The Right Place At The Right Time

I spent last week in the French Alps with JTA, Ruth, Annabel, and some hangers-on. It was great to get out onto the snow again for some skiing as well as some ski-based geocaching, but perhaps the most remarkable events of the trip happened not on the pistes but on an “afternoon off” that I decided to take after a rather jarring 42km/h (26mph) faceplant earlier in the day.

Dan at the summit of Tougnète, near Méribel. Pardon the wonky horizon: Robin took the photo. Also: Alps happened.
A great thing about taking a GPSr for snowsports is that you know exactly how fast you were going (my record is 101km/h!) when you crash.

Not to be deprived of the opportunity for some outdoors, though, I decided to spend the afternoon hiking out to villaflou, a geocache only about a kilometre and a half away from our chalet. Well: a kilometre and a half as the crow flies: it was also some distance down the steep-sided Doron de Bozel valley, through a wooded area. But there was, in theory at least, a hiking trail winding its way down the valley. The trail was clearly designed for summer use, but it was a trail nonetheless, so I ate a hearty lunch with Ruth and then set out from La Tania to explore.

A hiking trail sign outside of La Tania, covered in snow.
Signposts marking the trail were supposed to stand six feet tall, but barely stuck out atop the drifts… where I could find them at all!

It quickly became apparent that I was underequipped for the journey ahead. With the freshly-fallen soft snow routinely knee-deep and sometimes deeper still, I would have done well to have taken at the very least snow shoes (and, I’d later conclude, perhaps also poles and rope). I was, however, properly dressed with thermal layers, salopettes, multiple pairs of gloves, hat, etc., and – unlike Rory when he got caught out by snow the other year – was at least equipped with two fully-charged GPS devices (and spare batteries), tightly-fitted boots, a first aid kit and emergency supplies. And as the only hiker foolish enough to cut my way through this freshly-fallen snow, my tracks would be easy to follow back, should I need to.

The snow-covered "path" from La Tania to La Nouvaz.
Walking through knee-deep snow is tiring, even downhill! Beautiful, though!

Nonetheless, it’s quite an isolating feeling to be stranded from civilization… even if only by half a kilometre… surrounded by snowy mountains and silent woodland. If you’re approaching the hike in a safe and sane way – and you should be – then it makes you especially careful about even the simplest of obstacles. Crossing a small stream whose bridge is completely concealed beneath the snow becomes a careful operation involving probing the snow and testing the support it provides before even beginning to ford it: a turned ankle could lead to at the very least an incredibly painful hike back!

Needless to say, my caution around snow and mountains has been expanded by not only Rory’s scary experience, linked above, but also of course by my dad’s death almost three years ago, who slipped on snow and fell off a cliff. And he was hiking in Britain!

This photo should be titled "La Nouvaz Reservoir". Can you see the reservoir? No? It's under that pile of snow on the right!
After my hike down from La Tania, I was pleased to pass through La Nouvaz, a small alpine village that indicated that I was over half-way to my destination.

The village of La Nouvaz, half-way as the crow flies between my accommodation and the geocache (and over half-way by my planned route), was beautiful to behold: a sign of civilization after about an hour of hard wading through snow. Even when you’ve used satellites to know your location accurate to a metre, it’s nice to be reassured that your expedition really is panning out as you’d planned.

A family of Luxembourgers were trying to drive up this road as I came back across it, on my way back. Their wheels span as they failed to get traction. I noted that all of the local cars, parked in the village, had snow chains.
The “road” into La Nouvaz had been ploughed that morning, but was already becoming treacherous.

I also now had a metric to translate the journey time estimates that I’d seen on the signs: it was taking me about three times as long as they said, presumably because they’d been written for summer hikers. The segment that had been advertised as 20 minute walk was taking me an hour: that was useful information – I sat with a friendly dog while I recalculated my travel time with this new data. There was a blizzard blowing across the mountaintops (which had been partially-responsible for my faceplant in the morning!) and I’d heard that it was expected to descend into the valley in the early evening, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t out in the open when that happened! But everything was okay, and I had time to complete my expedition with two hours to spare (which I reasoned could be used hunting for the geocache, as well as a emergency reserve), so I pressed on.

I'm pretty sure that I wasn't on the path any more, at this point. But then, when the path was buried under over a metre of snow, is it really still a path?
The trail become more well-concealed as I pressed on. Here was my first sight of the hamlet of Villaflou, ahead.

After La Nouvaz, the path became even harder to navigate, and in the thinner tree cover huge drifts formed where underneath there were presumably walls and fences. At one point, I slipped through snow that came up to my waist, and had to dig my way out. At another, I’d deviated from the path and was only able to get back on course by sliding down a snowbank on my bum. And honestly, I can’t think of a more fun way than that to spend a Narnian hiking trip.

Only one chimney smoked in villaflou. I never saw another soul there, though.
The hamlet at Villaflou – nothing more than a couple of buildings clustered around a chapel – is as picturesque as it is remote.

My GPS coordinates took me directly to the pump and trough in the square at Villaflou, and I spent some time (in my thinner pair of gloves) feeling around its metal edges in an effort to find the small magnétique geocache that was allegedly there. But that’s not where it was at all, and honestly, if I hadn’t just spent two hours hiking through deep snow I might now have had the drive to search for as long as I did! As I hunted, I thought back to my GCSE in French and tried to work out how I’d explain what I was doing to anybody who came by, but I never saw another soul. Eventually, my efforts paid off, as I discovered a small metal plate in a cunning hiding place, disguised to make it look like it belonged to the thing it was attached to… and behind it, a log with just four names. And now: mine was fifth!

Still bloody deep, mind.
The snow was a lot less-deep in Villaflou itself, and had clearly been stamped down by locals moving around.

I texted my revised travel times to Ruth, and then set off back. Following my footsteps made the journey less-arduous, but this was compensated for in equal measure by the fact that I was now heading uphill instead of down.

As I passed through La Nouvaz, I noticed two strange things –

  • Firstly: looking back up at the route I’d come down, from La Tania, I saw that there was a signpost that indicated that the recommended route back wasn’t the route that I’d come to begin with. The recommended route was the other way, to the left, and would only take me about 30 minutes (or, based on my recalculation, about an hour and a half).
  • And secondly: looking along this proposed new route, I observed that somebody had taken it since I passed this way last. There had been no tracks on that route before, but now there were, and looking up the mountainside I could make out the heads of two hikers bobbing away over a rise.
Not pictured: my beard, full of frost, and my hat, frozen into a solid lump.
Meanwhile, the blizzard was starting to descend into the valley, so I was certainly keen to try the “preferred” route.

I followed in the footsteps of the other hikers: it’s a great deal easier to follow than to lead, in deep snow, and I was glad to be able to save the energy. I treated myself to a swig from my hip flask as congratulations on finding the geocache and my good fortune in being able to tail some other hikers heading my way. But my celebration was perhaps premature! About twenty minutes later, I caught up with the two women ahead, and they clearly weren’t doing very well.

They’d come up to La Tania from Paris, accompanied by some friends, for a long weekend. Their friends had gone off skiing, but they hadn’t been able to join them because they were both pregnant (four months and six months), and no doctor on Earth would recommend skiing after the first trimester, so instead they’d decided to go out for a walk. There was a circular walk on a map that they’d seen, which looked like it’d take about an hour, so they’d set out (wearing little more snow protection than wellington boots, and one of them without even a hat), following what looked to be a well-trodden footpath: in fact, it was probably the first part of my outbound journey, from La Tania to La Nouvaz, that they’d followed, “overtaking” me when I left the route to head on to Villaflou and the geocache.

And seriously: who's at the end of their second trimester and thinks that hiking though waist-deep snow down an unmarked trail up the side of an Alp, in winter, is a good idea?
The two women had been taking turns to lead, having also discovered how much easier it is to follow in somebody else’s footsteps, but I wonder how well-equipped to ‘lead’ either of them really were.

On the ascent back up they’d gotten lost – there are no good waypoints, the path is unclear, and the encroaching blizzard hampering the ability to pick out distance landmarks. They’d wandered – it turned out – several hundred metres off where the path should have gone, and I’d made the mistake of assuming that they knew what they were doing and followed them the same way. Worse yet, this ‘alternative’ path back to La Tania didn’t feature on any of my digital maps, and these two severely-underequipped mothers-to-be were struggling with inadequate grip on the slippy ground beneath the snow. When I first encountered them, one of them had slid into and was trapped in a snowdrift, and the other called me over to help her pull her friend free.

Between them, they had a paper map designed for casual summer use, and they’d realised their predicament. Were I not there, they confessed (once we’d established a dialogue somewhere between their shaky English and my very shaky French), they were about to start trying to find sufficient landmarks that they could summon rescue. Instead, now, they’d put themselves into my care. “We do not want to die,” said the one I later learned was called Vicki, after a few seconds consideration of the translation.

Spoiler: yes, this was a path. This photo was taken before I met the lost women and was still under my own solo navigational strategy.
Is this a path? Was it?

I plotted us a new course, cross-country up an aggressive slope towards the nearest road and thus, I hoped, towards civilization. I lead the way, tamping down the snow ahead as best I could into steps, and bemoaned my lack of a rope. I texted updates to Ruth, advising her of the situation and in each one establishing when I’d next be in contact, and as the women began to tire, prepared for the possibility that I might need to eventually relay coordinates to a rescue team: I practised my French numbers, under my breath, as we weaved our way up the steep mountainside.

I wonder how many signposts we would have seen had we been on the correct course to begin with? The route looked completely buried, from where we stood.
After hours out on a mountainside, not sure exactly where you are in relation to a safe route home, this is a sight for sore eyes.

A hundred metres from the road the gradient became worse and we were unable to climb any higher, so we turned towards La Tania and tacked alongside it. There, about an hour and a half after I first met them, we found a signpost that indicated that we were back on the footpath: the footpath that they’d originally hoped to follow but found themselves unable to spot, and which – by following in their footsteps – I too had failed to spot.

The main roads, like this one, were being ploughed about once every hour or two to keep the rapidly-falling snow at bay.
Finally reaching the main road, Vicki and Marine were pleased to be able to get back to their hotel and not die out on a mountainside.

Following that, we got back to the road to La Tania and to safety.

I find myself wondering many things. For one: who, at six months pregnant, thinks it’s a wise idea to trek through deep snow, underequipped, from a bad map, over an Alp? But I also wonder what might have happened if I’d have taken the same route back as I’d taken out to my geocache (and thus never bumped into them)? Or even if I’d not have faceplanted earlier in the day and thus decided to take the afternoon off from skiing at all? They weren’t ever far from safety, of course, and while the weather was rapidly becoming hostile to helicopters, they’d have probably been rescued so long as they’d been able to describe their position adequately (and so long as they didn’t keep wandering in the direction they’d been wandering when I met them, which would ultimately have taken them to a sheer cliff), but still…

So yeah: on my holidays, I rescued two lost pregnant hikers from an Alpine blizzard, while returning from a geocaching expedition. I think I win today’s “badass point”.

Hello 2013: Les Gets

This is the third in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.

I barely spent any of January in the office at all, between my week working in London and the week directly after it, the latter of which I spent in the French Alps!

Les Bruyères; our chalet in the Alpine town of Les Gets.
Les Bruyères; our chalet in the Alpine town of Les Gets.

Ruth, JTA and I had opted to make the entire journey from Oxford to Les Gets by land, because there had (up until recently) been the real possibility that Ruth would be pregnant (and air travel is somewhat riskier for pregnant women). Secondary reasons included the fact that flying is really, really bad for the planet, and that JTA’s a fan of staying on Terra firma as far as he can.

Ruth validates our tickets as we prepare to change trains, at a French station.
Ruth validates our tickets as we prepare to change trains, at a French station.

There were good and bad aspects of this kind of travel. Bad parts included having to be at a park and ride bus terminus well before the sun rose, in order to begin a mammoth journey that would take most of the day, and frantic dashes across the labyrinthine Paris metro. But on the upside, we didn’t at any point have to take off our shoes and get herded through backscatter machines, plus the fact that nothing makes you feel cosmopolitan quite like standing in the bar car of a TGV, rocketing through the French countryside, while you sip on a glass of pinot and watch the world fly by.

Ruth joins Becky, Harriet, Owen and Cat at the chalet's dining table.
Ruth joins Becky, Harriet, Owen and Cat at the chalet’s dining table.

We arrived, and met with the rest of our team: Ruth’s brother Owen, his girlfriend Cat and his friend Danny, JTA’s sister Harriet (who’d come over on the train from Lyon, where she’s studying right now), and my sisters Sarah and Becky. We also met our chalet host Dan, who – over the course of the week – put up with a great deal from us (not least our dinnertime conversations about duck rape, racial stereotypes, sex toys, self-defecation, and worse) and still stood there with a smile as he served us the most spectacular meals imaginable.

Owen shows Becky what it means to be "Double Bubbled". She remains unimpressed.
Owen shows Becky what it means to be “Double Bubbled”. She remains unimpressed.

And that’s without even mentioning “Double Bubble”, a game that Owen and Cat invented which seems to involve pinning people and tickling them. They claim that it’s the cause of the jumping, yelping, and screaming sounds coming from their bedroom on an evening, but I’m not convinced.

Looking over the valley from the summit of Chamossiere.
Looking over the valley from the summit of Chamossiere.

My first impression of the slopes of the Les Gets-Morzine area were that they were a little heavily geared towards intermediate skiiers, with lots of blue and red runs criss-crossing the mountains around the bowl-shaped valley, but before long I’d found my way out to some of the aggressively-mogul-ridden and steeper black and red runs that found out towards the edges of the resort.

Harriet, tangled around herself and buried in a snowdrift.
As a new skier, Harriet spent an incredible amount of time buried in snowdrifts, laying on her back, or tangled around a tree. It’s all part of the learning process.

It was particular fun to get out skiing with Sarah again, for the first time in years, and to finally prove to myself something that I’ve suspected for a while: that while my skiing ability is close to peaking, Sarah’s still continuing to improve and is by now a better skiier than I am. As we hammered our way down some of the roughest, fastest runs we could find on the final day before she and Becky returned to the UK, she’d pull ahead and it would be everything I could muster to keep up and keep control.

Sarah, about to try to egg me on to try another series of challenging runs, just as I'm getting my breath back from the last ones.
Sarah, about to try to egg me on to try another series of challenging runs, just as I’m getting my breath back from the last ones.

I also enjoyed finally getting to ski with Ruth, something that we’d wanted to do together for almost five years (during which we’d both skied, just – for one reason or another – never together). She’s one of those weird skiers who genuinely prefers to ski without poles, which I’d often quiz her about during our periodic high-altitude beer breaks.

Following one of my first proper tumbles in years - and damn, it was a spectacular one, snowballing down black run "Yeti" when I took a corner too fast - Sarah snapped this picture.
Following one of my first proper tumbles in years – and damn, it was a spectacular one, snowballing down black run “Yeti” when I took a corner too fast – Sarah snapped this picture.

In the video below (or watch on YouTube), she falls over at about 1m 19s, in case you want to skip to that bit.

Our new snowsportspeople – Cat and Harriet on skis for the second and first times in their lives, and Danny on snowboard for the first time in his – took to their sports like fish to water. Or, at their worst, like fish to waterfalls. But by the end of the week, every single one of them had made far better progress than I could have possibly imagined.

I'm sure that the hot tub was only meant to seat five or six, but that didn't stop us all piling into it at the end of a day's snowsports.
I’m sure that the hot tub was only meant to seat five or six, but that didn’t stop us all piling into it at the end of a day’s snowsports.

We worked ourselves hard, and by the time we were back in our hot tub on an evening, with glasses of gin in our hands, we really felt like we’d earned them.

Watch this space: a full gallery of all of the photos taken on the trip will be made available soon. Sorry about the delay.

Argh! It Burns! Night 2012

Building on the success of last year’s Argh! It Burns! Night, we Earthlings once again hosted our “alternative” Burns Night this year, last weekend. Yes, we know that’s a little late for Burns Night, but many of us have been away touring Scotland or on honeymoon or otherwise busy.

The hallway whiteboard welcomes the guests. Why doesn't everybody have a hallway whiteboard in their house?

Again, the idea of the night is loosely based on Burns Night: we eat a meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties, accompanied by a dram of whisky (or Irn-Bru – Scotland’s other national drink – in the case of Paul, who doesn’t like whisky). But instead of making readings of classic folks literature and poetry, we put a twist on it by performing readings of really bad fan fiction.

At the appointed hour - five minutes to five - the whiskies are opened and drinking commences.

We got off to a late start because Liz and Simon got caught up in the heavy snowfall that poured down across this end of the country. But that wasn’t a problem, because the rest of us – Ruth, JTA, Paul, Matt P and I – just had longer to drink and catch up with one another’s lives while we waited.

As the snow began to fall, Ruth and I went out to make snow angels. So excited by the snow, Ruth didn't even bother to put her shoes on first.

To start the evening, Ruth – as last year’s winner – performed a reading of Garfield: King of Liberty, another Garfield-themed fanfic from “ShakespeareHemmingway“, the author of her winning piece from last year. I’m still not convinced that he’s not a troll, but he is pretty damn funny.

Highlight: With these words Garfield and his Liberty Ladies made love of passion that sparked skies like fireworks as they rubbed their bodies liked sand on water. Garfield delivered pleasure into their bodies like manly post office man delivering package of love explosion. Their love exploded like cannonball shots into night and went on for hours and days.

This year's prize - a can of premixed Famous Grouse whisky and caffeine-free cola.

First among this year’s competitors was Matt, reading Misadventures Of The ‘Tragedy’ Dorm, a 20%-homoerotic, 80%-creepy attempt to bring a variety of Shakespeare’s characters into the modern age.

Highlight: Romeo having a rant about what coloured board shorts to wear. “Which colour should I weeeeaaar!” Yep. All the usual stuff. 

JTA performs his reading.

Second was Simon, reading The Death Of Vince Noir, a Mighty Boosh fic, apparently (hampered by the fact that many of his audience have little to no experience of The Mighty Boosh). I hate to spoil it for you, but the twist is that it’s all a dream.

Highlight: When Mick Jagger stepped into the strange Daulston second-hand shop he was greeted by an odd sight. Instead of the screaming trendy fan who he had expected to meet, he was greeted by a giant ape comforting a man in the corner. Specifically, a bald man wearing last month’s leopard skin catsuit, wailing mournfully into handfuls of raven-black hair in a puddle of his own tears. The whole thing looked freakily fucked up.

Liz tries to explain why her story makes sense, and fails. Miserably.

Third up was Liz – strange that the random order put the three “new” players first – reading the first of two chapters of PokeAccident, a first-person perspective on a long bus trip with a pokémon with a full bladder. It reads like it’s been written by an austistic young teen with a urination fetish. And no grasp of geography.

Highlight: Charizard looked bored, and we were past Londen and into Edinbrugh, where it was raining. Now Charizard is used to rain, but he was now horrified to see it raining, it increased his need heavily by 15%, 38% of his meter were full , Charizard really didn’t see this coming at all, he tried to ignore it, but the rain was loud, making it hard to do so.

Ruth & JTA brace themselves for another piece of fiction.

Paul provided us with Halflife: Fulllife Consequences: the story of John, the brother of Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman. It’s littered with awful spelling and abysmal grammar, all wrapped around a plot that makes no sense whatsoever.

Highlight: John Freeman had to go faster like the speed of sound and got there fast because Gordon needed him where he was. John Freeman looked at road signs and saw “Ravenholm” with someons writing under it saying “u shudnt come here” so John Freeman almost turned around but heard screaming like Gordon so he went faster again.

Matt, Paul, and Ruth listen as I read my story.

Ruth had settled on Frosty The Snowman!, an unusual take on the classic story, featuring lots of swearing and an Iron Man crossover, all in just over 200 words.

Highlight: With the power of magic, the snowman came to life and started to dance a bit, scaring the crap out of the children. “Hi there children! I’m Frosty the Fuckin’ Snowman! Follow me!” He said happily as he marched down the road. 

Simon & Liz listen to JTA's story. For some reason, they're not crying.

When it came to his turn, JTA has selected Legolas, now best known as “Legolas by Laura” after its author (who just coincidentally shares her name with the main character of the story – always a good starting point for a piece of really bad fanfic). With incredible run-on sentences and a complete disregard for any semblance of continuity, this is truly a work of epic failness.

Highlight: Mean while Legolas got to the cell where Laura is.Legolas said”Laura are you in there”and then Laura said”Oh Legolas you finally came”and then Legolas said”are you alright”and then Laura said”no I am not alright”and then Legolas said”they bet you up and raped you also the Dark lord gave you the posion”and then Laura said”how did you know that”.Then Legolas said”when I was your age they did the samething to me”.

An unfilled ordering/voting slip from Argh! It Burns! Night 2012.

I came last. This year, I’d chosen what is probably the only piece of fanfiction ever to be set in the universe of one of the worst video games ever made, Desert Bus. The story is Desert Bus Ride #1 – A Romance Story and for Ladies, and it makes about as much sense as actually playing Desert Bus in the first place.

Highlight: When they arrive, boyfriend was got shot. “He am hit by bullets!” Margaret thought very loudly. “This is all because terrorists!” Mr. Oakland punched fist into air with angry. He was angry.

Liz is awarded with her "prize".

After what turned out to be a remarkably close competition, Liz just barely beat JTA and won herself the “prize”. In accordance with the traditions of Argh! It Burns! Night, we passed the drink around and all suffered in it together: a metaphor for the experience of the evening.

Having performed a reading of "Legolas" earlier, the winner's drink is the second-most disgusting thing JTA's had in his throat all evening.

For some reason, Simon actually enjoyed the drink, and finished the can on Liz’s behalf. Maybe he enjoyed the fanfiction, too. Maybe he’s a replicant. It’s just impossible to tell what we know for sure about him, after a revelation like that.

Simon "enjoys" the "beverage".

All things considered, a spectacular second Argh! It Burns! Night. If you’d like to come next year, let me know and we’ll try to arrange for it. Just remember: if you don’t suffer, you haven’t had enough fun yet.

Oh; and the following day was Matt's birthday, so we forced him to celebrate a little before he got back on the road.

Touring Scotland

While JTA was off breaking parts of his body (and showing off his injuries on Reddit) with Ruth on the second part of their honeymoon, the week before last, I too took some time off work in order to have a bit of a holiday. I’d originally hoped to get some cheap domestic skiing in, but the weather forecast showed that Scotland was going to consist of exactly two weather conditions, depending on where you were:

  • Snowy, but with 55mph winds.
  • Not snowy.
Scotland. Snowy, but with 55mph winds. It looks like this.

This kind-of put a dampener on my plans to get some snowsports done, but I’d already taken the time off work so I re-arranged my plans into a “make it up as you go along” tour of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Highlights of my little tour included:

  • Renting an almost brand-new car, and – by the time I returned it – being responsible for more than half the miles on the odometer.
  • Visiting my family both on the way up and the way down – my dad injured his back while cycling around Italy this winter, and had originally hoped to join me in Scotland (perhaps to get some more training in for his upcoming trek to the North Pole). He couldn’t, as he was still recovering, but it was nice to drop by.
  • Being virtually the only guest at each of Glen Nevis and Glencoe youth hostels; getting an entire dormitory to myself at each.
Ben Nevis. It looks slightly less-hostile here than it did on the day of my ascent.
  • Exhilarating but exhausting trek up Ben Nevis. The freezing conditions, plus the incredible wind, meant that I spent the Tower Ridge stretch clinging to a steep ice slope against the push of a gale-force blizzard. Spectacular.
  • Ice climbing at Ice Factor. I’ve never done ice climbing before (y’know – scaling a glacier with crampons and ice axes), and it was spectacular. Also, very tiring, especially after just coming down off Ben Nevis a couple of hours earlier. I was pleased that not all of the rock climbing experience I’d had, over 15 years ago, was completely forgotten, and my stamina – if not my flexibility – was better than I expected.
A climber fights to free his axe from the wall.
  • Veggie haggis, tatties, neeps, and a dram of whisky on Burns Night, drying myself off by the open fire in a wonderful little pub.
  • A reasonably-gentle walk along the lochside at Fort William, in order to allow my knee – which I banged swinging into a wall of ice – to recover a litle.
  • Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Did you know that the wheel is apparently so efficient that it costs only £10 a day in electricity to run it?
The Falkirk Wheel. Photo by Sean Mack.
  • Live comedy and music in Edinburgh. Also, meeting fabulous strangers and hanging out with them drinking whisky and singing along to bawdy Scottish folk songs until past midnight.
  • Returning to Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel to find it full of Spanish sports fans. Sharing pizza with them, and conversations in broken English.
  • Visiting the Wallace Monument and learning all of the bits of 13th Century Scottish history that they don’t teach you in Braveheart. It’s far cooler, yet much much bloodier, than you’d be made to believe.
The Wallace Monument, photographed by Finlay McWalter.
  • Geocache-maintenance expedition with Kit, along with the opportunity to dress up in invisibility jackets and hang about near roundabouts and road signs.
  • Chinese buffet with Kit & Fi, two of my favourite people to go to a Chinese buffet with. Surprisingly impressive selection of veggie-friendly foods, which is something I look for, these days.

All in all, a delightful little tour, particularly impressive considering that it was launched into with the minimum possible amount of planning.

Productivity

When we woke up this morning Oxford was caked with a blanket of snow, about two inches thick and growing fast. Ruth, JTA and I thought that we’d make the most of it and go for a walk along the Cherwell, and by the time we were heading back the snow was ankle-deep. Reaching the corner of the street where we live we helped a few stranded motorists whose vehicles had taken one look at the hill near our house and said “fuck this for a lark.” Specifically, we helped them by pushing their cars off junctions and out of the way of other cars. It didn’t take long to realise that the chaos that was the series of junctions on the main road was only getting worse, and, caught out by our own sense of social conscience (and perhaps at least a little inspired by a recent story we’d read), we decided that we could be doing more.

We trekked back to Earth and collected hardy boots, hi-visibility jackets, shovels, and brushes, and made our way back to the junction. And, for the next hour or two, we worked at clearing the road and rescuing motorists. Before long there were others coming out of their houses and workplaces and helping: pushing cars up hills and clearing snow and ice from troublesome parts of the road. Highlights included:

  • Rescuing dozens of motorists who’d otherwise have been completely stuck.
  • Shoveling clear an escape road for vehicles that couldn’t make it up the hill.
  • Giving directions to motorists whose routes were blocked, to pedestrians whose buses had been cancelled, etc.
  • Stopping all traffic in order to prioritise ambulances, as we’re on a hospital approach road. You’d be amazed how many motorists will do what you tell them when you’re wearing a flourescent jacket.
  • Getting thanked by a great number of people.
  • Getting complaints from a minority of people who were angry that we were shovelling and not salting/gritting: presumably they thought that we were employed by the council.
  • Meeting like-minded helpful people who came out of their houses and workplaces to lend a hand.

We returned to Earth and drank mulled wine with Hanna, a woman who lives up the road from us who came out and helped. She’d been expecting her boyfriend (who’s visiting for the weekend) but he’s among the thousands of people stuck out in the snow, and even five hours after he was expected he hadn’t yet arrived. Then we made snow angels in the garden.

And because karma doesn’t believe in us, the universe repaid our kindness by having our boiler break down again (but in a different way) this evening. So now we’re sat in blankets in the living room.

And The Rest Of Bulgaria

Oh yeah, suppose I ought to finish writing about Bulgaria now that we’ve been back a couple of days.

MORE SKIING: Aced The Wall in the end, and damn it’s a good run – long and fast and challenging, even when you think you know it. Coming back up on the chairlift I met a couple of Irish blokes (the Irish seemed to be the most-represented nationality on the ski slopes; not sure why), who – as the fog of the final day began to white-out the mountain top – pointed down at The Wall and said that you’d have to be a nutcase to go down it right now. So I pointed out that I’d just come off it, and was on my way back to it again.

SKIDOOS: Damn, these things are fun. Imagine a motorcycle but on skis, ripping along hard-packed ice in the middle of the night at 70km/h, guided only by a drunk Bulgarian. On or off road, Skidoos are brilliant. When the next ice age comes, I’m getting one to do my shopping in.

KARAOKE: On our final night, we went out and (alongside some Irish blokes we met) made complete idiots of ourselves at the local karaoke night.

I’ll upload pictures from the holiday at some point. For now, here’s a video of my dad singing Dancing Queen at the Karaoke night.

So yeah; Bulgaria was fun.

News From The Slopes

Fresh from the slopes, over GPRS (at charging rates starting at “two limbs”), comes this report from the Bulgarian Holiday Team (Claire and I, along with my dad and my sisters).

JOURNEY: Uneventful, but tedious – three and a bit hours on a plane followed by a five hour bus journey is pretty mind-numbing, although we did get a break at a Bulgarian McDonalds (complete with hilarious Cyrillic lettering on the sign – picture to follow [I don’t have enough arms and legs to pay to upload it]).

ACCOMODATION: Remarkably nice hotel: infinitely superior to our usual stay at Aviemore Youth Hostel for Cairngorm skiing, but with a predictably scary price tag to go with it.

FOOD: Every meal seems to contain egg and/or pork. Are these the national foodstuffs? Scrambled egg with bacon in is an obvious breakfast combination. Eggy bread laced with ham was less expected, and quite a suprise to bite into. Stuffed peppers very nice. Cured sausages not bad either.

SKIING: Generally good conditions – some partially broken runs (by Bulgarian standards – in Scotland we’d call them “perfectly usable”) this morning because the weather report predicted snow for two days so they haven’t turned on the snow-blowers, but no snow’s been forthcoming. Here in Pamporovo there’s a lot for beginners (one entirely green run is almost 4km long!) and some nice challenges for advanced skiers (I’m particularly enjoying some of the red and black runs on the West face of the mountain), but fewer options for intermediate-level skiers. Not as large a resort as Mt. Tremblant in Canada, where I was a few years ago, but still far more than Cairngorm or The Lecht offer us on our traditional trips to Scotland. Of particular note is The Wall, a black run that’s so-called because it’s quite steep. Here’s an example for those of you at home: stand up – pretend you’re on a ski slope that stretches down to your right and up to your left (so you’re “sideways” on it). Now stretch out your left arm to your side. If you were on The Wall, your hand would be touching snow. Well, a wall of ice, really. It’s a beast, and I love it.

ACCIDENTS: This is what you were really reading for, isn’t it – to find out who’s had a horrible accident so far. Well, here’s some of the best:

1. On my first attempt at The Wall, I took a turn a little sharply and flipped over. And began to slide. On my belly. Head first. Now I’ve been in this position before – it’s a natural state for a skier who’s just pushed themselves a little too far. So a started working on stopping myself all the ways I knew how, but after about 10 seconds of accelerating I came to the realisation that there was genuinely nothing I could do to stop this slide, and instead positioned myself in the best way possible to minimise the risk of damage. Eventually I ran onto the next ski run (still belly-sliding at about 40mph) and was able to regain my balance and right myself. No injuries except my pride and some friction burns, but this hundred-metre ride – well, FALL – is easily the most fun I’ve had here so far.

2. A few seconds later, I was hit by a runaway ski. My sister, Sarah, had a similar slip but had been able to keep her balance at the sacrifice of half her equipment, and had to sledge the remainder of The Wall on her other ski.

3. Claire panics when she sees a cliff some 10 feet away and swerves into a tree, with no serious injuries. Photos to follow. Everybody starts making jokes about Claire loving trees, which become even funnier when…

4. Owing to out-of-date maps and a bit of bad guesswork on my part, Claire found herself on a short run somewhat above her capabilities. And, realising that snowploughing wasn’t enough to bring her to a halt, sped up (because THAT’s a sensible alternative)… right into a tree. She caused herself a mild concussion (earning herself a day in bed) and a series of nasty-looking cuts and grazes across her neck.

BOOZE: It’s been hard to find drinking establishments that don’t charge excessive touristy rates, but now we’ve found a few I’ve been trying out the local beers. Zagorka is great, and Kamenitza is pretty good too. Vodka’s cheap, and a “small” vodka is 50ml (what we in the UK would call a “double”). It makes me wonder what a medium or even a large is – a quadruple or sextuple, presumably. It’s also hard to persuade bar staff to provide mixers – the pervading attitude seems to be that vodka should be drunk neat.

RINGOS: While Claire was bed-bound, the rest of us went ringo-ing. We’d done it before in Canada – sitting in a rubber ring and sliding down a ski slope – but it’s still good fun and a fabulous violation of health and safety law. By the end, my sisters and I were strapping our ringos together and spinning our way into the walls that marked the edge of the slope.

COMING SOON: Later this week – Skidoos? Snowboarding? Pub crawl around Pamporovo? As usual, you’ll read it here first (if I can be bothered).

Le Grande Tour

Firstly; thanks to everybody who tested my kitten-based authentication system yesterday. It seems to be working quite well.

Claire and I are undergoing a grand tour of the United Kingdom this coming week, as follows:

  • This afternoon, we’re driving (in Claire’s car) to Cardiff. Coincidentally, Gareth, who was visiting us this weekend to help me with a programming project we’ve been working on quite a lot this month, is also travelling from Aberystwyth to Cardiff today. In Cardiff, Claire and I will be meeting up with my mum, her boyfriend, and my sisters, to see the War Of The Worlds Musical. My mum and I have had tickets for this every year since Red Planet Productions – who were trying to get it started back then – announced it, but this is the first year that they’ve actually performed it. It could be good, or it could be disasterous. We’ll see.
  • After the show, we’ll either be (a) retiring to Gareth’s parents’ house for a few hours sleep; or (b) driving straight on to Preston: this mostly depends on how tired Claire, who has to do the driving, is. My personal preference would be to drive right on up to Preston – the night-time traffic will be far better than the morning’s traffic (even on a bank-holiday weekend), and there’s a bed, rather than a couch, waiting for us at my dad’s house. In either case, we’ll be in Preston either very early in the morning or very early in the afternoon.
  • Next stop: Scotland – in Preston, we transfer into my dad’s car, and we’re joined by his colleague and family, by my sisters (who are staying overnight in Cardiff and travelling North in the morning), and burn our way up the country to Aviemore. For those not familiar with Scotland, this is a Long Way North… so; yeah… more travelling.
  • Tuesday morning – snow permitting, we’re skiing in the Cairngorm mountains, near Aviemore. Wednesday, more of the same. Claire’s never been skiing before, and people have been, in a curiously counterproductive way, trying to reassure her that it is both safe and fun by recounting their horrific skiing injuries to her. Yeah; thanks guys.
  • On Wednesday night we’re driving South to Stirling, and, at this point, Claire and I will make our way three miles East to visit Kit and Fi. It seems silly to travel the first 600 miles of the journey to their house up there and not the last three.
  • On Thursday and Friday(?) we’re going to Nae Limits, an adventure sports activity centre thing. Zorbing is off, so we’ve cast votes on the activities to take part in, and I’m not yet sure what won. Claire and I voted for river bugging (in which participants are strapped into what are basically inflatable armchairs and pushed over waterfalls) and canyoning (in which we’ll probably be climbing back up those same waterfalls). Having watched The Descent last night at a special Troma Night at Adam‘s house, canyoning doesn’t feel like such a good idea any more! They don’t have subterranean flesh-eating monsters in Scotland, right?
  • Immediately after this, on Friday afternoon, we’re travelling back to Preston… via Gateshead. My dad’s got his new business to run over there, and has set himself up a flat in which to live the weeks he’s working on that side of the country. Guess who needs his ADSL set up?
  • Back in Preston, we’re off to The Comedy Store in Manchester.
  • And then, finally, on Saturday, we’re travelling back down to Aberystwyth… just in time for Troma Night!

Additional missions we’re on include:

  • In accordance with tradition, if we visit anywhere with a Tesco, we’ll bring back cookies and doughnuts, although we anticipate you’ll all be full of chocolate this week anyway.
  • Paul‘s asked if we can get him some shortbread while we’re up in Scotland. I’m sure we can manage that.

Any other missions you’d like to assign to us while we’re out? No, Matt, you can’t have a cornetto. You’ve got perhaps a few minutes to tell us before we go.

I’ll be trying to keep online with e-mail access and perhaps even a blogpost or two while I’m away, but I can’t promise anything about my connectivity. Phone signal should be okay if I’m needed in an emergency, though.