31 August 2015

Greenland: the group

One of the most important things in a group hike is: the group. You can’t have a great time with awful people! I was lucky. We were a great group. A wide variety of ages, provenances and walks of life, but united in how we wanted to have a good time on Greenland. So who were my companions?

Fltr: Ron, Julia, Joaco, Sebastian and Andy

The most important one is the mountain guide. He (or she, but we had a bloke) has the plan and makes the decisions. I’ve never dealt with a bad mountain guide but I know they exist. We had Robert Thor, an Icelandic landscape architect turned mountain guide, and he was spiffing. He was vastly experienced and full of stories of past adventures. He lived half of the year in Canada, which lead to interesting rivalry with our Californian.


Then there was Ron (also known as Jozef or Ludovicus; don't ask), a civil engineer from Venlo, the Netherlands. He was generally rather quiet. He did a lot of this sort of organised trips. He’d been to pretty much all high latitude destinations you can think of. He was an excellent skier, which showed on the snow patches we traversed. He liked Rowwen Hèze, and thought all Dutch people from above the big rivers were shit. (Oh dear.)

Ron liked eating ice

We had Andy, a school teacher (formerly solicitor) from Bolton, near Manchester. He was the senior of the bunch, and in a way a stereotypical polite Englishman. He was an amateur photographer and liked getting up really early to take pictures in subtle morning light. He also sometimes vanished around dinner time for the same reason. He really liked icebergs. He took his school kids out into the great outdoors all the time, and after hearing some of his stories we all wished we’d been educated at his school.

Robert and Andy taking pictures

Then there were the Argentinians. The first you’d notice was Joaco; he was bouncy and loud and very entertaining. He was a software engineer working in Buenos Aires. He would often loudly complain about ascents (office job catching up with him) but always managed everything Robert threw at us. Spanish learners would pick up interesting new vocabulary whenever Joaco was brought into close contact with cold water. 

The other Argentinian, and Joaco’s best friend and software engineer colleague, was Sebastian. He was the quiet one of the two. He tended to make witty remarks from the background. He currently lived in London and knew everything there was to know about Nordic mythology. Joaco and Sebastian would be on their way to Italy and Turkey after Greenland – quite a contrast! And both Argentinians were completely football-mad, but that seems to come with the nationality.

Joaco and Sebastian

And last but not least there was Julia, the junior, and our Bay Area dweller. She was into art and outdoor education, but her life hadn’t settled yet, and she seemed to just be freewheeling around in Europe and Canada for now. She’d done the most unlikely odd jobs, involving Icelandic farms, sailing ships, and whatnot. She spoke proper Californian surfer lingo which caught on rather well. She would negotiate Greenlandic mountains in jeans until Robert told her not to, and she’d brought an unliftable bag full of sketchbooks and paint and whatnot, but whoever thought that meant she wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the trip was proven wrong. She would just scamper through rivers and onto mountains, sketchbooks and all, as if she did that every day.

Julia in a characteristic pose

Altogether this all worked rather well. We all had pretty much the same walking speed, whatever the terrain, so we were well-matched. We also helped each other out; one day Joaco would lend Julia his surfer trousers for extra warmth and the next day Julia would use her dental floss to try and fix Joaco's shoe, for instance. And because we all had lived such different lives we had a lot to discuss. The fact we had a base camp with a kitchen tent we all fit in, to have breakfast and dinner in, meant we had quite some opportunity to get to know each other. In a way it was a waste to be on beautiful Greenland but to only see the inside of a tent during dinner time, but this way we got more out of the social aspect of the trip. Both serious discussions and daft banter were plentiful. And most of the people you meet on trips like this you never see again, but it’s still worth it. And who knows; many of this bunch were very well-travelled; maybe some of us will meet again!

29 August 2015

Greenland: getting to Tunu

The day I would fly to Greenland I woke up to heavy rain. A good day to leave Iceland! But I was lucky; when I walked to the airport, it was uncharacteristically dry. I got there in good time. Soon the others appeared, and altogether we checked in. After the security check we took advantage of the duty free shop; on Iceland, this matters. And you can't go on a hike without a bit of whisky!

Two hours after leaving Iceland, Greenland came into view. It looked stunning! And the weather was good. We landed and got out. One rarely gets out of an airport terminal to such a vies. I have been spoiled and been to the airports of Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund, but still I was impressed. But we were also confronted with the creatures that are so blissfully absent from Iceland: mosquitoes.

Greenland comes into view

The view from the terminal of Kulusuk Airport

Someone arrived with a quad bike with a trailer and we loaded up our luggage. This was the first time I'd go hiking without all my stuff on my back! We'd set up base camps and hike from there. I had been a bit skeptical; I am tough! Daypacks are for lesser people! But I had not found a "proper" hike and the best thing to do was to just enjoy it, and not fall into the trap of dangling my sense of self-worth from my toughness (be it imagined or real). So I plonked my bag into the trailer and together we walked to Kulusuk itself.

On the way Robert, our mountain guide, told us about Greenland, He had been many times before. He knew of its challenges, potential, and regional differences. It was rather interesting! It seems Greenland is financially maintained by Denmark, which has its advantages, but also kills regional initiative. If you're born in a Greenlandic village it's not easy to escape, and not everybody is content with a life of a seal hunter if they can see what the rest of the world gets up to on TV. Youth suicide is high.

We reached Kulusuk. The plan was to get there, jump on a boat, and be taken to our first basecamp, in a region we called Tunu. Technically, Tunu was one valley further north, but not all places have a name in this sparsely populated land. When Kulusuk came into view, however, Robert became a bit cautious. The entire fjord was clogged with icebergs. How would we get though that? But first things first: lunch! We were all hungry. Icelandic Mountain Guides owns a house in Kulusuk and we headed there first to fill up our stomachs. Afterwards, Robert phoned his local contacts, and we spent some time walking around the village. Julia immediately got herself a reputation for getting herself into strange circumstances and not caring; she saw a dead and decomposing seal lying around (not an uncommon sight in these villages), and she figured it was rather artistic. She knelt next to it to get a good pic. When she then wanted to get back up and walk on she found out she couldn't. Closer examination revealed she had been kneeling right in black ooze the seal had been oozing, and she was now stuck to it, to the extent she considered just leaving her trousers behind. A good first day! She did manage to free her trousers, but the stain would stay for the remainder of the trip. This incident kept us amused for days.

When Robert had managed to get hold of the boatmen, and agreed on a picking-up time, he hung up the phone, and then realised he hadn't changed his watch to local time. It was two hours earlier than he had realised! So we made another round through town. No punishment at all! It was our first Greenlandic village, and the weather was fab. There was ice in the fjords, and there were even whales. The cameras came out.

Kulusuk with its clogged up fjord

All villages we visited were full of dogs: the adults chained up (they seem to be dangerous) but the puppies roaming free. 

Finally the boats arrived; one for us and one for the luggage. We got in. And we managed to manoeuvre our way out of the fjord, and into what is known as Ammassalik Fjord. We were going at good speed, and I got cold. What had I been thinking, not putting on more clothes? But the views were too good to seek shelter from the wind.

We then moved into a side fjord. That proved a challenge! Soon our boat was stuck. No worries; the other boat came to our rescue. One of the men from the other boat (we had only one driver) jumped onto the iceberg of which the underwater part had grounded us, and pushed off. With some effort we came loose. Success! Little did we know this was only the beginning.

We struggled on. The men really were in their element! If there was no way they just made a way. They had pointy sticks for pushing away icebergs or for chopping bits off of icebergs, and they would even stand on an iceberg, dig in their heels, and then be towed away, iceberg and all, by a boat. But in spite of their efforts, we were not getting closer. I was afraid we would have to turn back, although that might not be easy either. The ice moved; our path in might already be blocked on the way out!

It's hard to navigate through the ice

Pushing the boat loose

Swanky iceberg surfing

We did turn back, but not in the way I thought. We would just go around the other way. It seemed more logical, and soon we were moving at great speed again. And then we slowed down: we were there! It should have taken an hour. It had taken four. I was very, very cold. But now we could get out, jump around, empty the luggage boat, lug everything to where we would set up camp, and all of that sorted me out quickly. And the site was lovely!

View onto our campsite from higher up on the hill

When we had pitched all the tents we were hungry again. Not so strange; we had reached camp at 8PM. So we fetched water (in a rather inefficient way), cooked, and had dinner. By then it was as good as bedtime. It had been a spectacular day, but in a way, only the next day things would start properly!

Night falls over our kitchen tent

27 August 2015

Run-up to Greenland

On a Thursday morning I would touch down on Kulusuk Airport, East Greenland. But to get to that required some preparation. I had spent quite a lot of the weekend buying some additional supplies, deciding what I’d bring,and packing it. Monday would be my last working day, and it was festooned with news of a tanker being on fire on my route. Oh dear! Having to be at Manchester Airport at 5AM was bad enough without lorry-sized Molotov cocktails on the road. I had intended to leave at 2.30 AM; I pulled that forward to 2AM. Very early. Not ideal but in the early morning the tanker had been removed and I had an uneventful trip. That left me in Reykjavik, where I have been before. I soon had found my accommodation; my first encounter with AirBnB. I turned out to have a room in a messy house of which the owners were away. They sure trust people! But we guests trust them too, and this house left something to be desired. The kettle didn’t work (oh dear!) but the big issue was the bathroom door; it had been a sliding door, but the sliding mechanism was broken. It had turned into a heavy slab of wood without a handle that was very hard to slide at all, and impossible to close completely; you needed to leave space for your hands. Awkward, especially if you share a house with total strangers!

Reykjavik had just celebrated Gay Pride the previous weekend

I dumped my bag and went looking for a supermarket, a bank, a bookshop and the office of an organisation that offers day trips on Iceland. I had decided to use their services a lot; the organisation (Icelandic Mountain Guides) that had set up the Greenland trip had warned it’s not unusual for flights from Greenland to be grounded due to fog or heavy wind, and had suggested I don’t book my flight to the UK too close to the planned flight back to Reykjavik. I had taken that to heart, and had inserted three extra days. As I wasn’t sure on which of these days I would actually arrive back on Iceland I did not want to plan anything more than day trips. But I did want to seize the day and have some fun while there! I had booked a glacier hike and a visit to some lava tubes for the first two days, but my third day was still empty. I booked some sea kayaking for that day. Sorted!

I then had a nap. Leaving home at 2AM has disadvantages. Then I just had a pint and read my Welsh book. No need to get too over-excited on a day like this.

The neighbourhood I stayed in

The next morning I found out my activity of the day, horse riding, was cancelled due to bad weather. Pretty much everything else they had to offer was cancelled too. Oh well. I tried some museums! I managed the settlement museum, the national museum, and the phallus museum; that is both chronological order and order of interestingness. But there is only one phallus museum in the whole world; I couldn’t resist. But the highlight was versions of Landnamabok and Jonsbok and more of such books of mythical status in the first museum! That sped up my heartbeat. And after the museums it was time to really start on the Greenland adventure. The mountain guide had called a meeting in a guesthouse. That would be interesting! I had no idea with how many we would be, let alone things such as what nationalities or gender or any of that.

Old book!

The manager of the guesthouse turned out to not have been aware of the meeting, but that didn’t spoil the fun. It turned out we were six people plus the mountain guide; a good number! Two Argentinians, two Dutch people, one Englishman and a Californian woman. And Robert, the guide, showed us on Google Earth where we would go. This is the 21st century, after all.  It looked good! Some practical issues were sorted and then he was on his way. Half of us had urgent business, but the other half, viz. the Englisman, the Dutch bloke and me, decided to go for dinner. A nice start! And the next day we wold all meet at 9.15 at the airport. Then it would really kick off. So my holiday started with rain, beer and Welsh; not something unachievable in Wales, but it would later become clear that some taking it easy and recovering from the trip might have been a good idea. Stay tuned; from here it gets spectacular! In my eyes, anyway. Greenland, here we come!

10 August 2015

Getting ready to leave again

I barely came back from the cruise, and I'm on my way again! It's not as I had intended it (see moan here; and mind you, it got worse after I wrote that) but it's the way things are turning out. I got back from the boat, hit the office, and left it to the weekend to sort stuff out. I will leave in the dead of night, or what technically is Tuesday morning, to get to Iceland. I have one day left in the office, and for thinking of the last things I have until now forgotten to think of, and then I am gone again. It all seems a bit unreal now but I hope it all turns out spiffing once I get there! But don't expect too much in the way of updates here; I will be well away from computers and internet and whatnot for most of the time...

05 August 2015

The results are in

I knew I would likely come home to the results of my Welsh tests, or at least the most important one. And I did! But that cruise was so much bigger than the exam results I opened that letter with only mild curiosity. It’s not something I can complain about; it boils down to that my life is too exciting to care too much about exam results. But it’s a nice set (both results are in by now) of quantified facts; great for a blog. So what are the results? I passed both; a regular pass for the big exam and pass with distinction for the other one. The threshold values were 60% for pass and 80% for distinction. I had 72.5% for the big one and 90.8% for the other one. So I’m content! And I passed almost all the separate parts (listening, reading, talking, etc) in their own right. The only exception was the conversation task; I scored 53% on that. Oh dear! Well a month of only reading and not speaking Welsh on the boat (we had a Welshman on the boat, but he was from the south, and he didn't speak a word of it) has now gone, and I should go and practice my conversation. I hope there are many Welsh speakers coming Thursday night! 

02 August 2015

Mission completed

It is done. The last core has been cored, split, logged and put away! The vibrocorer has been stripped of its feet and is lying flat on the back deck. Yesterday, people everywhere were dismantling things, packing things, cleaning things up. The spirit of almost being done was tangible. The “End of Science” party was well-attended. It was nice, but not as wild as last year! So the memories are less spectacular but this year I don’t have a hangover. And today we are already sailing along the south coast. The end is nigh.

The vibrocorer is dismantled

We’ve been all over the North Sea the past weeks. We cored some duds, but we also cored some absolute beauties. We can go home satisfied! And then start processing all that mud. We cored 179 times; I suppose some 15 to 20 didn’t yield anything. The container is holding an impressive amount of mud. 

Having finished the cruise, we have finished the material collection part of the BRITICE-CHRONO project. A milestone. We’ll have to manage with what we have now! I’m sure we’ll be alright. We got some good stuff. 

Dave and Chris very happy with the last core. And do notice the racing pigeon at Chris' elbow...

We will get to Southampton tonight. I suppose that means another pub night. Sounds tiring. Not sure if I’ll make it late! But it also means I can get off the ship fairly early and take a convenient back to Bangor on Monday. With a box full of core logs and a roll of seismic profiles in my bag! And then I can get back to running in the open air, buying and cooking my own food, listening to the radio, going underground, and getting back to normal.

It’s been a good trip. I’ll take the good memories with me! Will I be on a scientific cruise ever again? Time will tell!