Desolation..and skiing

It’s tempting to say that none of us have known such desolation..even the oldest among us..in a century of ongoing human life. But it’s hardly true. At the very least, the global devastation and desolation wrought by the conflict of 1936-45 would have to be taken into account..linked to the unceasing desolation of Stalinist Russia for many years more, the black and desolate decades of fascist tyranny in Spain..and so on. However, we can certainly say that the Covid-19 crisis is pretty bad, in historical terms..tho perhaps nothing comparable to the Justinian plague of the sixth century or the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Even the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918-19 was much worse. But still..pretty bad, and even if it weren’t for so much death coming untimely to so many, there are so many other reasons why it’s bad. We have seen the structure of our sprawling civilization cut down brutally in a matter of weeks, near total social and economic collapse, and all because of some tiny organism, a microbiological entity that is at best barely alive, competing with us on the world’s stage, rivalling our globe-trotting capacity, taking advantage of our animal strength and ability to move to unleash a ferocious planet-wide assault on the billions of us who populate the Earth. Billions of us..gazillions of them. Maybe we’re not as strong as we thought? Some say that maybe the silver lining within this cloud of desolation is the opportunity we are given to see more clearly the biological reality of life that has in recent centuries been obscured to us by our success as a species. That it may even be a blessing in disguise, permitting us to face other even graver threats to our continuing existence on this planet more intelligently. I hope so. Permit me to be a little pessimistic..

..and selfish. It’s not just the death, the untimeliness of it, the shock to our civilization. Even tho i am beset by all these things in recent weeks and months, i am still the same self-centered human i have always been. I cannot fail to think about the Spring ski-days that i am missing this year. Amid the horrendous figures of death and contagion, the gripping first-person accounts by medical staff from overwhelmed ICUs and ERs, the horror stories of the old being left to die alone in homes and hospitals..i still cannot avoid being distracted by luxurious thoughts of sliding on snow. Yes, we all have our hobby-horses and pet obsessions..but the extent to which i am obsessed by snow and sliding over it on skis .. it’s freakish..bizarre.. what is it that’s so good about skiing?

That’s the question: what is it about skiing..that makes it so so good? ..i mean, really, it’s just sliding down a more or less steep slope..kind of like the joy of kids in the park going down the slide, again and again..sliding down and then running around to climb back up, and down again.. there is an element of primal pleasure to sliding..whether it be on the flat, on ice, water or wheels..or downhill, on a playground slide, on a waterslide, on a sled or on a board, or boards, attached to your feet..skis ..and then there is snow, the wonder of snow, the white element..that magical, transformative substance that seems to exercise such a vast power of seduction on the human brain..that turns grown and hardened men or mature and worldly women into giggling screaming children.. yes, there is the snow..that you slide upon when you ski..varying almost infinitely over myriad conditions that can mean anything from other-worldly bliss to life-threatening danger ..at the high end, the well-nigh indescribable pleasure of floating in deep, cold, low-density, low-humidity, fresh-fallen snow, the ineffable deep powder experience..which some skiers say is better than sex.. then you have the sheer thrill of skiing at high velocity, on whatever suitable crystalline support, a few fingers of new snow, not so new snow lightly compacted by the wind, smooth hardpack, or the creamy freeze-melt snow known to skiers as spring corn ..and then there is the technical thrill of skill applied at speed to the environment, allowing for rapid but controlled transit down snow-covered hillsides..the skier’s movements, subtle or dynamic, flexing and thrusting, the muscular and skeletal forces applied and released, the balance and rhythm transmitted to the slick multi-matter boards which are also sensitive receivers, extended perceptors of the surface on which they slide..all this aggregating to an advanced expression of concord, compenetration between the human body and the high-technology tool for turning that is the ski..and thru skill with the tool achieving a marriage of man and gravity, a union of woman to the fall-line, human bodies not only in harmony with their habitat but also in perfect accord, consonant, with motion, attaining a true synergy of grace ..this is what skiing is about!

..and then, then there are all the delights of varied terrain, from great open sloping fields of snow to tight steep couloirs, from alpine spines to treed slopes, from mellow meadows to narrow gullies or enclosed canyons, from smooth featureless slopes to undulating bumps, dips and pipes.. and then you move into the air, hops and pops, jumps of all sorts, lifting off the snow into a whole new dimension.. so, there is snow that is mild and mellow over which you can cruise insouciant, carefree, on your boards..there is adrenaline-pumping steep snow in wild terrain, which makes you love your edges, and fear for your life.. steep is more often than not stable, but there is also unstable snow, often on the sweetest, most skiable slopes, to make your heart beat faster at each turn.. and then there is snow, or rather there are snows, that will threaten your knees more than your life, heavy, wet, slushy or upside down or crusted, offering a whole series of challenges to your skillset, requiring powerful dynamic movements or subtle capacity to direct or drive your boards downhill, safely home.. and lastly but by no measure least..there is the support which stands behind, above, beneath the snow that supports our skiing..the homely hills, the mighty and sometimes frightening mountains that hoard and store the snow..the magisterial, the magnificent mountains..there is no comparable canvas, not in the depths of sea or desert, or in jungle..there is no landscape, no backdrop, no stage like the telluric theatre of the uplands, the upthrust mountains, the geological high points of our planet.. the place..where we ski

So, there you have it.. a kind of apology of ski, of those who are possessed by mountains, of my idiosyncratic self, of me.

Andrá tutto bene? I’m afraid i have to say i don’t believe that for a second. However. Desolation will never be complete..while there is still the hope, however vague or subdued, however dim or distant, of skiing another day, of being another day in the mountains.

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2019-2020, warm Winter of death

As a portent, the death of Blanca Fernández Ochoa at the end of last Summer wasn’t the best. No better were the fires that burned in Guadarrama over the Summer.

In November we had surprisingly good snowfall – see the video we made on Nov 24th – with half a meter of consolidated snow on the ground..but nobody believed it would last. It didn’t. A misery of rain and pissing mist slowly wiped out the snowpack in the first weeks of December. One of the last days that it was possible to ski, the 7th of December, i was coming home on a packed mountain train in the late afternoon. We’d already had some delays and mishaps – the train broke down in the tunnel under Puerto de Navacerrada – and were running well over an hour behind schedule..when we hit two women walking on the track just below the old Siete Picos station.  As luck would have it, they were in the worst possible place when the train came upon them – how did they not hear it coming? – ..they were on a small bridge over Río Pradillo, making escape much more difficult than in any other spot. According to the driver, the train only ‘brushed’ them aside..unfortunately being brushed aside in this particular spot amounted to a fall of five or six meters to the rocks in the stream bed below the bridge. One of the women was badly injured, the other died.

In the first days of the New Year, we did a little hard-snow climbing on Peñalara’s East face – see the video we made on January 03 – finding 45-50º ramps of bullet-proof snow. Not a place to fall. My son went back to school after Reyes (the 6th of Jan) to the terrible news that one of his schoolmates, a kid he played with occasionally, had died of a brain tumour over the holidays.

Barely a week later, on Sunday the 12th of January, a man fell to his death on the East face of Peñalara..not far from where we had been climbing in the New Year.

After weeks of gloom, the snow returned in the final third of January..to coincide with the San Sebastian holiday in Cercedilla (20th of Jan). Surprisingly, once again, almost a meter of snow fell in four or five days..so the season was saved? The consolidation of the Winter of San Sebastian..? A few ‘powder’ days? A few days of good skiing, yes.  But there was no consolidation..and the season was not saved. Not this time. More light rain and the vicious pissing mist, in the last five days of January, once more attacked the seemingly generous and semi-consolidated snowpack. By the first of February it was all gone, utterly wiped out once more.

We have not known such desolation..in my time in Sierra de Guadarrama.

 

 

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Peñalara, easy hard-snow climbing

It’s weird..after late November and early December with the Sierra covered in snow..to arrive at Cotos in early January to find not a patch, not a shred of the white stuff. The mountains are apparently snowless. Washed clean by the rain and mist of December..month of meteorological misery and unnatural temperatures, as so often in recent times. But there is snow..for those who know! You have to hike a bit to get to it, but it’s there alright. Even enough for 350 vertical meters of climbing..on Peñalara’s East face. Hard-frozen snow, excellent for climbing..and not so good for skiing.

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So..it’s back to Autumn

Like i said..it was too good to be true. Winter starting in November in Sierra de Guadarrama..that’s something that belongs to the past. I guess you could say that it was a false start, at best. And it was good while it lasted..almost three weeks! Then followed three weeks of wind and rain..and warmish temps and mist and more rain. And more wind. Practically no snow left at this point. So..it’s back to Autumn.

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Autumn..in Cotos, 2019

Autumn in Guadarrama..once upon a time you would have expected snow from early November onward, but not any more. Or if snow does fall – and it does – you expect it to be quickly frazzled by the sun beating down week after week..or washed away by torrents of rain, ephemeral. But this year the snow is there, solidly and in some quantity. Quality is not bad either. Skiing without polishing rocks in mid-November..that’s a throwback in time. Will it last? Dunno. Make hay while the sun shines!

The brave among us would even say it looks like Winter..brash?

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Winter?!

A little bit hard to believe..and too good to be true..but, for the moment, yes, it looks like Winter..and it’s only mid-November!

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Otoño!

Autumn has arrived..with its magic of fallen leaves.

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Protest!

Fridays for future..we’ve been out on the streets these last two Fridays, protesting.

¡NO HAY PLANETA B!

That makes four or five Fridays so far this year.. Does it make a difference? Can young (and old) people in the street put pressure on (mainly old) people in positions of power to make real changes? ..to stop burning our planet?

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Black August

The hillside above La Granja marked by wildfire.

The hillside above La Granja marked by wildfire.

This last month of August has indeed been a black one..for many reasons. On the last day of July, late in the afternoon, my ten-year-old son tripped and fell in a relatively innocent way while walking down the lower Lliterola Valley in Benasque..it didn’t seem like a terrible fall, but he was in pain, and the grass was glowing fluorescent. Back in town a couple of hours later that evening, he was in better shape but could not use his right hand. Next day, early on the morning of the 1st of August, a doctor at the regional hospital in Barbastro diagnosed a broken bone in the hand..the clean fracture in the middle metacarpal was clearly visible in the X-ray.

A small accident, not a big deal if compared to others..fourteen people were to lose their lives in various accidents in the Spanish Pyrenees this Summer. Nevertheless it was the end of our vacation as far as outdoor family activities were concerned, this being day four of two weeks in the Pyrenees..no visit to the range’s dying glaciers, no first three-thousand-meter peak for my son, no kayaking..and no more outdoor-active Summer in general, no rock-climbing, no biking, no swimming at least until September.

So, having decided to cut our stay short and come home early, we were heading back to the center of the Peninsula at the end of that first week of August..when news of a wild fire in Sierra de Guadarrama began to filter thru. Not one fire but two, in fact, at two different locations, one to the South in the vicinity of Puerto de la Morcuera and the other to the North having its origin close to La Granja. The Sierra burned for several days, particularly the blaze on the Segovia side. Were it not for massive human and machine intervention, the consequences might have been much worse..even so, over 400 hectares burned in the La Granja wildfire and 300 in La Morcuera. It may not sound like a lot in comparison with a million hectares burning in the Amazon or three million in Siberia..but we don’t have that much Sierra.

The not so scenic view from the Royal Gardens of La Granja.

The not so scenic view from the Royal Gardens of La Granja.

And then at the month’s end, as if all this were not enough, another drama took place on the stage of the Guadarrama mountains.. Blanca Fernandez Ochoa was the only Spanish woman to win a Winter Olympic medal, and her bronze in 1992 was only the second ever Spanish Winter medal after her brother Francisco won gold in 1972. Two further bronze medals were added to the Spanish haul as late as 2018. In 1988 in Calgary Blanca had led the pack after the first run in Giant Slalom, but unfortunately fell in the second run. In those same Olympics she placed fifth overall in Slalom, and that year in the World Cup she placed fourth overall. So finally taking third place in the Slalom event at Albertville in 1992, in what was her fourth and last Olympic participation, and thereby winning a medal was a considerable reward after much frustration.

Back home she received a hero’s welcome. Her life after giving up skiing seems to have been an ongoing slalom, with ups and downs..maybe not so different from many other lives. An early marriage followed quickly by divorce, another marriage, two children, another, apparently acrimonious, divorce. Her professional life also saw fluctuations and swings of fortune, ebbing and flowing from running small businesses to appearing on reality tv shows..it would appear that in recent times she was finding it hard, and feeling forgotten and even abandoned. She had also suffered from bipolar disorder since early in her life, and it seems reasonable to think that this may have been a factor in decisions she made this last month of August. Whatever her motivations, on the 24th of August she decided to hike up the mountains that had seen her grow one last time..and on reaching a secluded spot, in all probability that same afternoon-evening she took her own life.

What followed was one of those human circus events that make it difficult to distinguish tragedy from comedy. Her family did not realise the seriousness of her disappearance for some days..after the authorities were eventually alerted and her car was located parked in the Fuenfria Valley, a huge search operation was mounted. Hundreds of forestry agents, police, firefighters and volunteers spent four days combing certain specific areas of the Sierra accompanied by multiple vehicles, helicopters, drones..and all to no avail. All this massive activity was supervised by hundreds of journalists. In the end Blanca’s decomposing body was located by an off-duty policeman and his dog some ten days after her disappearance. By which time the media circus had acquired gigantic proportions..and the amplification of this personal tragedy was truly overwhelming.

Now they are going to name sports centers, streets, ski runs after her..too little, too late?

 

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Black and yellow fauna!

Common Salamander

Common Salamander, it’s not everyday you see one..but not that unusual either.

What's this?

What’s this?

A wasp? But not the usual ones..

A wasp? But not one of the usual ones..

Potter wasp..had to look it up!

Potter wasp..had to look it up!

Curious..

Curious..

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