Friday, January 25, 2008

Finding my new family

2007 was an interesting year. I discovered I had two half sisters and several cousins.
It's along story and I've cut a few things out but:-

I suppose I'd sort of gathered over the years that my older sister and brother were perhaps not my mum's .
There had been the odd clue, dates not exactly working out, memories of ancient certificates in the tin box my mum kept under the bed when I was little. But it was never mentioned or talked about. Until Brian, the eldest died. I met people at his funeral whom I didn't know and they turned out to be related to Brian's real mother who had died before I was born. Talking to Susan my older 'sister' later that eveening I discovered that the dad I'd known couldn't be my real father either, I just had to ask more, and as 'dad' had died many years ago I asked my mother.
She wasn't happy and it took another several months before I persuaded her to give me a name. This name took me on a wild goose chase and I discovered my mother had been married before, if only for a few days, but this man wasn't my real dad either!. Back to mother. She obviously hadn't expected I'd be able to trace the family and find out. It was several months later that she eventually gave me another name. Luckily it was as rare as the first name she'd given me.

My Two Sisters Alison (left) & Hilary (right)

It only took me several minutes on Google to discover a few similar names and locations. A minute or two later after looking at the telephone book online, I had two likely telephone numbers. The first one I called didn't answer. The second one did. A very nice sounding lady, Ellen, who turned out to be my biological father's sister in law (ie she was married to my real father's brother) answered the 'phone. I asked several questions. In return so did she. Who was I? Why was I asking?

I dropped the bombshell. I was 'Alans' son. She obviously decided she had to do a bit of checking up herself and said she'd call back later, which she did. She asked some more questions about personal matters that only my mother could possibly answer. I eventually obtained answers to these questions from mum and passed them on. A day passed and Ellen called me again. "Your father died several years ago, but his wife is still alive. You have two sisters and several cousins. Do you want to contact them?". Now this was something I'd not considered. I certainly had no previous notions of actually meeting new family. I just wanting to know about who my real father was - thats all. I told Ellen that if they wanted to contact me, I'd answer or reply to them. I had no real expectiations or hopes or wishes. I'd found out who I was and traced my real father.

Within a day or two I received e-mails from my new sisters and several cousins. They all sounded nice - a relief. I could not ignore them and e-mails and pictures were soon exchanged and later I decided to talk to my two new sisters over the phone. They sounded absolutely delightful. Then in early 2007 we were asked if would like to come over for a family reunion, an event that was not likely to be repeated. No was my first thought, then following a brief discussion with my partner Trish, I changed my mind. We might never get another chance. Yes!! And so in March that year, Trish and myself traveled to Cambridge in England and met my new family. It was a wonderful experience, we got along so well and had so many things in common it answered many questions I had regarding nature over nurture. Alison and Hilary have since visited our home here in Ireland and we keep in touch.

I've gained a new family. An experience to be valued.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hedgelaying in Holland 2007

In March 2007 I was invited to attend the Dutch national hedgelaying championships and a one day conference on hedges (what else!) in Boxmeer, Holland. The Hedgelaying Association of Ireland had been asked to send a representative over to lay a hedge at the championships to demonstrate a 'typical' Irish laid hedge by a local NGO. I was not the first choice which wasn't so bad as there were only two contenders if I recall, and at the last minute the first choice had to cancel. So off I went, quite excited and not knowing what to expect. I was about to become the only person who has laid hedges in England, Ireland and now Holland!

Boxmeer is a small town about one and a half hours train journey from Amsterdam and I was put up in this lovely guest house overlooking the Maas River within walking distance from the site. The championships were also a part of a country show with stalls showing various 'country' crafts from cheesemaking. leatherworking, basketry and so on. All the competitors, including me, were taken to the site by a horse drawn carriage.

I was shown a small length of hedge, proabably twelve years old approximately, just as I'd seen in an earlier e-mail sent to me by Lex the organiser. This was a relief as I wasn't too sure I'd bring the right tools. So as the start was sounded for the competitors, I laid my bit in a cross between Yorkshire & Midlands style. I was interviewed a number of times by press, tv and radio. And of course being Dutch they all spoke amazing English and a couple of people even noticed that I was English even though I'd planted the Irish tricolour next to me. (Well, I had gone as an ambassador to Ireland!). For a hedgelayer like me it was interesting to see how hedges were laid this side of the channel. All across the UK & Ireland we are used to laying a hedge from the bottom, just above the roots and supporting the newly laid hedge with stakes, binders and so on. Not here. Hedges here are laid at three different levels. This avoids the need for stakes or any introduced support, no binding the top either. The resulting hedge is much stronger than ours!!

Far right = Dutch Style
Near right = English midlands style as laid by me in Holland

After the event we all gathered for the results back in the village. These were duly read out and I was asked to take to the podium and give a speech on the various merits of Dutch v. Irish/UK styles of hedgelaying. Worse was yet to come as I was then asked to sing, along with the head of the Irish Rural Environmental Scheme and Catherine Bickmore, an English ecological consultant, a song. Luckily I'd got a bit of dutch courage by then (Amstel) and the words were provided for us. No one seemed to notice our brilliant rendition.

The following day was the conference - in Dutch, and I received a beautiful book on the natural heritage in Holland, and much later in the day, home to Ireland.

A jolly good weekend and all expenses paid!
Thanks to Lex Roeleveld

Friday, January 18, 2008


Norway, 23rd June 1991 Ian, Richard and myself were climbing near Turtagro (Sognefjell) region of Norway. The mountains were still deep in snow although it was beginning to melt. Conditions were not bad enough to prevent us from exploring some of the fine peaks and ridges in this remote range. We also had the advantage of 24 hours of sunlight.

This particular morning we set off to climb the ridge above the glacier after taking a short break at the superb mountain hut at Hytla. We should have heeded the deep wet melting snow, but we were fit, the weather was clear and it was sunny. Anyway, as we climbed higher the temperature would be below freezing and conditions better and safer. An hour or two later we were at the foot of a huge slope deeply covered in snow our only barrier before gaining the crest of the ridge. We plodded upwards, close together, slowly traversing across and upwards. Below us the ground fell away and the slope disappeared over a massive drop. There was little risk of slipping in the soft snow so we remained un-roped.

A short distance from the security of the rocky ridge it happened. All of a sudden I saw cracks appear in the snow. In a flash they grew wider and it felt that my two companions on either side were being propelled upwards by some unseen hand. But I was mistaken. To my horror it was me who was moving, downwards on a growing slab of snow. I was caught in an avalanche and being swept away. Instinctively I turned around to face downhill, desperate to stay upright and in balance. I knew this might be the only thing I could do to increase my survival. I wondered if this was going to be my end as we sped towards the drop below. It was difficult to stay upright and I was soon knocked to the ground. I managed to upright and threw my rucksack off thinking instinctively hoping I'd not be buried. Then as suddenly as it started the flow stopped. In an instant I pulled my legs from the snow and ran out of the debris onto firm snow. Relief. Some two hundred yards up the slope my two companions appeared frozen, as no doubt, they expected me to vanish out of sight.

A quick look round and I realised the reason for the avalanche's premature stop and my salvation was a large bulge in the snow slope - the only one I could see. It was this bulge that prevented me and the avalanche from disappearing over the drop below. I quickly jumped back into the avalanche debris to retrieve my rucksack (we needed the equipment!) and rejoined my companions who told me how they, who were on either side of me when the slop started to avalanche, jumped and rolled to the side when they saw and heard the cracks appearing. A large slab of snow had sheered off an older layer below.

We had made the classic mistake of climbing a snow slope in perfect avalanche inducing weather. The slope had spent several hours earlier in the day exposed to the rays of the sun. The melting snow, now turned to water and sank through the snow to find its path downwards blocked by the harder older layer below. This lubricated the top slab. All that was needed was something to trigger it and make go. That was us!!


February 1997 found Ian and myself again climbing in the Cairngorms. This time based in the northern corries.

We were in Corrie an-t-Sneachda in very strong winds & snow, the wind gusting enough that we were having difficulty standing, temperatures hovered just below freezing. . Our chosen route was occupied, and so was our second choice. Getting kitted up in these conditions was not going to be pleasant so we opted to do the Faicaill Ridge which we could do un-roped and with little problem.

This we did and soon arrived on the summit plateau. A fierce blizzard reduced visibility to just a few feet and it was almost impossible to stand. It was time to call it a day and find our way off, which was a long wide gully used by many as a relatively safe descent route. We skirted above the cliffs in poor visibility and making good use of the compass we got to the col that I knew marked the start of descent.

Ian asked whether we should put crampons on. I dismissed the idea as I'd done this route numerous times over the years without problems. And it was too bloody cold to stop! A decision I would soon regret. I suggested to Ian that the best option was for him to go over the edge first and I'd belay him with our rope around an ice axe planted in the hard snow and backed up by me standing on it to prevent it coming adrift if he fell. I knew the top of slope was also the steepest. He soon disappeared out of sight, digging his heels into the hard snow for grip, ice axe at the ready in his hand. A few minutes later Ian called to me and said he'd cut himself a nice stance out of the hard snow and was belaying me using a similar belay to mine. I quickly followed him anxious to get out of the summit blizzard. My heels dug deep into the hard snow as the slope got quickly steeper. I could see Ian some 70ft below me and sheltered under a small rocky outcrop.

I slipped. I instantly tried to self arrest using my axe. The pick ploughed through the hard snow as I picked up speed and I desperately tried to put all my weight on it. Then I hit something - No text book chance for using my ice axe now, as I was now summersalting and cartwheeling down the slope. I had no chance to panic and knew that eventually I'd feel the rope tighten as Ian held my fall. As expected I suddenly felt the rope tighten round my waist as the rope tightened on Ian's belay, then everything went slack again and I continued my cartwheeling descent down the steep snow slope praying I'd not hit any of the outcrops of rock or ice. Eventually I managed to stabilise myself and quickly managed to self arrest. With great relief I realised I was not injured. I looked up to see what had happened. Ian was falling too!! spinning down the slope in similar manner and heading towards the rocks that puncture the snow. The rope was tangled round my body & legs, there was no time to rig any belay. I rammed my axe deep into the snow and put all my weight on it where I lay. In an instant the rope tightened around my legs as Ian shot past and took up the slack on the rope. All the weight pulled at my legs and body. I held on, my fists clenched tightly around the head of my axe praying I'd not be pulled any further. Then all went still. I'd held him. Relief!

Looking down the slope I could see him laid in the snow. There was no movement - I feared the worst. As we were almost at the bottom and the slope had eased off somewhat, there was little danger now of a further fall. I ran down to him. With great relief Ian said he was OK apart from a knee but had lost his axe and could I look for it. This I did whilst Ian quickly coiled the tangled rope up and recovered from our fast descent of several hundred feet. A few hundred feet up the slope and not far from where Ian was belaying me I saw a small bit of blue climbing tape just under the snow. At the end of out of sight was Ian's ice axe.

Running back to Ian we soon discovered that the reason for my headlong fall down the slope and Ian's uncharacteristic failure to hold me had resulted from the fact that during my initial fall I'd hit him at speed and knocked him off his perch leaving my rope wrapped around the head of his axe planted in the hard snow. Clearly it was not going to hold me without his assistance and thus it proved!!

We now needed to make our way out of the corrie and to our vehicle which was parked a couple of kilometers away in Coirrie-cas car park. However poor Ian was clearly in severe pain and could not walk unaided. There was no one else to help and there was little point in staying where we were. The blizzard continued around us and blown snow was hitting us face-on shotblasting us as Ian supported himself as much as he was able, on my shoulder. We slowly made our way across the frozen ground to safety. It took us two hours to reach our vehicle.

The following morning it was obvious that Ian would not be doing any further climbing so we took ourselves to the accident unit in Aviemore. The news was not good and he was advised to go home and seek further hospital treatment. The next day I helped him onto the train and waved him good-bye.

(I discovered later that he had torn a ligament in his knee and spent several weeks strapped up before recovering the full use of his leg.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008


In February 1995 my climbing partner, Ian Thorpe and myself set off from the Gelder Sheil bothy in the Cairgorm Mountains of the Scottish highlands.. We were going to climb Tough Brown Traverse (III) on Lochnagar. This was a snow and ice climb traversing across the face of the cliff. As we set off early that morning we didn't know what an epic day we faced, nor the tragic consequences.

As we approached the foot of the cliff the weather had closed in and unfamiliar with the crag we couldn't find the traverse so we decided to complete a mildly easier climb up Parallel Gully A (II/III) which was easily identified. This is a fine and narrow gully with a number of ice pitches between banks of snow, all of sustained steepness and exposure and about 650' in hight We roped up and commenced our ascent. This was exciting stuff and in the deep shelter of the gully it felt challenging yet safe. A few hours later and some hundreds of feet up the climb we heard a loud boom from above. This was the unmistakable sound of a cornice of overhanging snow breaking off from the top of the cliff. Luckily for us only small bits came down the narrow confines of our gully, but it was an anxious moment passed before we relaxed in the knowledge it wasn't coming down our gully.

Above us a climber called to his friend - several more calls followed and then receiving no reply he called to us. In spite of the wind we could hear him quite clearly. He told us his friend had fallen and he was unable to reach him. The collapsing cornice had caused the accident. Could we assist? Ian and myself
hurried to complete the climb to offer our help. However our progress was halted by a rather blank slab of rock. We both tried to climb it but could not. To us it offered no holds. Eventually the lone, unseen climber above told us he was going to go to get help for his friend. We now had little choice but to retreat our route. The time was 4pm and rather late to be down-climbing what we had spent four or more hours climbing up. We had no choice. In the increasingly poor light it was obvious that the weather was getting much, much worse. Huge amounts of powdery snow were now flowing past us in a continual stream as we cautiously made our way down, belaying on the odd in-situ rusty peg and using quick static belays. This was no place or time for fancy belaying as it got increasingly dark. My nerves were on edge as this was going to be a rather long and tricky down-climb in the ever worsening conditions. The amount of snow pouring down our narrow gully was increasing by the minute. Above us on the Cairngorm plateau a severe storm was raging. I was also getting colder. My down body warmer was in my rucksack. Getting it out however, was another matter. The gully was steep enough, that it was all but impossible to place the rucksack in front of me without pushing me off balance - and to compound the problem huge amounts of snow filled the bag every time I attempted to open my bag. Far worse, every time I planted my ice axes in the snow they were instantly lost to sight by fresh snow. As climbing down was impossible without them I could not risk taking the chance of losing them. I would have to stay cold.

Two or three 120' rope lengths later and in complete darkness, we decided our progress was too slow and made the decision that we could probably manage the rest of the descent without using the rope to belay us. Ian below me led and I followed. A few minutes later and I slipped, crampons and axes ripping through the powdery snow. I was in deep trouble but almost immediately I came to an unexpected and abrupt stop. Ian shouted from a few feet below for me not to worry as he'd stopped my fall. I looked down and in the light of my head torch I could see one of my crampons had impaled Ian's safety helmet. Lucky for me that the gully was so narrow my fall was arrested by his helmet. I quickly regained some of my composure and quickly dug my crampons and axes back into the snow. We decided to use the rope again no matter how long our descent would take. A feeling of doom crept into my mind. This wasn't a good feeling.

A rope length later and Ian called from below that he had reached the bottom. Relief flooded my body as I knew we had reached safe but steep ground. My assumption was soon refuted. As I waded around the deep snow at the foot of the gully. It was obvious from the amount of snow both underfoot and coming down the gully that an avalanche was a real possibility. All around us the blizzard raged. Visibility in the dark was reduced to nil. Keeping the rope on we cautiously descended in the blackness down the snow, nerves on edge, praying we'd make the bottom of the steep snow slope before being overwhelmed by avalanching snow. The weather was now so bad we only knew we'd arrived at the bottom of the slope by virtue of the fact that we were no longer wading downhill. Again my sudden relief was turned to anxiety and fear yet again as I now realised that we were standing on the frozen surface of the loch which filled much of the corrie at the foot of the crag. This would not normally bother me in winter but on our crossing the same loch that morning I'd put one foot through the ice quite easily whilst walking along the edge. It had been quite obvious that the loch had not quite frozen solid. And now we were stood somewhere in the middle! Our lights could only illuminate a few feet, and all around was flat. Like many choices we only had one real one, and that was to continue upon our compass bearing, our sole aid to direction. Several nerve shattering minutes later the flat landscape became bumpy underfoot and we knew we were off the lake. Relief flooded my body and I knew we were safe.

Descending below the cloud level the snow turned to rain & we saw the flashing lights of the Mountain Rescue tracked vehicle as it made it's way slowly up the hill. We stopped and exchanged information. This was the mountain rescue team coming to rescue the climber who had fallen earlier. An hour later we were back in the Gelder Sheil bothy. I looked at my watch. It was 9pm We been on the move for 12 hours!.

We were later to learn that due to the extremely bad weather the mountain rescue team were unable to search for the fallen climber until two days later when the wind and storm abated. The climber, a very experienced Scottish mountaineer & climbing instructor was found dead later.