Sport-climbing in El Chorro

Where I did my first proper multi-pitch and attempted to use a shewee (pee funnel for women) to hilarious results.

The last blog-worthy bit of my road trip from London to Spain is sport-climbing in El Chorro, Malaga. El Chorro was a place I’d always wanted to go to climb, since I came to the UK four years ago. Happily enough, my road trip buddy’s parents lived close to Malaga, and so we could end the trip with some nice climbing. We stayed at the Olive Branch (€8pppn) while we were there, which was slightly above the village.


Olive Branch campsite.

The weather was forecasted to be very rainy while we were there, but the weather held up enough for us to do a few climbs. I had never really done a complete multi-pitch climb before, the most I had ever done was two pitches of a much longer climb. So I was really psyched to do a nice long but easy eight pitch climb called Amptrax.


The Frontales crag where Amptrax is.

The approach to the start point involved a bit of a dodgy down scramble cos we veered a bit to far right. The first pitch was basically a walk/scramble up, but the rest of the pitches were quite fun. The sixth pitch was a right traverse, which I was leading and was slightly nervy in my opinion, had to do some really far-out leaning to my right. Probably also went off route cos there were points when I had nothing much to hold…

Nonetheless, it was definitely the highlight of El Chorro for me and the most exciting bit is possibly my attempt to use the shewee while in a harness on a wall. I bought the shewee five years ago when I was climbing Island Peak, and had only used it once on that trip – to pee into a bottle when we were in high camp while in the tent because I was too cold to go out and pee. Being in a harness makes using a shewee much much harder. I basically wet myself on the wall :X I’d advise anyone who’s intending to use one to practise first before going out. Thankfully there wasn’t anyone else around who saw me using it anyway 😛

I’ve written before about the appeal of climbing, but I missed out a major point in that post. That feeling of being to go somewhere that few others can, and the view from the top of a climb.


View from the top of Amptrax.

Was a pretty good end to the 3-week long road trip. Would have been nice to do a few more multi-pitches or harder climbs but the weather turned and got very rainy. So yeah, Amptrax was my main highlight and the limestone in El Chorro is really nice 🙂

P.S. This is a scheduled post to space out my posting. I’m currently on my 67 day hike and you can see our current location here.

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Off to Coñaripe to start!

Sooo, we’re all packed and the bus tickets to Coñaripe have been bought and we’re almost  ready to go 😀 Santiago is a pretty cool city, a mix of modernity and the less-modern. I’m out of words to describe emotions, and also in a rush, so shall just leave with a photo of us in the hostel we stayed in.

All ready to go :D L-R: Yousef (Omar's brother), Anne, Hamish, Omar, and Jocelyne

All ready to go 😀 L-R: Yousef (Omar’s brother), Anne, Hamish, Omar, and Jocelyne

You can see our progress on this online map here, when we start tracking our location tomorrow.

Sunset from Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile

Sunset from Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile

Until next year!

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Hiking in the Pyrenees

Or more like a day-hike in a tiny part of the Pyrenees. During the road trip from London, England to Malaga, Spain, we stopped by the Pyrenees, naturally (11 to 13 Oct 2016). Though we weren’t the most prepared for hiking at that point (we weren’t familiar with the area and I didn’t have my hiking stuff with me), we couldn’t pass through without doing at least a hike. At a secondhand bookstore in London, I came across a map of the Pyrenees, and without really knowing much about the area, just bought it in case it might be useful. And so it was, for it gave us a direction to head towards – Prades.



The one big feature in the area is Pic du Canigou (Canigou Peak) at 2784m. So naturally, we (I?) were drawn to it. Google search didn’t help much, most of the information was in French and it seemed that it was not possible to do without at least a night in one of the refugios, which we were reluctant to do as we weren’t well-equipped for the cold nights. Nonetheless, we popped by the Tourist Information (which seems to be an outdated thing to do, but they are so nice and helpful!) and asked about it, and it turns out that we could actually do a day trip up Pic du Canigou – a 12-hour day trip. It is considered a sacred mountain by the Catalans, and the day before, we had made the hike up to the Abbaye St-Martin-du-Canigou (Abbey of St Martin du Canigou) which took about 40-50 minutes from the carpark. (Aside: upon arrival at the church, a couple of French were there waiting for the doors to open and spoke animatedly to us in French. We attempted to say je ne parle pas francais, to which the reply was a finger pointed at me with the words, very young, 15? T.T I’ve not quite reached the age where looking a decade younger is a compliment.)


View from somewhere along the way up to the abbey

From our campsite in Prades (Plaine du St Martin campsite, €4.50 pppn), we drove to Casteil, and then up a dirt road (which saved us 2 hours of walking). We then walked 40 minutes to Refuge Marseilles. Took us about 3-4 hours to get to Pic du Canigou from there. There was a smaller refuge on the way. I really like the French (and maybe around the region as well?) system of mountain refuges. A bit like Scottish bothies perhaps, though I’ve never stayed in one. These refuges are shelters with bunk beds, though you need your own sleeping bag. And some have cooking facilities and some food in there for emergencies. There are also guarded refuges which have more facilities and cooked dinners.


The more basic refuge along the way up to Pic du Canigou

Getting up to the peak involved some scrambling. Nothing too serious, but if you’ve got vertigo it might not be the best option. The whole trek had not been particularly strenuous, and even the climb up, though steep, winds around a lot which makes it very manageable. In any case, we didn’t dwell too long at the peak. The view was amazing, and a pair of Alpine choughs kept us company. But we headed down just in time, as it had started to drizzle, which then did not abate for a few days. All in all, we took about 8-9 hours, having shaved off some time by driving up the dirt road. The view is amazing, and I really like the Pyrenees. Full of quaint little villages and stunning mountainous backdrops, definitely a place I would like to go back to at some point (which is not something I say very often!).

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To update, or not to update?

We are less than two weeks from our arbitrary start date for the hike. In the last month or two, we had sorted out most of our gear. Hamish managed to get a 20% discount with Snow+Rock in exchange for some publicity material, so we got our shoes, tent and various other stuff from them. Finalised our kit list, got our insurance sorted, updated the original proposal to include the changes, and packed our bags. And got the Parents in contact with each other – dinner with Hamish’s and Omar’s parents, with a Skype call to Anne’s dad. My parents were excused based on the horrid time difference.

The utmost concern in everyone else’s mind is naturally safety, but more importantly, communication with the wider world. To that end, we got a Delorme InReach Explorer satellite tracking and two-way messaging device (from my parents…), and a satellite phone (from Imperial College London) for emergency calls. With the InReach Explorer, our location can be shared on an online map for anyone and everyone with an Internet connection to see, and we can also send and receive (a limited number of) text messages. We also can, if we want, update our social media accounts – Twitter, Facebook, blogs – during the hike.

I am someone with a huge online footprint, as a project supervisor once commented to me. I have been blogging since 2006, Facebooking since 2007, and tweeting since 2010. I see the value in people sharing updates on their expeditions for educational purposes, and the last thing I’d want to do is to worry my (or any of the others’) parents, or friends. All that said though, I don’t think I’ll be updating on our progress in the expedition on social media. The rest of the team probably concur with me, but I relish being cut off from the Internet and the rest of the world occasionally. A month (or a few more) every year of not having constant 24/7 internet access is a good thing for all of us I think, for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual reasons. The world and your reality immediately becomes much smaller, and while I’m not advocating for a self-centred life, it is good to not have to clutter your mind with minor menial distractions.

Rick Warren wrote in his book The Purpose Driven Life, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” It is arrogant of me perhaps, but I do think there is great value to spending time thinking of yourself. Specifically of your life and your goals and values and how you interact with this world. My blogs are inherently self-absorbed – I am always talking about myself and my thoughts and feelings and my life. But to me, rightly or wrongly, they’re the output from my reflections and help me live this one life I have on this Earth closer to how I’d like it to be. Hence the need to spend less time online, and more time in quiet places reflecting, as this hike will probably afford lots of opportunities for.

I will likely still journal and update this blog with some of my thoughts post-hoc though.

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The team.

A quick intro to the gang before I start spouting out names in my future posts.

Ringleader – Hamish Warren

One of the original conceivers/proposers of the GPT, Hamish is the only one in the group who has actually hiked >1000km before. He likes walking barefoot, tree-climbing, and going off on long philosophical conversations (soliloquies) especially when drunk.

Field expert – Omar Saif

Possibly the person who initially seeded the idea for an expedition, Omar has undergone mountain leader training and is probably the most able amongst us to survive in the wilderness. Also a mad climber who might disappear halfway through the hike to go off and climb.

Logistics Officer – Anne Scholle

Without detracting from her invaluable position on the team, Anne’s the latest addition when I asked (insisted) her to join us in some state of drunkenness. She’s probably the most sane of us all and, with her bubbly and optimistic nature, will get us through the hike.

‘Navigator’ – Jocelyne Sze

Bit of a joke really, me as a navigator. It has already been decided that if we run desperately out of food, I’ll be the first to go, so I suppose that says much about how much they value me as a ‘navigator’.

So here’s the team (: Couldn’t have asked or found a better group to do this hike with. Though perhaps I had better save these comments for after the trek – after all, we might just start hating each other after a month of constant company.

The only three people I will see everyday for the next few months.

The only three people I will see everyday for the next two months.

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Bouldering in Fontainebleau

It’s been a while since I last posted – I’ve since finished my Master’s at Imperial, and am currently on a road trip through France and Spain with my friend. I will be doing more travelling, mainly a 65 day hike through Patagonian Chile (and a bit of Argentina) towards the end of the year, but I’ve got vague plans/intentions to revamp my blogs and merge them all into one. Anyway, since leaving London about a week and a half ago, I’ve passed through Font (as is known in the Anglophone world, but Bleau in the Francophone world…) and the Midi-Pyrenees, Andorra, and am now near Almería, in Spain. Leaving my friend’s place (where there’s a bed and wifi and a proper kitchen!) soon to head towards Granada, and Málaga for climbing. This is just a quick post about bouldering in Font.


Really bizarre, silty sandy area in the middle of a forest, which is characteristic of Font

I’m not a keen boulderer; I see bouldering more as a necessary complement to improving my climbing, than a joy in its own right. Not a fan of dynamic and powerful moves, with a high chance of shoulder dislocations (my right shoulder had a slight dislocation while bouldering a few years ago) and other injuries. But Font is known to be such a mecca, and friends have commented that even non-boulderers will enjoy Font, that we felt we had to see what the hype was all about. And I must say, it is a pretty cool area, particularly given its proximity to Paris.

As with most climbing areas, the bouldering areas (they’re not called crags are they..) are scattered around, in this case, in the forests surrounding the town Fontainebleau. We arrived in the town with absolutely no idea what to expect, and were somewhat surprised to find out from the Tourist Information that there was just one outdoor shop (S’cape). We rented bouldering mats from them (€8/day, or €7/day for 3 or more days of rental), but realised subsequently that we could actually have rented them from campsites (around the same price) which would have saved us the trouble of going into town. Given its fame in the climbing world, the town doesn’t actually give off any air of outdoorsy-ness.

We got a list of campsites to stay at from the Tourist Information too, and rocked up to one of them that seemed closest to most of the bouldering – La Musardiere in Milly-la-Foret. Wasn’t particularly equipped though, for €21.80 per night (for two persons and a car and a tent) – shower wasn’t really hot, and there was no wifi, or toilet paper. So we moved to a different campsite for the next two nights – Fountaineblhostel Hostel & Camping in La Chapelle-la-Reine. Which, for €31 per night, gave us hot showers, a proper kitchen, access to guidebooks and some really friendly people.


Roche aux Sabots, Les Trois Pignons.

The first day we spent at the Roche aux Sabots/Cul de Chien zones within the Les Trois Pignons area, near Milly-la-Forest, and the second at L’Elephant near Larchant. I stuck with really easy problems and barely pushed myself, either in difficulty or more fear-inducing exposed or high problems. In the colour scheme of Font, mostly yellows, oranges and some blues. The only route that really got me hooked and would have been a problem I’d take on as a project was Vent Violent 6c at L’Elephant.


The elephant at L’Elephant.

I much preferred L’Elephant to the other crags we visited, mainly cos the boulders there were higher (about 5m on average, up to 8m maybe?), which felt a bit more like lead climbing perhaps. Though without the safety of a rope. I don’t know if I would really come back again; while it’s been nice and enjoyable, I’m not too much in love with the area (nor with bouldering) to bother doing a trip there again, I think.

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Thoughts from doing a computational project…

I’m 50 days away from thesis submission, 182 days in to my master’s project. I’ve mentioned that my project was on deforestation in a few previous posts, but never really wrote about it, and since I’m approaching the time for more writing, I thought I should finally get around to it.

This project isn’t my first computational one, since the two projects I did in my third year  at Cambridge also involved using available data and computational modelling. The huge difference though is that those projects were only about two to three months long each and there honestly isn’t much that one can do in such a short time (we were advised to spend no more than 70 hours on each project, but I reckon I spent at least 120 hours…), while I’ve got 8+ months to deal with this. Those projects also had to be done on top of lectures and essays and supervisions, whereas I could concentrate fully on this project, and really go deeper, but even so, I wish I’ve got more time. My other experiences with longer research projects were from secondary school (15-16 years old) and junior college (17-18 years old) and had involved field work, with minor amounts of data processing and analysis towards the end, and these kinds of ecology projects were what I was more familiar with. So despite having had some (very limited) experience with computational project previously, this project was really an eye-opener for me, and I got a glimpse of what the other end of the spectrum of ecological studies was really like. I’ll also admit that, though I really enjoy field work and have always looked to do field studies, I am hooked by the sheer amount one can do with computational studies.

Over the few years that I’ve been in the UK, I’ve been increasingly drawn into the computational world, finding data analysis and visualisation fascinating, and coding and programming pretty amazing. Perhaps it was the dawning realisation that I’m not particularly good at species identification (compared to peers of my age), and while I’m no where near good at programming (compared to everyone else in the world), I can get good at it still. And it’s broadly applicable to a variety of fields.

My project involves identifying global deforestation hotspots, modelling the drivers and projecting future deforestation hotspots. I used a freely available global dataset of forest cover and forest loss from 2000 to 2014, and processed that to obtain a map of deforestation hotspots. Between downloading the dataset and plotting a map of deforestation hotspots, a lot of my time was spent considering the definition of a forest, figuring how best to calculate deforestation, what a deforestation hotspot meant, and double checking my code/visualising my data to ensure it was giving the right output. I did a literature search to inform my choice of explanatory variables for the modelling, obtained and processed the relevant data to get them in a suitable format for modelling.

There has been a fair amount of wading through lots of statistics and math, trying to understand theories and the logic behind some numbers and values, instead of just running the relevant function and accepting the number that magically appears. I tried not to be daunted by the tonnes of equations (I’m someone whose mind automatically blanks when I see an equation, rather than try and engage with it), and the fact that I didn’t quite understand most of it, and the knowledge that some modelling entails rather high level computational skills. Some things I have accepted that I will probably not be able to fully grasp at this stage, given the lack of time and resources, but which I acceded by telling myself I will look into it later. Most of my time is probably spent Googling and trying to read up, on statistics, R package vignettes, and specific functions in packages.

I have learned how to download files and run Python scripts using bash in terminal on my Mac (though not much else apart from that). I’ve been using R extensively, mainly manipulating raster objects, but also for data frames, plotting, saving output etc. Not great at it still, could definitely improve on making code neater, faster and more legible, but a marked step up from before. Also trying to write in LaTeX and using GitHub to version control, but I’m still a long way from incorporating those into my workflow.

I realised though, that doing a computational project did not mean I only picked up computational skills. The actual running of code and processing of data seldom took much time – as mentioned earlier, time was mostly spent thinking, reading, and trouble shooting (or just managing my data and writing ReadMe files to keep track of what I’ve done). But during the occasional periods when my computer was doing my work for me, I tried to hone my other skills. Articulating a rabbit skeleton I picked up during my Pennine Way hike (still a work in progress), drawing, coming up with graphics using Inkscape, creating a Tumblr for Silwood Park, cooking, and blanching vegetables. Though developing these skills are perhaps more an artefact of being at Silwood Park than doing a computational project…


I did this one-year master’s partly because I wasn’t sure if going into a PhD and research was what I really wanted to do. I did get occasions of existential crises and questioned my research skills and interests, but overall, I have quite enjoyed working on my project and do want to get deeper into some of the topics. And so now, alongside finishing up my project and writing my thesis, PhD hunting is underway…

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