Thursday, June 29, 2006

How not to go railfanning

A rather sad story about train surfing among poor youth in South Africa.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ethics on Mount Everest

(Note: absolutely no mention of trains in this post. Well, except this one.)

I've always had a minor fascination with Mount Everest. It started when I was maybe 10, and read John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, the account of the expedition that put Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the summit, 53 years ago. Since then I've managed (without particularly trying) to read a few other works -- some title-forgotten history of explorations of the mountain from its first discovery by Europeans, Chris Bonington's Everest The Hard Way (first ascent via the forbidding South West Face); and followed the progress of the 1982 Canadian expedition. However as with so many other things, what was once unique and remarkable becomes almost commonplace: according to the Everest History site, 2249 people had reached the summit by the end of 2004 -- over 300 in that year alone. From being among the most inaccessible spots on earth, it seems that Everest has gone to being a sort of esoteric (albeit expensive) tourist trap. It's no longer news.

But lest we get blase about what climbing the mountain entails, realize that the "Mother of the Universe" (as the mountain's Tibetan name Chomolungma means) exacts her own stern tithe from the tiny humans that crawl about her -- the history site also records a total of 186 deaths on the mountain. In round numbers, for every 12 people that have stood on the summit, there is one corpse -- many of which still lie where they fell overcome by cold and hypoxia, or buried beneath tonnes of ice in the Khumbu glacier. Chomolungma is well-guarded. The local weather means that she is only climbable for a few weeks in Spring and Fall -- the rest of the year it is either snowing like hell, or lethally cold and windy. Then there are the approaches to the mountain, through fields of unstable ice. Finally, the air pressure on the upper reaches is barely one-third that at sea level -- the top 850 meters lie within the "death zone", where no human can live for long without supplementary oxygen supplies. At that altitude, even with oxygen the body deteriorates quickly, and climbers cannot linger for long at the highest camp -- they make a quick push for the summit and return to base. This is not a Sunday scramble up the Niagara Escarpment: those who climb Everest are among the best in their rarified and highly technical sport, and are driven, focussed and determined people. You have to be to subject yourself to that level of discomfort and danger, for the privilege of standing atop what is after all, a very large lump of rock and ice.

All of which is just a long-winded way of leading up to the point of this blog post:

This collision of human ambition with sublimely indifferent lethality brought Everest back into the news the last month, with a pair of Good (or Not-So-Good) Samaritan stories. First, on 15 May climber David Sharp died at the 8500m level while descending. Controversy flared when it came out that some 40 climbers had passed him by without attempting a rescue -- the argument is covered in this Wiki article, so I won't belabour the point further. (I also won't take a position: having never been in anything remotely like that situation, I am in no way qualified to comment).

But I'm interested in the sequel: a week later, Australian climber Lincoln Hall also ran into trouble at the 8700m level on his descent. His Sherpa guide was forced to abandon him, and he was assumed to have died in the night. However, the next morning Canadian Andrew Brash found Hall still alive during his own summit attempt. As Brash relates, he immediately abandoned his quest and turned to aiding the stricken Hall, now delirious from hypoxia, with the result that he was eventually brought down alive. The CBC program As It Happens interviewed Brash, and along with his account of events, he expressed his disappointment and frustration at not reaching the summit -- a chance he may never have again. I was particularly struck by Brash's attitude: it was "the only thing to do". No question; no hesitation -- just do what you must, period. (Both the sense of obligation and the frustration come through with greater force in the radio interview than in the news item).

Now here's a thought experiment: suppose that Hall had not been there; that choosing whether or not to save him wasn't even an issue. Presumably, Brash would have gone on to the summit and returned. From that achievement, he would have obtained an enormous sense of personal satisfaction; the respect of his fellow climbing enthusiasts; the admiration of his friends and family; perhaps some awe from his students -- and the rest of us would probably never have heard of him. Being the 2687th (or whatever the count is now up to) to reach the summit of Everest is, as I say above, not "news". Instead, he's famous. Not as in movie star-famous or politician-famous; not famous because he wanted to be (because he didn't); but famous for a great moral achievment, a selfless act of compassion. And in that he has set a very public example -- to all of us; to the kids he teaches -- of the best that humans can be, in a world where we daily hear far too much of the worst. Andrew Brash will have to make his own peace with his "failure" to reach the highest point on earth; as a non-climber I cannot empathize with his disappointment except in the most abstract way. But for my money, what he did achieve is far greater.

Railfanning Galesburg

When our younger son Nicholas was considering higher education, he decided to look beyond the typical Eastern-Ontario destinations of Carleton, Queen's, McGill, etc. and eventually chose a small liberal arts college located in Galesburg, IL. It's a really nice college located in a town of about 30000, set in the Midwestern prairie. The main drawback is that it's a two-day drive to deliver Nic to school. However, from our point of view, there's an additional compensation that makes the trip well worthwhile -- a feature big enough to be visible in this satellite photo. See that long thin gray thing sticking south from town? That's one of the largest BNSF yards in the USA.

So last Labour Day weekend, having delivered offspring, assorted furniture, books and what-have-you to an apartment on a pleasant tree-lined street, we headed out for some train-watching....

First stop was the Railroad Museum, which displays artefacts and memorabilia from Galesburg's long history as a railroad town. On our last visit (see article in June 2005 Interchange), the collection was still housed in an old Pullman. However, they've now moved into a new depot-style building, with much more space to display the artefacts. For example, there's Nic "driving" the control stand out of a GP38.

Where to railfan?

It's only a small exaggeration to say that there are few places in Galesburg that aren't train-watching spots. The Museum, for example, is located next to the north end of the yard, where you can see arriving and departing Amtrak and freight -- some with fascinating open loads like this one:

However, possibly the best spot is the Thirwell Road bridge (see background of topmost photo), which spans the yard near its midpoint. What's more, though the road is only two lanes wide, the bridge was built with four lanes, so it's easy to just park in the curb lane and take pictures undisturbed by passing traffic. From up here there is an excellent view of the locomotive fuelling facility to the north of the bridge (and look at the variety of road-names on that line-up in the foreground -- how many of them are no longer in business?)

But the real action was taking place to the south of the bridge, in what (if I understand the layout correctly) is the eastbound classification yard. Here, 5205 is leaving eastbound with a long train. One thing I enjoy about BNSF trains is that they always use multiple engines -- no two of which are in the same paint scheme!

Meanwhile, way back in the top centre of the picture, two yard employees seem to be discussing the next job. Once 5205 gets out of the way the yellow/blue and green/white locos back there start to move.

But take a close look at the photo below left: do you see anyone in the cab of 6397? Who's driving that train?! You can't quite make it out at this resolution, but the red sign above the number boards reads: REMOTE CONTROL EQUIPPED. The operator is actually standing on the ground, just to the right of the last car. Of course, they warn you about this at the yard entrances with big yellow signs (below right). There's an irony here: while we model railroaders are trying to capture that "in the cab" experience, the real railroads are moving their operators out of the cab, and handing them little boxes to drive their engines with!

Here's another shot of both switchers in operation. 6397's driver is now standing next to the loco, and you can see the driver of 6215 (yellow/blue Santa Fe paint) hanging off the right side of the last hopper, as he makes a backing move through the ladder.

After enjoying the view from the bridge for a while (and shooting far more photos than I'm going to download -- DSLRs are a wonderful invention, and make it easy to get carried away and shoot ten pictures of everything in sight!) we drove down a gravel access road on the east side of the yard, until we came to a vehicle entrance. From here (without even going on the property), we could witness an interesting aspect of yard operation: a working hump! Here's a sequence showing a car going over the hill:

Railfanning Galesburg yard was a most enjoyable way to spend a few hours, even in a prairie heat wave. We look forward to getting back down there again this year!