(Fat)bike fever!

I have never been too convinced either about the place of mountain bikes in the mountains or of their value as vehicles of human integration in Nature. Sure, they can be useful for getting around moderately difficult terrain in hilly areas..but so too can a bulldozer, or a pair of legs. Like a large caterpillar vehicle, the effect of multiple MTB wheels especially in downhill scenarios can be quite destructive to vegetation and soil. (So too can lots of legs in boots if they keep wandering off trail.) The erosion -and sometimes brutal degradation- caused by mountain bike activity is very visible in my local Fuenfría Valley for example. Add to this the fact that i had a couple of unhappy experiences rolling down the hills almost two decades ago and the result was that i gradually reduced my two-wheel activities until i finally gave them up entirely.

Catch me if you can!

Catch me if you can!

Fifteen years down the line, my five-year-old -encouraged by me- really begins to like biking. At first he follows me as i run along in front, pacing and directing him..then, as he reaches six and begins to move those pedals, I run alongside him or just behind. When he turns six it begins to get difficult to keep up even on the flat, and when he starts to roll downhill.. forget it. So i had to buy a bike.

Trouble was..even after a year or more thinking about it, i was having a hard time getting my head around the idea of riding a bike again..let alone what type of bike to buy. I knew i didn’t want a road bike, and i knew that if the objective was to get out with my son on the dirt roads, forestry tracks and easy trails that are accessible to us locally, then it had to be a mountain bike. But what kind of MTB? In the intervening years the sport has mushroomed into dozens of disciplines..and a myriad of bikes. Just going into a shop can make your head swirl..and that’s before you see the prices. The apparent complexity of bicycles and their components nowadays requires an industrial engineering degree just to understand what the wheels do. (Back in my day they used to just turn..) After a few pathetic attempts to get with it, i decided to buy a fairly cheap, unspectacular “hardtail” bike (with only front suspension) on the second-hand market. But even this turned out to be more complicated than i expected..

About this time i read a comment somewhere on the net from a guy who was sixty-something years old and had recently bought a fatbike and was really loving it. He said that he hadn’t had so much fun on a bicycle in several decades. That got my attention. I began to look at this new concept of two-wheeled travel with big fat tyres..and i liked it. For one thing there are not that many fatbikes available in Europe yet, so choice was limited – a good thing! On the other hand, they don’t exactly come cheap. Even the most basic models won’t leave you much change out of a thousand euros. And even the cheapest one from across the Atlantic will come with several hundred euros delivery. And since they are still relatively new locally, the second-hand market has little to offer. However, some local European bike companies are beginning to catch on to this new trend and produce their own basic models..

Enter the fatbike!

Enter the fatbike!

Way back in the early nineties i had purchased a Bottecchia mountain bike in Italy and given it considerable use, it was a solid and reliable performer..so when i came across the Italian brand’s first venture into fat tyre bike terrain, i decided to check it out. It was reasonably affordable too.. and SO i finally got myself some wheels! The fun followed from the first day out. Well, to be honest, the first day out i went over the bars and was lucky not to get seriously hurt..the perils of powerful disc brakes!

But yes, having survived the first day, it really has been fun, fun, fun. And now i can keep up too!

(More to come on the fabness of fatbiking..)


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Nature and light

The ways in which we can experience Nature are many..moving thru the mountains is one way to do it..personally i love to ski in places where few people go..walking in the forest is another way..picking mushrooms or observing flowers..or the changing colours of the seasons..any one of these activities can put us in touch with the natural world.

WP_20151002_002 (2) But just the experience of light alone, even in an urban environment..on the street outside your front door, can offer quite a deep contact with the cosmos that transcends us. The late morning sunrise at this time of year makes for a real spectacle..not only in mountains and forests but also between blocks and on pavements.

Several mornings recently i have found myself playing with the shadows and the slopes in the streets near my house on the way home from dropping my son to school..à la Giacometti!

WP_20151014_09_26_02_ProJust how long can i get those legs to stretch in the morning light? Adds a new dimension to giving yourself a good stretch after a sound night’s sleep!

Also pretty apt for this time of year from a Celtic point of view..the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sau-in’), which corresponds to modern Halloween, celebrated the beginning of the dark time or the dark half of the year. For the Celts it was also something like ‘new year’ as they saw the year starting in darkness, with – months later – the light and new life springing from the dark.

Speaking of the dark, observing the night sky is of course another wonderful way to connect with the cosmos that surrounds and constitutes us..but unfortunately this is not so easy to do – at least not on a regular basis – for most urban dwellers. However we have not yet taken the daylight away from ourselves..so, on bright mornings, get out there and enjoy!

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Autumn fernfest in Guadarrama

WP_20151011_12_40_07_ProAs i have pointed out in the past, Autumn colour in the Sierra de Guadarrama depends largely on the humble fern. The oaks of the lower valleys sometimes turn a rusty red, but in low rain years they just go quietly brown. At higher elevations the predominance of the wild pines doesn’t make for much colour..but the ferns that grow between the tall trunks – with sufficient humidity – can offer a considerable spectacle.

WP_20151018_12_53_02_Pro (2)And so it is, once more this year. Despite the very dry Summer, the rains of September and October have been enough to bring about a splurge of colour among the pines..the forest floor is tinged with red and gold.



PS: If we move down another stratum, from the pines to the ferns and then from the ferns to the true floor of the forest, we find another often colourful denizen of the sylvan space..which promises to be abundant again this Autumn – fungi!

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Looking up at the Sierra..and the sun..and looking back

Dear Dad:

Everything seems to have its opposite. The dust thrown by bombs thousands of feet into the air drifts over the mountains and the glorious golden Spanish sunsets are supplemented by an unrivaled red and purple against the craggy mountains. The Spanish word for mountain chain is “Sierra,” which is also the word for a saw.




John Cookson, a young American volunteer, was writing to his father on the 29th of July 1937 in Villanueva de la Cañada. He was stationed with his unit, the XV International Brigade, also known as the “Lincoln-Washingtons”, close to Brunete, where they had seen some fierce fighting in the Republican offensive designed to relieve National-Fascist pressure on Madrid. If the Americans had received a brutal baptism of fire a few months earlier in the Jarama, they were now subjected to a similar level of violence from machine-gun and artillery fire plus aerial bombardment and strafing..but compounded by suffering all the long Spanish Summer’s day out in the open under the implacable Castilian sun, and often without food or water.

I know all too well that Spanish sun, i’ve been out in the mountains on many a Spanish sun day and I know how oppressive it can be..i’ve crawled into slivers of shadow under rock, tried to hide under signposts, prayed for a tree. It drains, withers, crushes you..i can’t even begin to imagine the assault of the sun combined with finding yourself under machine-gun fire, shelling, bombing..

A native of Wisconsin, John Cookson was by all accounts a brilliant young man..on the verge of completing his PhD in Physics at the age of twenty three, he was taken by the urgency of travelling to Spain to support the Republic in its struggle against fascism, in the process turning down a good academic job and what we would typically call a bright future. And in Spain he made the supreme sacrifice, for little over a year after he penned those lines to his father from Brunete he was to die in the Ebro, victim to a German shell..and one of the last Internationals to die in Spain.

Near the village of Marçá in Tarragona lies John’s tomb. A memorial stone set there in 1938 – perhaps not marking quite exactly the spot where his body lies – amazingly survived the decades of dictatorship and destruction of all that represented the Republic and all that the Republic represented. The tombstone reads:



XV. I.B.

 EBRO  9.11.1938


That terrible Spanish sun also does beautiful things, as John saw, particularly at sunrise and sunset – everything does indeed seem to have its opposite. This Summer we’ve seen some wonderful evenings here in the Guadarrama mountains..even without bomb-blasted dust floating over the range.


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Hoping for a cool Autumn, and looking back at Spring..

The rain comes gently tripping down..sweet and soft, on to the augusted, thirsty and exhausted earth.

After a very hot Summer, September is cooling down nicely..to the relief of many who know that Central Spain’s Summers often protract into the Fall..and even further. Autumn is just around the corner, so hopefully no more searing heat for half a year or so..though you never know, with the extreme volatility of weather patterns in recent times.

Looking back, cold Spring days – the ones that i love so much – were few and far between this year..and between illness and injury i didn’t get to take much advantage. Others however, younger and stronger, were out there getting after it..recently i came across a couple of videos from mid to late spring in the Alps this year. Really worth watching.

First up, back in the middle of May when i could barely walk, let alone ski, Matthias Koenig was attentive to conditions on the East face of the Matterhorn (4478m). And when he saw that things were looking good, he got his ass up there early one morning, had some beautiful moments alone on the summit and then..skied the East from about 4250m. Atemberaubend!

Around the same time and just a few kilometers to the North, a group of French-speaking skiers and boarders climbed the East face of the Weisshorn (4506m) and made a really beautiful video of their descent from the summit in perfect conditions. Chapeau!

I’m eaten up by envy watching these videos. What a way to do Spring!

Back to the end of Summer, and as i was saying Autumn is practically upon us..in fact, weird as it may seem, we’ve been seeing Autumnal phenomena for weeks now. In the middle of August the crocus-like flower Colchicum autumnale began to appear in hundreds across the parched meadows of the Sierra..pretty unusual since, as its name suggests, it’s a plant that normally appears after the first rains of Autumn. Also right thru August we’ve had a generous production of blackberries..particularly strange given the low rainfall thru Spring and early Summer. Low rain years, we’re often lucky to see a few hard little blackberries in mid-September. I’m not complaining though..while it hardly makes up for not getting to ski the East face of the Matterhorn in May, homemade blackberry jam for breakfast in September is pretty cool too!


PS: a couple of language notes: “augusted?” you may say..in Spanish agostar, from agosto (August), means to become dry and wasted from the heat of August.

Atemberaubend is possibly my favourite German word..i love the sound of it, and it means, more or less literally, breathtaking.

Chapeau! ..in English you say – in appreciation of something – “Hats off!” but for the French it’s sufficient to just mention the..”Hat!”



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Dancing into France!

A short video from our Pyrenean Summer, celebrating the moment of my son’s first steps into the nation on the other side, at 2444m thru Puerto de Benasque..could we call this high-stepping?

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it – at about 0.25 – and then get the attack of altitude sickness – coughing from 0.29 to 0.35 – to round things out..

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Summer in the Pyrenees II – Puerto de Benasque and Pico Salvaguardia

Sunrise over sea of cloud

Sunrise over sea of cloud

After almost a week spent in and around the lower Benasque and Estós valleys – as recounted in my last post – we moved up the valley the following week to where the high mountains and last remaining glaciers of the Pyrenees really come into focus. Starting from La Besurta (1920m), the highest point of the Benasque Valley accessible by road transport, we tackled a steep trail that zigzags up a grassy South-facing slope..and which presents two emblematic Pyrenean phenomena for close inspection.

Climbing the grassy slopes above La Besurta.

Climbing the grassy slopes above La Besurta.

The first phenomenon is the marmot, a relatively large squirrel-type rodent found in many high mountain areas of Europe, and closely related to the North American groundhog. This animal disappeared from the Pyrenees thousands of years ago but was reintroduced in the last century..and can now be readily observed in Summer, particularly on sunny slopes above 2000m. Around and above La Besurta we saw many marmots, and heard their piercing whistles alerting to the presence of intruders..us!

Looking out for marmots (or just resting?) against the backdrop of the high Maladetas.

Looking out for marmots (or just resting?) against the backdrop of the high Maladetas.

The second phenomenon is the vast panorama of the highest peaks of the Pyrenees, those of the Maladeta massif, and their glaciers. These glaciers have been in severe recession for many years now, and will almost certainly disappear completely in my son’s lifetime, if not in mine ..victims of our warming planet.

A closer look at the high Maladetas, on the left is Aneto, king of the Pyrenees at 3404m, and the central Maladeta ridge with the Maladeta glacier below occupies the upper center of the foto.

A closer look at the high Maladetas: the first peak on the left is Aneto, king of the Pyrenees at 3404m, and occupying the foreground (the upper center of the foto) is the central Maladeta ridge with the Maladeta glacier below.

I have enjoyed skiing down these icefields and the considerable slopes below them many times, usually in the Spring..even up to the middle of June there is often 1000m of vertical descent. I wonder if my son will have the opportunity to do that in, say, twenty years time?

Pico Salvaguardia (2738m, just right of center) towers over the Puerto de Benasque (2440m, the obvious gap on the right).

Pico Salvaguardia (2738m, just right of center) towers over the Puerto de Benasque (2444m, the obvious gap on the right).

We kept on towards our objective for the day..the historic Puerto de Benasque, a point where people have crossed the Pyrenees between France and Spain for centuries. It consists of a natural breach in the rocky ridge..somewhat improved with the help of explosives in the 17th century.

The last zigzags before reaching the pass.

The last zigzags before reaching the pass.

On the Spanish side, the path to the pass zigzags across a steep but still grassy slope..and only in the last fifty meters does the terrain become rocky.

First steps into France..at 2444m.

La France est atteinte! First steps into France…at 2444m.

On the other side however, things are very different. It’s a rocky high-mountain scenario..the path, at times hewn from the rock, descends very steeply in short uneven zigzags – you can see why they might have used explosives – till it reaches a boulder field above a series of beautiful lagunas, les Boums du Port.

The French side of le Port de Vénasque.

The French side of le Port de Vénasque.

In general the mountainscapes on either side could hardly be more different, on the French side the abrupt rock walls dropping down to the deep blue Boums du Port..

The lagunas known as les Boums du Port.

The lagunas known as les Boums du Port.

..and on the Spanish side the gentler grassy slopes below the pass, giving way to the glaciated high mountain panorama of Las Maladetas.

Heading back down into Spain.

Heading back down into Spain.

We set up our tent about 100m below the pass – it took a while to find a good spot, though there is a relatively flat area extending over hundreds of square meters – and settled in for a good night’s sleep.

Settled in for the night!

Settled in for the night!

Sleeping in mountain huts and refuges surely offers more comfort and security, but it’s spending the night out in places like this that really gives the feeling of being in the mountains.

In the mountains.

In the mountains.


.  .  .

The next day i rose in the still dark morning well before six, dressed quickly and hit the steep trail that leads to Pico Salvaguardia. Also known as Tuca de Salvaguardia or Tuca Cabellut, this mountain, at 2738m far from being a threethousander, is still an emblematic peak in the Benasque Valley.

Sea of cloud in France..in the dawn light.

Sea of cloud in France..in the dawn light. The summit is close now.

Despite the abrupt slopes of the mountain, the trail is straightforward enough..if at times very steep and slightly exposed. At one point there is a short length (10-12m) of steel cable to guarantee security. I moved quickly hoping to make the top by sunrise..

Sunrise..on Salvaguardia!

Sunrise..on Salvaguardia!

..and i just about made it! Truly magnificent. Sunrise is pretty cool seen from anywhere – even from the train on the way to work – but seen from the top of a mountain..there are really no words to describe it. Add to that the always wondrous phenomenon of looking down on a sea of cloud..

The sea of cloud over France extended in all directions to the horizon.

The sea of cloud over France extended in all directions to the horizon.

..i can honestly say that it was awesome, truly awesome.

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