2nd July 2014

Seismic Mountaineering in Kurdistan

You know it’s going to be an
interesting job when it starts with a flight from Heathrow that lands
in Iraq.

 You know it’s going to be even more
interesting when it’s all pretty last minute and coincides with ISIS
deciding to throw Iraq into turmoil.

Thankfully I was flying to Erbil, which
is in Kurdistan, a self governing area of Iraq which may well soon
become fully independent. That isn’t to say the Kurds don’t have
their own issues, but the current conflict doesn’t seem to be
spreading over into Kurdistan.

Precious Shade!

The job I was heading out to was to
work as a Mountaineer for an oil company on a seismic project.
Essentially this means keeping workers safe on steep, loose terrain
while they look for oil. It’s much more complicated than that but in
reality the mountaineers job is pretty straight forward guiding and
risk management. Occasionally we may be called upon to install data
receivers on cliffs or haul kit up, but mostly the exciting terrain
here is very avoidable.


Selfie whilst the surveyors sort their GPS out

 Our day starts at 0400 for breakfast,
it was 0500 but now the locals are on Ramadam hours so we have to
start earlier, which is actually pretty good because it should mean
we’re not out in the worst of the sun. We meet down in our office at
0430 and get ourselves sorted for the day and find out what teams
we’ll be supporting that day, mostly it’s the survey crew. I tend to
drink a couple of litres myself and carry a some spare bottles in
case any of the guys we’re working with run out. As well as the
guiding etc, we need to be able to deliver a decent level of first
aid until the paramedic crew can reach us in an emergency – which
could be some time, we may also need to haul / lower casualties in
stretchers etc. we’ve done some extra training in this regard some of
it with the super experienced medics who are also top guys.

The de miners making progress on typically loose terrain

 The work is pretty dangerous for a
couple of reasons other than the terrain, so when we’re set we leave
camp with our team and meet the De-Mining team and the Oilfield
Protection Force. The area has been the scene of many wars over the
years and there are many minefields as well of plenty of unexploded
ordinance, mostly from the Saddam Hussein era when he was attacking
the Kurds. The de-mining crew of about 6 people sweep in front and
around us to check for explosives. The OPF guys follow us around with
their AK 47s, because many of the locals have weapons and situations
do arise when they are angry for various reasons. We in turn are
responsible for keeping them all safe in the terrain we’re operating

OPF and John the surveyor

Most mornings something happens to
delay us starting work out in the field…. Some days the locals block
the road in demand of more jobs, we’ve lost two days work in my time
here, which is kind of good as it means no work, but there’s nothing
to do on camp so we do a bit more training and then go for a “Safety
Snooze”. If it’s not road blocks, the de miners might be on strike
for a while until their demands are met, this can waste an hour or
two. Other days like today it could just be a flat tyre on one of the
4x4s. Today this happened and there was no spare wheel. No problem,
another one was en route to us, however this one was also flat!
Another one turned up eventually but we didn’t actually start work
until nearly 0900 when it’s already heating up, 42c is the hottest
it’s been so far but today it was only high 30s with plenty of trees
for shade.

Hot, but it will get hotter…

 Today we were walking up “Line 5”,
across some fairly broken, loose and steep terrain to the impassable
cliff at the top of the hill. The de-miners were doing a good job
today, they’re not always completely convincing but they had one of
their ex pat supervisors with them… My colleague Tom was near the
front picking appropriate lines for the survey crew to get to where
they needed to be whilst I swept along at the back counting heads and
making notes for the terrain assessment documents we produce back at
camp. Some care was required today as the terrain was a bit sketchy
but we all got up and down without incident and plenty of rest in the
shady trees. Most days we see some interesting wild life, today it
was a big Preying Mantis and some Eagles. I have seen one monster
snake but as yet no scorpians or Camel spiders – thank god!

Back at camp all that’s required is to
get all the emergency kit and cool box of water out of the 4×4, put
the radios, gps and sat phone back, then it’s lunch time in an air
conditioned room. We’re given packed lunches but we’re mostly back by
1400 so I eat when I get back, today, as it is most days it’s a
baguette with some slightly dodgy corned beef and soft cheese, a
whole cucumber, apple, 7 Up and a boiled egg. The next highlight of
the day, after a power nap is dinner.

The food on camp is pretty good to be

fair, mostly it’s rice and unknown meet, probably goat but there’s
often chips and chicken type options and always fresh water melon for
desert. Breakfast is usually some mix of scrambled egg, sometimes
with frankfurters or cheese and plenty more water melon and cereal.
The food is probably the highlight of the camp, there isn’t much to
do… We have got a TV now for the World Cup but the games are on
quite late so I’m usually too knackered to watch them. There’s talk
of a gym which would be great, although we’re out walking in the
hills it would be good to do some proper phys. Other than that it’s
playing on the internet or Skyping home, but that’s a bit hit and
miss as the wifi connection comes and goes with infuriatingly

 Occasionally we have to do something
out of the ordinary, this week I had to go and get a Visa from the
city so that was a nice day out, we managed to go out for lunch and
have a look around the shops. What wasn’t so good was as part of the
visa process you get a blood test which I seemingly don’t cope to
well with, I nearly passed out afterwards, repeatedly!

Lots of climbing potential!

 The work is very easy for someone who’s
spent a lot of time in the mountains, but it can be a little dull, I
miss taking clients out on Idwal Slabs introducing them to
multi pitching etc, on the flip side though the money is very good.
This job definitely wouldn’t be for everyone, we are on a short hitch,
it’s only a 4 week one but even then it’s hard to be away from home
plus it’s a “dry” camp so no nice cold beer after work.

Stretcher drills

 It’s yet another job that has opened up
to me due to having my MIA and I really like having the wide variety
of types of work. I’d certainly consider doing this sort of work
again, but I wouldn’t want to make a career of it, but I have a
couple of weeks left still and then another couple of weeks after a
two week break so my opinion might well change yet. I do really miss climbing too!

Something I haven’t mentioned is the
environmental destruction the oil company is causing, bulldozing
tracks through stunning scenery is something I really struggle with,
as is the expectation of spray painting hazards – something I have
avoided doing. But we do employ lots of local guys and not just for
the menial jobs so it isn’t all black and white. Kurdistan sold it’s
first private oil shipment this week and you would think it’s vital
for their progress in surviving separately from Iraq.

Hopefully we’ll get to do some more
roped stuff as the project progresses, the next section looks to have
more big (very big) rock slabs on it, so fingers crossed. There’s
definitely lots of climbing potential here, but the mines and people
with guns may put you off a little. For the most part though the
locals have been exceptionally friendly.

If you’re interested in seismic work
the background the mountaineers seem to come from an MIA or Rope Access
background with plenty of personal experience. I’ve probably missed things I wanted to say, but my brains frazzled from the sun!

A few more photos are on my FB page

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