Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The expedition/RockPod advice conundrum

So, I got an email out of the blue the other day from someone I don’t know, and for whom a quick Google search revealed no information. It simply asked:

“whats the status of your rockpod? Is it available for loan/hire/sale for another Rockall occupation attempt.?”[sic]

This posed a deeper question that I thought was perhaps worth a blog:

I have obviously considered the fact that someone may come along at some point and attempt to break the forty five day solo occupation record I recently set on Rockall, and it was for this reason that I had originally planned on being there for sixty days, in the hope that this would be a sufficient amount of time to put off any usurpers for at least the twenty nine years Tom McClean waited for me to turn up. In actual fact, if whoever does attempt this challenge enjoys the planning, research and experience as much as I did, then I’m looking forward to following them when they do take Rockall on, and I’ll wish them well. However, as I know from experience, sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere is not as simple a challenge as it seems.

It now appears that my record might be challenged sooner than I expected, but my own experience tells me that this task is a greater one than it appears to the layman: I originally thought I’d be on the rock with the record broken in under two years from conception; it actually took me five years of work to break the twenty nine year old solo record.

My initial response, in order to give me some thinking time, was “Probably not immediately, but when were you thinking of going?”

This was an intriguing request, and demanded some thought and perhaps the input of others, so I turned to the internet and sought the views of my Twitter and Facebook followers, a sample of whom responded thus:

“No ... tell them to do one!"

“No way. He needs to start from scratch if he wants to attempt it..

“It's a record worth going for BECAUSE it's tough, not because someone gives you half your preparation as a freebie. Help the chap make a worthwhile attempt by giving him encouragement and information, if you feel like it, but he needs to source the rest himself.”

“If they are genuine and responsible then be magnanimous, to a point. Don't start a craze else you might be criticised [sic] for encourage an inappropriate rush for the rock!!

“Yes, unless you're going to do it again yourself of course. Someone will eventually beat it, why not be part of the attempt? All the best sportsmen go on to train the next generation.”

“I'd give a Hell No to the idea of taking the RockPod but limited advice could be good. If only so they don't kill themselves!”

“you did it all on your own nick start to finish if you are to be beaten it should be in the same way [sic] I think friendly advice is one thing but telling them so much that you're doing some of the work for them is another...”

I think these are all valid points and they represent a reasonably diverse range of attitudes, that any information provided should be balanced with the advice that it is only by doing your own research that you can truly understand the enormity of any challenge and what is required to complete it safely and successfully.

After my initial response, more detail followed, with a brief outline of an idea for an expedition and the suggestion of a start to some research. The outline suggested a different format, with ongoing support to remain on Rockall for as long as possible, making this embryonic expedition a very different prospect for the purist, in the same way that I always wanted to start my expedition by landing by boat, rather than by helicopter (cost aside), as Tom McClean had done. For me, I couldn’t claim Tom’s record if I hadn’t landed the same way. By having on going support, and I may be being picky here, its not the same challenge.

Anyway, after that thought, someone made me think about the potential legal liability I might be opening myself up to by loaning or selling the RockPod on. I don’t know if I would be, but you can imagine someone out there suing you for providing their family member with a used ‘survival’ pod that didn’t help them survive: a potential minefield! The RockPod was hit by big weather that I expected to experience and designed for, but at the time I wasn’t sure if it would withstand any more weather like or worse than I had experienced, and I don’t know what, if any, structural damage was caused that can’t be seen.

My final response is below, and hopefully it satisfies both my wish to help others have a go, but also my insistence that whoever does eventually beat the record I’ve set does it the ‘right’ way, which in my mind is the safest and perhaps purest way. It was only by doing the research, brain storming, meeting and speaking to the right people, reconnaissance, testing, repeat testing, adaptation of design, failure, and more testing and research over a period of five years (not the original one and a half I thought it would take me) that I was successful.

“I've had a think about your requests, and hope that my record will be challenged one day, as it should be.

“Regarding loan/sale of the RockPod, I'll have to say no for a number of reasons which include, but are not limited to, its sentimental value to me and my family, the fact that it may have been structurally damaged during the storm I experienced, and that although I was happy to put my own life in the hands of my self-designed shelter, I wouldn't be happy to allow anyone else, however experienced, to trust my design and construction skills. That's all aside from the fact that for me a large part of the enjoyment of the expedition was designing and constructing the RockPod, which I hope you will enjoy too; knowing the detail of how your shelter is put together will give you some reassurance when times get tough.

Regarding the provision of information and advice, I suspect that many of the answers you'll need will either become obvious as you progress your planning, or readily available on the internet, but if not do ask.

I wish you well in the planning and development of your shelter, and look forward to following your progress. If you have any specific questions, I'd be more than happy to look at them.

Good luck!”

I don’t know if this is the ‘right’, ‘correct’ or ‘best’ answer, but it’s the best I can offer, and hopefully it’ll generate some debate on actually how much help or advice you should give someone hoping to attempt a dangerous challenge that you have completed, without knowing who they are nor what experience they have. As one follower summed up:
Once upon a time when I was climbing a big hill in the alps - someone asked our advice on the appropriate route up. The most experienced in our party was polite but firm and provided what I thought was an unreasonably small amount of info. I committed to memory this lesson; not to give strangers a false sense of safety or security. If they don't know, should you tell them?
As Shackleton once said, "A short cut is often the longest way around."

Monday, 28 July 2014

Final Expedition Blog - posted in The Guardian

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If you didn't see it then, this is the final expedition blog which was posted in The Guardian last week:


I'm finally back home, after several days of waiting and travelling. Now its time to take stock, reflect on the expedition and look back on the experience. By far the most dramatic part of my stay on Rockall was weathering the severe weather overnight on the 1st July. The forecast predicted wind speeds of 40mph, with gusts of 51mph, peaking around 0100hrs on the 1st July. I had an anemometer with me, which broke that night, but which recorded a maximum speed of 47mph and a gust of 55 mph, between 2200 and 2230, which is Force 9 to 10 on the Beaufort Scale (Strong Gale to Storm force), three hours before the predicted peak!




Due to the sea spraying the RockPod, fifteen metres above sea level, I had to have all my hatches closed tight. During the night the wind turbine had fully charged the battery, so the charge controller dumped the excess power as heat into the pod. With the hatches shut, the internal temperature rapidly built until it was over thirty degrees centigrade. It being dark outside, I couldn't see the sea state and so just had to lie there and wait. The noise of the wind and the constant spray meant I got no sleep, and at around 0300hrs a wave hit the pod hard. The RockPod and I were physically shunted about a foot to the side, with a thankfully rapid return to somewhere near our original position. I was scared, and seriously thought that if a similar or bigger wave hit, the ratchet straps or fixings might fail. Fortunately, that was the biggest wave and I spent the rest of the night lying in the dark, jumping every time the pod was sprayed or hit by smaller waves, and waiting for the conditions to calm.




At first light, I checked that all the straps were still connected to the rock, which thankfully they were, and then waited until the weather had calmed sufficiently for me to have a proper inspection. There was seaweed all over the pod and barrels, the rock had been scrubbed clean of the guano left by the birds, and a nest above me, just below the summit, was gone! Moving around the RockPod, I retightened some of the straps which had become slack, evidence that the pod was no longer in its original position, and saw that I had four barrels of kit and supplies missing: in addition to losing my climbing hard wear and buoyancy aid, I had more seriously lost quite a bit of food. (I should say that in anticipation of the storm I had brought as much food into the pod as would comfortably fit, and so was left with more than had I not taken that precaution.) I had enough food remaining to get me to over fifty days if I was frugal, but would struggle to reach sixty without losing strength that I would need for lowering the pod and my kit at the end of the expedition.




A visual inspection of the pod structure suggested that it was fine, but I couldn't inspect the back plates to the fixing points as they were covered over, and I was worried that the pod may not survive another similar or more severe weather episode. In addition, one of the rock fixings had bent and with the majority of the others being almost twenty years old, I was not entirely confident that they would survive either. I spoke to my support team and the Coastguard to get a long range forecast, as if there was to be severe weather in the next couple of weeks, I would have had to consider evacuating immediately.




Next I spoke to Kilda Cruises to ask when they could get me off the rock, before my food ran out; because they are a commercial charter company, they have a full diary of jobs. They confirmed that they could move a charter, but that it would mean coming off Rockall the following week, just before I achieved the occupation records. This was not ideal, but I decided it was better to get off when I could rather than push my luck and get stuck. However, the forecast wasn't great for that date and they were able to move another charter which meant that they would come off shortly after I achieved the records. In the end the actual evacuation date was a balance between available food, boat availability and the weather and although this meant I would not reach my target of sixty days, I would still be able to beat both the 40 day solo and the 42 day group occupation records.




Achieving the records was amazing after five years of planning. I celebrated with a tiny bottle of champagne, which helped me sleep, and received a message of congratulations from one of the Greenpeace occupation team. In addition, the total amount I'd raised for Help for Heroes took a significant jump upwards once I had passed the records (




My final few days on Rockall were spent dismantling and packing up the wind turbine and the remainder of my kit. As I didn't want to leave anything but the permanent fixings on Rockall, I had a lot more equipment inside the pod when it was lowered than when it went onto Rockall, but the weight was less of an issue for lowering than lifting. Orca 3 arrived on Saturday around midday, having radioed from nine miles out so that I could prepare and release the last of the straps holding the pod to the rock and pour away my remaining fresh water. Conditions allowed a TV camera man to land and climb up to Hall's Ledge, so that we could record the first interview on Rockall before I left the rock, down climbing and jumping into the sea at the base of cliff, before climbing aboard the boat for the journey back to shore. After a long journey back, with a stop over at St. Kilda, it was brilliant to see my little boy jumping around excitedly on the quay and to hug my wife. After the boat was unloaded and interviews complete, we retired to a hotel where I could have my first shower in 45 days, and enjoyed a lovely evening back with my family in a little bit of luxury.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Final blog from the rock

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On Sunday I had some poor weather, coming from the south as it was meant that I had no shelter from the wind, nor the bands of rain and mist that came through all day. As usual, when this happens, this resulted in a generally pod bound day reading. I in fact read most of Bill Bryson's 'Travels in Europe' in between exercises with my Thera-band when it was dry enough to stand up in the pod. Fortunately, the wind had peaked in the night, I'd slept through it, and the wind slowly decreased throughout the day. The gannets returned in numbers, and have taken to landing on 'the patio' area at the west end of the ledge when they are not diving for fish below me. When they did land, I spoke to them firmly, pointing out that they would soon have the rock to themselves again, if they could just be patient.


There have been only three trawlers about this week, including K373 'Aalskere' and K121 'Keila', and my friend the oily kittiwake, whom I have imaginatively called 'Kitti' has been resting a lot on the ledge, even allowing me to get within a metre or so of him. He can still fly, and seems to be slowly cleaning up, but is obviously not quite right. As I have had to pack up the wind turbine a couple of days before I leave, I have been charging and discharging a couple of pieces of kit that I have not used much in order to try and get the batteries to hold their charge for long enough to reach the end of the expedition.


On Monday, I set up and started the second of my two Leica GNSS surveys, the data from which will be cross referenced with the first survey, now that the satellites are in a different position, in order to calculate the exact position and height of Rockall more accurately. In addition, I used the time I was out of the RockPod to collect a few more orientated rock samples for St. Andrew's University, and also made an attempt at drawing the back wall above Hall's Ledge and its main features for future reference. In the afternoon, the 'James Clark Ross' reappeared having been up to Iceland, and came close again, taking more photos and some video of me as they passed. They were here for over half and hour, we chatted on the VHF, then they headed home to Scotland.


Tuesday was a good but quiet day, despite the wind being from the south all day as it was low and there was no rain. Small blessings! In addition, it was a new solo occupation record for Rockall, and a day that I had been planning for and thinking about for over five years. My first job for the day was taking down and packing away the Leica GNSS receiver and backing up the data it had collected in the past twenty four hours. Apart from that, not much happened. I watched the gannets diving, and the minke passing. There have been three trawlers at the rock this week, and I went onto the lee North side of the rock and watched them, out of the incessant wind, for while.


Yesterday was the first day of packing up and preparing to leave proper. The forecast was for low winds. As I wasn't going to generate very much power anyway I planned to dismantle the wind turbine. Having done this before at home to practice, I though it would take me most of the day, if I worked slowly. In fact, even at a slow pace, I had it down and packed away in around two hours. The turbine head had come onto Rockall in a large barrel to protect it, but as I lost one of these I'm hoping a dry bag will be sufficient for getting it off. In addition, I've put the charge controller into a barrel, it came on inside the RockPod, as I may have to drop the pod off the rock and I don't think the controller would survive the shock of hitting the water. Having taken it down, it was amazing how much space there appeared to be on the summit, and I spent some of the afternoon enjoying walking about on a flat surface for the first time in weeks, albeit not very far! At the end of the day, I checked my emails to discover that my departure date has been pushed back 24 hours. This I think is due to the wind direction, which will be behind the boat when they leave Leverburgh on Friday evening, dropping to next to nothing when they arrive at Rockall, and turning round to be behind them on the way home too. Another day here means another day onto my new occupation record, but having taken down the turbine yesterday, may mean that I'm short on power tomorrow; hence why I'm posting this blog today rather than on my last night on the rock.


This morning I was rudely awoken at 0630 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute vessel 'Knorr' over the VHF. We had a good chat; they told me that they had been laying moorings in the area and had come to Rockall specifically to see me. An added bonus, as today marks the longest anyone has ever been on Rockall, was that they set off a barrage of fireworks in my honour from their rear deck, which was amazing to see all the way out here, but probably shocked some of the fishing boats! The rest of today I've just spent reading, doing a bit of minor packing of kit, pondering about how I'd go about repairing the derelict light beacon housing on the summit, and looking out for seals and minke whales. Having complete most of the tasks I set myself before I came here, there really is now not a lot to do out here.


The photo is looking down on the RockPod from the summit plateau. I should still be able to Tweet tomorrow night, but this will be my last blog from Rockall. Thanks for following the expedition, and remember that you can still support me in aid of Help for Heroes at . Once I'm onboard Kilda Cruises' boat Orca 3 on Saturday, hopefully around lunchtime, you should be able to track my return to land live here:

Nick Hancock FRGS
Twitter: @RockallNick #RockallSolo
Sponsor Nick in aid of Help for Heroes at

Please forward all Press and Media enquiries regarding the expedition to Iain MacIver
Tel: 0845 860 2411

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Blog Day 36

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I've been waking up earlier in the mornings since the storm, and this morning was no different. However, the sea was probably the calmest its been since I got here, in stark contrast to events just over a week ago. There was no wind at all, no waves, and a very slight swell. Today infact was one of the days that Kilda Cruises initially proposed to come and get me off the rock after the storm; we would have had perfect conditions for it this morning. As it is, they will be coming next week at some point, although they are awaiting the week's forecast on Sunday before making a decision as to which day.


The solo record of forty days is on Monday, so I will have beaten it on Tuesday. Similarly the group and longest record is on Wednesday, so I will have beaten it on Thursday. At the moment, the forecast for Wednesday is not great, so I'm speculating that I will be coming off on Thursday or Friday, having completed the main goals of the expedition: beating the two occupation records (although not by very much) and raising money for Help for Heroes (almost £7,000 as I write this), which is great. My sixty day target was always an arbitrary figure I had just on, with no real significance, as it was a nice round figure and represented two months here. It would have been nice to push the records out that far, but I'm not too disappointed that I won't be here for another couple of weeks. Yesterday, strangely, I did get a feeling of disappointment at the prospect of leaving soon. I think that this is partly because I've had to cut the trip down due to the loss of supplies, fitting in with weather windows and with boat availability, but I also think is more because I had wanted to record as much about Rockall, whilst I had this opportunity, as possible. The loss of my climbing hardware, along with the knock that my confidence has taken, has restricted me to the upper levels of the rock, whereas I had hoped to go down almost to sea level, on ropes, on calm days like today.


I've had a couple of lovely days of weather since the storm, and the wind has been mainly from the West and North West, until today, so that when it has been higher I have been sheltered on the South face. This has all combined, along with me getting out and about again, to settle my nerves, and I'm now much happier and enjoying being here again. My recent explorations have revealed that the rock has been scrubbed clean by the storm: guano stains have been removed from the light housing on the summit which is now partially filled with water and floating guillemot eggs, the 'patio' and 'ramp' sections of Hall's Ledge are completely clean, and a gannet nest with egg that was in a cleft above me near the summit has gone completely!


There are again a couple of trawlers about, but nowhere near as many as before. However, a couple of days ago I was visited by the research vessel 'James Clark Ross', registered in the Falklands. They were enroute from Canada to Iceland, and when I pointed out, over the VHF, that Rockall wasn't on that route, they told me that they were doing a bit of research here too, about a mile away, heading North, and would be back again in a few days. Once they had finished whatever it was they were recording they came back past the rock, within probably two hundred metres, close enough for me to shout to them, and see over thirty people taking photos of me and waving. It was a big ship, the biggest since I got here, and having it so close was amazing. The photo is of them heading North after passing by.


Also over the past few days, I started and have now completed a geomagnetism survey for St. Andrew's University. Again, I had hoped initially to go far and wide over the rock to complete this, but restricted as I now am, I confined myself to the extended area of Hall's Ledge. I was pleased, though, that I was still able to record eleven transects. I'm not sure how much use the data will be, but they have said that anything I can record will be "interesting"! I have also been collecting a number of rock samples for them as I go, which I have attempted to record the orientation of in situ so that they can reproduce that orientation in the lab, which has been also been fun and perhaps more importantly, time consuming. It occurred to me yesterday that I could also use the grid I had effectively created with the transects to map out Hall's Ledge fairly accurately, so I have been doing that this morning too.


Aside from all that, I have been reading a lot, and am now enjoying the autobiography of Malcolm X. One of the issues with reading so much in a cramped pod is that I am obviously resting on the same points on my body all the time, which means that I have started to develop a sore patch near the base of my spine. If I sit up to read then the top of my back quickly starts to ache from being hunched over! I've also developed a twitch under my eye. I don't know why, but it is annoying at times! Whilst reading I have seen a number of kittiwakes with brown clumpy stains on their tails, backs, and wings. I'm assuming that this must be oil or something similar they have picked up locally which is a real shame. The first one I saw a few days ago now seems to be cleaning up slowly, and they all seem to be able to fly still.


My thoughts are now turning to coming off the rock and how I now go about this with less barrels for kit and no climbing hardware. The remaining barrels of kit won't be an issue to lower down to the boat, but I had planned to use a Petzl ID to lower the RockPod off the cliff, the way it came up. Now that I don't have that piece of equipment, I need to find an alternative. The back-stop option is just to push the pod off the rock and hope for the best; although I think the pod will survive the fall, the shock of hitting the water may crack the hatches, and if the pod were then to roll, it would fill with water and be lost. I'd prefer to take it home, one so that its not a danger to shipping and two as it's the most iconic item associated with the expedition. Having emailed the guys at Summit Rescue who know the pod well, having winched and lowered it up and down the crag at Ratho with me in training many times, they have recommended a 'Super Munter Hitch' which I will be practicing with over the next few days. There is also an option to slide the pod down a slope at the side of the ledge with a smaller drop at the end, so that may be the way forward.

Nick Hancock FRGS
Twitter: @RockallNick #RockallSolo
Sponsor Nick in aid of Help for Heroes at

Please forward all Press and Media enquiries regarding the expedition to Iain MacIver
Tel: 0845 860 2411

Friday, 4 July 2014

Day 30

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Today should have been a bigger milestone than it actually is due to the events of this week. I should have been celebrating the half way mark to the sixty days I had originally planned to be on Rockall for. Instead I've been here a month and am now counting down the days until I go home.


The storm that hit on Tuesday night was the worst experience of my life, ever. I have never been so scared, not helped by the worst of the weather coming in the hours of darkness so I could neither see nor brace myself for impacts by spray and waves. All evening and into the night the sea state slowly got worse and the wind strength grew to over gale force, until at around 0300hrs the pod was hit hard by a wave, fifteen metres above sea level. We were shunted around a foot but fortunately quickly returned to our original position. I was sure that if I was hit with another wave like that or bigger, that would be me washed off Rockall. Fortunately that was the biggest. At least part of the reason that I was so badly affected is that Hall's Ledge is South facing, and all the waves and wind were coming at me from the South. Had they been from the North, or even round to the North West or East I would have been at least partly sheltered, but in fact had to take the full brunt of the storm head on.


Frankly, after that, my nerves were wrecked for the rest of the night and I'm still not fully recovered. Even today I'm getting involuntarily apprehensive at slightly bigger waves crashing below me, which before the storm I would not have been bothered about. I lost four barrels of kit, which contained my buoyancy aid and quite a lot of my remaining rations, although fortunately I had brought as much food as I could fit into the pod before the storm. A quick inspection on Wednesday morning revealed slack in the ratchet straps at the East end of the pod, confirming that it had not returned fully to its original position, but no obvious damage, except for the lost kit. The barrels had all been tethered to the rock, the pod or both. The tethers hadn't failed, but the handles on the barrels had been torn off and left forlornly swinging on the leashes.


It was obvious that I would not now be able to complete my goal of sixty days here, but I though I still had enough food to reach the records. I then spent much of the day on the Inmarsat IsatPhone2 speaking to the Coastguard, Kilda Cruises, Iain MacIver and my wife trying to discover what my options were. Kilda Cruises are obviously a commercial charter company and so have a full diary. Fortunately two extra boats are becoming available, the weather seems to be generally improving, and so we have agreed that I will continue to go for the occupation records but will come off Rockall as soon after that as the weather allows, and certainly before I run out of food.


I am very grateful to Kilda Cruises and their team for the effort they have gone to in order to help me out at such short notice. I should also mention that LPG Exceptional Energy and Calor offered to try and get more food out to me here. I declined as the cost would be significant, I'd rather money was donated to Help for Heroes, and a boat coming to drop off food may be using the best weather window I have to get off here safely. I would also like to thank Inmarsat and Wireless Innovation, as without the excellent and reliable communications they have provide me with, I may have had no option but to pull the plug on the expedition and call out the Coastguard.


This morning, I managed to get out of the pod for a good period of time, before it started to rain again, and whilst properly tidying up the remaining barrels and ropes, confirmed that I have enough food left to eek out to between forty five and fifty days. This is good news as it gives me a bit of a buffer should the weather not be great around the time of the records. I've spent the remainder of the day reading, listening to music and trying to ignore the wind and waves outside. I keep forgetting to say that the music on my iPod includes the albums 'The Band from Rockall' by Callum and Rory MacDonald and 'Rockall' by The House Band; very apt I think. The forecast is not perfect but is steadily improving into next week, and current indications are that it will remain good for the remainder of my time here, for which I am very grateful. My motivation is now to achieve the two records in ten and twelve days respectively, and then get home safely.

Nick Hancock FRGS
Twitter: @RockallNick #RockallSolo
Sponsor Nick in aid of Help for Heroes at

Please forward all Press and Media enquiries regarding the expedition to Iain MacIver
Tel: 0845 860 2411