Thursday, 19 November 2015

A Scottish Adventure

If you want good weather, don’t go to Scotland. This is what my tent looked like on the last day of May...

Back in spring I spent five weeks wandering around Scotland with a tent, a load of camera gear and hardly any money. I wasn’t intending to do anything too hardcore as I was mostly interested in wildlife photography, but the weather seemed determined to make things difficult…

The trip started brilliantly – my first night on the Outer Hebrides was spectacular. Perched on a tiny patch of grass atop a rocky tidal islet on a white sand beach, it was probably the best wild camp spot I’ve ever found. But the next day a storm swept in from the Atlantic, and the squalls didn’t let up for the next two weeks.

I spent six nights in a row with my tent buffeted by winds howling at Storm Force 8, forced to sleep in the foetal position because the tent walls were permanently stretched inwards. 2am tent repairs when the wind proved too much weren’t a lot of fun either.

There was one sunny day in the middle of it all where I unbelievably managed to get sunburned (although I am ginger…) but with the wind chill still at -3C, my resulting tan dive have an attractive hat line.

On the single other pleasant day I walked a few miles across the sand to an uninhabited tidal island. It was beautiful, with the thin layer of water reflecting the sky above, and the promise of an entire island to myself.

But the next morning, the wind was howling again and the rain was torrential. I had to wait a few hours for the tide to go out far enough to make the crossing back, and then I set off towards the mainland – straight into the wind. A combination of horizontal wind-blown rain, sand and sea spray scoured the exposed parts of my face, which were left raw and peeling for days afterwards.

Eventually I’d had enough, so I caught a ferry back to the mainland and hitchhiked across to the Cairngorms. I was photographing Ptarmigan (which are awesome by the way) when an unexpected blizzard swept over the mountains, smothering me, my tent and everything else in a blanket of snow. The accompanying thunder and lightning were disturbingly close by.

The next morning I was startled by my whole tent suddenly shifting sideways, before a very large nose came through the outer – reindeer! After scaring it off before it knocked down my tent, I stepped outside to the surreal sight of a whole herd of furry awesomeness surrounding me in the snow.

Back down at sea level, I finally had some good weather! A lonely tent by a still loch, backed by ancient Caledonian pine forest, is pretty hard to beat.

The forests themselves used to cover vast swathes of the Highlands, and it’s a shame that’s no longer the case, as they really are beautiful.

With the improved weather I could even appreciate how short the nights are this far north in early summer. In fact, it never really gets dark at all. This shot of my tent was taken at midnight under an overcast sky. You can read a book in the middle of the night if it’s clear.

The Shetlands were my final stop. With the promise of good weather, I was pretty excited. The first couple of days had a lot more rain than was forecast and a mouse chewed through my tent inner, but it wasn’t too bad. When I reached the northernmost tip of the UK at the Gannet colony of Hermaness, looking out to the remote lighthouse of Muckle Flugga, it was perfect. Warm, no wind, even a bit of sun!

I was there mostly to photograph Puffins, and they put on a pretty good show before I set up my tent a little way back from the edge of the cliff an hour or so after sunset. By 2am, the conditions had worsened. The forecast had promised a wind-free night, but my tent was getting pummeled. It was so loud I kept waking up thinking there was thunder.

At 5am, it had got so bad that I realized I needed to take the tent down before the wind did it for me. I should probably point out that the wind was coming off the sea, or I’d have got the hell out of there a lot sooner.

As it was, I was too late anyway. I had just started shoving everything into my backpack when the main pole snapped. This meant I had to support the tent with my head to get the rest of my gear packed up, so I spent the next ten minutes getting repeatedly smacked in the face by a broken pole.

Emerging into the dawn, the wind was so strong I could barely stand up. A couple of waterfalls further along the coast were flowing over the cliffs, but no longer reaching the sea as they were blown straight back over the moorland. A gully funneled the wind so powerfully that it lifted me (and a 25kg backpack) off my feet and deposited me a little further back from the cliffs.

Even though it had been an eventful trip with lots of setbacks, I’d still had a fantastic time. But with very little money left and now no tent, it was definitely time to go home.

Shameless self promotion - if you want to see more adventure and wildlife photography, please check out my website at Thanks guys! :)

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Intro to Climbing

Thanks once again to everyone who came at the weekend to our Into to Climbing event. It was a great success with brilliant weather and some amazing people! In total we reckon we got 150 climbing over the two days which is rather impressive!

Here is a short video from the weekend and some photos, Enjoy!

Saturday, 19 September 2015

About UBES!

To all those new to the university, welcome to Bristol, and more importantly, welcome to UBES: The University of Bristol Expeditions Society! If you’re returning for another year, welcome back!

Who are we?
UBES is probably the largest, certainly the most active, and unquestionably the BEST outdoors society at the University of Bristol. We are a group of like-minded individuals united by our love of the outdoors and adventure, who run regular trips, socials and outdoors-y activities to get a break from the daily grind of university.

What do we do?
Hiking, scrambling, trekking, climbing, you name it, we do it! We run regular weekend trips all around the UK; in a year, we might visit the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Peak District, the Brecon Beacons and the Yorkshire Dales, amongst other places. Membership will allow you to come on trips, and access to our extensive kit storage in case you have any exciting plans of our own.

Every Wednesday we run climbing sessions either at a local indoor climbing wall (Redpoint) or outdoors in the Avon Gorge if the weather is good. Membership will also mean we’ll teach you the basics of how to climb (and do it safely)!
Click here to join us today for only £12 a year!
The fun doesn’t stop during the holidays; at Christmas, UBES runs a trip to Scotland for a week of winter mountaineering and ice climbing, and during the summer, in addition to sending out an Alps cohort, we run several longer expeditions, which in the last few years have taken us to Morocco, Romania, Norway, Corsica, Iceland and the Pyrenees. Check out the details of our last summer expeditions on our website!

During term time, UBESters gather at our weekly climbing sessions, regular pub trips and awesome socials. There’s always something going on! So, whether you think you’d like to get involved in the lively Bristol climbing scene, have mountaineering aspirations, or just love the outdoors and want to meet friendly, adventurous, like-minded people, the University of Bristol Expeditions Society is the one to join! We welcome people of all abilities; don’t worry if you have little or no experience, we’d love to meet you. Get involved - participation is only limited by how much you can squeeze in around your lectures!

For more information, see us at the Welcome Fair on Friday the 25th, or come to one of our introductory talks on Monday the 28th:

7:30pm, Racks, St. Paul’s Road, Clifton
7:30pm, Hiatt Baker Hall Bar

To have a more informal chat with us about the society, come to the Highbury Vaults on St. Michael’s Hill at 9pm this Wednesday!

Our society aims to be affordable, inclusive and exciting, so make sure you don't miss out!

Keep up to date with the society on Facebook!

SPA Training 2015

Earlier this summer I was lucky enough to head over to Snowdonia for a few days to complete my Single Pitch Award Training, subsidised by UBES and Bristol SU. The fantastic Paul Poole ( guided myself and three others through the course and as always he made it an informative, interesting and (most importantly) enjoyable experience!

For more information on the award, have a look at the UBES website. I can’t recommend the SPA highly enough if you want to get your trad climbing up to the gold standard required for teaching and learn the group leadership skills to help UBES climbing grow from strength to strength!

Many thanks to UBES and Bristol SU for my course subsidy, I can’t wait to start sharing everything I’ve learnt throughout next year!

Ben Caley

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Southern Sandstone

After months removed from the luxury of the proximity of outdoor climbing in Bristol at the Avon Gorge, it all got too much. Despite the tens of indoor rock walls to be found across the capital there are no crags – unsurprisingly! The nearest outdoor rock to London are the Southern Sandstone crags just south of the North Downs, stretching from East Grinstead to Royal Tonbridge Wells, and they make for some great – if ‘interesting – climbing. In pursuit of the simple pleasure of cycling to the crag and climbing, this is what happened…
Inspired by a video on the internet entitledCicloarrampicando” which quite literally means “cycle climbing”, the challenge was set to link up the Southern Sandstone crags by bike and cycle between each one marked in the Jingo Wobbly guidebook. In addition to this Italian inspiration, there is also Kyle Dempster’s “The Road from Karakol ( which makes for a great 20 minutes watching which I can’t help but recommend.
A frustrated Facebook message from my old school friend Quentin about being laid off work for a few days meant that an adventure was exactly what he needed to take his mind off! Originally we planned to bivvy overnight and complete the cycle in two days (this would later turn out to a much more sensible plan), but when Q was signed up for work again we decided to try and push it in one day. Our route would take us south out of Greenwich, past Biggin Hill and towards East Grinstead for the first crag at Stone Farm Rocks, south east towards Crowborough to take in the out-of-the-way Under Rocks before heading up by the main concentration of Southern Sandstone crags – Bowles, Harrisons, Eridge, High Rocks etc. With a route planned and kit packed, we were ready to go!

Following some last minute sorting, we set off at 6:13am stopping only for red lights. Our first challenge came in the form of Biggin Hill. Compared to alpine road climbs it was nothing, but we were still feeling it when we got to the top - and then came our first problem. My rear pannier was beginning to tear off the frame however we were able to cable tie it back on and head off. With some lovely cruising downhill from the top of the North Downs, leaving London behind us, we were really beginning to get into the pace of things until only 45 minutes after leaving Biggin Hill we hit our next snag. Quentin’s back spoke had snapped and, worse, become caught in his cassette. Fortunately this happened right in front of a petrol station so we were able to stop and sort the problem out quickly – a few laps of the forecourt later to check everything was in working order, we were good to go.

Our pace was steady until and after hitting East Grinstead with only a minor navigation hitch landing us in a dentists carpark. Before we knew it and after two and a half hours or so of riding and 33 miles we’d reached our first crag, Stone Farm Rocks. Following a speedy shoe change we were climbing. Because we could only choose route at each crag it made sense to pick a three star route, and we aimed to be climbing around British Tech grade 5a for the day. Our first climb was “Key Wall”, an interesting line up the side of an isolated block. With the excitement of being on the wall getting to us it was easy to forget that we still had a good distance of cycling to go. Cycling shoes back on we headed off over Weir Wood reservoir in search of Crowborough which was a steady 30km cycle from here. While this was the longest section between two crags on the route, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the Ashdown which was a contrast to the busy and lorry-infested A26. After stopping at the Red Lion pub (conveniently marked in the Guidebook) for water we carried on cycling; our pace had definitely slowed by this point and the undulating country lanes of the High Weald were beginning to take their toll on our legs. One particular highlight has to be the aptly-named “Steep Road” which Quentin dashed up having successfully clipped into his pedals on his first try (I’m sure any roadies will be more understanding about this than I was…) By 12:00pm we had reached Under Rocks – definitely one of the quieter Southern Sandstone venues I’ve been to!

A word of advice for anyone considering Under Rocks as a Southern Sandstone venue: the climbing is fantastic but there is little parking, the path to the crag is well hidden and it’s very overgrown. Sadly the crag shows signs of vandalism and being more of a local drinking haunt than a popular place to climb. The holly leaf carpeted path proved… painful for Q in his flip flops but he persevered and we later found ourselves at the foot of the crag. We had decided to climb straight out of the crag and pick up our bikes at the top due to the overgrown nature of the place. The climbing at Under Rocks is predominantly quite difficult – any of the routes that aren’t covered in moss are 5b+ so we had little choice but to tackle “Evening Arete 5b”. Despite my downer on the crag because of the Strongbow cans littered along the bottom of the rock and the drawinson the wall, this may well have been my favourite climb of the day.
By the time we had finished climbing, it was lunchtime. After a twenty minute cycle to the Kings Arms pub in Rotherfield we were grateful to find they had a two courses for £10 offer – I had sausage and mash while Q tucked into ham, egg and chips. These were washed down with ice cream and a hazelnut brownie respectively. Feeling energized and ready to push on we headed towards Bowles Rocks; despite being just up the road from Harrisons and Eridge this would be my first trip to the crag.
Bowles Rocks is located on the site of an outdoor education centre and is one of the best equipped Southern Sandstone crags with really easily accessible top rope anchors and some fantastic climbing. Cycling up the main road past the rocks we had settled on climbing “Fragile Arete”, another 3 star 5a route that was as close to the road as possible. The ease of setting up the anchor here meant we both shot up the route, and was also the first time we had seen other people climbing all day. Now with grey clouds rolling over the horizon we raced down the road towards Harrisons Rocks.
After a tree and peanut butter sandwich related incident (don’t dispose of your food by throwing it at a tree…), we headed up to the rocks and right towards the Isolated Buttress. To avoid a long walk along the crag to save time, and now feeling the day’s activities in our legs, we dropped down a grade to climb the three star 4c “Isolated Buttress Climb”. This was a big mistake. Previously, access to the anchors was made by jumping across onto the buttress but a loose block at the top made this dangerous and instead a climb around the side was required. Fortunately for us, another party climbing on the buttress had left a line in place to use as a handrail while traversing around the buttress and up onto the top. We got talking to this group and, a lengthy conversation about the Tour de France later, began to climb. Although the chat had set us back in our timings, Q and I agreed that this friendly, community spirit is the best bit of going on an ‘adventure’ (even if it only lasts a day!) and the climbing community in general and the hour or so we had spent at Harrisons was one of our favourite for this reason.

Of the nine crags listed in the Jingo Wobbly guide, we had visited four by this point and pressed on for
Eridge however the rain began to hang in the air as soon as we reached our bikes. While Eridge is really close to Harrison’s rocks, it seemed to take an eternity to get there and even more time to start climbing. This may have been down to my reluctance to look properly at the guidebook, and I now realise the route we did wasn’t the one I had picked – instead of climbing the “sandy but good” three star “Hanging Crack”, we had actually ended up on 5c “Nuthin’ Fancy”. Feeling defeated after what, at the time, seemed like a particularly tricky 5a the rain didn’t help our mood and we sought refuge in the Paris Cave just around the corner. This was another mistake! No sooner than a minute after cries of “what is that smell?!” we noticed that we had worked our way into Eridge’s own animal toilet.
Sometimes it’s okay to take a hint, with the time now approaching 6:00pm we knew that even if we ticked off the rest of the climbs we would be cycling home into the night. Feeling satisfied with the 100km+ that we had now clocked on the bikes and the 5 climbs on top of that we decided to head back to Eridge station, grab a pint and take the train home - feeling defeated but pleased with ourselves. We bumped back into the group we had been climbing next to at the station and ended up on the same train home as them. If we were going to do a “Southern Sandstone” challenge again, I would recommend starting at the Southern Sandstone crags themselves! The 33 miles we had done before we even reached our first climb was unnecessary, but this thought left us with a plan for the future – it must be possible to tick them all off in a day! Maybe another time…

Jono Hawkins

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Mountain Leader Training 2015

Each year Bristol SU subsidises six UBESters to go on a mountain leadership course in Snowdonia. Despite my (very) last minute application to the course, I was lucky enough to gain a place to learn skills invaluable for anyone hoping to lead walks.

The day before the start of the course the six of us congregated at Gwen Gof Isaf, a campsite right in the shadow of Tryfan. On Sunday, we met our guides for the week- Paul and Rusty- some of the most experienced mountaineers I’ve ever met, who had a story to tell for any situation and an unbeatable knowledge of plants! We then headed out for a day of micro nav, a challenge that felt like we had to find the right blade of grass on the mountainside using only a map and a compass. I quickly learned that wearing hole-ridden, ancient boots was a bad idea when wading through bog

Later in the week we learned to body belay and some basic emergency management, and paid a visit to the Llanberis mountain rescue base. The next day we put the skills into practice with an ascent of the east ridge of Y Garn, during which we were treated to spectacular fly pasts of RAF jets. We managed to keep ourselves entertained in the free evenings: highlights included an ill fated attempt to blend car and tarpaulin into a cooking shelter, and a forlorn ramble up (what turned out to be) a cliff, to try and find a cave Alasdair had spotted on the map.

The course culminated in an overnight trek to a beautiful lakeside, where we set up camp for the night. I tried to get a rest before the night nav exercise, but was reluctantly awoken by “Ben, camera!” The magnificent sunset over the mountains proved well worth getting out of bed for! To round off the week in true UBES fashion we headed to Canaervan in full hiking gear for a well-earned Spoons.

Ben Towers
If you're interested in taking part in ML training next year check out our website for more info.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Australia: A weekend in the Blue Mountains

For anyone hoping to start exploring the Blue Mountains, a good place to start is in the town of Katoomba. There being good train connections to Sydney, many different hostels to choose from and one of the more famous sites in the Mountains- The Three Sisiters.

 I started off my Friday visiting this site, the town and walking to Katoomba Falls. After dramatically staring a various rock formations and bits of falling water for the day, I retreated back to my hostel. The Blue Mountains Backpacker Hostel was large, located near to the train station and equipped with a kitchen, fire, pool table and of course the all important free Wi-Fi!  ‘Twas here I rested on Friday night with plans to head out early the next morning to visit the very striking and extremely beautiful Wentworth Falls.

There are many walks to choose from in this area ranging from those meant for people so fat and lazy they can barely walk 10 meters for their car, to those for people experienced in the mountains, needless to say I was more than able to spend a day entertaining myself here.
I started off following the Darwin Walk from the village of Wentworth Falls to the falls themselves. It took about half an hour and when I arrive I was gifted to some views of the beautiful surrounding countryside complete with terrifyingly high cliffs, captivating cascades and an amazing temperate rainforest (photos to follow). If you follow the paths all the way to the bottom of the cliffs you will be greeted by the massive waterfalls plunge pool. This is an ideal place to stop for lunch and a great place to swim, temperature permitting. From here one can follow either the Wentworth or the National Pass, taking you through the rainforest and along the cliffs respectively.
Following the National Pass is a definite must as it takes you along the middle of the cliffs via a man made path, it has been one of the most travelled walks in the mountains for a century. 

After whiling away my days wandering all the possible paths in this area I returned to Katoomba and my hostel. After watching the Wallabies beat the All Blacks in the first Bledisloe Cup match I retired to bed with the next day promising more excitement.

On Sunday I chose to visit Scenic World, one of the few attractions within walking distance of Katoomba. Consisting of cable car rides around the mountains and boasting the ‘Worlds steepest railway’ at an angle of 54˚. An entertaining day, good for the more casual walker as they have boardwalks through the rainforest and lots of information about the mining industry within the mountains. For experienced walkers this can be a bit boring, so following the walk from scenic world to the three sisters and the giants stairway is a good way to brighten up the day.

After a more casual Sunday I return to Sydney by train (about 2 hrs). One noticeable difference in walking here compared to in the UK is all of the villages are built on the tops of the mountains (which are very flat-peaked), and most walks go down into the valleys. I would definitely recommend the Blue Mountains to anyone who visits Australia. Even for those who’re not fans of walking, as there are many other activities on offer (climbing, caving and canyoning to name a few).  10/10 would visit again.