Monday, 17 November 2014

The Ben Nevis North Face survey


Ben Nevis - The Hidden Side (TEASER!) from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

In August, we shot a film about a survey. It was the most fascinating fortnight I’ve had in a long time. The newly emerging Nevis Landscape Partnership has numerous impressive projects lined up for the Ben Nevis area, and this was one of them. A large team of climbers, botanists and geologists teamed up to explore the length and breadth of the north face over two weeks and try to get a better understanding of how the mountain was formed and which rare plants were hiding in the depths of the gullies as yet unrecorded.



We were asked to film the project. I’m editing the story that emerged at the moment and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. Generally speaking, I find most aspects of science interesting. But I have never spent any time learning about botany before and have only limited knowledge of geology. One overarching theme I wanted to explore while filming was what made these scientists tick. Climbers wax lyrical about the lines on Ben Nevis, the character of the ice, the weather and all the other ingredients for adventure. I bluntly asked the botanical and geological experts on the survey what the point of their work was.

One of Scotland’s leading botanists, Gordon Rothero’s reply was equally blunt. “Because it’s fun”. As I asked more and more of the scientists why they spent their lives studying the details of mountain environments, the same theme came back. Their studies made them happy. More specifically, It made them feel connected to the places they studied. This is something I felt the whole team, climbers and scientists of various disciplines had absolutely in common. By knowing the details of the mountains, they felt connected, and happy.





As for the survey findings, one story that emerged kind of took everyone by surprise. The geologists Jenny and Roddy had already told me when we shot the film for their FieldMove Clino app on the Ben in June that the available geological mapping that had been done 60 odd years ago was not matching what they had seen on the mountain. After a full two weeks gathering huge amounts of geological readings (using the app meant taking readings ten fold faster that traditional methods) it seemed like the old model of how Ben Nevis was formed was looking all but dead.



Roddy and Donald abseiling down the line of my own route Don't Die of Ignorance on the Comb. This part of the mountain is made of volcanic breccias; the result of violent volcanic eruption. I was kind of strange for me going back here after having climbed hard through this part in winter several years ago.

The traditional model of the formation of the Ben is that it was a ring fault where the centre of the ring collapsed into the earth’s magma below, with violent eruptions around the periphery. It now looks like the real picture may be very different. Their attention focused on the straight line of the Allt a’ Mhuillin itself and it may be that this was the fault in the earth’s crust that let granites come to the surface. It’s still unclear whether the rocks on the Ben Nevis side of the Allt a’ Mhuillin collapsed down, or the rocks on the other side rose up. It will take some time for them to analyse the data and they may need to collect more in order to obtain a clearer picture.

The problem with the traditional caldera subsidence model is space. What happens to the vast quantities of viscous magmas displaced by a sinking lump of the earth’s crust? There are subsequent surveys planned for the next few summers, and it may be that we cannot make a firm conclusion about Ben Nevis until after these have been completed.

Along the way I captured huge amounts of great interviews with interesting folk and footage of the deep dark gullies on the Ben. I also had a great night along with my mum up on Carn Mor Dearg bivvying out and shooting nice timelapses of the stars and sunrise on the north face.

If you want to see the film it’ll be showing at the Fort William Mountain Festival in February, and then released online afterwards. In the meantime, enjoy the teaser above.

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