not as quiet as last year – there was someone camped at Mirador El Litre. But I still had the top to myself when I got there.
The day after the Tongariro Crossing, we drove to Whakapapa, and stopped for a coffee with a good view at the Chateau Tongariro.
From Red Crater we headed down. If we’d have been coming this way in summer there would have been colourful lakes on the way but they were all frozen and buried under snow.
It was good weather again at the top, and we relaxed in the sun on the edge of Red Crater, which last erupted in 1926.
It was a nice evening with much less smog that when I’d climbed Cerro Carbón a few days ago. I decided to head up the trail again, but just to Mirador El Litre, half way up the mountain, for some evening views of the city. I cycled from my house to La Piramide and realised when I got there that I’d left my bike lock at home. So I dragged the bike up the hill a little way, vaguely hid it in some undergrowth, and hoped there were no bike thieves around.
The evening views from the mirador were pretty awesome and I stayed until it was dark. Coming down the hill was scarier than I’d anticipated – my torch suddenly lit up two red eyes on the trail ahead of me, and I approached cautiously. Then, suddenly, as I got closer, there was an loud flap and the bird I’d woken up took off, almost flying into my face.
Back at the bottom, I found my bike still where I’d left it, and cycled home.
I climbed Cerro Carbón again with a group of friends. It was a cool winter’s day and the air quality was particularly horrible. At street level it was just a misty gloomy day, but from the top of Carbón we could see that there was a disgusting layer of brown all over Santiago. The top of the layer was just below the top of Cerro Carbón, and we stayed on our island in the muck for quite a while, not wanting to go back down into the filthy air below.
With three friends, I set out for a weekend climb. Our plan was to climb Provincia, and stay in the hut at the top. But we left a bit later than planned, and it took us a long time to get to the start of the climb. We waited ages for a bus to Plaza San Enrique, then decided to get a taxi instead, and then got another taxi from there to Puente Ñilhue.
It was the middle of winter but it was a hot day and the early part of the hike was tiring, climbing very steeply. After three hours we reached Alto del Naranjo, and it was already after 4pm. There was snow on the ground here and nice views of the cordillera. El Plomo was about as thickly covered in snow as it had been after the storm in February.
With about three hours still to go to reach the summit, we’d be arriving in the dark if we carried on. We had a brief argument with some wanting to continue and others wanting to go down, and eventually we went for the descent. We were near a fork in the path with one way continuing to the summit and the other descending to San Carlos de Apoquindo, and we took the path to San Carlos. We got to the bottom in darkness.
It was the world cup semi-final. I’d been to Brazil and seen two games live, and watched almost every other game on TV. But tonight, I’d missed Germany v. Brazil, and once we were on a bus back into town, I looked up the result. I thought there was some crazy error on the BBC when I read 7-1 for the score. Turned out that the one significant game of the cup that I’d missed was just about the most extraordinary game in world cup history.
Wanting to do an easy hike one day, I went to the Cajón del Maipo with Neil. After our adventures on El Plomo, we wanted to go somewhere where we almost certainly wouldn’t die, so we headed for the Monumento Natural El Morado. We knew the trail there closed in the early afternoon, so we made sure we were in time, only to find that the closing time had been changed to even earlier, and we’d missed it.
So we headed further up into the mountains, to the next valley, Valle de las Arenas. Confusingly, Monumento Natural El Morado contains Glaciar San Francisco, while Glaciar El Morado is in the Valle de las Arenas. We drove a long way up the valley on an incredibly rough track, then hiked up to the glacier.
It was an easy hike, and from where we parked, it was less than two hours to the top of the valley, 3200m above sea level. The path crested a small rise and we found ourselves by a chocolate brown lagoon full of icebergs from the glacier. In the mountains around us there were five or six more glaciers.
The storm passed before night fall. We talked to the other climber, Sixto, who was incredibly well prepared and was carrying enough kit for at least three other people. He even had a hot water bottle with him. He’d climbed El Plomo a few times before. He wore incredibly thick glasses and told us that he was actually virtually blind, with a prescription in the -20s. His retinas were damaged, and any head injury would probably make him lose the last of his vision.
It was cold in the hut. I was warm enough and acclimatised enough to sleep well, but my water bottle was frozen solid when I woke up. We got up at 4am to see if it was worth climbing, but the summit was covered in thick cloud and it didn’t look good. We decided to abandon the summit and head down. A lot of snow had fallen and the path was totally covered. If we hadn’t had a GPS record of the way we’d come up to follow, we’d have had a hard time finding the right way down.
We stopped at Federación for some lunch then carried on down the valley of the Cepo to Piedra Numerada. Up until now I hadn’t felt too tired, but the last leg from Piedra Numerada back to the car at Tres Puntas was horrific. I’d forgotten how much the path had dropped on our way into the valley, and now we had to climb back out. I was exhausted and walked painfully slowly. Getting back to the car was the hardest part of the whole trip.
Weather forecasts for the weekend hadn’t been great, but until now we’d seen no sign of particularly bad weather. It was getting cloudy as we stopped at La Hoya, and as we continued up towards Agostini, things got worse. It began to snow, and visibility began to drop. Then, in the distance, we heard thunder. At first I was not sure if it was an avalanche on the glacier or a storm brewing, but very quickly it became obvious that it was a storm.
The snow got heavier. I wanted to head back down, but Neil was sure that we were more than half way to the hut and persuaded me to carry on. We tried to go as quickly as possible but at well over 4,000m, that’s not very quick. And then suddenly we were in the middle of the storm, with lightning striking terrifyingly close by and thunder shaking the ground. I dived behind a rock. Static electricity was everywhere, everything was crackling, and I could hear my ice axe sparking.
I didn’t want to move. We were in huge danger and I was thinking that literally any moment could be my last. So we lay on the ground in the snow for a while until there seemed to be a lull in the storm. Then we got up and ran uphill. This was savagely tiring but fear of imminent death spurred us on. Then lightning struck close by again, the sky roared and we hit the ground once more.
In the gloom, another climber appeared, heading downhill quickly. He told us we were 20 minutes from the hut and then disappeared. So we decided to keep on going up, and actually we were more like 5 minutes away. I felt massively relieved once we caught sight of it. The storm continued and we kept on taking what cover we could when lightning struck nearby. We ran the last few metres to the hut and dived inside.
The hut was empty when we got there. Another climber arrived not long after us, shaken by his experience in the storm. It was snowing so heavily that he’d lost the path and thought he wasn’t going to find the hut. Then later on, three people coming down the mountain appeared, and told us that there were more people higher up, badly equipped, one of whom was having major altitude problems.
The snow had stopped but the air was still electrified. We stayed in the hut and I worried about the people higher up – it sounded like there was a serious possibility that there would be fatalities. We were relieved when they arrived at the hut a couple of hours later. They rested in the hut for a few minutes, the one with altitude sickness falling asleep straight away. We shared food and drink with them, and they headed down. They were much better equipped than the first group had said, and with the storm now passing, it looked like they would be OK.
The next day dawned stunningly clear. We had amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the glaciers on the face of El Plomo. Our target for today was Agostini hut, 4,600m above sea level. The first part of the day was straightforward, a climb over a ridge to El Hoyo, where a glacier filled a small lake and we could fill up with water.
On our second day on the mountain, we walked up the valley of the Río Cepo to Federación, 4,000m above sea level. It took about three and a half hours. In the night I’d felt the altitude a bit, waking up a few times when I suddenly had to take a really deep breath, but today I felt very acclimatised and found the going easy. We got to Federación in the early afternoon, at the same time as some heavy clouds. We were under the west face of El Plomo but we couldn’t see it at all.
El Plomo is the biggest mountain you can see from Santiago, 5,400m tall. I set out to climb it with Neil, who’d tried once before and not made it due to bad weather.
We drove to Valle Nevado and across the back country to Tres Puntas. We’d set off quite late from Santiago but our first day was very short – an easy two hour walk to Piedra Numerada, a broad green plain 3,400m above sea level in the valley of the Río Cepo. It was 8pm when we arrived.
I started 2014 with a climb up Cerro Carbón. I’d climbed it in July, and also been almost to the top on the way to Manquehue, so the way was quite familiar. I left my house at 5.30am, and by 6.15am I was at La Piramide. The sun rose over the mountains a little bit after 7am, and it started to get very hot very quickly. It was a whole different experience to climbing in the winter.
I got to the top just before 9am. I was the only person out in the hills, by the look of things, and I sat on the summit in the warm sunshine for an hour. At 10am, I saw someone else reaching the ridge that joins Carbón to Manquehue, and decided to head down.
I liked Penghu before it went mainstream. With the arrival of two other tourists I felt it was no longer cool to be there. So I headed back to Taipei and got a train to Hualien. The target here was to visit Taroko Gorge, definitely a much more mainstream destination but from what I’d heard, worth braving the crowds to see.
It had been hot and sunny when I arrived but the next morning when I got a bus to Tianxiang it was cloudy and spotting with rain. The bus was full when I got on it but there were only about five people on it by the time we arrived at Tianxiang, the last stop way up in the gorge.
The tiny village was quiet and damp. Nearby there was a temple on a hillside, so I walked up to that. Tianxiang was definitely not the most beautiful part of the gorge, but it looked pretty atmospheric under the heavy skies.
I had 8 hours between flights in Paris. I’d been thinking of buying a cheap flight to London to go and see my friends there to fill the gap, and at the very least I thought I’d go out into the city. But I hadn’t booked any flights, and when I got through security I found a part of Charles de Gaulle airport that was filled with large, comfortable beds. I was tired, obviously, after a 14 hour flight, so I thought I would lie down for a bit. Just a little bit, and then I’d go out and explore Paris.
5 hours later I woke up, to find this bit of the airport completely deserted. I had about enough time to find my way through the labyrinths to where my next flight, to Amsterdam, would go from. Then from Amsterdam it was just another 12 hours to get to Taipei.
Back in 2001, on my way back from Australia, I’d flown over Siberia. It had been one of the most amazing flights I’d been on, with incredible views of the empty vastness covered in snow and ice. So I was looking forward to flying over it again. Flying east, it got light pretty soon after we’d left Amsterdam at midnight, and I wanted to look out of the window but I didn’t want to disturb everyone else on the plane. So I covered myself with my blanket and tried to cover the window too whenever I opened it to look out. I am not sure it worked. I think probably all the other passengers just wondered why there was a guy with a blanket on his head which was illuminated from the inside. But, whatever they thought, I liked the views.
Two days after climbing Manquehue, I was in the mood for another climb. One year previously, I’d gone to Cerro San Cristóbal which was a huge challenge at the time, three weeks after back surgery and with a paralysed foot. This year I went to Cerro Carbón, and it was an absolute joy to walk up. In the intervening year I’d seen my foot come back to life, I’d learned to walk properly again, and I’d had almost no pain at all from my back.
I walked from my flat to the top of the mountain in about two and half hours. Its peak is 20m higher than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. It’s awesome to live in a city where you can walk to the mountains so easily.
Santiago’s surrounded by mountains, and two of them in particular had caught my eye when I arrived. Cerro Provincia was the most prominent peak visible from the first flat I lived in, while Cerro Manquehue was the most obvious hill near work. With 8 friends, I climbed Manquehue today. We met at work at 8am and walked up to La Piramide, 20 minutes up the road. The trail there is not nice at all at first, climbing past a motorway, some electricity pylons and a sewage works, but eventually it gets to the slopes of Cerro Carbón. We climbed up to a ridge that joins Carbón and Manquehue, and headed for the bigger mountain.
From a long way off we could see an exposed rocky part of the mountain side, which we had to cross. Two of the group decided it was too precarious and headed down. The rest of us carried on but it was a tough scramble.
5 hours after we set off from work, we made it to the top of the mountain. A layer of winter smog hung over the city and made us glad we were above the inversion layer.
The schedule for today was tight. We had to get to Pehoé in time for a ferry to be in time for a bus to be in time for another bus to be in time for our flight back to Santiago. Any missed step would be disastrous. So we packed up and left Campamento Italiano before dawn and headed off down the trail. It was a beautiful morning, clear and calm, and bitterly cold.
We made it back to Pehoé in plenty of time for the boat back. And all the other steps worked out as well, until we got to the airport to find that our 11pm flight was delayed by four hours. After four days of hiking we were not in the mood for this. There was another flight leaving at 1.30am, but LAN were very reluctant to let us onto it, so it looked like we would be getting home at about 8am. As I argued with the LAN people, ex-president Michelle Bachelet walked by. She was on the 1.30am flight, and eventually LAN decided that we could be, too. We trudged wearily onto the plane, brushed off some Torres del Paine twigs and dirt, collapsed into our seats and headed out of Patagonia.
We hiked back to Pehoé the next morning, and headed on to Campamento Italiano. The wind had dropped, the skies had cleared and we had two stunning days of sunshine and autumn colours. We hiked up the Valle Frances and watched avalanches roaring down the slopes of Paine Grande.
From the campsite, sometimes, you could hear the roar of the avalanches. They normally lasted 10 or 20 seconds On our first night there, we heard a roar but this was something different. It got louder and louder, much louder than the noisy river that we were camped by, and it just kept on going. I knew that there was no chance of any avalanche reaching the campsite. But did I really know that? As the roar kept on going, and getting louder and louder, I began to wonder. It was dark and there was no point getting up to see what was going on. So we sat in the tent, listened, and waited. Finally the roar died away.
This was my first serious hike for a year and a half. The last one had also been here, when I’d tried to hike up to Glaciar San Francisco with Suzanna and Ryan. We’d started too late and the trail had already closed for the day by the time we got to the start. With Dave and Andrew I set off for another go, and we made it well before closing time.
The hike started quite steeply but after an hour or so it flattened out. It’s a popular trail but it wasn’t too busy today. The higher you go up the Cajón del Maipo the more awesome the scenery gets, and the Monumento Natural El Morado is pretty high up, only a few miles from the 6,000m peaks at the very top of the valley.
But we didn’t make it all the way to the glacier in the end. We were almost there when the sole of one of Andrew’s shoes suddenly came apart, which put paid to any further ascending and made the trip back down a bit more difficult than it should have been. It must have been very uncomfortable for him, and the slap-slap-slap sound of the flapping sole got a bit tiring for Dave and I after a while too.
Continuing my cautious recovery from back surgery, I went for a walk up Cerro Calán with Amy. The top is 867m above sea level but only about 50m above street level. We thought we’d walk up to the buildings of the Universidad de Chile who have their observatory there, but it was a weekend and the gate was locked. So we wandered around the hill looking for another way up to the top, and eventually found a fence we could duck under to take a path to the back of the university buildings. And from there we saw the sun setting behind the city.
Nearly three weeks after back surgery, I was ready to see something other than my flat and the Clinica Alemana for the first time since early June. My paralysed left foot meant I had to walk with a zombie shuffle and I was worried I was being overambitious, but I gave it a go, and got the metro to Baquedano. The walk from there up Pio Nono was slow and walking such a long way felt very unnatural. But I made it to the funicular, and then found the energy to walk up to the very top of the hill. I saw a beautiful sunset and felt happy to have made it.
One thing that I really notice here is how dry it is. The humidity is always low, my clothes dry in minutes when I take them out of the washing machine, and in the two months since I arrived, it’s only rained once in Santiago – a slightly drizzly evening in early October. London in comparison is damp and dank and I wonder how I didn’t have permanent prune skin when I lived there.
Today it rained for the second time. I was in the centre of town, going up Cerro San Cristóbal and then walking around Bellavista and Recoleta, and enjoying another hot sunny day. But in the eastern suburbs there was some kind of shower. I got back to Las Condes to find that the sun was shining but the streets were wet, and clouds were roiling over the mountains. I headed back up to my apartment and watched the retreating rainclouds being lit up by the evening sun.
Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal.
What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.
My previous attempt to see the Cajón del Maipo had been a bit half-arsed, relying on public transport and ending up in the nondescript hamlet of San Gabriel, instead of actually out in the mountains hiking.
So I tried again this weekend, with a couple of other ESO people. We hired a car, and left reasonably early. Having your own wheels definitely makes a big difference, and instead of spending hours on the bus chugging through all the distant Santiago suburbs, we were in the valley in less than an hour.
But we didn’t get everything right. We stopped in Baños Morales for a lengthy and tasty lunch, planning to hike to a glacier afterwards. But by the time we rolled up to the national park entrance, sated and sleepy but none the less keen to hike, we were told the trail had closed 20 minutes earlier.
So we had to find something else to do. We randomly ended up spotting a large red rocky outcrop, high up in the hills above Lo Valdes, and decided to go there. It was a good hike, scrambling up some steep and precarious scree slopes. The skies threatened but only delivered a few spots of rain. We made it to the outcrop without getting wet, and from it we got awesome views over the valley.
After we headed back down, the heavens finally did open, but we were safe in our car by then, and we drove down the valley as the sun broke through the rain clouds again.
I moved into a new flat yesterday. I was perhaps a bit rash, as it was only the second place I looked at, but it was more or less the kind of thing I was looking for and I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in my temporary accommodation.
What really persuaded me was the views from the balcony. London is not a high-rise city, and I’d almost always lived in houses while I was there. The one time I lived in a block of flats I was on the first floor. So this flat, up high on the 15th floor, was something new. And it faces east towards the mountains, so the height is worth having.
Hiking trails led away from the cable car station up into the hills, so I decided to walk for a while. Quickly I was away in the quiet mountains. I headed up a steep path to a ridge, which looked like the highest point around, but once I got there I could see there was another higher peak further on. The path flattened and dropped, and then rose up to Mount Fløya, 671m above sea level.
The day had started out overcast but some sun had broken through the clouds. I was alone on top of the mountain, and I sat for a while, taking in the views over the wild countryside.
The only reason to come down was that I had to find my way to the airport for a flight back to Oslo. This was a very annoying business, first of all because I was extremely content up there and didn’t feel like starting my journey back to London, and secondly because it was the World Cup final, and in a moment of appalling planning, I’d booked a flight that took off at the precise moment the game started, and would last for pretty much the exact time football games last for. I could only hope it would go to extra time.
We landed, and I got a train back to Oslo. As I walked through the station, I heard a sudden roar, and found a pub where the game was on. It had gone to extra time, and Spain had just almost scored. The Norwegian crowd was definitely backing Spain, and when they scored with just a few minutes to go the pub went wild. Out in the streets of Oslo, a car full of Spanish people drove around the block a few times, hooting its horn. If there were any Dutch around, they were keeping it quiet.
I walked back to the hostel in the midnight daylight. The next day, it rained heavily all day, and I sat in a cafe watching the rain batter on the window and drinking coffee until I got tunnel vision.
The next day it was nicer. I walked across the bridge from Tromsøya to the mainland, and got the cable car up the hill to Storsteinen. It was a short ride up, and it wasn’t cheap. Nothing is in Norway. But it was worth it. There weren’t too many people around, and the views over the city and the mountains were pretty incredible.
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 it looked like a good choice with rugged scenery.
Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. 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 route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope to a 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.
We took the road towards Bolivia. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towered over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores.
We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything similar happening again.
Then we went on down to Putre. The bus driver said that now we were at just 3,500m again, we could “run, jump, dance and play”. And it was true – I felt much better for the slight descent. We stopped here for some food and I chatted to some of my fellow passengers. Most were Chileans on holiday here from other parts. I spoke to one couple from Santiago, who were interested that I’d come to Chile to work. They’d heard it said many times that Chile had the best skies in the world but they said they’d always wondered if it was actually true. I assured them it was, and said they should check out the skies around La Silla or Paranal some time.
I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side.
I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy.
I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell and was swept away to a grim death, at least someone would know. They had found a decent place to cross, and they shouted back across the raging torrent to direct me. They also threw me a pair of flip-flops – until now I’d just crossed all the rivers barefoot. I tied everything to my pack and ploughed into the waters.
The rivers until now had been ankle-deep at worst but this one was over my knees straight away. In the middle it was up to my hips and the current was pushing me downstream. A slip would have been disastrous but luckily I made it across. I thanked the Dutch couple and gave them back their flip-flops. Then I realised I’d left one of my socks on the other side of the river.
I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.
Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.
Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.
Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.