Sick day in Andorra!

Pic de Racofred and Pic de Plá de l'Estany in Valls de Comapedrosa, Andorra.

Pic de Racofred and Pic de Plá de l’Estany in Valls de Comapedrosa Natural Park, Andorra.

In many years of visiting the Pyrenees i have been careful to steer clear of Andorra. Andorra, land of the ski-lift..land of the interminable piste..land of mass tourism in the mountains. Not for me, thanks. So when my friend Marcos proposed going there at Easter i was less than enthused..but i let myself be convinced. We arrived there at two in the morning so on my entry to the mini-country i didn’t see much other than a lot of lights and urbanization..not making for great first impressions. The next day when i got up i was coughing badly, my nose was running like a troll, i felt feverish and had a headache. Just right for a hard day in the mountains! I could have just said ‘to hell with the hills today’..but i knew that the weather was due to change somewhat in the following days, so i started spluttering up the trail with my pack weighing heavily on my back.

Hiking the first 300m vertical with little or no snow.

Hiking the first 300m vertical with little or no snow.

We began to walk from just above the ski-area of Arinsal, heading towards the Valls de Comapedrosa zone on the north-western edge of Andorra. Comapedrosa is the Principality’s highest peak at 2942m and its surrounding valleys are classified as a Natural Park. The fact that these valleys have not been developed for mechanical skiing is perhaps partly due to their south-facing access, making it difficult to retain snow below 2000m. Starting at 1600m we had to hike to 1900m before we found continuous snow. From there on the white stuff was more or less abundant. As was the evidence of avalanche activity along the access route..

Evidence of avalanche destruction along the access route to the valley of Pla de l'Estany.

Avalanche destruction along the access route to the valley of Pla de l’Estany.

Perhaps another reason not to build lines of ski-lifts into this area? Anyway we soon entered the high valley of Plá de l’Estany..a truly magnificent wild alpine valley. Flanked on one side by Comapedrosa, the top of the valley was closed by a spectacular cirque composed of a semi-circle of 2900m peaks.

The East face of Comapedrosa, and the Canal de l'Alt.

The East face of Comapedrosa, and the Canal de l’Alt.

I have seen many alpine valleys..and yes, some are surely bigger than others, some more intimidating than others, but i have seen none more beautiful than this one.

Bigger yes, but more beautiful i have not seen..

Bigger yes, but more beautiful -i repeat- i have not seen..

Of course our attention was immediately drawn by the 900meter-high couloir to our left, the Canal de l’Alt..

La Canal de l'Alt

La Canal de l’Alt

..and when i say that it is 900m high, that’s what i mean, i don’t mean long..i mean high, 900m of vertical gain to the top. Truly Alpine dimensions, in the sense that this is something you might not be surprised to find in the Alps. But this is the Pyrenees.. and not even the high Pyrenees, it’s silly Andorra! And we were entirely alone in the valley..all day. And there were a few faint old ski-tracks here and there, from maybe a week or more ago..?

Unfortunately, even though i had improved considerably from how i was a couple of hours before (amazing what synthetic drugs can do), i was still more sick than well..and another 900m of climbing was going to be a bit much for me. Nevertheless, we started up it..changing to crampons after a couple of hundred meters as it got steeper. Reluctantly i told Marcos not to wait for me..seeing how slowly i was wheezing my way upwards, and knowing that it was already relatively late in the day..we hadn’t set out early. So he whizzed on ahead.

In the lower section of the couloir, Marcos whizzing on up.

In the lower section of the couloir, Marcos whizzing up it.

I knew that realistically i couldn’t hope to make it to the top, so i set myself the target of 2500m..and toiled on up. It wasn’t particularly steep, never over 40º..but pretty sustained at 30-35º in general, and my lungs weren’t functioning at max output. I felt like i was gaining a meter every minute..60 meters in 60 minutes, jeez, i thought, at this rate i’ll make it to 2500m in five hours!

Marcos looking down at me..having wheezed my way up to 2500m.

Marcos (at about 2700m) looking down at me..having wheezed my way up to 2500m.

Tough going. Anyway, i finally made it. I reached 2490m and thought “time to ski”..! And that’s exactly what, after snacking and resting a bit, i did – ski..and what a ski! Perfect corn snow, sweet sweet turns..and turns and turns and turns. Among the best turns i’ve had all year, all the way down to the valley floor at 2030m. Totally sick, man!

From there i decided to head up the main valley a bit, to visit the small refuge of Plá de l’Estany. There i could comfortably wait for Marcos..

Refugi de Plá de l'Estany, with..quite alot of snow round and about.

Refugi de Plá de l’Estany, with..quite a lot of snow round and about.

When i reached the hut i took my skis off, went inside and sat down to eat a bit..and spent a while reading people’s entries in the visitor’s register, not many visits in Winter, more in late Spring and Summer. Then i took some photos..

View down the valley from the door of the hut.

View down the valley from the door of the hut.

..and seeing as how Marcos still hadn’t appeared, i decided to skin a bit further up the valley. The day was advancing towards evening, the sun was beginning to drop in the western sky, the late light making the alpine valley even more alluring. I was feeling somewhat better.

Looking back down towards the hut..as the shadows grow longer.

Looking back down towards the hut..as the shadows grow longer.

As i gained height once more, now in the upper valley, moving in the most relaxed manner possible and stopping every few steps, I began to have a Stendhal type experience..all alone in the valley, the beauty of the place in the cold evening light was overwhelming, it almost made me want to cry.

Andorra, an almost untouched, practically pristine alpine valley..no lifts, no people.ristine

Looking down on Andorra..an almost untouched, practically pristine alpine valley..no lifts, no people.

It seemed somehow incongruous..paradoxical even: here i was in the Land of the Mechanized Mountain, on Good Friday (holiday time, lotsa peeps in the hills) with excellent weather..and in a radius of several kilometers about there was not only no visible evidence of human activity but there was probably only one other human (about whom i was beginning to worry a little) in a place of insurmountable beauty which also incidentally offers some of the best skiing i can imagine.. do you get it?

Looking up to the heights of Comapedrosa,,sublime,

Looking up to the heights of Comapedrosa..sublime.

My ruminations were interrupted..down the valley Marcos suddenly appeared riding his board out of the Canal de l’Alt, so i clicked in and skied down to meet him. Again, luscious turns at speed..possibly even better than before, on immaculate late afternoon corn. Once reunited we decided to quickly head down to the mechanical world..but then managed to linger another half-hour on a nearby knoll, taking still more pictures, taking in the wonder of the valley.

Once in a while, life throws a really surprising one at you..

All in all.. sick day in Andorra!

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The West Face of Posets and the Chistau Valley

Posets, also known as Lardana*, is the second highest mountain of the Pyrenees at 3369m. It rises to the West of the Valley of Benasque, constituting a long high ridge that runs from North to South for a distance of 4 kilometers above 3000m.

The West Face of Posets, and the Lardana Glacier.

The West Face of Posets, and the Lardana Glacier.

The valleys to the East of Posets on the Benasque side are well frecuented and served by guarded mountain huts open all year round. On the other side, the West Face of Posets, it’s a different story. The Valley of Chistau (or Gistaín) is less easy to access, consequently sees much less human traffic, and generally guarantees a more solitary Pyrenean experience.

The Posets-Espadas ridge seen from low down in the Chistau Valley.

The Posets-Espadas ridge seen from Las Granjas de Biadós in the Chistau Valley.

Not only does it have the attraction of being quieter, to reach the summit of Posets from the Biadós area you face 1700m of upward struggle..one of the biggest climbs in the Pyrenees.

Early morning, climbing out of the Chistau Valley..

Early morning, climbing out of the Chistau Valley..

I’ve wanted to do this route for years..and finally last week, despite having a really bad cold, i managed to convince my snowboarder friend Marcos to go for it. Route-finding wasn’t so easy in the lower part of the valley, but we slowly worked our way up thru the trees.

..gaining altitude, on the way to the summit of Posets.

..gaining altitude, on the way to the summit of Posets.

Slope after slope, snowfield after snowfield, on we toiled..sometimes steeper, sometimes flattening out a bit, but ever upwards. At 3000m you get a close-up view of the upper West Face wall of Posets, towering above the residual Lardana Glacier.

The upper West wall of Posets, and the Lardana Glacier -or what remains of it- to the right.

The upper West wall of Posets, and the Lardana Glacier -or what little remains of it- to the right.

At 3200m we reached a small col on the ridge..here the snow finished and we got out the rope for the last section of rock ridge to the summit. Apart from a few meters here and there at the beginning where you have to scramble a bit, the ridge is not difficult..and the final stretch is almost horizontal, if a little airy.

Marcos on the last section of the ridge, relatively close to the summit, the Pyrenees stretching out behind him.

Marcos on the last section of the ridge, relatively close to the summit, the Pyrenees stretching out behind him.

At five in the afternoon we reached the summit..quite a long day, fortunately it’s Spring with light until late! There was practically no wind, and we were completely alone..as we had been almost all the morning.

The continuation of the ridge to Espadas to the South.

The continuation of the ridge to Espadas, 3329m, to the South.

Given the hour, we didn’t stay long on the top..heading quickly but carefully back down the ridge to the col where we had left our snow-sliding-boards. In spite of our haste, it was still 6.30 in the evening by the time we were ready to ski.

Here's me..skiing off the col at 3200m.

Here’s me..skiing off the col at 3200m.

We skied down with the sun, you might say. As our local star dropped in the western sky, so did we on the western slopes of Posets..almost 1500m of descent towards the Chistau Valley.

Further down..the valley beckons below.

Further down..the valley beckons below.

The snow was hard at first, then a tad crusty before softening up towards 2900m and below this point we had good afternoon spring snow. At one point we had to remove boards to walk across a rocky snowless slope..and then down, down, down once more.

Finally down to the valley bottom..beside Río Zinqueta.

Finally down to the valley bottom..beside Río Zinqueta.

One of the wonderful things about skiing is how quickly you can get down what it took you several hours to get up. It took us over six hours to get to the col at 3200m..and less than one hour to get back down to the valley floor. And it would have been more like 30 minutes if we hadn’t had to take skis off a couple of times.

Crossing back over the bridge towards Biadós in the twilight.

Crossing back over the bridge towards Biadós in the twilight.

Ten hours and twenty six minutes had passed since we crossed the bridge over the Zinqueta river in the morning..quite a long day of activity. And there was still a twenty minute hike to get back to the where we had left the car!

* The weird and wonderful world of names: Posets or Pocetz? ..Lardana (aragonés) or Llardana (catalá)? ..Tuca Llardana or Punta Llardana? Also the name Posets is Catalonian, but the mountain is entirely inside Aragon, and a considerable distance from the modern frontier of Catalunya..? Lardana/Llardana is clearly the more local name. Reminiscent of Sagarmatha/Chomolungma/Qomolangma/Zhumulangmafeng/Everest..?!

..and the numbers can be contested too: is the correct height 3369m or 3375m? (!)

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Fifty Winters old..the train at Cotos!

The tren at Cotos in March 1965, shortly after the inauguration of the extension from Navacerrada.

The tren at Cotos in March 1965, shortly after the inauguration of the extension from Navacerrada.

Fifty Winters back, the mountain train from Cercedilla began to run as far as the station at Puerto de Cotos. In this historic image i think you can also appreciate why many still refer to the train as el tranvía – the tram – because, especially with just the one wagon, the original train really did look like a tram.

On the subject of anniversaries, the line from Cercedilla to Puerto de Navacerrada is approaching its centenary..in 2023.

Thanks to Venta Marcelino for posting the photo on their Facebook page.

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The mountain train of Cercedilla

The mountain train moving thru a Winter Wonderland.

The mountain train on its way thru the Winter Wonderland.

Fifteen years ago i was trying to choose a place to live more or less long-term in the Sierra de Guadarrama. I chose Cercedilla. And probably the principal reason for that choice was the mountain train.

The train arrives at Cotos in mid-Winter..

The train arrives at Cotos in mid-Winter.

This very special train leaves the town of Cercedilla – located in the NorthWest of Madrid province at 1160m above sea level – and climbs thru the central Sierra de Guadarrama area to reach the station of Cotos at 1820m. On the way it stops at Puerto de Navacerrada station (1770m) before passing thru a kilometre-long tunnel beneath “el Puerto” to come out on the Segovia side and continue to its final destination. Total distance covered is just over 18 kilometres with 660m of ascent, all in about 40 minutes.

The train passes a rock face below Puerto de Navacerrada.

The train passes a rock face below Puerto de Navacerrada.

The line from Cercedilla to Puerto de Navacerrada was inaugurated in 1923. José Aguinaga was the driving force behind its construction, thru the Sociedad Anónima del Ferrocarril Eléctrico del Guadarrama..the train was – and indeed to some still is – known as el Eléctrico (the Electric train) due to the fact that it was powered by electricity from an overhead cable or catenary. In the 1950s it was taken over by Renfe (Spain’s national rail company) and the extension of the line to Puerto de Cotos was carried out, opening in 1964.

View form inside the train.

View from inside the train.

A ride on this train any day is undoubtedly a different experience and when there is fresh snow in the mountains it can be quite amazing. Some might even say awesome! However it can be very crowded on Winter weekends and in recent times appears to be suffering from neglect..within the greater scheme of Renfe’s plans for global domination. Prices are ridiculously high, intermediate stops on the line have been suppressed, the rolling stock is getting old and inserviceable..all this within the context of the National Park where the train should make more sense than ever from a conservation point of view. There’s even a campaign to press Renfe to make improvements. Tough one!

The train powers its way thru the snow towards Cotos.

The train powers its way thru the snow towards Cotos.

I should add that it’s a train of many names, apart from el Eléctrico it’s also sometimes rather quaintly referred to as el tranvía (the tram)..and some even speak of “el funicular” which is just plain wrong, it is not and never was a funicular train. Recently it has been marketed as el tren de la naturaleza (the nature train), but I prefer to call it simply “the mountain train”..

More on the train and its history (in Spanish)..

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Portrait of Los Puertos

When i talk about our local mountains, i often make reference to the high passes known in Spanish as Puertos. Particularly Puerto de los Cotos and Puerto de Navacerrada..two points in the central Sierra de Guadarrama where people have crossed the mountains from one side to the other for centuries.

Puertos de Cotos and Navacerrada on a Winter's evening.

Puertos de Cotos and Navacerrada on a Winter’s evening.

El Puerto de Navacerrada (1860m) can be seen on the upper right. From the obvious mountain pass there is a white slightly descending line leading away from it to the right..this is the road that drops down towards Valsaín and Segovia. You can also just about make out the white artificial ski-slope of El Telégrafo leading downhill to the pass, also on the right. El Puerto de Cotos (1828m) can be seen on the lower left, the clearly marked black road leading to it from the center of the picture is the road coming from Navacerrada. Just below the road and following the same contour is the railway line (in white)..and you can just about see the station of Cotos (click on the photo for a larger version). The road ascending to the left from the pass curves away towards Valdesqui. And the descending road leads to Rascafría, adjacent to which is the car-park of Cotos..visible as a dark enclosure by the road.

The shot was taken from the upper slopes of Hermana Menor.

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The most beautiful day..

Sublime

Sublime

I have been lucky to spend many beautiful days in the mountains..and it would not be an easy task to choose one day in particular as the best. But last Sunday 08 February would certainly be a strong candidate for the most beautiful day.

Working our way thru the trees..

Working our way thru the trees..

After days and days of snowfall, storm, wind and cloud – some of which were also very wonderful days – the sun finally shone upon the Sierra once more. We headed for Cotos and the Loma del Noruego where we knew we wouldn’t meet too many people.

..and thru the Winter Wonderland.

..and thru the Winter Wonderland.

And indeed but a few minutes walk from Cotos all was quiet and wondrous white..everything absolutely covered, caked, plastered with snow. The views were..well, spectacular.

Cabezas de Hierro from Loma del Noruego.

Cabezas de Hierro from Loma del Noruego.

It didn’t really matter which direction you looked..things were equally spectacular all around..

Siete Picos and La Mujer Muerta.

Siete Picos and La Mujer Muerta.

I had skied the North and the surprisingly delightful SouthEast of Siete Picos the previous day in the cloud..so i wasn’t too powder-hungry on this day and could just take it easy and try to take it all in.

This is the person i have to thank for several pow-days last week.

This is the person i have to thank for several pow-days last week.

Of course we did get to ski some very lush powdery snow on the southeastern flanks of La Loma too..so really no room for complaints at all.

About to ski from close to the top of Peña del Águila, looking towards Lozoya Valley and Somosierra.

About to ski from close to the top of Peña del Águila, looking towards Lozoya Valley and Somosierra.

Then in the afternoon i had a few hours to myself, so i decided to go visit my beloved Hermana on the other side of Cotos. On the way up thru the forest i risked a shower – or a succession of showers – as the snow began to fall from the trees due to the action of the sun.

Trees starting to lose snow.

Trees starting to lose their snow.

Higher up some cloud began to waft in from the North..working magic with the light among the wild pines.

Sun and cloud playing among the pines.

Sun and cloud playing among the pines.

And when i got above the forest, the spectacle broadened..once more in every direction..

Looking South to Cabezas and Cuerda Larga.

Looking South to Cabezas and Cuerda Larga.

Like many of us who love Guadarrama, i never tire of looking towards La Mujer Muerta..

La Mujer Muerta (The Dead Woman) and Peña Cítores to the right.

Westwards, La Mujer Muerta (The Dead Woman) and Peña Cítores to the right.

I skied down, down thru the forest..and then back up. The second time on the way up, as the sun dropped lower in the sky and evening came in, things got really breathtaking.

Looking West to Siete Picos and La Mujer Muerta.

Looking West again to Siete Picos and La Mujer Muerta.

A great sea of cloud washed over Valsaín and the huge valley that lies between Peñalara and Mujer Muerta..and the low-angled light wrought deep contrasts of texture, on the mountains and on the clouds.

Yet another shot of Cabezas with snow-covered trees in the foreground.

Yet another shot of Cabezas with snow-covered trees in the foreground.

I should say that all the afternoon – all the day even, excepting the area immediately close to the road in Cotos – i had seen practically no-one. During the morning maybe seven or eight people on La Loma del Noruego..and four or five on the southern slopes of La Hermana during the afternoon. At 6 in the evening near the top of Hermana Menor (2271m)..

People in the mountains..pure magic!

People in the mountains..pure magic!

..just before i reached the summit for the second time that day, there suddenly appeared two other people..moving towards the SouthWest on their descent. I quickly grabbed my phone two or three seconds before they disappeared, not wanting to miss the opportunity for a perfect photo.

The most beautiful day..? There or thereabouts.

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