Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica IV, White

White flowers some may find a bit less spectacular than others..but are nonetheless beautiful too. And among their number we have some of the most highly prized of all alpine flowers.

Leontopodium alpinum, the famed Edelweiss.

Leontopodium alpinum, the famed Edelweiss.

Whatever you opine as to the beauty of the flower itself, nobody can deny that Leontopodium alpinum has a collection of the most wondrous names that humans have applied to any flower. Known popularly in German, and by extension in English and other tongues, as Edelweiss (the ‘noble white’), French has called it pied-de-lion (‘lion’s paw’ as in the Latin name), étoile d’argent (‘silver star’), or étoile des glaciers (‘star of the glaciers’), while in Spanish it’s la flor de las nieves (‘the flower of the snow’) and in Italian la stella alpina (‘the alpine star’).

Edelweiss, la flor de las nieves, at 2200m in the Benasque/Maladetas area.

Edelweiss, la flor de las nieves, at 2200m in the Benasque/Maladetas area.

Maybe not the rarest flower of the Pyrenees, but it’s not like you bump into it all over the place either..in fact i only know of two places in the Benasque valley area, both among the less travelled spots, where you can expect to find this elusive flower.

Another rare and much less famous white flower is the Gypsophila repens (literally ‘creeping chalk-lover’), known as Alpine Gypsophila or, weirdly enough, Creeping Baby’s Breath..

Gypsophila repens, Creeping Baby's Breath, at 2100m in Valle de Remuñe.

Gypsophila repens, Creeping Baby’s Breath, at 2100m in Valle de Remuñe.

It has no popular name in Spanish, though it is not so terribly difficult to come across it in the Pyrenees between 1500 and 2700m in areas of, not surprisingly, chalky soils.

Better known but also relatively scarce is Dryas octopetala, (White Dryas/Dryad or eightpetal mountain-avens, no common name in Spanish), an arctic-alpine flower occurring between 1800 and 3000m in the Pyrenees.

Dryas octopetala, at 2550m on Pico de Paderna.

Dryas octopetala, at 2550m on Pico de Paderna.

To be found in calcareous or karstic terrain, on rocky ridges in the Pyrenees but also close to sea level further North..for example in the West of Ireland’s Boireann. And don’t be fooled by the name, the flower can have up to sixteen petals!

For those who like flowers with many petals, Astrantia major will look attractive..though in reality it has multiple bracts – leaves that look like petals – and tiny individual flowers, all together forming a beautiful inflorescence that is reminiscent of exploding stars..or fireworks(!)

Astrantia major, in Valle de Estós at 1700m.

Astrantia major, in Valle de Estós at 1700m.

Known in Spanish as Sanicula hembra and in English as Great Masterwort, this large plant (60-70cm) grows in abundance in mountain meadows and valleys, often in humid areas or close to streams.

And just one more white flower to finish..this one a real rarity.

Iris latifolia, coming in blue..and white!

Iris latifolia, coming in blue..and white!

We’ve already met Iris latifolia – in Spanish known as el lirio azul – in the blue post, and that’s normally how you will find it, out of hundreds and hundreds of blooms, blue. But every once in a while it comes in white too.. el lirio blanco!

 

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica III, Yellow

Yellow, countless wildflowers bloom in this colour..well, surely botanists have counted them, but i haven’t. Just looking thru the lists of Flora Pyrenaica there are hundreds. Here are a few..

Lilium pyrenaicum, flower of many names, Valle de Remuñe at 2300m.

Lilium pyrenaicum, flower of many names, Valle de Remuñe at 2300m.

Lilium pyrenaicum, known in English as Pyrenean Lily, Yellow Martagon Lily or Yellow Turk’s-cap Lily, in Spanish as Lirio Amarillo, Lirio or Azucena de los Pirineos, and in French as Lis des Pyrénées. As many of these names suggest, it is principally found in the Pyrenean range though it does appear in other European ranges. While it is a very visible flower, growing as high as a meter from the ground, it is relatively uncommon..this Summer we came across it just once in ten days of activity.

Another large yellow flower (up to 50-60cm) which is not especially common is Trollius europaeus, in French Trolle des Montagnes or Trolle d’Europe and known as Calderones in Spanish. It fascinated me when i first saw it years ago, and still does. It’s the flower that never seems to open – what you see in the foto is not some pre-bloom stage, that’s how the flower is.

Trollius europaeus, another favourite, here at 2100m in Vallibierna.

Trollius europaeus, another favourite, here at 2100m in Vallibierna.

 

Staying with plants on the larger side of life, next up is Doronicum grandiflorum, classified as relatively rare and with no popular names in either English or Spanish (Doronic à grandes fleurs in French, Doronico dei macereti in Italian). Nevertheless, i seem to come across it regularly enough in the Central Pyrenees, and when you do find a plant or cluster of plants, you can expect to see 10-20 individual flowers.

Doronicum grandiflorum, at 2400m in Valle de Remuñe.

Doronicum grandiflorum, at 2400m in Valle de Remuñe.

 

A flower often confused with Doronicum is Arnica montana, commonly known as Arnica and widely cultivated for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately it is reported to be increasingly difficult to see it in the mountains..i myself have come across it very infrequently in Pyrenees, perhaps somewhat more often in Alps. While the flower is very similar to Doronicum, the stem and the base leaves are quite different.

Arnica montana, at 1950m in Vallibierna..one of the few times i have seen it in Pyrenees.

Arnica montana, at 1950m in Vallibierna..one of the few times i have seen it in Pyrenees.

 

Those who visit the alpine tundra of the Pyrenees, and particularly areas of loose limestone surface, gravel or small stones, where practically nothing grows, may be lucky enough to come across Crepis pygmaea, usually a small terrain-hugging plant. The bright yellow flowers, reminiscent of dandelions, stand out like the moon in the night sky while the dull greyish-green leaves blend in almost mimetically with the surrounding stones.

Crepis pygmaea, at 2600m in the Sierra Negra.

Crepis pygmaea, at 2600m in the Sierra Negra.

 

And just one more.. this one a flower which – unlike the majority of the plants presented here – is also to be found readily in the mountains of the Sistema Central: the Great Yellow Gentian, Gentiana lutea, in Spanish Genciana Amarilla. Very different from the small blue gentians, this plant grows to over a meter tall and appears in extensive colonies both in grassy areas  and among the rocks.

Gentiana lutea, great yellow gentian, Valle de Estós at 1800m.

Gentiana lutea, great yellow gentian, Valle de Estós at 1800m.

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica II, Red

WP_20170710_18_21_24_ProSiempreviva! Sempervivum montanum, or Mountain Houseleek for anglophones.

Siempreviva! Sempervivum montanum, or Mountain Houseleek for anglophones.

This Summer in the Pyrenees the star of the floral show was almost certainly Sempervivum montanum, in Spanish Siempreviva de montaña and rather quaintly known as Mountain Houseleek in English. I have to say that i much prefer the French name, Joubarbe des montagnes. This plant belongs to a family known as Crassulaceae, a type of succulent. The base plant formed by tight rosettes of ‘succulent’ light green leaves is attractive in itself, but when it flowers the spectacular pink-red-purple structure of the bloom is a delight to behold. It grows to a height of 10-15cm and can be found up to 2500m. We came across it several times this past month of July.

Siempreviva flower cluster at 2200-2300m, Valle de Estós.

Siempreviva flower cluster at 2200-2300m, Valle de Estós.

 

On the subject of prevalent plants, few have more to say – or to show – than the Rhododendron, Rhododendron ferrugineum, called Alpenrose in English, Rododendro or Azalea de montaña in Spanish. Very widely present in the Pyrenees, usually appearing at or just above treeline in extensive bushlike shrubs with clusters of flowers.

Rhododendron ferrugineum, Azalea de montaña

Rhododendron ferrugineum, Azalea de montaña, at 2200-2300m in Valle de Remuñe.

When the trees run out Alpenrose runs wild.. Vallibierna 2200m.

When the trees run out Alpenrose runs wild.. Vallibierna 2200m.

 

Moving up above the trees into the alpine realm, among the rocks and even close to the summits, we find isolated cushions of green with tiny red-pink flowers. Silene acaulis is a high mountain plant known in English as Moss Campion or Cushion Pink, evidently due to its similarity to the cushions of moss found in the forests at lower altitudes. Musgo Florido in Spanish. Far from being a moss however, this is a plant that survives in extreme alpine and arctic environments.

Silene acaulis, at 2900m close to the summit of Pico de Clarabide.

Silene acaulis, at 2900m close to the summit of Pico de Clarabide.

 

Back down in the valleys, another common flower is the beautiful Dactylorhiza maculata, an orchid type known as Satirión Manchado in Spanish and Heath (or Moorland) Spotted Orchid in English. Sometimes debatable whether it’s more of a white flower than a red one – or an in-between pink – the examples we came across this year were generally closer to red (..pinkish red?) though the flower below is definitely on the paler side..

Dactylorhiza maculata, a pale Satirión from Valle de Remuñe at about 1900m.

Dactylorhiza maculata, a pale Satirión from Valle de Remuñe at about 1900m.

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica I, Blue

The natural phenomenon that is Pyrenees, tectonic collision by-product, geological immensity, inexhaustible mountain range that separates Iberia from the rest of Europe.. And just that same central chunk that i have already visited so many times.. and still so many new places, new sights, new things to delight upon. I wonder. How do peeps manage to take in the Alps? ..the Himalayas? Unimaginable.

This year it was particularly the flowers, i’d like to share some of them.. to begin with some blue flowers.

One of my faves.. Gentiana verna, Spring Gentians, found widely in the Pyrenees from late Spring and into Summer.

One of my favourites.. Gentiana verna, Spring Gentians.

The Spring Gentian, Gentiana verna, in Spanish Genciana de primavera or sometimes Gitanilla, is a small and delicate bloom which can be found widely in the Pyrenees from late Spring and into Summer. It occurs in mountain ranges across Europe, usually above 1500m..but also at sea level in the West of Ireland, not far from where i was born, in the Burren (An Boireann) of Clare.

More Spring Gentians, at 2300m not far from the Ibones de Paderna.

More Spring Gentians, at 2300m not far from the Ibones de Paderna.

 

Another somewhat larger blue Gentian found commonly in the Pyrenees is Gentiana acaulis (Stemless Gentian), growing up to 6-7cm. Again usually above 1500m, also in other highland areas across Europe..but, alas, not by the sea in Éire.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2400m in Vallibierna, Benasque.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2400m in Vallibierna, Benasque.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2300m close to Puerto de la Glera, Benasque.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2300m close to Puerto de la Glera, Benasque.

 

A very common flower in the Pyrenees – and much larger and more visible than the blue Gentians – is the Iris (Iris latifolia) known as Lirio Azul in Spanish. Not unusual to see it cultivated in gardens – and weirdly known as the ‘English’ Iris – this plant is in fact native to the Pyrenees where you can find whole meadows of it blooming in late June or July.

Iris latifolia, around 1900-2000m, Ardonés, Cerler.

Iris latifolia, around 1900-2000m, Ardonés, Cerler.

 

From the very big to the very small, the Alpine Forget-me-not (Myosotis alpina), in Spanish Nomeolvides, is a true high mountain flower. This minute bloom – the flowers measure less than  a centimeter in diameter – can be found in the Pyrenees up to 3100m.

Myosotis alpina, the Alpine Forget-me-not, at 2900m, Pico de Clarabide.

Myosotis alpina, the Alpine Forget-me-not, at 2800m, Pico de Clarabide.

 

Another rare small blue flower, this one endemic to the Pyrenees, is Veronica nummularia – rare enough not to have a common name in either English or Spanish. Also to be found only high in the mountains.

Veronica nummularia, 2800m, below Pico de Clarabide.

Veronica nummularia, 2800m, below Pico de Clarabide.

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Sizzling Summer

Summer has arrived. And how? Sweating, sweltering, sizzling,.. superhot. Here in the center of Spain we’ve been suffering a two-week heatwave that started on the 10th of June and is set to continue several days yet. It’s been the hottest June in Cercedilla since 2003 according to local records..and i guess the same goes for multiple other locations on the Spanish peninsula. Looks very much like we are set for yet another record-breaking year of heat. AGW anyone? No, ‘course not, thaz juzza big ol’ hoax, all ya gotta do is look out the window..and you can see the Earth is flat.

For any flat-earthers out there who are interested (probably not, fundamentalists die hard) or anybody else who’s feelin’ the heat and never really understood the whole climate change thing, here’s an excellent video from 350.org outlining the history of climate science and how we got to where we are today, all in plain easy-to-understand language.

As the video points out, among the first scientists to conclude that the Earth was warming significantly – and to attribute this warming to human activity, burning fossil fuels, etc – were people working for the big oil companies. Back in 1977. Since then these same companies have spent vast sums of money trying to confuse the science, hide the truth and leave people in the dark. As a small gesture of thanks to one of these companies for their great efforts there is a petition afoot to name a huge iceberg about to break off the Antarctic ice-cap in their honour:

Name The Larsen C Iceberg #ExxonKnew

Sign the petition and give some recognition – send some love – to the nice people working so hard at EXXON.

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Much better than the Maladetas, it doesn’t get..

Mountain skiing in Spain – or just simply skiing in Spain – much mo’ better than the Maladetas, ya just don’t get.. still close to 1400m of descent, and multiple 1200m descents, in the middle of May. Add up to half a meter of fresh snow above 3000m, skiing down to 1960m, plus incredible luck – once again – with the weather.. man! Magníficas Maladetas!!

And again, since i obviously don’t appear in the video, just to prove that i was there..a shot of me on top of Pico Coronas with cloud swirling about an “atmospheric” Aneto in the background, taken by José Luis – thanks!

Coronas - C'est moi!

Coronas – C’est moi!

Maladetas forever!¡!

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Maladetas from Barrancs

Aneto's magnificent West face, seen from Pico del Medio.

Aneto’s magnificent West face, seen from Pico del Medio.

This Easter, Semana Santa as it’s known locally, i figured it was about time i made a visit to the upper Benasque Valley, with its Maladetas, its moribund glaciers..and its 1000+ meter descents everywhere you look. I’ve been a regular here in the past but in recent years my visits have been less frequent, for various reasons, though not for want of fresh projects in the area. So i decided to get after it this year and, with an eager partner in Mariano, had soon lined up several objectives for a multi-day visit.

Tuca d'Aiguallut, 2712m, on the left, towers over the Plan d'Aigualluts in front at 2030m..with Aneto, 3404m, rising above its receding glacier in the distance..

Tuca d’Aiguallut, 2712m, on the left, towers over the Plan d’Aigualluts in front at 2030m..with Aneto, 3404m, rising above its receding glacier in the distance..

Only problem was late planning made it impossible to stay at any of the roofed accommodations in the upper valley – it’s Easter week, right? – so the solution was.. to stay at an alternative accommodation in a higher valley still.

Voilà! C'est l'Hôtel Barrancs..à 2350m.

Voilà! C’est l’Hôtel Barrancs..à 2350m.

Having crossed the Plan d’Aigualluts in the direction of Aneto, you gain entry to the Valley of Barrancs, and continuing a kilometer and a half up this valley you come to a wide open, relatively flat area..ideal for camping out. Of course it means slogging up 600m vertical on skis & skins with close to 20 kilos on your back..but you have to pay some price for living the good life.

The second day our objective was the NorthEast approach to Aneto via Glaciar de Barrancs, finishing on the East ridge to the summit. I’ve wanted to do this route for years and while it doesn’t involve huge difficulties it does mean a solitary experience..in contrast to the pilgrimage that you can find on the normal NorthWest approach.

The high Maladetas, Pico de Aneto on the left, Coronas in the center and Pico del Medio on the right.

The high Maladetas, Pico de Aneto on the left, Coronas in the center and Pico del Medio on the right.

What you might call the crux of this route is the point where you take one of two steep ramps – in the above shot, ascending diagonally from right to left – to gain the East ridge. Both are quite steep (40-45º) and rather exposed, particularly at the high point of the lower ramp where you ‘turn the corner’..and from below, on the way up, the exposure is really in your face, a 100m vertical drop off the end of the ramp. Gulp! ..not a place to fall, you think..or be dragged down by a wet sluff.  But once on the ramp the sense of exposure disappears and with good snow it’s really relatively innocent.

Mariano emerging from the ramp onto the East ridge.

Mariano emerging from the ramp onto the East ridge.

The East ridge itself is quite straightforward, ascending gently towards the summit. We left skis at 3330m, as the last part alternates snow arêtes and short rock passages making it impossible – short of very exceptional snow conditions – to carry out a ski descent.

On the way to the summit.

On the way to the summit.

As we scrambled up the final slightly steeper section of the ridge, we were surprised to find that there were no people present at the apex. Indeed we had the top to ourselves for a good ten minutes, most unusual for the much-visited summit of Aneto, monarch of the Pyrenees, 3404m. A dozen or so persons were however toiling on ‘Mohammed’s Bridge’ (El Puente de Mahoma)..keen for their moment of Paradise?

Mariano on the summit..between a rock and a hard place.

Mariano on the summit..between a rock and a hard place.

Seeing clouds building up to the West and realizing that it was still a long way home, not to mention that a platoon of Catalans was about to dislodge us, we quickly headed back down the ridge to where we had left our skis..

On our way back down the ridge..in this shot you can appreciate the ramps that we would now be our descent route, but not the exposition.

On our way back down the ridge..in this shot you can appreciate the ramps that would now be our descent route, but not the exposition to the left.

..we got them on, geared up, got the adrenaline going, and skied down the East ridge into the dogleg, onto the lower ramp, two or three turns and traverse off it..and it was done. Just another thousand or so vertical meters back to camp!

Mariano, just off the ramp, skiing on Glaciar de Barrancs. Small people in the big mountains.

Mariano, just off the ramp, skiing on Glaciar de Barrancs. Small people in the big mountains.

The snow was a bit funkier than we’d expected, just enough crust on the surface to make it less fun – and slower – to ski than might have been the case an hour earlier. Anyway we cruised on down..to around 2500m where we took a break to replenish our water-bottles.

You can't see it but there's a generous trickle of water behind the rock just above right of Mariano's head.

You can’t see it but there’s a generous trickle of water behind the rock just above right of Mariano’s head.

With only two small gas cylinders for three and a half days, the option to get water without having to melt snow is always attractive..just that in this particular case there was one small rock move between us and it, and quite a drop below.

You can't see it either, but filling your bottle here required a somewhat exposed maueuver.

You can’t see it either, but filling your bottle here required a somewhat exposed maneuver. Nice spot to hang out though.

Mission successfully completed, we got on down and back to camp..hungry for a big dinner. We figured we’d earned it.

Next day the forecast from earlier in the week had suggested changeable weather, so we ascended directly towards Glaciar de Aneto and crossed to the right, away from Aneto, towards Pico del Medio, with a conservative approach to an ambitious project.

Another group follow us up to the col (3267m) between Pico de Coronas and Pico del Medio.

Another group follow us up to the col (3267m) between Pico de Coronas and Pico del Medio.

My idea was to reach Pico del Medio (3349m) and continue along the relatively horizontal but jagged crest to Punta Astorg and Pico Maldito (3354m). This would have involved some passages probably requiring a belay and in our ski-boots would have been a bit slow..and clouds were clearly building all round.

Cloud building down low in the French valleys and also coming in higher up.

Cloud building down low in the French valleys and also coming in higher up.

In the end we settled for just Pico del Medio, with an easy snow arête and a little scramble on rock..beautiful summit, wonderful views of Aneto’s West face. And i had never been there before. No point in being greedy, is there?

Mariano about to reach the summit of Pico del Medio, with Pico de Aneto behind.

Mariano about to reach the summit of Pico del Medio, with Pico de Aneto behind.

Back down the ridge, quick bite to eat – really cold at the col – and skis on. Who knew what was coming next..the best descent in four days! Which we would surely have missed if we had insisted on doing the whole ridge. The light wasn’t great at times but the snow, while still a bit challenging, was really good to ski. Plus, we had another little water-collecting adventure at the end of the descent. What more could you ask for?

The descent!

The descent!

That afternoon in Barrancs, spent cooking and sleeping, was a very strange one weather-wise. At moments the storm seemed about to break..then the sun broke thru the cloud and it got very warm in a matter of minutes, stripping clothes off, almost sweating..when new clouds rolled in and the temperature plummeted, clothes back on – all available clothing – such was the cold we were practically shivering. Repeat. And again. Not long after six in the evening we were both in our sleeping bags. Big sleep.

Next morning was brutally cold. Hard to believe after the heat of previous weeks down on the Meseta. Felt like deep Winter..though we had passed the middle of April. Cold Spring days! Broke camp as fast as possible and got our asses up the mountain – big packs on – towards the sun. High traverse via Portillón Superior and below Diente de la Maladeta towards Vallón de Paderna – incidentally passing up the most attractive ski, best snow of the week, on the way – and finally down to Tubos de Paderna, steep concrete bumps – what fun! – and down to Los Llanos del Hospital.

Wonderful Maladetas!

 

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