Sunday, 9 December 2012


Despite not living there at the moment, what has been going on in Belfast this week has seriously pissed me off. More than 14 years on and the ugly head of the anti-democratic loyalist mob has reared its head again.

On the face of it, it's much ado about nothing - a lot of people very angry about the mere removal of a flag 348 days of the year. But there's a lot more to it than that - it's the old siege mentality coming back to the fore. Unionists are worried that this is an attack on their Britishness and that the flag is just the first step.

This sums it up perfectly. The decision taken was a fully democratic one to take down a flag from the City Hall that a majority of the population of Belfast do not see as representative of them. If you don't like it, make a point of voting for somebody else at the next election - but take a moment to think not of what you want but of what's best for NI (sure, I'd love to see a tricolour on City Hall, but I accept that not only is it a bad idea but not right. You don't see me rioting about it). 

The Union Jack means a lot of things to a lot of people. Yes, it is the flag of the UK and yes, NI is part of the UK. But flags are symbols, and in NI the Union Jack has always been seen as a symbol of the domination of one community over the other. This is why it should be taken down - as a symbol of the (supposed) equal rights of all in the new NI. No one for a moment is suggesting flying the Irish tricolour - that wouldn't be right. Flying both flags side by side wouldn't work either, officially the tricolour has no standing in NI. Flying nothing at all is best, until we can come up with something that everyone can get behind (which will probably be never.)

Not flying the Union Jack does not mean leaving the Union. At the minute, nobody wants that. Unionism, though, has never been inclusive - it is entirely built on exclusivity. Loyalist 'culture' has for too been based on shows of strength, intimidation, manipulation and disregard for justice. Now, times have changed, and the current arrangement is quite fair - but many are not willing to accept the new status quo. The current anger towards the conciliation of the Alliance party is indicative of the inherent extremism of Loyalism - not dissimilar to the US Tea Party. 

This time of year, there's a brilliant Christmas market outside the city hall (just under the flagpole). The sight of rioting where there should be Christmas shopping, German beer and macaroons shows how out of touch those involved are. Most people just don't give a shit any more. Symbols have their place but they are divisive; so take them down off City Hall, keep them down and move on Belfast. Don't ruin everything. NI wants a shared future.SHARED. Sharing means compromise, not domination. Engagement, not posturing. And above all it means democracy, not just lip service. So Unionists, please, accept it and move on. You're making yourselves look stupid on the world stage. And moderate Unionists, take responsibility and reign in what I can only describe as dickheads.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Tales From the Crypt

In a fit of Kyrgyz nostalgia and early season psyche, plans were laid for Bradley to come north from the 'sunny' Lakes and for us to head to Glencoe to try the Daftest Route in Glencoe. (also known as The Second-Best Day Out in Glencoe or Crypt Route).

Optimism being what it is, I couldn't wait for the experience of camping in a car park in freezing conditions, getting up early, walking 2 and a half hours uphill then spending a few hours in a cold chimney before repeating the process in reverse. And this is supposed to be my day off...
But we gave it a bash. Bradley arrived in Paisley Friday evening and we headed north, Mx-5 bursting at the seams with gear.
Camp was set up in the luxurious car park at the base of the Bidean nam Bian walk in.
All was well and good until the alarm went off. Not long after I realised I was out of gas for the stove, and the seal on Bradley's multifuel perished (petrol slick visible in photo) so cold porridge and no coffee. D'oh.

The walk-in was fun*. From 600 m upwards we were presented with a 50 cm layer of unconsolidated snow over scree. Which was OK because we'd generously let another party go first and break trail.
Slog. Diamond and Church Door Buttresses up ahead. (photo: B Morrell)

By 12 we had reached to foot of the gully, and a short step of Scottish III which we soloed for some reason led to the base of the very daft route.
Basically, get in it, and go up. (Photo: B Morrell)

Me attempting to get in it and go up. (photo: B Morrell)
I got P1, which was some good old fashioned chimneying but with axes and crampons. Lots of solid axe hooks and back-and-footing in the steep and slightly snowy chimney certainly warms you up.
Under no circumstances should you bring a rucksack on this route.
Bradley seconding P1

A tricky start to P2 (best described as a dynamic shoulder barge) led into what can only be described as a passageway into the mountain. Some crawling and squeezing leads to another chimney, which is where the fun really begins Headtorch obligatory.
Not really what you expect with winter climbing (photo: B Morrell)
Knees, axe hooks, fist jams, swimming and the odd bellyflop brings one to The Squeeze.
The Squeeze is an orifice of the mountain not much wider than a toilet. To progress, one must remove one's helmet and perhpas coat and coax Mother Earth into delivering you into world once again through much grunting, kicking and swearing.
At this point it is advisable to put your axes through the hole first, saving you the fate that befell me - The knot on my axe leash got stuck, allowing me to et only one leg out of The Squeeze. I had no choice but to belay there and get Bradley to free me on his approach. I was then treated to this view.
Chamonix binman being delivered by the Petzl midwives

P4 is, of course, an offwidth. A dab hand at this sort of thing by now it wasn't too bad, while being the only bit on the route where you could probably actually fall out of it. Up through an arch and a short traverse leads to a block and the end of the route proper. ONe may continue to the top at one's discretion by means of Raeburn's Chimney; howeever it was dark, we were tired, and Bradley had tat left over from The Jyrg so we sacked it and abbed out. THe free hanging abseil through the arch in the dark back to the ground was spectacular.

And so endeth Crypt Route (V 6). The walk out was incredibly dark and uneventful, save of course me slipping on some ice, tumbling head over heels, and having a JOe SImpson-esque fall stopped short by the only tree for literally metres around. Yay.

Celebrations were duly undertaken at the Clachaig Inn, where we were treated to heat, the Wild Rover, Dirty Old Town and somebody arm wrestling a sheep some bagpipe music.

On Sunday my knees exploded and we had both turned into sore old men so no climbing was done. This was justified later by tales of only hard mixed lines being in, thus justifying laziness perfectly.

*the walk in was not in any way fun

Saturday, 10 November 2012


It's good to see Obama win the US election. I was worried that America had regressed to its Bush era sillyness, but they've still got enough sense not to vote for the elephant dafties. I just don't trust the Republicans - maybe they're not all idiots (Romney certainly isn't and did some good work while he was governor of Masachussetts) but their core constituency of bible-belt gun toting never-left-the-state conservatives are so far from anything I could call progressive or even sane that giving them the run of the US again would be very bad indeed for the rest of the world (who they don't give a toss about). Obama's not perfect (I still think Hillary would've been better, and she might get her chance in 2016) but he's a lot more rational than the elephants.

Back to real-life as it were and it's been an up and down couple of weeks. Haven't had a whole lot to do at work yet, which is a bit annoying - although it means I've had plenty of time to read up on everything from the Iran-Iraq war to the economic policies of Salvador Allende (that has to be my new favourite website)
But overall not so good. Hopefully I'll get a bit more to do soon or this whole enterprise will start looking a bit pointless.

Sinéad paid me a visit last week and we had a lovely couple of days in Glasgow.

First time I've actually gone into Glasgow city centre since I moved here. Much like any other city really, loads of shopping. It also has a circular subway that used to be pulled round by a cable which is cool if slightly superfluous.
We went to see Skyfall - a good film although much of the plot seemed a bit pointless. I shan't say too much. What did annoy me though was that the fim didn't start until an hour after advertised - what's that about? When I go to a film at 1800 I expect it to be started by a quarter past.

Sinéad left on Saturday and I was back on my own - so I went to TCA. I've been going more and more now, when I'm feeling a bit low a few hours spent there seem to pick me up. It's odd how exercise really makes you feel better.
Sinéad at TCA

Anyway all this bouldering is starting to have an effect. Apart from the sore skin and achey fingers which prevent me going every day of the week I've noticed a big difference in my climbing - bouldering a grade or two harder than I could a month ago, and time spent on the endurance circuits has helped too. Hopefully I can keep it up over the winter and pull hard when trad season comes round again (if it ever does in Scotland!).

Last weekend winter conditions started looking promising in Scotland but of course it's very early in the season and it all melted again. However the outlook is hopeful and all being well in a fortnight or so I'll be able to head up north and play with the pointy pointies.

Today was largely spent watching documentaries and building a model of Sizewell B power station out of card (random, but I found a template at work and the weather's crap). I'll go mad if I don't keep myself busy.

Back in Ireland again next weekend - QUBMC Donegal trip. It'll be nice to see everyone again, if only briefly.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

New car and Ben Lomond

The temperature's dropped considerably the past few days, which is excellent because I can now look toward sharpening all the pointy gear I last used in Kyrgyzstan. The downside is I've yet to figure out storage heating properly...

Anyways, I've been in Scotland a month now and a lot has happened. Firstly, I changed my car.

NOT a hairdresser's car. Because it's manly black.

It's a 2000 Mazda Mx-5 1.6i. AN odd choice for Scotland yes, but I've always fancied a convertible and Mx-5s are among the most affordable and reliable. I've managed to have the roof down a fair bit, with the heating on full of course.
I previously had a Peugeot 306, which was a great wee car and was a bit of a sandbox for me as I serviced it myself. It was however hard on fuel, which was the excuse to change it. THe Mx-5 does 40mpg, which is better than the 306's 32mpg (which was on a good day, normally worse than that).
And the Mazda's a hoot to drive.

I haven't got out climbing here yet, what with it being that in betweeny part of the year where it's too cold for rock climbing but not cold enough for winter climbing. But I did go for a wander up Ben Lomond today, which was lovely.
Lo Lo from Benny Lo

3 hrs round trip, via the Ptarmigan ridge and down the normal way. A grand day out. Plenty of ice and near freezing on the path near the top, but no snow yet. Snow visible on the summits further north - another couple of weeks, baby...

Work's going well, getting used to 7am starts (I hate Alpine starts) and have actually started getting a bit to do. It seems like a really good company to work for.

Winter time is training time, and I've been going to the climbing walls a lot as well as the gym. The Climbing Academy is an amazing wall - bouldering only, similar to The Climbing Works in Sheffield but bigger. After a session at TCA your skin is wrecked, and you can't climb for a few days - a sure sign of progress.

Ciao for now.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Expedition Report

Just a short one today to say that for anyone who's interested, the final report of our expedition to Kyrgyzstan can be found here.

Friday, 5 October 2012


Sanchez: My aunt lives in Scotland; she says it's quite nice.
Dagless: Well, she's wrong.

So last Friday I moved to Paisley, in Scotland.

Not this man.

Not really a spur of the moment thing, I'm here for a year on placement. I've got a flat on the west side of Paisley, near Glasgow.

"They want what all Scotch people want: To kill the Queen, and destroy our way of life"

Moving over was interesting. Thanks to a cock-up by the estate agency over a delayed reference check, I got the ferry over on Friday not knowing if I'd have somewhere to stay. A few hours of scrounging McDonald's wifi later I was finally allowed to move in at 1630 - bit of a relief.

Moving to a new country is a bit of a big deal for anyone; for me it's been compounded by the fact that I don't really know anyone here and am living on my own. But  it's a new beginning and the Scots are supposed to be quite nice, im sometimes incomprehensible (says Mr Norn Iron)
I can confess to a mild feeling of panic and being cut off on the first night but that's to be expected. By Saturday (and a visit to a superb bouldering wall, The Climbing Academy) I was grand.

I've spent much of the past week in Wetherspoons/McDonald's using wifi and talking to call centres. I hate talking to call centres.

So I'm working this year for EDF Energy at Hunterston B nuclear power station, with the Reactor Systems Group. Security procedures prevent me from saying too much about it, so its essentially to do with all the bits between the reactors and the turbines and their ancillaries. 

HNB: Atom smasher and electricity factory

I haven't had a chance to do much yet though as I'm still waiting on my Personal Protective equipment (boiler suit etc) to arrive before I can get anywhere near the reactors. Understandably, security is pretty tight, and the place has its own police force (the Civil Nuclear Constabulary). They all have assault rifles (with clear magazines so you can see how many bullets they have left) as well as pistols. I'm unsure of the pros and cons of firing guns near high pressure steam pipes.
The lads of the CNC

Anyhow, they're like a tamer version of the PSNI. 

So that's what I'm doing now. Got a speeding ticket when I got a bit lost and confused the other day coming back form the Glasgow Climbing Centre (housed in a church) but otherwise all is well. I now have internet in the flat meaning I can now re-engage with all the truly important things like catz and facebook.

Come visit.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Kyrgyzstan and Kommunism

Central Asia is a fascinating place. It's at a sort-of crossroads between the Soviet past and the Chinese future, Kyrgyzstan especially. The time before and after the actual climbing (in Bishkek and on the 'road') gave me a chance to get a look at the place and see what the dark underbelly of the USSR was like.

From a Western perspective, Bishkek is a bit odd. Soviet architecture, engineering and city planning dominate, but with propaganda posters long replaced by advertising and Islamic influences on show. Red East meets Green east, if you will, with the only 'West' on display being the ludicrous amount of German cars mingled amongst the Ladas and Moskvitches.

Imagine the capital city of a Borat-esque Central Asian republic and you'll come up with an image almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Bishkek.

Ala-Too Square, looking delightfully Soviet

It was built by the Russians/Soviets and as such is a big grid, with loads of irrigation channels feeding trees that keep the sun off in the hot summer. It's almost fully paved (albeit with few road markings) and has loads of trolley busses and taxibusses, and some pretty mad traffic. Everything's in Russian, which is the main language in the city, ahead of Kyrgyz which dominates elsewhere. It's not as ramshackle as you'd think, and looks largely like any Soviet city, although with a lot more eastern influence.

What surprised me most is that despite the crash westernisation of the economy in the early 90s and the weak local economy a lot of things we're used to in the west haven't (at least not yet) crept in. Even in Russia you can see McDonald's and a whole host of franchises and massive supermarkets and department stores, but in Bishkek the biggest shops are the Narodny you see everywhere which aren't much bigger than corner shops in the UK, and there's not a single McDonald's, Starbucks, Burger King or KFC (Hallelujah). The West never quite conquered this place, and the only international chain I could spot was Gazprom, the Russian state owned oil company (Kyrgyzstan has no oil). The best spot for shopping in town was the eclectic Osh Bazaar, where you could buy pretty much absolutely anything at excellent prices.

So there's hope yet, the bland homogeneity of globalisation has so far left Kyrgyzstan alone, meaning any chains are reasonably local ones, and most shops are of the kiosk variety, with a lot of street vending.
Nyet, tovarisch McDonald (и-ай-и-ай-о)
I'm class at image manipulation

Communism was pretty kind to this place, and it still shows. The Soviet era buildings of the main square are far more impressive than the stock exchange, which looks a bit like a shed.
Outside of Bishkek, things get rurul pretty quickly, and the roads get pretty bad. I think I saw two roadsigns in 300 km. The south-east is very nomadic - but some of the nomads, who own large flocks of horses, are among the richest in the country, as each horse is worth about $1000.

Before the Soviet era Kyrgyyzstan was a poor, nomadic nation with zero industry or infrastructure. In the Soviet days the Kyrgyz gained new opportunities, and Moscow invested heavily to build the towns and cities as well as basic infrastructure and an industrial base.
Nowadays, it's a relatively poor country again but at least the Soviet legacy has left it something to work with - reasonably robust infrastructure that they couldn't afford to install themselves. And robust it is - Soviet apartment blocks won't win any prizes for beauty, but they were cheap and provided desperately needed housing, and they've lasted well. Supposedly badly made 70s/80s era Ladas are ten a penny and running well, alongside even older Moskvitches.
 It's all a bit rough round the edges (no Health and Safety mollycoddling nonsense here) with irrigation channels exposed, holes in roads, gas burners with no cutoff and no smoke alarm or fire escape and roads under construction but still open as prime examples. Cars in Kyrgyzstan are raised (not lowered like they are here) to deal with the roads.
 I like the idea of no-nonsense infrastructure, with nobody holding your hand or looking over your shoulder in case your silly enough to hurt yourself. Just enough to get the job done and last well, with no expense wasted on aesthetics - functionalism has its own inherent beauty I suppose.

A lot of Kyrgyz people who remember the USSR miss it. They went from being part of something big and stable to being their own small and (until recently) badly run middle-of-nowhere Republic. Industry never recovered to pre-collapse levels and the standard of living is only now recovering. The image you get in the West of the USSR as an evil empire bent on world domination doesn't seem to hold true, with the Soviet Union seeming as more of a benevolent but authoritarian dad to Kyrgyzstan.

There's Communism in Kyrgyzstan's future, although of a very different kind. The place seems to be in the process of being bought by China, who see it as an important gateway to Asia. While there I saw many huge Chinese trucks travelling on Kyrgyz roads, and construction crews brought in from China to build new roads. Kyrgyzstan may have found a new authoritarian dad.

Food for thought. Current economic trends suggest that a more planned economy might not be a bad idea after all. I've been doing a bit of reading on the Cuban model of sustainable planned economics... hmm.

Anyway, enough pseudo-intellectualism. The All-Ireland is on tomorrow. Up Donegal.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


So I've sold out and decided to start a blog. Oh well. Here it goes...
I've a fair bit going on these days, so I might as well share it with the world. In two weeks time I move to Glasgow for an engineering placement with EDF Energy at Hunterston B Nuclear Power Station.
 On Sunday passed I just got home from My Summer Holidays.

It was not like this

My Summer Holidays this year were in Kyrgyzstan. Yep, one of 'those places'. But quite a lovely country actually.
We weren't there for a pissup (although the drink is cheap) or for cultural things, well not entirely anyway, we went there to climb mountains n' stuff. Because apparently I enjoy that sort of thing.
To make a bit more sense, it was An Expedition. One of those things that climbers spend years organising in pubs. The capitals are deserved because anything you get grants for deserves capitals. It was this Expedition.

It was more like this

Basically, 6 of us went out to the arse end of nowhere for a month in an old Soviet truck that does 4mpg (but hey, what do you expect from an 11 litre V6?), got dropped off and carried 400kg of stuff up onto a glacier at 4200m then proceeded to lie around in tents for a few weeks, occasionally getting up to climb something.

Glorious Vehicle of Soviet Propulsion                                                22kg of chocolate joy

Tough work, but good craic. We didn't actually kill each other. Did climb some things, (10 new routes, including 3 new peaks). I myself along with Conor Gilmour climbed 3 new routes, including the first ascent of Peak Uighur (4979m) and sort-of first ascent of Moonlight Arete (5065m) by a route called Tramadol and Fingertape becuase it was an ordeal. We also climbed a route on the North-West face of Rock Horse (5189m) which we were so proud of we called it the Gilmour-Kernan route.
The 'Gilmour-Kernan', also known as 'Me and Conor climbed the mountain yay'

So after a couple of weeks of tea, chess, Amazon Kindle (managed to read 13 books including the entire works of Jo Nesbo), semolina and nonspecific meat we got back in a truck and drove back to the capital city of Bishkek. Where we rediscovered beer, bread, butter, tarmac, cotton and beds. And remembered what women look like.

Anyway that's enough for now. Below is some proof that I actually climbed anything. It's Conor and myself  atop a mountain, yay.

off to get my ass to Mars now (or not) and see Total Recall (mk 2).