Thursday, 10 June 2010

Hero's: H. W. Tilman

Ask most people to name a great British explorer from the last century and I bet you will probably get names like Mallory, Scott, Shackleton and maybe Bonnington  coming top of the list. The reason three of these men are famous is that they were involved in epic failures that seared themselves on the public psyche. Mallory's death on Everest with the elusive possibility he summited; Scott dying of hunger and cold in Antarctica after losing the race to the south pole, Shackleton saving himself and his men after their ship was trapped and sunk by ice by an epic open boat journey.

Bonnington is possibly a wiser choice. An excellent climber with many first ascents to his name Bonnington's true brilliance was his organisational and management skills. Culminating in the successful expeditions to the South face of Annapurna in 1970 and the south-west face of Everest in 1975 which marked the pinnacle of the big expedition approach to mountaineering.

My choice is a man who I feel was not only the greatest British explorer of the last century but probably the greatest explorer last century full stop. Unfortunately you have probably never heard of him. So let me introduce you to a truly amazing man, Bill Tilman who in my opinion is one of Britain's greatest ever explorers and a hero of mine.

Bill Tilman was a hero of two world wars, a survivor of the horrors of the Somme, a guerrilla fighter, and explorer who travelled many tens of thousands of miles through some of the remotest and at that time most unknown places on earth in the days when there really were blanks on the map. 

Moving to Africa after WW1 Tilman explored the mountains of Kenya climbing Kilimanjaro, and mount Kenya often solo. Later when he decided to return to England instead of a short trip to the east coast to catch a steamer he cycled alone and with no real maps or supplies across the continent to catch a boat from the west coast.

In the thirties Bill Tilman along with Eric Shipton formed half of one of the great climbing partnerships. Together they mapped huge swaths of the Himalayas disappearing for months off the face of the Earth. In the process they developed the concept of the lightweight approach to exploration  believing that an expedition could be organised on the back of an envelope. These ideas form the genesis of today's alpine style mountaineering. Although I think he would have regarded the video updates, Blogs, and satellite phones that accompany many of today's expeditions surplus to requirements.

Perhaps Tilman's greatest achievements were his expeditions to Nanda Devi. The second highest mountain in India Nanda Devi is protected by a formidable battery of defenses. The mountain sits inside The Sanctuary a circle of mountains which only once falls below 5200m. The  Sanctuary had repulsed explorers for 50 years many failing even to get close to the foot of outer walls. 

In 1934 with Shipton and three Sherpas Tilman forced a way through the steep almost impassible Rishi Gorge which drains the Sanctuary and discovered a paradise of grassy alp's and meadows within it's walls which had never been seen by human eyes.   He would return two years later to climb the mountain at the head of a lightweight expedition, it would remain the highest summit reached by man until 1950.

In WW2 he rejoined the army and parachuted behind enemy lines and worked with partisans in the mountains of Albania, Italy, and Yugoslavia.

Tilman wrote about is explorations in a number of books now collected into two volumes. The Seven Mountain-Travel Books chronicle his mountaineering trips in Africa, Europe, and Asia; The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books. The books are vivid histories of his expeditions and rightly regarded as some of the greatest travel books ever written. 

They are shot through with modesty, dry humour, and self deprecation with the author often sending himself up. They contain descriptions of lands now lost; Tilman was often the first westerner ever to visit some areas and was one of the first white men ever to enter into Nepal. his descriptions paint a picture of a country before mass tourism changed it forever.

From his books Tilman always appears to find the joy of exploration and an unseen view more important than the summit or completing a hard route. This resonates clearly with me and is one of the reasons I find his life so inspiring. Always a new horizon.

In later life Tilman took up sailing taking his small yacht Mischief to the Antarctic, Greenland, and Patagonia in search of unclimbed mountains and unexplored coastline. Aged 80 he sailed toward the South Atlantic making for the South Shetlands. His boat disappeared en-route to the Falkland islands.

Although the loss of the rest of the crew many of them young was undoubtedly a tragedy. Somehow this death seams right and I hope he would have approved. The spirit of such a man should not rest forever in some sleepy churchyard it should wonder the oceans carried by the currents to the four corners of the world.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rubbing Salt In The Wound

Frustrated and annoyed.

Yesterday the first major desalination plant opened in the UK. The plant has been built in London to address the capital's yearly game of Russian Roulette with its water supply. Put simply London is in the wrong place, and too many people live there.  Whereas northern England, Wales, and Scotland have plenty of hills with which we can capture and store rainwater London's location and topography are all wrong for water collection and storage.

Because of this much of London's water* has always come from rivers and boreholes sunk into the chalk that sits deep below the city. Unfortunately over extraction from many of these boreholes runs the risk of saline intrusion into the aquifer and consequently reduced the resource value. Added to this is a chronic leakage problem; not just localised to London I admit but Thames Water are particularly bad allowing 894 million liters a DAY** to leak from their infrastructure. That is a cube of water 95m square pumped from a scarce resource, treated (which Londoner's pay for), then allowed to leak away. It's a complete disgrace.

Clearly fixing the leaks would be a massive, expensive, and disruptive undertaking involving digging up much of London but in the end it is the only sustainable option. Well not quite the other option is to uproot half a dozen boroughs and move them to Northumberland where they have more water than they know what to to with (perhaps Boris and Alan Sugar could get together for a TV show."Richmond, Dagenham, Kensington, YOUR FIRED"). However instead of this Thames water have been allowed to build this desalination plant.

Keilder Water, Northumberland, The largest artificial reservoir in the UK by capacity. (Some good MTB action in those woods too)

Unfortunately the desalination process requires heat and vacuum, conditions that make it a very energy intensive and energy inefficient not to mention expensive process. Proponents claim the plant is good for the environment as it burns renewable bio-fuels to generate it's energy. But Hello!! when I last checked nice ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY bio-fuels give off exactly the same CO2 when burnt as everything else.
This plant is just another example of us talking a problem from the wrong end. Providing more of something rather than trying to use a resource more cleverly and efficiently. Thames Water should have spent the money fixing the leaks, and promoting water saving measures amongst it's customers because at the end of the day we all probably use too much.

* Source More than you will ever want to know about London's supply boreholes.
** 2005-2006 Figures. Source

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Ethereal Light and Haunting Beauty

Browsing the photos section on UKClimbing and came across these shots of Sandwood Bay; inspiring landscape photography making me quite envious.  Gorgeous colours in the sky at sunset.

Sandwood Bay captivated me from the first moment I saw a picture,  probably the best beach on the UK mainland although I think even more glorious beaches lurk hidden in the Western Isles. About six miles shy of Cape Wrath the most north-westerly point of the mainland a four mile walk from the road its an adventure to even get there.


Further pictures by the photographer colinthrelfall can be found here.