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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Summer in the Pyrenees – Valle de Estós

Just back from a couple of weeks in the Pyrenees..where we were able to escape to some extent from the oven-like experience of this Summer in the center of the Peninsula. Not to say that it was especially cool up North, but, while some afternoons were quite hot, the mornings and evenings usually offered fresher temperatures..with the odd Summer storm thrown in for good measure.

Heading up the Estós Valley, beneath Perdiguero (3222m), on the right, and Picos dera Baquo on the left.

Heading up the Estós Valley, beneath Perdiguero (3222m), on the right, and Picos dera Baquo on the left.

The first few days we did several easy hiking routes in the Valle de Estós, a tributary valley to the Valle de Benasque and surely one of the most beautiful and accessible valleys in the Pyrenees. The valley starts low at around 1300m and ascends gradually..but as soon as you enter the valley you are immediately confronted by the huge 3000m peaks that flank it on all sides.

Shady trail in the Estós valley.

Shady trail in the Estós valley.

Another attractive characteristic of this valley is that many of its low-altitude trails progress thru considerable stretches of forest shade. The alpine views are limited on these stretches..but when the midday sun begins to hit, you may be thankful for the canopy of beech, birch or hazel hanging over your head.

The trail opens up..

The trail opens up..

And you needn’t worry, there will always come a moment where the canopy parts and the alpine comes back into focus..just a little, or, a bit further on, a whole lot!

La cabaña del Tormo, 1700m, below the impressive waterfall and cirque of Molseret.

La Cabaña del Tormo, 1730m, below the impressive waterfall and cirque of Molseret.

This was our destination on the first day, a pastoral cabin located in the middle of the valley at a point where the valley floor widens out and allows you to take in the views all round. Bucolic beauty at its best!

Another day we climbed a little higher on one side of the valley along a steep hillside covered in hazel (avellano) to a small coomb where another cabin is located.

Walking in La Coma, close to..

Walking in La Coma, close to..

..la Cabaña de la Coma!

..la Cabaña de la Coma! (1850m)

On this day, while the skies remained blue and clear for most of the morning, the weather began to change in the early afternoon..so we hurried back down towards the lower valley..

On our way back down, thru the chiaroscuro of the hazel forest.

On our way back down, thru the chiaroscuro of the hazel forest.

..as the sky began to rumble in the distance, and we barely made it to shelter before the storm broke. About one of every three or four days threatened an afternoon storm, though we only got serious rain on a couple of occasions.

Another day we hiked up the opposite side of the valley towards the area known as Batisielles, famous for its beautiful lagunas..locally known as ibons or ibones. This route is perfect for hot days because, although the trail zigzags steeply upwards, you seem to walk thru a continuous tunnel of vegetation. The trees in this case are beeches and birches, giving way to conifers as you reach the first ibon..

Posing by the beautiful ibonet de Batisielles.

Posing by the beautiful ibonet de Batisielles (1860m).

I have to admit that there was a downside to this route..the arboreal tunnel leading to Batisielles, despite providing wonderful shade, is also home to many many mosquitos. And i ended the day impacted not only by the soaring spires of Ixeia and the great rock needles of Perramo above Batisielles but also – multiple times – by these tiny denizens of the green.

Descending towards the valley once more..

Descending towards the valley once more..

After several days spent in and around Estós, we took a rest day or two – a certain 5-year-old needed some urban stimilation – before heading up the Benasque valley where we would get a little closer to the high mountain zone that, so far, we had only seen towering above us.

But that’ll be for another post!

 

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Hot Summer days..and small singing climbers

There weren’t too many cold Spring days in Cercedilla this year, and i’ve been telling anybody who would listen of my fears of a hot Summer..and lo! ..was i right. We’re going on two weeks of consistently hot days, with maximum temps above 30ºC (peaking at 35ºC right at the end of June) and minimum temps in the 15-19ºC range..and there’s at least another week of the same to come.

With this kind of weather it’s good to get out early in the morning, to hike up the valley before the sun climbs too high in the sky..or to do a little climbing oneself. Rock climbing is what i’m talking about of course. An easy West-facing slab was ideal for my 5-year-old to sing his way up ..maybe even too easy!

Thanks to the songbirds of Navalmedio for their wonderful background soundtrack. The Navalmedio valley is one of the other valleys that lead upwards towards the mountains from Cercedilla, in this case towards the pass of Navacerrada. We’ve been up (and down) this valley a few times in the last month, but our favourite valley by far remains Fuenfría. Above all on those days when you can’t get out early in the morning..

It’s particularly in the evening – after a scorching day in Madrid – that the Fuenfría valley offers shade and solace..and temperatures that you might even call cool, as the sun dips behind the western valley wall formed by the ridge that runs from La Peñota to Peña del Águila and then Peña Bercial. Having spent the central hours of the day in the furnace of the capital it sometimes seems a little unreal to be able to stroll in the cool shade of the wild pines of Fuenfría in the early evening.

 

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Life!

Life!

I came upon this solitary flower – startlingly perched on the vertical, the drama of its precarious position heightened by the powerfully downpouring torrent – in the first days of June..and the other day when i passed by there again, there it still was..a little the worse for wear but still there.

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The wolf at your door.. rewilding!

A few posts back i was joking about wolves on the edge of town..and later it occurred to me that i was practically playing the role of the boy who cried wolf. Why? Well, because even as i was making the joke (‘crying wolf’) and commenting on how far away the wolves really were..a few kilometers down the road from where i live a dead wolf was found on the road, just two months ago now. Apparently run over by a vehicle during the night, the animal’s lifeless body caused quite a stir locally. See here..and here (with fotos) for reports.

Since the reappearance of the wolf in the Sierra de Guadarrama a few years back, and the subsequent reports of attacks on livestock, there has been some debate about what is clearly a controversial issue. From the point of view of Nature conservationists, the presence of the wolf is obviously a good thing, desirable both for the wolf in its own right and for the wolf as a fundamental player in a complex ecosystem which will benefit from the influence of an apex predator. In recent years the expansion of ibex (cabra montés) and wild boar (jabalí) populations in the Sierra has resulted in the need to cull hundreds of animals. The action of a large predator like the wolf could transform this – and other – scenarios. For many conservationists, the prime example of trophic cascade – dramatic changes within an ecosystem caused by the presence/absence of predators at the top of the food chain – is the return of the wolf to Yellowstone in the 1990s and the surprising – and far-reaching – consequences of this return. If you are interested in this question, check out George Monbiot talking about ‘rewilding’ at TED:

 

Livestock owners and hunters have a different point of view. They see their interests as potentially damaged and strongly contest the view that the wolf is a good thing. Some people in the conservationist lobby would point to a certain amount of alarmist publicity given to supposed wolf attacks recently. Even directly falsified reports of attacks. Earlier this year a curious video circulated Europe showing security camera footage of a night-time snowy environment in which a wolf appears and proceeds to kill a smallish guard-dog. The video was apparently presented to media networks in various countries, Germany among others, as a local recording. I have heard that it was even presented in Spain as representing an incident taking place at a well-known Guadarrama ski station! It turned out that the video was Russian in origin.

As a pro-conservationist i obviously endorse the presence of the wolf in Guadarrama, but it is very comfortable to do this while the wolf is 60-70km away in the Northern Sierras. As somebody who likes to sleep out at night in the Summer it’s a little less comfortable..to suddenly have the wolf on one’s doorstep. Rewilding, making the world wild once more, refers not only to rewilding other but also to rewilding self.. and the challenge posed to humans in this idea of rewilding, rewilding oneself, is a very interesting challenge indeed.

 

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The blaze on every hill

Amazing Summer colour in the hills this year..

Blazing yellow blossoming..atop Hermana Menor.

Blazing yellow blossoming..atop Hermana Menor.

One of the earliest memories of my childhood in Ireland features my father talking of “the furze blooming yellow in the hills”..and this vague, and perhaps not entirely real, recollection of infancy often resonates within me in early Summer in the mountains of Spain. The tough bush-like plants that blossom in a blaze of yellow in the Iberian highlands are not usually furze (Ulex, or tojo in Spanish) but two kinds of broom, generally known as piorno locally. In some ways quite similar to furze but of a different genus (Cytisus), these piornos have a host of other popular names: retama negra/amarilla, escoba amarilla/negra/serrana, ginesta, (h)iniesta, xiniesta and more.

Heading back down towards Cotos, Siete Picos and Mujer Muerta in the distance.

Heading back down towards Cotos, Siete Picos and Mujer Muerta in the distance.

Large numbers of piorno bushes growing together are referred to as piornales..and this last week the upper reaches of Peñalara seemed like one immense piornal, radiating not only an intense yellow colour but also an intense aroma. That morning i could smell it from the train as we travelled over Valsaín.

Looking down towards Cotos and the valley of Valsaín.

Looking down towards Cotos and the valley of Valsaín.

It’s not unusual to see great spreads of yellow on the opposite side, looking to Cabezas and Valdemartín..but this year seems to be the turn of Peñalara and Dos Hermanas. Of course it’s not only yellow, there’s also a little white still to be seen on this side..

Dos Hermanas and Peñalara, the snow still surviving in mid June.

Dos Hermanas and Peñalara, the snow still surviving in mid June.

Indeed not only is the snow still holding out, but there are some quite extensive snowfields above 2200m, particularly one between the two Hermanas. This is quite normal for June..though much less than the extensions observed the last two years, years which were exceptional in snowfall.

Snowfield on the West face of Hermana Mayor.

Snowfield on the West face of Hermana Mayor.

I already blogged about beautiful broom a couple of years back: Summer comes in a blaze of broom.

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Potato vs tomato, or why we need to get back to Nature

To some it may not seem so important..getting back to Nature. Many might say: so what, if we live in a highly urbanised environment, what’s the big deal about Nature?

I could give several answers to the question “Why do we need to get back to Nature?” but i think the following video featuring the British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in an American classroom is one of the best..

..when you see a 6-year-old confronted by a tomato and he doesn’t know what it is, and likely doesn’t know what a potato is either – you wonder would he recognise an apple? – you must think that there is something wrong here. Did they set up the video? Is it real? Is the kid acting? And if you accept that it’s real, and consider that it’s not just one kid, that several others in the class seem to have no better idea – though they all know perfectly what tomato ketchup is – then you must be at least a little concerned..if not downright disturbed.

Post-industrial urban living is a very artificial paradise..and one of the most artificial things in our plastic Garden of Eden (Made in Guangdong) is the food that we eat.

The industrialisation of food production, often presented as a miracle that has saved humanity, is probably closer to a catastrophic disaster.

We live in the age of pseudo-food.

Many children living in Westernised societies no longer recognise real food. They only know pseudo-food. Pre-prepared, processed, packaged food. Pseudo-food.

And the result is obesity, illness, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, multiple forms of cancer..and general lack of quality of life.

That’s why, thinks me, we need to get back to Nature..

Paradise..maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place?

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2, 8-9

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