The Freedom of the Hills

Last weekend, English mountaineer Doug Scott collected his Lifetime Achievement Piolet d'Or in Courmayeur. This award recognises his major stature as an alpinist.

He's done heaps of climbing over his lifetime, including a couple of new routes in the Darrans, in New Zealand. But he probably remains best known for his participation in the 1975 Everest expedition led by Chris Bonnington, which pioneered a new route on the South West face of the world's highest mountain. On 24 September 1975, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston became the first Brits to stand on the very top, more than twenty two years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
(credit: www.dougscottmountaineering.co.uk)

I think this photograph of Doug on the summit manages to capture something of what it must have felt like to be there. The location is stunning, and the elation at having reached the summit is palpable. But the sun is setting, so the situation is deadly serious. As it is, the two men survived a very cold night out on the South Summit, where they were forced to bivouac on the way down because their head torches stopped working.

In his acceptance speech at Courmayeur, Doug comments on how fortunate we are that we have unrestricted access to the mountains – in this case the European Alps.

There's an obvious humour in the way he say this, but he's also very serious. Because there really is a danger that the "crazy politicians" could prevent, or at least restrict, access to the wild places of the world. Even here in New Zealand.

Last year, Coroner Richard McElrea called for Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson to "take steps" to create bylaws to restrict or close public access to the terminal face of the Fox Glacier. Anyone who breached the bylaws could be instantly fined, his report said. Practical difficulties mean that this hasn't been implemented and is not likely to ever be. D.O.C. staff I've talked to are clearly opposed to this. I was incredibly surprised by the coroner's report, and deeply disappointed that he could arrive at such a conclusion. Thankfully, I'm not the only person who feels this way, as the ODT reported. Educating members of the public on the dangers of the terminal face seems a much saner approach.

Doug Scott articulates something that I feel very strongly: people should be free to take risks. Anyone who has spent time in the untamed places of the world knows how much there is to be gained from simply being there. Away from the literal safety barriers and figurative safety nets you discover aspects of who you are that you wouldn't otherwise.


My Brief Career as a Rugby Player

To anyone who knows me, the idea of me playing rugby will seem slightly incongruous. Because, although I live in "Fox", I'm certainly no Grant Fox. But for a day, last year, I found myself wearing the number ten jersey worn by the famous five-eighth and playing with the "Cunning Foxes" for the Glacier Country cup. Now, the video's just been uploaded on to youtube.

OK, so it was quite obviously staged! However, there was some genuine competitive spirit, and most of us almost forgot the fact that we were just shooting a little promotional video for our local area. The tackling was not hard, because the snow was so deep, and the landing was very soft. But to say it was a "friendly" wouldn't be quite accurate! Of course, the standard was not particularly high, given that a number of the players had been selected on the basis of their mountain knowledge (for obvious safety reasons) rather than their rugby playing ability. It was surprisingly hard work, too – between takes we were all puffing and panting because of the deep snow and the altitude – and all for less than 4 minutes of film. All in all, it was a fun day, in a beautiful setting.

My rugby playing may not be over yet though. If I practise a bit, I might just get selected for next year's Glacier Country cup!


The Baloney Detection Kit

"Do you believe in global warming?" is a question I sometimes get asked when I'm guiding on the Fox Glacier.

It's a question I find hard to answer because belief (or non-belief) is not really an appropriate response to this issue. It doesn't matter what I believe! What's important are the facts.

For example, my intuition is that it has been wetter in Fox Glacier so far this summer than it was a year ago. But if I tell you, "I believe it's been wetter this summer", it isn't very confidence inspiring, is it? I really need to answer a much simpler question: "Has it rained more this summer than it did last year?" Then, I can dig out the rainfall records from last summer and compare them to this year. You want the facts, not my opinion.

The problem with global climate is that, although the questions may be simple, finding answers is not. To a non-expert, the facts can be confusing and we may not fully understand the methods by which the data has been obtained. So, when we don't know for sure, and even the experts seem to disagree, we frame our question in terms of belief.

How else can we approach issues when we are not sure of the facts?

Here is Michael Shermer, from Skeptic Magazine, outlining his 10 point "Baloney Detection Kit" to help in precisely such situations.

With the specific issue of climate change there are really two simple questions:
  1. "Is the Earth's climate changing?"
  2. "Are humans a causal factor with respect to climate change?"
And the answers to those questions are:
  1. Yes, definitely. The Earth is getting warmer.
  2. Yes, probably. Humans are contributing large volumes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and this appears to be driving an increase in the earth's average temperature.
Back in 2007, Skeptic Magazine (volume 14, number 1) featured global warming as its cover story. Two articles from it are worth reading. "How We Know Global Warming is Real – The Science Behind Human-induced Climate Change", by Tapio Schneider, provides a clear overview of the facts, while Patrick Frank's article "A Climate of Belief" argues that "the claim that anthopogenic CO2 is responsible for the current warming of Earth's climate is scientifically insupportable because climate models are unreliable."

Incidentally, I checked the monthly rainfall figures for Fox Glacier.

December 2010: 1016mm *** December 2009: 646mm
J a n u a r y 2011: 596mm *** J a n u a r y 2010: 710mm
This summer total: 1612mm *** Last summer total: 1356mm

So my intuition was correct!