Category Archives: Hiking

Laos – the new Thailand. PORTRAIT & CULTURE PHOTOGRAPHY

Portrait/culture photography with the G9 and GH5

I recently went out to Laos on my first assignment as an ambassador for Panasonic to solo shoot a short film about the unbreakable bond between an 80-year-old mahout and matriarch elephant. Alongside the videography I took stills of the people, places and culture around this most beautiful and mysterious of countries – one that is so often overlooked in between it’s more popular cousins; Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I can’t recommend visiting this ethereal and magical slice of Indo-Asia; it’s one of the few remaining Asian countries that can offer you a genuine experience of the culture without hoards of tourists. You can have precious moments to reflect without running into paparazzi or drunken party goers (yes, even in Vang Vieng!) So if you’re keen to learn about Laos and what you can photograph/do in the city and villages – look no further!

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Humans – such a complex and fascinating species, and perhaps of all the animals that roam our vast planet. Over 7000 different languages spread over 7 vast continents, all 7.4 billion of us are as unique and beautiful as the atoms that make up our universe.

Without getting too deep and sounding rather philosophical, I am of course referring to the very nature that defines us as human – our intelligence, our curiosity, and our emotional capacity. These qualities are the very essence of humanity and is something we can all relate to – across all boundaries regardless of cultural, language and political differences.

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Faces are incredibly expressive for a reason. There are 43 muscles in the face, most of which are controlled by the seventh cranial nerve (also known as the facial nerve). This nerve exits the cerebral cortex and emerges from your skull just in front of your ears. It then splits into five primary branches: temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular and cervical. These branches reach different areas of the face and enervate muscles that allow the face to twist and contort into a variety of expressions. This is something I really love to capture when photographing people, I am inherently wildlife photographer but have been keen to explore what makes us as supremely evolved animals tick.

It can be trickier to photograph that moment in time where your person makes the smallest of expressions – which makes the challenge all the more enjoyable. In film you can shoot off speed and capture this more easily, I always shoot 50/60fps for people to highlight their subtle emotions rather than 75/120, the latter would only be in situations where my character is moving incredibly fast or for a special effect (usually in sports where you can go up to 2000fps). Again the eyes always draw me in because they are among the very first features we notice when passing by or meeting another fellow individual – so much can be read emotionally by looking into them. I mention looking into them – never at them, because this cuts you off from the persons true essence. I believe that a lot of portrait photography is about building trust, even if for a brief moment passing by, and ALWAYS ask for their permission!

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So first a little history lesson; and yes I’ll make it a quick one I promise. It is of course the summer season! But you’ll want to know what you can do with that amazing camera that you got for your holidays, right? 😉

Despite it being one of the poorest countries in South – East Asia, one of the things you notice, is that nobody dies of hunger. This landlocked country is known as the ‘fruit/vegetable basket of Asia,’ and most families manage, not only to meet their needs, but even to put an important part of their small earnings to one side so as to participate in what small futile pleasures that make life enjoyable. Laos is a country of smiles, where composure and serenity reign and from where a sort of karma and an invigorating energy exude – from your local flower lady to the monks praying for our happiness. Laotians say that this special karma, was born with Laos, many centuries ago.

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The Lao people (Hmong, Hill tribe, monks, Buddhism). With nearly 5 million inhabitants on an area half the size of France, Laos is one of the least populated countries in S.E. Asia (17 inhabitants per km2). Laos counts about 80 ethnical groups which can be grouped into 4 families. Each group speaking its own dialect and having its own customs, traditions, religion, etc.

Laotians have an easy-going, smiley and amiable character; and quite Latin (I’m half Spanish so just saying!) in that they generally prefer to take their time, the same as in their way of life, savouring each moment not overthinking or worrying about the future, unlike the hustle and bustle of other mega Asian countries or indeed our own. This is one of the things that decidedly give this country its exceptional charm, completely the opposite to the Vietnamese or even Thai restlessness – which is partly why I wanted to visit this staggeringly beautiful country. It’s so often overlooked for it’s more famous surrounding countries.

Whilst the Laotians primarily practice Bhuddism, Hmong people are traditionally animist, worshipping the spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment. Shamans (Ouanung) are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in moments of ill health and village adversity. It tends to be that a spirit is upset and offerings such as livestock are made at the spirit’s request. Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits – and you can buy their amazing jewellery and hand crafted artisan gifts in the night market..

Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please them. During Hmong new year white paper is put on the columns of the house and a chicken is killed in their honour; and there were certainly plenty of them going around (waking me up at 3am every morning!)

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Monks – it is estimated that about 1 in 3 male Laotians join a monastery for at least some period of their lives, ranging from a few months or years to an entire lifetime. Most novices enter monastic life at an early age, learning the ancient chants and sutras, while also attending a regular school with a curriculum similar to that followed by most young students around the world. For many children in rural areas of Laos, joining a monastery is the only available option for education. Life in the monasteries can be tough and some novices from remote communities are only able to visit their families once or twice a year. The young monks follow a strict daily routine, living communally, sharing food and daily chores.

 

Camera: G9

The low down on the G9 before we get technical; this camera packs a powerful punch in terms of features. From the 4K, 60P, 4:2:2 GH5 goodness that was released late last year (I’ve been shooting with since February 2017), came the photographic brother that boasts:

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  • No Optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter
  • 20MP micro four thirds sensor
  • ISO sensitivity from 200-25600.
  • 5-axis Sensor-shift Image Stabilization
  • 3″ Fully Articulated Screen
  • 3680k dot Electronic viewfinder
  • 20.0 fps continuous shooting
  • Built-in Wireless
  • 658g. 137 x 97 x 92 mm
  • Weather Sealed Body
  • 6.5-stop built-in image stabilization system
  • 4K UHD recording in 24/25/30/50/60p.
  • Full HD recording in 25/30/50/60p.
  • Long GOP compression.
  • 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 video resolution high-speed video recording up to 60fps.
  • Full HD high-speed video recording up to 180fps
  • CINELIKE D and CINELIKE V photo styles.
  • Depth from Defocus AF.
  • Mini jack input for an external microphone.

 

The Lumix G9 gets the same 20.3MP Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor as the Lumix GH5, which means that, as on that camera, there’s no low-pass filter. And if 20.3MP isn’t quite enough resolution for you, the G9 also features a new High Resolution mode, which outputs files at the magnificent equivalent 80MP. This works by combining eight images that have been taken in rapid succession, with small sensor shifts between each one, which means that, unlike with some rival systems, a tripod is a must when using this mode. Whilst I don’t use this mode because of storage  (the 20MP images are amazing enough as they are!) it’s a nice little feature to show off with. In timelapse mode you can go all out with this and pan/crop as far in as you want. The auto focus is ridiculously fast, even a cheetah couldn’t outrun this little baby feature and it’s one of the quickest on the market.

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The double SD card slot means you can shoot jpegs on one card and RAW on the other which is quite handy when you decide if you want to keep the JEPEGs or vice versa.

Ergonomically I love this camera – the buttons sit right where you fingers rest where with the tip your finger you can zoom in before pressing the shutter button (a specialism of this model for telephoto users – hence why this is geared towards wildlife photographers). Also I’ve put this through its paces in the humidity when hiking to caves and through the leech, tick infected jungles (!) and of course the (light) rain – and it handled this well. On a more recent trip it handled the freezing constant rain too, was really impressed by its rigidly. 

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There are of course video recording features like the GH5 but please bear in mind that this is not a video camera like its brother. So it has much less features but can still record both HD and 4K resolutions in MP4 format, 4:2:0 colour sampling and 8-bit colour depth, lacking the internal 10-bit capabilities of the GH5 so your video is noticeably more compressed. However, it is possible to record 8-bit 4:2:2 in 4K 30p via an external recording device, I’ve always got my trusty Atomos Ninja Inferno to do the job.

The responsiveness of the camera was perhaps the standout feature for my day with the G9. After over 2,000 photographs the battery was still going strong and the results were strong in almost every case when shooting a timelapse – so this certainly bodes well with wildlife photographers. All in all it’s a great stills camera more than a video one (go for the GH5 or its newer sibling the GH5s) – you should give it a go!

And now for a little more technical details with examples from my travels, each with a key theme to help you decide what and how to shoot on your next project.

 

Key factors to think about:

1. The light – I can’t begin to describe the beauty of this country in terms of light – it is ever changing and so incredibly awe inspiring words can’t do it justice. Play with it. Follow it. Bask in it.… use it as the ultimate tool to create images that capture the nature of your subject – human, animal and/or landscape. ALWAYS shoot in MANUAL for such images, as well as in RAW so you can also have as much fun in lightroom and Photoshop (just kidding it’s more fun actually being there…). Remember to adjust your variable ND if you’ve got one on.

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P10442942. Movement – we are by nature very mobile, with our physical movements to the way in which we live our lives in chaotic urban settings or indeed nomadic lifestyles in the countryside. Capturing that sense of movement is fun when you use different techniques – so here I wanted to shoot a timelapse at one of the many famous night markets in Luang Prabang to highlight this. Using the 3 axis shark slider mini you can programme the movement with the easy to use app – video of that up soon!

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Shade – this helps with your tone and mood. A lot of black and white stills photographers will focus on the varying light and shade to get their feelings and message across – fear, love, joy, happiness, sadness, admiration, hatred, hunger, elation…. removing colour makes you think of how to tell your narrative in far more sensitive ways in a way similar to producers of B&W movies back in the 60’s would have directed their shots. Patience when using natural light to frame your subject is KEY!

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Playfulness – this is one of the defining characteristics that makes us intelligent mammals. It is seen across the animal kingdom, from dogs, to horses, tiger cubs to humpback whales – and again is a universal motion that transcends boundaries (or species). I feel that as a photographer you certainly have an influence in bringing about this feature – although children are the easiest to capture with this emotion; as they are devoid of the adult tendencies to judge, criticise and generally be more grumpy!

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Textures – peoples skin, their hair, their clothes say a lot about them as individuals. I don’t mean in a vain sense but you can gather a rich array of information about them as characters or background what they get up to and how they hold themselves. The culture in Laos as mentioned above is so incredibly rich and vibrant – it hits you with it’s sharp saturated colours, like those of a bold acrylic painting. I often think England  is the complete opposite, and draped in a sweet, soft glow and the light painting it in equally soft water colours. The food, dresses, festivals streets and of course magical temple offer this in glorified abundance. When first arriving in the Capital, Vientiane, my senses were overwhelmed by such a variety of colour, shade and patterns – all of which are a joy to capture.

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The remnant French archways and colonial architecture among the hotels and homes, the soft, large shapes of the many fruits adorning the markets and of course the magnificent sharp, elaborate temples – of which the country has over 100’s. I was very excited indeed to go on my very first ‘temple run!’ Such exquisite colour – would be nice to see such comparably colour in our own churches and places of prayer. In this particular temple, one of the largest and most superlative in the city, I used the 12-60mm 4.6 lens with a 46mm Gobe variable ND filter. It was a bright, sunny day, and whilst I would have liked to capture it during the golden hours, I felt that it wouldn’t do it’s full colour spectrum justice. I also used the Panasonic 100-400mm lens for some closer details of the statues and patterns adorning the holy site.

Monks are of course a central part of the religion and culture in Laos, and something that I was especially eager to photograph. Again the bright, bold colours highlights the amiable and fun personalities of the locals, whilst the actual reason for their colour choice lies in ……. At first I’ll admit I was rather shy and reclusive at photographing them out of courtesy and etiquette – but then you quickly realise that all it takes is a smile and polite gesture to your camera to ask their permission… and 9/10 times you’ll find they are more than willing to have their photo taken. This one was taken at the same temple as above.

Here I was rather lucky to see a group of young monks walking along the mighty Mekong riverside front as I went out the first day to explore – the light was perfectly aligned with one of the tallest of the (collective noun for monks?) group. I moved myself into position from the opposite side of the road and so that I could frame the rather beautiful verdant green parasol against them as they paraded along. Again this was with the 12-60mm and I did use photoshop to tweak the highlights – but I can promise you that the colours were just as vibrant and enchanting.

 

Emotion 

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I think this particular title is highlighted in all of the above mentioned – as texture, colour, shade all feed into our emotions and how we react to each image or film clip. It’s one of the most basic principals in cinematography and where the Director of Photography will work closely with the director to create a specific look and/or feel to the film. Photography also uses this principal and of course a lot of it can be touched up and edited in software later. This is quite often where all the magic happens (sorry to burst any bubbles – but I’m guessing many of you reading this are well aware of this!)

Washer woman cleaning off her dinner – people look so incredibly timeless in Laos, I could never tell how old she was.

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So a handy little anagram for what to look out for when photographing people include:

H- humour: So this can work both ways. They can be (and this is most of the case!) laughing at you and find your odd demeanour and camera geekiness quite entertaining; don’t wait for the moment to pass – snap away and capture the moment!

U- unique: What’s unique about your subject (person)? Have they a standout feature, eye colour, beautiful smile, scar, long/short/frizzy/straight hair? Whatever is distinctive about your person, make sure to celebrate an honour it by making this one of your focal points of the image. It’s what makes us all special.

M – movement: Just slow down that shutter speed and experiment with your person, especially if they’re moving. Adding a little motion blur to your image can bring it to life and give you a whole different angle to play with.

A – activity: What does your subject do? Are they dancers? Crafts people? Artists? Scientists? Whatever it is they do, try to photograph them in their element doing what they do best – not only will this make them more comfortable, but you will certainly make the image more genuine and interesting to the viewer.

N – ature: Try to capture and set your human in their environment, their natural habitat that represents them. I really can’t emphasize this enough, a single image of a person in whatever comes naturally to them is key to capturing their essence.

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My encounter with the people of Laos has been a magical one at that – their resourcefulness, peace and positivity reflects the equally majestic landscape where they are able to sustain and feed their families – securing a better future for all. Family is certainly a huge part of this country, and everyone plays their part in taking care of each other – with young girls cooking, cleaning and taking care of elderly relatives – with the men earning a living in the farms and wives working like wonder women in the rice paddy fields. For me the most surprising thing was seeing how happy they were compared to another poor country I recently visited, Kenya. I can now see and understand this to be partly due to the abundance of food which is far more readily available than it is in Africa. But also the spiritual belief and conviction they have that their Buddha/deity/spirit guide will help them live a prosperous life in the here and now – as well as the next should the reincarnation cycle not be broken…

Until the next post – all about the wildlife in Laos!

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SO you wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

Calling ALL adventurous students!

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A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortious and hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before. And YOU could be part of the team that is part of this historical event!

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The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!

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But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:

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As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).

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It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.

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SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks).  Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:

  • Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
  • Weekly allowance (fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
  • Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
  • Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100

hiking-austriaThe team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.

And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.

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For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!

This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/

BUT WAIT!!!!

First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!

Kit List

“NORMAL” CLOTHES (e.g., trousers, underwear, t-shirt, socks)

Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)

DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!

(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)

BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK

(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)

  • WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT

Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)

  • A FLEECE to cave in

Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.

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  • THERMALS to cave in

Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).

  • WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in

Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)

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  • GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in

A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them

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  • HAT to cave in

A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c

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  • SLEEPING BAG

To sleep in. No really.

  • TORCH

So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.

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  • WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)

PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.

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Because it looks so swish I hope this encourages the guys to get one 😉
  • TOWEL

To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers

  • MONEY

Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks

  • BEER/DRINKS

There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).

CAMPING

Please Bring:

  • ROLL MATT

A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.

OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):

  • Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
  • WETSUIT

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Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.

  • FURRY / Thermal Undersuit

A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.

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Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottoms is there Mary?

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Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!

Dachstein Austria caving expedition training: A weekend in Wales

This weekend was all about the SRT, caves, sheep and the industrial valleys of the wonderful country that is Wales! I went down with the Leeds University Speleogical society to Summit centre (Wales), Merith Tyfild to further enhance my caving expedition skills. This is all in preparation for the rather excitingly named “Dachstein expedition” which will be going ahead this summer, more of this towards the end! As well as how YOU can join Matt St Claire on caving EXPEDITION– yes YOU could be then next Ralph Reynolds, and best of all the prices are student friendly. A guide on what kit to take and first aid is all you need, (and frankly to be slightly insane) to go on this exciting adventure.. But firstly our trip down south began 10:30am, Friday 27th March…

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The trip down in the van was probably the most entertaining, where much fun was had ridiculing the sheep, lack of windows in and how industrial Wales appeared to be- enveloped in mysterious and ethereal blue smoke. We stopped off in what only could have been described as a town full of Morrison’s and Gregs to buy an entire chicken, which we carved and ate later on our picnic stop, much to the delight of Rachael, (not so sure about Daniel’s reaction though).

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Last bone picked dry

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Whilst Luke and Rob frolicked along the banks of a quaint river, skimming stones and generally skipping around, I took a few photographs of their later modelling efforts- just take a look at these stunners…

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The competition heated up…

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We then set off again, feeling ebullient and joyous about what lay ahead. One more coffee stop and we arrived at a rather late time of 7:30pm, but relatively earlier than the rest. Joel Corrigan (the event organiser), was suspended 12m in the air rigging the equipment for the following day, and so we decided a nice dinner would suffice until he was within audible shouting distance. When we returned from the small village, the car park seemed rather more packed than before, so we made our way to the meet and greet hallway areas, bumping into a few budding cavers.

I met another fellow Zoologist, Kieran, and he told me that he was studying at Cardiff Uni– a brilliant place for research as is Leeds. His research was fascinating!Victoria was a very funky archaeologist and Raphael a smiley German student, both at Cardiff again. Meg, a French exchange student, was telling me all abut the trip to Austria, and what a great time its is for students to get involved with expeditions now. We then popped into the climbing centre where we were astonished by the size of the walls… I mean this really does beat the Leeds wall and Edge!

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Big ass climbing wall

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Climber-eye candy, we had a go at some bouldering. Later after a brief meeting and hearty salad for dinner, a furious networking session with a group of lovely cavers was had! We chatted about our research (how sad…), hopes for the summer, and the thought of what lay ahead the next day. By the time we got to bed my contact lenses were peeling off my eyeballs (it was that long a day)…but fell fast asleep to the sniffling and constant rotations of my top bunk bed partner… thanks Brendan!

Day 1

Morning came rather soon, whilst everyone was slightly hung over and reluctant to emerge from their roosts. I couldn’t stay in bed any longer, so I quietly snuck out to have a shower and sniff out some wifi. No luck with the internet I’m afraid. Or with breakfast for that matter. Despite the long drawn out morning, an energetic meeting was had about the plans and details of our training.

First up, basic SRT practice! The basics of kitting up with your descender, hand jammer, chest jammer or Kroll, cows tails, D-ring, friction karabiner (don’t ask me where these names come from!), chest piece and of course the hip and leg loops/harness from which you attach all these marvellous metallic pieces of kit.

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Henry sorting out his chest straps.

I had fun getting my chest jammer in wrong for the 6th time, but got there eventually. Raphael was being shown by the experienced Elliot (tree surgeon, yep that’s an actual job title!) how to kit up, whilst I took photos of everyone.

The others did the more advanced SRT and Joel swanned around cursing at the ineptitude and lack of safety of the caving clubs tackle masters with their incompetent uni SRT kits… scary times.

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He did have a good point however! And was very knowledgeable about ALL aspects of caving. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is generally that cave keen.

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Everyone also had a go at some easy rope access, tight re-belays, tension lines, rope to rope transfers and cave surveying (attended by Rachael and Luke using Clinos, compasses and Distal X’s).

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Group photo with the lovely Cardiff lot. Will definitely be joining them when I head down to Bristol!
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Testing out the flash
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Lots of SRT hanging around.
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Some quick gear checks to ensure each others safety
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Joel’s Cows tails. Mine were too short apparently…
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Some rigging with alpine butterfly knots. Proud to say I managed them after 6 attempts. Handy for a deviation.

A bit more swinging around on ropes, rock climbing and belaying rounded off the day nicely and brought us to the evening where we watched Joel’s rather insightful home videos. Well, caving videos, which all left us feeling inspired about the trip this summer. Dinner was a bit of a brawl over the last morsel of stuffing and lemon tart piece. Luckily I didn’t want pudding…just as well, the guys went back for more! We all went to bed buzzing with butt ache and the clinking sound of our SRT kit ringing in our ears.

Day 2:

The next day we went to a first aid talk with Rob, a vet, on getting wrapped up in tinfoil (like our chicken counterparts), how to prevent hypothermia, blood loss, broken limbs, painkillers, rock fall, ect… check this space for a special first aid section soon. Also a cave rescue was executed – a very brief intro to French style cave rescue with their system of vertical rescue. That rescue dummy looked awfully heavy!

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As well as this, we attended a fascinating talk by an amazing cave photographer, Andy Harp and his wife- what talented individuals. I got a severe banging on about my tripod, so will have to consider changing mine in the future. I’m afraid its too unstable to get the kind of shots that require the upmost stillness. His cost over £500! But the rest of his kit was surprisingly cheap. Daniel also came with Brendan, also keen photographers. To our delight a 12 month year old puppy chewed at our feet whilst we sat staring in amazement at his incredible shots. This man had travelled to the depths of the steamy amazon rainforest cave formations and some of the most extensive Chinese karst systems. I seriously hope if he’s reading this he enters a Nat Geo photography competition and showcases his photography online, such an eye for incredible compositions, here is just one of them.

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Another special post on how to get into cave photography will be up soon. A final bit of SRT and rock climbing rounded off the trip, and we headed back to our dark van, although Rachael very kindly let me sit in the front, and journeyed through the Brecon Beacons back to Leeds. Such fun!

SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

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A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortious and hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before.

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The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!

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But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:

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As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).

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It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.

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SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks).  Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:

  • Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
  • Weekly allowance (fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
  • Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
  • Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100

hiking-austriaThe team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.

And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.

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For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!

This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/

BUT WAIT!!!!

First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!

Kit List

“NORMAL” CLOTHES (e.g., trousers, underwear, t-shirt, socks)

Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)

DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!

(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)

BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK

(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)

  • WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT

Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)

  • A FLEECE to cave in

Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.

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  • THERMALS to cave in

Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).

  • WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in

Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)

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  • GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in

A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them

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  • HAT to cave in

A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c

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  • SLEEPING BAG

To sleep in. No really.

  • TORCH

So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.

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  • WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)

PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.

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Because it looks so swish I hope this encourages the guys to get one 😉
  • TOWEL

To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers

  • MONEY

Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks

  • BEER/DRINKS

There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).

CAMPING

Please Bring:

  • ROLL MATT

A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.

OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):

  • Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
  • WETSUIT

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Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.

  • FURRY / Thermal Undersuit

A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.

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Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottoms is there Mary?

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Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!

 

Travel Talk Show feature: Chad Newton climbs Kilimanjaro!

Jambo!

This week’s theme on the Travel Talk Show is Kenya! This incredible country is so diverse and rich in culture, wildlife, food, history and secrets– Join me as I take you on the ultimate guide to this stunning part of the world. Our special guest Chad Newton spoke to us all about his amazing trip through Tanzania and Kenya to raise money for the charity Moving Mountains as part of the RAG expedition at Leeds University. Here are just some of the amazing photographs of his trip! 10815457_814885265241753_689316957_o

The Ngorongoro Crater is the best place in Tanzania to see the ‘Big Five’ and is an absolutely beautiful place to be on safari. 10816169_814886281908318_855496394_n Up close an personal with a giraffe! Chad trying to not look like Prof Brian Cox taking a swob from a Camel….10716085_814884985241781_1965195653_n

He was also incredibly fortunate to take a trip along the stunning coastline of Zanzibar.

“I noticed when we were snorkelling off the coast of Zanzibar, which is meant to have some good reefs, is that there had definitely been some coral bleaching, and the abundance of jellyfish probably indicated that the ocean ecosystem wasn’t 100% healthy I’d assume.”

As a student studying for a Broadcast Journalism degree, he is ever curious about the reality of any story- and especially keen to investigate the true state of the ecosystem rather than the seemingly pristine one portrayed many a time by natural history documentaries.

“My kinda thing is when travel is merged with journalism issues, e.g. like on Simon Reeve’s shows where it’s not just “look heres a cute orang-utan in borneo” its “here’s some cute orang-utans in borneo, but their becoming more and more rare because of these palm oil plantations, that are being used to make cheap western food.”

And finally a giraffe! 10811622_814887811908165_2111377865_n

Summit from the second to last camp on the way up… 10815917_814886388574974_2068317279_n 10807095_814886441908302_492172625_n Chad a the TOP! An amazing achievement for any young student! If you want to get involved with any of the RAG challenges, or simply want to find out more, head over to the RAG website or I am certain Chad wouldn’t mind helping to answer any of your questions about the trip:https://www.facebook.com/LeedsRagKili?fref=ts or tweet @ChadJNewton. Of course if you want to donate to the cause, they would be very grateful indeed, a fabulous charity: http://movingmountainstrust.org/ The upload of the podcast with Chad’s interview is now here so check it out! As well as a guide to what YOU can get up to in Kenya! Asante sana.- thanks for reading! Next week tune in and join me to listen to an Australian special where I will be chatting to three students who have been abroad and two are currently there, so see you down under soon!

Almscliff Adventures: Begginners guide to Rock Climbing

 Almscliff crag walk

Almscliff Crag is located between the verdant green sloping hills of Harrogate and the bustling city of Leeds, and protrudes on top of a small hill. Made of Millstone grit, it optimizes the hardiness of the great Yorkshire people- tough and gritty is most certainly the way up North! It was formed out of the destruction of the surrounding softer and more fragile shale and mudstone strata, which left this hardier famous landmark which is extremely popular with walkers and climbers alike. I headed up with the Leeds University Mountaineering society (Climbing) to try out my first outdoor climb, having had several indoor and seemingly difficult routes indoors at the Depot (Pudsey) and The Edge (Leeds). I could only really manage the Blues and Black holds at that point, so wasn’t too sure what to expect on an outdoor trip! But I was rearing to go and try it out.

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Beautiful views of Otley and the Chevin from the top of the Almscliff crag.

Ed and Dan were my teachers and were incredibly patient with my incompetent movements that resembled a seagull with broken wings that had been coated with tar… rather flailing!

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But you learn fast, it literally is a steep learning curve, with all the different names for pieces of kit, it can be a bit overwhelming! Firstly, rock climbing involves two people or a small group including the use of ropes which can either be done indoors at a local climbing centre OR outdoors. Other types of climbing without ropes involves bouldering where crash mats are places strategically in order to prevent any accidents. This is usually done in indoor centres without rope as the crash mats provide sufficient padding to cushion a fall whilst you build up your strength and stamina, to prepare you for an outdoor climb. You can use ropes indoors where another person is strapped into a harness and tied up whilst one person belays you- basically pulling up the slack rope as you climb ever higher and ready to catch you if you slip and fall. The different types of climbing are:

# 1 Traditional (or trad if you want to sound cool and mingle with climbers, ALWAYS use colloquial language to get in with the climbers!). This is where one climber will “lead” up along the rock face and place in all the bolts, cams and screws through which the rope will be placed through. This not only keeps the lead and first climber safe but allows the second climber to follow. Then at the top an anchor is built and three ropes are attached with into the rock with hexes (you will see why, they resemble hexagonal metal pieces) and then attach yourself to them by the rope with a special type of knot know as a clove hitch. The second climber will follow up after the first has yelled “OFF BELAY, FREE TO CLIMB” and they have secured the ropes up at the top. The second climber will also remove the gear as they progress.

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(Left) Your nuts, bolts, cams and clip ons to keep you safe! All of this should be provided with your climbing society. (Bottom) Nick Belaying Fergus, (Bottom Right) Nick being lowered by the belayer, Ed who is at the top.

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# 2 Sport climbing is where climbers clip onto already placed bolts that are securely fixed into the rock for people to ascend. This is the much easier and quick way to climb, but not as exciting as leading a climb.

#3 Soloing is where climbers will ascend under their own steam without any rope and by themselves, DON’T TRY THIS FIRST!! It can be very risky going it alone, so make sure you have many months of experience before you try this out. Ed, (see below) has done this for years and so is experienced enough to know the risks.

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Ed soloing it up the Chimney

#3 Ice climbing involves, as the name suggests, ice or snow with use of particular equipment such as ice picks (who doesn’t want those awesome looking pick axes?) as well as crampons, boots, thermals, rope and harness. This isn’t for the faint hearted, not only are the cold conditions tough, but the technique is better off perfected indoors before you go out there, but it looks beautiful.

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# 4 Competition climbing is more competitive climbing primarily done indoors in climbing walls, check out these amazing videos of insanely good comp climbers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Qk-lNsRtwQ

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# 5 Bouldering is as I mentioned earlier without ropes, and is frequently performed indoors with different coloured holds which indicates their level of difficulty. Hand Jamming, crimps are all part of the technical lingo…watch out for the Climbers chat guide coming soon!

IMG_5325Here is Fergus Bouldering up Manhorn…quite a long way down so crash mats were used! I was going to do this but then again….

Here are the essential basics to Traditional climbing:

#1: Belay Kit– can be bought in many outdoor stores, I personally bought mine at GO Outdoors as you can get a £5 discount card which will save you a whole load, and my gorgeous black and orange harness as well as purple screw gate (to clip rope through) and orange belay device (where the climbers rope is threaded through and to control the climbers ascent/descent). This will usually set you back £50 with all of the above and a chalk bag for when you get sweaty palms! If you have a bit more cash to splash, you could probably get a harness for £46 alone then buy the rest of the gear separately. Check this Climbex one similar to the one I got on Go Outdoors.co.uk:

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http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/climb-x-pilot-harness-set-p194186

#2 Climbing shoes- I can’t stress how IMPORTANT SHOES are… always get a size above your normal shoes size, as they can be quite tight! It is supposed to be just uncomfortable so that you can really grip the rock face and have the friction to push up against gravity and the wall. Also you want them to be super comfy!

http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/climb-x-crux-climbing-shoe-p194484

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#3 Chalk– is placed into you bag and attached to the back of your harness, used to stop those sweaty palms of yours when you’re up high from sweating up and losing grip!

The cheapest and best way to start climbing is to join your local university club and pay the membership there: your covered for insurance purposes and can borrow all the gear for a small £30 a year…think how much you will be saving if you don’t have to buy all that rope, harness, shoes, cams, nuts, clip ons, ect!

It’s also a great way to make friends and get shown how to climb with a good technique. Most members would have been doing this sport for some time and are experienced. So don’t splash your cash on all these fancy pancy climbing courses all the time- although I learnt how to belay at the edge for £25, I could have learnt the exact same thing with the climbing society showing me. I did my first outdoor climb with them too.

IMG_0640Me checking out my harness, belay device and screw gate.

So back to Almscliff! Classic climbs include the Chimney which is categoriesd as very difficult and Wall of Horrors. But as a beginner I would highly recommend doing Stewpot and Easy man– I am seen here doing Stewpot, which I also led a climb for. The rock is lovely and firm here which is reassuring, but it really makes you move your body in a way that makes you a more cautious and perceptive person. You need to be aware of where you’re placing your feet at all times…if you get a bad foothold then finding an equally dodgy handhold is of no significance.

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TRUST in your strong powerful legs and push up always from them and straighten your body right from your feet, all the way through your legs, through your core and UP you go! Onto the next hand hold. I must say, when I first started climbing, I had my doubts whether or not I could do it. My arms are like spindly gibbon arms, not much muscle at all! My legs are strong with all the cardio I do, and I was assured that it’s your LEGS that are the key to climbing. Whilst climbing Stewpot, in one of the cracks my friend shouted out that he saw a bat! I had to come up as I must say I didn’t initially believe him! But indeed there was a small wrinkled up Pipestrelle, sat snuggly between the cracks. We wondered if he was dead but he stirred as soon as we took a photo of him. Hope he was alright. You need a special license to handle them so it’s best that we left it alone. One then route had been led for me and it was safe for me to climb, I tied up my harness and headed up.

It was a gorgeous warm and sunny day. 25ᵒC-perfect for climbing the warm baked rocks of Almscliff crag. The scenery is truly spectacular up there. You can see why it’s a popular haunt with climbers, ramblers, boulderers, painters and walkers. Prior to joining the group, on my way up from the side car park, I wandered the crag to get a couple of panorama shots, and found a whole host of insect wildlife there. Swallows dart up and down catching their ready packed meals that are equally agile and astute on the wing- talk about fast food!

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My climbing friends tried the much harder Chimney, and Nick and Fergus gritted their teeth, and push and pulled harder to get to the top after attempts to get past the notoriously difficult mid slab of millstone rock- gravity ALWAYS wins. Funnily enough as I am writing this I just watched the film Gravity last night, brilliantly composed and shot, but a rather pessimistic film! Its unnerving to see your climbing buddies take a fall, even when attached to rope that can take the weight of a ton. We shout out support down at the bottom to help spur them on.

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The sun was beginning to slide further down the clouds, providing the perfect opportunity for me to get a silhouetted head shot and create a double exposure- check it out!I was very happy with the results after a tinkle on Photoshop CS3, I will be posting up a video tutorial on how to do it shortly. I hereby name it “Fergus and the Ferns!” after the plant I used to create it and the guy posing for it!

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After a long and gorgeous afternoon of climbing and photography, it couldn’t have ended more perfectly. I OFFICIALLY have the climbers bug, despite the climbers calluses and cramps in your toes after wearing the tiny shoes, climbing really makes you feel alive and brings out the best in your abilities- it MAKES you have to believe and trust in your judgment and work as a team to help them through the climb.

“Nothing beats that feeling when you get your hand at the top of that rock…”

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Ilkley Moor

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A splash of mauve grey and lilac contrasts prominently against the verdant green fern fronds, the rarity of azure skies made the scene one of even more serene beauty and wonder. Ilkley Moor certainly deserves its place amongst the expanses of the Jurassic Coast and the Lake District as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, situated snuggly between Keightley (that’s “Keethly” to a Yorkshire person) and Ilkley, West Yorkshire. It was formed during the Carboniferous period some 325 million years ago, back when the moor was seeped by southern bound rivers and channels- creating a steamy tropical swamp-somewhat different to today.

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The force of the water chiselled away at the rock and the deposited sediment was as a result of the incoming ebb and flow of the rather tormentous tides- certainly what the UK is rather famous for, with the second largest tidal range in the Bristol Channel! The highest being in the Bay of Fundy, Eastern Canada at Burntcoat Head, of 11.7 meters. The moor is now well above sea level at 405m. The sediment eventually under the compaction pressure and eons of time formed hard rock layers. All manners of geological forces tilted the strata creating a continuous rippling of fractures and crevasse within the rocks, which is what makes this place a popular haunt for climbers. Further north are Rocky Valley and Ilkley Quarry, near the remote and little known village of Ben Rhydding.

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During the last Ice age, the glacier that shaped the wharfe valley cleaved its way through, smoothing the valleys and depositing glacial debris in the form of millstone grit- rather acidic which is what creates this gorgeous little habitat with its heather and scarred rock faces.

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The famous millstone “Cow and Calf” rock formation located at the Ilkley quarry is certainly an impressive rocky outcrop, definitely one to have your photo taken on! It is so called rather quirkily, due to the rocks resembling rather lucidly, a cow and a calf…legend has it that there was once an even larger boulder that once resided next to the calf and its mother that was deemed to be a “bull” but sadly this was said to be quarried during the 19th century spa boom… shame, would have felt more like home!

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It was my first time on the moor and it certainly was a perfect day for a hike. Armed with my GoPro, 600D and Wainwrights sketch note book, I felt ready to capture the memories! I am sorry to say… but I did pick a little heather, please don’t arrest me Natural England!

This very hardy and resistant shrub coexists with a whole host of other perfectly adapted species such as bracken and wavy-hair grass. The three species heather include cross-leaves, Bell-heather and Ling, the latter being the most prolific. Bilberries are scattered amongst this delicious assortment of green and lilac which apparently makes for an equally delectable summer pie. The almost jewel-like quality of the cranberries gives a splash of red to the scene, and adds a little flavour and spice to the otherwise cooler palate of blues, purples and greens.

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I felt very fortunate to see the stunning Red Grouse that reside here, one was hidden amongst the heather, and decided that he wasn’t very happy with me trampling on his favourite foraging site, and defiantly leapt up whilst uttering “ughghghghgghghgghhhh!” It almost has a clacking quality to it. Nevertheless, I pressed on determined to get a shot of him from below, as to not scare him further. He seemed to relax and I got the shot! See what you think.

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A smaller family were foraging on seeds, heather, berries and small insects. You can appreciate how well camouflaged they are from a distance; it was only till I stumbled upon them on the trail that I noticed them. However, it seems that they unphased by a fell runner, so I crawled a little closer to them to get some more shots. The bees were whizzing around the lilac flowers adorning the heather like little crocheted accessories, the locals actually sell honey which is especially made from this particular flower- will have to try some! http://www.denholmegatehoney.co.uk/

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I even spotted a Lizards tail as it dived into a heather patch… I thought I was seeing things- reptiles living in the UK! There are many brilliant bird species such as the cuckoo, Hen Harriers, Hawks, Kestrels, Plovers and starlings. It’s really easy to visit this historical site, you can get the X84 bus up or the train to the town, then it’s only a 10 minute walk up to the Moor itself, which is marked out with its Cow and calf café as well as the actual rock. Here is a link to upcoming events; I certainly will be joining the bat and GPS one! http://www.ilkleymoor.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/foim_events_2014_web1.pdf

Caving Trip to Selgil (13/08/14)

I am officially “batty” now- I have descended into the depths of a cave and followed my fellow subject of research!

This is the second time I’ve been in a cave this summer…but this time I was actually ascending and descending it with karabiners, cows clips, descenders, hand and chest jammers, D-ring and a WHOLE load of rope! This stunning cave is located within walking distance from the Horton in Ribblesdale train stop in the Yorkshire Dales of roughly 2km. We left the Leeds train station at a later time of 9:10am, tickets will cost you £16 for a return, a with a rail card around £13. The weather, as usual was changeable with sheets of light piercing even the darkest of nebulous clouds, the occasional shower then patches of rather pleasant sun. ALWAYS take your rain jacket and thermals, that’s one thing I’ve leant the hard way! I keep forgetting that summer in the UK is rather different to a Spanish one! The walk to the site was equally as changeable, but nonetheless breath-taking. I felt quite safe with the three caving members of the Leeds University Union Speleological society, Michael, who has been caving for over six years, Katey who has been on more than 60 trips and Brendan who had recently joined the society a year ago, but nevertheless experienced.

IMG_3740The climbing team looking summery in their shorts!

They were all so welcoming and helpful, and exceedingly patient with my sometimes futile efforts! I literally had a crash course in Single rope technique (SRT) and vertical climbing/ascending/descending the day before with Michael and Kristian… then thrown into the deep end!

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The journey ahead…

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IMG_3935Selgil cave, the dry route which we decided to try out.

There were two entrances, the wet route is to the right hand side of the walk from Ribblesdale where the stream thunders down into a waterfall within the cave, or to the left is the dry (more like dry-ish) route which is the one we selected. We got dressed in the open into our oversuites and hooked up all our kit, including a cave helmet.

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IMG_3791-001IMG_3745Katey, rearing to get going! (above). Mike posing for the camera with all the kit.

Katey descending into the cave via the dry route, we didn’t fancy our chances with the wet route on a rainy day! (Above)

The wet route is advisable only in dry weather! The route was all rigged by Katey and Brendan; we descended from the entrance 6m down into the cave with a 15 meter rope. It was a little daunting at first, I must admit, trusting in the gear away from the safety of The Edge! But I was always in safe hands and so trusted everyone and the gear. It was rather fun! We got to the bottom, and could hear the discernible roar of the waterfall tumbling down in torrents. I am SO glad I put my camera in the water tight daerum drum, the spray was a bit of a nightmare for any photographer… I was also lucky that the only damage to my camera was scratches on my 600D screen!

We then moved on to the second pitch where we were carefully picked our way along the route with cows tails and avoided accidentally dislodging any loose rock. The route to the left side was far drier, which we opted for! This was only 12m down, (we had 20m rope) but still a little daunting for a first timer like me! It was a good feeling though as you glided gracefully (well, perhaps not me!) down on the rope using the descender. It takes a bit to release your hard lock then soft lock because your life is literally handing on that rope, if you slip up, its a long way down….

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Once at the bottom, I could hear the others further down the third pitch, then we descended ourselves. This was the furthest one down and required two steps of getting to the edge, then staying clear of the water falling from above. This was definitely the more daunting of the two pitches, and as I peered over the edge, I was glad I had misplaced my contact lenses! It was however, really beautiful, once I was off and descending, light flickering from my helmet painted the cave with an orange glow and light danced off the wet surface of the limestone rock. The spray hung in the cave like a blanket and created a slight haze.

Mike had to shout commands to me as I neared then end as the thunderous downpour of the waterfall echoed and resonated throughout the cavern. Whilst he was doing something technical further up the pitch, I waited gazing at the bottom with the scenes of what once was an ancient sea floor. I even saw fossilized remnants of coral on one of the slabs. All around me, I could see new sections of the cave forming with soft sediment being deposited at the sides. Katey and Brendan then reappeared from the bottom which was an easily accessible hop-down into a walkable section of the cave. When Mike joined us we decided to take a couple of cave shots and used our head torches as flashlights.

IMG_3847The depths of Selgil, Mike shines his torch and the wet surface of the cave reflects with enough light for my long 30 second exposure.IMG_3850Some more light painting in the dark with Kate as our model.

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I used ISO 6400 to get some cave portraits, and then used flash for some other closer up shots. Then we took long exposures (30 seconds), of Katey and the cave, whilst the guys acted as flash assistants. They did blur but they were certainly fun to take! I couldn’t progress any further without my camera get wet, so I returned it to the daerum drum and headed down with the guys to complete the walk. The source of the noise and spray became apparent as I hopped down and the waterfall was visible in all its resplendent glory. It was truly breath-taking, admittedly I was very cold and wet due to inappropriate underclothes, but even that didn’t dampen my spirits! The trip wouldn’t be complete without #CaveSelfies which we eventually got right!

IMG_3836.CR2Cave selfie! We got it just about right, but Brendan was just out of the shot, sorry man!

We eventually reached the “Duck“, which as the name suggests, requires you to duck and crawl through to the other side. I decided to wait with Brendan, I was too wet and quite cold, and didn’t want to get soaked! But the cavern itself was lovely to look at, as was being silt being deposited with shining particles that glinted and danced in that light emanating from our head torches. We switched them off to fully appreciate how dark it was, 70 meters underground, I literally could not even see my hand in front of my face- most certainly an adept description of pitch black!

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As Mike returned we then headed back up to the 3rd pitch to start ascending. Now the hand and chest jammers were used rather than the descender. This was the point at which I began to get nervous as I ascended with my hand jammer, which seemingly ‘jammed,’ and fear began to creep in! Mike reassured me I was fine and doing well, as well as encouragement from Katey and Brendan down below. Then, what seemed an age, I eventually reached the top, a little shaken but relieved. It is very enjoyable and rewarding, and I will be back for more! But it was scary as a first timer, and I feel good to have gotten over my fear of swinging from heights! When we stepped out of the entrance after a good 45 minutes (due to my inability to shimmy up the rope with the same speed and agility as the others), a gorgeous border collie greeted us, with his mane being whipped up by the blustering Yorkshire wind.

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I was glad to be out, I was pretty cold and hungry but also exhilarated by a fantastic trip. I never felt in any real danger with experienced people, more of a heightened panic moment. We played with the dog, who apparently took a shining to Brendan’s yellow oversuit!

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IMG_3904Ready to catch his new chew toy. Photo taken with flash, Aperture mode, 5.5, ISO: 800

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“One man and his dog…”

We got undressed then headed back down the track to the pub for a well-deserved cup of tea and sandwich. What a day! I will most certainly be joining this September. The next social is go-karting in September which will be great fun, will keep you updated on all the caving- I am officially known as Bat woman now!

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