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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Gredos, ski traverse of the Three Cirques

La Sierra de Gredos, West Central Spain, abrupt, rugged, alpine in character..its high ground though arid in Summer often accumulates meters of snow in Winter..aside the single road that penetrates to its interior it offers only difficult access to humans with day long approaches and 1000m altitude gains just to get near the base of the high peaks..a place as lonely and beautiful as any on our planet.

On the weekend of 8-9 April, with a little help from a fleet of ATVs, the Madrid Alpine Club carried out a ski traverse of the Three Cirques of Gredos – some would say Four, including El Gargantón – a traditional activity that brings people to places where human voices are rarely to be heard.

A project through which the searing solitude and enormous landscapes of this sublimely desolate Sierra are briefly riven by the miniscule presence of a small group of primates with boards attached to their feet.

Some fifty persons took part, including at least one Portuguese, one Englishman and one Irishman. Here’s my video-version of the events of those two days..

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Wonderful luck with the weather in Pyrenees, Valle de Eriste and Tuca de Torets

Last weekend the weather forecast for the Pyrenees was not very good..to put it mildly. Saturday 1st of April promised rain at lower elevations, snowfall, colder temps, wind and heavy cloud higher up. Maybe the forecasters were playing at April Fools, i don’t know..but it turned out to be a spectacular day. Here’s the short film i made with the participation of members of el Club Alpino Madrileño..

And just to prove i was there (!) ..here’s a nice shot of me arriving at la brecha, taken by Carlos.

Reaching the gap in the ridge, at about 2930m, Arista Sur de la Tuca de Torets. (Foto: Carlos de Hevia Payá)

Reaching the gap in the ridge, at about 2930m, Arista Sur de la Tuca de Torets. (Foto: Carlos de Hevia Payá)

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Wintry day ski to Collado de Dos Hermanas

One Saturday in early March after fresh snowfall, we set out en famille from Cotos with the objective of reaching the col between my beloved Hermanas, the twin peaks that precede Peñalara and figure among the most accessible of the Parque Nacional de la Sierra de Guadarrama. It turned out to be quite a wintry day..

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February was the month of..the World’s Ball!

La Bola del Mundo, up close and personal.

La Bola del Mundo, up close and personal.

The Winter of 2016-17 is shaping up to be one of the poorer, and stranger, ones of recent times. Generally low snowfall and mild temps from December thru March have made it poor, and the directions of the prevailing winds and storms have made it strange. February, while hardly a great month, was pretty ok (for skiing) thanks mainly to the one more or less serious storm of the Winter, from the 11th to the 14th. The strange thing about it was that, like practically all of the precipitation in the form of snow that we have had this year, the prevailing winds were from the South and East, the stormfronts coming in from the South Atlantic or even the Mediterranean, a phenomenon known locally as ‘gota fría’. Serious snowfall in the Sierra de Guadarrama is usually associated with storm systems coming in from the West or NW, from the mid-Atlantic..but such fronts have been few and far between this Winter. The fronts coming from the SE have accumulated snow on western and northern aspects that usually get little cover.

West-facing slopes of Bola del Mundo, with unusually generous snowcover.

West-facing slopes of Bola del Mundo, with unusually generous snowcover.

This, among other reasons, is why i’ve made multiple visits to el Alto de las Guarramillas, also popularly known as la Bola del Mundo – literally ‘the Ball of the World’ – 2267m. There was some great skiing on the slopes of this singular mountain that face towards Puerto de Navacerrada, and more particularly the WSW slope that descends towards Garganta del Infierno..though more than going down to hell it felt like a descent into Heaven.

Southeastern slopes of La Bola, seen from Cancho Negro.

Southeastern slopes of La Bola, seen from the Cancho Negro area.

It has to be said that the eastern side of el Alto de las Guarramillas wasn’t in half bad shape either, though since this area normally gets a reasonable amount of snow it wasn’t so special to ski there.

Looking down towards Puerto de Navacerrada from close to La Primera Guarramilla.

Looking down towards Puerto de Navacerrada from close to La Primera Guarramilla, mid-February.

Bola del Mundo also has a steep North face, often good to ski, but no..this year the best was the West, or SW or NW. And while i don’t really love skiing down to ‘el Puerto’ – with its mountains of trash, screeching snow-tourists and choking traffic – this year was about as good as it gets.

Skinning up towards Guarramillas.

Skinning up towards Guarramillas.

On several of these outings to La Bola i was accompanied by my seven-year-old, skinning the vertical half kilometer from the train station to the top. Some days in the sun, others with a driving wind and threatening clouds.

Playtime at the World's Ball..for lone little guys and big crowds of big guys alike.

Playtime at the World’s Ball..for lone little guys and big crowds of big guys alike.

We were rarely alone on the mountain’s western reaches, due to its closeness to Puerto de Navacerrada and easy access facilitated by ski-lift. The obsolete radio-tv transmission installations – reminiscent of Tintin’s moon rocket – at the summit are a popular objective for day-trippers all year round.

Ready to ski!

Ready to ski!

While these edifications are considered to be ‘iconic’ by some and the origin of the quirky Bola del Mundo name, they are in reality – beyond being totally obsolete – little more than a large pile of industrial junk..and, seeing as how they are already in a state of semi-abandonment, they should probably be blasted off to the moon sometime soon!

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Western Pyrenees, Pico Bisaurín

Looking down on the Western Pyrenees from the summit of Bisaurín.

Looking down on the Western Pyrenees from the summit of Bisaurín.

After years of going to the mountains alone – very often – or occasionally with a partner, i recently joined a club and have rediscovered the curious experience of heading for the hills in the company of twenty or more other bodies. It would be dishonest of me to say that i was not in the least apprehensive about my first collective outing in many years, but it turned out well.

Starting out towards el Barranco del Foratón, apparently all alone but if you look carefully..

Starting out towards el Barranco del Foratón, apparently all alone but if you look carefully..

The activity started from el Valle de Hecho, on the Western edge of the Aragón – or central – Pyrenees, quite close to Navarra and the Basque region. The first day’s objective was Pico Bisaurín, 2670m, the high peak of the area.

First sighting of Bisaurín at the top of the valley.

First sighting of Bisaurín at the top of the valley.

From Refugio Gabardito, situated at 1380m in the upper Hecho Valley, it’s a long and relatively flat approach. While it didn’t promise much in the way of skiing down, it lacked nothing in terms of rugged beauty.

Here the group context is more evident.

Here the group context is more evident.

As we crossed the extensive flat terrain of the Plan de Dios Te Salve, the nature of our large group became more marked, stark even..emphasized by the great white open space.

The group makes its way across the plain, edging closer to Pico Bisaurín.

The group makes its way across the plain, edging closer to Pico Bisaurín.

To be all alone on this high snowy plain – i thought to myself – must be quite a sensation..but the presence of the group, the line of humans progressing towards their objective, the fact of belonging to the collective, was also something of a special experience..

Here you can really appreciate the sense of people - collective - in the mountains.

Here you can really appreciate the sense of people – collective – in the mountains.

..and while, for an odd moment or two, i might have missed the loneliness, i was also – and this surprised me a little – really getting the group thing. Yes, i too can be a herd animal..(!) (or maybe rather than herd i ought to say pack? As in pack of.. powderhounds?)

Looking back down the line..still more peeps!

Looking back down the line..still more peeps!

Shortly after this, as we approached the Collado del Foratón, there was something of a spontaneous disgregation, with different elements of the group separating and choosing alternative lines of ascent. I went for a more direct line towards the col, crossing an icy slope directly rather than lose meters to take a more relaxed approach.

Situated close to the col, i look down to where another member of the group follows an alternative approach.

Situated close to the col, i look down to where another member of the group follows an alternative approach.

I thus inadvertently found myself out in front, with most of the group well below me. I didn’t realize it but the two people whose line i was vaguely following were not actually members of my group at all, but fellow travellers.

Steeper terrain ahead in the final 600m of Bisaurín.

Steeper terrain ahead in the final 600m slope of Bisaurín.

And so as we moved into the steep section of the climb, that old – and oft desired – sensation of solitude did not abandon me. It didn’t last for too long however as Carlos soon caught up with me.

Carlos moving ahead of me..the flat has clearly been left behind.

Carlos moving ahead of me..the flat has clearly been left behind.

There are multiple advantages to being accompanied in the mountains, not least among them you have somebody to take photographs of your worthy self.

Me, not exactly smiling for the camera. (Foto: Carlos de Hevia Payá)

Me..not exactly smiling for the camera. (Foto: Carlos de Hevia Payá)

In the following photo you will appreciate two things: the terrain is definitely not flat any more, and i am clearly posing and smiling for the shot.

Pala Sur Bisaurín, 2400m.

Pala Sur Bisaurín, 2400m. Dig that smile! (Foto: Carlos de Hevia Payá)

Finally we reached the top of Bisaurín. Cold. Wonderful to look all around. Peaks of the Western Pyrenees. Mesa de los Tres Reyes, Pic d’Anie, Castillo d’Acher, etc. And looking East towards the Central Pyrenees, Aspe, Collarada, Anayet, Midi d’Ossau, Palas, Balaïtus, Infiernos, and so on.

Cumbre!

Cumbre!

To the North a multitude of snow-covered peaks of the French Pyrenees that i do not know.  And to the South the deep valleys of the Spanish side, in luscious blue and brilliant white contrast.

Looking South, towards our route back to the valley.

Looking South, towards our route back to the valley.

We waited for twenty minutes, having transitioned to downhill mode and taken the few photos that cold hands would allow..and just when about to ski off the top, several others from the group appeared along the summit ridge. We hung on a little longer but the cold slowly grew severe. At the urging of the others, we gladly slid valleywards.

Back to the valley.

Back to the valley..as cloud begins to cover.

It was not only the cold that urged us downwards..the clearly forecast deterioration of the weather in the mid-afternoon was upon us. The clouds were coming in and flatlight conditions were threatening. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable ski in moderately steep terrain with somewhat heavy but stable new snow. After regrouping in the upper Barranco del Foratón we quickly made tracks for the lower valley, as the weather rapidly went downhill. Snowflakes began to fall..

Group moment at the end of the day as the snow swirls down.

Group moment at the end of the day as the snow swirls down.

We were back at the trailhead well before dark..and back to the small hotel in the village of Siresa before seven, shower, drinks, dinner, all in all a convivial evening. Activities organized by a club have their advantages!

 

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