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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Spring!

WP_20160323_17_43_19_Pro (2)A lone daffodil has just opened on my balcony..in haiku like syntony with the seasons. Spring!

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Making the most of the snow

Deep Winter snow

Deep Winter snow

Well, this year Winter came late, very late, but when it came, it came for real. No half-hearted attempt at it, full on week-long snowstorms, weather to keep children and old people safe indoors, not apt for the faint-hearted. Days for mountain people to get out there and enjoy the blizzard, relish finding your way in near zero visibility, struggle to click into your skis on a summit with an 80 kph wind streaming over you, dance among the trees in the glory of powder, and suffer in the crust and the slush. Winter!

Which way Winter? Cotos, Mirador de la Gitana with half a meter of compacted snow.

Which way Winter? Cotos, Mirador de la Gitana with half a meter of compacted snow.

Winter walk

Winter walk

Winter sports!

Winter sports!

Winter trees

Winter trees

More Winter trees looking down on a Winter valley.

More Winter trees looking down on a Winter valley.

Winter boughs

Winter boughs

Winter mountains

Winter mountains

 

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Big snow

Big snow indeed!

Big snow indeed!

There’s a proverb in French which says: L’hiver n’est pas bâtard, s’il ne vient tôt il vient tard. It means something like: Winter is not a half-baked thing, if it doesn’t come early it’ll come late. It certainly didn’t come early this year..practically no snow even at the tops of the mountains until the third week of February.

This is how the patio was looking this morning.

This is how the patio was looking this morning.

This weekend we’ve had more snow in Cercedilla than at any time in recent years in a 48 hour period. 30 to 40 centimeters on the ground, between Friday night and Sunday morning. Yesterday i headed to the mountains for a day of difficult skiing in up to a meter of heavily wind affected heavy pow, and thankfully came home to tell the tale.

My balcony this morning.

My balcony this morning.

I had planned to take my six-year-old up the mountains today, but decided against it at the last minute. I figured we would have enough to do just outside the front door. And so it was..we set to it.

Digging a trench thru the white stuff.

Digging a trench thru the white stuff.

There was indeed lots to do. Once we had cleared the snow off the stone stairs in front of the building we got down to the real work.

Igloo building!

Igloo building!

Naturally, we had to make a snow creature too..what else is snow for?

Face to face with a big snow fellow.

Face to face with a big snow fellow.

Of course i was bored stiff..just hanging around watching my son and his little friends at play. Dreaming of all that heavenly heavy pow up in them there mountains.

Behold the produce of the day's labour.

Behold the produce of the day’s labour.

All in all, a hard day’s work.

There’s another French proverb that says: Si décembre et janvier ne font pas le chemin, février fait le lutin. Something like: if December and January don’t make their way, February will play the (Christmas?) elf! Well..elf, imp, goblin, liobrachán, leipreachán..or little green leprechaun, whatever..i don’t know, but it seems the proverb got it right this year.

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What’s so great about getting back to Nature?

At the recent Paris conference (some would say “historic Paris conference”..we shall see) a slogan was born..and may indeed live to mark history.

We are not fighting for Nature, we are Nature defending itself.

This catchy phrase begs a couple of questions: What is Nature? and How do we humans fit into Nature? The answers are pretty relative, from the more or less conventional view that Nature is something ‘out there’..in the fields, in the forests, in the mountains or in the sea..in fundamental opposition to the Human, or at least to that which humans have been up to in the later stages of evolution, most obviously in the recent centuries of urban techno-industrial revolution, but actually as far back as at least ten millenia and the beginnings of the neolithic revolution, primal sedentarism and the end of the hunter-gatherer .. to the other-extreme concept that everything, absolutely everything, that humans do or can do is nothing more than another manifestation of the evolution of the natural world..in short, the doings of Nature. Somewhere in between, we have the take that while humans are indeed products and agents of the natural world and undeniably subject to its laws and forces, we have become disconnected from the rhythms and constraints of Nature due to our ever more artificial -in both design and construction- environments and lifestyles..we have become something like astronauts on Mars, we live inside our vital bubbles on Earth as though it were an alien planet. And, occasionally, we are suddenly surprised to discover that we are still animals, clad apes, inside our plastic bubbles..we are still Nature. This is the surprise that the slogan conveys so well: we are not fighting for Nature, no.. no, we are Nature defending itself.

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It is this element of surprise about ourselves, surprise about our identity, surprise that we are, still and in spite of ourselves, Nature..that seems very interesting to me and that points us towards an answer to the question of why it is profoundly important to get back to Nature. We might even say that it is a religious question, in the sense that it is about re-connecting (re-ligare)..it is about humans reconnecting to themselves. Many early human belief-systems or life-codes -religions- have this idea at their core. Yoga, for example, means literally ‘union’ and refers to the uniting or joining of that which has become separate from itself..for example, the human soul and the divine. In zen the practice of meditation aims to overcome duality, the sense of separation or opposition between mind and body, between self and other, on the way to illumination. This project of seeing ourselves as we really are – whole, and wholly and utterly connected to everything around us – is perhaps the apex of human experience and a major part of it is the realization of our connection to Nature, the realization that we are not separate from Nature, the realization that we are Nature.

058In modern times, parallel to the perception of our disconnection or distance from Nature, we have constantly maintained the intuitive belief that contemplation of the natural world is favourable to the health and vigor of humans. Poets, artists and scientists have regularly affirmed this..but until recently there wasn’t very much hard evidence to back such claims. This has changed in the early 21st century as scientific research has presented multiple studies which support the idea that exposition to Nature has positive therapeutic effects for humans. National Geographic recently published a feature detailing several such studies: This is Your Brain on Nature. One conclusion is that being immersed in natural surroundings has a significant influence on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, allowing it to reduce its activity and rest, leading to a reduction of stress and focus on negative emotions, more creativity and problem-solving capacity, and generally better performance of the brain. A cognitive psychologist speaks of the “three-day effect”..”a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs after three days of immersion in Nature” and which leads to “improved mental performance.”

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The Nat Geo text features many examples of how getting back to Nature does us the world of good, but for me the most striking instance is that of South Korea and what some consider to be the new function of the country’s forests. South Koreans – work-stressed, digitally addicted, academically pressed..as many as 70% say their jobs/hours make them depressed – have turned to forest therapy for relief. Visits to forests among the population have risen by over 30% in just three years. They have what almost amounts to a national plan for forest healing. “Human well-being..is now a formal goal of the nation’s forest plan.” More than timber, the fruit of the forests in South Korea today is human health.

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Another positive consequence of re-establishing our connection with Nature is that we get to see more clearly the damage that, thru our contemporary lifestyles, we are doing to the natural world..and the ramifications of this destruction for all forms of life on Earth. Including us. Indeed we may even perceive that what we are doing is destroying our world and destroying ourselves. Without this change of consciousness it will be very difficult to effect the change of direction that is required of humanity in order to survive on this planet.

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And who knows?..we might even come round to the rallying-cry of not just fighting for Nature..

“we are Nature..defending ourselves!”

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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 Spring..like 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 90mm..so 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)..in just two days. And if we look at Southern Asia things get really crazy..in 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: 2015 – hottest year on record. More confirmation of what we already knew.

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