Lessons from Climbing + Huon Apples + Henty Sand Dunes + Overland Gear
A momentary break in the travels in the Northern Hemisphere has provided a great opportunity to present four excellent articles to you. It’s a sweltering Florida evening and a tremendous storm with lightning bolts and torrential rains has just passed.
This quartet takes you from the highest mountains to the stormy coast, and from the orchards to the rock cliffs. They’ve been in the queue for a while – and I think you’ll agree they were well worth the wait.
Paul Monigatti shares some practical wisdom gleaned from his experiences as a rock climber and research scientist. It’s a fun read, and full of good advise. Make absolutely sure you check on Hofstader’s Law – it’s tremendously useful!
Beth Hall shares the first half of her excellent history of apple cultivation in the Huon Valley. It’s so good, it will make the next apple you eat taste even better.
Felipe Ramirez shares a poster and text describing the wondrous Henty Sand Dunes of the West Coast. Whether you’ve walked the sands or not, you’ll find his description clear and informative.
And, to send you on your way this spring season, Warwick Sprawson has shared a third excerpt from The Overland Track guidebook: A Gear List. So, start throwing it all into your pack and get ready to go!
Warwick Sprawson provides some suggestions on what gear to bring on your Overland Track hike
Despite the popularity of the hike, the Overland Track remains a serious undertaking. It’s a rare trip that doesn’t include rain, hail, strong winds or snow – even in summer. In the Cradle Valley it rains for an average of five days out of seven with 54 snow days a year.
Gear lists are as personal as fingerprints, but a suggested gear list for the Overland includes:
Backpack. A pack with a 55–75 litre capacity should be sufficient; the exact size depends on whether you’re walking alone or as part of a group (where there are more people to carry the gear). Make sure your pack is large enough to carry your tent and sleeping bag inside the pack — having large items tied to the outside of your pack isn’t ergonomic and the items are likely to get torn and wet.
Daypack. If you’re planning to do any of the sidetrips then bring a small, collapsible daypack. A daypack allows you to ditch your main pack at a sidetrip junction or hut, while still allowing you to take necessities and keep your hands free for climbing.
First aid kit.
Pack cover to help keep the worst of the rain off your pack and to protect it from animals while on sidetrips.
Fuel stove and fuel. The national park is a fuel-stove-only area. There is no cooking equipment in any of the huts.
Knife, fork and/or spoon. There are lots of lightweight hiking models available.
Mug and a plate that doubles as a bowl.
Roll mat. Slim inflatable ones like the Therm-a-Rest brand are the best as they’re small, comfortable and conserve body heat. There are no mattresses in the huts.
Comfortable camp shoes like sandals, thongs or Crocs.
Sleeping bag (rated to -5 °C or lower).
Sleeping bag liner to keep your sleeping bag clean.
A tough bin bag to line the inside of your pack. While a pack cover helps keep your pack dry, adding a pack-liner ensures it.
Earplugs. Huts are small and snorers are loud.
Plastic bags to carry out your litter.
LED Torch. A head torch keeps your hands free.
Small trowel (in case you need to dig a bush toilet).
Toilet paper (there’s none provided on the track).
Toiletries, including liquid handsanitiser — useful if you need to clean your hands and aren’t near water.
Tent. Even if you are planning to sleep in the huts, bringing a small tent is strongly recommended. Huts are sometimes crowded and noisy and in an emergency a tent could save your life.
Some lengths of string or cord allow for flexibility when attaching your tent to camping platform cables. String is also handy for hanging food-bags from hut rafters: essential for keeping them out of the reach of mice and possums.
Cigarette lighter and waterproof matches.
Swiss army knife or similar (they’re just bloody handy).
1.5 litre drink bottle (or larger), or a CamelBak-type water dispenser
A collapsible two-litre water bladder for storing water while at hut.
Small repair kit with needle and thread.
Compass/GPS. Especially for sidetrips like the Labyrinth.
Pot scourer. With a good scourer you won’t need detergent.
Whistle. To attract attention in case of emergency.
A novelty or two in case you’re hut-bound.
Other suggestions include a candle, sturdy cloth food bags, hiking poles, playing cards, Personal Locator Beacon and mobile phone (alas, some spots on the track have phone reception).
With the right gear you’ll be able to enjoy the track instead of enduring it!
Located just north of Strahan, Tasmania, the Henty Dune field is the largest dune field in Tasmania. The sand dunes reach heights of about 30 meters and extend the western coast for 15 km. Although we do not know the absolute age of this formation, we know it formed during the Quaternary period (the last 1.6 million years).
The dune field is important for the potential for understanding variations in the intensity of westerly winds during the Holocene (the last 10,000 years). This embayment is similar to a natural amphitheater in that it creates a concentration of sediments. In the area, mountains were glaciated and created glacial rivers. The ice margin supplied much of the sand for the Henty Sand Dunes. The Henty Dunes are an important geologic formation because it not only serves as an archeological record but also as a natural archive for the geologic history of the area.
The main factor in the creation of the sand dunes is the wind current known as the Roaring Forties. This is a largely uninterrupted wind current at the latitude 40° S. The yearly Tasmanian climate has cold fronts moving west to east with low pressure systems passing to the south of the island. The cold fronts, which usually have steep pressure gradients, allow for strong northerly winds. The Roaring Forties are able to generate to generate great speeds because they are largely uninterrupted and because of the relative change in rotational speed of the land at the Earth’s surface.
Therefore as air moves from the equator to the South Pole, it does so over land that is rotating more slowly. Since the air rotates more slowly on land, the air appears to speed up, making these winds seem furious in their speed and constancy. The northerly winds are the dominant wind direction.
The strong winds gave rise to the Tasmania’s largest transgressive dune field, the Henty Dunes.
The dunes illustrates the winds dominant wind direction of 330°. The sand dunes are most evident areas of sparse vegetation and less evident in areas of denser vegetation. There is typically less vegetation near sand dunes because of the spray or sea salt and due to the high porosity and permeability of sand. The Henty River contains numerous small river and creeks that flow into an exposed, small blocked river mouth.
The river alluvium, sand dunes and gravels represent the Quaternary system in the area. The alluvium can be seen on the margins of the Henty River and on marshy flats. The sand dunes occur extensively between Hemine and the Henty River. They have their greatest development at the northern end of the Ocean Beach, where they extend inland for about a quarter mile. The gravels are most visible near the coastline near the mouth of Montagu Creek. It is in this area, that one can see a section of thick inteterbedded fine sands, grit and coarse gravels. The section is likely deposits from Montagu Creek later eroded by the sea.
The vegetation serves an important role by locking in relic dune forms. Dune vegetation is specially adapted to withstand the windy, salty environment. The type of dune vegetation plays a large role in developing the shape and profile of the dunes. The protection from foredunes allows more complex vegetation to develop in the hind dunes.
Relict dunes and sandsheets are widespread at the margin of the Bassian Plain that once provided a land bridge between Tasmania and the mainland. They are also located in western Tasmania and in areas of inland southern Tasmania. This area now contains wet eucalypt forest and rainforest and receive mean annual rainfall > 1500 mm. In the south they have been dated > 87.5–19 ka. They illustrate a long period of semi-arid climate in an area extending well to the west and south of the present semiarid zone.
Coastal dunes, such as the Henty Dunes, play an important role in our environment. They help protect against the shoreline against erosion and protect the backshore from flooding. The sand bank provides for natural replenishment of the beach. There are many animals, such as shorebirds, that depend on sand dunes as a nesting site. Sand dunes are crucial in understanding the impact of changes in sea level because they erode quickly when the sea is rising and are able to provide sea water levels during different times.
The Henty dunes are not only a site of geologic interest but is also a site of archeological interest. At many of the dunes, shell middens and other Aboriginal artifacts have been found making these sites important for understanding Aboriginal culture and heritage.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Eugene Domack for leading this field course and for his support with my research. I would also like to thank Hamilton College for assisting in this program and also the University of Tasmania for allowing access to their library
The Huon River, the Huon River valley and the lands along the D’Encastreaux Channel are synonymous with Tasmania’s historic apple industry. The town of Cygnet (known as Lovett until 1915) is situated on the Channel Highway. Cygnet is about an hour’s drive south west of Hobart (depending on the route taken) and twenty minutes north east of Huonville.
For more than one hundred years Cygnet was at the centre of the apple industry. Not only were fresh apples exported to Britain, but apples and other fruits were processed and dried in the town. To understand the significance of this fact, it is helpful to consider the history of the settlement as well as the history of apple growing in the southern region of Tasmania. Many readers will be surprised to discover that Cygnet’s story starts well before the settlement of Melbourne and Adelaide.
The first apple tree planted in Tasmania Captain Cook visited Adventure Bay on Bruny Island in 1777 on board the HMS Resolution. William Bligh was his sailing master. Bligh returned to Adventure Bay with the botanist Nelson in 1788. As was the practice of many mariners, these men planted a number of small fruit trees and vines as a future food source. The plants had been brought from the Cape of Good Hope.
Four years later Bligh returned to Adventure Bay on the HMS Providence. He was on his way to Tahiti. He recorded in his log that one of the apple trees that he had planted had survived. The others had been destroyed by fire. The surviving tree was described as being green and slightly bitter.
The English and French Explorers Using Captain Cook’s maps, the French explorer Brunei D’Encastreaux also visited Adventure Bay. The channel that bears his name was explored in 1792. It runs parallel with the Derwent River but is situated behind Bruny Island. The Huon River enters this channel as it passes Huon Island.
In 1793 D’Encastreaux sent his men to explore the mouth and lower part of the Huon River to see if there were any English settlements. He named the blind branch of the river about five miles from the river mouth le port des Cygnes after the abundance of black swans seen in the area. His men noted the possible water supply and that the port was sheltered from the winds. They were of the opinion that the land could be suited to agriculture once it was cleared of the tall timbers that came right down to the shore line.
Nine years later in 1802, and a year before the English settled in Van Diemen’s Land, Nicholas Baudin, another French explorer, instructed Louis de Freycinet and Frances Peron to enter the Huon River. They were to look for water at le port des Cygnes. The men hoped to capture black swans to take back to France.
When the crew members returned to their ship they described the beauty of the area and their friendly encounter with an aboriginal family. The men also had samples of twelve bird species to take back to France. The pretty blue bird that they described is now known to us as the Fairy Wren.
While exploring the marshlands and river valley, trout were caught by stunning them with musket fire. The water way that enters the harbor was named River Fleurieu. Today it is known as the Agnes Rivulet.
The men decided that the marshy island with tidal waters was not suited to the collection of water. Little did they know that in time this land would be part of the town of Cygnet. The marshy island would become the site of an apple processing plant and a wood wool factory.
Hobart Town’s climate is similar to England. Lieutenant John Bowen arrived at East Risdon on the eastern shores of the Derwent in 1803. When the British settlement was moved to where Hobart stands today, it was realized that the climate was similar to that of England. This meant that the land was suited to the growth of apples, pears cherries and other familiar crops.
Early Hobart settlers attempted to recapture memories of their life in England. Fruit trees were ordered for delivery from Cape Town for the household and government gardens. The citizens shared (buds) scions for grafting from their fruit trees and cuttings from their garden plants.
The result was that a variety of apples and other fruits could be grown on one tree. It was not long before Hobart nurseries were advertising English fruit trees and garden plants for sale to the public. Settlers were astonished at the rate of growth of the apple and pear trees. So proud in fact that a small consignment of apples was sent to Scotland.
The Land Grants By 1808 land grants were being given as rewards to hard working settlers and to convicts who had served their sentences. Over two thousand acres of land north, west and south of Hobart was granted and cleared using convict labor. This allowed cropping to become established.
Government land grants on the Huon River at Garden Island Creek, Randalls Bay, Abels Bay, Deep Bay, Lymington and in the Cygnet area kick started the timber and horticultural industries. Land was granted to former convicts and freemen (the children born to convicts while their parents were incarcerated). Maps produced at the turn of the century show that the land varied in size from twenty acres upwards, most being around fifty acres. This land of course was covered in timber and had to be cleared.
The first white settler on the Huon The first permanent white settler on the Huon was William Nichols. He was initially granted land in 1821 at Browns River (near Kingston). He raised his family and farmed potatoes on this land. He also continued to build boats.
Nichols applied for and received a grant for three hundred and twenty acres of land on the north side of Port Cygnet in 1829. After the land had been cleared and accommodation built, Nichols moved his family to this property. At the time the property was only accessible by a walking track from Browns River or up the river by boat.
The first apple exports and the establishment of orchards. Apples grown at Rokeby were exported from Hobart to Edinburgh in 1828. Commercial quantities of apple trees for the establishment of orchards did not however become available until the end of the 1830s. Mr. Williams of Garden Island Creek (near Cygnet) took up the challenge and was the first on the Huon to establish an orchard in 1838.
He planted Ribstone Pippins, Scarlets, French Crabs, Stone Pippins, Alexanders and Prince Alfreds. Mr. Garth quickly followed and planted an orchard at Police Point.
Lady Franklin’s lease for purchase scheme Lady Franklin, wife of the Governor traveled to the Huon in the 1830s. She visited the Nichols family at Cygnet. Aware of the lack of employment, poverty and increasing crime in Hobart she devised a lease for purchase land scheme.
Using her own financial resources she purchased 640 acres of timbered land and ti-tree swamp along the Huon River in the area that is now known as Franklin. Lady Franklin’s aim was to give poor Hobart citizens the chance of owning land and to lift their families out of poverty through hard work. Lady Franklin interviewed the applicants for the scheme. She then keenly followed their progress as they cleared their land, built accommodation and planted crops.
This lady also rolled up her sleeves and personally collected local soil samples. These were sent to Kew in England for analysis. Again this was at her own expense. Once it was known that the soils in the Huon River area would be ideal for small fruits, berries were planted to make jams.
The first apples at Franklin were planted in 1839 and in time apple orchards stretched along the river as far as Geeveston and into the Huon Valley. Many settlers planted just one tree of each variety of apple to get their crops started.
Timber was the main source of income on the Huon From the beginning of European settlement in Port Cygnet until the end of the 1850s, timber was the main source of income as land was cleared. Timber was exported from the area for firewood, house building and fence palings. Garden Island Creek with its sheltered mooring had one of the biggest timber mills in the area. Customers were found in Hobart, Melbourne, and Adelaide.
Boat building was established at Cygnet and Dover. Enterprising settlers became exporters of timber on boats that they hired or had built for the trade. George Abel, a freeman was born to his convict parents on Norfolk Island. When the penal colony closed, his parents were relocated to New Norfolk north of Hobart. His father became a publican.
George as a young man helped build the Lady Franklin Hotel at Franklin. He was a publican there before he started trading timber to the Melbourne market. George and his brother Thomas each had land grants of fifty acres at Abels Bay which is situated between Garden Island Creek and Cygnet. A number of children were born there. Eventually he took his family to Hobart where he was a publican and timber merchant.
The Convict Probation Stations While the transport of convicts to New South Wales ceased in 1840, convicts continued to arrive in Van Diemen’s Land until 1853. From 1845 to 1848 the men placed in the Huon probation stations played an important role in the development of Port Cygnet. They cleared land, built roads and constructed buildings. Port Cygnet was surveyed and land advertised for sale to the public in 1848.
Regardless of how they came by the land, the early settlers of the Cygnet area worked hard to fell the timber. In their spare time they planted crops including orchards that would in time provide a sustainable income. They were assisted in this work by convicts from the probation stations. These were situated on Huon Island (near Garden Island Creek) at Nichols Rivulet, Lymington and Port Cygnet. After gaining probation passes, the convicts were free to move on to private employment.
The Military Settlers In 1849 the British Government sent retired soldiers from British and Indian armies to Van Diemen’s Land. It was intended that by having these men merge with the general population there would be a sense of law, order and comradeship. Part of the bargain was that the men would be given a small plot of land, something that would have been impossible back in the home land.
Title to the land would be granted after seven years of occupation. The soldiers were also allowed to keep the bedding issued on board ship where they worked as convict guards. There was no further expenditure on their account.
Accompanied by their wives and children, the military pensioners arrived with the convicts. Many of the men were in poor health. Convict labor was made available to clear the granted land and to build accommodation.
Seventy pensioner guards were offered land in the Port Cygnet area. Each received nine or ten acres of land in the valleys and hills alongside the Agnes Rivulet. Most of the families settled along Slab Road. Others lived on the road to Cradoc.
These poor families experienced the baptism of fire. Devastating bush fires ravaged the area, destroying their homes, potato crops and timber resources in 1853 and 1854.
To add to their misery, floods followed just months later destroying the town’s saw mill. While some sold their land and moved away, most stayed, rebuilt and eked out a poor existence replanting their crops and fruit trees. Others used skills such as shoemaking, butchering, carpentry, sawmilling, and shoeing horses to support their families.
Indentured Immigration The fledgling settlement of Port Cygnet also benefited from the Indenture system of immigration that brought English, Irish and German speaking immigrants to the area in the 1850s. Those with money paid a fee on arrival in Hobart and were free to settle where they chose. The poorer immigrants had to work for a year for the employers who had sponsored them.
Port Cygnet changes its name to Lovett and then to Cygnet The increasing population meant that Port Cygnet expanded from being a small settlement to a township with stores, hotels, schools, postal amenities, telegraph and a savings bank. A Constable was appointed for law enforcement. In 1853 the town was renamed Lovett, with the name of Port Cygnet being retained for the bay and port area. The name of the town changed from Lovett to Cygnet in 1915.
Timber and Apple processing industries For over one hundred years Cygnet was the site of a number of fruit processing businesses. The development of the jam and apple export industry meant that the timber mills had to provide the materials for apple boxes and wood wool packing. In combination these industries provided employment, economic stability and prosperity that developed and expanded the community.
The availability of gooseberries, raspberries, black currants and apples provided the perfect ingredients for making jam. The inclusion of apples in the mix meant that the jam would set. Jam making started as a home industry and before long had reached commercial proportions.
Burton’s Reserve and Peacock’s Jam Factory Factorys for the manufacture of jam, apple processing and dehydration, as well as the manufacture of wood wool were built on the land now known as Burton’s reserve. This is the triangular piece of land explored by the French. It is situated where the Agnes Rivulet enters Port Cygnet.
George Peacock arrived in Hobart in 1850. Initially he made jam at the back of his grocery and fruit shop from apples and small fruit. As the demand increased he expanded his business. In 1859 he sold his store, to open Tasmania’s first jam factory under the name of Messrs Peacock and Johnson. He also preserved fruit and made pickles.
It was not long before Peacock was exporting apples on behalf of growers as well as the jams he made to mainland cities, New Zealand, and Mauritius. He also set up jam factories in the bigger cities on the mainland. George Peacock made jam at Cygnet from 1863 until 1885 when he suddenly pulled out of the area.
In 1875 he had built the first steam operated jam manufactory outside Hobart at Cygnet as well as a similar building at Franklin. Jam production peaked at 330 tons of jam per year. The Ann Allen, built by John Wilson at Port Cygnet was one of the ships that took Peacock jam and apples to Hobart returning with sugar imported from Mauritius and jam tins. These were square shaped, not round for easy packing in to boxes.
Joseph and Robert Harvey Joseph Harvey, an ex convict, recognized the potential of the apples and fruits around Port Cygnet. He was a store owner and then became the agent for Peacock. He developed a sound knowledge of the jam making business.
His son Robert, took over the store and became a general store keeper. His large store was situated close to the port. Harvey also had a bakery and butchery. Robert Harvey not only supplied Cygnet’s residents with provisions but he also purchased and processed all of their locally produced fruit. In time the coal mine and a timber mill were also controlled by this man.
Apples and small fruits were processed at Harvey’s factory situated at the head of Port Cygnet. Nothing was wasted. Fruit left the factory as jam, in a dehydrated state or was exported fresh to markets both interstate and overseas. Even fruit skins and cores were used. They were dried and exported to Europe.
Harvey supported the apple growing families who turned to him for help when money was short. He took fruit as payment for goods from his stores. Many residents of Cygnet as well as orchard owners had mortgages with him rather than with the banks. Robert Harvey died in 1933.
The Packaging Industry A wood fired steam engine stands at the side of the road just as you leave Cygnet on the road to Huonville. This engine was used at Olbrich’s Mill to slice timber for apple boxes. Between fifteen and twenty thousand apple boxes were made in Cygnet per year. Production stopped in 1964 when cardboard boxes cut the demand for the wooden crates.
Export quality apples were protected within the wooden boxes by wood wool. This was manufactured at Burton’s Wood Wool factory. The factory was situated in the same precinct as Harvey’s factories at the head of the bay. Initially willows were used to make the wood wool packing.
Then it was found that the young thin swamp gums were more suited. Logs delivered to the factory were cut by machines into fine slither strips. After drying on racks the fibers were condensed into bales four feet by three feet in size.
When required the fibers were cut into smaller lengths and wrapped around the apples in the boxes. The apple box lids were then wired to the cases. Each apple box had its own colorful label and brand. This label identified the grower and place of the orchard.
As a five year old child in New Zealand in 1948, one hundred years after the first apples were exported from Tasmania to that country, the author saw beautiful red apples packed in their wood wool nests. These apples were displayed in a grocer’s store in Wellington. “Do swan’s lay red eggs she asked her mother? “ The label on the box showed a picture of swans and stated that the apples had come from Cygnet.
The Fruit Evaporation Factory and the Cider Making Plant Robert Harvey had the foresight to purchase the Austral Fruit Preserving Company in Hobart. This gave him access to the fruit drying technology as well as new export opportunities. The drying of fruit gave Tasmania the opportunity to take the British market away from the Canadians.
Harvey built his fruit drying factory at Port Cygnet in 1895. The dehydration process was suited to most fruits and vegetables. Dehydrated apples, plums and potatoes were exported from Cygnet in 25 lb boxes. They were in high demand in the other mainland colonies.
Before the existence of the evaporating plant inferior apples were wasted. As there was no market for them they were just left to rot on the ground. The addition of a cider making plant at Harvey’s factory meant that all fruit could be utilized.
After just four years of operation the dehydration and cider factory was burned down in 1899. The replacement plant was built on land leased from Peacock on what is now Burton’s reserve. The evaporating factory and the pie apple plant were destroyed by fire in 1928. Five thousand cases of apples, two thousand cases of dried fruit, thousands of tons of firewood and thirteen tons of peelings were also lost .
The Cygnet community was severely affected. Jobs were lost and there was no outlet for second grade fruit. The factory took two years to rebuild. Disaster struck again in 1936 when the neighboring wood wool factory was destroyed by fire. The apple factory was still on the site of Burton’s reserve in the 1970s. Today the Weighbridge Cottage and the machinery shed are the only buildings from the apple era still on site.
The apple industry once established grew rapidly along the Huon. New varieties of apples were developed to replace the older trees. These were imported from England and South Africa.
…To be continued…
(Special thanks to Jan O’ Connell for reminding us that Bligh returned to Adventure Bay in the HMS Providence, not the HMS Bounty.)
Ah, rock climbing – where you start at the bottom and work your way up. Just like doing a research project, actually.
There is a lot in common between the two – more than first meets the eye. They both test how you act under pressure, require a bit of creativity, and let’s face it, are typically only done by people who are a bit weird.
Before diving into a list of why these two seemingly unrelated things are similar, let me explain how I first got started with each.
I’ve always been interested in electricity, computers, and the environment, so it just made sense to take these interests to a new level and study something like that at the PhD level – to make a real difference in the world, or so the theory goes. On the other hand, I figured out early on that climbing could get me out of a lot of bad situations. For example, during tidy up time at kindergarten it was easier to climb to the top of the tallest tree and hide, watching all the non-climbers tidy up the mess that I had so enthusiastically helped create.
But, the real story went more like this: “Hey Paul, want to take part in a project to enter in an international technology competition?” to which I replied “Sure, why not?”
I didn’t realise it at the time, but my path for at least the next six years had just changed forever.
Rock climbing was a similar story. A friend suggested that we go rock climbing. I said “Nah, sounds boring”. When I was finally convinced to give it a go, I loved it. Needless to say, I’ve never looked back. Alright then, on to that list!
1. You will fail Not a nice one to begin with, but it’s true. You will fall. You will experience setbacks in your research. The important thing is not to try and avoid these failures, but to have a system in place for dealing with it when it happens. Climbers build up a system of protection as they climb by placing gear into the wall to catch a fall, so that the failure of one or two parts of that system will not lead to an unwelcome encounter with the ground. During a PhD, you must also build up a system of protection as you go, usually in the form of publications. A rejection or two shouldn’t derail the whole process. Of course, building up too much protection will simply slow down your forward progress – it’s a delicate balance.
2. Do your research On a recent climbing trip, we jumped on a climb that was supposed to be highly rated. It started off OK, but things got worse from there. Climbing was difficult; bashing through shrubs, avoiding loose rock, and struggling to find places to put gear. Eventually it turned into a nasty off-width crack about 50 metres off the ground – a style of climbing that most sane climbers avoid at all costs, and certainly something that we didn’t have suitable gear for. We had to get out, and fast.
Later on, we looked in the guidebook. It said “Overgrown and nasty. Don’t bother”. Useful information to have beforehand, wouldn’t you say? During a PhD, it is even more important not to waste time researching what others already know. Always check the literature beforehand!
3. Always look for options On that same climb, we got into the situation where continuing up wasn’t an option, nor was going down without leaving behind expensive gear. One response would be to ask some questions. Why are we doing this? Why couldn’t we just stay on the ground? Why did we ever think this would be a good idea? I understand that most PhD students ask similar questions at some point, but I’m not so sure about the climbers.
A better approach would be to look sideways. Opportunities are everywhere, if you know where to look. Luckily for us, there was a nice tree about 10 metres away, which allowed us to abseil off the cliff. Usually, once you’re out of situations like this it’s natural to think “wow, that was fun”. Or maybe that’s just me.
4. Don’t hesitate Whenever climbing, it’s natural to hesitate when you’re coming up to a difficult section.
Unfortunately, when you hang around too long, putting off the difficult bit, you fall. It’s usually best to just go for it. With a PhD, the hard question is not usually “how do we do this”, but “what should we be doing?” There is the fear that we’ll put in all this effort researching something, only to find out that it was the wrong thing. Hanging around doing nothing is not a good solution. Just do it.
5. Make the most of easy ground There’s a good chance that you’ll cover easy ground during a climb, or research project. Make the most of it – you’ll appreciate the rest once things get tough again. And trust me, they will. On the other hand…
6. Don’t stop for too long While climbing, especially long multi-pitch routes, it’s all too easy to get comfortable on a nice ledge. Ledgeitis, they call it. The longer you rest, the less motivated you become to move on.
Unsurprisingly, the same is true for research. The longer you stop on a particular project, the harder it is to get back into it and move it forwards. It’s another delicate balance of resting, but not too much.
7. It’s easy to give advice from the ground Rock climbers are notorious for this. Why don’t you just grab that hold? Use your feet! Go up! We all hate it, yet most of us will do it anyway. Unless you’ve been there before, and know the unique strengths and weaknesses of the climber really well, it’s best to keep quiet. Your way (if you even have one) is not the only way, and sometimes half the fun is figuring it out!
In research, people like to do the same thing. It’s easy to suggest maybe doing something differently when in fact you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Please don’t.
A more productive way:
8. Watch how others do it You’ll learn something. Rock climbing is as much a creative pursuit as it is a physical one. See what others do – whether they see the climb differently, or know about some secret hold that you missed completely, it’s better to watch than be told. In research, especially as a lowly student, see what the professors do. See how they deal with the problems that come up. But, stay out of academic politics as long as possible.
9. The public is usually curious The general public know that us researchers exist, and will sometimes be interested if we have something flashy to show, but in general don’t really know what we are doing or why. That’s ok; I just disappear into my lab for hours at a time and occasionally come out with a paper.
The number of times a climber has to explain to a curious tour group about how their “hooks” work, or more annoyingly, what we are doing (um, climbing?), makes us seek out more remote locations. Probably the most annoying of all is a well-meaning person saying “you know there’s a walking path to the top, right?” I thought it was pretty obvious that…
10. The easy way up is boring Yeah, that’s right. It’s just mundane labour – one step after the other and you are guaranteed to walk a path that thousands have walked before, not requiring much thought, not controlling that “healthy respect” for heights. Sure, we end up in the same place, but who had the most fun? Researching the hard problems is a challenge. We don’t know the answers, whether we’ll be successful or not – that’s why it’s called research. Repetitive tasks that lead to a well-known conclusion are not that interesting.
11. Too much planning is bad Typically, us climbers will stand at the bottom of a cliff and make sure we understand what the climb will involve before starting. That’s generally a pretty good idea. But I find that the longer I look at a climb and try to figure out what the potential pitfalls are, and where the best gear placements are, the more nervous I become, sometimes to the point of backing off before even making a start.
Usually, that fear all goes away once the climbing begins. It’s just you and the wall, and you have the opportunity to succeed or fail on your own accord. If you don’t start, you have already failed.
I have also suffered this in research – planning the ultimate solution to a relatively simple problem. I had anticipated all the features that we might need, tried to eliminate what could possibly go wrong, and eventually spent way too much time focussing on the “what-ifs” that the project eventually got shelved. Lesson learnt.
12. Expect the unexpected There has been a few occasions where I have submitted academic papers that I was not very happy with, and assumed they would be rejected. When they don’t, that’s a mixed blessing. On the upside, it was accepted! On the downside, it’s a lot more work to fix up all the stuff I didn’t like.
On the climbing front: Snow. In Australia. In March. Enough said.
13. Expect the expected The sun goes down every day. Take a head torch if there’s a chance that you’ll be climbing after dark. If you’re also teaching while doing your PhD, you’ll know (or quickly learn) three things: semesters do end, students do most of their work right before a big deadline, and they’ll want your help – all at the same time. You know it’s coming, so plan around it.
14. Look down It’s easy to think that you’re not making progress – sometimes looking down is just what you need. It is quite a nice surprise to realise that you’re much further up than you thought. Of course, if you don’t like heights, you should have a long hard think about what you are doing.
15. It takes longer than you think Sometimes while climbing it takes over an hour to go up 50 metres. In research, it’s easy to think “I’ll just write that paper on Friday”. Not going to happen.
Hofstadter’s Law states that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
This is true for climbing, research, business projects, everything. So make sure you allow plenty of time, relax, and most importantly have fun.
Finally, just remember that whatever you’re doing, you are choosing to do it. So enjoy it!