Monday, 26 April 2010

Happy Birthday Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope is twenty so what a good excuse to look at some of the extraordinary pictures it has captured. These images affect me on an almost primeval level, like my favourite image of all time: Earthrise taken from Apollo 8, our planet rising above the surface of the Moon. The pictures show the extraordinary beauty of the cosmos and hopefully can inspire people regardless of their knowledge of science.

Hubble (Photo Nasa)

This is my favourite image taken by Hubble. It’s called the Pillars of Creation and shows columns of gas in the Eagle Nebula. The gas clouds are star factories light years long within which new stars are forming. I love the subtle colours; the yellows, browns, blues and greens and the halo of light especially in the left most pillar from the newly ignited stars within.

Pillars of Creation

This picture shows the titanic collision of two galaxies, apparently not that bad on stellar level as galaxies are mostly empty space.

Clash of the Titans

Below is probably the most mind boggling image that Hubble has taken. It’s not got that much WOW factor till you realise what it is. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field picture was the result of focusing the telescope on what looks from Earth like a dark empty section of the sky for just under 1 million seconds.

Ultra Deep Field

Ready to have you mind hurt? Those are not stars, each point of light is a Galaxy an estimated 10,000 of them in an area covering one thirteen millionth of the night sky. They are the oldest things yet seen in the universe existing less than a billion years after the big bang.

Now I’ve spent eight years training as a scientist and I’m used to dealing with abstract concepts and big numbers but here I’m really struggling. I just can’t comprehend what that means about the number of galaxies never mind stars that have existed. This picture shows THE UNIVERSE IS VAST ON A SCALE WE CANNOT POSSIBLY IMAGINE.

It’s also convinced me that life must exist elsewhere in the Universe (although I don’t believe ET has called to say hello) and to claim that we are it, and somehow special is and outstanding piece of hubris. We are special to nothing but ourselves but for that very reason we should stop trying to cock up our planet, nature has plenty more we only have one!

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Dictionaries = Useless

I first posted this years ago on my Facebook page. I like it a lot and it will explain any typos in up and comming posts!

I am fed up of being told that if you don't know how to spell a word you should look it up in a dictionary. I just want to point ou that dictionaries are absolutely bloody useless if you don’t know how to spell the word in the FIRST PLACE. I say this having spent the last 40 minutes trying to spell liaise; this is not a simple task as I am dyslexic. I initially thought it was spelt lease a heteronym with lease (as in contract). The dictionary however told me this was bollocks. Next I tried phonetics “leeaze? only to find the internet offering helpful suggestions that the word I actually wanted was lease. I then tried to use a thesaurus to give me liaise as a synonym for words such as collaborate and cooperate. Did it work? Did it F**k. Next I tried swearing at the computer, jumping up and down, and swearing some more. I began to think that maybe the word did not exist at all, but then; Bingo! Liaison that’s a word and for some unfathomable reason I could spell it correctly (Dyslexia????????). Anyway liaison lead quickly to liaise and all was well.

Anyway rant over. You can go do something productive now.

Saturday, 24 April 2010


Its sunny, it’s dry, so it’s time to hit the Grit. Winter 09/10 has been great with my busiest season yet but the snow and ice are disappearing and the crampons and axes are almost ready to be packed away for another year. However as one door closes another one opens and it was good to head out to High Neb today and climb back on the bike so to speak with some good grit routes after so may weeks stuck at the indoor wall.

Bags down; gear up; tie in to the sharp end; and start up Inaccessible Crack (VS 4c). Feels a bit strange after so long off but my hands soon get used to the rounded holds and my feet to faith in friction. It’s a good route even if I do lace it with a few too many runners.
Next up is Twisting Crack which proves easy but brilliant good exposure on huge holds. Sat at the top to belay up Nick I’m inspired a beautiful day looking down the hope Valley and across to Kinder Scout.

Me engrossed on Twisting Crack
I then second John on Knutter (HVS 5b), and an E1 5a whose name currently escapes me. Both are good routes and neither was technically difficult however both were a little run out and I do not currently have the balls to lead them. This is the big challenge for this year pushing my leading out a bit and dealing with the fear of falling.
A quality day ends with my psyche for Gritstone restored and a big hit list of routes waiting to be ticked. It’s going to be a good season.


Friday, 23 April 2010

Seeing winter out in style.

“Why did I agree to this?”. This is my overriding thought as I stare up at the neve plastered slabs of the Ben. Black rock and white snow and ice contrast below a brilliant blue winter sky. “This is a daft idea, it’s hard, much harder than anything you’ve ever climbed, it’s bold and the belays are shit. It would have been very easy to say no and then you would not have to spend the next six hours in pure terror”.

I think this is what they call a "Quality Mountain Day" Sun up by the CIC Hut.

The “this” in question is Orion Face Direct a classic ice route that winds its way 300m up the Orion Face almost to the summit of the Ben. Being a climber who is a little geekishly obsessed I know from Cold Climbs and the SMC guide that the route is “Serious as runners and belays can be hard to find”.

It had been Dom’s idea; a late winter trip to the Ben; the good weather, lots of daylight, and reading too many blogs had convinced him that we had to have a crack at either Orion or the even more serious Zero Gully. So in the end after much badgering including the classic "were only young once and will only get more scared as we get older" (Note to Dom I get scared enough now!) I had said yes but only on the proviso that Dom do all the leading and I get to do Tower ridge the next day.

Amazingly despite sleeping in we are first on the route and the first pitch calms the nerves, it’s quite easy and my borrowed axes bite deep into the nevé and feel really solid (there is no way on earth I would want to be up here with my Hornets) . Reaching the belay however the seriousness of our route is suddenly brought home to me. Two ice screws, half in and tied off (note: the next team up managed to find a bomber hex placement a fact I pointed out to Dom at the next belay!)

Dom sets off up the second pitch a shallow chimney moving out onto the face moving slowly and steadily making sure each axe and crampon placement is solid before committing. Ice and snow cascade down as the ropes sneak slowly upwards I try not to think of the monster 40 meter fall which will result from an error.

Then a shout. My turn. I begin to move up the chimney and then out on to the face as the terrain gradually gets steeper and steeper. The exposure is massive, a yawning gulf down Observatory Gully. I now begin to suffer a sense of humour failure and at this point Dom helpfully shouts down to say that the belay isn’t great.

My day on Orion summarised in an easy to follow graphic!© hwackerhage

From this point on I’m incapable of coherent speech at all and all that comes out is groans of fear mixed with exertion. The face gets steeper and steeper and my body gets more and more tired as I try not to imaging the void below me and concentrate on making the top of the bulge. I remove and promptly drop an ice screw now convinced this is going to end badly. With a cacophony of noises more suited to mating elephants, I do one last pull and I’m up and on to easy angled nevé and able to stagger up to the belay.

Two pitches through the snowfields allow us to recover a bit before arrive at the crux a rightwards traverse up steep nevé; it looks good but hard. The view is spectacular, a huge drop down the face to the CIC hut in the valley bottom and across to Carn Mor Derag. By now my brain has managed to accept and enjoy the exposure although neither of us can be bothered to fiddle about trying to get the camera out (a poor decision).

The crux proves a bit of a pager tiger, it’s technically hard but physically much easier than the nightmare of the second pitch and I really enjoy the delicate moves up to the belay. Once there I’m rewarded by finding our camelback frozen and the 3l of water I’m carrying is now just acting as a DIY weight west.

The next pitches through to the top of the upper snowfield are a bit of a blur although a particularly awkward belay on an ice ledge about the size of a small paper back sticks in my mind. By this point we are both completely ball bagged physically and Dom is mentally shattered from so much run out leading. The last proper pitch feels really long and hard as we climb slabs and traverse into a hanging corner through which we gain the easy slopes of the summit ridge and an end to the difficulties.

Sitting on the summit ridge we don’t say much just stuff our faces with food and water, and make very yellow snow. The weather has changed, cloud is coming in so we GUFO (gear up; fuck off) up over the summit and down No. 4 Gully the exhaustion turning into a retrospective warmth of achievement.

Dom looking a little tired and strained on the summit.

To celebrate our achievement we destroy a £500 four season Quasar by pitching it in the most exposed place possible and then deciding to take it down a 5am whilst buffeted by 70 mph winds and driving snow (we know what were doing honestly!).

Looking back now over the space of a couple of weeks the experience has morphed into one of those great winter epics that you actually enjoyed. Cant wait for next year to do Point Five and Zero!