29 May 2010

Dangling from ropes

Single Rope Technique. It sounds fairly vague! There are endlessly many things one can do with a single rope. But in this precise wording it refers to getting up and down a rope safely. The technique seems to have been developed by tree workers. Some biologists for instance study the canopy of rain forests, and well, one has to get to that canopy in some way or other, and then down again as well.

I was used to ropes only as a safety line and a means of descent. If you climb, you do the going up on rock. But cavers need the rope to ascend, as well. No use, for instance, in trying to climb that 60 m vertical shaft we did last Sunday, and especially not with lots of kit dangling from you, and soaking boots and clothes, and a bag with lunch and whatnot in tow.

So I’d done some SRT. One descends into a dark pit, and later climbs out again. Bob’s your uncle. But there’s more to it. It might happen that you explore a mine, and lower yourself in unknown territory, only to find out there are no safe places to go. The only thing you can then do is ascend again. And in itself it’s not difficult to dangle from a rope, and there get your ascent kit in position, remove your descent kit, and go back up. But it’s better to train it in a friendly environment.

Sometimes a rope also has to have several fixation points. Because it needs to go around the corner, for instance. Getting past such a point in a safe manner is also something you want to calmly practice, before you end up having to make it up on the spot in a dark mine after 10 hours of exhausting exploration.

The Mountbatten climbing wall that we could use for our purposes. In the oval a re-belay is just visible.

Me happily dangling from my two ascenders

Me see from below. I'm making my way past a re-belay; notice the rope above me is slack. Below me there's another one. Pic by Dave

I want to be able to do any accepted rope travel, so I was very glad the PCG organised an SRT training evening. I started practicing the direction reversals on a rope. There’s not very much to it, but it was good to try it in such relaxed circumstances. Then it was time for going up a rope with a few re-belays; some more anchor points, often at some lateral distance from each other. It’s a bit of faffing around to get past, but I have a routine now! At some point I heard voices from below shouting goodbyes; some of the less addicted had had enough training and left. And then, when I had just made it down past a re-belay, Dave shouted from below if I could perhaps move back up, and take out all the re-belays on my way. Well yes why not. I ended up on the top, where I found Ferret taking all the kit down, and this time we took the stairs to get back to Dave and Ali. Exercise over.

From up there I could keep an eye on my bicycle

That of course left us time for a pint. A deserved one! I feel up to all kinds of underground rope antics now. I hope it comes in handy soon…

Divided caving

This week’s PCG trip went down memory lane! To my surprise Neil planned to join it. And the weather forecast was excellent, so we went by his car. We took ample time, so I got a complementary sightseeing tour in his convertible. Not bad at all!

When we came close to the meeting point we found the road blocked by Dartmoor rescuers as far as the eye could see. They had picked this lovely evening for a training. Good for them! We as well found our debutant caver, and all three we strolled up the nearest Tor for a nice view. When we came back Lionel and Finbar had appeared. Now we were still waiting for Richard and Rupert, and whoever they brought with them Rupert was crucial, as he had brought helmets and lights for those without. But it got later and later and he didn’t answer his phone. We decided to change into our gear, but that was not all; getting into my shoes I already saw the three least patient men disappear over the horizon. What? Low levels of group spirit tonight! They didn’t know the way, and I thought I did, so I decided to follow them carrying my phone. In case Rup showed up we could find each other!

And of course Rupert did show up, with his mates and his stuff. Neil, Darren (the new guy) and me waited for them, and with the 6 of us we proceeded towards the mine adit. We had Ali, who knew the way exactly. But we didn’t see the other guys back, and observation of the cobwebs at the entrance, they were not in there…

Ali tried to drain the adit a bit by being unforgiving to some weeds, while Rupert got Darren into his gear. And in we went, observed by Ali’s new camera. Neil immediately went to look for interesting traces of ore, while two others disappeared into the deeper recesses for some burrowing, and Darren decided that standing in cold water up to his thighs in a dark, murky tunnel was not as comfortable as expected, and that enjoying the pink evening sky sitting in the soft grass was preferable. He was chaperoned back by Rupert, who afterwards pushed on to a collapse, where he found me. They went to have a look at what the diggers were doing, which meant belly-crawling through a low tunnel (apparently it had accumulated a lot of sediment in the past months), and wading through water that was deep and cold enough to bring unexpected musical talents out in Rupert.

I was afraid Neil had gotten impatient by all the faffing and doodling earlier the evening, so I decided to head back to check up on him. He was fine, but we went back anyway, and met up with Darren, who was getting cold by now. By then Dave and Dave, who would come later and only hang around above ground, and the three fearless explorers had also been spotted, but I was wet to the collarbone and needed to keep moving to not get cold, so I did not wait to socialise. So as divided as we had arrived we went back, but in the end we all found our way to a nearby pub, where we exchanged experiences; the scouting party turned out to have restricted itself to wandering around among the surface relics of the mine, and everybody had had a splendid trip. And together making plans for imminent SRT training over a pint (this referring to the making of plans, not to the training itself) made this trip end not only pleasantly but also usefully.

Lower three pics by Neil

28 May 2010

Caving madness

Devon balances on the edge of western civilization, and Cornwall is beyond it. True? Probably not. But the Cornish cavers are definitely wilder than their Devon (Devonian? Grammatically correct, but looking wrong in geological eyes) counterparts. They don't venture out often, but when they do, they go for it. I got a taste of that in April, and I wanted more! Luckily I was welcome, so on the sunniest day of the year so far I was sitting in Dave's car on my way deep into Cornwall. It would be a Devon-dominated trip, as Dave's car also held Lionel, and PCG veterans Hugh and Trish were on their way in their own car. We were to meet only three Cornish madmen; Mark and Mike who had also joined the April trip, and Preston, who I had never met before.

Both teams had brought a rope, and that was no over-indulgence, as access to this mine was through a 60m shaft. And even down it saves time if you can go with two people at the same time. I had a brand new descender; Dave won't let me descend on an "eight", as these don't necessarily stop you if you let go of the rope. A descender does. But that's not deemed enough; nobody goes down on Dave's and Lionel's shift without the rope also going through a screw karabiner. And altogether you have so much friction you are very safe, but that also means you have to manually feed the rope in order to go down, so even that takes time. I went down with Mike, which went quite fine besides him landing on my head.

As was the case with the previous weekend trip we could leave our SRT kit at the entrance, and continue unaided. There was a lot to see! Within no time we ended up on rickety planking with rusty tram rails and an abandoned cart, precariously balancing above a gaping hole. There was a strange movie set feel about it. And this was only the beginning. We moved on, and found ourselves in a surreal and versatile world. In places it was just fairly ordinary tunnels, but mostly it was large halls with abandoned ladders and soaring ceilings, or ominous rooms with ubiquitous collapses and menacingly weakened beams, otherwordly tunnels with fractal rust stalactites or a layer of bright red, highly acid water; small passages with glittering crystals, or eerily coloured trickles oozing from the walls and snottites hanging from the ceiling. We found unfathomable shafts, some used as garbage dumps; wooden bridges over orange pools, copper-blue stained walls, traces of disappeared passages, soft-floored tunnels turning back onto themselves, and much more; about ten hours worth of a world I knew could not be caught in word or picture. I try here, anyway, but it's a pale attempt.

It was a good team to roam this expanse; the other seven were all veterans with lots of knowledge about this mine, and mining in general. And group spirit was strong. Mines and caves tend to have some tricky bits, and there was always a helping hand available where needed. And where not needed as well, quite often. Many people have expressed their surprise at spending such a sunny day underground, but I couldn't have wished for something better!

Time flies when you're having fun, and by the time the first duo went up the ropes it was approaching nine. Getting  eight people, not all of them youthful and athletic heroes, up a 60m rope takes a while, so by the time we were all out we did not go for an after-mine pint, but set off in the directions of home, impatient significant others, and/or dinner. The latter would prove a bit of a challenge for Dave, Lionel and me; try to find something to eat in rural Cornwall on a Sunday after 9PM. It's not happening! So we settled for a pint on the way, and thoughts of whatever edible substances we expected to find at home. And at 11PM I was back in my own kitchen digging out some quick fix, and polluting my bath with my filthy kit from which I tried to rinse the acid. I was tired and hungry, and I smeared mud all over my house, but it had been entirely worth it!

I let the pictures speak for themselves. Except the one of the bridge, of the people trying to climb into a partially collapsed tunnel, and of the men having some lunch on a block field in a large room they are all taken by Dave.

24 May 2010

Election fever - again

Electionmania has hardly faded here in the UK, after the memorable elections that lead to the culture shock of the Brits having to cope with a coalition. I hope this break with tradition will be a first modest step on the road to actual democracy, and not the garbled mess of the first-past-the-post system. But time will tell.

Way before we'll know how the English will fare in their new situation, we'll know what the next Dutch government will look like. The 9th of June we'll have national elections, and it'll be very exciting. Again.

We've had Balkenende now for donkey's years, and I've never been excessively happy with that, so I hope we will use these elections to get rid of him as a prime minister. I am a bit scared, though, of what we might get in return...  there's some people waiting to take over with whom I'm even less pleased. The only thing I can do is vote, and hope for the best.

And I've received my polling card! This gives me ample time to send it back in time. Good. It also sped up my efforts in keeping up with electoral news. And that evidently was needed, for I saw all sorts of parties on the polling card that were new to me. And some browsing taught me that among them were something that appeared to be a student's party, and one party that was a sort of one-issue party focusing on privacy, mainly online, and some party of new age happy people that had beautiful ideas but did not seem to be too keen on explaining how exactly they thought they would make all that really happen. I'll have to dive in a bit further, but a quick glance showed I most likely will be voting for a party that has participated in national elections before.

This polling card must look odd to the British eye, that only gets a handful of names to choose from... and notice the beautifully orange envelope!

And that brings me to another very useful tool in the Dutch elections, that the Brits might learn something from: "de stemwijzer", which roughly translates to the polling indicator. It's a site made by the institute for public and politics, and they chop up the programmes of all participating parties into equivalent morsels and place them side to side. Doing the stemwijzer means responding to 30 statements of political significance, and having your answers  compared to the intentions voiced by all these parties, showing you how much you have in common with each of them. It also links to further information. Very handy! It does not entirely replace doing some research yourself, as politics is about more than 30 topics, but if you see you have practically nothing in common with a new party on this selection of issues, it probably means you don't have to read their programme very intensively before you find out they're not for you.

This year they had something new: the voting tracker! There has been evidence in the past of political parties not entirely standing up to their promises, and this tool provides a check on that. It only works for parties who have been represented in parliament before, but that's a minor disadvantage. It gives you 30 issues that have been voted on in the house of commons, and lets you cast your vote. Afterwards you can see what all parties have voted, and which one voted most like you. I thought it was telling that for me, the results from the indicator and the tracker were not the same... perhaps of course due to imperfect representation, but perhaps also due to the difference between what politicians promise you and what they'll deliver.

Anyway. I've got some time to finetune my preferences, and I'll keep my fingers crossed for the outcome on the 9th of June! Will we keep the christians in power? Will we get labour or the liberals instead? Or will Wilders do what he hopes to do? Stay tuned...

22 May 2010

If you think CO2 is alarming

How can someone who is not a climate scientist keep track of all that's going on in the current climate upheaval? It's an interesting question. Even more so when you are confronted with that climate scientists can't.

I had bought yet another book on the topic. Just working in science makes you a bit over-focused, and it can be good to read books that re-broaden your view. This one dealt with anthropogenic influence on the sea. The climate debate tends to focus on land and atmosphere, as land is where we live and the atmosphere is where we put our exhaust gases. But the ocean is vast. The oceans are the origin of life. They are the lungs of the world; the Amazonian forest is overrated! And if you kill off all life on land the oceans will still thrive, but if you do it the other way around that may not work. 90% of life seems to live in the sea to start with. And this book dealt with everything we are doing to it. Changing its temperature. Creating acidification. Overfishing. And oxygen depletion.

I have been long aware of oxygen minimum zones in the ocean. Where you have high productivity all the little critters use up all the oxygen there is. I did my PhD on the Arabian Sea, and that's one of the most productive areas there are. And I was aware of anoxia in places like the Black Sea (what's in a name) and the Baltic Sea. And where there is no oxygen hardly anything can live. But I hadn't realised yet that nowadays, there's lots of near-coast anoxia, all of it man-made. Actually, the Baltic Sea wasn't anoxic before humans started messing with it. And the deep oceans are losing oxygen too. And if I don't know it, there may be plenty of people who don't know it.

Dead zones  in the media: mass fish mortality on a scuba diving website

I was still shaking with this knowledge when a talk at PML was announced, on exactly this topic. So I went! It was an eminent scholar from the USA: Peter Bremner, from MBARI in California, and he gave a state of the art update. I was pleased to see I'm still there where it happens.

Hundreds of nearshore zones of no oxygen, also known as "dead zones", have already been identified, and all of them have been linked to human influence; mainly land fertilising. Most of them came into being in the last 60 years. The fertilisers don't stay where they're spread, and flush into the sea, where they boost primary productivity, and thus decay of organic matter, and thus the use of oxygen. Generally these dead zones wax and wane with the seasons. And as dead zones are not exactly good for economically interesting activities such as fisheries, people tend to care, and in many areas legislation has been developed to limit the damage. In some cases with success, but unfortunately the rate at which new dead zones pop up is higher than the rate at which the law manages to get rid of them again.

All dead zones identified in 2008. Taken from: http://infranetlab.org/blog/2008/08/dead-zones/

An interesting thing is that it's not just oxygen concentration in water or air that allows creatures to breathe in it. It's the ratio between CO2 and O2. If it's 1 on 1 you die. If it's 1 to 10 you're not too happy. It seems that USA safety regulations allow humans to passively stay in an environment with such atmosphere for 1 hour. Not more. You will find life in water with such a ratio but it won't thrive. The speaker compared it to the top of the Everest: you may find humans there, but it doesn't mean they can comfortably live there. So the increasing amounts of CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere are not helping.

Unfortunately, the best remedy against dead zones is churning it all up. Mix these waters! But climate is warming, so the surface waters are warmer too, and there's an increase in meltwater into the sea, so the upper layer of the sea now tends to be less dense than it used to be. So that layer is sitting there, and is not inclined to let the deeper, denser deep water come up. And that means the deep oceans also have problems. They loose their circulation too, getting anoxic too... nasty how all these things work together.

What it can look like... picture from the Baltic Sea, taken from wikipedia

A scary thing about this process is that it reminds one of something. Most people have heard of the mass extiction 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous, when the dinosaurs perished. There were more of those. It's only one of the "big five" of mas extinctions in the Earth's history. The real big one was about 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian. At the end of the Cretaceous about 50% of all life died, when for the end of the Permian the estimate is about 95%... and what happened that was so bad? It's not that easy to unravel such things in detail that long afterwards, but one thing is clear: the global ocean turned anoxic...

And again I was at the right place: I popped by at one of our geologists, who is one of the big authorities on this extinction... he was willing to dig out an image of the sediments from that time. He hasn't yet, but I have good hopes I can add it soon!

I have to be careful with my words now. Climate sceptics would like to hear me say we're definitely heading for number six of the big five mass extinctions and call me an alarmist, and as nobody can look into the future such claims would be easily rebutted. But mass extinctions are not instantaneous events. It's not the stereotypical explosion after which all is dead. They take time, while species after species is lost from the Earth. And it's no secret that we are already eradicating unimagineable numbers of species. Perhaps already at the rate of that of a typical mass extinction. If we don't do something about what we're doing to the oceans I must say at least I am personally convinced we have a real fair chance at creating number six. An impressive feat, for only one species! But not really something to be proud of...

Climbing again

When I lived in Amsterdam I sat on my arse. When I moved to Norway, all sorts of opportunities for more interesting things presented themselves, and before I know it I had gotten hooked on being in beautiful places, and doing scary and/or physically demanding things. It’s the short route to getting happy! So that’s what I’ve been chasing in the UK as well, even though it’s much harder. There’s less beauty available, and there’s not many people who can challenge you in either way. But seek and thou shall find! Caving already provides me with all three things. But you’re hooked or you’re not, so that’s how I ended up running with Jon, and desiring to restart my climbing career.

Climbing, when outdoor, is almost by definition an activity that takes place in beautiful locations, and that is both scary and physically demanding. And those who cave strongly benefit from some additional climbing skills. So that sounded like a no-brainer! The problem is, though, that one can’t climb alone (bouldering excluded, that is) , and that’s even more poignant as here in the UK bolting routes seems to be sacrilege, so you not only need at least two people, but also at least one who can lead natural routes. And I can’t.

I had already spent months nagging at our sports hero PhD students Rob and Duncan, who can both do that, but they are busy or in Wales all the time or hindered by physical discomforts of plain hung over or all sorts of things, and nothing happened. Very English, but (or thus) not very satisfying. And then we had a committee meeting of the caving group. And while enjoying a beer afterwards I mentioned that. And immediately Ali, our rope magician, said “oh I like climbing too, what about tomorrow night?”. Very un-English, but hey, he’s a caver, so of course he is. And the next day we indeed went to the nearest climbing area (the one I had recently spotted from a distance). It was beautiful weather!

The view from where we started

Ali hadn’t climbed for six months, and my last climb had been the beautiful weekend with Rafael and Tjarda in June last year, so we started calm. Plenty of easy routes! We did a nice four-pitcher in heavily weathered granite. And it was not the most challenging climb ever, but I enjoyed the scurrying along a rock face immensely. And after months of muddy caving I indulged in having proper friction on the coarse minerals!

Ali getting ready

Ali had a more cave-like challenge in mind for after this climb. A large lump of granite split in two. And it’s (at least theoretically) possible to move from one side to the other. The crack is slightly V-shaped, so the bottom is too narrow for a human, and you have to wedge your body in and worm sideways above the ground... I didn’t manage. Ali got quite far, partially thanks to his larger feet. But it was fun to try.

At the top of the four-pitcher

By the time we emerged again it was getting dark, and we went back. A modest start, but there may be plenty of opportunity to follow up on this! And now the thing to do was to have the standard post-activity pint. Or half pint, as I was driving. This was consumed under the pink evening sky with swifts hurtling past. Not a bad evening at all!

19 May 2010

Arctic spark in rainy England

It seems that Plymouth has the highest density of marine biologists of any city in the world. Maybe true! It is indeed fact that the town is riddled with institutes that do marine research. We have, beside the university, for instance the Marine Biological Association (MBA), the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). And there's lots of interaction going on. For instance, we at the wet side of university research get invited to PML talks. And today there was a talk on an Arctic project on ocean acidification. So I went!

You wouldn't go to PML for the architecture

The whole idea to bike through town to go to talks given at nearby institutes had a Tromsø feel to it. Prancing around in a research institute that is not a university has that too. And then the talk! The girl had just come back from the field trip, so she couldn't yet say much about the science, and it was mostly an Arctic scientific slideshow. Like we saw so often in Tromsø! I was a bit homesick. I'm feeling much more at home now, here in the UK, than in the beginning, but the longing is still there...

Taken from the Catlin Arctic Expedition website: http://www.catlinarcticsurvey.com/

If not work then cave

Life these days is fairly uncomplicated. I work. And I stop working either when it's late and I'm tired and hungry, or when I have to go somewhere for caving-related business. Last Saturday we went down a mine. Monday evening was the Annual General Meeting of the Devon Cave Rescue Organisation. I had no idea what my status was in that body, so a general meeting might elucidate a thing or two. I had now trained with them twice, but cavers tend to not waste too much time on talking, so whether that meant I was a member and would be on call; I had no idea.

In the cute little fire station of Buckfastleigh it was revealed to me I was considered a real member, and was on the reserve list for call-outs. If there is an emergency that can be dealt with by a modest number of people they prefer to let the experienced and well-trained solve it. But if it would happen that all hands are needed I'm expected to dash into a telephone booth, chang into superhero kit, and fly to the rescue! Or something equivalent.

And then it was Tuesday. More caving, of course. This time we woul visit Radford Cave, in Plymstock. This meant I could get there on bicycle! Which I of course did. And with a very modest group we crawled in. The cave provided some useful training in squeezing and climbing. I'm not an experienced climber, but climber enough to frown when the rock I'm supposed to negotiate is covered in slippery mud. But it always works out anyway. If I'm expected to be able to go somewhere I always can, in the end. And I should! By means of exception Dave was with us; I'd only see him go on mining trips. And he probably has decennia more experience than me, but still, me being in much better general physical condition I think I ought to be able to do what he can do, and more. But though he uttered a plethora of moans and grunts and complaints while my acoustic footprint was modest, he climbed the tricky bits with more ease than me. I should practise!

Pics by Dave

Lots of possibilities for nosing around!

Trips always come with a beer afterwards, and this was no exception. And this time they picked a pub close to the water taxi to the Barbican, which meant a short and relaxed biking (and boating) trip back. And nothing wrong with that. The week's not over yet! For one thing, this thursday will host a PCG committee meeting, so that's another evening away on caving business. And then I get Friday evening and Saturday for recovery, household, and extracurricular science, for Sunday we're going underground again! This time as guests of the Cornish cavers. And this will probably be be most hardcore trip for me so far... stay tuned!

View on the barbican from the ferry quay

16 May 2010

Weekend caving

Some caving trips are a bit more elaborate than others, and are better not done on an evening in the middle of a working week. So this Saturday I was ready with all my kit at 8 in the morning, waiting for Dave to pick me up. That was a pleasant activity, as the weather was beautiful, and I even enjoyed the attention of the neighbourhood cat; all the better as Dave had been called to work and was a little late. But somewhat later we arrived at the designated location, and could gear up. I happily covered myself in shiny, clean, brand new caving gadgets (välineurheilu!), which would not stay shiny for very long. Soon afterwards we were lowering ourselves into a bottomless hole.

I was the second to come down, and when I arrived I was greeted by an unusual sight. Lionel had inflated some cheap-ass children’s rubber boat! He knew the tunnel would be flooded, and thought it would be a nice change to negotiate it with such equipment. His cunning plan involved using the spare rope to pull the modest dinghy back, so we could all use it one by one. Weight permitting, that is; the nutshell came with a weight restriction of 55 kg. Yeah right... The rope, however, was too short, so Lionel himself managed to get to the other side with only minor damage to his dryness (try to get into such a thing as an adult without taking in water) but we had to follow on foot. On the other side we did our usual exploration and photography thing, but only for a short while as it was a dead end.

Serious caver with not-so-serious vessel

Unusual vegetation

Beautiful flooded winze (pic by Dave)

Rupert's turn to have fun

 We decided to go back to where we started (this time Rupert enjoying the Titanic), and then further in the other direction. More flooded tunnels! And at some point I even ventured into one with Dave that he had never been in before. These must be rare. But it seemed that we had found this mine in an unusually dry condition, and that this specific tunnel normally wouldn’t be accessible. And indeed, when wading through deeper and deeper water I could behind me hear the obligatory moans and remarks pertaining to the loss of aridity and temperature of his sensitive body parts that comes with male cavers. And that was only the beginning! By the time the water came to my collarbone I suddenly saw daylight. A rare sight! And a possible exit at that level would spare us the faffing with the SRT kit, so I went to have a look. With the water coming to my lips and the ceiling being immediately above my head I concluded that it probably was technically possible to get out there, but that only after some additional digging from the outside this would be a more comfortable exit than hauling yourself up on a rope. So we went back.

Group picture (pic by Dave)

Me in the until then unexplored bit; so far in relatively shallow water (pic by Dave)

Hauling myself up on the rope turned out to be a bit of a cumbersome thing as well, as I had not tightened my harness enough; something that greatly reduces the efficiency of movement. A learning experience. I hope to get some more practice soon! But I did make it up, and out, and there even found two gentlemen helping me out of all the crolls and clasps and karabiners. And while they kept an eye on the next ascender I went for a walk, trying in vain to locate the newfound exit from the outside.

The men looking for the adit

Nice day for a stroll!

On the way back, the others did find the exit, so we all changed into something dry and went back for another look. Lots of pretty mining ruins! And indeed, the dodgy-looking adit. Maybe we’ll come back there, and dig it out to such an extent it is within comfort limits of the average caver to move through...

Cavers as civilians

Cricket in the distance!

It was still early, so there was time for a pint. We found a country pub with a pretty beer garden and a view on a field where cricket was played, so we had a lovely, sunny, profoundly British liquid lunch. And then back home for an equally enjoyed shower! A good day.