Saturday, 19 March 2016

Personal Arctic Preparation part 2

We survived our Arctic preparation in the Alps but it was a close thing! The magnificent Wildspitze was chosen as the final objective of our ski mountaineering trip to the Alps and it started well.
We reached the top of the glacier in good time and donned crampons to scramble up the last 70 metres to the summit. Unfortunately that's when things started to go awry.

We had forgotten to readjust Sally's crampons to fit her new touring boots so, when they came off for the second time just 15 metres short of the summit, we decided to retreat. A decision made all the easier by the fact that our crampon faff had allowed 2 massive guided and roped parties to get ahead.

Back at the ski depot we took off the skins and prepared to ski down but my pin bindings had iced up which made it tricky to put my skis on. With the ski in uphill mode and with the break disengaged my boot slipped out of the binding and the slid off down the glacier on its solo voyage to who knows where?

So now we were in a bit of a pickle. I set off on foot carrying my one remaining ski whilst Sally skied off to try and find out the fate of my escaped ski. About 100 metres down the glacier Sally yelled back that she could see my ski which was a huge relief given that we were then at the top of a 2,000m ski descent which would have been a very, very long walk in soft snow over numerous crevasses.

As I got closer to Sally I noticed she appeared to be sitting in the snow which seemed curious then, finally, I realised she was partly down a crevasse desperately clinging to the downhill lip. I quickly set up a ski belay and threw a rope to her but she said she couldn't move to tie herself on. So I sent her a bite of rope down and gently pulled her towards me which resulted in screams of anguish as that had the effect of pulling her away from the downhill lip. Not a good plan!

There was nothing for it but for me to crawl over the un-collapsed part of the snow bridge to get below her then climb back up to pull her out from below. I quickly got her tied on and began to pull but her ski was rotated the wrong way in the crevasse and every time I pulled it twisted her leg the wrong way! I managed to get one of her skis off but the other  was rendering her inextricable.

Time to yell for help! 

I tried every language I could think of but mostly got ignored by my fellow ski mountaineers which was not an edifying experience. At last someone crawled up to join me at the downhill lip where I had Sally firmly belayed. He was then able to reach down and remove the obstructing ski. A tug on the rope and out she popped. Phew!

Somewhat chastened  by all these experiences we got on our way and, after a magnificent 2,000m glacier descent in mostly good snow, emerged onto the piste at the Skishulle Hutte and a very welcome hot chocolate to settle the nerves.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The boat is prepared for a high Arctic adventure so this week it was our turn.

In mid April we sail to Iceland's North West Fjord district where we plan to use Shimshal as a base for a ski exploration of this incredibly remote and spectacular part of the world. This of course is the shake down cruise before the big north east Greenland adventure. Having demanding day jobs meant that it is now time to get ourselves, as well as our boat fit for our Arctic adventure.

Leaving Shimshal in the capable hands of Jay our rigger we flew from Reykjavik to Munich to address the couch potato issue. The boat might now be ready but were we?

The warm and dry alpine winter came to an end a couple of days before we arrived in Munich with a 1 metre dump of snow across most parts. We hired a car from the airport and drove first to Conrad Sports at Penzberg to pick up our new touring gear. It is a decade since we last invested in touring gear and technology has moved on in that time, so, for this trip at least, we would be sporting shiny new state of the art skis, bindings and boots. A first for the Currin's!

With avalanche risk rated at 4 out of 5 we were going to have to let things settle for a bit before venturing off piste so the first day we bought a downhill pass for Mayrhofn. Huge though it is the resort was very busy and we had no desire to spend any more time on-piste than we had to so, over dinner with Sally's niece Berta we decided to make a mini tour the next day up a safe valley to a hut for lunch and then ski down for a second night with Berta at Kramsach. This was the first touring we had done in 2 years and there was definite room for improvement!

We had unfinished business in the Sud Tyrol having been thwarted in an attempt to ski tour there 2 years ago when the region had 10 metres of snow that season rendering it out of bounds. This year conditions and forecasts were looking good so Berta booked us into the Zufalle Hutte and sent us on our way.

It was a perfect choice to get us back into the hills though the hut was very busy with weekend tourers and snow shoe hikers. The first day we sweated and panted our way up the Matrispitze sustaining a sunburnt tongue along the way - a sure sign of a sedentary lifestyle. We skied all the way back to the car as there was no room for us in the hut for a second night and so enjoyed some 3 star comforts back in the valley.

On Sunday we skinned up to the Martelle Hutte which was much less busy and they fed us very well. Most folk there were climbing the Cevedale but we opted for the Marmotta which we had to ourselves until we were joined on the summit by a couple from the Sud Tyrol. They obliged us with the summit photo before we launched ourselves down the glorious powder decent.

We paused in our descent at the Zufalle Hutte for a couple of restorative latte macchiatos and whilst basking in the afternoon sunshine we watched the first British party we had thus far seen ski in from Sulden. By an astonishing coincidence Tim sauntered over to our table a minute or two later saying, "Aren't you supposed to be sailing?"

Tim is the husband of Heather who came on our Medex 2015 trip and got serious injuries on day 2 of the trek. I had had to break the news to Tim by satellite phone in the middle of a Himalayan night. It was great to catch up with him and his Jagged Globe party who after an hour of chat donned skins to head up to the Martelle Hutte in the heat of the afternoon. We slithered down the now icy trail back to the car with no particular evening destination in mind.

I has hoped for a day of R&R downhill skiing at Serfaus but, as ever in the hills, I was to be a victim of other people's ambitions. Sally announced over breakfast at an overpriced and unfriendly hotel in Ried that she had other plans. We were, it seemed, heading for the Riffelseehutte in Pitztal in the Nord Tyrol where we would be able to tour to her heart's content despite deteriorating weather!

The first obstacle was to find the hut in a whiteout and rising storm. As usual she was right and by morning the sky was passably clear so off we went again with skis and skins. Along the shore of a frozen lake then up over the terminal moraines to finally join the glacier at about 2,800m. We had the valley and the mountain to ourselves which, though glorious, meant that we had to break our own trail in lovely powder. As the glacier steepened icy blasts of spindrift came lashing down from the col. The temperature was -14 C without the windchill and at about 100m below the summit I declared that our Arctic preparation had now gone far enough. Uncharacteristically Sally agreed so we wrestled with the skins and the freezing, fierce winds blasting us with icy pellets before embarking on a magnificent, untracked powder descent all the way to the valley floor.

The reason, it later emerged, we got the descent to the valley was to pick up our crampons from the car in preparation for an ascent of the Tyrol's highest peak, the Wildspitze, tomorrow morning. And I had thought we were by now already Arctic ready!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Re-rigging in Reykjavik

As Cape Wrath sank below the horizon last June an email pinged in from our insurers informing us that our standing rigging must be replaced before our next renewal date in July 2016. This news was despite a perfect rigging survey done just 2 months before. We were leaving Scotland, and all its sailing infrastructure in our wake and heading north for several seasons in the Arctic. The timing could not have been worse.

Our underwriter regards 10 years to be the life expectancy for the bits of wire that hold the mast up. We tried to negotiate and Topsail, our broker, tried to be flexible but it became clear that should a rigging calamity happen during our three planned crossings of the Denmark Straight and one of the Davis Straight then we would have to settle the costs and logistics of remote repair and rescue ourselves.

Refurbishing a 300 ton trawler in Reykjavik is commonplace but there are no riggers in Iceland and no infrastructure to support them. So what to do? Google took us to Facebook and Facebook took us to Jay Thompson who is now our knight in shining armour.

As I write this blog Jay is swinging around the top of our mast blasted by sleat and swaying around in the gusty winter Icelandic winds. All in a day's work for Jay who left his native Californian sun to sail with his rapidly expanding family around the Atlantic's frigid northern waters. Last winter he spent in Reykjavik living aboard with his kids in school learning Icelandic. When that became too comfortable he sailed north to Isafjordur for the rest of the winter and spring before moving onto Norway, Holland and France in the autumn. Happily for us Jay is a rigger and had already helped out some overwintering boats in Iceland. Miraculously he was prepared to sail back to Iceland to meet us this month and re-rig Shimshal along with some other clients he had acquired along the way. Great guy with a great story. Visit to fill in the rest.

CR Yachts, our boat builder, had the original rigging specification and Sparcraft were the suppliers. So we went back to them to supply all the shiny new stainless steel and happily it all arrived intact in RVK a week ahead of us. Aki kindly shifted it all onto the boat at the request of Icelandic Customs otherwise we would have had a hefty VAT bill to add to the already considerable cost of this venture.

So we are keeping everything crossed in the hope that all the bits fit and that the weather is kind to Jay as he wrestles with huge bits of wire at the top of our mast as the prime exhibit in the Icelandic Maritime Museum - our  neighbours for the winter.

Thanks must go to Jay for his willingness to do this work unsupported in the depths of an Icelandic winter, to Aki for finessing everything with customs and to Mattias of CR Yachts who patiently fielded our evermore frantic emails and calls as delivery deadlines approached. Hopefully we will soon sail north with all new, shiny and insured rigging.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

It is anode time of year!

Fresh underwater anodes go on when the boat hits the water in Spring or when it is lifted for a scrub. Not so this year as yacht lifting facilities in Iceland mean that an expensive crane would have to be  hired. So when we got to Reykjavik at the weekend the first thing we did was to poke a camera under the boat to see what sort of shape the anodes were in. Sadly there was precious little zinc left. With no obvious place to dry the boat out against a harbour wall the cheapest option was to take to the frigid water and do it with scuba gear.

Despite the harbour film of diesel on the surface the water was crystal clear so on went the dry suit and the gaffer tape to the perished wrist seal.  Stepping off the bathing platform involved dodging the plethora of mooring lines that have kept Shimshal secure against the hurricane force winds she has had to endure this winter. Needless to say the water at 64 degrees north was not warm in late winter! 

As I touched the prop anode it disintegrated so it was in desperate need of change. A few false starts with trips back to the surface to collect the right sized Allen key - 6mm for future reference. Finally the fumbling with gloved hands to insert the bolt through the new anode trying so hard not to drop anything. Job done!

Then it was time to take an underwater tour round the boat and note the pleasing absence of weed or barnacles. Was the water too cold for marine life to prosper or was it the combination of Copperguard and my home made ultrasonic antifouler that has kept the bottom clean?

Afterwards the warmth of a Reykjavik winter's afternoon was a blissful release as was the the realisation that we had just saved ourselves a fortune in lift out fees.