Wednesday
Jun052013

Alpkit, PowerPot and other kit testing in Iceland

The Snæfellsjökull stratovolcanoEnd of the road up northI'm sure some of you followed my brief training expedition in Iceland last month. I spent some time in the snowed-over Northern Fjords, the western peninsula and ice-covered stratovolcano of Snæfellsjökull and then joined a friend for some icecap time on the Mýrdalsjökull via the Sólheimajökull ice tongue.

Well, the point of the expedition was firstly to get out on the ice and work with a potential future team-mate, but also to run through some new systems and test out some new equipment. I, of course, wore the industry-leading staples of Montane and Bridgedale clothing I rely on for every journey and had a few other items I was keen to evaluate.

Ash from the eruptions of recent years on the ice tongueAlpkit

Alpkit is a unique brand from the UK who sell direct - they balance out well-thought-out products and very good pricing with occasionally limited stock levels. I've found this trade-off in the past to be well worth it, and in fact I wore one of their down jackets on The Long Haul (a predecessor to the Filo) to great effect.

Buffeted by winds on the icefallThis time, it was their equipment and accessories rather than their clothing I was interested in. In particular, I have been after a good, strong and lightweight base camp tent from which to launch training and preparation expeditions for a while. So, armed with a 6-man Heksa, we headed up the ash-strewn ice tongue and through the crevassed icefall, setting up our camp nearby. As expected for a tent with that number of vestibules (3), poles and guys, it took around fifteen minutes to set up (with two people very well versed in tents but unfamiliar with the exact model) which I thought was pretty good. The various components were colour-coded and intuitive to use with the fabrics, poles and fittings well stitched and manufactured.

Inside, it was cavernous (yes, there were only two of us) and I'd say it would be fine for four people and plenty of equipment. The snow valances are large and sturdy and the internal pockets well-placed and numerous. The built-in ground sheet is not entirely waterproof and a heavy-duty addition is needed on wet snow (available from Alpkit) to solve this. The wind picked up substantially over the first two days and prior to building a snow-wall to protect our camp, the tent survived well with gusty and changeable winds of speeds over sixty miles per hour. I would not wish to leave it unattended in these conditions though - I hasten to add that this applies to any large tent in conditions where gusts and wind direction changes are rife. (snow walls, double-poling and using bodyweight against a wall are standard parts of hourly maintenance needed in storms)

Protected by a snowwallThe 'palace'In all, as a fixed base-camp tent for a non-transit camp and a small/medium size team, I could not imagine it performing better. The price is half or even less than half the price of comparable alternatives.

We also used some of the Alpkit gear to integrate into my normal camping and skiing systems, like cutlery, lanterns (useful for expeditions in not-too-cold locations since the batteries can't be kept warm) and their excellent (and I really mean it) drybags which I've used for years. There's nothing about any of these additions which I would have concerns about taking on a highly-committed unsupported journey.

 

 

 

 

 


Powerpot simmering awayPowerpot

Since I first read about PowerPots on Kickstarter, my interest was held. Charging and electrical power on polar expeditions is a perennial headache and options usually involve heavy batteries or unreliable solar panels (when the sun is available!). The idea of essentially exchanging a little bit of stove efficiency for the ability to charge battery packs with a reliable high-power current is very attractive. Of course, there is a risk of having an expedition lose critical power for vital devices if the pot failed and so build-quality and reliability is paramount. Having used the pot on the trip extensively and not treating it with too much care, to see if it could withstand robust use, the materials used certainly do the job. The lack of moving parts is one bonus and the pot electrics are encased behind a silicone seal. The cables are again heat and cold protected in silicone sheaths and the regulator and battery intermediates are made from good quality plastic.

Upon starting the stove, the 5W current (indicated by a green LED) began almost immediately and it kept our various USB devices charged with ease. I'm particularly keen to try out upcoming 10+W models and potentially a 12V DC regulator for larger items. This gadget could be a game-changer for extended winter journeys.

 

Tentipi

Also, given the limited number of nights I've spent in the Tentipi Zirkon 5 (our main expedition tent for the Dark Ice Project) after the false-start in December 2012, we took this up onto the ice. The end result was exactly as I'd hoped; stable in winds of changing direction, quiet (a lack of flapping nylon) in wind, breathable through the polycotton fabric, spacious inside and easy to pitch/collapse.


Oh, and there were lots of horses. With Mohicans.

Monday
May272013

'How to get into...', truths and advice

I suppose I have been intending to (or threatening to!) put some real time into by far the most-emailed or DM-ed question I get, perhaps a dozen a week in fact: ‘how do you get into expeditions’.

On the contact page of my website I quip that I will reply to all correspondence providing you’re not selling double-glazing. I suppose in reality I should add to that: ‘I am reluctant to answer questions which take five seconds to pose and would take a book for me to answer properly.’ Essentially, vague and open-ended questions. However, instead of writing the same thing more or less each time or asking for more specific queries, I thought I would try and put together a catch-all article – I’m afraid some of it might not be comfortable reading for the more starry-eyed amongst you.

Just beforehand though, a couple of words about time, value and advice. Everyone needs help, support and advice, especially those on the ‘up’, from those already established. I myself owe so much to the generosity of a wide range of people as I was making my way into the polar world, and even now I still do. Critical though is to realistically grasp what it is you’re asking for. What may seem like friendly small talk or ‘just an hour’ of someone’s time to an ‘asker’, the targets of advice requests, especially vague and extensive ones (see above), can see as lazy attempts to gain unpaid consultancy with little respect for the years of hard work, time and money taken to get them to that point. A cup of coffee or a credit line does not pay mortgages and professionals are not charities.

With this in mind, as a starting point I would stick to a few golden rules: NEVER be late, take up a minimum of their time and suggest a venue close to them (or even just use email), have highly specific and targeted questions, do not ask strangers for introductions to hard-won professional contacts (I once had a complete stranger half-demand the name and contact details of my sponsorship agents in order to directly compete with my project) and finally, do your research first in order to gain a little credibility. Oh, and never, EVER, be late. Information and experience has a value – just because it is not a precious item you can hold in your hand does not mean it is ok to overstep boundaries of respect and shamelessly/unknowingly extract it from every ‘expert’ in sight. ‘I didn’t realise’ or ‘it’s just a question’ isn’t really an excuse, and neither is false-naivety. If you have something of real value you can offer back in return (granted, this is tough when you’re starting out), then all the better. The fact you show you’re aware of the need for an exchange or that you appreciate the value of what you’re being given will always go down well.

So, how do you ‘get into expeditions/see the icecaps/become an ‘explorer’’? First, you need to ask yourself if you actually want to, or whether you are enticed by the transient idea of it. The reality of a full-time lifestyle based around remote travel involves ALL of the following: extreme financial uncertainty, no pension, 16 hour days (and that’s just when at home), vast tracts of time doing paperwork or in front of a screen, repeated and harrowing disappointments and frustrations, dealings with people for whom consistency and timely communication is an alien concept and not to mention days, weeks and months of severe discomfort in genuinely frightening places.

If these realities are not an immediate put off and the potential for a monumentally rewarding and eventually purposeful existence still draws you in, there are options.

This is not the X Factor and it is not a graduate recruitment scheme with job security and a career ladder. It is not something to fall back onto when your normal job gets a bit dull. ’It’s always been my dream’ is not enough. Dreams of going from zero to hero and into a world of fame and riches is totally and utterly misguided. Doing an adventure tour for a week will not lead to a lifetime of Victoria’s Secret models and lucrative after-dinner speaking engagements around the globe.

Niche areas of remote travel like polar exploration are by their very definition highly competitive and the market is very easily saturated. In fact, the time to ‘get into it’ was probably twenty years ago – a time when a specialness and novelty was balanced by a heightened hunger for new polar endeavours.

I think we can divide people still aboard at this point by a couple of motivations – some who want the experience and some who want the vocation.

For the former group there are plenty of opportunities now to, depending on your means, visit special places in the cold regions in relative comfort or even having a glimpse into the expedition world by handing over the responsibilities to experienced professional guides, of which a few dozen exist.

For these tourist ambitions and if your means do not easily add up to the costs involved (perhaps £5000 up to £100k), I’m afraid that is one of the reality checks. It is no-one’s responsibility but your own to service such personal desires. Virgin is not going to sponsor you – the trip may be special to you, but it won’t be for them. It will take time to raise funds privately but by most accounts, the results are worth it. Good old-fashioned saving up.

For those with a deeper hunger, we’re stepping into the realms of serious endeavour and the one word to keep in mind is professionalism. If you wish to attract the marketing brains at major funding sources and earn the confidence of logistics safety providers, underwriters and the public, you need skills. To undertake real independent journeys, you can no longer rely on adventure tour companies or guides to make up for your shortcomings or impatience. There are no shortcuts and your apprenticeship needs to be served. How did I do this aged 19? I swallowed my pride and surrounded myself with highly skilled people ten years or more my senior, and I listened intently. I am still listening.

To undertake polar expeditions at a full-time, independent and ‘professional’ level, you must become expert, not just vaguely familiar, with all of the following:

-          Accounts, budgeting and tax laws both at home and across borders of multiple countries

-          Immaculate, detailed and reliable communication

-          Detailed inventory recording and tracking

-          Equipment as far ranging from one-offs made the other side of the world to from your local shop

-          Modern fabrics and materials, including their mechanisms, uses and limitations

-          Technology, most of which is not mainstream and much of which has precious little manufacturer support

-          Meteorology, weather forecasting, geology, satellite imagery, ice charts and trends for all these stretching back years

-          Logistics routes and the practicalities of using aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, in a wide range of locations

-          Cargo negotiation and UN shipping certification for hazardous materials

-          The international insurance and underwriting market

-          Global Search and Rescue protocols

-          Cross-country skiing and other forms of locomotion

-          Extreme environment camping

-          Sewing and repair of almost every material and object imaginable

-          Moisture management

-          Nutrition

-          People management and avoiding intra-team friction

-          Physical training for long duration and high exertion

-          Ropework and rescue techniques from crevasses and sea water

-          Local idiosyncrasies and customs of native people

-          Marketing, the sports sponsorship market/CSR and the balance of risk/reward for a financial backer

-          Highly confident and fluent public presentation in front of large and/or hard to impress audiences

Both paths, or even neither, come with their own sets of risks and rewards and there is no ‘one size fits all’. There is no simple, instant-fix answer and for that I can’t apologise. Only easy things devoid of value can be built overnight. I can say with total honesty though that the end result can provide moments of the most overwhelming affirmation, companionship and satisfaction. You can find your own equivalent down countless avenues even if it isn’t with polar travel.

Sunday
Apr072013

Dark Ice: Part One and a Half

The disappointment of a setback to an expedition, and especially one where a retreat enforces a delay of a whole year, is a bitter pill. It is the reaction to that bad taste though which I think defines how the story ends.

The Nares Strait in summerAfter barely three weeks in the High Arctic region of Thule, The Dark Ice Project's first phase (a three month depot-laying journey along the Nares Strait) had to return early due to an emerging medical problem on the part of my teammate. Aside from the strains of that episode, I had to focus on the future - rebuilding the project with a new team and trying to limit the damage of a lost season. In order to keep the second, main, phase of the winter journey to the Pole from Thule on schedule, the food and fuel has to be laid up the Strait somehow.

Somewhat out of character with the 'Dark' bit of 'The Dark Ice Project', the decision has been made to repeat the aims of the first phase, but not on skis in the winter. Instead, I will work with a small team of local Greenlanders and potentially the new Dark Ice team to lay the gear by boat. For a fleeting time window, shortly before the Arctic sea ice minimum, it is possible to use boats to delve north amongst the floating ice. Using the benefits of 24 hour sun and direct access to the rocky shoreline of NW Greenland, the depots will be laid for the main phase which is still scheduled for this winter. More details will follow, including footage and images from the summer, plus the new team lineup.

Wilki and me using boat access in East Greenland in 2011

Monday
Jan142013

A third year and no North Pole for anyone

It has been widely reported that the 2012 summer heralded the lowest sea ice extent the Arctic Ocean has seen since records began. Aside from the implications this has for polar wildlife, the native people of the northern latitudes and the world's health in general, this will obviously affect the few who ply their trade on that sea ice.

2011, 2012 and now 2013 will most likely result in zero successful attempts on the North Pole. The reasons for this are many and I thought I'd outline some of them here. Perhaps there might be a discussion about where professional polar travellers go from here and what can be done. Perhaps the low number of expeditions is a good thing; perhaps the post millennium polar-craze was an aberration. 

1. There is less ice than there used to be. 

The ice on the Arctic Ocean and critically, the waterways, bays and sounds is breaking up earlier in the season than in the past and it is not forming as early as normal. Hundreds of miles from the North Pole, hunters in the Thule region told me they used to hunt seals on the sea ice with dogs as early as November. Now, they cannot do so reliably until January. The Russian-led Barneo Ice Base which many rely on for extraction flights now closes on 22nd April. A few years ago it closed eight days later into the season than that. The reason - consolidated sea ice cracking and moving under the makeshift runway.

Me a month ago on the arctic sea ice2. Charter aircraft companies are playing their hand.

The days of competition and options for air travel in the far north is not what it used to be. Now, the options are few. An insertion flight to the Russian Cape will cost over a quarter of a million pounds and beyond February there is no ice there - far before most are willing to set foot on the ice due to the cold and dark. The only current-day Canadian logistics are run by Kenn Borek Air and they apply whatever restrictions they see fit. Apparently in 2013 they will not fly until 4th March despite sufficient light and the fact Ward Hunt Island (a normal start location) has a flat landing strip irrelevant to ice conditions. This would not be a problem, except for the early 'final flights' they now offer for North Pole extractions and the ever-creeping Russian deadlines. There are Icelandic and Greenlandic options for insertions but few bother to investigate these since they can't be bought off a website. In short, the monopolies of these companies give them every card in terms of dates and prices.

3. Many expedition leaders are inflexible.

As polar travel has changed since a decade ago, less and less impetus has been placed on experience and research and more on the ability to generate corporate interest and funding. Naturally, it is not possible to spend all your time in a boardroom AND on the ice or studying ice charts and trends. So, only one group is likely to win this race for ever more limited funding and it means one thing for expeditions. Most expeditions are now almost indistinguishable from each other, copying past trips ski for ski and route for route. This lack of creativity means that the challenges above are not thought around or solved. Expeditions simply don't get anywhere this way. They are announced seemingly endlessly - a website costs nothing after all. But as someone said to me recently - it is so easy to talk and another thing to actually walk into the cold. One non-starter even managed to gain a sponsor despite having zero sea ice experience and deciding to go without a tent or skis!

I think it is really sad that no-one is going for the Pole yet again. There are some good quality people around the world who would perform well on the ice. But, the fault does not lie with the ice. Let's be clear about that. The ice is the ice and we must work around it.

When I was starting off a month or so ago in Qaanaaq (in the Greenlandic High Arctic) the sea ice was challenging, broken offshore and with leads. But it was do-able. Nothing about our return to the UK had anything to do with the ice. If someone wants the Pole, and chooses to avoid the circus which is the last-degree or Champagne flight club, there are ways. Start early, ski further, talk to pilots, use your imagination. Just like the pioneers did. Let's reclaim this magical northern wilderness for those who love it and will spend every waking hour thinking their way around the endless hurdles. And occasionally, for those who are happy to knock those hurdles flat on the floor.

Tuesday
Dec252012

A future for pictures.....and Instagram has very little to do with it.

In a rare case of the inner workings of the photographic industry peeking into public view and debate, a mini-storm seems to have rumbled along whilst I've been up in the Arctic this month. Most of you will visit this website to share in my passion for the cold regions of the world and my journeys there, but some will know that stills photography is another passion on both a creative and commercial level.

The storm I'm referring to is of course the news that Instagram-owners Facebook may decide to sell images of its members without payment to the copyright-holders. In the fallout and subsequent back-down from those who wrote the new terms and conditions, it may be that the situation wasn't as bad as some feared and at least some of the anger was a storm in a teacup. But, critically, it is the first time I can remember when the photo industry as a whole has had the interest of the public.

A lot of things have happened in the history of photography (and forgive me for the slant towards professional photography here as it's most familiar to me and easier to chronicle) over the past decades and especially the last few years:

- In the early-1990s, stock agencies such as Getty Images and Corbis were created and grew. Professional photography at this time was dominated by individually commissioned photographs by staff or freelance photographers, whether for travel subjects or editorial fashion. There was an uproar within the conservative photo industry, who feared a loss of earnings, as they did with the advent of colour film, autofocus and most major developments. These fears, especially about 'stock', were based around worries over photography becoming easier and more accessible, with obvious implications for bottom lines.

- Stock grew fast in the 1990s, agencies were highly selective 'closed door policy' clubs and photographers who were on the inside could become very wealthy. This was driven by high image licence values still being cheaper than sending a photographer around the world to create a series of exclusive photos. Agencies, stock photographers and buyers were happy, although photographers used to commissions were not - seeing the need to take photographs speculatively with no sale certain unacceptable. The commercial risk was being placed on the laps of photographers and this is a trend which has grown ever since.

- The digital revolution which followed the millenium had two main effects. Firstly, cameras used by professionals were fast becoming digital, with a high turnover rate compared to older film bodies. Film cameras such as the Canon 1v or Nikon F5 cost around £1200 with a roll of Velvia film developed at well over £7 against a modern digital Canon 1D or Nikon D5 of between £2500 and £6000 with no film costs. This aided accessibility and attracted the new generation of computer-literate photographers. Secondly, instead of the high-overhead method of duplicate slides, lightboxes and photo agencies sending out slides or CDs to photo buyers, images went online. Suddenly, the 50-80% commission cut taken by agents seemed less justifiable as their running costs dropped. The seeds were sown for anger towards the agencies who had previously been a cashcow for savvy photographers.

- By the mid-2000s commissioned photography as a sector of professional photography was slashed in size as most photo buyers were happy with relatively cheap off-the-shelf offerings and agencies had collections of millions of images. Commissions survived only for very high-end magazines and advertising uses. A commissioned shoot could cost between £10,000-30,000 whereas even the most costly image licences from Getty would be £5,000, but more commonly £100-1,000.

- Another ogre in the eyes of the photo traditionalists was the rise of Royalty Free images, a new type of stock image. Instead of an image being priced by usage, territory, circulation etc., an image had a set price for any usage and could not be exclusive. Within just a few years, the dominance of the traditional Right Managed licence model was heavily reduced by the rise of Royalty Free.

- Perhaps the most significant development post-2005, years after the fall of commissioned photography as the dominant business model, was microstock. There is perhaps no word in photography more likely to invoke debate, anger, or even rage. Microstock was a dotcom business model developed by internet entrepreneurs, not those from the photo industry, and used Royalty Free images but sold them for very low prices of between £0.50-4.00. Photographers still received a low royalty split despite completing all the image editing and time-consuming search-engine keywording themselves. This attracted a massive influx of amateur or hobbyist photographers due to the 'anyone can play' entry policy and an opportunity to see their images in print - a vanity press or 'well why not?' sort of attraction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only one thing was going to happen to prices across the market and even 'macrostock' agencies like Getty and newcomer Alamy began to slash prices to compete. A wedge was driven between former allies, the agents and the photographers, perhaps never to be removed. As the anger of photographers watching their royalty statements plummet rose, the transparency from agencies dropped and their aggression in writing new 'take it or leave it' contracts gained a real pace.

- Policies of the larger agencies moved towards that of aggressive acquisitions, gobbling up dozens of small specialist agencies who could not balance the books. In most cases, they asset-stripped these libraries and made their staff redundant. A recent example was with the world-famous Oxford Scientific Films (OSF) (previously owned by Photolibrary). Some of their staff had been there for decades and photographers enjoyed a warm, personal and efficient relationship with editors. Quality was high and sale prices were above those seen elsewhere. Within weeks, their entire London office was summarily dismissed, the library was sent to Getty and took over a year to go back on sale and then OSF-refugee photographers had their image submission abilities to Getty ended.

- In 2009 Getty Images abandoned its previous closed door policy and opened its doors to the amateur Flickr community. A swathe of images were handpicked from the vast collection in a crowdsourcing frenzy. As many predicted however, Getty treated Flickr as a cheap source of fresh images and had little respect for the hapless photographers, changing the submission policies seemingly every week. By 2012, having taken the assets they wanted and taking 70-80% of sale prices, Getty more or less re-closed the doors.

- With the meteoric rise of social media and in particular, Twitter and Facebook, access to instant images is now universal and full-time professional photographers are just a small subset of content providers in the photo industry. Internet forums are a hive of activity, or rather, anger against organisations and the undeniable facts which are never going to change. Photographers want their industry to be ringfenced to reduce competition and for prices to be raised to previous levels. Agencies want to make money and are thoroughly aware that they no longer need to be accountable to their suppliers, the photographers, because there is an endless supply of images. Buyers want cheap images and some of them want quality images. Some want both.

- There is now a blurred line regarding image ownership and this has become manifested in the Instagram furore. People no longer feel that they have an iron-firm grip on their images and social media networks have grasped the potential value of their members' images. A show-down is inevitable which will end up in a tug of war that only one side can win.

The pattern is that every few years at ever-shortening intervals, a new trend causes widespread panic and then becomes standard as the next one arrives. Is this sustainable or will there be one short-termist revolution too far?

Phew, not good news all round then. So, where to go from here? I think there are two things pro or semi-pro photographers cannot do. First, is to hark back to the good old days and wish for a return. It isn't going to happen but a large proportion of disillusioned old-timers will keep beating that drum. Second, is to permanently play the game with the stock agencies. Their market power and wealth will ensure they are always one step ahead and to placate their demands every contract renewal for ever-diminishing returns and next to no personal connection with an editor is a non-starter. Again, many will stay aboard the sinking ship until the agencies themselves cannot survive, applauding those who jump ship but not wanting to take the risk themselves. I have recently parted company with my main agents, Getty Images, after a number of last straws made the contract unworkable. Sleep-walking into allowing images worth tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to slowly ebb away is not an option.

A few new business models pop up every now and again but few gain traction and tend to sink without trace. The stranglehold is now in place with Getty and the other few surviving macros locked in mortal combat with microstock (and moving towards that micro RF model themselves) where there can be no winner. Microstock agencies themselves are showing signs of struggling and Alamy, the previously photographer-friendly agency, has again cut royalties paid to photographers and received a torrent of abuse for it.

What can those serious about creative photography, the commercial aspects of it and those keen to invest in new projects do? The key I think is to return to basics and see what it is we have. What assets are there on our table and what value do they have? If we decide a certain type of image has no value - it must be cut or relegated to personal interest photography and have no further investment made. If it has value, the market for it must be reassessed from the ground up and a fresh perspective gained. The world of business has never been so meritocratic and we have the internet to thank for that, as well as for some of the woes the photo industry now faces. There will always, always, be a need for still photographs and the web has boosted this. For most hobbyists, stock has been a time-consuming fad which doesn't really pay on a small scale and will likely be relegated to history.

Make no mistake - there is still a market for commissioned photography and this will be used by those picture editors with a very personal vision or deep pockets. But be assured that the barrier to entry for major commissions which are actually worth the staff, travel and other investments is now higher than ever. The very best in the world are competing for these big jobs which are like gold dust compared to in the 1980s or 1990s.

Quality products with a market who values them will always have a place. Encouraging for those who work hard and go that cliched extra mile to create unique imagery of the world around us. Less encouraging for those photographers who tow the line and join each evolution of the industry a little late. As for my own collection, I'm currently finalising plans for my five thousand or so best photographs.

My goal: to develop a commercially successful route via which I can continue to create photographs of things I love.