Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Son of the Wilderness

It was the anniversary of the death of John Muir recently (21 April 1838 – 24 December 1914)

Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.’ John Muir

Born in Dunbar in Scotland, Muir emigrated with his family to the United States when he was 11. His travels through the country and his love of wild places became the basis of the many books and essays he wrote.

As well as an author, he was a botonist and geologist. An early champion of wilderness preservation, he was instrumental in the establishment of the US National Parks system.
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
His beloved Yosemite Valley became one of the first areas of the US to be granted National Park status.The Sierra Club, which he founded, continues to lobby for the protection of wild places in the US.

The John Muir Trail -  a 211 mile/340 km hiking trail in California was named after him. Here is a series of stunning time lapse sequences shot by  Eric M. Keen and William B. Watson during their hike along the John Muir Trrail in 2010.

'Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.'
John Muir Our National Parks , 1901, page 56

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Green Ski Resorts

If you are planning to ski this winter and want help choosing a greener ski resort, there are several helpful sources of information available.

 Mountain Riders Eco Guide to Mountain Resorts
Still want to enjoy the mountains in winter but not happy with the environmental impact of the skiing industry? Try a snow shoeing holiday! As well as making less of an impact than skiing, snowshoeing is cheaper and easier. Snowshoeing away from the resorts and prepared runs is also less crowded and more peaceful. See a different side to the mountains in winter. Come and join a Pyrenees Mountain Adventure snowshoeing week and make your own fresh  tracks in the snow. 



Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter Survival

Isard (Pyrenean Chamois)
The animals that live in the high mountains, like the Isard, have a hard time during the winter. As well as the freezing temperatures, snow, strong winds and avalanches, the animals have to contend with food being scarcer and harder to find. A tough life! The animals build up fat reserves during the summer to help them make it through the harsh winter months but not all make it.

A film from Salamandre Films called 'Survive' looks at the dangers the mountain animals face during the harsh winter months. The footage was shot in the Alps but the story the film tells could be applied to any mountain region in winter.

Althoug the film was shot in the Alps, all the animals in the trailer can also be seen in the Pyrenees - except for the Ibex (the animal with the very long horns) which became extinct in the Pyrenees in the late 1990's. No Ibex here unfortunately but there is the brown bear which cannot be found in the Alps. Not much chance of seing all these animals on the prepared ski resort slopes however. You have a much better chance with a Pyrenees Mountain Adventure snowshoeing week.

Snow Hare Tracks
Actual sightings of animals are rare but you will be able to see that you are surrounded by  wildlife  from the huge number of prints and tracks in the snow. During a Pyrenees Mountain Adventure snowshoeing week your guide can help you to start to identify which prints and tracks are made by which animal.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

All Things Snow and Avalanche

Today was spent in the Meteo France lecture theatre in Toulouse for my annual refresher on all things snow and avalanche. A great way to prepare for the coming winter season.

Hosted by ANENA (National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches), FFME (The French Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) and The French Alpine Club, the 2011 training day was packed with useful, practical information to remind me about and reinforce previously learnt knowledge.

There were particularly good sessions on route choice and the new Meteo France avalanche bulletin  which will appear from December 12th this year. Another good talk was given by a member of Mountain Rescue on avalanche rescue.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bear Cubs Are Named

The 4 bear cubs born in the Pyrenees in 2010 now have names.  33, 000 people suggested names via the internet and from these a shortlist of 26 was chosen. A jury was put together to choose from the shortlist.

The 2 female cubs of Bambou et Pyros are called Floretta (Little Flower) and Fadeta (Little Fairy.) 

The daughter of Caramelle and Pyros is called Plume (Feather), and their 
son, Pelut (either Hairy or Wanderer.)

Sun, Snow And Snowshoeing

It has arrived - snow! Not in huge quantities but there was enough of it in the Eastern Pyrenees near Aston in the Ariege to spend a weekend snowshoeing.

The first day was spent ascending the Seignac Valley towards the Col du Sal. Snowshoes were necessary above 2000m.

Snowshoeing Towards the Col du Sal.
 At the Col du Sal (2480m) there were impressive views across to the Pic de Thoumasset (2741m).

Pic de Thoumasset from the Col du Sal.

The return was made by the Soulanet Valley and the Sabine Valley.

The next day was an ascent of the Pic de la Sabine.

Making Fresh Tracks Descending From Pic de la Sabine
On the descent from the Pic de la Sabine, the group were able to look across towards the previous days highpoint - the Col du Sal. An impressive cloud bank was stopped on the French/Andorran border.

Cloud bank on the French/Andorran Border.
Despite the winter landscape, colour was still evident below the snowline. There were the browns and golds  of the leaves of the deciduous trees but also the purple of the many crocuses in flower.

Autumn Crocus
Most colourful was the bright red of a fly agaric.The mushroom is poisonous but deaths are rare. In the Middle Ages it was apparently used as a fly killer when sprinkled in milk.

Fly Agaric.

Most surprising was the high number of Pyrenean Gentian to be found. They are normally in flower in July and August!

Pyrenean Gentian
On both days the group had the mountains to themselves - we saw no one. The second day we briefly shared our patch of mountain territory with a herd of isard. Snowshoes do not require prepared pistes or ski resort  uplifts. Quiter, hidden coners of the winter mountain environment can be discovered far from the hustle and bustle of the ski resorts.

2 of the group had never snowshoed before but did not take them long to get used to the snowshoes. If you are thinking of a Pyrenees Mountain Adventure snowshoe week and are worried because you have never snowshoed - don't be! Remember, if you can walk, you can snowshoe!

Monday, November 7, 2011

On This Day 7th November 1659

On the 7th November 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed between France and Spain on neutral ground in the Basque Pyrenees. The signing took place on Pheasant Island, a river island on the border between the countries.

Map Showing The Northern Part of Catalonia Which Became French
The treaty ended the war at the time between France and Spain, with Spain agreeing to give up Northern Catalonia to the French crown. The area in the map above which is dark green became French except for the tiny white area (to the right and below the a in Andora.) This is Llivia and it remains Spanish even though it is in France and surrounded by French territory. The enclave of Llivia exists because in the 1659 Treaty, Spain agreed to give up only villages and at the time Llivia was considered a city due to its stature as capital of Cerdanya!

Map Showing Llivia
Medal Commemorating The Signing of the Treaty
Although part of France since 1659, Northern Catalonia still has strong links with the language, culture and traditions of Catalonia. Catalan is still spoken by many for example and all signs are in Catalan and French. As you would expect, mMany of the names of places on the walking maps are in Catalan.

Here is the sign for the Catalan Pyrenees Regional Nature Park (in French and Catalan) where Pyrenees Mountain Adventure runs guided summer walking and winter snowshoeing holidays. You can see the Little Yellow Train on the logo of the park.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On This Day November 1st 2004

On November 1st 2004, the last female brown bear in the Pyrenees of Pyrenean stock (as apposed to the female brown bears introduced from Slovenia), died. Canelle was shot and killed by one of a  group of hunters hunting for wild boar.  The group of hunters and their dogs were from Urdos and hunting in the Aspe valley in an area where they had been warned the bear was present.

Wild Boar
René Marquèze said he acted in self defence after the bear made charges at one of the dogs, another of the hunters and himself. He said he feared for his life, and that he acted in self defence shooting at the bear twice. Brown bears are normally afraid of humans but can become aggressive if they are cornered, surprised, with young or feel threatened.

René Marquèze went to court for destruction of a protected species where the initial case was dismissed on 19th January 2007. There was an appeal against this decision and after a lengthy battle in the courts he was ordered to pay 10 000 euros in damages to several environmental organistions on 11th September 2009.

The Lifeless Body Transported Away
Cannelle (Cinnamon in English) was with her male cub at the time of her death which was not physically hurt and escaped. The loss of the last female of Pyrenean stock is a huge blow to the survical of the species in the Pyrenees. In 2007 there were only about 15 brown bears present in the whole chain. In France, they are only present in the Pyrenees.

Bear Sculpture, Axat
Since Cannelle's death there have been efforts to support the brown bear population by further introduction of bears from Slovenia. In 2007 5 bears from Slovenia were introduced to the Pyrenees (4 females and 1 male) which followed the 3 released between May 1996 and May 1997.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Camisette Crash Site

There are several airplane crash sites in the Eastern Pyrenees and yesterday I went off to find one. The day didn't start well because I was late leaving home and then I had to take a detour because EDF have shut the road I normally take to repair the huge intake pipe that descends the hillside into the electricity generating station at Usson. Happily my mood improved because the autumn colours were fantastic along the detour.

The actual walk was to the Pic de la Camisette near Mijanes in the Ariege a beautiful area of the Eastern Pyrenees. Not as warm and sunny as the Pyrenees-Orientales  where Pyrenees Mountain Adventure operates the guided summer walking holiday but greener and lusher for it. The mountains are as beautiful. The view on the final approach to the summit, relaxing in the warm sunshine with just enough breeze to move the longer blades of grass was stunning.

The crash site is close to the higher of the two Camisette lakes in the shadow of the mountain.

There is no memorial to the dead and of the aluminium wreckage that is still visible, very little  resembles an aeroplane.  
On the morning of 5th December 1944  two RAF C47's (or Dakotas from the acronym "DACoTA" for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft) take off  from RAF Northholt. They are transporting glider pilots to India via Marseille. At about 15h30, while flying over the Pyrenees during a snow storm, one of the Dakotas with 23 people aboard, crashes into the Pic de la Camisette, the wreckage ending up in flames close to a small lake at 2150m/7053 feet. 
Only 7 of the 23 aboard survive the initial impact . They are suffering from burns, lacerations and broken bones. After a night amongst the wreckage of the plane, the 2 least injured survivors - Major J.F Blatch and Sergeant Baker, decide to descend the mountain and find  help. Despite the cold and the snow, the two manage to reach Mijanès 5km/3 miles away and 1020m/3020 feet of descent. Villagers attempt to bring down the remaining 5 other survivors but the continuing poor weather and the onset of darkness halts the rescue effort. The next day (7th December) villagers from neighbouring Artigues finally manage to reach the crash site by midnight by following the footprints left in the snow by Blatch and Baker. Amonst the wreckage they find Ainsworth, Henwood, Wigmore et Dawkins still alive. Andersson who survived the initial impact has since died.  
11 military personal were found and brought down from the mountain and buried in Mijanes between the 10 and 19 December 1944.The search for the 6 bodies still not accounted for was halted during the winter due to snow cover making the search for bodies too difficult. The search resumed in the spring and the remaining bodies were found between the 23rd May and the 19th June 1945. All these survivors were buried in the Mazargues military cemetery in Marseille.
 A memorial to the dead is in Mijanès and some of the wreckage has been removed and can be found in the museum at Usson Castle.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Name A Baby Bear

There were 4 bear cubs born in 2010 in the Pyrenees. You can help name them using the following link to the Pays de l'Ours website . There have been 30,000 suggestions so far.

Here is a video of 2 of the bear cuns with their mum. The footage was shot at night by an automatic camera that was set up near a tree that had been sprayed with a special product that attracts the bears. Whatever it is, they like it a lot! Film shot on the 24th October 2010

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Slave to The i

Steve Jobs has died. I agree that he was a great innovator and business man. I agree that he has greatly changed tour lives.

But.............there's just one more thing (which Jobs was fond of saying at the end of his presentations of new Apple products). Some have talked of the passing of a great man, a revolutionary, a visionary. Has he really made such a positive effect on the world ?

The world is faced with two major problems that are (inter) related and urgently need addressing - over consumption and damage to the environment. I believe it is based on what Jobs did to help with these central problems that we can measure his greatness.

Firstly, over consumption. Jobs was a buddhist and was influenced by the 1960's counter culture. He said that his experience with LSD was "one of the two or three most important things [he had] done in [his] life". How was any spiritual enlightenment he gained passed on to humankind ? His mantra appeared to be : Buy more (Apple i) stuff and be happi(er). He has done nothing to reduce (over) consumption or get us to question our behaviour. If anything he has made the problem worse -  iPod, iPhone, iPad and of course each successive upgrade of each product.

Real Commitment or Greenwash?

Secondly, damage to the environment. After criticism of Apple by Greenpeace in 2005 there was a bigger effort by the corporation to 'green its operation' and reduce it's environmental footprint. Jobs talked about 'A greener Apple'. However Apple still does not rank in the top 3 of the latest (2010) Greenpeace ranking of 18 electronics companies based on their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change. Climate Counts which ranks electronics companies on their climate footprint also found Apple lagging behind its competitors in the electronics sector
A truly great person, a true revolutionary, a true visionary would have really broken the business mould and made its products and production as green as possible, as fast as possible– power consumption of products, renewable energy used in production, packaging, recycled materials content, hazardous materials content, biodegradable materials content, recyclable materials content, in store recycling scheme for all company products, repairability of products, product lifespan. It would also have sold the idea to consumers and radically changed the way consumers think about the environment.
If Jobs had really wanted to make Apple a market leader in terms of its Green credentials and environmental innovation, he would have made it happen. The following anecdote illustrates my point that had Jobs wanted to really green the Apple corporation he could have done.
When the first prototype of the iPod was presented to Steve Jobs, he said it was too big. The technicians argued that it was just not possible to make it any smaller. Jobs reaction was to drop the iPod in an aquarium. Having sunk to the bottom, air bubbles escaped and rose to the surface. 'Bubbles means there’s space in there. Make it smaller !'
The world is still waiting for the true visionaries, to lead us forward into the Third Industrial Revolution – The Green Revolution. That move forward is essential if our species is to survive on a finite earth.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wales September 2011

I spent two weeks working in Snowdonia this autumn. The first week I helped out on a Duke of Edinburgh week for several Kent schools who based themselves, when they weren't on expedition, at the Kent Mountain Centre.

I had a memorable time waiting at Bwlch y Rhediad for a D of E practice group to come through. There is a fair amount of waiting around when remotely supervising D of E groups but on a day like this I wasn't complaining. I had the view across the Gwynant valley towards Snowdon all to myself with just a buzzard in the far distance for company. The sunlight was breaking through the clouds and acting like a giant spotlight. As it swept over the ground the muted colours were suddenly vividly bright - the green of the fields and the silver of the river and the landscape alive.

 Llyn Gwynant With Snowdon in the Distance.
Another memorable moment this first week was when the qaulifying group came into the dining hall after finishing late on their last day and the rest of the groups already there giving them a huge round of applause.  

My second week was spent in a small cottage on a working hill farm just inside the Snowdonia National Park. With the help of another member of staff I looked after a group of 10 14 year olds from a school in Canterbury, Kent - everyone having to adapt to there being no running water nor electricity. Despite less than perfect weather during the week, we managed to complete some fieldwork and have 3 good mountain days. The most enjoyable for me was a very windy ascent of Y Garn via the Devil's Kitchen in winds that were gusting to over 50 mph and strong enough to blow some of the group over. One boy had his glasses blown off his head (close to the spot in the picture below) and down a steep drop. They could not be recovered but he went on to get to the summit of Tryfan the next day! 

The Descent From Y Garn.
View of Llyn Idwal From The Devil's KItchen.

Thank you for (your help) .... organising the Snowdonia week – my son had a fantastic time despite the Friday rain and from his photos (and he has loads of these) you can see the boys were always smiling along with Alex.

Thanks again.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Roc del Boc and Tour d'Eyne

As you drive towards Mont Louis across the Capcir plateau, ahead of you is a fantastic panorama of mountians.

The plan today was to walk the ridge in the middle of the photo starting from Planès. This is the peaceful hamlet where the Pyrenees Mountain Adventure holidays have their accommodation. This walk is not in the standard programme but that programme can be adapted to suit your experience and wishes.

Roc del Boc (2774m)
The main peak on the ridge is Roc del Boc which can be seen in the photo above. To the right on the skyline is the Tour d'Eyne (the next main peak on the ridge) and ridge that forms the backwall of the cirque/cwm of the upper Planès Valley.

Summit Roc del Boc (2774m)

The weather was hot and sunny with a gentle breeze at times which fluttered the Catalan flag on the summit.

Towards the Tour d'Eyne (2831m)
From the Roc del Boc, the ridge continues towards the Tour d'Eyne including a section of scrambling.

Short Section of Scrambling
It was soon after this rock step that I came across a young Isard or Pyrenean Chamois. You can clearly see the 2 horns between the ears and the size of these relative to the ears can be used to age the animal. Later on 3 vultures gave me a fly past and just before starting the descent into the Planès valley, I was able to watch 30 or so Choughs. I didn't see any marmots but they were there for sure. I could hear the distinctive warning whistles on several occasions.

 From the Tour d'Eyne there were great views back along the way I had come.

View From the Tour d'Eyne
From the Tour d'Eyne I traversed high above the cirque/cwm of the upper Planès valley and then it was time to descend to the valley floor and Planès. The other side of the cirque/cwm gave a great view of the Roc del Boc and the ridge.

Descent to the Planès Valley.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Summer Triangle

August is a great time to be watching the night sky. Although not quite as impressive as the Winter Hexagon, the Summer Triangle can be easily spotted. It is made up of 3 of the brightest stars in the night sky. Vega in Lyra (Latin for Lyre), Deneb in Signus (Latin for Swan) and in Altair in Aquila (Latin for Eagle)

Look south eastwards (135°) and search for Cygnus first

The brightest star is deneb which is from dhaneb, the Arabic for "tail" (Tail of the swan) Part of the constellation makes up of theNorthern Cross. (Bolder green in the image.)

Now look for Vega in Lyra to the right of Cygnus (see image above). The final of the three stars is another bright star below Deneb and Vega. It is called Altair. It comes froman abreviation of the arabic phrase 'the flying eagle'

Join the three stars up and you have the Sumer triangle.

In the film Contact, (originally a book by Carl Sagan) the message intercepted by Jodi Foster's character is coming from Vega.

Jodie Foster character in Contact 'I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision... of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how... rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone!'

All night sky images from Wikipedia.

Good News And Bad News

The bad news is that a bear cub was been found dead in the Eastern Pyrenees (Ariege, Couserens) last month. The body had been partially eaten by vultures (which 'clean' the mountains of dead animals) and this made it difficult to state with certainty the cause of death. Initial inspection of the carcass suggested that it had not been shot as there was no holes in the skin. There are several possible causes of death; an illness, attack by an adult male, poor care from the mother, a bad fracture etc.

On a happier note, at least 2 ( possibly 3) bear cubs born this winter were seen with their mother playing in the snow in the same area of the Pyrenees. The group of bears was watched for over an hour by walkers who were within a 100 metres. Photos were taken by the walkers but they were not conclusive. It wasn't until after a team from the Hunting and Wildlife Commission were able to study the prints, hairs and droppings in the area that the presence of a female and at least 2 cubs was confirmed. Further study will be able to determine the sex of the cubs and their father. He is likely to be Pyros, a male bear introduced from Slovenia in 1997.

The presence of bears in the Pyrenees continues to divide the chain. For the farmers with livestock to protect, 1 more bear is 1 too many. A public meeting was organised 27th July in St Girons (Ariege) by ASPAP. For the pro bear lobby, even if births this winter have helped the total bear population in the Pyrenees to climb towards 25, this is still too few a number to guarantee the survival of the species. More introductions are necessary.

Anti Bear Lobby: Association pour la SAUVEGARDE du PATRIMOINE D’ARIEGE-PYRENEES

Pro Bear Lobby: Pays de l'Ours -  ADET

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cortalets to Marialles Ridge Route

A fantastic day today. Having seen the Concert for the Sunrise I leave the Cortalets Refuge for The Marialles Refuge not by the normal routes but by the ridge route.

I start my descent from the Crete du Barbet and get my first view of Puig Sec and the ridgeline behind which is partly obscured by mist. This quickly clears.

Looking at the Porteille de Valmanya and Puig Sec (2665m) with the Ridge Behind.

Ascent and descent of the Puig Sec brings me nearer to the ridge which can now be clearly seen.

Puig Del Roc Negre (2714m) and Puig Dels Tres Vents (2731m)

I miss Puig Del Roc Negre but reach the summit of the Puig Dels Tres Vents which offers great views back towards Pic Canigou.

Pic Canigou (2784m) and the Gougs (Lakes) de Cady

The next peak is Puig Roja (2742m) and then the Pic Des Sept Hommes (2651m). From this peak I descend down to the plateau Pla Guillem.

Pla Guillem
On the final approach to the Marialles Refuge and a welcome refreshing drink, I discover an old shepherds shelter - dry stone walls and turf roof!

Old Shepherds Shelter