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.
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 that 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.
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.
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.
A Condé NastTraveler 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 surfaced in their wake.
So despite an abundance of time that was available during the lockdown, it was exceptionally difficult to find myself in the right mental space to reflect on my time living and working 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. A dream only half-remembered.
It’d taken me a long time to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the polar regions, at first through a deep 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 to the Ice as a research scientist or in a support role at a base or on a ship, however, the events of my life conspired to lead 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 going to be my way to go South.
The goal had crystallised, but it still 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 the final selection process, but had an encouraging note from the Operations Manager to tell me I’d been close (lucky number 13), and 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 boat moorings in Loch Spelve on the Isle of Mull, for the Irene of Bridgewater, 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 an official nod.
The thing about the opportunity that appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people will only ever get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing of the seasons in the South. To live beyond the limits of where others get to go.
And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to small changes in my surroundings: noting levels of snowmelt or the scouring effects of an excoriating wind on the ice; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tides; and the endless 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 like a pressure wave in my chest as much as it was heard in my ears, 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 was an ethereal quality to the place, as if we’d been stepped aside from the rest of the world.
Then being captivated by the more subtle 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.
And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Observing the penguins on the island, getting to know them by their chosen 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, making it hard not to reach out and sweep them up in a steadying embrace. It invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.
Even so, living cheek-by-jowl among penguins for any time, happenings in the colony showed us any human connections we supposed to these creatures are tenuous at best. At first glance it appears they’re putting on a chaotic avian slapstick soap opera: squabbling between nesting neighbours; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, splashing in the boot wash by the museum door; 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 sleek sea creature.
In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones of their ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below; snowy sheathbills pairing up in a tag team to snatch an unguarded egg or runty chick from under an adult; the lurking ever-present threat of predators that come both 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.
Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory of the Antarctic visitor. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and piratical skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Snowy sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, tapping away at the buckles of my discarded snowshoes as I make notes on my clipboard. Monstrous giant petrels, with bloodstained plumage and ice blue eyes, ruthless killers that rule the skies here.
The uncanny song of Weddell seals hanging in the air, as they lie dreaming on an ice floe lodged fast 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 rounded brown boulder in the shallows, almost the size of a small island, which yawned deeply, transforming itself 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.
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.
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 the 2019/20 season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world for a while, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.
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.
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.
Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHTPort Lockroy blog.
Inspired by what you’ve read? Why not pin this post to your bucket list travel board?
Some of the things that have captured my attention over the past few months, inspired by similar blog posts by Alex Roddie and Chris Townsend. A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful readings from around the internet that I want to share with you.
Well, like most of us, the answer for this season is nowhere much.
I returned to the UK from Antarctica in mid-March, via Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, before spending a week in Cambridge to wrap up the season for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. We reached the UK just as international travel restrictions came into place, and followed the difficulties that our friends on ships faced from afar.
It was a challenging couple of weeks as we reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do all the little everyday things that had been absent from our lives over those 110 days. On top of that was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona, and it now feels like it was just a lucid dream.
I headed up north to my parent’s place in Aberdeenshire, where I could live in the caravan at the end of the garden and be useful while they shielded my elderly granny in the house. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined, but waving through the window as I stood outside in the garden, and chatted through WhatsApp.
The COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was put in place the day I arrived home, and I’ve been here ever since.
What I’ve done
Over the Easter weekend, I took to the garden for a few nights of camping out. As well as being up to watch the sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus, it also prompted me to finally get round to fixing the slow puncture in my air mat.
I’ve been really fortunate in that I live in a rural area, and have plenty of opportunities to get outdoors for exercise and to explore the nature on my doorstep. I’ve got a blog post in the works about that, which should go live at the end of June to include notes about #30DaysWild.
I used my time to volunteer for the Slow Ways project, an initiative to create a network of walking routes connecting settlements. Walking has immense benefits for health and wellbeing, for individuals and for communities, and integrating it into everyday life is a positive solution towards tackling the climate and ecological emergencies. I mapped around 50 routes in northern and northeast Scotland to contribute towards a total greater than 100,000km.
In mid-May, I should have been taking part in the 41st TGO Challenge, to cross Scotland from west to east. I’d decided on a more challenging route than last year, starting in Morar and taking in more hills on the way to Montrose. Instead, I joined with other would-be challengers in the first-ever #virtualTGOC, sharing stories and pictures from the last 40 years of the event and gathering inspiration for future years in the hills.
I was rather late to the sourdough party, but I was given a starter at the end of May and started to experiment. My first loaf could have done with a hatchet to break through the crust, but my cinnamon buns (Norsk kanelboller) were pretty good, and my rosemary and garlic focaccia was next level.
Around the same time, I was able to find work locally, starting as a fruit picker on a nearby farm. It’s not what I would choose to do, but at the moment it’s something, and will help to tide me over until my next opportunity for working or travelling is realised.
My Spring love list
Book: With the extra time available, I’ve finally read several of the books that were lingering in my “to be read” pile for some time, including most of these. My favourite read so far this year has been Horizon by Barry Lopez.
Magazines: I’ve recently discovered Sidetracked magazine, which combines incredible adventure and outdoor photography with inspired long-form storytelling. Dipping in for a read is pure escapism.
Film: Like everyone else, I’ve watched quite a few films during the lockdown. The one I’d most like to recommend was the incredible Climbing Blind, a documentary about Jesse Dufton as he aims to be the first blind person to lead a climb of the Old Man of Hoy, a sea-stack in Orkney. If you’re in the UK, you may still be able to catch it in the iPlayer.
Clothing: I really haven’t been wearing a great variety of things over the last couple of months. I’ve mainly been alternating between my fancy Seasalt pyjamas and Port Lockroy hoodie, and my running gear. It’s pretty strange wearing proper clothes again. And shoes, woah!
Equipment: Spending so much time on my own has been strange, after sharing the close living conditions of Port Lockroy and the even closer conditions on Irene of Bridgwater. I think its the quietness I find the hardest, so I love having the radio on in the background. I treated myself to a Roberts Play DAB digital radio, to make sure I can get BBC6Music as I read or write.
Before leaving for Antarctica I ordered a new case for my laptop but didn’t factor enough time for delivery. So on my return, I had a fabulous parcel waiting from Makers Unite, an inspiring Dutch social enterprise working with people from refugee backgrounds, teaching skills in product design and manufacture. My laptop case is made from recycled lifevests that were used in migrant travel.
Treats: It’s been hard avoiding the temptation of endless snacking during lockdown, so I’ve been making a conscious effort to be aware of the cookies, cakes, and chocolate I’ve been consuming. I’ve been setting a target of no sweet snacks until mid-afternoon, then stopping whatever I’m doing to make a pot of my favourite Russian Caravan tea to go with the treat.
What have you been up to over the last season? How has being in lockdown affected you?
I’m always here if you want to chat or leave a message in the comments below;
I’d love to hear from you.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
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.
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.
A few of my favourite things from the past season.
I’ve just returned from four months in Antarctica, working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the famous Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy through the southern summer season. It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks, as I reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do little everyday things that were missing from my life over those 110 days.
Like using money and buying things I want from shops and bars, rather than just asking someone to bring things to me. Driving, and even just moving around at a faster pace. The colour green. Or looking out the window and seeing animals that aren’t penguins. I miss those penguins. (Though the odour of penguin guano is still lingering on in the fabric of my outdoor clothing).
Then there was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined I’d have, but waving through the window of houses as I stood outside in the garden, and staccato notes in what’s app chats and skype calls. It’s tough, but I know that I’m not the worst off in this situation, and for that, I’m so very thankful.
These are a few of the things that I loved over my Antarctic season, living in close confines with a small team, on a little island with no escape. There may even be a couple of things you find useful yourself over the next few weeks as we adjust to living in lockdown.
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.