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 www.onepercentfortheplanet.org

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