Articles tagged with "snow"

Valle de las Arenas

Valle de las Arenas

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.

Strava log

The summit at last

The summit at last

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.

Strava log

Tongariro and Ngauruhoe

Tongariro and Ngauruhoe

The day after the Tongariro Crossing, we drove to Whakapapa, and stopped for a coffee with a good view at the Chateau Tongariro.

Heading downhill

Heading downhill

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.

Red Crater

Red Crater

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.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing

It had been sunny at first but then we had a complete whiteout for a bit. The sun started to come out again as we were nearing the highest point on the crossing.

Snowy descent

Snowy descent

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.

Whiteout

Whiteout

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.

Over Siberia

Over Siberia

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.

Flight to Saunders Island

Flight to Saunders Island

I spent my first few days in the Falklands in a state of destitution. There was just one bank, and it didn’t have a cash machine, so visitors arriving on a Saturday like I did would have to wait until the bank opened on the Monday before they could get any money out. Except that the Monday was a public holiday, on account of the Queen’s birthday apparently having happened. And on top of that I’d only managed to get hold of 40 pounds of sterling in Santiago before I arrived, and those 40 pounds turned out to be old bank notes that were no longer valid. My first few days in the islands required me to impose on the charitable nature of the Falkland Islanders.

The Queen’s birthday is something that we would never dream of celebrating in the UK and it certainly isn’t a public holiday. But here, before I’d arrived on the Saturday, there had been parades and ceremonies, and most things were closed on the Monday. Fortunately I was staying at Kay’s B&B, and Kay was very kind and lent me enough money to last until the bank finally opened on the Tuesday morning. I would have been in dire straits without her help.

I had booked a flight to Saunders Island for the Tuesday. Flights in the Falklands don’t follow a fixed timetable – they just go where and when people need to travel. They normally fly at 8am, but luckily today there was a second flight, which meant I had time to get to the bank and get some money, at the offensive cost of 4.5% plus a sickening £1.50 for a phone call to the UK to validate the transaction. If I had wanted Sterling instead of Falklands pounds they’d have charged me an outrageous 1% extra.

Angry but financially independent once again, I headed to the airport. The Falklands Islands Government Air Service aircraft are tiny eight-seater planes, they fly low over the rugged landscape, and our journey out to Saunders was spectacular. We stopped at Port San Carlos, Port Howard and Pebble Island on the way as we chugged over the snow-covered hills in the tiny prop-engine plane.

The war

The war

On the way back from Volunteer Beach we drove back past Mount Kent. The hills near Stanley were the scene of fierce fighting during the war, and even now, 30 years later, relics still remain. We made a stop at the wreckage of an Argentinian helicopter. Keith told us that in the later stages of the occupation of Stanley, when British forces were shelling the town, senior Argentinians would leave at night for safer refuges in the hills. This helicopter had been ferrying officers away from Stanley for the night when it was attacked and shot down by a British aircraft.

Thermal shock

Thermal shock

For the last six months I’ve been enjoying Santiago’s incredibly stable weather. More or less every single day has seen clear blue skies and temperatures in the thirties. And when I haven’t been in Santiago I’ve been in the Atacama. Between early October and last week’s incredible downpour, the only rain I’d seen was literally a few drops which fell in January.

So I knew, really, that it was going to be cold in the Falklands, way down south just a few hundred miles from Antarctica. I knew that. But I had forgotten what cold really was. I rediscovered the phenomenon as soon as the plane door opened after we’d landed at Mount Pleasant airport. By the time I got to the terminal I was shivering. I’d seen snow on the high ground from the plane as we descended, but much worse than the snow was the wind, a wild icy blast which sapped my body heat and swept it away over the hills. I suffered on the day that I arrived in Stanley, and I suffered much more the next day, when the snow had come down from the high ground all the way to sea level.

Time for a holiday

Time for a holiday

I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country.

With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight.

And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was going to the Falklands. “There’s nothing there, right?”, he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, never met anyone from there.

The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I’d been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.

Penitentes

Penitentes

On the altiplano, snow melts in strange ways. It forms peaks and valleys, and the valleys deepen until you’re left with large snow pillars called penitentes standing in the red desert landscape.

Ice climbing

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.

At the volcano

At the volcano

From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.

It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.

I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.





Higher and higher

Higher and higher

We climbed the road. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before too long we were 700m above sea level, and there was snow on the ground around us. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up.

It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.

Over the pass

Over the pass

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.

Back to Kulusuk

Back to Kulusuk

In the morning I had to rush around Tasiilaq. I needed to buy a helicopter trip back to Kulusuk, so I hurried down to the helipad. They turned out not to sell tickets there, but they told me I could get them at the bookshop. I hurried to the bookshop but it wasn’t open, and it wouldn’t open until after the last helicopter had left. So I hurried back to the Red House and used their internet connection. It cost me more than 6 pounds for 15 minutes, but I booked my ticket, then walked back down to the helipad, told the guy at the desk my reservation number, and waited for the helicopter to arrive.

In the departure lounge there was a middle-aged Inuit listening to loud tinny music on his mobile phone. His tastes were very cheesy. A young Greenlander started speaking to him and I wondered if the young guy was going to ask him to turn it down. But as they spoke, I heard the older guy say “Bluetooth”, and they started swapping tunes.

I got the helicopter back to Kulusuk. As I was walking from the airport to the village, a Greenlander offered me a lift, and I chatted to him during the short journey. He was 47, and he’d always lived in Kulusuk. He said that the first tourists started coming here when he was still a boy. He was going out seal hunting later in the day, and told me that whale hunting would start later in the year. Apparently the whales were too far off shore at the moment but when the sea ice melted more, they’d come closer to the shore.

He dropped me off in the village. I was hoping to stay in a hostel but it turned out to be full. The hostel owner, an Icelander, gave me a lift out of town to a camping area, and I set up my tent there. He warned me to look out for polar bears, and I laughed, but he was actually serious. Apparently one had been seen near the airport only a month earlier.

Not long after I set up my tent, two small children came over from a nearby house. By means of sign language, they indicated that they wanted to swap residences with me. They moved themselves into my tent and pointed me towards their house. They played for a little while, until it started raining. They left me to my small patch of grass and headed back to their nice solid dry warm wooden house.

The temperature dropped and the rain got heavier. I tried to cook some noodles in the porch of my tent, running a serious risk of setting the thing on fire. Ice formed on my gas canister, and the water never got hotter than a hot bath. “I love camping”, I said to myself as I chewed the crunchy noodles and listened to the rain battering on the canvas.

Accidental trip to Sermiligaaq

Accidental trip to Sermiligaaq

My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I’d left London I’d booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year – the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies.

The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn’t even need to avoid most of the icebergs – it was quite happy to ride over them.

After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, and I started to think about what I would do there for two days. Suddenly, a crew member asked to see my ticket again. He looked a bit worried and I wondered why. I soon found out. The boat was not two hours late but two days late. Its weekly run took it all around the settlements of Ammassalik district, and today it was not actually going to Kulusuk, but to Sermiligaaq, the most remote village on the schedule. My journey was not nearly over – it had barely begun.

I sometimes have crazy dreams about accidentally getting boats or trains to completely the wrong place. This was the first time it had ever happened to me. I felt a slight sense of panic for about 10 seconds, and then realised that this was in no way a bad thing. I would have to spend another 90 pounds on a helicopter back to Kulusuk in the morning, but on the plus side I was in for a 12 hour round trip up the savage coast of East Greenland, to a remote village that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. The crew and the Danes couldn’t understand why I was smiling so much.

We sailed up Ammassalik Fjord. It was nothing like as ice-choked as Sermilik Fjord. It was a dull grey day and the seas and mountains looked gloomy. I lost track of time as we gently rolled along, rising and falling with the swell. I chatted to the Danes, who had travelled a lot in Nordic parts, and I chatted to one of the crew who could speak English. A couple of the other crew had simply said “Kulusuk!” and laughed as I passed them on the deck. It was all meant in a good spirit.

After almost six hours we reached Sermiligaaq. It was a slice of Greenland life that I was incredibly happy to have had this chance to see. The tiny ragged village was the first sign of human life that there had been in all the miles of fjord since Tasiilaq. It seemed unbelievable that people could live here. The arrival of the boat was quite an event – our main mission here was to deliver supplies. The Danes and I left the boat crew to their work. We had an hour to kill before heading back and I wandered around the village. The only activity was at the dock – everywhere else was deserted. In the cold drizzle it didn’t look like a very inviting place.

The boat finished its delivery, and we headed back. I watched Sermiligaaq recede into the forbidding mountains, and we sailed back into the endlessness. It was 5pm, and it was getting colder. I spent most of the return journey indoors, sheltering from icy winds. I’d brought no food with me, naturally, having expected to be on Kulusuk by lunchtime. But the Danes took pity on me, sharing biscuits and sandwiches, and the crew even offered me a share of their cooked dinner. It was very kind but I had to refuse on the grounds of vegetarianism. I probably offended them greatly. I felt bad.

Eventually, at 11pm, we chugged back into Kong Oskars Havn, and the familiar sights of Tasiilaq drifted back into view. The heavy cloud made the Greenlandic evening almost feel like it might turn into a night. I got off the boat and walked unsteadily back up to the Red House, where luckily they had room to put me up again. That night, and for days after, I felt the rocking of the boat as I lay in bed, and I saw icebergs and mountains and stern grey seas when I closed my eyes.