Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.
I’m from a rural area in the northeast of Scotland, and I have spent my career working in conservation, environmental education, and countryside access across the UK, with the occasional diversion into nature tourism and outdoor recreation in the UK and Northern Europe. I write here about my interests in travel, the outdoors, expeditions at sea and on land, and connecting with nature.
I occupy space in this world that is exceedingly white. I do not have to fight for my place in these areas due to the colour of my skin.
While I like to think I am not racist, I’m a beneficiary of the structural racism that winds through our society like bindweed, and that through my silence in not it calling out when I see it, I am complicit. It is vital we, as white people, start to see what has long been evident to Black people, however uncomfortable it may feel in the process; it’s time to grasp the nettle.
To start, we must educate ourselves. By being better informed, we can find a way to see more of the landscape that surrounds us, and be better allies to people of colour. We can start to open outdoor spaces that were once and are still exclusionary, and amplify the voices of those that are underrepresented in our fields.
An old Guardian article which probed the slave-owning history of Britain, and the legacy of fortunes made from the labour of enslaved people and the compensation for their emancipation. It ties into a two-part BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which is still available to view on the iPlayer.
An informative blog post by Eulanda and Omo of Hey, Dip Your Toes In! laying out ways in which we can learn from, support, and advocate for the Black people in our lives, and ensure others aren’t excluded from opportunities arising from our white privilege.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Leah Thomas introduces intersectional environmentalism and sparks a conversation on the need for anti-racism to be a cornerstone of climate and social justice.
This is just a beginning. I understand that it will not be quick or an easy process, and there will be times where I get it wrong, but it’s time to be idle no more. No lives matter until Black lives matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, re-published in 2011 by Canongate
One of the most perfect books I’ve ever read, and a pleasure to revisit with the Twitter #CoReadingVirus book group led by Robert Macfarlane. A meditation on the Cairngorms, and walking in the mountains, on looking closely, and feeling the elemental forces of a landscape.
Horizon by Barry Lopez, published in 2019 by Vintage
A sweeping voyage around the globe, through history and culture, as much as landscape and nature. I’ve been anticipating this book for some time, and can’t wait to dive in.
Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter, published 2015 by Vintage
Another book to satisfy the magnetic pull of the North, and explore the changing dynamics of the region as exploration becomes tourism.
Karluk: The Great Untold Story of Arctic Exploration by William Laird McKinley, published in 1976 by Book Club Associates
Something I picked up in a second-hand book shop to fulfil my interests in shipwrecks and polar exploration. A lesser-known story of exploration and survival.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit, published in 2014 by Granta
Something I’d had my eye on for a while, it explores the relationship between thinking and walking, and muses on why slow time is so valuable.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, published in 2012 by Sort Of
Another old favourite I return to time and time again, which reminds me of the importance of being still and observing my surroundings.
At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Grieg, published in 2010 by Quercus
Carved in the beautiful landscapes of Assynt, this book touches on grief and loss, history, whisky, poetry, and friendship.
What’s featuring in your lockdown library? Let me know in the comments below.
I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books with a mountain setting, including accounts of expeditions, favourites from my childhood, biography, and nature writing.
Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year. The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post, I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up in a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…
Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes an eyewitness to the 1996 disaster. On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.
*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.
Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane
A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.
What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.
A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall). He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.
It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama. It might make it into another list in future.
Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown
The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land. But women have been present from the beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do. This book gathers lesser-known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today.
I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it. I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…). Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.
Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.
This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins. But not my mam. If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains. If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.
You may know this story already. The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir. His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.
Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this). A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big-time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas. Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.
Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps. As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow. She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming a better connection to the rock. Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it.
A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring. A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction. It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings. I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know. READ IT NOW!
However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.
What is your favourite mountain book? What would you recommend to me?
This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you. These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
I’ve long had a fascination with the far north. This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike. A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.
The colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s freshwater supply.
The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty H sound, like that in loch or Javier.
We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.
The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog. This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.
At first glance, the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.
There is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.
I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.