30 August 2011

More running, more!

Soon there'll be a conference. I have no clue what I'll say there. I haven't had a chance to look at the data! But it really is soon, so I should get my arse in gear and process the data. And weekend is no reason to stop that. It is good, though, to not ONLY work in the weekend, and that notion goes together well with my desire to get back into running shape. Work until your brain gets mushy, and then run until your body gets smelly. So on Saturday I worked until fairly late; that's how I ended up running while the sun set. On Sunday I wanted to do it the other way around: first run, and I figured I wanted to do that on Dartmoor, and then go to work. I can motivate myself for running after work, but motivating myself for driving after work is asking a lot.

I didn't want to run on the railroad, so I picked some very clear path a bit further east. And I set off! It wans't the easiest route; the path has lots of loose cobbles on it, which makes it more a balancing act than exercise. But it was good anyway! I got rewarded with beautiful views and bovine supporters. And I knew our Aussie would be on Dartmoor too, so when I was done I tracked him down (with difficulty! These men are just too confident in their map-reading skills) and together we walked onto a hill to find a good ambiance for some solbærtoddy and carrot cake. And then it was time to go back to the office in my sweaty clothes and muddy boots, and get some more work done!

29 August 2011

Time for repair and cleaning

Microbiology is fascinating, but it should stay out of your water bottle. It doesn't, though. I had a thought lingering in my mind for a long time I should clean the tube and mouthpiece of one of my water bags, but when I had a closer look at in in Switzerland I realised that thought needed to move forward. Both were clogged with evil-looking algae. I took the mouthpiece of and did what I could with my toothbrush, but the effect was limited. And I had no way of cleaning the tube. At home I would have to do a more thorough job...

Once home I pondered what to do. Cleaning a long tube can be tricky! I decided I would have to get a tread through, then attach a piece of chamois leather to the string and pull it through a few times. And just try any available violence on the mouthpiece.

A piece of thread will not feed through a damptube like that; one needs something of high density to aid its progress. But what is heavy enough to do the job though small enough to fit through? I had it; the small nuts I had bought for my camera repairing spree! It worked. The algae, though, were not willing to entirely evacuate the place. I might introduce some chemicals there. But for now it will do.
My cunning solution. Notice the flaking algal mats inside the tube!

While cleaning I noticed, though, that the endless biting on the mouthpiece had actually resulted in me biting through. That solves the cleaning issue! I'll just chuck it. I have ordered a new one. My water bag will soon be as new!

28 August 2011

Running into the sunset

Geographical running has returned, after a summer stop! Last Tuesday a record number of splendid colleagues gathered for an uplifting trot through Central Park. And we might greet even more! After Pete's marvellous achievement in the half marathon half the faculty now wants to see if they can perhaps even do better. And that requires training.

On Thursday I should have run again. Instead I went for a solid pint; I needed that. Or maybe three. But that only temporarily distracted me from running, and Saturday I was back. I ran a good old route, through three local parks; the last being Devonport park, which is located high above the Tamar estuary. If you run there at the right time, you're rewarded with a good view on a beautiful sunset!

27 August 2011


It has been a dry summer. I'm not sure if the summer is over, but the aridity is! We've seen some epic rainfall in the last days. And besides giving us something to talk about, it makes all snails come out and parade around on my unlit garden path. I try not to hurt them, but I must have an embarrassing body count anyway...

The view from the back door of the office, last Thursday

These are the smarter snails; fewer die under our feet and wheels in daylight...

And during summer we could enter mines that would otherwise be flooded. I think all those have filled up again. Oh well; better that than that they fill up while we're in them!

25 August 2011


One hour and ten minutes! That’s not bad for a half marathon. Not if one has to swim the whole distance. Through coffee.

Those who’ve known me for a while might recognise this as the typical level of sensibility of a Margot dream. And indeed, this was what I was up to during the night. I managed to come up with an interesting race through the beautiful historical city centre of Haarlem. Where, apparently, the canals are filled with coffee. And why is such a dream relevant?

When I’d finished and got the medal I thought “I should text Neil! He’d be pleased to know.” And I knew we’d just broken up, but I wasn’t sad, and I just wanted to share the news. And in waking life I’m still a bit melancholy (go figure, after less than 48 hours), but much less than it easily could have been, and I take it as a good sign my subconscious has already moved on. I think the conscious will follow shortly…

23 August 2011

Goodbye Neil

“I think I would like you to just leave me alone for now whilst I think about stuff.” Has any relationship ever recovered from a sentence like that? I think there is sporadic historic evidence. But it’s not inspiring much hope.

I was really happy to see Neil again after all my foreign adventures. And I then managed to express that a bit too enthusiastically. He spontaneously entered a fit of fear of commitment. Which I knew he was prone to, but I hadn’t expected such a heavy attack that abruptly. And then I got The Sentence.

Considering circumstances I was lucky; only 24 hours later I had a follow-up message. And a few hours after that we talked it out. It has been decided. And mind you, Sunday evening there was no sign at all of impending doom. Not more than normal, at least.

I knew it was a risky adventure to team up with him, and I knew it would most likely end with my heart in pieces. I took the risk. And I got a four month long wild roller-coaster ride, ending in a crash. It was worth the try. But now I have to lick my wounds…

No more.

Back into the depths

It had been so long since I’d been underground I had gotten light in the head! Time to do something about it. And what better opportunity than a trip with the Cornish nutters. This time they’d picked a scenic copper mine. I was so glad to see the dark, damp and unstable again I was hardly in the mood to take pictures. But trust me when I say it was pretty!

22 August 2011

Back in space and time

I’d been in downtown Bern, on top of the Mönch, on a Scottish beach and in a dark and cold lab. But now I was back in the southwest, and it was time to get my feet back on the ground again. Neil had a plan of making that happen: drag me through the ancient landscapes of Cornwall. We went to the Royal Cornish Museum, which was splendid. Lots of mining history! Then we rummaged around on the surface of an old mine, of which not very much was left, but it still had beautiful buddles (big round things used for separating ore from financially uninteresting rock), and later we had a stroll at the edge of a reservoir, where there were remains of human activity from a wide range of periods to be found. Some rocks had stone age cup marks, and we found some small flint flakes and tools. All in the sun. It was a good day! It was good to be gone, but it was good to be back too...

The terrain of the old mine, with the two buddles in the mid distance

Cup marks!

A microlith as we found it

Pillar and post

I once returned a book a bit too late to the university library, and I got charged £1.20 for it. So I went to the library to pay that. One would assume one just hands over £1.20 and then it’s settled, right? Well it doesn’t work that way.

The kindest of gentlemen at the library counter welcomed me. And told me he didn’t accept cash; the idea was I used my staff key card to pay. I didn’t know this, but you can upload money onto it, and pay with that. That I didn’t know that after two years means I don’t usually need that option. But now I did.

The chap showed me I should first go to a copier, swipe my card to activate it as a means of payment, then go to a special uploading-money-onto-your-key-card-machine, upload £1.20, go to the counter, and have the young man take that amount off again.

I am sure this system was developed with the best intentions. But how can one not feel mocked while going through these procedures…

ps It was only about a week ago I collided with even stranger rules...

20 August 2011

All work and no play? No!

Tourists come from all over the world to see the venerable, ancient beauty of St Andrews. I spent almost a mid-week there, and have only blogged about what went on in the labs, one of which was even blinded. But I did get to see some of it, and it’s worth showing!

One of the scenic city gates

When I arrived on Monday night it was getting late and I was hungry, so I didn’t get more done than having dinner and checking into the university hall of residence I would stay in. The next day was for mounting samples on a thingamabobby; in the late afternoon a technician would pour the resin, which would set during the night. So as soon as I delivered my samples I had nothing more to do in the lab. So what does one do under such circumstances? Have a stroll around, and a run on the beach!

What probably is the most famous face of St Andrews: golf snobs.

These seem to be the primary inhabitants of the residential part of the campus during summer. The last night when I walked home I saw 35, and it's a short walk!

St Andrews is mainly famous (beside the university, but enough about that for now) for its cathedral, or what’s left of it, the castle, or what’s left of that, and golf. The latter doesn’t interest me so I went for a stroll in the hesitating sun (it had been raining all day) past the ancient landmarks. Very impressive indeed, I must say! And picturesquely perched on the cliff coast.

There's not much left of the cathedral

The castle is at best marginally better off

The town is quite small, so I had time left for a run, and I had already seen St Andrews can boast on a nice beach, so I tried it. It was a good run. You can go a fair distance, and at the end not only very soft sand awaited me, but also an amazing view. Scotland has been good to me!

It was a nice run on the beach, but the last few metres were a bit trying.

Braving the sand was worth it though: this was the reward!

The sunnier run back

The beach with the St Andrews skyline

Although there clearly is a time for indulging in tourist behaviour, there also is time for less photogenic activities, such as having a pint with fellow scholars. Fiona, my future colleague, had heard of plans for a swift middle-of-the-week half, and she kindly arranged contact between the pub dwellers and me. So on Wednesday I entered a pub, found the right batch of complete strangers, and had a very pleasant pint with them. Scotland is being kind to me! And the day after I had dinner with Fiona herself. Nothing wrong with haggis-and-goat’s-cheese pizza! And after a few days spend like that I’m looking forward to most likely being back quite soon...

18 August 2011

Finding the needle in the haystack

What do you do when you get ready for pushing a lab further than it’s been? You put on your extra warm clothes! I had showed up in the microprobe lab in St Andrews with samples an order of magnitude smaller than the smallest they’d measured before, spent a day mounting them, another day polishing them, and today I’d give it my best shot measuring them. Why the warm clothes? Polishing my samples I’d already noticed it’s quite cold in the lab. And the coldest spot is right at the microprobe itself. Not a problem for a hardened Scot such as Donald, the lab technician, but something a southerner like me should dress for. And I know I have quite a reputation in facing the cold, but this lab is REALLY cold! Believe me.

First the samples had to be coated and the machine had to be calibrated. But before the calibration Donald had a look at the sample. And he didn’t like what he saw... the grains weren’t polished well. Some we wouldn’t be able to measure at all, and the best ones we could have a try at wouldn’t give very precise results. But we could give it a go... who knows what you find.

The sample is being coated. Notice the spooky reflection in the glass...

Calibration takes quite a while, but at some point I could start. I held my breath! We were looking for ash from a specific eruption, and we knew it was high in titanium and iron. In microprobe terms that means: a bright particle. The first turned out not to be an ash shard at all. The next was so badly polished we didn’t get a good measurement. This was going well.

I measured on. Some shards measured OK, but they always had the wrong chemical signature. Figures; most shards would be local, or spewed out by volcanic systems as Reykjanes, Torfajökull or Veidivötn. And who wants those. It was a bit disheartening. The fact that I was only just comfortable in two pairs of trousers, three T-shirts, a jumper, a scarf and a jacket may not have helped.

The machine!

Just because I had nothing to lose I measured on. I knew we, or rather, Donald, would have to come up with a better way of mounting and polishing these shards, and when that would be done I should come back and give it a proper go, with a whole sample full of measurable shards. But seeing what I had here wouldn’t hurt, now would it.

We had two types of samples. We had our normal salt marsh sediments, in which you would find all kinds of grains, and we had also taken a core in a peat bog; the sediment there is almost all organic. What isn’t would logically be ash. So in that core the ash would be easier to find... if we wouldn’t find it there we should give up; no way we’d find it in the salt marsh sediments. But if we would...

At 15.30ish I screwed up a measurement. Donald had a look, found the flaw, found a reasonably polished grain, and just aimed the beam of the machine at it. And walked away. When the results appeared on screen I gave a start. High iron and titanium!

We had 1.5 hours of lab time left. We had to think quick. I phoned Roland with the good news, and we decided it was really worth trying to prepare these samples better and come back for another go. So what to do now? With Donald I decided I should pick more, lots more grains from this same sample. He would try to develop a method to get them polished well. If it’s done well you can easily pick out the promising shards by their specific brightness. So then you can just measure away and get it done in no time! With more precise results.

A pretty picture, bt not what you want to see; they're all supposed to look homogeneous. All topography you see if bad polishing...

I left the microprobe lab, picked hundreds of shards, placed the sample in his lab (it was past 6 by then; he himself had gone home) and went for dinner with one of the local postdocs. From October on we’ll both be employed within the same project! I think I’ll see her again in the south...

I had seen the spark in Donald’s eyes; he’s keen now to get this work with very small ash particles working. And so am I! I’m really looking forward to the next step. He’ll undoubtedly find a way of making brilliant slides, and then we can measure away. And hopefully find that ash layer in the core it’s all about! And that will be one hard won data point, but it will have been worth it...

Still looking for ashes

Sometimes a disk of resin an inch wide and a centimetre thick can be the centre of the world. If it has many hundreds of volcanic ash shards inside it, which took many days of preparation to get them there, it sure is.

Excited I came to the lab. The resin would have set, now we would have to find out if we could be able to prepare my tiny, tiny ash particles, which were much smaller than this lab had ever dealt with. Donald, the lab technician, cut the resin disks to size, and then it was time to polish them. The idea is that you plish away resin-plus-sample until you have the shards exposed at th esurface, after which you can anlyse them. It sounds simple! But it turned out it wasn't.

The freshly made resin disks

First they're cut to size

I started with one sample of only ash shards, and one bulk sample. Both turned out to have a slightly raised rim, which we should get rid of in order to get to the flatter inside where we would focus the analysis. After lots of tedious polishing with a 6 micron sized abrasive we figured we might need some coarser methods to get rid of that rim. So we got griding.

The polishers: yellow for 6 microns, green for 3 microns, blue for 1 micron...

I removed the rim and polished on, with my 6 micron abrasive. Hour after hour passed, and no ploished grain came into sight. Until Donald sounded the alarm.

He noticed that we were losing grains. It turned out the 6 micron abrasive would lift the ash shards out of their resin matrix as soon as they came to the surface! So waiting for polished surfaces to appear would not work. We would have to polish with a finer abrasive, but that way it would take days to get rid of rims and blobs in the resin surface.

Donald had an idea. We should cut off the rim with violence, and then only polish very finely; that way the shards may stay put. And thus happened. Lo and behold; only minutes later I had polished grains in sight! And the resin was so uneven not all of the grains would be at the surface at the same time, so I would have to analyse, polish again, analyse, and so on until I would have analysed the deepest lying grains, but so be it. The actual measuring will be the proof of the cake, but it looks like we've cracked it, and that means we've cranked up this lab to the level of Edinburgh, where we Plymouthians had previously done our analysis! Not bad.

The beautiful old microscope with which I check the samples

Polished grains!

One would almost forget the mission is only really successful if we find the very specific ash we're loking for. But if we manage to get proper results of any ash shard I'll already be quite chuffed!

17 August 2011

To USA or not to USA

What's the USA doing here? Am I not in Scotland? Well yes I am, but my mind did some wandering off to the US. And I'll explain why.

Coming back from glacier-dominated desolation it can take a while to come back down to Earth with its microscopes, tide gauge records, expenses claims and what have you. And some people are intent on making it worse.

On a Thursday I was back in the UK. On Friday I was back in the office. I was rooting through the backlog of mails when a new one came in after about half an hour. It inquired if I may be willing to join a field trip in the USA the next month? One of the staff members might be prevented from going by unforeseen events, and they might need replacement. Such as me...

I had just come back from Switzerland, I would be off to Scotland in less than two weeks, and less than two weeks after that journey the field trip would kick off. Hectic! But I soon grasped this would be an offer I wouldn't be able to refuse.

The field trip would be in the NW United States, where I've never been; it would be run by Jon who has done it many times before, and is the kind of guy to organise it all the way into the small details; the chap I would be replacing is similar in that matter so it would be easy to hit the ground running; and I really need some teaching on my CV. This may be just the paved way to start. Most of the trip would focus on human geography, which would be interesting to see from close by, and I would be the sole responsible for physical matters, and that's quite an interesting responsibility. And to make it worse Jon urged me to, if indeed I would join, fly in a few days earlier and get over jetlag and culture shock while staying with some friends of his (who live at an amazing location) where he would spend the eve of this field trip. Blimey. How enticing can you make it.

I was all sold. But first the initial guy would have to decide if indeed he would drop out or not. And by the time that had been decided on there were some other matters to settle; with the insurance, and with the head of school who had to approve of this configuration.

While I was in Scotland the message came through the insurance company was OK with it. So far so good.

Then the final decision came through. I'm out. The head of school had decided the most important thing was that the students would notice as little as possible of the sudden withdrawal of the initial guy. So instead of hiring me, with all youthful enthusiasm (and lack of experience) I may have to offer, they decided on a chap who didn't need this at all for his CV or his general development, but who had done this trip before, and knew much more about the projects that would have to be supervised. Fair enough. But a bit sad for me! I hope the guy enjoys his bonus trip, and as soon as I get back to Plymouth I should find out what other field trip I can participate in. Because all agree (me included, of course) I should do some field trip or other. I hope it will as alluring as this one...

Looking for ashes

If my never sufficiently praised boss can’t find something, can I? (Roland reads this, I know, and one can discuss if it’s wise to boost his ego, but let’s have it.) This week will provide the answer to this question! Over the past two years we have made a splendid state-of-the-art sea level reconstruction for west Iceland, but the age model still can be improved on. And we know that in 1721 the Katla erupted, and that the ashes fell on our marsh. Unfortunately it was very, very high tide just then, and we don’t know how much of that ash has been washed away. If we can find it, and recognise it by its chemical composition, we have a marvellously dated level in our sediments. Roland has looked for it some years ago, but only found ash from who knows how many other eruptions. This is Iceland, after all, and there are all sorts of ash kicking around all the time. But we haven’t given up, and now I’m Scotland, on a mission to find this elusive ash after all.

Going to St Andrews you travel through Edinburgh. Looks like I should have another look on the way back!

 Crossing the Firth of Forth

As Plymouth doesn’t have the necessary lab facilities I get onto the train an early Monday afternoon, and after two rail journeys, a flight, and three bus journeys (not in that order), I arrived in St Andrews. It was a nice welcome by a lovely view from the train over beautiful Scottish landscapes in the low evening sun, and nice locals who told me which bus stop would give me the best starting position for finding a meal.

The first day I would mount my samples. I had brought 15 seemingly empty pots with ash shards in them. I showed the first to Donald, the lab technician who would show me the ropes. He looked in horror, and said “we can’t process that!” He had assumed, without checking, I would bring large chunks of material. And I had assumed, without checking, that if they wouldn’t give me size requirements then Plymouth standard procedure would be fine. But no...

The university of St Andrews is the oldest in Scotland, and it shows! This is the classy geography building.

We decided to give it a try anyway. Donald thought of a way to reduce the unevenness of the surface we would be mounting the shards on. And I spent the rest of the day mounting every shard I had brought. And I even made two improvised bulk samples. You can pick out the shards beforehand, but you can also just mount anything, and only while microprobing pick out what looks like volcanic ash, and analyse that.

The microscope lab had a view over sea!

Mounting in progress.

The samples have been cast in resin and are dry now. Today we have to polish them; that’s the part that will prove the challenge. And when I say "we" I mean "I"; Donald is afraid to ruin my samples, so I'll have to do it myself. If that works not only can we analyse away, and hope fervently we find what we’re looking for, but also have we proven that this lab can actually do it, which is a first timer! I’ll do my bloody best... and stay tuned!

14 August 2011

Throwing stuff away? Bring your car...

I’m a hoarder. I can’t throw things away. And it’s a burden. I have been trying over the decades to somehow re-mould myself and learn the art of keeping your material possessions to an acceptable amount, but it’s a slow process. Yet some progress is made...

Recently I had an extra burst of annoyance at all my stuff. And I want to engage in a new offensive against it. One small step in this greater whole is that I figured I should get rid of my copper. No not of a police officer (I have none); a few kg of scrap copper. I used to work with that back in the days; making cheap-ass replicas of ancient jewellery with it. But I haven’t done that since I left the Netherlands. And I should get rid of it.

The sort of things I'd make of the copper

On a fresh Saturday morning I stuffed the whole clump in my rucksack and biked to the industrial estate on the outside of town. I went to a scrap yard I had biked past many times; all well, it was open, and there was a young man manning the reception. But when I asked him if he accepted old copper (he’s representing a scrap yard, so why wouldn’t he?) he asked to my surprise if I had come with a vehicle. I said yes, I had brought my bicycle. And then to my even greater surprise he said he couldn’t accept anything from anyone who came without a car. He needed a registration number, and the one of the car I had left at home wouldn’t do. And I assume these rules would have been imposed onto them from above, and it wasn’t just him engaging in spontaneous cyclist-bullying, but I wasn’t too pleased. Would I really have to bike all the way back with the stuff on my back, drive back, deliver the copper, drive back home, and get back onto my bike for the rest of my shopping? Ludicrous!

Luckily I wasn’t the only person trying to get rid of some metal. I just asked the guy who appeared behind me, and who HAD come by car, if he wanted my copper. That way it would be according to the rules... He said they weren’t going to pay him for his stuff today, so he couldn’t pay me. I was mainly interested in getting rid of it, so I said he could just have it. The copper price is pretty high, so the guy felt a bit burdened by the deal, but he accepted it. He said if he would ever come across me in a pub he’d buy me a drink...

The entrance to the scrap yard

Evidently, throwing things away isn’t as easy as it seems! But I managed. Let’s see what more I can do. I made an eBay account and will try to sell some stuff I really don’t want to just bin... one day I might have a tidy, empty-ish home!

12 August 2011

Totnes 10k

"You should do the Totnes 10k; it’s fun! It’s almost all off-road… "

This advice came from one of my most elusive running mates ever; Will, with whom I had run only twice before he got injured. And even though that was a while ago, he still wasn’t back to normal. He should have competed in the Plymouth Half Marathon, and he should have run the Totnes 10k himself as well, but it wasn’t going to happen. I still took his advice to heart, though, and I had subscribed.

It felt a bit strange. I had only just come back from Switzerland, and I hadn’t run for a month, as I had to drag both conference kit and hiking paraphernalia to the Alps, and it all still had to be packed in manageable luggage, so there was no room for running shoes and the likes. Oh well. My physician had, when I asked her about my ankle injury, already said that if I could run a half marathon I could just bluff my way into a 10km race without doing any training…

I pinned my race number to my shirt in the train. The start was just beside the station, so I got out of the train, walked a few minutes, gave my bag to two very kind elderly ladies who manned an improvised cloakroom, and then I was ready to go!

I did some stretching, and close to 11AM I went to the start. I was recognised there by some very tall university employee; nice to see someone familiar!

This race only had 500 runners, so as soon as the signal sounded we could all run. And we were off! The first bit went over bike tracks, but soon we were in the fields, on a narrow path along the Dart, and in the woods. There was a fresh wind, we were refreshed by one rain shower, and beside that there was just sun.

On these narrow paths you can often only run at the speed of the one before you, but I didn’t mind. The atmosphere was good, and at some point I was chatting with the lady behind me for minutes before the path widened, and we could actually look each other in the eye.

The tall Plymouthian was not far in front of me. Somewhere halfway the race I found him stretching against a tree; would he have had cramps? Having long legs doesn’t always make you fast, apparently!

There were steep bits in this race too; at some point almost everyone in sight was walking. I refused, but that took me all the breath I had.

This isn't even the steep bit; there I was too out of breath to take pictures...

It was a 10km race, so I was surprised to see the 1 mile mark after a few minutes. Why would I want to know the distance in miles? But this is England… the 2 mile sign followed soon, and the 3 and 4, and then I knew I was more than half way. I was looking forward to the 5 mile sign; that would be ¾ of the way! But it was elusive. When I still hadn’t seen it and already could hear the finish I figured I’d missed it.

Finish in sight!

I did some modest acceleration when I knew I was almost there, but I hadn’t saved myself as much as during the Plymouth half, so I came in at modest speed. My time was 56.25; not bad given I hadn’t trained! I got my medal, got a hug from the woman I had been talking to earlier in the race, and then I made my way back to the railway station. A hit-and-run race if there ever was one. But it had been fun, and this might help get back into a running routine. I want to do another half marathon!

11 August 2011

Back to civilisation

I had hiked four glaciers and conquered two mountain tops. But now it was time to get back to normal. Unfortunately!

The morning after my Mönch adventure I woke up, took it easy, packed my stuff and said goodbye to the very kind lady at the campsite reception. And then embarked on the trip to normality.

Dramatic skies guide me on my way to the railway station

Originally I would be one day longer in the mountains, get back to the campsite, and then the next morning get up really really early, and go directly to Geneva airport. With the changed plans, though, I could take it more easy; I would get to Geneva the night before my flight, and could have a lie-in.

Soon after I entered the train to Interlaken the rain was hammering down. I had left in time! All the way to Geneva the trip was otherwise very uneventful. In Geneva, however, I had to somehow find my way to the camp site. There were issues with a bus you had to phone; the camp site was quite remote. And there is a lot that can go wrong with that. To summarise: the trip that should have taken me half an hour took me about two and a half hours. But I got there.

Not Switzerland at its prettiest

I got to the very quiet camping and pitched my tent. Soon later a chap in a caravan offered me a beer. A beer! Chaps in caravans might not necessarily be best met with encouragement, but I craved a beer… and it was even nice to have a beer with the guy, and chat a bit. He also showed me the river next to the camp site. But that had probably been too much; I spent the rest of the evening actively keeping to myself, as he got too pushy to my taste. I figured until then I had been quite lucky with who I’d met…

My tent on the final campsite

The next morning the chap was gone, and I spent my last hours with another tourist from the UK, who occupied the tent next to me and who was on biking holiday. That was better! We helped each other finishing our supplies (he would fly back that day too), and together burned off my excess fuel (not necessarily in accordance with strict H&S standards, but hey, it worked). And then it was time to go to the airport…

I used an abandoned check-in counter to weigh my backpack. It was 1.2 kg too heavy! Luckily my pots, pans and filling were 1.2 kg, and I had space in my hand luggage, so that was easily solved. And then I could read Dostoyevsky until I touched down on UK ground again.

Neil had kept his Saturday free for me, which was great, but it was only Thursday. Luckily he texted inquiring after my whereabouts that very evening; his activities for the night had been cancelled, and he had time for me! So my bag was left half-unpacked, but only a few hours after reaching Plymouth I knocked on his door. It’s not the same as standing on a 4000+ mountain, but it’s very good as well! I think I can get used to being back…

10 August 2011

On top of the conference

The INQUA conference (INQUA stands for International Union for Quaternary Research), which was the reason I came to Switzerland in the first place, had decided to turn the Alpine skyline of Bern into its logo. To be more specific; they used the characteristic silhouette of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. So a week after the conference I was standing in the middle of the logo! I liked that.

09 August 2011

Climbing the Mönch

The text message from the hike organiser with the name and contact details of my mountain guide for the next adventure made me believe I would be negotiating the thin air with an actual Swiss this time. And indeed! As he didn’t have to come from far away we gathered at the same place where I felt I had met my glacier companions ages ago, but this time at 9AM. This meant taking the busy train up. And soon I shook the hand of Daniel, the guy who would lead me beyond 4000m. And soon as well the hand of Maria, the Brazilian lady and other participant. Minutes later we were standing outside.

The view from station Eigerwand; it's Grindelwald! This is the window I could see from my tent.

The surroundings of Jungfraujoch were bathing in sunlight again. Notice in the distance a grid of tents; this was some encampment where equipment by Mammut, which celebrated its 150th anniversary, was tested.

With no chance of starting at 7AM we had missed the firm snow. In the heat we geared up; this time we would be wearing crampons from the beginning. This time I had made sure I had brought my summer gear; a thin shirt and white sleeves. No sunburn, but no heat exhaustion either!

Ready to climb!

Maria is helped into her crampons

Maria was loudly wondering why on Earth she had gotten herself into this predicament, so she got roped in in the middle. Daniel kept a very short stretch of rope between us; I would spend quite some moments fearing I would get Maria’s crampons in my face or through my hands, but it never happened. And we were off. From Jungfraujoch you can just walk to the ridge of the Mönch that leads to the top, so soon we were trudging through snow with steep slopes on both sides. But it would get better; here and there the rock peeked out through the snow, and that had to be climbed with crampons on. A bit awkward! But you get used to it fast.

 The view soon is beautiful.

After a few intervals of snow and rock Daniel announced a break. I decided it was a good time for a cup of coffee, and made it happen. While we were thus engaged one rope group after the other came past; on such a beautiful day many people venture up. One man leading a group started sniffing conspicuously when he came past: he smelled my coffee! I offered him some, which he happily accepted. Daniel didn’t want any; he said it would make him need to go to the toilet. A fair comment; it was already two hours since Jungfraujoch, and I was already starting to feel the pressure. A narrow ridge at altitude, however, is not a good place to do something about that, and Daniel wouldn’t let me. Luckily I have a strong bladder.

Many rope groups on the ridge

Climbing on crampons; the bloke in the stripey hat is Daniel, our mountain guide.

Soon we were on our way again. More snowy ridges, more clambering over rocks; sometimes doing a little rope-avoiding dance where many rope groups going in both directions met. But climbers tend to be kind and social people and all was well.

Going to the top!

I have to look where I'm going and can't look into the camera, but that doesn't stop me from taking pictures. Accidentally also of a Japanese rope group just behind me.

One has to make sure not to stand on these overhanging slabs of snow...

Fairly soon we were up. 4107m; my personal record! Only 145m higher than the Äbeni Fluh, but still, a record. We wouldn’t stay long; it was way too busy there! But there was time for mountain top kisses (that either is a Swiss tradition, or Daniel made us believe that; either way, I’m Dutch, I’m not complaining), some pictures, some admiration, and something perhaps to eat and drink. And then we accepted the way back.

The view from the top! Once again the Aletsch glacier.

Mountain guides always go on top; on the way up they lead, on the way down they guard the rear. That meant I now was the bellwether! I liked the job. I soon got a feeling, through the tension on the rope, how fast i should go so Maria would be comfortable too. The snow was really soft now, and we did a fair bit of sliding, but nothing disconcerting.

Some bits are steep

When we reached the first climb down I realised halfway Daniel wanted us to abseil down, instead of climb down. I preferred climbing, but I am an obsequious girl and sailed down the steep rocks at high speed. And as walking down the snowy ridges is easier than walking up we made good headway. In a way it was a waste to rush down; one should enjoy such a mountain! On the other hand, I was getting fairly fried by the relentless sun in the thinner-than-ever air. And around 2.30 we were down again. I made sure the first thing I did was empty my bladder.

Daniel had other things to do, and was off after some more kissing. I was hungry by now, and wanted to have some lunch with the stunning view, which I would soon have to leave. Maria wanted to be out of there.

Back down! We started at this flag.

Eating my sandwich I noticed I had really been blasted a bit too much by the sun. I decided to not stay long, but instead head back to the railway station. When I reached it I saw to my dismay that half the world seemed to want to have that train; obediently I took my place in the queue, waited more than half an hour, entered the packed train, and tried to sit down without hurting anyone with my crampons and ice axe. The adventure was over!
The dark tunnels bring solace from the bright sun

I wasn't the only one who wanted to go down again...

I ended up chatting with a Genevese couple, which was good as I had decided to go to Geneva the next day, and around 6PM I was back in Grindelwald. I managed to give my equipment back at the officially closed office, and acquired some information on Genevese camp sites. Mission accomplished! Time to go back to the camping.

At the camping people gave me strange looks. When I looked in the mirror I figured why; my eyelids were massive. I looked like I had been crying my eyes out! I really had been fried by the sun. It didn’t feel very comfortable. When I got a text message after having gone to bed the looking at the radiant little screen made my eyes hurt, and made them water even more.

The having-cried-all-night-look I ended ip with...

I think I need new sunglasses... I had had a good time, and these should not be the last glaciers and mountains I roam! But next time I should come off looking like I’m actually enjoying myself. Since I am!