Soft snow ski

Soft!

Soft!

So..it snowed! Just at the end of January and in the first days of February we got some of the white stuff..not exactly a huge cold dump, but days of snow interspersed with days of rain. And then days of fierce winds blowing the top snow around. The final result was not beautiful in some places, leaving an irregular checkerboard of exposed patches of old frozen snow and new windpack slabs with a sastrugi-type finish in high open terrain, but lower down in certain bowls and valleys the wind deposited quantities of snow in soft poudreuse-style drifts..making for excellent skiing.

Rocks and all things hard..made soft.

Rocks and all things hard..made soft.

So while others toiled on the hardpack in the higher alpine areas, those of us who knew made for the treed bowls, where the goods had been stored by Brother Mistral..the softer side of life. There was at times up to half a meter of new snow on top of a good base..to be honest it wasn’t the lightest driest snow you could imagine, at best it was poudre lourde but, hey, am i complaining about heavy pow?!!

Arcing thru somewhat steeper terrain at the top of the bowl..

Arcing thru somewhat steeper terrain at the top of the bowl..

The trees and their low-hanging branches will sometimes complicate matters a tad in this kind of skiing, but this really just adds to the interest of such terrain..ain’t no piste, bro! Wearing a helmet is probably not a bad idea.

..mellowing out halfway down..

..mellowing out and opening up into meadows halfway down..

I like to call this area the ‘Bullpen Bowl’..owing to a feature to be found where the bowl bottoms out. It does get a bit flat at the end but skis still run well in schuss..and there are rocks and bumps everywhere to pop off at speed.

..flattening out at the end. The Bullpen is hidden in the background.

..flattening out at the end. The ‘Bullpen’ is hidden in the background.

Not everybody’s cup of tea surely but popping off rocks into soft snow is a whole lotta fun. It’s nothing like cliff-hucking, pro ski jumping or downhill racing 50-meter airy blasts..it’s just fun.

Flat..but not boring!

Flat..but not boring!

And the enormous importance of the place, the Bullpen, the bowl with its trees and meadows, the larger surroundings – el entorno – and, of course, that thick blanket of soft, soft snow..days to remember!

The Bullpen Bowl, in all its glory.

The Bullpen Bowl, foreground, in all its glory.

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Hard snow ski

I generally tend to publish photos of my son skiing what some denominate the backcountry..mountain skiing or ski-touring, whatever you like to call it..skiing on natural snow or wild snow – back to nature and all that. But we do ski on groomed snow and on artificial snow every once in a while too..resort skiing or skiing on piste – and here’s a photo to prove it.

Skiing on the 'groomed' piste known as El Bosque.

Skiing on the ‘groomed’ piste known as El Bosque.

I’m not particularly crazy about spending time in ski-stations, the mechanized mountains of our times, but there is some justification for it when it comes to learning, practising new techniques and suchlike. And when their isn’t much natural snow about, or what there is of natural snow is something akin to reinforced concrete, or there’s lots of natural snow and avalanche danger is high, or the weather is just not conducive..then the resort scenario, though often vulgarly unattractive – when not downright ugly – in its transposition of urban shittiness to the mountains, can seem more tolerable.

At the moment we’re experiencing the ‘reinforced concrete’ variation in justifications for resort skiing, but it’s not like the supposedly groomed or machined snow of the piste in the above picture was especially good to ski. Underneath a couple of centimeters of loose crystals – quickly banished to the side-borders of the piste – lay a bed of ‘snow’ which offered sensations that i imagine as not dissimilar to skiing on polished asphalt. Smoother and faster than the bone-jarring rough concrete sensations off piste..but not a whole lot of fun either.

We have been getting out to the wild the odd day too..and sweeter sensations!

Hiking for turns..in more or less wild snow.

Hiking for turns..in more or less wild snow.

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Frozen mountain lake

La Laguna de Claveles, 2120m, below the East face of Peñalara.

La Laguna de Claveles, 2120m, below the East face of Peñalara.

Strange weather indeed, this dry Winter. Though temperatures have been more or less normal thru December, the emblematic laguna of the Sierra de Guadarrama, la Laguna Grande de Peñalara, typically frozen over from early December to late March or even into April in cold years, remains completely devoid of ice this January. Nevertheless, barely 100m higher up, the similarly sized Laguna de Claveles has a covering of ice 20cm thick.

View of the Southern shore of Laguna de Claveles, with some accumulation of snow on what are North-facing slopes.

View of the Southern shore of Laguna de Claveles, with some accumulation of snow on what are North-facing slopes.

You wouldn’t think there could be so much difference in 100 vertical meters, but apparently there is..the Laguna Grande at 2020m has no ice, while the Laguna de Claveles at 2119m is completely frozen.* What’s also curious is how the level of the water in the lake has dropped since it froze over, probably in late November or early December. The near total drought of the last month combined with freezing conditions has meant that the lake receives less water than it loses, so the thick layer of ice is almost a foot lower now than when it originally formed..as evidenced by the obvious collapse all around the lake’s perimeter.

View in the opposite direction towards the Northern shore, with little or no snow on the South-facing slopes.

View in the opposite direction towards the Northern shore, with little or no snow on the South-facing slopes.

Of course we had to do a little testing out on the ice..or was it Inuit style fishing? Making a hole was not easy, chipping away at the thick ice with an ice-axe took its time, and we were able to open it up a bit with the snow-saw..but the fruit of our efforts over 45 minutes was barely 10cm in diameter.

Big enough to get a fish thru?

Big enough to get a fish thru? Hmm..

Well, we had some fun anyway..and the fact that no fish live in this small mountain lake which often dries up in Summer made the size of our hole somewhat academic.

 

*Also frozen is the third significant Peñalara lake, Laguna de los Pájaros, higher still at 2170m.

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Young Alpinist in action

Early December, at 2250m on La Solana de Peñalara..apparently abundant snow?!

Early December, at 2250m on La Solana de Peñalara..apparently abundant snow?!

Yes, we don’t have a lot of snow locally, looking up at the mountains from the South side you might even be forgiven for thinking that we have none at all..however that’s not the case. On Northern and Eastern aspects above 2100m there is a certain amount of snow, even a generous ration above 2200m in some spots – though granted that above 2200m there’s not much mountain left in the Sierra de Guadarrama (!..where we max out at 2430m) – so yes, there’s snow, though not a lot of it, and we have been taking advantage of what there is as best we can.

A week later, near the top of Hermana Mayor, 2285m..and there’s snow everywhere??!

Well, what does ‘as best we can’ mean, exactly? The snow that we have is certainly not sufficient or suitable for little guys to ski..long hikes carrying skis to get to it, generally bullet-proof snow surface, generally steep slopes, thin snowpack with rocks poking thru everywhere. No, not recommendable for kids. But skiing, fortunately, is not the only thing you can do on snow..

At 2230m in Little Sister's Gully, climbing 45º hard-frozen snow.

At 2230m in Little Sister’s Gully, Hermana Menor, climbing 45º hard-frozen snow. (Don’t look in the background!)

Conditions for snow climbing are relatively good..short gullies and the top sections of longer couloirs have filled in ok, and the firm consistency of the snow is perfect for climbing.

Topping out in Lil' Sister's Gully after a short 50º section..down below in the distance is dry and desolate.

Topping out in Lil’ Sister’s Gully after a short 50º section..down below in the distance is dry and desolate.

So we’ve been snow climbing whenever possible this December, taking all precautions – even though, as i already said, conditions have been pretty good – generally roped up and even belaying steeper or icy sections.

The other day on the East face of Peñalara, at 2370m, longer 45º section.

The other day on the East face of Peñalara, at 2370m, longer 45º section.

It probably wouldn’t be every nine-year-old’s cup of tea, and obviously having considerable preparation in a wide range of mountain disciplines makes all the difference..to the extent of taking to it, in the case of my little treasure, like a fish to water!

Topping out at 2415m close to the summit of Peñalara.

Topping out at 2415m close to the summit of Peñalara.

A  little snow goes a long way..and yes, fun can be had in Winter’s mountains even without long boards strapped to your feet!

 

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Winter’s Wonders..

Winter’s wonders..how often will they come again?

The astronomical Winter is upon us once more..and once more there is little sign of the meteorological Winter or anything resembling its traditional aspect. We had an inch or two of fresh snow up high once again the other day..but it’s already vanished. Temperatures have been cool enough with a frosty nip in the air some mornings, but on the whole precipitation has come in the form of rain..and not a whole lot of it this past month. The sun reigns in the sky most days. Over the last ten years it can be said that the tendency for meteorological Winter in the Sierra de Guadarrama to begin closer to mid-January has become firmly established. It’s not like we always had snow to ski at November’s end in the previous ten years, but three or four years out of ten there was good skiing to be had from early December on.

Worrying. And then there’s the proliferation of alarming scientific reports on tipping points, feedback loops, domino cascades in the climatology domain over recent months..combined with the pathetic attempts to take real action to curb our planet-burning or, worse still, the ongoing trundling pig-faced denial that there is any problem at all by various political slobs and thugs occupying ‘leadership’ roles, and this in the face of massive and mounting evidence to the contrary.

Happy times for humans on Planet Earth!

 

 

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Trees under snow

A surprising quantity of snow fell at October’s end this year thanks to a cold snap produced by a blast of polar air..and even though there was really no accumulation in excess of 20-30cm on the ground – and that accumulation was quickly diminished by rain – there were certain days when trees above snowline appeared spectacularly caked in the cold white stuff.

Unfortunately the clouds of November’s first week have brought more rain than snow, so hopes of an early start to the Winter-sports* season are on hold. Even though there is still some snow resisting on the ground, the trees have been washed thoroughly clean several times by now. Intermittent snowfall whitens them up again for a few hours..and then down comes the drizzle again.

Well, at least the sun’s not beating down like other years in the middle of Autumn..some small consolation.

 

* By ‘Winter-sports’ i mean the typical Guadarrama early Winter-sports, such as bush-whacking, shark-fishing, rock-polishing, and so on..;-)!

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On logging..

In a moment when there seems to be more urgency than ever to the issue of planting trees and reforestation, i recently found myself reflecting on the antithesis..deforestation and logging.

During the Spring ski season of last year i gaily disregarded on several occasions temporary signs and barriers warning of the dangers of heavy machinery at work logging trees in the Upper Lozoya/Rascafría Valley, an area with several popular hiking trails and a frequently used option to access some of the best mountain skiing available in the Sierra de Guadarrama, namely the North facing slopes of Cabezas de Hierro.

Heading for the 'Ironheads'..Cabezas de Hierro, Lozoya valley.

Heading for the ‘Ironheads’..Cabezas de Hierro, Lozoya valley.

Loggers don’t usually work on weekends and in any case i was just skimming across the Upper Valley barely below the treeline on my way to the higher terrain above the forest..unlikely to bump into any mechanical monsters. In the event even on the odd weekday i saw neither machines nor men at work, but the signs were always there. A tad annoying, i felt..on the one hand this is the so-called Parque Nacional de la Sierra de Guadarrama, why are hikers and skiers being warned not to proceed? And on the other hand the shabbiness, the sheer laziness of it – no work underway in the area of the upper valley, yet the signs were not removed, or moved further down the valley – for me, heading upwards it was no big deal, but others who might have wished to hike down the valley were being needlessly denied access.

Logging evidently underway, though no machinery around..

Logging evidently underway, though no machinery around..

What i did see however on the wooded slopes below Cabezas de Hierro was the evidence of logging operations carried out with the said heavy machinery..while the logging is selective and relatively few trees are removed, the tracks cut thru the forest by skidders or harvesters leave wide swathes of mangled vegetation and traumatized topsoil.

But the harvesters leave their mark, undeniably..

But the harvesters leave their mark, undeniably..

The least you could say about it is that it’s not beautiful. And what about erosion?..you can understand mountain bikers’ indignation when they are accused of causing hillside deterioration.

Skid-marks left by downhill bikers?

Skid-marks left by downhill bikers?

 

Earlier this Summer out walking in the Upper Valsaín Valley we came across extensive logging operations..this time heavy machinery included. There were warning signs too, in this case less rudely worded and more specific to the area where work was underway.

A felled trunk by the roadside makes for a convenient seat..

A felled trunk by the roadside makes for a convenient seat..

Logging has been so important historically to the Valsaín area that the upper valley has been deliberately omitted from the Parque Nacional territorial designation, despite being right in the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama. Over the last decade the local economy has suffered considerably in the context of recession and a sharp drop in construction industry demand for wood, several forestry businesses have closed and there has been little or no logging carried out. In the last two years however a mild economic recovery in Spain has seen the resumption of logging operations with significant quantities of wood being harvested.

Voilà!..the heavy machinery.

Voilà..the heavy machinery!

Here the pro-logging argument is very clear: the people of small towns in mountain areas have to live off something, and tourism alone will not be enough to maintain local populations. Particularly in Spain where the demographic swing towards the big cities continues unabated, the abandonment of mountain villages and small towns is an inevitable consequence of the lack of employment opportunities for young people. This argument can be extended to defend ski resorts and suchlike. And it’s a strong argument..if you put yourself in the place of those defending their local economy.

Dude, sick forestry machine!

Dude, sick forestry machine!

Specifically the approach to the forestry business in the Valsaín area is often presented as an excellent model of forest husbandry. There is no clearcutting or blanket harvesting of trees across the hillside, trunks are felled selectively and removed. This has been the traditional practice and even though heavy machinery is now used – with the consequent damage to topsoil – contemporary Valsaín forestry is argued to be totally sustainable and respectful of habitats. Some would even call it ecoforestry.

Early morning on the Roman trail (Calzada Romana) above Valsaín.

Early morning on the Roman trail (Calzada Romana) above Valsaín.

Personally, from a non-professional and pro-conservation point of view, i can vouch that the Valsaín forests do seem to be very well managed..i have spent many of the most wonderful days of my life both in Summer and Winter in this area. Sure, it’s not always pretty when you run into tree harvesters on the job..logging operations – even if you dig the cool machines(!) – provoke a certain sense of conflicted fascination-repulsion. And then i like my wooden furniture too, and the wood has to come from somewhere. Surely better if it’s locally and sustainably sourced, right?

Selectively logged trunks - and branches - piled up for processing.

Selectively logged trunks – and branches – piled up for processing.

 

Then we flew to Ireland to spend a few weeks there this Summer..and we visited Glendalough, among other locations, where we got in a couple of days hiking. The main valley was its usual self..but as we climbed up towards An Spinc, the high ridge that forms the southern limit of the valley, what an unpleasant surprise awaited on the other side. The ancient oaks and sky-reaching larches that accompany you to where the boardwalk begins..gave way to a clearcut hillside sloping down abjectly into the adjacent valley.

The natural wonders of Ireland!

The natural wonders of Ireland!

The brutally felled, blanket-logged hillside provoked a sense of devastation and desolation akin to the aftermath of a major forest fire or multiple-day heavy artillery barrage. Nevertheless it was just normal logging operations, carried out by Coillte, the semi-state organization responsible for managing Ireland’s forests.

The desolate landscape resulting from clearcut logging.

The desolate landscape resulting from clearcut logging. Bloody ugly.

Now i knew that this type of harvesting occurred in Ireland, and i was vaguely aware that some quantity of forest in the Wicklow Mountains was commercial in nature..but i never imagined that this kind of logging would be carried out on the doorstep of one of the country’s most visited natural sites. Just from the purely mercenary point of view of marketing your big tourist attraction, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. Let alone if we consider the aspect of conservation of natural beauty just for the sake of it.

Piled up logs, below the stripped hillside, on the Wicklow Way.

Piled up logs, below the stripped hillside, on the Wicklow Way.

Marketing ugliness to tourists..some would say we do it all the time, maybe there’s nothing unusual about it. Hey, strip-logging is awesome! I am not the only one to have been surprised by it though.

As for conservation, the Coillte website is full of it..biodiversity, sustainability, ecotherapy, promotion of health and well-being, and so on. ”Many precious memories have been made walking magical forests trails with family and friends..” we are told. I fear that there will be few people who conserve precious memories of the boardwalk to An Spinc above Glendalough from the Summer of 2018.

 

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