Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Weather on other worlds

It's not all climbing you know. The last 40 hours I've been travelling to Sydney to do some observing on an old favourite telescope of mine. Over the last few years, various astronomers across the globe have been working hard to directly measure the brightness of planets orbiting other stars - so called exoplanets. This is relatively 'easy' at infrared wavelengths but is incredibly difficult in optical light, where the planet is much, much, much fainter than the star it orbits. This matters because the best way of measuring the planet's brightness is to look for the minuscule dip in brightness of the combined light from the star and planet, when the planet disappears behind the star.

The dip in brightness is so small because the planet is so faint - the often used analogy is that it's like trying to see the change in overall brightness when a firefly disappears behind a searchlight. Nevertheless, over the last few years we have honed our techniques and we are starting to routinely measure the brightness of exoplanets in optical light - like the example below.

Light vs time for the exoplanet system WASP-12. The dip (a fraction of one percent) is caused by the planet disappearing behind the star.
The thing is, as we have more and more measurements like this, a puzzle is starting to emerge. It's becoming quite common for different groups to disagree on the brightnesses of exoplanets. An example is shown below - look at the furthest left datapoint. There's two measurements of brightnesses for the same planet by different groups, and they don't agree.

Brightness of planet as a function of wavelength. The furthest left points are two measurements of the optical brightness
There are only really two possibilities here. The first is that we are not as good at measuring the brightness of exoplanets as we think we are. The apparent disagreement in this case is caused by us overstating how confident we are in our measurements. The second possibility is that the planets really are changing in brightness over time - or, to put it another way - we could be seeing weather on the surface of planets around other stars. My money is on the first explanation - but there's a really obvious way to check. That's to measure the same event from many different telescopes. Since it's the same event all the different telescopes should give the same answer, and if they don't then our techniques are not as good as they thought they were.

That's what I should have been doing tomorrow night, but looking at the weather it looks like I might be watching movies on iTunes instead. Now, Sydney is a long way to come to work one night and find it is cloudy, but I'm not too depressed because I'm taking a two week climbing holiday afterwards, so if the science doesn't play ball I've got this to look forward to...

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Do you CWIF?

In 2011, buoyed by a run of great results in the Foundry winter bouldering I entered the CWIF. My first international comp since the early 00's. I tanked hugely.

In 2012 the same thing happened. After a winter of handing Will Atkinson's ass to him on a silver plate I entered the CWIF once more. Will scored 221 and narrowly missed the final. I scored 198 and narrowly missed every hold I jumped for.

In 2013 I was injured.

In 2014, following a great result in the F-BO bouldering comp I entered the CWIF once more. You can see where this is going, can't you?

CWIF problems need technique, balance and nonchalance. And a cuppa. Nick Brown shows how it's done.
Every year I expect something different, and every year I go home surprised by how much of climbing doesn't depend upon campus strength at all. On Thursday before this year's competition such was my prowess on the Foundry campus board that the locals were awed - I genuinely thought Mark Tomlinson was going to make me a marriage proposal. And then on Saturday I watched climbers who couldn't 1-4-7 to escape a sleuth of angry bears, smoothly negotiate volumes and rock overs that spat me off repeatedly. In the end I finished with 205 points - my best CWIF performance to date, and enough for a mighty 66th place.

You'd think that I'd be crushed and dispirited. Then again, you'd think that after three years I'd have learned to expect it. The truth is that the weekend has got me completely psyched for competitions again! Performance aside I had such a great time on Saturday. There was a great and friendly scene and the problems were excellent. Really and truly amazing - if those problems were outside on a single font circuit it would be the best circuit in font. As usual they required gymnastic strength, subtle footwork and impeccable route reading skills in equal measure. Of these attributes I possess none, but determination I possess in spades. So I'm going to stretch a bit, do a lot of push ups and enter the British Bouldering Championships for the first time in over 10 years. With a bit of luck I might not even come last...

Team Midget Gems at the CWIF: L-R Mrs Littlefair, Mr Littlefair, a pack of midget gems, Ella Russel, John Dudley

Monday, 17 February 2014


After all the excitement, did F-BO14 live up to the hype? Is that even possible? The original FIBO international comps at the Foundry were the reason I got into competing in the first place, and led to a brief and ignominious career at the world cups. With the title of King of the Wave once more up for grabs I was desperate to put a good showing in. For the first time in a while I actually didn't sleep well before a comp, such was my excitement level!

The day itself was fantastic. The routesetting team of Napier, Bishton and Feehally had done themselves proud and the qualifying problems were butch and bizarre in equal measure. Other people have blogged about the comp in detail including the Foundry themselves, and competitors Ethan Walker and Gracie Martin, and there's an excellent set of photos on the Foundry's Facebook page. Slackjaw Films even revisited their seminal Hard Plastic, and made a short film of the event. In the end I was extremely lucky to get to climb in the final. Not only did Ben Moon retire after crushing qualification, but I scraped my way up the harder problems in qualifying by the skin of my teeth. 

90's legend Richie "fragile" Patterson holding it together in qualifying. Credit: Paul Bennett

In the final it was a similar story. The strength wasn't there to enable me to do well and other climbers were definitely stronger. At the end of the first two boulders I'd barely managed to get off the floor and was feeling well and truly beaten. 

Shut down on P1. Credit: Paul Bennett
In the end, however, I had some luck on the last two problems and managed to scrape my way up them. This was good enough for third place and a generous prize, thanks to the Foundry. Martin Smith and Ethan, in first and second respectively, were much much better than me on the day but let's not dwell on that. Instead, I want to talk a little bit about what changed after the first two problems to allow me to get up anything at all.

Getting angry on P3. Credit: Paul Bennett
The change can be summed up with three little words. A-ggre-ssion. I went back into isolation after the second problem and gave myself a bloody good talking to. And I came out and tried the third problem a different climber. It's so important in comps to come out and really want it, but how can you do that when things aren't going your way? Everyone has their tricks (I got Graeme Alderson to give me a punch in the chest), but I reckon the U.S ski team are on to a bit of a winner.

Until Dec 2013, Pete Lavin (aka 'Baby Huey') was employed by the US ski team to stand behind skiers at the start gate, and shout at them. Loud. Don't believe me? - check out Bode Miller on the receiving end...

With the CWIF just around the corner, it's worth pointing out that Huey is probably available for hire, since he left the team following the appointment of a new austrian coach. Failing that I'm sure I could hire Grimer to stand on the edge of the mats shouting encouragement. I'm going to be unstoppable...

Friday, 7 February 2014


Tomorrow is the long awaited F-BO 14 competition, when the strongest boys and girls will compete to see who will be crowned King and Queen of the Wave. There was a time once when that crown really meant something - a time when the best climber in the Foundry could lay claim to being the best climber in the world. A time of Hard Plastic.

In those heady days, a big foundry comp would see angry young men with big purple heads go up against the best climbers in the world. Pedro Pons, prehensile and powerful; Chris Sharma, fresh faced and stoned; Arnaud Petit, weak and drop-kneed (the Alex Barrows of his day) - all would turn up to the Foundry and see if they could beat Neil Travers and his lucky pants. Something tells me tomorrow won't be as big a deal as the fabled FIBOs, but I hope the big guns turn up nonetheless. King of the wave is still a prize to be lusted after, and Rich Heap will be there filming the hard plastic sequel. Plus, rumour has it that Barrows will be judging a problem, so there's an opportunity to kick him in the teeth if you cut loose hard enough. On the other hand, I will be there, so you'll have to give up on the idea of actually winning...

Entries on the day are possible, and we needn't mention that the weather will be amenable to indoor bouldering. Plus, the are stuffed Mammoth's available as spot prizes. So get a good night's sleep (you'll need it) and I'll see you at the Foundry.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The jet-set lifestyle

I will be in the UK in January for exactly 3 days. Before the Sella holiday I was observing at my favourite telescopes on La Palma, in the Canary Islands. Since then I've been at another observatory, but in a slightly more exotic location - Doi Inthanon, in Northern Thailand.

Doi Inthanon is the highest point in Thailand, and it's where the Thai's have chosen to build their first professional observatory. Building an observatory like this allows the Thai's to strengthen their technological industries, and to improve collaborations with international scientists. Which is where I come in. I'm lucky enough to work with Prof Vik Dhillon in Sheffield, who's a bit of a top boffin when it comes to designing cameras for astronomy. We've entered into an agreement with the Thais, in which we provide them with a state-of-the-art camera, and they provide us with 30 nights of observing time each year.

The 2.4m Thai National Telescope

The telescope is certainly in a very nice place - Doi Inthanon is a national park, home of the Karen hill tribe and site of many waterfalls and protected "cloud forest". And therein lies the snag. If you know anything about astronomy you'll know that clouds are not good news. And Doi Inthanon is not entirely un-cloudy or wet. In fact, wikipedia tells us
"The summit experiences average year-round temperatures in the low to mid teens (Celsius) and high humidity...flora includes evergreen cloud forest, sphagnum bog, and deciduous dipterocarp forest."
I'll be honest, all that cloud and humidity does hamper the observatory somewhat. Frustratingly the sky is often perfectly clear, but the telescope cannot observe due to high humidity. This is what is going on tonight, giving me the time to write this blog.

The twin Chedis, Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri. Also - note clouds.

A bit 'o' scenery for you

Apart from the trees and clouds, and the excitement of eating spicy noodle soup for breakfast, life at Doi Inthanon is much like life at any other observatory. The long shifts give me just enough time to get six or seven hours of sleep, eat breakfast and then put in another long shift. It's a shame there's no time to explore, or visit some of the local villages. It's even more of a shame because Doi Inthanon is a massive lump of granite, and there's some pretty decent looking cliffs scattered about, clean and unclimbed. I'm not sure whether they're accessible, or if I'll get chased off the land by farmers with machetes but I do intend at some point to recruit some local climbers and head off for a look.

Yes, it's a telescope. And some astronomers

Forests and waterfalls - not the first thing you look for in an observatory site.

And speaking of climbing, I haven't forgotten F-BO. I know Will Atkinson will be thinking he's in with a chance, but I have my portable fingerboard that Ned made me, and a whole load of creative ways of using it to simulate "real" training. So I'm keeping in pretty good shape and, what with the spicy noodles for breakfast, losing a few pounds too. F-BO, here we come...

All I need is a fingerboard, and a beam to hang her off

A walk on the wild side (groan)

Ok, this looks bad. Don't you think I know that? No blog for ages and then the minute I tick something - Oh look! It's worse than face bragging. I don't care, I'm doing it anyway.

So, the Costa Blanca. My perception is that it's something of a faded glory, somewhere old-hat that no-one really goes to any more. Turns out, of course, that my perception is totally wrong. It's still just as busy and popular as ever - and justifiably so, since it offers more high-quality low-grade climbing than almost every other Spanish venue. I'd spent a while here back at the turn of the century, but never really got to climb at the area show-piece, sector Wild Side, since it was banned at the time. Jules and I booked a fortnight's holiday, staying at the Orange House. A fortnight! I can't remember the last time I had two whole weeks just to go climbing...

The Orange House was a great base. At first, I was a bit miffed to be surrounded by English speakers; english at the crag, english at the house. In the end though, the friendliness of the 'oranges' who run the house and the other guests more than made up for it, and I'm glad we chose it. The view was pretty nice too.

Finestrat, from the Orange House

Wild Side did not disappoint either. Its a great crag. People had described it as 'British', so I was expecting something crimpy, but really it's got a very slopey right-hand-side and a left hand side that offers tufa-style climbing. It's British only in the sense that many of the routes are not that long (think left-hand side of Malham) and are quite punchy, with distinct cruxes. Oh, and of course it's British in the sense that it's packed with Brits. We had a lot of familiar faces to climb with, and the days Seb was at the crag were particular highlights. The spanish love his dog impressions.

Seb, showing the rest of us how to warm-up

This was the first climbing trip I'd had since recovering from my injury at the end of 2013. Before we came out I'd had a fitness assessment at Coach Randall's, and I'd been surprised to see that despite a relative lack of training my level was pretty solid. Since then I'd managed to get a month of serious hard work in, so I was really keen to push it this trip and not coast along on low-grade 8's like I usually do. With that in mind I set out to try some of the harder routes at the crag.

On the upper crux of Pintoreta
Much to Jules' disgust this resulted in a fair amount of ticking. This is how it would usually go. I try a route, and spend a day moaning about how it was impossible; the moves were too hard, the climbing didn't suit, I wasn't recovering enough. Jules of course would try to be encouraging and reassure me I'd be OK. This made me angry. Jules and I have a brief barney and then make up. Good nights sleep. Route ticked next day.

In the end it turned out to be my most productive climbing trip by a country mile. I did a couple of 8c's quite quick - Espacio Tiempo and Pintoreta. Both were excellent, if a little manufactured. Oddly I thought I'd walk up Pintoreta, but despite getting through the bottom 'crux' first go, I had immense trouble with the '8a' upper section, which featured massive spans between invisible wide pinches. By contrast I thought I wouldn't get up Espacio at all, as I was getting shut down by a hard move at the very top, but I surprised myself by doing the route on my second day, crushing the "impossible" move the first time I reached it.

As well as a bit of easier climbing and some 8a and 8a+ onsights, the highlight/low-point of the trip occurred on an 8b+ called Septiembre. Interestingly, Rockfax have this in their guide as 8b+ and a "Top 50" route, despite the fact that it's very soft at the grade, and the upper wall is climbed entirely on holds which are both grim, and artificial.

A local chap pretending he's Steve Mac on Septiembre
Anyway, after doing Pintoreta I was keen for another project, but didn't fancy something quite as hard so I thought I'd put the draws in Septiembre. I bimbled up until I got to a hard move, grabbed the draw and sat down. Then I looked at the climbing above and realised that the hard move was basically the last on the route. Pulling immediately back on, I climbed to the top. I felt a bit in shock. I think it was 50/50 whether I'd have done the move on the onsight, but I'm pretty sure I would have, and sure I'd have got to the top after that. To be honest, I tried to be angry at myself for blowing the onsight, but it was a level of performance so far above what I expect of myself that I was just really pleased it was even a possibility. It was a bit of an eye-opener, and I'm certainly not going to make the same mistake again. I even had an onsight go on Espacio as a result. It went terribly, but it seems you never know...

In the meantime, Jules was having one of those unfortunate trips where everything seems to go wrong. I think her level has shot up massively, and had things gone just a little differently she would have come home with quick ticks of at least three 8th grade routes. Sadly, though she'll have to wait for the next trip to see all her hard work bear fruit.

Now it's a break from climbing for a little while, as a work trip beckons. After that it's the return of top-flight competition to the Foundry, with the mighty F-BO. It should be an exciting comp - after all the title of King of the Wave is up for grabs...

Hasta La Vista, Sella

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Sean Myles Appreciation Society

One thing I hate is asymmetry in language. You can be underwhelmed, and you can be overwhelmed, so why has no-one been whelmed since the mid 1850s? Similarly, why is no-one ever vincible? I'm mulling this over because of the spectacular grit season so far. It's been an astonishing month, with testpieces like Meshuga getting multiple ascents, and people like Nathan Lee and Ethan Walker climbing a grit E8 or E9 every other day. As if that wasn't enough, Ben Bransby has resurrected Parthian Shot. In typical fashion, he's playing it down, but make no mistake - this is a big fucking deal. I can't imagine what it would feel like to be climbing solid 8b above the single remaining RP3. Perhaps the only other route on grit with similarly hard climbing is Captain Invincible, which brings us back to the waffling about language at the start of this post.

The Cioch block, Burbage
Captain Invincible - climbs up the middle of this big lump of grit
CI was first climbed by Sean Myles back in 1991. Largely forgotten by today's climbers since he moved to California to go surfing, Sean was one of the strongest climbers in the country back in the early 90s. Anyone who doubts that should go and look at the photo of Sean's back rippling it's way across the Powerband in The Power of Climbing. CI has only seen one repeat, by that other 90's legend Robin 'Tubby' Barker. Tubby is my wife's favourite climber, ever since he turned up at Raven Tor one morning, clearly out of shape and not having climbed for several months. After a desultory warm up, he strolled up Revelations - by far the easiest ascent I've ever seen - warmed down by lapping the Powerband a few times, and then spent the rest of the morning cheerfully taking the piss out of everyone else for being so weak. Unfortunately, in recent years Robin has begun disintegrating, and has snapped several tendons - ouch!

I've always wanted to do CI, and have never tried. This is partly due to the awe I hold the two ascensionists in, and partly because it looks so flipping hard! However, the recent spate of grit sends got me inspired, and so this weekend I trudged over the moor to the Cioch block and threw a rope down, to see what I could see. I think it would be fair to say that things did not go well. In retrospect I had at least hoped to be able to pull off the floor! Pulling past the first few moves I worked out a sequence up the half-height roof, where I found more moves which are apparently impossible. Ignoring these I started working the traverse left into the obvious break. This went more easily - until it didn't - leaving me several moved from the top and with no clue as to how to proceed. 

Hmm. I don't think I've ever been on a grit route with such physical difficulty! The gear is not bad, particularly if it's fair game to replace the many pegs in the route. On the other hand I have absolutely no idea how to climb it. On the off chance that Robin reads this blog I'd appreciate any beta (and sorry for the 'tubby' thing)! Or, if any of the keen youths ticking everything in sight fancy joining me for a real challenge, then let's get it done!