Friday, December 16, 2011

Beenkerach winter walk

Coumeengeragh, I went up the mixed ground on the right.

Carrountoohil east face
I went back to the Reeks yesterday for a hike. The day was clear and cold so I was hopeful that decent snow conditions might be found. As I drove back the temperature rose from a chilly 2degrees at home to 7degrees by the time I arrived in Killarney. It is amazing how often this happens. If these mountains were located just fifty miles further east they would offer good climbing much more often. Anyway there was still a decent coating above 600mtrs so I decided to have a look at Coumeengeragh Gully. This starts at just about 600mtrs and forms a nice line to the Col just to the west of Beenkerach. Unfortunately it was immediately obvious that the gully was full of unconsolidated powder so I broke out to the right and climbed up the mixed ground to the ridge. This gave some reasonable fun with an average angle of 45degrees. After all the chilly weather and rail and sleet I felt sure that there would have been a big dumping on high but alas no, there was only a wind scoured dusting on top and only small accumulations on the leeward slopes. Still the day offered a nice taste of winter and who knows , maybe the cold weather will endure over the Christmas and I may get out again.
The Eastern Reeks

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pyrenees Hike December 2011, A short hop on the GR 10

A short hop on the GR 10.

Pretty much on the spur of the moment I decided to quit the dreary dull winter we were having and booked a flight to Barcelona with the objective of walking from the Mediterranean Sea to Andorra. So off I set to Dublin on Thursday 1st and stayed overnight before my flight on Friday morning. Everything went well and I landed in Barcelona just after 1pm. I caught the train from the airport to Figueres and stayed there on Friday night with the intention of heading to Banyuls Sur Mer just over the border in France on Saturday morning. I went for a walk around Figueres and got the maps and gas I needed. It is a nice town with lots of quaint squares and buildings. Later on I visited a bar with an Internet point. There were about five others there besides myself and loud dance music was filling the air. The barmaid was entertaining the punters by shaking (almost vibrating) her booty as she looked at her laptop. The highlight for me was the ecstatic dance that a guy made when he won some money on a gaming machine. His beaming face and funky dance had me laughing well into the night.

Saturday Dec 3rd,
My train was leaving at 9am so I had time to have another stroll about town and get a bite of breakfast. I was delighted to see that a couple of the squares were now full of stalls selling all kinds of food. Many were milling about getting their daily groceries. I wandered through one and picked up a smoked chorizo to take up the mountains with me. What can I say but if I had the chance again I would have got a few dozen, to hell with the weight. It was delicious, so different to what we are served here. Anyway after a nice coffee and pastry I returned to my digs and collected my BIG bag and caught my train. It is a short trip but I had to change trains in Cerbere and wait for an hour for the connection to Banyuls. This afforded me the opportunity to explore the little town that tumbled down to a nice little cove on the shore. I had a little wander about and as I returned towards the train station a drunk with his dog fell in with me and started pratteling away. He started in French and then switched to Spanish, when my responses dried up completely he then asked me where I was from and when I told him he switched again to perfect (almost) English, kinda makes me feel a bit ashamed of my linguistic limitations. I thought when I reached the station he would be off but no he followed me in and sat alongside me on the platform. When he boarded the train as well and alighted with me in Banyuls Sur Mer I was more than a little worried that I would have a companion for my trip but thankfully he said a quick farewell and I was left alone to face my adventure.
Looking back at Banyuls Sur Mer
A walk of 500mtrs saw me at the trail where it passed under the railway line. Seeing the red and white paint mark on the wall was great and I knew that now at last the real trip had begun.  So I was off. The track twists and winds its way up the hillside and soon I was after rising well above the village and lovely views back towards the sea competed with the exciting landscape that lay ahead. There is a definite arid look to the landscape here. There are large Cacti and Agave adorning many of the houses and the scrubby nature of the flora and overall brown appearance of the landscape gives the area an almost desert like feel. There was a stiff breeze blowing but the temperature was mild and it was great to be walking in just a base layer with the sleeves rolled up in December. Onwards and upwards and each time I rounded a new corner or crested a new ridge or coll there were new sights to greet me. My bag was heavy, about 22kg at the start which had food for four days, all my camping needs and clothes etc. I was actually quite pleased that I was able to climb so well with it. Of course the tracks are perfectly engineered and are designed to allow you to gain height with the optimum of effort. Eventually I arrive at Col de Bailloury and get a great view over the large plain that stretches north towards Narbonne and blends into the blue Mediterranean Sea.
Looking north
From here the landscape becomes wilder and the rock buttresses of the first peak, Pic Sailfort 981mtrs, are to the fore. The track wends and winds its up the flanks and eventually you emerge onto a wide plateau and the enormous extensive forests  of Don Des Alberes sweep away to the north. This was a grand spot for lunch, although there was now a definite chill in the wind. It felt great to be here and the feeling of freedom and almost exploration I had was exhilarating. I didn't tarry too long as I was eager to get on. The trail continued over open alpine pastures crossing Pic de la Carbassere and on to Pic des 4 Theremes 1156mtrs. Here the trail dives into the forest and I found it quite difficult to follow at times as the forest floor was covered with leaves and at times the only indications of the way ahead were the often too infrequent markings on the trees. Almost inevitably I took a wrong turn and had to take a forest road for an extra couple of kilometers before I regained the track . I eventually reached Col de L'Orry  1010mtrs and was surprised to see that Banyuls Sur Mer was 22.5 kilometers behind. The day was now shoving on and I still had a fair bit to go before I reached my target for the day Pic Neulos 1256mtrs.
Still a fair bit to go.
Fatigue was now becoming obvious and the weight of the bag was taking its toll on my shoulders as well as other places. I chose not to stay in the Bothy like Refuge de la Tagnarede and opted instead to camp about a kilometer further on near a water source just under the Pic. It was great to drop the bag and become engrossed in the tasks of finding a good spot for the tent and once this was done getting the stove going and generally making myself comfy for the night. It was a wonderful spot with uninterrupted views south to Spain and north in to France, I was right on the border. The breeze had long since died and it was very pleasant to sit in the open at about 4000ft in December and enjoy a brew and wonderful views in the fading light. This was what I had hoped for and all in all I was very satisfied with the day. I was beginning to realise that covering the distances I had envisaged would be difficult if not impossible but I was determined not to put myself under any pressure and since I was carrying all I needed on my back, I could be completely flexible with my plans. Not long after I had retired in to my tent for the night it started to rain and this continued well into the night. Still, I was snug and dry in my nest and I way happy to drift off to sleep coaxed by the patter of the rain on canvas. So ended day 1.

Sunday Dec 4th,
I awoke to a dry cloudless day. The rain of the previous night was well gone and the ground was dry and the air was quite mild. I had slightly overslept and I busied myself with the task of breakfasting and readying for the off. It's amazing where the time goes and it was gone 9am before I set off once again. I could have skirted around the summit but that would have felt like cheating so I made the short hop to the summit which is topped by a large communications mast. I followed the road down from this for a bit before the route enters the forest again. Once more I lost the trail and followed another to a Gite which eventually rejoined the correct route but added about four kilometers to the descent. I found going down more difficult as the weight of the bag and the angle of descent made me press into the toe of my boots and soon enough my feet were getting a bit sore. The route drops right down to the Col du Perthus 271mtrs which has a little village but unfortunately the whole place is dominated by the motorway that links Spain and France. The constant noise of traffic must be a nightmare for the locals to endure. Still I was very glad to have reached there and I treated myself to a couple of Croissants and a coke which went down very well.
Dawn above Las Illas

From here you climb again past a huge old army fort and drop down into a wide open valley. Up again on gentle forest tracks to about 700mtrs before eventually dropping  again to a little village called Las Illas where there was a busy Gite. The day was once again getting late and I was now quite tired as I reckoned that I had travelled at least thirty kilometers by now. As I had approached the village the only possible campsite I could see in the heavily wooded area was on a treeless col above the village. This I headed for and it meant another couple of hundred meters of climbing to end the day. Sure enough there was a fine grassy patch at the Col and I wasted no time in the gathering gloom in getting camp established. I had to walk down through the woods for a few hundred meters to get to a water supply but that was OK. I wasn't too off put by the few cowpats dotted around the area as these were easily avoided. My feet were really glad to get out of the boots for a while but unfortunately some blistering and blood was in evidence and the first aid kit was required. Still I really enjoyed dinner and watching the sunset in the fine evening. All in all it had been another great day, but it was now clear that I had really underestimated the distance involved and that there was now no chance of reaching Andorra in the time I had so a new plan would have to be thought of. So I settled down to bed once again with only the occasional hooting of Owls for company, bliss. At about 9pm I heard the ta-ting ta-ting ta-ting ta-ting of the bells that hang from the necks of cattle in the mountains. This is a sound I usually like but now I realized why there were cowpats round and about my tent and sure enough soon the air was full of campanology as the herd made for what was obviously one of their favourite spots. What can I say but that at three in the morning the musicality of the noise has long since gone and I was having fantasies of juicy steaks etc. Ah well a lesson learned I think.

Monday Dec 5th,

Further than it looks
Where I'm going
Once again the day dawned mild and dry. The cattle had long since retreated and I felt surprisingly well rested. Thankfully my feet seemed to have recovered and once I was again booted and suited I felt good as I started the climb towards Roc De Frausa 1450mtrs which would be the highest point so far. After about an hour I arrived at the Refuge Salinas near which there is a superb place for camping, still it would have been a real struggle to reach there the previous evening but one for the future I think. There was a little cloud about and some unfortunately was covering Roc Du Frausa when I arrived so there was no need to delay and I set off on what promised to be another long descent. I soon reached Col Cerda. This was a grand spot where an elegant rock spur rose up the far side. I was really tempted to climb it until I looked at the map and realizes that it was over a kilometer to the summit and nearly 700 ft higher. I reckoned it would take too much time so I left it be. The plan from here was to head for the town of Arles sur Tech. I followed a good track through fine wild scenery until I reached a tarred road. Try as I might I could not find the trail to Arles and after going up and down the road for a couple of kilometers I conceded defeat and went instead to Amelie Les Bains. This is a good size town at 250meters above sea level, so once again the descent had been long and my feet were again feeling sore. I checked with the tourist office and found to my delight that there was a frequent bus service between there and Perpignon so I would be easily able to reach Barcelona from there. I camped in the local campsite and enjoyed a lovely shower and a few beers and had a bell free night.
Amelie les Bains

Tuesday Dec 6th,

Once again the day dawned clear and windless. An early start soon had me following the trail up to
The old barracks??
Montbolo, a charming little village some 250mtrs above. It felt great to be leaving behind the trappings and noise of the town and to be once again entering the wilds. I was feeling quite strong, perhaps it was a combination of an ever lightening bag or the fact that I was getting a bit stronger thanks to the previous few days. Anyway I made good progress and was soon at Col de la Redoute at over 800mtrs. I was quite excited because today finally I was heading for the high mountains and perhaps at last justify bringing the axe and crampons across many kilometers of forest. A couple of hundred meters further up I came across the ruins of an old barracks or some such which afforded wonderful views.
Unfortunately there was no water to be found there so it I was going to use it as a campsite on my return I would need to bring an ample supply with me.

A des res with a view.
I had finalized my plan for my final  few days the previous evening. It was clear that I would not be able to reach Andorra or even Puigcerda so my best option of being able to get back to Barcelona on Thursday evening was to return to Amelie and catch a bus from there to Perpignan and a train from there to Barcelona. So today I was heading for Batere where I would stay and tomorrow climb the Serra del roc Negra. This is a spine of tops between the major peaks of Pic Du Canigou and Puig dels tres vents. Anyway I continued onwards and reached the ruin of the Tour de Batere at 1439 mtrs.  there was now a threat of a change in the weather and some cloud was rolling over the slopes of the hills ahead. I still had about four or five kilometers to go so I pushed on. I passed the refuge and Gite and choose to camp a little higher in the old mining area. This was a delightful spot with a flat grassy area and a handy water supply. I was at just over 1600 mtrs and it was only just 2.30pm so I had gained about 1400mtrs and I had plenty of time to relax. Thankfully the threat of rain seemed to have receded and I enjoyed a lovely relaxed few hours in the still really pleasant temperatures. After dinner I retreated to my tent and once again the weather turned and out of nowhere a strong wind arose and the rain arrived. Still once again I thanked my good fortune that I was warm and dry and I just hoped that it would have cleared up by the following morning.

Wednesday Dec 7th,

Beautiful dawn.

Serra del Roc Negre

Feeling like -20 at 9000ft.
Looking south to the mountains of Catalonia
Highest point 2714mtrs.
I awoke to what can only be described as the perfect morning. No wind and clear skies with the start of the most spectacular dawn in the east greeted me when I emerged from the tent. There was a good coating of frost on the canvas which was a reminder that I was at over 5000ft. Today I was leaving the tent here as I was returning this way again so I would have a lovely light bag. I breakfasted and got packed and was leaving at 07.45am. The route went up to Col de la Cirere 1731mtrs before turning west southwest to Puig de pel de Ce at 2105mtrs. Here at last I had my first steps in snow and I was delighted to discover that it was rock hard Neve. At 2266mtrs I donned crampons and for the rest of the climb I was in a snowy wonderland. As I gained height the wind strengthened so that by the time I crested Pic Gallinasse 2461mtrs it was very strong indeed and at times walking was difficult. The views were wonderful however and more than made up for any discomfort caused by the wind. I was glad that I brought my cycling goggles as these kept the biting cold wind from my eyes.

Happy Chappie

Vultures glide away
It felt wonderful to have what was now an almost empty bag on my back. I won't say that I flew along but I was able to travel at a more normal pace. I was glad that the terrain was easy as the wind would have made traversing narrow ground dangerous to say the least. Indeed when I arrived at the last couple of hundred meters from the highest point I turned around for this very reason. I didn't mind as this was all about having fun, so I returned the way I had come  and just enjoyed the day. Before too long I was back below the snowline again and I repacked the spiky stuff and had a bite to eat. As I descended I looked to my right and to my delight saw nine vultures glide from just a hundred meters away towards and beyond a ridge. This just about capped a wonderful outing and I was thrilled as I returned to the tent. I returned to the campsite and here out of any wind it felt positively balmy and as it was only just gone 2pm I chilled out and relaxed for an hour. I packed up again and headed down. I had intended to camp at the ruins I had passed the previous day but I failed to fill up the water bottles in time and had to continue on down to Col de la Redoute. All through my trip I was delighted to hear the gentle toohooting of Owls as they called and claimed their territory. The sound is surprisingly loud when one picks a small tree that is litterally above the tent. So I found myself awake and listening to the calls at 2.30am. Still I wouldn't swap the experience for anything.

Thursday Dec 8th,

A lovely leisurely start to yet another lovely day saw me finish the last of the food and gas before I packed up mand made my leisurely way back to the valley floor. A nice lunch and a busride later saw me in Perpignan. I passed the afternoon by walking miles and miles around this charming town that bustled with Christmas markets and quaint narrow shopping streets. I had decided to take an evening train to Barcelona and so found myself in the impressive TGV for a short hop to Figueres and from there to Barcelona. I chose to stay in the airport as I wasn't there until gone 11.30pm and trying to find somewhere to stay at that time would have been more hastle than it was worth. By the evening my left heel was quite sore and when I was finally settled in the terminal I took off my boots and socks and was greeted by the biggest blister I had ever seen on my left foot. It stretched from right under the heel up to the back and when I pierced it with a toothpick it sprayed water over the black tiled floor. Thankfully there was no one else near and I was able to tidy up the floor and myself without undue disgust to others. So I settled down for my morning flight well happy with my little adventure and feeling reinvigourated after a week of excercise and great weather. I will be back.