The 25 most beautiful mountains in the world

Mountains have long held a kind of magic over many of us, both enthralled and appalled by their wild irregularity and the glimpse of danger deep in their embrace. Many peaks have great significance to different faiths and cultures, a rich folklore to explain their origin, or are places of pilgrimage for locals and visitors alike.

You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.

John Muir

The most spectacular mountains in the world have captivated the imagination of those that have laid eyes on them. The endless play of light and weather creates views that melt and shift in moments. Dynamic landscapes are at once intimate and vastly unknowable. Peaks that rake the sky and alter the perspective of those that attain the lofty heights. There is no getting accustomed to them.

To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer, passionate orographer or geologist, a photographer, or merely an inquiring traveller, there’s going to be a mountain on this list that will leave you spellbound.

Stetind

  • Coordinates: 68°09’54” N 006°35’34” E
  • Location: Nordland, Norway
  • Elevation: 1,392 metres (4,566′)
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The distinctive anvil-like summit of Stetind. Photo Credit: Stetind.nu CC BY 2.0

This is Norway’s national mountain; its sheer granite walls soaring over Tysfjord to the distinctive summit, once described as the anvil of the Gods. Fishermen in the Lofoten Islands used its characteristic profile as a navigation mark. Pioneering British explorer and mountaineer William Cecil Slingsby called it the ugliest mountain he ever saw, though he may have been bitter after failing in his attempt to make the summit. I think we’d have to disagree.

Thor Peak

  • Coordinates: 66°32’00” N 065°19’00” W
  • Location: Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
  • Elevation: 1,675 metres (5,495′)
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Thor Peak, on remote Baffin Island, is the highest overhanging rock face on earth. Photo Credit: Peter Morgan CC BY 2.0

Thor Peak, in Auyuittuq National Park on remote Baffin Island, a towering wave of granite rising up from the Akshayuk Valley, is the location of the greatest vertical drop in the world, a staggering 1,250 metres (4,101′) high*. To put that into context, the Empire State Building is just 443 metres high and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest human-built structure in the world, is 830 metres high. Auyuittuq is an Inuktitut word meaning “land that never melts”. White knuckles and frozen fingertips guaranteed.

*It would take a spine-chilling 36 seconds for someone weighing 80kg to fall the 1,250m from the face below the summit all the way to the valley floor.

Snæfellsjökull

  • Coordinates: 64°48’21” N 023°46’23” W
  • Location: Snæfellnes, Iceland
  • Elevation: 1,446 metres (4,744′)
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Snæfellsjökull in the morning light. Photo Credit: Axel Kristinsson CC BY 2.0

This 700,000-year-old cone-shaped stratovolcano at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula inspired the adventure in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Largely dormant since around 200 CE, Snæfellsjökull had long been topped by a compact glacier, indeed the name translates to “snow mountain glacier”. However, rising temperatures in the region mean that the summit crater has been ice-free since 2012. In clear conditions, it can sometimes be seen from Reykjavik, 120km away across Faxa Bay, and it was the last sighting I had of Iceland as I sailed into the west on the Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre.

Denali

  • Coordinates: 63°04’10” N 151°00’27” W
  • Location: Alaska, USA
  • Elevation: 6,201 metres (20,343′)
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Aerial view of the Denali massif. Photo Credit: Arctic Hokie CC BY-SA 3.0

Denali means “The Great One” in the Athabaskan language, but this wasn’t the official name of this colossal massif until 2015. For most of its modern history, it was known as Mount McKinley, named for US President William McKinley. In mountaineering circles, it also goes by the nickname “Mount Mid-Life Crisis”, as one of the more accessible of the Seven Summits, however, it is reputed to be especially challenging due to unpredictable weather and extreme elevation from sea level. For those less inclined to bag the summit, spectacular views can be found along the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), and from Denali National Park and Preserve.

Ketil

  • Coordinates: 60°24’59” N 044°30’44” W
  • Location: Kujallaq, Greenland
  • Elevation: 2,010 metres (6,594′)
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Ketil, in southern Greenland, is home to soaring big wall climbs. Photo Credit: D. Stanley CC BY 2.0

Ketil is just one of the sky-high granite peaks lining the arrestingly beautiful Tasermuit Fjord in southern Greenland. Known as Uiluit Qaqqaa in Greenlandic, meaning “oyster shell mountain”, it’s common name harks back to one of the Norse settlers that arrived in Greenland under the leadership of the notorious Erik the Red. The west face of Ketil is one of the world’s biggest and most challenging near-vertical big wall climbs, soaring over 1,000 metres. Despite being well off the beaten track, it’s becoming increasingly popular with climbers in recent years.

Suilven

  • Coordinates: 58°06′54″ N 005°08′13″ W
  • Location: Assynt, Scotland
  • Elevation: 731 metres (2,398′)
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The unmistakable outline of Suilven from the west. Photo Credit: Balthus Van Tassel CC BY-SA 2.0

Suilven, or Sùilebheinn in Scots Gaelic, is diminutive in comparison to most of the others on this list, but in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful of them all. An inselberg with an iconic profile, it’s a steep-sided ridge carved by ancient glacial ice rising over a wilderness area of bogs, lochans, and rough moorland. From the highest point, known as Caisteal Liath (Grey Castle), the sheer sides reminiscent of the rocky ramparts of an impenetrable fortress, the panoramic views of Sutherland and the Hebrides are outstanding.

The Eiger

  • Coordinates: 46°39′39″ N 008°00′19″ E
  • Location: Bernese Alps, Switzerland
  • Elevation: 3,967 m (13,015 ft)
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The notorious Mordwand, the north face of the Eiger. Photo Credit: Terra 3 CC BY-SA 3.0

The Eiger is a mountain with fearsome beauty and a notorious reputation. The technically challenging North Face, first ascended in 1938 by a German-Austrian expedition, is one of the most deadly; at least sixty-four climbers are known to have perished on the face, earning it the epithet Mordwand, the “murder wall”. In 2015 legendary speed climber Ueli Steck scaled the Heckmair route up the North Face in an astonishing 2 hours 22 minutes and 50 seconds. For those less inclined to risk life and limb, mountain views can be glimpsed from the route of the Jungfraujoch railway or the après ski terraces of Kleine Scheidegg.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo

  • Coordinates: 46°37′07″ N 018°20′00″ E
  • Location: Dolomites, Italy
  • Elevation: 2,999 metres (9,839′)
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The astonishing Tre Cime di Lavaredo at sunset. Photo Credit: Sinclair CC BY 2.0

In the Italian province of South Tyrol / Südtirol, the rugged Tre Cime di Lavaredo, also known as Drei Zinnen, as the name suggests, are three distinct peaks that make one of the most iconic views in the Dolomites. A 10km circular hike from Rifugio Aurenzo is one of the finest day hikes in the area, taking in spectacular views of the peaks, picturesque mountain lakes, and remains of trenches and tunnels from when the region was part of the Alpine front during WWI. It’s the ideal location to try your hand at Via Ferrata, and gain a new perspective in the mountains.

Matterhorn

  • Coordinates: 45°58′35″ N 007°39′31″ E
  • Location: Pennine Alps, Switzerland and Italy
  • Elevation: 4,478 metres (14,694′)
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The Matterhorn glimpsed from the Gornergrat train. Image in the public domain.

One of the highest summits in the Alps, the near symmetry of the Matterhorn has enchanted visitors to the region since the advent of Alpine tourism in the mid-19th century. The iconic pyramidal peak was first summited by mountain pioneer Edward Whymper in 1865, though not without tragedy, and it now attracts hundreds of climbers attempting an ascent every year. Visitors to Zermatt can get closer to the mountain without climbing on the Gornergatt mountain railway, or gondola lift to the Kleine Matterhorn station.

Aiguille du Dru

  • Coordinates: 45°55′58″ N 006°57′23″ E
  • Location: Alps, France
  • Elevation: 3,754 metres (12,316′)
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The spire of Aiguille du Dru soaring through the cloud. Photo Credit: claudio.audisio CC BY 2.0

Appropriately, aiguille translates as needle, a fitting name for the arresting granite spire of Aiguille du Dru, in the Mont Blanc massif. The highest summit is known as Grand Dru, though it is a sub-summit, Petit Dru at 3,733 metres, that is considered one of the six greatest north face walls of the Alps. Many of the routes pioneered up the wall have been lost in rockfalls over the years that considerably altered the profile of peak.

Half Dome

  • Coordinates: 37°44′46″ N 119°31′59″ W
  • Location: Sierra Nevada, California, USA
  • Elevation: 1,444 metres (4,737′)
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Half Dome and reflection in Yosemite Valley. Photo Credit: www73 CC BY 2.0

The iconic outline of Half Dome, towering over the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley, was made famous by legendary American photographer Ansel Adams in his striking black and white landscape images. The first technical ascent of the sheer northwest face took place over five days in 1957; the same route was completed free solo in a remarkable 1 hour 22 minutes by Alex Honnold in 2012 (see the documentary Alone on the Wall). Hikers can reach the summit of Half Dome on the Cable Route between May and October, though a permit is required from the Yosemite National Park Authority and it can be crowded on a summer weekend.

Trango Towers

  • Coordinates: 35°46′00″ N 076°10′59″ E
  • Location: Baltoro Muztagh, Karakoram, Pakistan
  • Elevation: 6,286 metres (20,623′)
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From left to right; Trango Tower, Trango Monk, and Great Trango. Their vertical faces are the world’s tallest cliffs. Photo Credit: allanv CC BY 2.0

The Trango Towers are a series of soaring granite pinnacles in the Baltoro Muztagh, northern Pakistan, not far from K2 and the Gasherbrum peaks. The Towers feature some of the most immense sheer walls in the world, with the east face of Trango Tower claiming the title of the greatest near-vertical drop on earth at 1,340m. The region only opened to outsiders in 1975, allowing the discovery of some of the most challenging climbs ever completed, a combination of altitude, steepness, and the technical nature of the big walls.

Fujiyama (Mount Fuji)

  • Coordinates: 35°21′29″ N 138°43′52″ E
  • Location: Honshū, Japan
  • Elevation: 3,776 metres (12,388′)
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A dreamy view of Fujiyama. Photo Credit: Tim Donnelly CC BY 2.0

There is a saying in Japanese; He who climbs Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool. Fujiyama is a captivating volcanic cone, capped with snow for almost half the year, that has enthralled and inspired artists through the ages. Almost 300,000 visitors troop to the summit annually, so the tranquillity of the peak is best appreciated from afar. The mirror lake of Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) and the Edo-era buildings at the Iyashi-no-Sato open-air museum on Saiko (Lake Sai) offer the finest viewpoints.

Machapuchare

  • Coordinates: 28°29′42″ N 083°56′57″ E
  • Location: Anapurna Massif, Nepal
  • Elevation: 6,993 metres (22,943′)
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The distinctive fishtail summit ridge of Machapuchare. Photo Credit: Carsten Nebel CC BY-SA 4.0

Machapuchare is named for the notched summit ridge and double peaks, reminiscent of a fishtail when viewed from the Annapurna sanctuary. The mountain is sacred to the Hindu religion, believed to be one of the earthly homes of the god Shiva. It’s long been claimed that no human has ever set foot on the summit; in 1957 an expedition led by British climber Wilfred Noyce reached within 150m (492′) of the summit before turning back.  No climbing permits have been issued since. It’s rumoured that New Zealand climber Bill Denz made an illegal ascent in the 1980s, though he perished on nearby Mansulu in an avalanche in 1983, taking the truth with him.

Ama Dablam

  • Coordinates: 27°51′40″ N 086°51′40″ E
  • Location: Eastern Himalayas, Nepal
  • Elevation: 6,812 metres (22,349′)
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The view of Ama Dablam from Kala Patthar. Photo Credit: Stefan CC BY 2.0

With a name meaning “Mother’s necklace”, the arresting Ama Dablam appears to reach out in an embrace as two ridges reach out from either side of the main peak. It lies close to the route of the popular trek to Everest Base Camp, towering over Thyangboche Tibetan Monastery (also known as Dawa Choling Gompa), once home to Tensing Norgay before his mountaineering career took off, and often captures the hearts of those that pass by, enticing them to return.

Cotopaxi

  • Coordinates: 00°40′50″ S 078°26′16″ W
  • Location: Andes, Ecuador
  • Elevation: 5,897 metres (19,347′)
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The symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi viewed from the altiplano. Photo Credit: Simon Matzinger CC BY-SA 3.0

A stunning stratovolcano with a distinctive snow-capped cinder cone, Cotopaxi is the second-highest peak in Ecuador and can be seen on the skyline from Quito and while driving the Panamerican Highway. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes on this list, with 87 recorded eruptions since 1534, the most recent in 2015-16. The mountain and surrounding National Park eventually re-opened to visitors in late 2017, and with time for acclimatisation, the summit can be gained on a challenging but non-technical ascent.

Kilimanjaro

  • Coordinates: 04°03′33″ S 037°21′12″ E
  • Location: Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania
  • Elevation: 5,895 metres (19,308′)
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Snow-capped Kilimanjaro from Amboseli. Photo Credit: Nicolas Hoizey CC BY-SA 2.0

Kilimanjaro does not, in fact, rise like Olympus over the Serengeti; instead, the world’s highest freestanding mountain soars above the savannah of Tsavo and Amboseli, on the Kenyan side of the border. As one of the Seven Summits, it features on the to-do list of most mountaineers, but scaling the peak needs no technical skill and large numbers of people attempt the trek to the summit. Trails lead through a succession of ecozones with distinct flora and fauna, before emerging onto a rocky lunar world and the glaciated landscape of the summit.

Mount Roraima / Monte Roraima

  • Coordinates: 05°08′36″ N 060°45′45″ W
  • Location: Pakaraima Mounains / Sierra Pacaraima, Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela
  • Elevation: 2,810 metres (9,220′)
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A trekking route to the top of Roraima starts in the village of Paraitepui in Venezuela. Photo Credit: Paulo Fassina CC BY-SA 2.0

Spectacular Mount Roraima is the highest tepui, or table-top, in the Guiana Highlands of South America, a vast plateau bounded on all sides by 400 metre (1,300′) high cliffs. The national borders of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana meet at a tripoint on the top, which was unexplored until 1884. The mysterious plateau is home to a unique diversity of flora and fauna, and often seen shrouded in mists, inspiring both the setting of Paradise Falls in the Pixar film Up, and the living dinosaur haven in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World.

Alpamayo

  • Coordinates: 08°54′45″ S 077°39′07″ W
  • Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peru
  • Elevation: 5,947 metres (19, 511′)
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In 1966 Alpamayo topped a poll of mountaineers to be named the most beautiful peak on earth. Photo Credit: Frank R 1981 CC BY-SA 4.0

Alpamayo is often named the most beautiful mountain in the world, and the near-perfect pyramid of ice and rock in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca is certainly hard to resist. Not even surveyed until the 1940s, due to its remote location, it was successfully summited first by a German expedition in 1957. The steep faces of Vienetta-like fluted ice require a high level of technical ice climbing ability, but superb views of the peak can be taken from the trek to basecamp, or the multi-day Alpamayo circuit route.

Huayna Picchu

  • Coordinates: 13°09′27″ S 072°32′50″ W
  • Location: Andes, Peru
  • Elevation: 2,693 metres (8,835′)
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Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu shortly after first light from the Sun Gate. Image in the public domain.

Huayna Picchu is the iconic sugarloaf peak that looms over the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, forming the backdrop of the view from Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and the final section of the Inca Trail route. Trekkers can follow a waymarked trail to the summit, with sections of scrambling with cable and railings for support, for a vertiginous perspective on the ancient city, named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Pic d’Imarivolanitra (Pic Boby)

  • Coordinates: 22°11′42″ S 046°53′06″ E
  • Location: Andringita Massif, Madagascar
  • Elevation: 2,658 metres (8,720′)
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The Andringita Massif in Madagascar. Photo Credit: Chris CC BY-SA 2.0

Madagascar might be better known for its unique wildlife, but the sheer granite walls of the Andringita Massif often draw the comparison with the more well-known peaks of Yosemite, and have been a pull for big wall climbers since the 1990s. The towering presence of Pic d’Imarivolanitra, also known as Pic Boby, is Madagascar’s second-highest mountain, and a feature of trekking circuits through Andringita National Park and nearby Tsarnovo Valley. At around 2,000 metres (6,5652′) high the trails pass through a dreamlike landscape of rock gardens filled with colourful succulents, before descending into lush forest.

Table Mountain

  • Coordinates: 33°57′26″ S 018°24′11″ E
  • Location: Cape Province, South Africa
  • Elevation: 1,085 metres (3,559′)
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The Cape coastline emerges through the clouds on Table Mountain. Photo Credit: vapour trail CC BY 2.0

The stark profile of Table Mountain dominates the skyline of Cape Town, despite its relative lack of stature. While this entry on the list offers an easy route to the top via the Aerial Cableway, there are several hiking routes of varying difficulty that lead up the mountain and across the vast summit plateau, including through the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and out to the shark fin of Devil’s Peak. The mountain is home to unique native vegetation, part of the designated Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.

Cradle Mountain

  • Coordinates: 41°40′48″ S 145°56′24″ E
  • Location: Central Highlands, Tasmania, Australia
  • Elevation: 1,545 metres (5,069′)
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Cradle Mountain above Dove Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Penton CC BY 2.0

At the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the rugged basalt peaks of Cradle Mountain rise over lakes carved out by ancient glaciers surrounded by alpine moorland and temperate rainforest. The area is home to unique Australian wildlife with absurd names; echidnas, wombats, quolls, pademelons, and the elusive Tasmanian Devil. There’s a darker history to the region too; following violent persecution by European settlers, the last free Aboriginal Tasmanians were sighted in the area in 1836. The Overland Track, an iconic bushwalking trail considered one of the world’s best, links Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair, the deepest in Australia.

Monte Fitz Roy / Cerro Chaltén

  • Coordinates: 49°16′16″ S 072°02′35″ W
  • Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
  • Elevation: 3,405 metres (11,171′)
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Mount Fitz Roy is also known as Cerro Chaltén, the smoking mountain, for the clouds that usually shroud the mountain. Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff CC BY-SA 2.0

Named Fitz Roy in honour of Robert Fitz Roy, captain of HMS Beagle, who charted large stretches of the Patagonian coastline, this imposing shark-tooth peak sits astride the international border between Argentina and Chile. First ascended in 1952, the peak has drawn the attention of several notable climbers, including Tommy Caldwell (The Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Free Solo), who traversed the 5km long ridgeline of Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks. For those less inclined to scale lofty heights, the peak is the spectacular backdrop to several trekking routes in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and day hikes around the village of El Chaltén. The routes lead through woodlands and montane meadows, to reach spectacular glacial lakes and rugged boulder fields.

Cerro Torre

  • Coordinates: 49°17′34″ S 073°05′54″ W
  • Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
  • Elevation: 3,128 metres (10,262′)
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The east face of Cerro Torre above the glacier. Photo Credit: Gagea CC BY-SA 3.0

Another peak often touted as the most beautiful in the world, Cerro Torre is an arresting pinnacle of granite topped with an otherworldly mushroom of rime ice. Its undeniable beauty is matched only by its colourful history. Declared an impossible summit by climbing pioneer Walter Bonetti, the Italian climber Cesare Maestri claimed success in 1959. His partner Toni Egger was swept away in an avalanche on the descent, taking with him the only camera recording the event. Further attempts using a variety of climbing techniques only brought more controversy and claims of desecrating the singular nature of the peak. A story worth delving into further for mountain buffs.

Ulvetanna Peak

  • Coordinates: 71°50′60″ S 008°19′59″ W
  • Location: Drygalski Mountains, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
  • Elevation: 2,930 metres (9,612′)
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Ulvetanna in the southern Drygalski Mountains. Photo Credit: Wilfried Bauer CC BY-SA 3.0

The granite peak of Ulvetanna, meaning “the wolf’s tooth” in Norwegian, is one of the most inaccessible mountains in the world. A captivating spire of rock in the Fenriskjeften Mountain, it rises like a fairytale castle over the white expanse of the ice sheet below. It was first climbed in 1994, but its remote location means it’s unlikely to make it on to your mountain bucket list unless you’re an experienced mountaineer with polar connections.  Instead, you can vicariously explore it from the comfort of your home by watching The Last Great Climb, documenting the first ascent of the northeast ridge by British climber Leo Houlding and his team.

Why not save this dose of mountain inspiration for later?

What I’ve been reading this season | Autumn 2020

Another small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This season, they’ve mainly been inspired by thoughts of Antarctica, the Arctic, and the coming winter.

Heading South

How Prosperity Transformed the Falkland Islands

A masterful travel piece about the Falkland Islands by Larissa MacFarquhar, diving deeply into changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. One of the best destination profiles I’ve ever read.

Scenes from Antarctica

A slideshow of photographs from across the Antarctic continent, highlighting the human presence in the region.

What the future of polar travel looks like

A Condé Nast Traveler article from early in the summer looking at the prosepect of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the knock-on impacts of cancelling a 2020 summer season in the Arctic.

What will happen to the 7th Continent?

The uncertainty of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic may be the necessary pause to spark conversations about the future of the industry. This piece by Bella Lack asks questions about other potential consequences of this season.

200 years ago people discovered Antarctica, and promptly began profiting by slaughtering some of its animals to near extinction

In the two centuries since its discovery, Antarctica has seen a range of commercial, scientific, and diplomatic activity. This blog post from The Conversation journal looks at the ways natural resources have been exploited over time, and the impact of changes.

Blue whale sightings off South Georgia raise hopes of recovery

In positive news, a whale survey expedition recorded 58 sightings of Blue Whales, and numerous accoustic detections, around South Georgia in 2020, where the marine mammals were all but wiped out by the whaling industry.

The Other Polar Place

A mission to unearth the wreck of the Nova Zembla

An account of the expedition to hunt for the wreck of a Dundee whaling ship lost in the Canadian High Arctic by Matthew Ayre, sparked by a simple note in a historic ship’s logbook.

My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

A longread essay by Andrea Pitzer detailing a research trip in the wake of 16th century polar explorer Willem Barents, and the unexpected wild pleasure of a voyage completely under sail.

Reindeer at the End of the World

A beautifully atmospheric piece by Bathsheba Demuth detailing the collision of Soviet ideology with the nomadic lives of Chukchi reindeer herders, tuned to the natural cycles of the tundra.

Life inside the Arctic

A captivating National Geographic photoessay by Jennifer Kingsley and Eric Guth that travels across the Arctic, meeting people living and working in the far north, and reframing the perception of the Arctic as a remote, isolated and uninhabited region.

Winter is coming

Dreading a dark winter? Think like a Norwegian

An examination of the mindset that helps residents in areas experiencing the polar night get through the darkness of winter by cultivating resilience and inner strength.

The Best Rain in Literature

Who am I kidding? I’m going to be in Scotland this winter, and while there’s a chance of crisp, bright snow days, more than likely it’s going to be driech. So here’s a few beautiful paragraphs from great authors and poets to help me learn to appreciate the rain.

Photo Journal: Whalebone and Old Stones at Jougla Point, Antarctica

At first glance, Jougla Point is low rocky peninsula indented with small coves on the southern edge of the natural harbour at Port Lockroy, on the edge of Weinke Island. A colony of gentoo penguins occupy the peninsula during the breeding season, sharing space with blue-eyed shags and their prehistoric looking offspring, and on the ridge behind, rising steeply to the blue ice of Harbour Glacier, nest Antarctic skuas and kelp gulls.

The buildings on Goudier Island, including historic Base A and the accommodation hut used by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust staff during the summer season.
Jabet Peak and the Harbour Glacier viewed from Jougla Point.

Most visitors spend some time at Jougla Point in conjunction with their visit to Goudier Island, site of historic Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, and home to the world-famous Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy. And just like it’s near neighbour, a visit to Jougla Point reveals an insight into the history of human activity in Antarctica, though a glimpse of a darker, more industrial past.

The rocky ridge of Jougla Point, with the tips of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters range peeping over the rise.
Moulting penguins and fledging chicks milling around in the remains of several broken barrels.

As the tourist season progresses, snowmelt reveals a jumbled collection of weathered old whale bones among the granite stones. Rusted chains and shackles that once moored a large ship. A vast skeleton, a composite mainly constructed from the bones of fin whales is laid out in a cove. Further from the water’s edge, the rocks are covered with the scattered staves of old wooden barrels, and crumbling concrete footings show where buildings once stood.

Fragments of brashy ice washed up in a cove on Jougla Point.
A moulting penguin stands guard over the composite skeleton of a fin whale. During the moult penguins lose their waterproofing and remain ashore until their new feathers grow through.

The Antarctic Whaling Industry

From the early 1900s, the majority of ships operating in Antarctic waters were part of the whaling fleet, or scientific survey vessels associated with the industry. Most had sailed from western Norway and eastern Scotland, signing crews from Dundee, Bergen, Leith, Sandefjord,  Tórshavn, Larvik, and Lerwick.

The jumbled collection of bones at the top of the cove, just a fraction of the numbers that were processed in the natural harbour by floating factory vessel moored in the bay.

The unknown qualities of Antarctica and the notoriously challenging conditions of the Southern Ocean were considered worth exploring, as traditional whaling grounds in the northern hemisphere had been exhausted. Bases were established on South Georgia and in the Falkland Islands to take advantage of the untapped resources of the South, though the human costs were high.

Guides on some of the first tourist vessels in the area created the skeleton from bones left on the shore as a tangible artifact of the impact of the whaling industry to show to visitors.

Floating factory ships soon ousted the need to transport whales to shore for processing, working alongside a small fleet of fast, agile whale catcher boats, which would chase down whales and harpoon them for factory ships to collect. The harpoons were explosive, lodging in the whale’s body before detonating a few seconds later, guaranteeing a kill.

The whalers charted large sections of the Antarctic Peninsula and the coast of Queen Maud Land (Dronning Maud Land), making their contribution to the knowledge of the continent, and often provided a safety net for expedition vessels on voyages of exploration early in the Heroic Age of Antarctica. But the intensity of their activity left an indelible impact on the ecosystem they exploited.

Giant vertebra arranged to show the sheer size of the whales once out of the water.

The Antarctic summer of 1930-31 was unprecedented, with the greatest number of whaling vessels operating in the Southern Ocean concurrently; 232 whale catcher ships taking their catches to 32 pelagic factory ships, nine floating factories moored in harbours like Port Lockroy, and six shore-based whaling stations. These were serviced by a fleet of supply ships, regularly bringing in food and fuel for the crews, and taking away processed whale oil for the global market.

In that season alone, records show that 29,410 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic, setting an all-time record for the exploitation of the species. Just over 30 years later, in the 1964-65 season, only 20 blue whales were killed, all that the hunters had observed.

Textures of old weathered bone.

The End of the Whaling Industry in Antarctica

More than 1.5 million whales were slaughtered in Antarctic waters before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling was enforced in 1986.

The skull and long jawbones of a rorqual whale.

By this time the industry was already in terminal decline, the result of over-exploitation of the whale stocks and increased regulation by the IWC reducing profitability. Companies faced the paradox that further hunting at existing levels would hasten the end of their industry, but there was no reward for showing restraint, and many of the key players diverted their interests into shipping freight or pelagic fishing.

The end of the whaling industry did not come from a position of nature conservation or animal welfare, but rather the loss of economic profitability from the sector.

The Return of the Whales

The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established in 1994. Covering an area of 50 million km2, including waters below latitude 60° South governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, it protects waters that provide summer feeding for an estimated 85% of all the world’s whales. The aim of the sanctuary is to enable the recovery of whale populations, not just in terms of absolute numbers, but also in the balance of sexes, age structures, and genetic diversity.

Yacht Ocean Tramp moored off Goudier Island, and offered the opportunity for UKAHT staff to take a trip across to Jougla Point after their visit to Port Lockroy.

In early 2020, the British Antarctic Survey reported on the results of several years of expedition studies in the waters around South Georgia, suggesting that the long, slow road to recovery was now starting to show results. The observers recorded 55 different blue whales over 36 sightings in 2020, up from just one confirmed sighting in 2018.

Ocean Tramp sails from Ushuaia in Argentina and Stanley in the Falkland Islands to explore the Antarctic Peninsula.

Visitors to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands can contribute photographs and details of any whale sightings they have on their voyage to the citizen science project Happy Whale and help be part of the efforts to monitor the return of the whales to Antarctic waters.

Slate-grey water hiding sleek leopard seasl, and silvery granite archipelagos under leaden skies in Port Lockroy.
Have you visited Port Lockroy and Jougla Point?
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Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.

So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.

Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.

I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.

Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.

*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.

Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.

In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.

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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.

And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.

Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?

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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.

Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.

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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.

The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.

On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.

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The incongruity of the galley view.

The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.

Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT

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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.

By endurance we sauna.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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My Alphabet of Adventures

My favourite travel memories from A to Z shared with the #AlphabetAdventure hashtag on social media.

This year, travel has been on the backburner in a big way, with international flights shut down, and many countries, including my home in the UK, imposing a domestic lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 and ease pressure on health services over the peak of the pandemic.

Throughout April and early May many travel bloggers shared pictures of their travels on social media with the hashtag #AlphabetAdventures. It was a chance to remind ourselves of the wide, wild world out there, waiting for us to explore once the coronavirus pandemic passes, and relive some memories from our travels. It also gave us the chance to travel vicariously to new destinations while we stay safe at home under lockdown.

Here are my favourite memories, from A to Z: Continue reading “My Alphabet of Adventures”

My Lockdown Reading List

Like many of you, the COVID-19 lockdown turned my life upside down.  Plans I’d made as I prepared to leave Antarctica have been completely shelved, any potential opportunities remain just that.  Both the travel and the outdoor industries where I’ve usually found work have had to shut up shop and furlough staff.  I’ve signed up as a volunteer, but it has taken time for organisations to process the volume of applications they’ve received.

So, I’ve encountered an abundance of idle time in the last week or so.  It’s been an unexpected chance to indulge in the things that are usually side-lined for more pressing tasks.  For me, it’s reading for pleasure.  In the last week, I’ve been able to immerse myself in a few good books to help fend off the cabin fever.

While lockdown has clipped my wings, and travel is an impossibility right now, a book can take the mind flying anywhere beyond the immediate four walls.  Here’s what I’ve read, and my to-do list for the coming weeks.

Continue reading “My Lockdown Reading List”

15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Continue reading “15 interesting facts about Antarctica”

Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales. 

I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons. Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition. I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books. Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South. I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing. They’re all good books, Brent.

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica”

What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.  It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.

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A sunrise start on the Helford River near Falmouth in Cornwall.

The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research.  I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.

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Windswept and interesting! With Wendy Searle, Lucy Hawthorne, Lauren Own and Jo Symonowski on Pen y Fan.

At the end of September I  headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts.  You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.

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Autumn in Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside.
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The view towards Mount Keen and the mounth from Glen Tanar.
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Autumn leaves about to fall on a frost nipped morning.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2019”

What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based.  After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship.  After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

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Looking back at Oban from the middle of the Sound of Kerrera

Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed.  As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call.  I was successful at the interview.  I got the job!  Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job.  More about that below.

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Deckhand Dan, possibly the least successful fisherman on Irene.

Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way.  We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for a paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets.  Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.

Back in Oban, we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out.  This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage.  On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.

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Irene at anchor in Kiloran Bay, Colonsay.  An extremely damp beach recce, but the weather dried up overnight for a beautiful stay.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2019”