Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A dream restored

Many years ago as a young child having been left alone one evening I remember watching a grainy black and white TV programme about an attempt to climb a rock spire. The attempt failed but the fantastical outline of the rock spire was one of my inspirations to start climbing, a dream spire to aspire to.

That rock spire was Cerro Torre in southern Patagonia, Argentina and its climbing history as I was to discover was as amazing as the peak itself. Only 3128 metres high but with the last 1200m of that being near vertical rock, it has long been regarded as one of the hardest mountains in the world. First real attempts were in the 1950s but it was in 1959 when the modern tale begins.

Two Italian climbers claimed to have succeeded in climbing the peak from the north. Unfortunately one of those, Tony Egger, died on the descent and the other, Cesare Maestri was in a very poor state. The climb was hailed as "the ascent of the century" and appeared to be far ahead of its time in difficulty and commitment. Over the years however doubts began to emerge about the climb.

In 1971 Maestri returned to Cerro Torre to silence his critics but rather than raising his game he resorted to hauling a 100Kg compressor on to the South East ridge and placed between 350 & 450 bolts in to the route. Many of these were next to good crack systems which even with the rudimentary kit of the day were protectable and climbable. Quite a few were on pitches previously climbed without by the British attempt. Maestri didn't even summit stating that the summit mushroom "wasn't part of the mountain" and also removed some of the bolts as they descended - the compressor is still hanging from the wall. The climbing world was appalled: Rheinhold Messner wrote his piece "Murder of the impossible"; others spoke of the rape of the mountain.

Following this episode Ken Wilson, then editor of Mountain magazine, interviewed Maestri. The interview was described to me by the interpreter Alan Heppenstall, whom I climbed with for a while in the 1980s, as "abrasive and confrontational".

Maestri's fit of pique backfired as it focused more attention on his previous claim - subsequent attempts on the line failed to rationalise the ground covered with Maestri's description: areas that Maestri described as difficulties of the highest order were found to be simple scrambling and no-one has been able to locate the line taken on the headwall at the grade claimed. Further to this no trace of their ascent has been found above around 300m above the glacier. Rolando Garibotti did a full investigation of the claims and came to the conclusion that the base of the triangular snow-patch halfway to the Cerro Torre - Torre Egger col was their high point.

The true first ascent of Cerro Torre was by another Italian team but from the west side. The SE Ridge route was finally climbed to the summit by two Americans in 1979. Since then the "Compressor Route" as it has become known has been by far the most popular means of climbing Cerro Torre. Incredibly some have seen fit to add yet more bolts - the worst example being David Lama who in attempting to free climb the route added up to sixty more, again in situations where they weren't necessary.

However not everyone was happy with the state of affairs and over the years a series of variations avoiding the bolts were made (usually at a fairly modest standard) that meant climbers could get to the base of the headwall without using any of the bolt ladders. It was only a matter of time. In 2011 two Canadians managed to eliminate all but the last 40 metres of bolt ladders. This year one of those Canadians along with an American partner managed the whole route without recourse to the bolts.

While descending they removed around 100 of the bolts on the headwall. This has angered some people who see it as elitist and denying other climbers of a historic route. In truth Maestri should have left the climb to better climbers - the only real loser has been the mountain itself. After the bolts were removed David Lama returned and free climbed the route at an estimated grade of F8a.

A dream has been restored.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A fine weekend

After all the rain in recent weeks (months? - one day without rain in forty) it was nice to get some fine weather for once. With having done no climbing, not even on a climbing wall, I reckoned I was going to struggle after a handful of routes.

After a bit of ringing around I arranged with Simon to go out. We didn't have an early start but then with the clear nights and morning frost  time was needed for the rock to warm up, if possible. We decided on Robin Proctor's Scar - south facing and with the unbroken sunshine and no breeze it should be warm.

Mike and Gaz were already there and were on their second route by the time we arrived so it was a case of getting stuck in to the routes. We were worried that the rock would be cold on the fingers but it was actually really pleasant and we were mainly climbing in t-shirts! After four routes I was beginning to fade (I had though four would be my limit) and on the fifth my strength gave up midway through the crux so it was a jump off to get used to falling. I eventually followed it on a tight rope.

Mike on the crux of The Marshall Plan (F6c)

Unfortunately this attempt failed but he got it later.

By this time the sun was approaching the horizon and the temperature was dropping so it was time to go.

Sunday saw me heading out west again, this time with Cath to do some mountain biking near Kirkby Lonsdale. There was a route in the Yorkshire Dales South book that I hadn't done, though Cath had done it a couple of times. Parking up at the Devil's Bridge the first section was all on tarmac on the roads up towards Bull Pot Farm. All a bit of a lung buster, then we turned off the black-top and headed up a track.

The cold weather meant that there were occasionally patches of ice that meant it was on-off for a while on the track over to Bull Pot Farm. The track down to Barbondale was more of the same but rutted as well so all quite interesting. The bridleway back was somewhat muddy as the day had heated up a bit but there was still icy underneath so the riding was quite tricky even if the gradient was essentially flat.

Tea in Inglesport and then home for a clean up of the bikes and getting the fire lit after a good weekend.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Llandegla Mountain Biking

Saturday was promised to be fine so we headed over to N. Wales to sample the delights of the new(ish) trails at Llandegla.

After a slight detour to pick up Pat in West Houghton it was back to motorway and good roads to Wrexham followed by a bit of windy stuff to get to the car park. It was packed and we ended up parking way up at the top of the overflow carpark.

Despite the promise of a nice day it was blowing a hoolie so getting moving was the order of the day. The first half of the three graded trails share a common track which is very easy, once at the far end of the forest the fun begins. We had planned on doing the red route but the high winds of the past week had led to various fallen trees so a section in the middle was shut. We did a short loop of the black route which was quite easy and overall the red route was far easier than trails at places like Laggan Wolftrax or Gisburn Forest. Good fun though and some good cakes in the cafe.

Sunday was also meant to be a fine day but it dawned dull and damp and we decided not to go climbing - it began to drizzle about an hour after our decision so it was probably right. I got the turbo trainer set up using a spare wheel and old tyre for the bike and had a 30 minute session which raised a good sweat.

I've had problems with my right hip and knee for some time with everything on that side of my body being really stiff and sore plus a groin strain that's been niggling for a couple of years. After a lot of pestering from Cath I finally booked an appointment with a physio. So after ten minutes of history of injuries (yep, it took that long) and a Q&A about where things hurt she got to work. She couldn't believe just how stiff and inflexible my hip was. A lot of the problems have been due to overcompensation following an injury. If you've never had sports massage/physio before then you don't realise just how painful deep massage can be! After half an hour of this and a bio-mechanical assessment of my stance and movement it was time for a few stretches to do before the next appointment - except that every stretch would cause the groin strain to ache. Eventually we found a couple that I could do.

The leg and hip do feel somewhat easier but I suspect that it's going to take a lot of work to get right.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Website Updates pt3

The final member of the web trilogy is JavaScript and this too has undergone quite a few changes over the years. Many of the changes have really been in the way that Javascript is viewed rather than any changes to the language itself. With libraries like jQuery for the browser and node.js for the server it has gone from being viewed as a "toy" language to one considered industrial strength in just a few years. There are also now tools available to help avoid common coding errors.

Initially any Javascript I wrote for the site was in a "C style" since I use that language in my work and superficially the two have similar syntax. It's a bit like English and French using (mainly) the same characters but the resulting language being totally different. Similarly under the hood JavaScript is a totally different beast and what's good, efficient code in C isn't necessarily so in JavaScript. Thus as my knowledge of the latter has increased and newer ways of working in it have emerged I've revisited much of the code to make it neater and less likely to cause problems with other blocks of code. (Note that a lot of the code to be found on the web on scripting sites is of a similar naive level - you need to know what you are looking at! As a rule of thumb, the older the code, the less likely it is to be what is now considered to be decent standard.)

Some of the code was nearly eight years old, virtually as old as the site itself, and was in need of good overhaul - yes it worked but had the appearance of being a hack (well it was a hack!) as basically as soon as I'd got it to work then I'd left it and moved on. Other blocks of the code had been changed over the years but the underlying faults had remained. In some instances a simple tweek or two was all that was needed but for many the changes are a complete reworking to bring the code up to standard. There's the advantage of a working version to refer to and to fall back on but equally having an existing solution can colour how you view the problem (and therefore the solution) so it's possible to end up with something that still has the existing faults without realising it.

An example would be the slideshow code. I'd rewritten it a couple of years ago to be more in line with modern thinking but there were still one or two subtle bugs in there that I hadn't managed to get to the bottom of and fix. I needed to add touch functionality for use on mobile devices so was modifying the code anyway so, rather than simply bolting on the new code, I went for the full rewrite.

By doing things like taking advantage of how browsers handle user actions such as mouse clicks I was able to simplify the workings of the code used to switch between slides which meant that the bugs disappeared! I also took the opportunity to add image caching so that when the user is looking at an image, that time is used to download the next image as a background task so it is immediately ready for viewing. Even with the extra code to deal with touch events and caching, the resulting code is cleaner and smaller by about 25% than what had gone before - I might even understand it when I come back to it in another eight years' time!

The above is typical of work behind the scenes that's led to both fewer and smaller JavaScript files being required for the site. This in turn leads to pages that are faster to load and feel more responsive to user input. I'm still revising the use of JavaScript on the site: many pages no longer require it though equally some pages use more, but I can do this on a page by page basis.

After all this techie stuff - it's time to get back to more active things!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Website updates pt2

If HTML is used to structure modern websites then CSS is used to give them their look and feel. Without it they look like plain paper documents, in fact very similar to early web pages.

As with HTML, the technology is being updated with CSS3 being the latest version though not every browser supports these features. This means that there has to be either a fallback for older browsers or that site isn't dependent on the use of the new features, this is known as progressive enhancement. An example would be drop shadows: these are a visual effect that doesn't affect the usage or behaviour of the site so adding them is nice for those browsers that can handle them but other browsers will still work fine if look a little plain.

With (semi) major updates it's nice, though not essential, to give a new look and feel to the site, partly to indicate that the site has been updated and partly to avoid being seen as stale. The changes are minor on the surface: the main menu text is "reflected" and the call-out boxes have a vertical background gradient, but this time the changes have really been about how the styles are generated. The work needed to create a CSS stylesheet for a web site is often rather intensive and with three stylesheets needed for desktop, tablet and phone this work increases at least three fold as you need to ensure some consistency between the devices.

There are several tools and methodologies around to ease this work but I settled on the SASS/Compass combination. This allows you to define a set of values at the start of the file then use them later on rather than rewriting the value every time. You can also perform "mathematical" operations, making colours lighter or darker for example. All this leads to a consistency in the stylesheet which didn't really exist in those I'd created before.

A further benefit is that a lot of the "cruft" that had built up is no longer needed so the CSS is smaller. However I removed all of the CSS that was embedded in individual pages and included that so the resulting size isn't as small as it could have been.

One of the "hot phrases" in current website design is "responsive layout" which is perhaps the antithesis of early web pages that were intended to be "pixel perfect" on every device. Using new features in CSS3 it is now possible to have the browser adapt the layout to match the device or size of window: wide desktop screens might get 3 columns, narrower screens and tablets get the data in two columns and for mobile phones it is presented in a single column. You can even account for changes in how a tablet or phone is being held - portrait or orientation. No change to the core structure of the page is required but the visitor gets a site that is better suited to how they are viewing it.

The next posting will look at the Javascript changes.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Website Updates

This posting is the first of a set describing the reasoning and working behind the latest updates to my website.

Over time I've made a lot of small changes to the site, both front end (what you see in the browser) and back end (the fancy stuff in the background that drives it) that have meant that things aren't quite as clearly and logically laid out as they could be. This makes predicting the effect of future changes harder. This nearly always happens with software and occasionally you have to dive in, get your hands dirty and tidy things up.

Sometimes changes are required because of external influences, for corporate websites this could be for legal reasons, in my case (and I suspect for a lot of people who maintain websites) it is the increased use of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets being used to access the web. From the site logs, visitors using smart phones or tablets individually outnumber those using Internet Explorer 7 and together they almost outnumber those using Internet Explorer 8 so this change cannot be ignored. Mobile users have different requirements both in how they use a website and how the website should appear and be usable on such small screens.

The main ideas have been to:

  • reduce how much data is sent; 
  • display the data appropriately; 
  • limit the amount of data initially shown with user options for pulling in more; 
  • incorporate the touch interface.

Any web page can be viewed as being composed of essentially just three elements: content - the words and pictures; look -  colours, layout; behaviour - what happens when you click a button etc. These correspond to HTML, CSS and Javascript respectfully, all of which are in the, seemingly almost continuous, process of being updated.

I'd moved the site to use the latest version of HTML (5) a year ago though it doesn't require many of the new markup that the standard introduces.

In one of those "aha" moments I realised that I could replace the multiple slideshow files and that instead of having bowfell_buttress_slides.php, winter-bgr_slides.php, etc. I could have a single template file and pass it a parameter then use that parameter to load the appropriate javascript array of slide details so slideshow.php?s=bowfell_buttress, slideshow.php?s=winter-bgr, etc. This meant that I could replace over sixty (and growing) slideshow files with just one main file (actually one per main section of the site so three in total) but would need the details from those sixty replacing with smaller files holding the data. The benefit is that if a change needs to be made to the slideshow template, I've only three files to change not sixty or more. Chasing up and changing the many links took a while though! Adding a new slideshow is now a matter of creating the necessary data file and then creating the appropriate link.

Along with similar changes to several mainly text pages this means that any future updates to look or behaviour of these pages is much simpler and I'm less likely to miss a file or break something - if one of the pages works then they'll all work.

The next posting will look at the CSS changes.