Glacier research, climbing in glaciated valleys, and a glacial pace of recovery

It’s been (somewhat unbelievably) seven months since my last proper blog post in October 2018, which I wrote after my final session of radiotherapy. At that point I had grand plans of being back at work full-time before Christmas and had hoped to be training hard for the remains of the bouldering season. The reality of recovery, medication side effects and fatigue meant that I actually went back to work in January and was only able to work part-time hours up until a few weeks ago. In terms of climbing I’ve been trying my best to just enjoy being able to move with minimal pain now that my muscles are easing up a little post-surgery/radiotherapy, but I’ll admit to also being frustrated at my slow progress and lack of strength. This experience has taught me an important lesson about managing expectations (my own and those of others), but I know that having taken time out to recover, both physically and mentally, means I’m much less likely to reach “burn out” at the end of term this year, as is always a danger in academia.

The last few months have had plenty of challenges, but it certainly hasn’t been all bad… Three days after returning to work in January I found out that I had been successful in my first standard grant application as PI. The project is a UK-Peru collaboration looking at the impact of the changing role of glaciers for downstream water resources in the Peruvian Andes, funded by the Newton Fund through NERC, and an opportunity for me to have a mini glaciology research group here at Plymouth when my new Research Fellow starts work on the project in the summer! I wrote in a previous blog post that I had been heartbroken when I thought I’d have to give up on applying for this grant due to my surgery and treatment, but my amazing collaborators decided to crack on with writing it without me. I really am hugely indebted to them for their support in getting the application submitted, and I’m very much looking forward to working on this project over the next few years! The main challenge work-wise now is to find the time to get back into the research I enjoy so much, as reduced hours coupled with a busy semester of teaching and playing catch-up has left very little time for this since I got back to work. That said, I did manage a short trip to Vienna for EGU where I presented ongoing research on the presence of contaminants from nuclear fallout on the surface of glaciers around the world, and took part in my first press conference. These little work highlights have been a welcome distraction in a year that has been incredibly challenging.

I’m still struggling with the side effects of hormone treatment, including night sweats, joint pain, muscle cramps, and digestive problems, and have developed some hip and back issues that no amount of yoga seems to help, but on the whole I feel like I have more energy with each week that goes by. I reached a personal recovery milestone in April by climbing South Ridge Direct on Cir Mhor, Arran, a “Hard Rock” tick and a route that has been on my wish list for some time. Before heading to Arran Nick and I enjoyed a week of idyllic climbing in a sunny Lake District, getting some much needed trad climbing practise in since my treatment had kept us away from it for too long. We baked while climbing on warm rock, cooled our feet in mountain streams, and remembered just how good trad climbing can be. The day we climbed Cir Mhor was long and tiring, but more than worth a bit of suffering for the quality climbing and amazing views down the stunning glaciated valley of Glen Rosa. We left the campsite at 7:40am to start the long walk up the glen to the base of the climb, then swapped leads up the 400m route with all the efficiency of two climbers who clearly spend most of their time bouldering! We topped out to a full-on gale that had our ropes billowing out into mid-air, forcing only a short summit visit and a hasty descent, and got back to our tent at 9:30pm for beers and camping stove curry. I’m so happy that my body held up for long enough to let me climb this route only nine months after my breast cancer diagnosis, and I’m really pleased to have raised over £1100 for Climbers Against Cancer and given something back to the cancer research community in the process.

Looking ahead, I’ve got plenty of marking and admin to keep me busy, and a lot of paper-writing and new research to catch-up on, but I’m riding on a high from teaching our students about glacial processes during an excellent recent field trip to Iceland (always a highlight of the year). As for the climbing, it’s less about 400 m routes and more about 4 m boulders as I’m off to enjoy some bouldering in Fontainebleau next week. It’s only a couple of months until my one year “cancerversary”, when I’ll be hoping for clear scans, although I know the anxiety around recurrence won’t disappear completely. I’m also going to have to be careful about what commitments and travel I take on over the coming months so I don’t exceed my “new normal” in terms of capacity and energy, but here’s hoping the next year will be challenging for all the right reasons!


Caroline Clason

21st May 2019

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