Snowless Guadarrama

Contrasts can sometimes be brutal. The images of the Eastern US covered in up to almost a meter of snow compound the bleak sensations offered by the Sierra de Guadarrama this end of January. Almost entirely snowless.

Cercedilla, January 2016.

Cercedilla, January 2016.

What confronts us here are images of the blooming bush above, photographed just up the road from my house. Sure, we can say that it’s well known that in the center of Spain we do have dry Winters sometimes, and then of course there is El Niño.. But when you look at the data, there’s no escaping the brutality of the contrasts.

The fact is January has not been a dry month in Guadarrama, November and December were extremely dry but not so January. In Cercedilla the average precipitation for January is far this month of January we have had 138.4mm of water from the skies, way above the norm. The problem is the temperature, practically all that precipitation has been just that: water from the skies..rain, not snow.

Across the pond, in Washington DC, we find the other extreme. The average snowfall for the whole Winter is around 18 to 20 inches. Last weekend they got almost 30 inches. That’s not far off a meter of snow (75cm) just two days. And if we look at Southern Asia things get really Guangdong they were covered in white for the first time since the 1920s. Most of the local people had never seen snow before.

And our hills are brown and bleak.


PS: The way the weather is going: 2016 – hottest year on record. More confirmation of what we already knew.

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Flying our kite!

WP_20160116_13_39_41_ProSo what’s my six-year-old son doing..standing in the middle of this high open meadow known as Collado de los Amigos or Raso Hornilla? ..on a sunny windy Winter’s day in the shadow of Siete Picos (known in the past as Sierra del Dragón), in the Sierra del Guadarrama? Why he’s flying his kite of course!

WP_20160116_13_42_20_Pro (2)No, this is not a shot of some rare raptor in the Guadarrama skies, an unusually colourful Griffon Vulture or a very golden Golden’s my son’s kite. And no, i don’t mean Kite as in the beautiful bird of prey which happens to be quite common locally, i mean cheap plastic kite in the form of a dragon with a long tail. The photo is not very good but surprisingly the extremely fine line holding the kite is visible if you look closely.

WP_20160116_13_44_12_ProIt’s not like we were going to go skiing or anything, with the utterly miserable quantity of snow present in the Sierra..below 2200m practically nothing. But flying a kite is a lot of fun, and it was a beautiful day to be out. Flying our dragon below the Sierra del Dragón!


Fauna/language notes: Griffon Vulture – Buitre Leonado, Golden Eagle – Águila Real, Black Kite – Milano Negro. All these birds can be observed in the skies of the Guadarrama, vultures and kites without difficulty..eagles perhaps a little less readily.

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Happy Holidays..hoping for snow!

Seasons Greetings 2015

Hope is the word..we’re hoping for snow, maybe in January as has been the case so often in recent years – the image above shows a scene from last January. This year, despite looking like being a “super-Niño year” in meteorological speak, the day of el Niño brings us only brown snowless hills. Well, maybe i should say..due to its being a super-Niño year, but who knows? It’s true that even in so-called “normal” years it is increasingly rare to have any serious snowfall in December..indeed before mid-January. So, once more, we turn our prayers to the Kings, Los Reyes, the primary gift-givers locally, and their January 6 feast-day, which was known as Nollaig Beag (Little Christmas) in the ancient Éire of my youth. But the forecasts are not good..even looking forward to January, the meteo models presage very little in the way of white stuff for us in Spain.


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Wolves in the snow

In a post last June i wrote about what it feels like to find the wolf at your door, and i’m glad to report that i’ve managed to survive sleeping out in the Sierra several times over the Summer without suffering furious fanged attack in the pre-dawn hours. Half-hearted hoofed attack maybe..but no canines on the prowl. Not a sight. Not even a distant howl.

Others however know exactly where to look. Witness the magnificent images of a pair of Guadarrama wolves frolicking in the snow a couple of weeks back captured by the prolific Blas.

Beautiful animals in their natural habitat..if you cannot see the wonder of wolves in this video, you are probably never going to see it anywhere. Not in Yellowstone. Not in Siberia. And we have it right here in the Sierra de Guadarrama.

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COP21 – Paris, another chance for humans to be up to the challenge?

I had a pretty techno-urban weekend. Saturday morning saw me visit Madrid for an MRI scan to check out a back injury that’s been bugging me for a while now..the scan was quite the electroniko-industrial rock concert in a coffin scenario, throbbing hammering deafening pulsations in a claustrophobia inducing hi-tech imaging tunnel. Very techno. And Sunday morning meant another visit to the capital to take part in the mass demonstration of public support for action on the climate issue at the Paris conference starting on November 30.

Looking up Calle Alcalá from Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, the march getting under way.

Looking up Calle Alcalá from Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, the march getting under way.

The climate issue? James Hansen spelled it out for us in the US Congress in 1988. Climate change was happening. Global temperatures were rising. Humans were almost certainly responsible for it. Burning fossil fuels. The greenhouse effect. Anthropogenic global warming. That was almost thirty years ago and since then what have we managed to do?

Most people with access to information have done very little..other than bury their heads deeper in the sand and hope that all this nasty global warming business will go away. It’s true that a massive reaction on the part of the conservative oil and gas lobby in the 1990s, particularly in the US, has managed to confuse public perceptions of the science and generally obfuscate the issue by politicizing it and creating us versus them scenarios. Even though climate science has continued to reinforce Hansen’s original projections to the point where there is really no doubt that we are responsible for global warming, and the effects of climate change are more and more visible not as future scenarios but in the world around us in the present..we still see the same kind of fantasies offered by industry people daily on the internet and in the media: “not only is the planet not warming, it’s actually cooling”..”human impact is so insignificant it couldn’t possibly affect global temperatures”..”the climate scientists are inventing the facts, it’s all a huge conspiracy to increase taxes”..etc, etc, etc. Shill, baby, shill. Get your head deeper still into the sand. It’s probably not so surprising that the public -and its representatives- are so confused in the US, in a country where prevails the weird dichotomy of the planet’s most advanced technological society alongside the most willful ignorance, rejection even, of science..where possibly 40% of the population believe that the planet is not much more than 6,000 years old. If people can’t dig evolution, anthropology, geology, all relatively straightforward sciences, how can we expect them to grasp the more arcane complexities of climate science?

But that’s how it is..we need people to get it. Due to the paradox of democracy which means that elected political leaders have no vision beyond 4-5 years, absolute maximum 8-10 years down the line, with the result that solutions for longer term problems are impossible to develop. This is what we have seen over the last thirty years, even representatives with some kind of ‘green’ credentials cannot focus beyond the immediate issues of the economy, international affairs, local conflicts..this year, next year, two to three years from now. This is where the great challenge of the climate question lies..getting people to see that the consequences of climate change will impact almost everybody powerfully and terms of quality of life. It’s not about us versus them. All those old guys who are executives and managers in the oil and gas industries, and in their many dependent industries, and in their dependent political spectra..they too, at the very least thru their children, will be affected by the changing climate. You have to be a fool or an egomaniac not to see it. We have to get our heads out of the sand.

The human animal is of course not characterised by use of intelligence or rationality. We are emotional animals, often acting in defiance of reason, slaves to our ego. Greed and selfishness are terrible corrupters of human will and intelligence. Can we rise to the challenge? Can we overcome our collective ego, irrationality, selfishness and greed? Can we learn to act with more sense of consequence?

Sometimes you wonder. In Sunday’s demonstration in Madrid there was a considerable presence of helium filled balloons – as can be seen in the foto above. Balloons are colourful and perhaps add some gaiety to an event..some people would even consider it a wonderful spectacle to see hundreds of them floating up into the sky. Dozens, if not hundreds, of balloons certainly floated up and away during the march. Up and away to where? the country, to the mountains, to the sea. To the unsuspecting mouths and bellies of birds, animals and fish. And this was a demonstration made up mainly of eco-minded people. We humans are slow to learn.

On the subject of us versus them..another human contradiction is the opposition between “conservatives” and conservation – at least in the English tongue! Conservatives usually want to conserve things..traditions, position in society, power, wealth. They don’t want things to change too much. Though things tend to change all the time, they generally resist change. Others among us are concerned about the conservation of the natural world, of Nature. Something which is changing quite rapidly and for the worse. Here, many conservatives are apparently not too worried about the changes that are going on, or they just don’t see them. They are surprisingly liberal when it comes to change in Nature. They don’t seem to care at all about climate change, or simply refuse to believe that it’s the face of massive and mounting evidence to the contrary. Probably they are more concerned with maintaining the tradition of humans doing as they please with Nature. But i’m afraid that tradition will have to go. Either we learn to conserve Nature..or perhaps we will conserve nothing at all.


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(Fat)bike fever!

I have never been too convinced either about the place of mountain bikes in the mountains or of their value as vehicles of human integration in Nature. Sure, they can be useful for getting around moderately difficult terrain in hilly areas..but so too can a bulldozer, or a pair of legs. Like a large caterpillar vehicle, the effect of multiple MTB wheels especially in downhill scenarios can be quite destructive to vegetation and soil. (So too can lots of legs in boots if they keep wandering off trail.) The erosion -and sometimes brutal degradation- caused by mountain bike activity is very visible in my local Fuenfría Valley for example. Add to this the fact that i had a couple of unhappy experiences rolling down the hills almost two decades ago and the result was that i gradually reduced my two-wheel activities until i finally gave them up entirely.

Catch me if you can!

Catch me if you can!

Fifteen years down the line, my five-year-old -encouraged by me- really begins to like biking. At first he follows me as i run along in front, pacing and directing him..then, as he reaches six and begins to move those pedals, I run alongside him or just behind. When he turns six it begins to get difficult to keep up even on the flat, and when he starts to roll downhill.. forget it. So i had to buy a bike.

Trouble was..even after a year or more thinking about it, i was having a hard time getting my head around the idea of riding a bike again..let alone what type of bike to buy. I knew i didn’t want a road bike, and i knew that if the objective was to get out with my son on the dirt roads, forestry tracks and easy trails that are accessible to us locally, then it had to be a mountain bike. But what kind of MTB? In the intervening years the sport has mushroomed into dozens of disciplines..and a myriad of bikes. Just going into a shop can make your head swirl..and that’s before you see the prices. The apparent complexity of bicycles and their components nowadays requires an industrial engineering degree just to understand what the wheels do. (Back in my day they used to just turn..) After a few pathetic attempts to get with it, i decided to buy a fairly cheap, unspectacular “hardtail” bike (with only front suspension) on the second-hand market. But even this turned out to be more complicated than i expected..

About this time i read a comment somewhere on the net from a guy who was sixty-something years old and had recently bought a fatbike and was really loving it. He said that he hadn’t had so much fun on a bicycle in several decades. That got my attention. I began to look at this new concept of two-wheeled travel with big fat tyres..and i liked it. For one thing there are not that many fatbikes available in Europe yet, so choice was limited – a good thing! On the other hand, they don’t exactly come cheap. Even the most basic models won’t leave you much change out of a thousand euros. And even the cheapest one from across the Atlantic will come with several hundred euros delivery. And since they are still relatively new locally, the second-hand market has little to offer. However, some local European bike companies are beginning to catch on to this new trend and produce their own basic models..

Enter the fatbike!

Enter the fatbike!

Way back in the early nineties i had purchased a Bottecchia mountain bike in Italy and given it considerable use, it was a solid and reliable when i came across the Italian brand’s first venture into fat tyre bike terrain, i decided to check it out. It was reasonably affordable too.. and SO i finally got myself some wheels! The fun followed from the first day out. Well, to be honest, the first day out i went over the bars and was lucky not to get seriously hurt..the perils of powerful disc brakes!

But yes, having survived the first day, it really has been fun, fun, fun. And now i can keep up too!

(More to come on the fabness of fatbiking..)


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Nature and light

The ways in which we can experience Nature are many..moving thru the mountains is one way to do it..personally i love to ski in places where few people go..walking in the forest is another way..picking mushrooms or observing flowers..or the changing colours of the seasons..any one of these activities can put us in touch with the natural world.

WP_20151002_002 (2) But just the experience of light alone, even in an urban environment..on the street outside your front door, can offer quite a deep contact with the cosmos that transcends us. The late morning sunrise at this time of year makes for a real spectacle..not only in mountains and forests but also between blocks and on pavements.

Several mornings recently i have found myself playing with the shadows and the slopes in the streets near my house on the way home from dropping my son to school..à la Giacometti!

WP_20151014_09_26_02_ProJust how long can i get those legs to stretch in the morning light? Adds a new dimension to giving yourself a good stretch after a sound night’s sleep!

Also pretty apt for this time of year from a Celtic point of view..the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sau-in’), which corresponds to modern Halloween, celebrated the beginning of the dark time or the dark half of the year. For the Celts it was also something like ‘new year’ as they saw the year starting in darkness, with – months later – the light and new life springing from the dark.

Speaking of the dark, observing the night sky is of course another wonderful way to connect with the cosmos that surrounds and constitutes us..but unfortunately this is not so easy to do – at least not on a regular basis – for most urban dwellers. However we have not yet taken the daylight away from, on bright mornings, get out there and enjoy!

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