Water Wonders of the Pyrenees

WP_20160704_13_16_27_ProWe are the water planet. And we are water beings..even those of us who don’t swim or like getting immersed in h20, every living thing on Earth..we are made of water, we are totally dependent on water for life. Personally, though i am always amazed by the sea – or any great body of water – i am not especially attracted to it. Indeed i see the attraction of visiting the “seaside” as something akin to the attraction of visiting a zone affected by the plague. I prefer my water in large quantities frozen. Nevertheless i am not immune to the delights of flowing liquid water in lesser volumes. Have i not waxed lyrical this very Spring on the wonderful waters of the Sierra de Guadarrama? The streams and waterfalls of Guadarrama tend to dry up a bit however as the Summer progresses, the higher Sierra taking on a very desert appearance. Not so the Pyrenees. Summer in the mountains of Pirene is just a continuation of..la fiesta del agua.

This month of July we visited the Benasque Valley, once again, to experience this liquid fiesta..

WP_20160704_10_13_06_ProThe impact of the Estós River as you walk up the lower Estós Valley, just off the main Valley of Benasque, is truly forceful. The water seems to hurl itself downwards over rocks and small drops with an apparent driving intent. Year after year, in late Spring or early Summer, it never ceases to impress me.

WP_20160704_13_15_21_ProFurther up the same valley you have the magnificent falls of Gorgues Galantes, where the Estós River tumbles down a steep drop in the valley floor, rushes between walls of rock and cascades once more in a most spectacular manner..this last seen in the above shot taken from a somewhat precarious mirador overlooking the gorge. Riveting, almost transfixing.

In practically every valley you will find white water, rushing streams, falls and tumultuous rivers..but there is also another ubiquitous Pyrenean water feature: the ibón or mountain lake. These small lakes of glacial origin are scattered throughout the Pyrenees, generally to be found above 2000m and as high as 3000m.

WP_20160706_12_21_15_ProHere we see the ibón de Gorgutes, perched above Llanos del Hospital in the Benasque Valley at 2320m. This lake occurs very high on the watershed, just a few minutes walk from the historic pass between Spain and France known as Puerto de la Glera (2367m).

WP_20160706_12_22_34_ProIn this picture our group can be seen just about to reach the pass above the lake..and France! On the French side a sea of cloud lay in wait for us, in marked contrast to the clear views of the Maladeta massif across the valley on the Spanish side. And while the ibón may be just a few minutes from France, it’s several hours hiking from the valley floor in Spain. The trail up is of course decorated by lots of other water features such as this one..

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On the other side of the Benasque Valley, opposite to Estós and Gorgutes, is the somewhat less travelled Vallibierna Valley. Less travelled maybe..but not less spectacular. The Vallibierna river has a beautiful red-brown colour to it, due to the mineral nature of the rock.

WP_20160708_17_53_03_Pro The lower Vallibierna Valley is a vast ravine, where the river has worn its way deep down into the rock, and the upper valley presents – you probably guessed it – several high mountain lakes, principally the ibóns de Vallibierna. The following photo shows the ibón inferior, at 2400m.

WP_20160708_13_33_42_ProThis lake is relatively large and the glacial basin in which it sits gives a great sense of stillness and calm..as can be appreciated in the near perfect reflection its still waters offered. Captivating.

WP_20160708_13_40_49_ProI’ll offer another shot of the ibón inferior de Vallibierna, trying, perhaps in vain, to communicate the enchanting stillness of the place..a very profound place, a somehow perfect place.

WP_20160708_13_50_29_ProThis very compelling contrast between the great stillness and absorbing peace of the lakes..and the intense, racing, almost violent energy of the rushing streams, rivers and falls had never struck me before, in multiple visits to the Pyrenees. Both phenomena are very beautiful in their different ways, the two versions of water are equally entrancing..despite their black and white, ‘worlds apart’ opposition.

I could hardly finish this post without including one more water feature..from the top of the Benasque Valley. The ineffable falls of Aigualluts. Perhaps the picture-postcard image of the Pyrenees.

WP_20160710_17_32_55_ProMeltwater from the Glacier of Aneto, monarch of the Pyrenees, flows down to the valley, meanders gently across a small plain, crashes over a fall and into a karstic rip in the rock where it disappears underground to resurface kilometers away in France and follow its course to the Atlantic.

If you haven’t seen it, go.

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Monte Abantos..and its fox

The blue mountain that i see in the distance when i step out on my balcony looking South, as the crow flies some 15km away, is the mountain that rises above El Escorial, Monte Abantos.

Monte Abantos, seen from the explanade of the Monastery of El Escorial.

Monte Abantos, seen from the explanade of the Monastery of El Escorial.

When i first started to visit the Sierra de Guadarrama – while still living in Madrid – i frequently visited the El Escorial area and its mountains, including of course Abantos. But since i moved out to Cercedilla, close to the central Guadarrama sector, i hadn’t been back. In at least fifteen years. My six-year-old son has often asked about ‘that mountain that we can see far away’ and i promised him that we would go to visit it as long ago as the Summer before last. Finally this last weekend we got around to it.

Looking back down at the monastery after an hour walking up the mountain.

Looking back down at the monastery after an hour walking up the mountain.

Leaving the small town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, we hiked up thru the forest of oak, ash, willow and pine on the southwestern slopes of the mountain. There’s a fairly well-marked GR trail that leads all the way to the top..and many stretches of it have a good deal of shade so it’s fine for a Summer hike.

A view of the trail with Las Machotas in the distance.

A view of the trail with Las Machotas in the distance.

Along the way we were treated to the delights of flowering escaramujos (musk rose), piornos (broom) and jaras (rockrose). We were particularly interested to see the jara which, though abundant in many areas of Guadarrama, is not so common in our local Fuenfría Valley.

The flower of the jara pringosa.

The flower of the jara pringosa..with visitors.

The middle part of the trail ascends the relatively steep mountainside by means of a long series of zigzags..some will say this makes for a gradual evenly-paced ascent, others will complain that the switchbacks are interminable. After a couple of hours walking you arrive at a rocky shoulder and the views open up.

End of the zigzags, getting closer to the top, 1550m

End of the zigzags, getting closer to the top, 1550m.

From this point there’s a long straight stretch that continues to rise gradually until you reach a small meadow with a spring, la fuente del Cervunal, at 1670m. The water was good and cold, a throwback to Winter – or cold Spring days at the very least! – and a delight to drink on a warm Summer afternoon.

La fuente del Cervunal, close to the summit of Abantos.

La fuente del Cervunal, close to the summit of Abantos.

Just five minutes from the spring the climb ends..as you emerge onto the summit plateau of Abantos. Now the views really open up, looking down on El Escorial, las Machotas, the southern Castilian plain stretching away to the horizon..and the central Sierra area to the NorthEast.

Looking down from the summit of Monte Abantos, 1753m.

Looking down from the summit of Monte Abantos, 1753m.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering about the summit, taking in the views in different directions, eating, watching the sun drop to the West. A few other people came and went, griffon vultures planed above – not surprisingly, as Abantos is named for the abanto or alimoche (Egyptian vulture), a species still present in many parts of Spain but long disappeared from the Sierra de Guadarrama – and we even saw an eagle briefly soar past.

Looking North over Cuelgamuros Valley to Siete Picos and Cercedilla.

Looking North over Cuelgamuros Valley to Siete Picos and Cercedilla.

But there was still more fauna on the menu for the evening. As we were taking it easy sitting comfortably on the rocks of the summit block, hungrily gobbling pasta, a fox suddenly appeared just ten meters away. It eyed us interestedly – probably our food more than us – closed in cautiously, backed off, circled round behind, came several times to within three meters or so of our group, and generally behaved in a most unfoxlike manner.

The fox checking us out.

The fox checking us out.

Not only did this ‘wild’ animal display little or no fear of humans, at one point it even lunged towards us with apparently aggressive intent when somebody produced a packet of biscuits (we did not feed it)..obviously accustomed to receiving tidbits from primate hands. Another unfortunate victim of Sierra tourism and the seemingly unstoppable humanization of the wild.

Close up of the fox of Abantos

Close up of el zorro de Abantos.

All in all the fox hung around for over ten minutes in broad daylight, coming and going, scavenging for whatever scraps other summit visitors might have left between the rocks, closing in on several occasions – we had to scare the intrepid little guy off a couple of times – before i finally decided to reintroduce a little wildness to the evening and chased him/her away in full scary human predator mode.

We camped a little below the summit, not far from the spring, and were treated to a night of fox barking though we weren’t raided. I well recall a night many years ago in Sierra Nevada, bivouaced at 3000m on the snow close to Laguna de la Mosca below the North face of Mulhacén, late Winter/early Spring, waking up in the small hours to a tugging sensation and having to fight to hold on to my backpack..barely a meter away with a strap firmly gripped between his teeth, one of Sierra Nevada’s notorious foxes.

So, an entertaining visit to Monte Abantos and one that i am sure we will repeat..hopefully before another fifteen years have passed!

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End of Spring water festival – the party goes on!

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Though the Winter of 2016 came really late – we had no snow until the last two weeks of February – it would be wrong to suppose that this year has been parsimonious in precipitations. Temperatures were abnormally high in the early part of the year but there was no shortage of rain. Then we had a good deal of snow in late February, March and April, and May too was a relatively wet month. Result? Lots of water flowing down from the mountains in the streams and rivers of Guadarrama, the brooks are babbling, the waterfalls are cascading, the dams are full. You could call it la fiesta del agua – a full-on hydro-fest! It’s a great time to get out to the mountains and delight in the wonders of water winding its way incessantly down, down, down.

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June has been quite hot so far and devoid of precipitation, so the spectacle is starting to wane..but there’s still lots of water about, and with a drop in temperatures forecast for the coming days you can still get out and enjoy the last cool Spring days before the Summer really begins to hit.

 

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The Shower of the Germans – La Ducha de los Alemanes

The heavy rainfall of recent weeks, combined with the thaw as the snow gradually disappears from the Sierra, has meant that the streams and rivers of Guadarrama bound down from the mountains replete and teeming with water. Water is the star on the stage of the Sierra in these late Spring days. And the other day we visited one of the most famous water features of Guadarrama – la Ducha de los Alemanes.

La ducha de los Alemanes

La ducha de los alemanes, in full flow.

Who are the Germans in question? In the late 19th century, when the Sierra was in the process of being ‘discovered’ by urban-dwellers from Madrid, among the first to frequent the forested valleys and arid peaks of Guadarrama were Germans who resided in the capital. According to Julio Vías, renowned chronicler of Guadarrama, many of these aboriginal Guadarramistas were watchmakers who had come to Madrid to supply precision time-keeping to the Spanish marketplace. Ferdinand Ganter, Albert Maurer and Karl Coppel were among the pioneers. Later there were others, Hausen and Ohsman, who carried out a dramatic ascension of El Yelmo in 1899, and the Swiss native Albert Oettli, one of the early members of the Peñalara club. In the annals of the these early 20th century Guadarramistas we also find the names of Schacthzabel, Ullman, Reinhart and Dangers. Add the anthropologist Hugo Obermaier who lived in Spain for many years. And of course we must not forget to mention the most famous German Guadarramista of all, Eduard Schmid, also an early member of the Peñalara club and who gave his name to one of the Sierra’s most popular trails.

The photographer photographed!

The photographer photographed!

So, there were lots of Germans out and about in the Sierra de Guadarrama a century back..and here and there they left their names on the landscape. We don’t know exactly which Germans frequented la ducha, or if they were really in the habit of taking a shower there, though Eduard Schmid would certainly have spent a lot of time in this area – quite close to the start of the Camino Schmid and the Chalet de Peñalara where he worked. As for using the waterfall to bathe, they may well have done so..although i would imagine preferably on hot Summer days when the water comes down with less energy. Right now, in these late Spring days, the quantity and force of the water – not to mention the temperature – would make for an extremely invigorating shower!

Behold la ducha as it appears in late Summer.

Behold la ducha as it appears in late Summer.

Incidentally, long before the Germans, this small waterfall was known as el Chorro del Árbol Viejo.. in reference to the “old tree” – a yew tree – that stands beside it. An additional attraction of this shady glen below the western end of Siete Picos and surrounding la Ducha de los Alemanes is that you can find the unusual phenomenon of a tejeda, an area of tejos or yews. The yew is normally a solitary tree, rarely to be found in clusters. In this area however there are dozens of yews growing among the pines.

Where is this German shower to be found? It’s at the top of the Fuenfría valley, in the same general area as the remains of the Roman road which once travelled up the valley to cross Puerto de Fuenfría on the way to Segovia. If you leave Cercedilla from the train station (1160m), it’s a walk of about 6.5-7km following the Puricelli trail/Carretera de la República up the valley, past the Hospital de Fuenfría, briefly taking a section of asphalted road, then back to the ‘Road of the Republic’ – more like a very well-surfaced forestry track – and right at the end, when the road crosses Arroyo de la Navazuela on a sharp bend, a short and slightly steeper trail that brings you to the waterfall (1575m). You can also get a local bus from the train station to the Centro de Visitantes (1290m, last stop before Hospital de Fuenfría), and then walk approximately 4km following either the marked Calzada Romana/Roman Road trail or the Calzada Borbónica and finishing on the Carretera de la República as before.

 

Note: for anybody who is really interested in the history of the German Guadarramistas (and who reads Spanish) check out this paper on the subject of “El grupo de los alemanes” – it contains several interesting stories including the original text written by Hausen describing his outing with Ohsman to the Pedriza and their crazy and harebrained Winter ascent – and nocturnal descent – of El Yelmo (pp 59-60).

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Snow and stone

WP_20160307_12_44_53_ProUncanny, the way in which snow transforms that which it touches, be it trees, water, buildings, rocks or whatever. The Earth’s surface in general, whether it be a flat extension such as a field with a few trees around its perimeter or the upthrust geological drama of rugged mountains, is transmogrified by a blanket of snow.

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But perhaps it is individual rocks that are most profoundly affected by this affliction of massed miniscule ice crystals..and i think especially, even more than when the snow coats and covers them, it is when it retreats from them that the phenomenon really astonishes.

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This retreat of the snow from around rocks can be brought about by very different elements..sometimes it is the work of the wind sinuously moulding the snow around rock, others it is the sun heating the stone and causing the snow to melt and fall back.

WP_20160307_12_45_09_ProDuring this past and most strange of Winters, i have been repeatedly struck by the wondrous forms that this interface of snow and stone produces..subtle, delicate, graceful lines written by the rock, drawn by stone on the white sheet of snow.

WP_20160307_14_07_25_ProNature gets arty!

 

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Jump!

Tino gets some air..

Tino gets some air..

For many years after i learned to ski, i did not jump. Even when i learned to do hop turns – or jump turns – for very steep terrain, i still avoided jumping off things. Like many skiers i suppose i thought of jumping as something that snowboarders did..or dedicated ski-jumpers, jumping hundreds of meters with 3-meter-long skis. But then i began to realise that for high level mountain skiing you sometimes needed to jump..off cornices or over crevasses, or just off unforeseen bumps when skiing at high speed. So i learned to jump. And discovered that not only was it a necessary skill..it was also fun, a lot of fun!

..not flying too far.

..not flying too far.

So i’ve wasted no time in getting my son to taste some air – it wasn’t exactly difficult to persuade him – and of course he took to it like a fish to water..(or maybe that should be a bird to..?)

Even carving his way out of the jump? (Well, maybe not quite..!)

Even carving his way out of the jump? (Well, maybe not quite..!)

These last few years, due to first knee and then back problems, i’ve been avoiding the air as much as possible (though the air is ok, the landing bit is where it gets less cool). But with several days of soft snow this strange and belated Winter – and more so soft snow that sometimes wasn’t especially great to ski, high density humid snow or poudre lourde, heavy pow – conditions were just right for popping off small rocks and little cornices formed by the wind in the lee of trees.

The perfect rock..

The perfect rock..

Irresistible! For the moment my half-century-old back has been holding up ok, but..you have to try not to get carried away, jumping off one thing and then another..some of that old cartilage is not in great shape. Jumping really is fun, but..

The perfect tree cornice..

The perfect tree cornice..

..probably better to start moving towards the mindset that some things are better left to the young!

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Skiing and solitude in Río Moros Valley

These last weeks have seen multiple days of intense mountain activity. Standouts have been skiing the South and the East of La Peñota, the closest mountain to my house and one which rarely accumulates enough snow to ski, skiing off the wind chilled summit of Hermana Menor with my son on a cold and cloudy afternoon before Easter, skiing the North of Peñalara in near zero visibility – yes, that means not seeing anything most of the way down – and skiing the South, North and West of Cabeza de Hierro Menor in the day with a good cover of fresh snow during Easter week. Also a quick visit to the Pyrenees to ski the emblematic Montardo of Val d’Aran, though somewhat disappointing – less snow than expected at lower elevations, the summit was memorable for the wrong reasons, skiing off it in driving snow, another low visibility ski – the descent was nonetheless pretty cool. But the activity that i choose to highlight is..a day of skiing in the valley of Río Moros.

At the top of Río Moros Valley rises Montón de Trigo, 2155m.

At the top of Río Moros Valley rises Montón de Trigo, 2161m.

Valle de Río Moros is a major valley in the Sierra del Guadarrama range, surrounded by peaks rising to 2200m with its eponymous river running down SouthWest to the municipal area of El Espinar in Segovia province. It’s probably among the least visited valleys of the Sierra..for different reasons, related one way or another to questions of access. The lower valley has an extensive system of forestry tracks – forestry has been a prime traditional activity in El Espinar and there are two small dams in the middle of the valley – but access to the upper valley means a serious hike and trails are few. Add to that the fact that in Summer access to the valley is entirely prohibited by the municipal authorities due to forest fire concerns. Result: one very quiet valley. Apart from people visiting the peaks on the ridge between the busy Fuenfría Valley and Río Moros, or crossing over from Fuenfría to hike the ridge from Montón de Trigo to Pinareja (2197m) and Oso (2196m), it’s rare to bump into humans in the valley itself.

Nature making magic in the puddles.

Nature making magic in the puddles, early morning Fuenfría Valley.

So the other day i set out from low in the Fuenfría Valley, skis and boots on my back, to climb towards Collado de Marichiva and Peña Bercial..from where i would enter the Río Moros Valley. I started hiking from 1350m, at 1600m was able to put on skis and cautiously skin on a few centimeters of new snow, and at around 1650m began to find skiable snow. Above the col known as Marichiva, though it didn’t look too promising, i found a reasonably good quantity of snow on the South ridge of Peña Bercial (2002m), a place where i had never skied before.

Looking back down from near the summit of Peña Bercial towards Collado Marichiva and Peña del Águila rising to the SouthWest.

Looking back down from near the summit of Peña Bercial towards Collado Marichiva (lower left of foto) and Peña del Águila rising to the SouthWest.

Arriving at the top of Peña Bercial the clouds closed in and the wind blew fiercely to provide very wintry sensations..temperature quickly dropped to 1ºC and the wind chill was considerable, that feels like Winter – cold Spring days! I crossed the top of the upper Río Moros valley in low visibility towards Montón de Trigo, my first objective for the day. There was abundant snow on the mountain’s south-western slopes, 10-15cm of fresh on top of hard frozen old snow.

The South side of the West ridge of Montón de Trigo, complete with up and down tracks.

The South side of the West ridge of Montón de Trigo, complete with up and down tracks.

It was possible to ski from a couple of meters below the summit on the western ridge, then dipping directly down into the Río Moros valley, skiing between the small pines which, though not tightly packed, required some manoeuvring at times on relatively steep terrain. On reaching a confluence of streams in the area known as Ojos de Río Moros at about 1725m, i had to take skis off to precariously cross the water, insecure ski-boots on snow-covered rocks.

Confluence of streams, Ojos de Río Moros.

Confluence of streams, Ojos de Río Moros.

Having made it up the steep bank on the other side, and finding still abundant snow, i continued to ski along the left bank of the river..coasting all the way down to 1620m where another confluence brought my descent to an end.

Waterfalls in Río Moros, 1630m.

Waterfalls in Río Moros, 1630m.

From this point my direction homewards would be SouthEast towards Peña Bercial and Fuenfría once more. As i headed back up towards Bercial along its gentle northwestern slopes, noting consistent snowpack of 30-50cm, i found myself thinking that it’s not that often that one gets the opportunity to ski in this zone..and that i really would have to ski back down to the river once more.

The suave NorthWest of Peña Bercial sloping down to Río Moros.

The suave NorthWest of Peña Bercial sloping down to Río Moros.

And so i did. Arriving at about 1930m the snow began to run out – the summit area of Bercial, blasted by the wind, was almost completely snowless – so there i stopped, got skins off and slid, solitary, turning on my boards among the well spaced trees all the way back down to Río Moros.

Tributary stream to Río Moros,

Tributary stream to Río Moros.

All day i had encountered no tracks other than my own, and it occurred to me that few people at any time of the year must come this way. How far from Cotos on a Sunday morning! And such a delightful place..in all its solitary splendor.

Light and shadow magic among the trees in Río Moros Valley.

Light and shadow magic among the trees in Río Moros Valley.

Nature played a wonderful game of light as the evening wore on and i climbed back towards Bercial once more..the wind-driven clouds flirting with the sun and our local star’s rays casting fleeting pine shadows across the snow.

Finally on Peña Bercial, i got ready to finish the day with one more ski heading South towards Collado de Marichiva and the Fuenfría Valley, leaving behind the secluded Río Moros Valley. The summit itself, just above 2000m, desolate, wind-blasted, snowless, gave way to surprisingly good skiing for a couple of hundred meters on its South side.

The craggy, though flat, summit of Peña Bercial seen from the South.

The craggy, though flat, summit of Peña Bercial seen from the South.

Just above Collado de Marichiva (1753m) i had to take skis off twice, first for a couple of steps and then for a couple of dozen meters, before skiing down to the lowest point of the col..where i was surprised to suddenly see a human standing on the wall that separates Madrid and Segovia. The first person i had seen all day since Hospital de Fuenfría in the morning.

Collado de Marichiva, below Peña Bercial..and with person!

Collado de Marichiva, below Peña Bercial..and with person!

From here i continued to ski, searching for the skiable snow and avoiding bald and shallow patches – guarreando en Guadarrama at times – to reach 1650m before finally taking skis off and putting them on my pack..

Last turns 100m below Marichiva.

Last turns 100m below Marichiva.

..leaving just the 6-7km hike home down the Fuenfría Valley past the Hospital and along the Puricelli trail to Cercedilla. A day i won’t forget in a while.

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