Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Astronauts: The start of the adventure

Looking back on it now, I’m still not quite sure how I ended up as one of the candidates on the BBC 2 television series Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?

Last November, I was half-way through a three month expedition to the Andes Mountains. I had teamed up with my climbing partners Max and Pedro to ascend twelve of the most remote mountains over 6,000 metres to be found in South America. To get to these mountains we drove up rivers, through deserts, and even through a gold mine! We were stranded in the mountains without equipment after being abandoned by our mule drivers, we destroyed poor Conway (the Landrover) in a whole new range of ways:

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We absolutely flew up some mountains, waded almost up to our waists in snow on others, and had a series of wonderful adventures. (More tales of our last expedition can be found here:       Andes Expedition 2016    )

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I also collected quite a bit of data both for the team back in Leicester and for colleagues around the world.  I deployed a radiometer, to measure the balance between incoming solar radiation and radiated heat from the Earth’s surface for Leicester’s Earth Observation Science group.  I also collected many samples containing extremophiles which are bacteria that are capable of surviving in these extreme mountain environments.  At the University of Leicester we are developing instruments designed to detect life on other planets, so we need samples of similar life on Earth!  Here are some photos of some of the experiments I set up while I was there:

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Half-way through though the 2016 expedition, I was in a very small town in Argentina called Fiambala. While I was there, I was able to get wifi and check my work emails, and a door began to swing open for me that I hadn’t even dreamed existed.  An email had been sent to me at the University highlighting an advert by the BBC for a programme about astronaut training. We were down from the mountains for only 24 hours, but I opened and completed the short form, asking me questions about my fitness levels, education and so on. I returned to the mountains the following day, and set aside the ‘astronaut thing’, without telling anyone about it.

A couple of weeks later we briefly returned to sea level to resupply, and I had an email from the BBC asking for more information and a skype interview. I replied with some details, but there was no way I had the bandwidth for skype in the remote Argentinian Andes! This appeared only to increase their interest, and, eventually, I reached a town large enough to have good connection, from which (with snow-capped mountains in the background) I skyped the BBC and had a chat.

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Upon my return in January I was straight back into undergraduate lecturing, and alongside that, the BBC had a series of selection processes for me to undertake. I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing, or why I was suddenly cancelling climbing plans that had been in place for months!

Eventually, shortly before The Process began (with a capital T and a capital P), the BBC informed me that they had selected me as one of the candidates. Suddenly it all became very real! They sent me a train ticket and asked me to pack my bags.

The University term had not yet finished, and although they didn’t know what I was doing, my colleagues rallied round and covered the few remaining teaching commitments I had. The only people I could tell were the Head of my College and the Head of Department, both of whom were very supportive and gave me permission to take leave for an undisclosed period of time.  I was off!  The next adventure had begun!