22 February 2014


I cannot stop to be amazed by just how smart these modern altimeter wrist watches really are. Here's a watch which last altitude calibration was more than three months ago. Meanwhile, since then, I've used it sparsely during my work and on my escapades into the mountains.
Today, in the Pico Ruívo mountain hut (at an altitude of 1775 meters), this was the error of the instrument: fifteen meters.
I repeat once again: the altimeter in these watches is a sub function of their barometric sensor. This means that the equipment "guesses" the altitude by the variation of the atmospheric pressure (lower pressure means higher altitude and higher pressure means lower). However, for any given place on Earth, the atmospheric pressure varies with time, due to changing meteorological conditions. In a certain moment in time, in any given place, you might have depression conditions (low pressures) or anticyclonic ones (high pressures). So, the atmospheric pressure, in any place on Earth, is never the same. Never constant.
This factor alone should be a cause for permanent errors in measurements from these equipments.
So, how do they do it? What kind of complex calculation algorithm do they use on these equipments, that narrows the error to 15 meters (in almost two kilometres of altitude)?
In the picture: the reliable Casio G-Shock Riseman Radio Controlled Watch, ref. GW-9200-1ER.

17 February 2014

Madeira - First Snowfall of 2014


A few pictures of the first snowfall of the present year of 2014 in the mountains of our Madeira island. The pictures were made yesterday (the 16th), in a short walk during the afternoon, when the roads to the central massif were opened by the Forestal Police and the Civil Protection, thus enabling us to hike from the Achada do Teixeira plateau to the Pico Ruívo mountain hut.
The conditions for photography were not the best, because the afternoon on the mountain was grey, windy and wet.
So we skipped the visit to the peak itself, since it served no purpose whatsoever. We remained in the mountain hut area, trying to make the best of the winter conditions laying in front of us.
Through all the hike the air temperature varied between 0ºC and +2ºC and the humidity remained near 100%.
Pictures made at a altitude of 1775 mts, near the mountain hut, with a Nikon D40X and cheap Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S GII ED DX kit lens. Post-processing in Nikon View NX2 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, ver. 4.1.

11 February 2014

Impressions of Iceland

Among the several voyages I have made in my short-lived seafaring career, the one I remember most was a Summer voyage, in 2004, to Iceland.
Viewing "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", a few weeks ago, triggered once again a torrent of emotions, when I remembered the vastness of the Icelandic lunar landscape unfolding before me, as I approached the island-nation from the South, nearly ten days later from our departure from Ceuta.
At the time a Captain of a small coastal vessel, casually promoted, for the sake of the world trade, to the select rank of the "oceanic ships", I, too, did felt a bit like Walter Mitty, when he faces the fact that he is, involuntarily, pushed towards a voyage which he isn't really eager to begin.
I, too, was afraid of the unknown, when, reading that nearly-arrived telex, I was informed by the Norwegian commercial operator that, after leaving the Spanish port where we have been in the past two days, loading a cargo of 3600 tons of salt, we should proceed to Ceuta, for bunkering the amount of fuel necessary for the crossing to Iceland. Iceland???... Sh...!!!!
Needless to say, I wasn't jumping with joy. Those northern latitudes are not really cherished by seafarers. We even call the Icelandic sea the "storm magnet", since all the hurricanes developing over the Gulf of Mexico end up traversing the North Atlantic, en route to Greenland, Iceland and Norway, making a lot of damage on the way.
But ok, it was Summer time and, thank God, the guys (and girls) at Bracknell were issuing some good meteorological prognosis. So the apprehension gave its place to curiosity (just like Walter Mitty) and off we went, in our old, but trustworthy, bucket,  leaving our own neighbourhood, for a ten-days loxodromic crossing of the North Atlantic.
But, except for a few days of rough seas along the coast of Ireland, the crossing was a relaxed one and so it was the Icelandic periplus, jumping from port to port, after reaching the island.
The most impressive view of the island is, certainly, obtained while approaching from the sea. The vast mass of the eternal polar cap - the Vatnajökull - dominates the shape of this arid lunar landscape. In this artic climate nearly no vegetation grows, except small grass.
When I phoned my father and told him that I have arrived to an island the size of Portugal with as may citizens as in Madeira, he answered "God, it's almost unpopulated". It certainly is. However, that is also a part of her mystique.
Icelandic heritage is very well preserved by this nation's citizens. Well kept gardens, houses and public places. Streets were perfectly clean and the quality of life had more to do with the American way of life than with the European one. But that has probably changed in the past years, since the americans left from their air force base of Keflavik, in 2006.
Maintenance works on a church, in a small village on the North coast of the island. Although they have freedom of religion, the vast majority of Icelanders - more than seventy-five percent -  are members of the Church of Iceland, a Lutheran body.
Our good old Wani Venture (IMO nº 9117208) discharging part of her cargo in the Northern port of Dalvik on a perfect Summer day.

10 February 2014

The Sno-Cats odyssey

The International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) ended a golden era of Earth exploration. From that year on, there were no more white spots on the world map, no more unknown territories to discover. A total of sixty-seven countries participated on the various IGY projects, focused on the Earth sciences.
The most ambitious of them all was, probably, the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Led, simultaneously, by Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary, the expedition crossed the Antarctic plateau (in what became the first overland crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole), on a journey of 3473 kms, from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound, in just 99 days, from 24 November 1957 to 02 March 1958.
The narrative of the expedition (The Crossing of Antarctica, The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58, written by the two leaders) is, still today, an amazing piece of literature, on the expeditionary genre. A must-have book in any personal library.
Although the men involved and their team spirit were to be congratulated for such an extraordinary achievement, the fact is that this adventure would never be possible without the cooperation of an amazing vehicle, which name, from then on, became synonym with motorized polar explorations: the Tucker Sno-Cat.
So, why have I decided to write something about it? And doing so, give my two cents worth of conversation in a topic from which I know almost nothing?
Well, because in my early mountaineering exploits in Portugal's highest sierra, in the Winter of nineteen-ninety, and while doing an emergency bivouac in the Torre plateau, at 1993 meters above sea level - the highest point in the continental Portugal -  on the abandoned radar station nº 13 of the Portuguese Air Force, I could hardly imagine that I would see three of those machines, in complete abandonment, inside a vandalized warehouse.
In the Spring of 1990 this was the condition of one of the Tucker Sno-Cats previously owned by the Portuguese Air Force. Inside of the warehouse there were two additional vehicles, not portrayed in the picture. Also abandoned and vandalized. On the left side of the picture you can see a sledge, built by Tucker also, that used to be towed by the Sno-Cats.
The diagonal stripes on the picture are damages on the negatives due to poor storage over the years. Well, ignorance is a blessing... or not. And I've learned the hard way. By the way, that poor figure on the left is yours truly. Twenty-four years and kilograms ago. Pentax SF-1 and Pentax 50mm f/1.7 KAF standard lens. Film: Kodak Ektar 25 ASA negative colour film.
The prefix AM on their vehicle registration plates gave no margin for error. These were FAP cars, probably bought during the late fifties, when the radar station (built in 1957) was fully active. During those days, in strong snow storms, the radar station could be inaccessible by road for weeks. So, I imagine, the only solution to keep logistics running on the high plateau was the use of specific made vehicles for snow and ice environments.
Worldwide, at the time, there were only a few makers of these kind of machines. And even today their number didn't really increased.
But the Tucker Sno-Cats, built in Medford, Oregon, USA, are the ones by all the others are judged.
Technically speaking, what differentiates these machines from the others are their patented Four Articulated Track System. In a sense, it's the Egg of Columbus. But they thought about it and the others didn't. Kudos for Mr. E. M. Tucker, Sr.
 It's no surprise that they were in the crossing of Antarctica. And it's also no surprise that a visionary guy, in the Portuguese Air Force of the fifties, in a country without any tradition in polar explorations, and also mountaineering for that matter, decided that these were the best cars for the job.
And, err..., also, they are quite pretty.
Well, 1971 arrived and defense priorities changed, I guess. The Radar Station nº 13 was closed and these three marvellous machines were left to rust.
As far as I can imagine they all are, probably, ending their days in some anonymous scrapyard, in Cova da Beira.
More than ten years later, already in the 21st. century, this was the condition of the same Sno-Cat portrayed above. Outside the warehouse (by this time transformed into a shopping mall) and left to rust by the elements. From the other remaining two... no signs anymore.
Which is sad, since in a normal country, ruled by normal and responsible people, these cars should be recovered and placed in a museum. After all, they are public property. Belonging to all of us. Granted, they are not the nobles "Rock N' Roll", "County of Kent", "Haywire" and "Able" of the famous expedition. But they have, nonetheless, the same heritage.
And, to the best of my knowledge, only these three ever existed in Portugal. Now, you tell me: can you really imagine one youngster that wouldn't be amazed, after reading those juvenile books that made all of us dream when we were kids, to see, lively, one of these notable pieces of engineering achievement?
The former installations of the Portuguese Air Force Radar Station nº 13 are located in the highest point above sea level in the continental Portugal: 1993 mts, in the Torre plateau. According to several historians, the granite tower ("Torre") on the left side of the picture was built, by royal order, in the early XIX century, to reach the high of 2000 meters above sea level.