Tuesday, 23 June 2020

notice

The past week has felt very strange. Last Tuesday, my faithful old laptop finally gave up the ghost (it was at least ten years old), so for the six days it has taken to purchase a replacement, I’ve felt isolated in a way that I didn’t think possible. Fifty years ago, I spent days on end on my own in the heart of the Australian Outback, hundreds of miles from anywhere, without once feeling isolated. This has been different.

I didn’t want to check my Gmail account through Paula’s laptop, because I’d be signing in myself on a new device a few days later, and I was afraid that Google would flag this up as some kind of hacking. It does do that, as I recall from past experience. The second problem was that I don’t remember phone numbers. I keep my friends’ numbers in a Note file on my computer, a file that perished alongside its host. Then there is the coronavirus situation. People may be going about their lives as best they can in the circumstances, but nothing is actually happening. The pubs are shut for a start, and, unfortunately, for a good reason. So ‘social distancing’ really means ‘social shrinkage’.

This is to let regular readers know that only a few new items will be posted on this blog over the next few months as I grapple with a new PC—and the rigours of a new operating system.

However, on the same day that my computer collapsed and died, Paula and I did enjoy a walk along a section of the local river, on which I took some interesting photos. I had planned to write about it that afternoon, but I now hope to complete the project within the next week or so.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

lawrence of cairngorm

In 1973, I was working at the Moray Outward Bound School, which at that time was located just outside Burghead, a small town on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, when I had an experience that still resonates in my memory today. It was September, and my watch (a group of twelve trainees aged between 16 and 20) were about to embark on what would turn out to be the most arduous, physically demanding four weeks of their lives.

Every activity on that course conspired to be the most exciting, the most challenging, that I would experience during my entire Outward Bound career. As a ‘sea school’, Moray included sailing in its activities, but before I joined the staff there, my only prior experience of sailing had been as a watch instructor on the Captain Scott, a three-masted topgallant-sail schooner that sailed out of Plockton, near Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland, where I’d been seconded from the Eskdale Outward Bound School the previous year (although independent, the Captain Scott ran its courses on Outward Bound principles, including land expeditions, which was the main reason I was there).

The sailing at Moray was in two-masted cutters that could just about accommodate an entire watch, but before the first session on this course, the head of seamanship decided that we could split my watch between two cutters because winds were light. However, I’d barely managed to get my cutter out of the harbour when the wind rose to near-gale intensity. The head of seamanship was adamant that he didn’t want to see instructors taking the helm; we could only give instructions. And my first instruction was to take down the mainsail. We spent the remainder of the session with just the mizzen sail and a jib hoisted. At one point, we did sail perilously close to the harbour wall, but we came through that experience unscathed.

The other episode that I remember is a day spent surf canoeing at a beach a few miles east of Burghead. I’d never done any canoeing until I went to work at Eskdale, and that was white-water canoeing down rivers. Surf canoeing requires different skills, which I never really mastered. And it could be scary. When we arrived at the beach, the waves were around 10 feet high, and the idea was to paddle out beyond the breakers, turn and choose a wave to ride. Exhilarating? Certainly, but I must have capsized half a dozen times during the course of the day, including one instance where I was forced to capsize deliberately to avoid an empty canoe that was bearing down on me in a breaking wave as I made my way out to sea to begin another ride.

However, it was the four-day final expedition in the Cairngorms that I strongly suspect the participants still remember today. What follows is an account of that expedition.

The final expedition at Eskdale was the chance for trainees to put into practice what they’d learned earlier during a course on their own, but the Cairngorms are potentially much more dangerous than the Lake District, and it was standard practice at Moray for groups to be accompanied by an instructor. Although Ben Nevis, at 4,409 feet above sea level, is Britain’s highest mountain, there are four peaks in the Cairngorms over 4,000 feet—Ben Macdui (4,295 feet), Braeriach (4,252 feet) Cairn Toul (4,236 feet) and Cairn Gorm (4,084 feet)—together with several summits that are listed in Munro’s Tables, published in 1891, but do not involve at least 500 feet of ascent from the nearest higher peak. There are also a number of satellite peaks that are only slightly lower. This massif therefore has the closest approximation to an arctic-alpine climate of any mountain range in Britain—there was still a small glacier on the slopes of Braeriach as late as the nineteenth century!

I suspect that my intended role in such expeditions was simply to tag along, allow the trainees to make all the decisions and intervene only to avoid dangerous mistakes. You can probably guess my reaction to such a policy: if I’m coming along, then I will set the objectives. And for this expedition, I’d proposed a target of climbing ten ‘munroes’. Now I’ve never read Munroe’s Tables, which lists all the mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet above sea level, but I thought that to be included in the list, a peak had to involve at least 500 feet of ascent from the nearest higher peak. This was my only mistake (see below).


Anyway, we arrived at the White Lady car park, on the western slopes of Cairn Gorm at around 2,700 feet above sea level, early in the morning. Our first objective was Cairn Gorm, which we reached without too much trouble. The terrain between this mountain and Ben Macdui can be described as an undulating plateau, difficult to navigate in misty conditions. And the mist was swirling around, occasionally cutting visibility down to a few yards and at other times lifting just enough to indicate the way ahead. And I did have some idea of the way to go, having been this way a couple of times earlier in the summer. Our ultimate objective was a small lochan at about 3,700 feet above sea level on the slopes of Ben Macdui, where we would camp on the first night.

As I was preparing my dinner at the campsite, I noticed two things: first, that the mist was slowly sinking into the valleys; and second, that it would be a full moon. A change of plan. I called the trainees together and told them to be ready to move out at 1am instead of the dawn start originally envisaged. They could leave the tents where they were, just carrying enough food and equipment to be able to handle an emergency.

I managed to sleep for a few hours, and when I crawled out of my tent at about 12.30am, I was staggered by what I could see: a luminescent carpet of white through which black shapes protruded, like islands of the unknown in a sea of knowledge. It was so bright that you could read a map without the aid of a torch. And so we set off towards our first objective, Beinn Mheadhoinn.

This peak is more than 3,800 feet high, and unless you’re familiar with Gaelic, I can guarantee that you will have no idea how it is pronounced. And this is an appropriate time to introduce the eponymous hero of the story. Lawrence, who was typical of many Outward Bound trainees, overweight and unused to hard physical exercise. He had a sense of humour though, always ready with a wisecrack to disguise the difficulties that he encountered during the course.

If you’ve ever been walking with a large group, you will be familiar with the hotshots who tear off ahead, stop for a rest then set off again immediately the back markers have caught up. Lawrence found this profoundly demoralizing and complained bitterly, not without justification. He hardly ever got a chance to rest.

And we had a long day ahead. But first our descent into the luminescent fog. Illumination was replaced by a kind of grey darkness, but we eventually stopped going downhill and started to climb again. When we emerged into the light, it was from a different perspective that took some getting used to. We rested a while at the summit.

Our next objective was Beinn a’Chaorainn (3,553 feet) to the east. I thought that this would be a good vantage point from which to watch the sun rise, so I was in no hurry to continue. However, Beinn a’Bhuird (3,927 feet) couldn’t wait for ever. This mountain dominates the east and looks a daunting prospect. Not only did we have to climb it now, we would have to reclimb quite a bit of it from the other side after visiting Ben Avon (3,842 feet).

And all the time, we had been getting further and further from our campsite. The way back was going to be long and arduous. Lawrence had been struggling for hours, but there was worse to come. At around 6pm, after 17 hours on the move, we found ourselves at 1,700 feet above sea level, faced with a climb up to our campsite at 3,700 feet. I didn’t think Lawrence could make it.

What should I do? I can still remember verbatim what I said to the trainees:

“Right! Lawrence goes first, I go second, and nobody passes me.”

You can guess which word I emphasized.

I talked to Lawrence for the entire climb, and he didn’t stop or even hesitate once. His pace was indeed painfully slow—I’d have been more comfortable walking at more than twice that speed—but I had to get the guy back to the campsite. I could worry about day #3 once I’d done that.

It used to be common practice for a policeman to be seconded as a temporary instructor for a single Outward Bound course, presumably so that they might learn something, and as the most experienced mountain instructor at Moray, I usually had the temp assigned as my assistant. Why not split the watch into two groups of six? I would supervise the hotshots, while my assistant could keep an eye on the slower trainees.

The first objective on day #3 was Carn a’Mhaim (3,402 feet), an isolated mountain that is straightforward to negotiate, but then our route crossed the Lairig Ghru, a huge trench that bisects the Cairngorm plateau. We crossed at 1,400 feet above sea level, with Cairn Toul and Braeriach on the distant horizon above 4,000 feet.

There was another objective: the campsite. The Wells of Dee is the ultimate source of the River Dee, a ‘babbling brook’ running past a well-kept ‘lawn’ with room for eight tents. I’d camped here, on the highest campsite in the British Isles at just under 4,000 feet above sea level, on the previous course. The only part of the ascent that I remember is when we emerged onto the plateau and I identified the Devil’s Point. It looked like an easy detour, but it didn’t meet my mistaken criterion for inclusion in Munroe’s Tables.

That was my mistake. There was another: I noticed a peak in the Beinn a’Chaorainn area that looked easy but didn’t meet the criterion either. That would have cut down the exertions of day #2 (no need to tick off Beinn Avon).

So how did Lawrence do on day #3? As I expected, when not being constantly pressured by the hotshots, he could handle the situation—at his own pace. The ‘slow’ group were no more than 10–12 minutes behind after an entire day. And that with loaded rucksacks.

The final day of the expedition started in the middle of the night. I was woken up by the side of my tent flapping wetly in my face. However, there isn’t much you can do in such circumstances. The overall structural integrity of the tent remained intact. Wait for daybreak.

I referred earlier to the putative role of the instructor on these expeditions. If I’d left it to the trainees to decide what to do, I’m sure that they would have opted for retreat from what was an extremely exposed location in suddenly extreme weather. Safety first. When I worked in Outward Bound, I didn’t think like that.

We still had one more ‘munroe’ to climb to reach the target. Sgor Gaoith (3,668 feet) is the highest summit on a north–south ridge that lies a few miles to the west of our wild campsite. The terrain in between is featureless peat bog. And on this occasion, visibility was less than 20 yards. And there were no paths.

I instructed the trainees to form a single straight line, which I directed left or right from my vantage point at the back. The only time in my life that I’ve had to navigate solely by compass bearings for such a long distance, with no physical features to offer guidance. And we eventually hit the col in the aforementioned ridge that I’d been aiming for.

The tenth ‘munroe’ seemed almost like an anticlimax. Over the top and down the other side, where we picked up the school’s transport. I’ve never seen any of the participants in this adventure since the course ended, but I’ve often wondered whether it’s a story that they have told their friends. Perhaps you’ve heard the story. Heard it first-hand. And didn’t think it was true.

Friday, 5 June 2020

postscript

I’m finally back in Penrith, after a slightly strange but uneventful journey. The airport in Hong Kong was like a ghost town, and the flight to Doha was only 20 percent full. The Doha–Manchester flight had more passengers but was nowhere near full. Paula had booked our train tickets to Penrith three months ago, but I didn’t expect the trains to still be running. However, they were, although we had to wait an hour longer than we had anticipated because the airline had brought forward the timing of the second leg. And although only 25 percent of the seats on the train were marked as available for occupation, we actually had the entire carriage to ourselves.

May had been my best month in terms of distance covered on my bike in more than two years. I’d been out no fewer than ten times in the first 17 days of the month, usually with Paula but often by myself. I began to wonder whether I could manage 1,000 kilometres in the month, a feat I last achieved in December 2017, but the weather became unstable, with a lot of rain and frequent thunderstorms. And the mercury was hitting 30 degrees Celsius every day. Phew!

Nevertheless, 1,000km still seemed a realistic target, even though with a week to go, I was more than 275km short. However, I went out with Vlad on Sunday, 24th May, and as well as doing the new version of fruity pie, followed by my newly revised version of the final frontier, which avoids the village of Ha Shan Kai Wat and the psycho dog that attacks cyclists, I then thought that I’d show my Romanian friend temple mount, which is a lot harder than it looks, not just physically but also technically. We also included swiss roll, which I didn’t think Vlad had done (but he had). So that was 70km added to the target.

Then on Tuesday, with Paula preoccupied with family matters, I thought that I’d start with the Hok Tau country trails, which I hadn’t done for quite a while and are fun to ride rather than difficult. Then I headed west, where I embarked on a mini-circuit that starts and finishes at the witch’s house. Unfortunately, about 500 metres before reaching Luen On Bridge, the heavens opened. At least I knew that there was a Chinese-style gazebo next to the bridge where I could take shelter, and the route there was along a fast—and wide—concrete path . During my sojourn there, I noted five or six lightning strikes that were so close that the thunder followed almost instantaneously. At least I felt safe in my temporary refuge.

When the rain stopped, I thought about aborting the ride, but my route would take me back to the witch’s house in any case, and if I’m there, I might as well do swiss roll. And if I’m doing swiss roll, then I can also include on the money and oriental garden (video link), not to mention around 5km on fast roads that don’t carry a lot of traffic. So that was another 73km off the deficit.

On Thursday, I started with the Luen On Bridge circuit in bright sunshine. However, I’d just emerged from the top of swiss roll onto Kwu Tung South Road, with 25km already on the clock, when I had that strange experience of hearing the rain a couple of seconds before feeling it, which I’ve only ever encountered in Hong Kong. I had no idea where I might find shelter, but as I reached Kwu Tung Road, I spotted a covered bench on the opposite side of the road. That would do!

I stayed there for just a few minutes, and it looked as though the rain had stopped, but I had just reached the bottom of a hill that I wasn’t prepared to cycle up again when it started, this time much heavier. I thought I remembered some kind of shelter next to the entrance to oriental garden, which turned out to be covering the mailboxes of the people who lived along this alleyway. It was also used as an impromptu minibus stop, so I had to share it temporarily with a couple of people.

I was there for at least 20 minutes, but the rain eventually stopped. However, the road had been thoroughly soaked, so as I continued I continued to get wet from the spray. Eventually, though, everything dried up, and I headed, via a long detour, to the part of my own neighbourhood south of Sha Tau Kok Road, the only road that leads east out of Fanling. I stopped briefly at a gazebo opposite the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, but the expected rain never developed, so I continued across the swamp (one of Vlad’s favourite cycling segments) to Po Kak Tsai Road.

The rain started again, this time in earnest, so my target was a shelter at the junction with Lau Shui Heung Road. I made it without getting too wet, but in the course of the 20–30 minutes I spent there, I was joined by seven other people, also seeking shelter. And it would not be exaggerating to describe it as cramped. This location has restricted visibility, either by trees or by mountains—or both—so it’s impossible to gauge how the weather will develop, but the rain did eventually stop. I was the first to leave the shelter, because I still had more to do, but I eventually made it home with another 84km added to the total.

That left less than 50km to do on Saturday, but when I awoke at 5am, it was already bucketing down. It didn’t stop until around 2pm! I don’t usually do any cycling on the day I’m due to fly out, even though the take-off time is always after midnight, and in any case, the forecast for the following day was ‘more of the same’. It looked as though I’d missed out.

Wow! It was sunny when I woke up. I had to take advantage. So I was out early, and I took the following photo of the Ng Tung River, from a slightly different vantage point to the photo I included in Photographic Highlights: 2019–20 (Part 2):


I then continued to the Luen On Bridge circuit and included swiss roll, before heading south towards Taipo. My intention had been to go as far as the lumpy footbridge that you have to use to cross the railway before doubling back, but guess what? It started to rain. Luckily, there was a gazebo nearby, and the shower lasted less than five minutes.

I then thought that while I’m here, I might as well tackle the detour de force, which I hadn’t done in ages, before heading home. On the way, I spotted this newly painted graffito on the side of the ramp leading up to the first footbridge crossing the railway south of Fanling:


Crude, but you don’t see much of this kind of thing in Hong Kong. It will probably get scrubbed before I return.

On the way home, I decided that I’d like a bit of fun, so I headed for ignoble hill. I still haven’t worked out the optimum route through this squatter area, but for now it starts next to what I deem to be some kind of community hall at a long and meandering ramp that gets steeper around the second bend (20–25 percent gradient). The community hall has an interesting mural painted on the opposite side of the hall to this ramp:


To date, I haven’t been able to get a straight-on photo, because that view is invariably at least partly blocked by parked cars.

There is another mural on the house next to the mural that I included in Photographic Highlights: 2019–20 (Part 2):


The Chinese characters are a transliteration of the English word ‘store’, although there doesn’t appear to be any kind of store here.

And that was my final cycling excursion of the month: 68km and back home by midday. My final distance total for May was thus 1019.32km, which I shall be trying to beat next winter.

What keeps me going? When you’re in your sixties, you can kid yourself that you’re still middle-aged. When you hit seventy, you’re an old man. However, by keeping going, I can say to myself: not bad for an old man.

Monday, 1 June 2020

arithmetic meets geometry

I was in the bank the other day, and while I was waiting to be served, I amused myself by studying the bank’s logo on the wall behind the counter:


First I counted the number of triangles, then the number of squares. Then I thought: the puzzles that I usually post here are not being solved. Perhaps I should post something that is a little less taxing. So this is the question: if you multiply the number of triangles by the number of squares, what answer do you get?

I’m about to head off to the UK early this morning, and I expect someone to post an answer to this simple question before I get back online sometime tomorrow.
*  *  *
If you found this puzzle too easy, then you might like to try the following, all of which are much more difficult:

What’s the Connection?
Out of Order #2
Rhyme Cryme
A Rotten English Question
A Light-hearted Question
…French and
Four Play
Unusual Relationship Examined

Only the first three have been solved by readers to date.