Wednesday, December 29, 2010

PMA Website Is Live

The Pyrenes Mountain Adventure website went live last week. The site showcases the environmentally friendly holidays that PMA offers and highlights PMA's commitment to sustainability.

The environmentally friendly holidays that PMA offers take place in the sunny Catalan Pyrenees Regional Nature Park in the Eastern Pyrenees. Why are the holidays environmentally friendly?

  • The summer walking or winter snowshoeing holidays involve no motorised transport, unless there is a vehicle transfer at the start and end of the walk.
  • As several of the walks during the week start from the accommodation, vehicle transfers are reduced.
  • If there is a vehicle transfer it is by public transport or local taxi firm.
  • The accommodation is a trailside eco lodge with solar water heating, photo voltaic panels to generate electricity, underfloor heating, recycling, organic and/or locally produced food etc
  • The owners of the lodge, have a strong commitment to sustainable practices.
  • The accommodation has won awards for its environmentally friendly initiatives.
  • Minimum Impact Trekking guidelines are followed when walking.
  • A £100 Greener Travel Cashback is paid to those clients that travel to the Eastern Pyrenees using a method of transport that creates half or less of the CO2 emmisions a plane would creat making the equivalent journey.
  • PMA's commitment to reducing its environmental footprint is a core principal. Whenever there is a choice  to be made (clothing, banking, printing, office hardware, business travel, publicity etc) it is the option that minimises the environmental footprint of the business most that is chosen. Always!
Take a look at the site here.

Enjoy your visit. I look forward to seeing you in the mountains!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Little Yellow Train

2010 is an important anniversary for the Little Yellow Train which crosses the Catalan Pyrenees Regional National Park in the Eastern Pyrenees. It is 100 years since the first section of the line, between Villefranche and Mont-Louis, was opened to the public. The line was subsequently extended, reaching  Bourg-Madame in 1911 and Latour de Carol in 1927. Latour de Carol on the French - Spanish border is of interest because there are three different gauges found at the station. Those of the main French railway from Toulouse/Paris, the Spanish railway from Barcelona and the Little Yellow Train.

The 63km, single track line, starts at 400m above sea level and follows the Têt river valley. As it climbs higher, the landscape opens out and there are great views of the Canigou, Cambre-d'Aze, Carlit and Puigmal massifs. The bright yellow train with cherry red trim, the Catalan colours, reaches its highest point at Bolquère. At 1952 m above sea level, this is the highest railway station in France.
There are 19 tunnels and among the many bridges and viaducts, there are two that stand out which have Historic Monument status. The  Séjourné viaduct  (217 m  long  65 m above  the River Têt) and the Gisclard bridge (222 m  long and 80 m above the river.) The Gisclard bridge is the only railway suspension bridge still in service in France. The bridge has been repainted twice: in 1960 and again in 2009.

The Little Yellow Train crossing the Gisclard suspension bridge with the first snows of winter.

While testing the line in Oct 1909, an accident led to the train careering out of control, leaving the track on a bend and the deaths of 6 people. Among those that died that day was Albert Gisclard the engineer responsible for the Gisclard bridge. This accident led to the addition of a third braking system.

Today 200 000 people a year are transported by ‘The Canary’ at an average speed of 35km/h reaching a top speed in places of 55km/h. The train is electric, as it was in 1910, and recieves power at 850 volts, from a third rail. The dam at Lake Bouillouses was originally built to provide a resevoir of water for one of several hydro electric generating plants along the valley that generated the electricity for the line.

22 stations are still served served by the line as in 1927, although 14 stops have become request stops.  If you want to leave the train at a station that doesn't have a permenant stop, you have to tell the driver when you join the train. If you want to join the train at a station that  is a request stop, you have to stand in a prominant postion on the platform and indicate for the train to stop.

The train runs all year round. An engine with a snow plough clears the line of snow in the winter months.

Timetables until 3rd March 2011 can be found here.

There is a collection of old postcard images of The Little Yellow Train here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Avalanche Risk

The first snow has fallen on the Pyrenees and it will not be long before the winter season starts.

I like to attend this annual training day on avalanche risk. The event put on in Toulouse, is at the start of November and I find the day a great way to prepare before the start of the winter season proper. This year, the day was hosted by the FFME, the French Mountain and Climbing Federation, in Toulouse. Last year the event was also in Toulouse but hosted by Meteo France.

The main speaker was Francois Sivardière, technical consultant on avalanches to the FFME and a former director of ANENA, Association National pour l'Etude de la Neige et des Avalanche (1994 - 2007).

The talks, including some more practical sessions about route choice, covered skills and knowledge familiar to me from my training as an International Mountain Leader, but were a valuable refresher about a subject which is crucial when looking after groups in the winter environment.

Other venues for this traing day: Chambéry/Aix les Bains (20 November), Paris (4 December) and Munster (11 December 2010). Further details here.

ANENA also run Avalanche Risk Training days. Grenoble (4 December) and Paris (11 December). Further details here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Soulcem Valley

The Soulcem Valley, in the Ariege, is an impressive 'U' shaped valley carved by a glacier during the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The flat, fertile valley floor has been the high, summer pasture for sheep, cattle and Merens horses for centuries.

 The yearly movement of animals to the higher, richer pasture in summer, is called 'la transhumance' in French. The term derives from the Latin trans 'across' and humus 'ground'. Although less important now than in the past with the decline of agriculture, there are farmers who still move their animals to the higher Soulcem Valley each June, the animals staying until October .

The large number (15 or so) of dry stone shelters with a turf roof, or orris, is evidence of the importance of the valley as summer pasture in the past.

It is in these very simple shelters that the shepherds would have stayed, amongst the animals, to watch over them. The Orris de Carla, just above the lake created by the Soulcem dam, were used as recently as 1968. Two modern shelters have been built for the use of the shepherds now.

My last visit to the valley was at the height of summer and it was crowded with people. This time there was no one and I had the whole valley to myself. I made my way up the valley on one side of the river, ascended to the Médécourbe Lake and then returned the other side of the river.

High above the lake is the Pic Médécourbe which is unusual in that it is where the borders of  France, Spain and Andorra meet. On the summit it would be possible to hop in and out of the three countries. Today the summit  was out of the question with the snow cover. An idea for next summer!     

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

1% for the Planet

This week Pyrenees Mountain Adventure became a proud member of 1% for the Planet.

This not for profit organistion was started in 2002 by Yvon Chouinard, founder and Managing Director of Patagonia, and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies. It is a growing, global movement of companies that donate 1% of their sales to environmental organizations worldwide.

By 2009 the 1% for the Planet community numbered 1200 members in 38 countries. In total, over $50 million of critically needed funds has been given to non – profit environmental groups.

Members contribute one percent of revenues directly to any of the approved non-profit environmental organisations in 1%’s network. Non-profits are chosen based on referrals, track record and environmental focus. Over 1,600 non-profits worldwide are included in the 1% program.

“The shared belief that you can do well as a business by doing the right thing with respect to the environment is clearly apparent.” Terry Kellogg, Managing Director, 1% for the Planet.

To learn more about 1% for the Planet visit

"The idea of wilderness needs no defence, it only needs defenders" Edward Abbey
"Do something for wild places and wild creatures" John Muir

Friday, October 29, 2010

Autumn Colours

During a recent autumn walk in the Galbe Valley, there were the yellows, golds and browns of the tree leaves, but it was not the only colour I found.

Autumn Croci (Crocus nudiflorus)
Browning grass
Cotton Grass (Eriophorum)
Snow Gentian (Gentiana nivalis)
There are more photos of autumn colours here.

Megalithic Art and a Mouflon!

In late October, I revisited a favourite valley of mine - the Galbe Valley, which begins near the village of Espousouille or Espolla. There are several small lakes at the end of the valley which is dominated by the Pic Baxouillade (2546m).

Pic Baxouillade
Having seen a fox near to one of the lakes, I made my way out of the valley towards the Camporells Lakes and the refuge there. On route, I wanted to find the Engraved Stones (Peyra Escrita in Catalan.) Some say that there are engravings on the rocks that date from the Magalithic Period (4000 BC)

I found 2 large blocks of stone with  flat tops. They appeared like large stone tables. I could have sat down by either stone and eaten from it.  Unusually, they were not covered with lichen as were other rocks nearby. The smooth surfaces of both the rectangular blocks were indeed engraved.

There were many names and dates that were very modern, but some of the names and particularly some of the shapes looked much older.

Perhaps the older engraved names are those of shepherds who would have spent the summer months in the area tending their flocks. As for the shapes and signs?

The cold night was spent camped by the Estany del Mig. In the morning I could see ice had begun to form on the lake.

Estany del Mig. The view from the Refuge des Camporells
I returned to Esposolla by a path that allowed me to look down on the valley where I had been the day before. While descending I saw some prints in the snow on the path. Shortly afterwards I came across a mouflon - a type of wild sheep. It was a male with the characteristic horns. The thick horns curl almost in one complete revolution.

Galbe Valley
Mouflon prints
 There are more photos of the rock engravings here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Merens – Black Prince of the Ariege.

The Merens or Merenguais is a small, black horse, originally found in the Ariège valley, in the Eastern Pyrenees. It is the Ariege village of Merens-les-Vals, that gives the horse its name. It is an ancient breed, and closely resembles the horses painted on the walls of the Niaux cave, near Tarascon-sur-Ariège,13 000 years ago.

Given the mountainous terrain of its native land, it is no surprise that the Merens is surefooted and hardy with good endurance and agility. The Merens horse has long been a companion to the "Montagnol" (mountain farmer), the horse being comfortable working on steep slopes. It was also used in mining, forestry and the army. In the Middle Ages, the famous Count of Foix, Gaston Phoebus, had Merens horses in his army, and later Napoleon made use of them during the Russian campaign.

Originally the Merens would have spent all year in the mountains. Now, in June, the herds move up from the lower valleys to spend 5 months in the high summer pastures, roaming in a semi-wild state.

While Merens horses are increasingly bred in other regions of France and even other countries, an authentic Merens is one who has run free in the high Pyrenees like his ancestors thousands of years ago.

Each 3rd week in August at Bouan in the Ariege, there is the National Merens Day with over 200 Merens horses on show.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lovely Lichen

As summer turns to autumn there are less and less flowers in bloom but still plants of interest to find in the mountains. In the forest, various lichens can be found. Lichen is pronounced LIE-ken and is from the Latin word lichen, a kind of plant.

A lichen is a plant composed of an algea and a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. This means a relationship where both parts are reliant on each other. The function of the algae in the relationship is to provide the food for the lichen. This is done through photosynthesis. The fungus, having no chlorophyll, cannot manufacture its own food, but can absorb food from the algae. The fungus is responsible for providing the structure to the lichen, enwraping the algea completely, providing protection from the sun and moisture. 

Lichens are a food source for animals and humans, can be used to make perfume and produce dyes, and provide a source of primitive antibiotics. Lichens are also used in flower displays and in model railway landscapes to represent trees and shrubs.

On a recent walk in the Planès valley, I found several lichens in the forest.

Pixie Cups (Cladonia fimbriata).

Pixie Cups (Cladonia fimbriata)
The cup is where the spore-like soredia reside. The lichen need the spore-like soredia to be scattered for the lichen to grow. The next generation of Pixie Cups will not grow until the soredia connect with the host algae, Pleurococcus on the ground near the site. When they enter the symbiotic relationship, the Pixie Cup will grow again in the new location.The soredia are dispersed by raindrops landing in the cup or by the action of the wind blowing in the cup and creating a vortex. 

It is said that Pixie Cups were valued by the Eskimos who used them as wicks in their blubber oil lamps. The lichens would be floated in the oil and then lit. 

Old Man's Beard (Usnea filipendula)

Old Man's Beard (Usnea filipendula)
Old Man's Beard is sensitive to air pollution especially sulphur dioxide. It contains Usnic acid which is a potent antibiotic. This combined with the hairlike structure resulted in the use of this lichen to treat surface wounds. It is also high in Vitamin C. The lichen does not feed on the tree and causes no harm. The tree is just a host.

Tree Moss (Pseudevernia furfuracea)

Tree Moss (Pseudevernia furfuracea)
Tree Moss grows on the bark of furs and pines. It is used in the perfume industry and has been found inside Egyption mummies. The lichen does not feed on the tree and causes no harm. The tree is just a host.

For more information about lichen, see the British Lichen Society or British Lichens.

'The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness'
John Muir

Thursday, September 30, 2010

September Sunshine

September is a great month to walk in the Pyrenees. The crowds have gone as have the very high summer temperatures which can make walking uncomfortable. The sun is still shining however.

At the end of September I had a long, glorious day walking from Planès. I had a look at Cambre d'Ase which I had visited before but in winter conditions. The peak is one of the walks in my  Pyrenees Summer Walking Week based at the Orri del Planès. I wanted some summer photos of the peak for my website which is being put together at the moment.

Having reached the Cambre d'Ase, the ridge line stretched away into the distance.

Summit view from Cambre d'Ase (2750m) towards Pic d'Eyne (2786m)
I could not resist. First the Tour d'Eyne and then onto the Pic d'Eyne. Both with magnificent panoramic views.

Summit view from Pic d'Eyne (2786m) towards Tour d'Eyne (2831m). Eyne valley on the left
I doubled back on myself for a time and then at the earliest opportunity made a steep, rough descent towards the Planès valley and its pond and onto Planès.

Planès Pond, Planès Valley
There were not many flowers still in bloom at this time of year but there were several to be seen: Carline Thistles, Fringed Pinks, Bellflowers and the poisonous Monkshood.

Monkshood (Aconit napellum)

 Despite the lack of flowers in bloom, there was still plenty of interest to see.

Pixie Cups (Cladonia fimbriata)
Although they couldn't be seen, I could here some Red Deer stags roaring, away in the forest.

For more information about the Summer Walking Week run by Pyrenees mountain Adventure see here

For more information about the Orri del Planès see here.

For more photos of this walk see here.

For photos of the Cambre d'Ase in winter see here.

The idea of wilderness needs no defence, it only needs defenders.
Edward Abbey

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wet and Windy Wales

Mid September saw me in Snowdonia, North Wales helping with a Duke of Edinburgh training week for several schools in the Canterbury/Ashford area.

The week began with a training day. This  mainly concentrated on navigation but also covered some first aid scenarios, camp craft, essential and non essential kit, rucsac packing etc. Then the groups did a practice 4 day expedition.

One of the groups I worked with was the group planning to do their qualifying expedition in the Pyrenees. The weather was not kind all week and bad enough for several of the groups to have to switch to their lower level wet weather alternative routes. 

Here is a photo of the group during a rare improvement in the weather. They were in good spirits not just because it was brighter and had stopped raining, but also because the day had gone well. They told me they were beginning to feel like a real  team. There was also no more height to gain that day. They had ascended to the col Bwlch Cwm Llan and it was now all down hill to the campsite.

The week was based at The Kent Mountain Centre. There is more information about the centre here.

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.
- David Polis

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I Want My Freedom

Part of my work involves helping several schools deliver their Duke of Edinburgh programme. There is a group at one of the schools, who want to walk an old WWII escape route, from France into Spain, as their gold qualifying expedition in 2011.

This route is called 'The Freedom Trail' or 'Le Chemin de la Liberté'. I have recently walked a 4 day segment of the trail to be able to tell the group more about it. Just like Duke of Edinburgh gold qualifiers, I was self sufficient - carrying all I needed for the trek (tent, sleeping bag, food, stove etc)

Day 1. Seix (500m), Col de la Core (1395m), Cabane de la Subra (1499m).
Distance 19km. Ascent 1079m

In the distance, Col de la Core

Gentle introduction with some road walking. So lush and green. Friendly shepherd and his partner at the cabane looking after the cattle for the summer.

Day 2. Cabane de la Subra (1499m), Col de Craberous (2382m), Cabane des Espugues (2110m), Col de Pécouch (2462m), Refuge des Estagnous (2245m)   
Distance 10km. Ascent 1386m
Merens horse

 Col de Pécouch, looking towards Refuge Estagnous and Lac Rond.

Great day. Marmot watching a highlight! Merens horses as well. Awesome views.

Day 3. Cabane Estagnous (2245m), Mont Valier (2838m), Cabane Estagnous (2245m), Etang Long (2125m), Col de la Clauere (2382m), Cases de Bonabe (1400m), Port/Col de Salau (2087m)
Distance 18km. Ascent 1562m
Early morning view from the col before the Mont Valier summit
Lac Rond
Ascent of Mont Valier without full pack. Great views. The blue of Lac Rond is unreal. Some snow on approach to Spanish border. See herd of isards from col, a golden eagle and many vultures. Route markings less clear in Spain.
N.B. A long day. An alternative would have been to cut out the ascent of Mont Valier. Another alternative would be to keep the ascent of Mont Valier and camp just over the Spanish border. This would shorten day 3 and day 4 could be cut as well (see below). There is the option to stay at the refuge.

Day 4. Port/Col de Salau (2087m), Salau (850m), Seix (500m)
Distance 21km. Ascent 0m
Early morning light looking into Spain from Col de Salau
Shepherd herding his sheep
Great light this morning. Passed shepherds herding sheep.
N.B. Route includes 14km of road walking between Salau to Seix beside River Salat. Pleasant enough, but it might have been better to finish at Salau, where there was a nice café, and arrange transport to Seix.

Interested in summer treks like this? Take a look at what Pyrenees Mountain Adventure has to offer here.

There is more information about the Duke of Edinburgh award here.

"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity..."  John Muir, 1898