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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Yet another January scarce in snow..

Sea of cloud, seen from the West face of Maliciosa.

Sea of cloud, seen from the West face of Maliciosa in early January 2017.

I hate to be repetitious but that’s the way January is in the mountains of Guadarrama in recent times. Scarce in snow. Prodigious in days of high pressure, sun, temperature inversion and seas of cloud..

The same sea of cloud seen from the summit of Maliciosa, 2227m, looking South to Madrid.. the city of course swathed in fog.

The same sea of cloud seen from the summit of Maliciosa, 2227m, looking South to Madrid.. the city of course swathed in fog.

..and low in snow. Some years we get rain but hardly any snow, even up high. No rain either this year though. Drought, basically. Those of us bent on skiing survived on a meager ration of white stuff that fell in mid-December.

My son skinning on bulletproof white stuff, Peñalara, early January.

My son skinning on bulletproof white stuff, Peñalara, early January.

We’ve seen worse of course. Like nothing at all. Hardly a flake of decorative snow, let alone skiable matter. This year it’s not quite that bad.

Ready to slide, top of Peñalara. Doesn't look so bad, does it?

Ready to slide, top of Peñalara. Doesn’t look so bad, does it?

However, the reality is that the above shot makes things look really good. Ouch. So, a couple of days out on our bikes. We got a few days of mechanical ski in not quite totally minimal conditions at one of our local stations. As the month wore on into its final third, we finally saw some precipitation..coming from the South/SouthEast once more, so not supergenerous, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Fresh snow at last, twenty days into January. Thirty-something since the last snowfall.

Fresh snow at last, twenty days into January. Thirty-something since the last snowfall.

Although twenty centimeters doesn’t change things a lot, it does at least look nice. For a day or two anyhow. Don’t you think?

The South face of Peñalara looking sweet. A kind of mirage.. two days later it was all browngraygreen again.

The South face of Peñalara looking sweet. A kind of mirage.. two days later it was all browngraygreen again.

North facing slopes fared best, conserving a meager layer of old hard-frozen snow and looking very esthetic – and less ephemeral – with the new stuff on top..

North face of Cabezas de Hierro, late afternoon, late January.

North face of Cabezas de Hierro, late afternoon, late January.

..and even offering fleeting moments of ‘powder’ ski. Wow! I began to fantasize that i was in Canada for a few minutes..

Powder chute, North face of Cabezas de Hierro.

Powder chute, North face of Cabezas de Hierro.

..and then just below this point – where i stopped to look back up and whip out my phone – i began to bang into rocks all over the place. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. No, this is Guadarrama. Definitely not Canada in January.

In these very last days of the month, as is the pattern over the last decade, things seemed to change. A storm finally washed in from the West bringing a reasonable snowfall, 10-12cm here in town (1200m) and 30-40cm at 1800-2000m. The follow-up looks set to continue to be humid, though rain and ‘pissing mist’ – niebla meona – now threaten. Oh well, that’s Guadarrama. Take it as it comes.

Lots of snow doesn’t always mean tons of wonderful goodness. Look at the central region of Italy where they’ve had 3 to 4 meters in the high Apennines..and the misfortune that has befallen as a result. Some of us can be thankful for our lives, wouldn’t you agree?

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Enhanced reality

Whole lotta snow, no?

Whole lotta snow, no?

The other day, i was up the mountains with my son checking out the new snow. There wasn’t a lot of it. In fact there wasn’t even enough to skin comfortably..let alone ski. So we sought out a sheltered area – just behind the Casa del Parque in Cotos – where there was a little more accumulation – maybe as much as 12-15cm – on grass..and we took advantage of the remains of somebody’s igloo to build a small kicker. We then proceeded to have lots of fun jumping off the ramp for a couple of hours, filling in the landing area after every jump or two to avoid coming down directly on the grass. In the above image it even looks like there was snow, right?!

Stark reality. Not really a lot of snow, is there?

Stark reality. Not really a lot of snow, is there?

In the second photo you get a more real picture of that day’s reality. A lot of what we see in ‘media’ is on the same plane as the first shot. It does not correspond to visual reality, either because the picture is manipulated or enhanced to make things look betterbrightermorecolourfulmorebrilliantmorereal or whatever (could just as easily be darkerstarkermoresinister etc) or more fundamentally because the photograph just never really captures the reality as perceived by those present. We see the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.

Or you might argue that this is where true art steps in..to transmit by an indirect or alternative route something akin to the total experience lived by those present.

The truth is that despite the rather drab snowcover we really had a good time that day.

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Late November snow surprise!

Dashing thru the snow?

Dashing thru the snow?

After the superdry Summer we had this year, October and November have thankfully been more normal in precipitations. With the drop in temperatures towards the end of November we even got a certain amount of snow. Nothing like the Alps or Pyrenees, where there has been record snowfall for November in some places, but up to 30-40cm fell in the mountains of Guadarrama..which is not bad at all if you compare to some recent years.

This is how i like to see Cotos in November.

This is how i like to see Cotos in November.

Of course people had their skis out barely had the first flakes settled on the floor. But the 10-15cm deposited on the ground at 1800-1900m didn’t exactly make for great skiing. In fact even much higher up on South and East facing slopes there wasn’t a lot of snow. The SouthEast winds driving the precipitation – known in the Peninsula as gota fria – left greater accumulations on North and West facing terrain, which is not very typical locally. Anyway my son got his boards out and had his first day of ‘skinning’ (walking uphill with climbing skins attached to the base of your ski).

Skinning at seven!

Skinning at seven!

Unfortunately, as so often in Guadarrama, this early snow was followed up by days of mild temps, pissing mist..and this last Sunday (04 Dec) a downpour of very liquid precip right up to the tops of the mountains.

Take it as it comes, i guess!

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Natural disaster

Monsters stalk the surface of our planet. And i’m not talking about Jurassic theropods or hungry polar bears or Gothic vampires..or even 21st century serial killers. Sometimes we tend to look upon horror figures of the past century like Stalin, Hitler, Franco – and the millions who did their bidding and collaborated with them – as if they were historical anomalies, egregious excrescences of an abnormal century, maybe even the result of some weird conjunction of planets. But there wasn’t really anything so exceptional about these monsters of the recent past..other than maybe their unprecedented access to technology that facilitated mass communication..and mass murder. We have even more technology now. And, in the present century, what reason is there to expect that we will not have monsters comparable to those mentioned above?

Even though to some who live afar it might seem almost comical, the accession of a pussy-grabbing thug to one of the most powerful offices on Earth in the early 21st century is no laughing matter. Apart from the casual brutality that may be perpetrated on the residents of the country in question and the natural environment of that country, and immediate destructive resonances that will ripple globally outward, as a result of this electoral choice by a little over 18% of the country’s population, there will be more general, global, planetary consequences. With such a buffoon wielding power – an individual almost entirely devoid of principles and totally immune to any kind of scientific fact – we can only expect the worst in terms of what will happen with human abuse of our planet. This is nothing less than a global disaster..just at the moment when humans seemed to be catching on to the need for action to preserve something of the beauty and diversity of our world. And just at the moment when there is alarming evidence that we are possibly close to tipping points from which there will be no return. Close to the edge..and now this.

If you have children, and you are concerned for their future..maybe it’s time to get your sword out. (Even if you don’t have children?)

Here’s one way to wield your weapon: 350.org.

 

PS: please forgive my above insult to the centuries old and quite honorable profession of buffoon.

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Dark time of the year?

After a week of Autumnal weather with abundant precipitation, the sun reigns once more in Spanish skies. Just when the long Summer of 2016 seemed to have definitively finished.. it’s back! 24ºC in Cercedilla today and i had to deploy the awning on my balcony once more so that my son could play outside without being blasted by our local star. It reminded me of this butterfly who seemed to be seeking relief from the sun one day back in July.

Parnassius Apollo

Parnassius Apollo, Puerto de los Neveros, 24 July 2016.

At the high point of Summer hundreds of Apollos flutter around the high mountain pass of Puerto de los Neveros, at about 2100m, to the NorthEast of Peñalara. It’s quite a spectacle, and it only happens here..i think i have never seen an Apollo anywhere else in the Guadarrama. Despite the wondrous abundance of these butterflies at this spot, they are hard to photograph..they just don’t sit still, on the move all the time. I gave up after more than half an hour of trying. We were moving away from the area of maximum concentration when we came upon this one, immobile on the ground – immobilised by accident or brush with a predator i imagine – it seemed to be seeking the shade, the little shelter from the sun afforded by the wiry subalpine grass. So I took my chance.

Searching for shelter from the sun at the end of July seems fair enough, but seeking the shade at the end of October? With the sun beating down anew these days it’s hard to get into the spirit of Halloween.. An Samhain, the Celtic seasonal celebration of the coming Dark time of the year, the advent of Winter. Minimum temps are quite low however, around 5ºC, and we have a forecast of a drop to zero within four or five days with some rain and snow on high. Yeah, as far as i’m concerned, bring on the dark, wintry half of the year!

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