The Alps I – Switzerland

Until last week i hadn’t been to the Alps for almost four years, either due to injury or other factors..so i set off eagerly with my snowboarder buddy Marcos the weekend before Easter. We travelled by car, Marcos driving stoically all the way, and we finally arrived very late on the night of Friday 11 April in the little town of Bourg-Saint-Pierre, not far from the Swiss border with Italy.

Bourg-St-Pierre, 1600m, Pays du St-Bernard, South-West Switzerland

The village of Bourg-St-Pierre, 1600m, Pays du St-Bernard, South-West Switzerland.

The next day we headed up the road towards the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, the historic mountain pass over which medieval pilgrims from the North of Europe travelled on their way to Rome..sometimes aided, or even rescued, by the monks who live there and their famous St-Bernard dogs. Today there is a long tunnel thru the mountains which facilitates access to the other side..the old road that continues up to the pass is covered in snow after 1900m.

The road to the Grand-St-Bernard..beginning to appear from under the snow.

The road to the Grand-St-Bernard..beginning to appear from under the snow.

As we were not going to the pass we quickly left the road and took the direction of the Combe de Drône, a high valley below the peak known as Pointe de Drône which reaches 2950m..what you might call Pyrenean dimensions, and a good objective for the first day.

Marcos headed for Pointe de Drône, the peak to his left.

Marcos headed for Pointe de Drône, the high peak to his left.

 

We reached the top, a narrow aesthetic snow arête, around midday after a fairly steep climb and hung out for a while enjoying the views and acclimatizing despite the cold wind and obviously changing weather. After about an hour there and with the clouds beginning to cover the sky, we prepared to ski/board..

Marcos on top, with the cloud building up all around.

Marcos on top, Italy stretching away beneath him, and cloud building up all around.

..and down we went. The snow in the steep section was a little bit funky but surprisingly good to ski, in an energetic sort of way, and we quickly got down the first 500m and away from the cold.

The pleasures of sliding descent..

The pleasures of sliding descent..

That left the flat valley where the snow immediately became more humid and sluggish..and even here and there a touch of pink! ..yes, the same Saharan sand that spread over the west of Europe in early April had reached as far as the Swiss Alps. Anyway with a little huffing and puffing we got back down to the road and the mouth of the tunnel where we had left the car.

Next day we got up at 6 for a more serious outing. Our objective was Mont Vélan, a 3727m peak, and 1800m of vertical climbing starting from the same point as the previous day.

Le Mont Vélan, 3727m, on the Swiss-Italian border.

Le Mont Vélan, 3727m, on the Swiss-Italian border.

Feeling pretty fit and strong, we quickly moved up steep frozen snow to reach the small flat glacier below the West Face of the mountain. From here we climbed Le Couloir d’Hannibal to reach the top of the mountain. Unlike the previous day when we were almost alone, there were at least thirty other ski-mountaineers on the route.

Looking back down Couloir D'Hannibal from about halfway up..

Looking back down Couloir D’Hannibal from about halfway up..

Unfortunately we were also accompanied by clouds which stuck to the flanks of the mountain all morning, occasionally lifting but quickly returning..and preventing the snow surface from softening. While this made for good conditions on the ascent, with crampons and ice-axe working optimally in the hard frozen snow, it didn’t bode so well for the descent..

Marcos reaching the top of the couloir..shrouded in cloud.

Marcos reaching the top of the couloir..shrouded in cloud.

..as skiing on such hard snow at around 45º is not so..ahm, attractive! We waited around for a while, went to the summit, skied back down to where the couloir begins..and finally decided to downclimb the first part of the couloir. Not too comfortable, but better than risking a serious fall.

The entry point to the Couloir d'Hannibal..during a moment when the clouds lifted.

The entry point to the Couloir d’Hannibal..during a moment when the clouds lifted.

After slowly downclimbing just over 100m we saw that the snow was indeed a little softer and, as soon as we found a suitable place to transition, we changed to boards..to complete the descent in sliding mode. Steep, jump turns, down, down, down..

Once out of the couloir it was good to ski fast and free..although on the lower mountain where the sun had been hitting all afternoon the snow became a real soup (even porridge!) and my legs began to tire fast, so i was glad to be finally down to the car-park after 4 in the evening.

Back to Bourg-St-Pierre.

Back to homely Bourg-St-Pierre.

The following day we moved to another village and towards the Italian side of the frontier and Mont Dolent..but that’ll be for another post.

 

Next up: The Alps II – Italy!

 

Posted in Mountain, Nature, ski, snow | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yoyo weather..and pink ski!

Last weekend the weather was bouncing around all over the place. On Friday there was fresh snow, great to ski, and the Sierra looked wonderfully wintry once more.

La Cuerda Larga seen from Peñalara, last Friday,

La Cuerda Larga seen from Peñalara, last Friday.

Then Friday night and Saturday it rained heavily – once more – right up to the tops of the mountains..washing away the fresh snow and leaving visible the layer of African sand brought by the winds of the previous week. Making for reddish-brown or even, some would say, pink snow.

Pink ski, anyone?

Pink ski, anyone?

I have to say the colour didn’t like me very much..and it wasn’t great snow to ski either. Anyway on Sunday we got out for what may be my son’s last day of ski this year..and it was ok despite the dodgy colours and textures.

Ready to ski down the morrena from close to 2200m.

Ready to ski down the morrena from close to 2200m..towards the pink stuff!

There were reports about sand from the Sahara reaching even as far as  Britain last week. I’m off to the Alps next week and i sure hope those winds didn’t swing towards the center of Europe!

 

Posted in children in Nature, ski, snow, Weather | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Earth Hour

I meant to do a post last week about celebrating Earth Hour on Saturday 29 March, when people all over the world turned out the lights and shut down electrical devices for an hour to show that they care about the planet..but i had a really busy week and just didn’t get around to it..

Candlelit dinner for Earth Hour..almost

Candlelit dinner for Earth Hour..almost.

Well, i mean to say..we did celebrate Earth Hour but i didn’t get around to doing the post about it. Above you can see the table set up for dinner..although the truth is that by the time we were ready to eat, Earth Hour was well over and, quite tired and not feeling particularly romantic or anything, we just put the lights on, ate and went to bed.

I suppose i’m not really big into collective actions in general, but i don’t want to be apathetic about Earth Hour. I’m sure millions of peeps around the globe had wonderful semi-dark dinners..maybe we’ll get it right next year.

Posted in Climate change, Conservation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Daffodils and snow..cold Spring days

Daffodils on my balcony under La Peñota

Daffodils on my balcony under La Peñota

A couple of daffodils opened  on the balcony the other day, a sure sign of Spring..and yet the following days saw temperatures below zero (the lowest was -2.4ºC on Thursday last)..and yesterday Saturday, though 0nly rain fell in Cercedilla, it snowed all morning in Cotos.

Heavy snow at Cotos on Saturday morning

Heavy snow at Cotos on Saturday morning, we were able to ski right down to the train.

Not the best day to be out weatherwise – especially when you are only four – although the fresh snow was great to ski. We got a couple of descents in before the blizzard forced us to take refuge in the station bar.

Unfortunately later in the day the snow seems to have turned to rain..but still, it’s a pretty cool start to Spring.

Posted in children in Nature, flora, Nature, ski, snow, the seasons, Weather | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Spring comes, bringing with it..Winter!

Close to the top of Siete Picos this afternoon

Close to the top of Siete Picos this afternoon

Well yes, it’s Spring isn’t it? Officially since last week..though in reality we’ve had three weeks of Spring weather since the beginning of March. But yesterday and today, surprise, Winter’s back..at least in the Sierra. In Cercedilla we awoke this morning to about 10cm of windblown snow, and higher up in the mountains there was up to 20cm..at least where the fierce winds that blew last night let it accumulate. So this afternoon we headed up to Siete Picos and..skied back into Winter, a decent ration of new snow and 3º below zero in the middle of the day.

Here's me on the way up, looking really chuffed to be out in the cold..to hell with the heat!

Here’s me on the way up, looking really chuffed to be out in the cold, in Spring..to hell with the heat! (Foto: Felix Ortiz)

Many of us cold-lovers were beginning to despair of the weather (once again) over the last week or so..until yesterday it looked like we were only going to get more rain and little new snow. However the meteo picture has changed slightly and with a bit of luck we might even get some more snow at the weekend. Hurrah for cold Spring days!

Posted in Nature, ski, snow, the seasons, Weather | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Paddy’s Day

I had quite a happy St Patrick’s Day..and i didn’t down seventeen pints of Guinness or a bottle and a half of Irish whiskey (traditional forms of “celebrating” the day in Éireann)..

Hermana Menor cornice with my ski tracks just about visible

Hermana Menor cornice with my ski tracks just about visible (top, leftish, hit by the sun)

No, i just got my skis out and downed a cornice on my local mountain a couple of times. Hardly a typical Irish way to celebrate(!)..and maybe not such a big deal but this is the same spot where i had the accident last year that threatened to put an end to my skiing shenanigans*. Certainly i thought it unlikely even up to a month ago that i’d be doing much in the way of jumping off cornices on skis again..just goes to show, you never really know. Truth be told, i was dropping in more than jumping..but i’m happy enough with myself one way or another!

*shenanigans: colloquial American English with a hint of Irish in it, meaning mischief, playing pranks or tricks, playing around.

Posted in language, ski, snow | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tragedy, dragons, avalanches..the mountains are beautiful but also dangerous

Why do people go to the mountains?

Because we are drawn by their beauty, by the incomparable sensations that the mountains provoke in us, because the experience of being in the mountains stirs our soul in a way that few other things do.

But going to the mountains is not only beautiful, it can also be dangerous. Witness the terrible death-count of this last weekend..six people lost their lives in different accidents in the Sierras of the center and north. Six people like you or me who were happy or excited on Friday evening or Saturday morning to be heading to the mountains for the weekend..six people who came home from the mountains in a box. They will never again be happy or excited, or sad or angry, about anything. Some might say that it’s a high price to pay for having fun in the hills.

In the mountains dwell dragons.

Ice dragon spotted on Hermana Menor last week

Ice dragon spotted on Hermana Menor last week

You’re not convinced? The nature of the beast is unclear? Well, take a look at this one from a couple of years back..

Frozen rime dragon..frozen in time

Frozen rime dragon..frozen in time

Can you doubt it? Do you not see the saliva dripping frozen from his terrible mouth? ..the coiled power of his tensed rear leg ready to defreeze, uncoil and pounce?

Yes, there is great beauty to be found in the mountains.

There are also very real dragons to be found in the mountains.

Last weekend there was also an accident in Guadarrama, on the steep frozen slopes of Cabezas de Hierro..not fatal but still serious and requiring heli-rescue. Maybe surprisingly, it did not involve an avalanche. I say maybe surprisingly because of the multiple and enormous avalanches that occurred during the earlier part of last week as a consequence of the massive amount of precipitation that fell over the previous weekend. When speaking of snow science in North American English it is typical to refer to factors of instability in the snowpack as dragons. So you have invisible dragons, hidden dragons, sleeping dragons..and so on.

Avalanche debris from a major slide above the Laguna Crande

Avalanche debris from a major slide above the Laguna Crande

I have never seen slides in Guadarrama as big as those of last week (and there have been very considerable avalanches in recent years)..nor extending over such a large area.

Looking towards Dos Hermanas, various slide paths and crown fractures can be observed

Looking towards Dos Hermanas, various slide paths and crown fractures can be observed. You can also see the frozen Laguna in the bottom left corner.

Probably most of these slides ocurred while the storm was still blowing, or soon afterwards, thereby limiting the possibility of accidents involving skiers or climbers.

Here you can see the debris reaching right down to the Laguna

Here you can see the debris reaching right down to the Laguna

Though in Guadarrama you never know..lots of people get out even in the worst weather imaginable. Myself included.

Looking in the opposite direction (towards Peñalara), the run-out of another big slide from the east of Hermana Menor

Looking in the opposite direction (towards Peñalara), the run-out of another big slide from the east of Hermana Menor

So..let’s be careful out there.

Posted in language, Nature, ski, snow, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments