Category Archives: Mountaineering

The story behind the title photo – Part 3, Technology

I found it most interesting that that my first blog of this series “People“, flowed very easily off the pen – and the second blog “Process“, did not. This doesn’t come as a surprise to me because I’m not at my most comfortable in Process. This is the realm of the Project and Program Manager.

Interesting too that these days, writing “Technology” was somewhere in-between the two. I’m pretty certain that there was a day in the not-too-distant past when it would have been much more natural for me to talk about Tech.

That said, even in my lifetime, the improvements in Technology have been incredible.

Strong, lightweight and durable

When I grew up, mountain boots were heavy and hard to wear in. We carried a single 5′ long walking stick hewn from solid pine. Socks were wool and T-shirts were cotton. Torches were made by Maglite and doubled up as an assault weapon.

This was only 30 years ago and now I look at my wardrobe, full of a plethora of high-tech. My latest walking boots weigh nothing, were broken in after a single day, are waterproof and can carry a crampon. Walking sticks come in pairs of adjustable length carbon composite. Socks are made of silk and synthetics, and the age of synthetic T-shirts means no more wet heavy sweaty clothes. Torches are made by Petzl, weigh nothing and light up the moon.

And the sport is so much the fun for it. The high-tech has meant that as I get older and fatter, I can perform better than I did when I was 18. I suppose that all this equipment comes at a cost, but it seems worth it. Interestingly though there are two areas of this story where I don’t believe technology has served us in the last 50 years.

Sports Nutrition vs Mother Nature

Now it’s true that even since I was at school, we have come a long way in understanding our bodies’ needs for sports nutrition. The latest Science In Sport protein shakes improve recovery time after serious exercise. We can balance our needs for vitamins, complex carbs and protein.

But up on the mountain this is all rubbish. The best foodstuffs are provided by mother nature. I carry nuts (usually walnuts), dates, figs and other dried fruit. Sometimes a chunk of cheese. The fact is that for a day in the mountain, these simple foods provide the best calorie-weight ratio of anything, and they are easy to digest. It’s the only stuff that Michel will take out my backpack – he won’t take any modern energy bars from me.

There is one caveat to this, which is when the going gets really tough. Last year I led a Bluefin expedition to do the Three Peaks Challenge. The highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales with 4500 vertical metres and 26 miles, in 24 hours and 650 miles driving along the way.

I stocked up on serious quantities of Sports in Science product before we went – enough for everyone – and on the last mountain, Snowdon, conditions were terrible. We were pretty much the only people on the mountain and I feared losing much of the senior management of Bluefin to what turned into a hurricane (technically, as there were 70mph winds on the summit).

At the bottom of Snowdon I was still quite fresh and I have done a number of similar walks in the past. So I started to feed the group one SIS Caffeinated Gel every 30 minutes – and noticed something incredible. They started to consistently outperform me and I was struggling to keep up with them.

I had enough left for me to take one gel on the way down and the transformation was incredible. I ran down Snowdon pacing 8 minute miles. Now I don’t think you can survive for long on the SIS gels but when the going gets tough, mother nature can’t compete.

CMOS vs Cellulose

Camera wars have been going on since the beginning of time and it’s all about the technology these days. The problem is that at the professional end of digital photography, you have to invest serious money in equipment – thousands and thousands on bodies, lenses and supporting kit. And it’s a rat-race, Nikon trying to overtake Canon and vice versa.

This photograph though was taken with a Hasselblad 501CM. Mine cost about £1000 including the 80mm fixed lens and the design dates back to the 50s although mine was made some time in the 80s. It is entirely mechanical and takes reels of 12x 6cmx6cm film. It requires an expensive light meter to get good results (I use the Pentax Digital Spotmeter – as did Ansel Adams) and a lot of patience.

I’ve since ditched my 35mm digital rubbish and have a Canon Powershot S90 point and shoot camera for my digital needs. I have Ken Rockwell to thank for a lot of this.

People, Process & Technology

And this photo is the outcome of the People, Process & Technology described in these 3 posts. It feels reminiscent of any good project – all of the factors coming into place at the same time.

Mont Buet is known as “Le Mont Blanc des Dames” (The Lady’s Mont Blanc) because it is a classic training site to complete prior to an attempt on Mont Blanc. It is a long and difficult ascent and a treacherous descent in traverse. It tragically claims lives most years.

I lugged the Hasselblad with its light meter and tripod up to the top of Le Buet and spent my time gauging the terrain. It’s a fixed lens so you move the camera not the lens and this makes you think about composition. The finality of clicking the shutter (only 12 shots remember) means that you really think before you shoot.

And the quality of the output is amazing. Forget about megapixels. I blew this picture up to 6’x6′ and you can still see every little detail of Mont Blanc. And because it’s hard to get to, you won’t see this angle of Mont Blanc anywhere else.

At that moment I knew I had to stand on the top of her and look back over Le Buet.

The story behind the title photo – Part 2, Process

Now that we know the people involved in my first blog of this series “People”, we can start to discuss how process assisted me along the journey.

In Enterprise IT we tend to like to think we have really well defined processes. Even if we are being self-deprecating, we think we attempt to define processes. We have processes for managing projects and for support, for procurement and supply chain and everything in between.

What’s interesting is that we are generally best at defining IT processes, whilst human processes are much harder to define. Take this into every day life and talk about the process of “climbing a mountain” or “taking a photograph” and we choose not to describe a process, but rather think of it as learnt behaviour.

This is pure and simple because we choose not to think of every day life in terms of a process – but it’s out there. Our decision to turn back from the mountain – the cloud cover coming in from the west or the dampness in the air – are justified by well-honed senses and a subliminal process.

For this mountain there were a few processes that were incredibly important.

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

To contextualise – this photograph requires a 14 hour mountaineering expedition – a round trip that covers some 6000 ft vertical and 26 miles. It requires head torches and a rucksack full of equipment. In my case I left the torch in the hotel and it added 45 minutes to my journey whilst I sat in the car waiting for dawn to arrive.

It requires sufficient water in your Camelbak. Michel told me that I could refill my pack at 9000ft but it turned out that the river had run dry and it took me an hour to dig out the river and make a pool of water to drink from.

Getting Fit

Getting fit is a process that most of us are familiar with. Get on treadmill, run for an hour, eat less, drink less, repeat. Or whatever your fitness poison is. Most of us convince ourselves that either a particular regime works for us, or that we’re not as overweight as we think we are. I tend to convince myself that when I’m 80something kilograms, I’m about the same weight as I was when I was 21. If only.

What’s interesting is that the process of learning mountain techniques makes up  to some extent for the lack of fitness. If for example, you learn to pace yourself in the right way, early in the day, you will dramatically increase your performance later on.

As Michel told me “un bon guide, c’est un guide sec” – roughly translating to “a good guide’s a dry guide”. Now I’ve seen the beer he consumes when home so I can only assume that he means during the day. It seems that great mountain guides don’t work themselves to a point of sweat and therefore barely need to drink when out on the mountain.

Final Words

Whatever we do in life, there is an implicit or explicit process surrounding it. It may be too complex to visualise or describe, or worse, we may believe that we understand the process when in fact there are nuances that we do not understand. As IT professionals we are especially guilty of this.

So when you embark upon the journey of process definition, remember that people die every out in the mountains because they misunderstand their process definitions, especially about the weather.

Next Up: Technology

The story behind the title photo – Part 1, People

I figured it would be nice to put an image up which has personal significance for me and I didn’t have to look far to find it. It was serendipitous when I realised that the story behind it allows me to relate back to my subject matter.

Ever since I was a small child I would visit the Maritime Alps in France and Switzerland and there is one vista which dominates the landscape and which found its way into my imagination: the view of the highest mountain in that range and in Europe, Mont Blanc. At 4810m above sea level it is head and shoulders taller than anything else nearby and from nearby Chamonix, it towers above the landscape.

I knew that I had to climb it from a very young age and would often survey it from afar, from the top of of some smaller peak. And as the years went by, I gathered the experience, strength, equipment and friendships required to do such a thing.

For every endeavour, I believe that People, Process and Technology have equal significance. As I thought through this story in my mind, I realised that I would need 3 blogs to tell the story.

In order to take this photograph, I needed the assistance of a number of people in my life. Probably I have missed some, but here are the people I think were significant:

Allan Appleby, my father

I think the significant moment for me was at the age of 5. My parents had foolishly bought an apartment in Haute-Nendaz, near Verbier in Switzerland and we were therefore tethered to go there on holiday for the rest of our childhoods. Winter skiing was fantastic (C&A ski clothing on the other hand was not) and we would also come in summer.

So we purchased mountain boots and we stood at the bottom of the ski run, now a green mountain pasture. My father said “well it’s just 20 minutes up here”. Actually the world record for ski descent is about 7 minutes, which is actually more like a 4 hour ascent. Now I was a 5 year old child with no idea of my limits and by the time we got to the Dent de Nendaz, over 1000m/3000ft above Haute-Nendaz, I was done for, and had to be carried back down. But I was hooked, and sworn to secrecy by my father (the precipitous drops would have given my mother a heart attack.

Paul Obo, Friend, Colleague & Fellow Climber

Paul will be surprised to be mentioned here, but that’s partially his self-deprecating nature. My first memory of Paul is of him attempting to get back to his flat within Clapham North Art Centre. I say attempting because he was using the stone wall as a means to guide him home. We became friends and he now works at Bluefin in Internal IT.

Paul had lived with some pretty serious climbers, whom I later met at his wedding and those climbing gods like Leo Houlding (for the car nuts amongst you, he was the guy who raced an Audi RS4 up a mountain in TV show Top Gear) somehow tangentially spurred us into hitting the rock climbing walls in London.

Now, Paul is a great climber and a terrible knot tier. And most climbing walls require you to fit a harness and tie a knot before they will grant you membership. I have fond memories of sitting in my car on my Smartphone in 2004 outside The Castle in Stoke Newington, trying to teach ourselves how to tie the climbing knots so we wouldn’t have to pay for lessons. Paul failed the knot test on at least one occasion. And out climbed me on many others.

Françoise & Olivier @ Neige et Roc, Samoëns

Samoëns is the perfect mountain town just a valley away from Chamonix and it’s a great place to learn the art of mountaineering. I’ve been going for nearly 10 years now and I still love it. There, I made friends with Francois and Olivier and from there I got the confidence to push into the snow line.

Françoise and I would challenge each other to do ever harder things and would race up and down mountains, to the fear of other mountaingoers and goats alike. We pushed a bit hard once and she badly sprained her ankle with a fall, but that’s another story.

Michel Barras, Mountain Guide

I think my introduction to Michel came pretty much by accident. I wanted a guide with whom I would climb Le Grand Mont Ruan and enquired at the tourist office. It happens that Michel has been part of the Bureau de Guides in Samoëns since the beginning of time and his history is fascinating. Perhaps more on Michel some other time.

We quickly built a bond of friendship and I always stop by at Michel’s house whenever I’m in town for a drink on his terrace overlooking town. It’s here that we plan our next crazy endeavour – although Michel is much madder than I am, climbing 8000ers and organising marathons in the Himalayas. He’s part man, part titanium screw and a little crazy.

And with Michel I built a true respect for the mountains, their dangers and how to assess risk. And also to know when to turn back. Because the vast majority of accidents on a mountain happen on the way down.

Why do people matter?

So the location of this picture was highly motivated by all of these people. It’s Françoise’s favourite mountain that I’m standing on, and I wouldn’t have been able to climb it without the experience garnered from these people, and I wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Michel planning our next mission.

And it’s the same in Enterprise IT. It’s not about having the best people, but rather about having people who are qualified and inspirational, at the right time and in the right place. People who knows how to challenge your or your business and who also know your limits.

Next up: Part 2, Process