Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Snow In The Mountains

The mountains are calling, even after my dose in Switzerland.

The 'cremallera' to Nuria.
The hike to Nuria.
My 2 week trip to Switzerland is one I will remember forever. I've said it before, but I'll say it again - I love small European countries, and ones with mountains are even more special (yes Andorra, I miss you too!). As much as I love travelling and going away, the feeling of coming home (and being able to wash clothes!) is also a wonderful feeling. I returned with a few days to adjust from holiday mode, complete freedom as far as waking up, going to sleep and how to fill your time, to normal life mode - the mundane but necessary part of life. I can't complaint though, I have a decent job and live in a great country. It wasn't long though that I needed a dose of the mountains, the fresh air and open country, hiking books and climbing gear. I live in Sabadell, a city of around 300,000 people just outside Barcelona, and it is fairly close to everything. From my bedroom window I can see the hills of Barcelona, with Tibidabo and the huge Montjuïc Communications Tower  sitting right on top, and on the other side of the building (hidden from me, but I know it's there) is La Mola and Monstserrat. I've hiked all of these mountains, and even climbed on Montserrat, but I've never done any of these in Winter. Another thing I'd never done was hike to the Nuria Valley and really explore the area around there - so that was first on the list!

The beautiful Nuria Valley.

The Nuria Valley and the hotel.

Misty mountains.
El Cami dels Enginyers.
Starting from Queralbs, a wealthy and quite beautiful little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, we set off on the 2 hour walk to the ski resort of Valle de Núria. Most people take the train, and I've done that before, but this time I would be enjoying the view from the trail rather than the window. As my hiking buddy and I reached the top, a small hill that serves as a viewpoint for Núria, it had just started to rain - but that didn't spoil the view one bit! From our lookout, the ski resort and hotel sits in the middle of a valley, mountains reaching up around the 3 sides, valleys running through the gaps, and a large lake and dam right in front. Picturesque and so beautiful - in rain, fog, sunshine or even snow! The valley is 2000m above sea level and there is no road access at all - you can only reach it by walking (there is a trail from to/from France as well), the train or by helicopter - it would be amazing to fly and land here by air, but the last thing you want is to leave in the helicopter, as only people who have fallen in the mountains usually leave that way. The main building is the hotel, but there is also a church which holds the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Núria. Legend has it that if you put your head in the hole of the wooden box just inside the doors of the church, kind of like a confessional box with a cushion for your knees but it completely covers your head, pull the chain and ring the bell above your head, you'll be blessed with lots of children. Núria is also very important for the Catalans, not sacred like Montserrat, but in 1931 the drafting of the first Catalan Statute of Autonomy took place here, right in the church.

Happy Birthday Carles!

El Refugi Coma de Vaca.
A curious Chamois.
Hiking to Coma de Vaca.
A few more hours hiking was ahead of us though, but we stopped in the hotel for a quick coffee and snack with two other friends who'd spent the night here as part of a birthday surprise - happy birthday Carles! We had surprised him by hiking up and meeting up, before continuing on to a mountain refuge for the night. The refuge, Refugi Coma de Vaca, is about 4 more hours away, and close to the 'Cami dels Enginyers,' a concrete walkway that follows the curves of the mountains along the GR-11, and was built by engineers when they were working on a hydro electric project here. We climbed to the top, following the dirt path (as the cami is closed), and were rewarding with spectacular weather - fast moving clouds, offering sharp rays of sunlight and hints of blue sky, before covering the peaks again and moving on. We were also very lucky to see a herd of Chamois - some were very casual and continued to do their thing, while others couldn't help but stare at us in unashamed curiosity. We did the same. We reached the mountain refuge, our accommodation for the night, tired and hungry, but very happy. We celebrated by drinking some wine and cava that I'd brought up in my backpack and had a great meal with the rest of the people sleeping there for the night on a large wooden table and bench seats. The refuge holds around 40 people, and while not full, it is always strange sleeping near so many people - the beds are all in a row too so you feel the one of the seven dwarfs! We set off early as we had a long hike back to the car. It was cold and windy, but crisp, clean and beautiful - there's nothing like the mountains, in any weather!

Mountains and sea - the Mediterranean from Matagalls.

The Med on one side, the Pyrenees on the other.

A church cat.
Snow in B&W.
Although the winter had been mild so far, there was snow to be had in the higher parts of the mountains. Most people wouldn't relate Spain and snow (much like Australia, but you can ski there too!), as it's always shown to be hot and dry, busy cities with people eating and drinking, but there is snow and it's very accessible too! The Montseny mountain, just outside of Barcelona, is one of my favourite places in Catalonia. When I lived in Cardedeu I had a wonderful view of the mountain from my living room window - I used to get excited when it was cold and rained at night, looking forward to seeing the fresh snow on it's peaks. I've hiked up Montseny a dozen times or more - there are so many paths and ways to go, the most popular probably being the Turó del Home, an easy walk up to the radio tower at 1,700m. This time, with a bit of snow too, I decided to head around the other side of this mountain and climb Matagalls. The three of us headed up, no snow shoes (easy is boring!), starting from the Collformic carpark, up to the top  of Cim Matagalls at 1,697. Although there was a lot of snow, we didn't struggle too much, and really enjoyed the walk - so did all the dogs along the trail, running and diving into the snow, eating it and just being dogs. It was busy this day and many people had snow shoes or skies, which they hiked up with on their backs and then strapped them on at the top and skied back to their car - awesome!

Half-way up Matagalls - snack time.

The easy way down.

The cross at the top of Matagalls.
I can't remember how long it took us to reach the top, but it wasn't that hard, a few knee deep falls and stumbles, but the 'landing' was always soft - the biggest worry would be wet feet! Although the weather wasn't clear, it was just enough to see the sun reflecting off the bright sea, the clouds moving quickly overhead to give us a quick peek, also adding real atmosphere. The cross at the top, I recently only found out, is to comemorate the deaths of 110 soldiers who died in the area, and are actually buried near the carpark, during the Third Carlist War (1872-76). I don't know all the details of this war, and it's hard to find much information on the web that isn't in Catalan or badly translated (even then there's not much!), but these men had fled Vic, a Catalan city in the North, hoping to make it to St Celoni (a town nearby Montseny), but were caught and shot. Forty years later, in 1912, a cross was erected to remember those who had fought and fallen.

Hiking Matagalls.

The weather had it's moments - the fog eventually came in, but it was still great.

A bit tacky but a lot of fun!
Blue, white and green - colours of the mountains.
Along the way we stopped for a quick snack of juice, a sandwich and some chocolate, and enjoyed a view of the Mediterranean sea. It's times like this when I am truly happy - problems and worried disappear, nothing is weighing on your mind anymore, everything is simply at peace. I completely understand the obsession some people have with mountains - be it hermits, trail runners or climbers. There is nothing like it in the World - these huge, rocky peaks are there, waiting to be climbed, hiked and enjoyed - Nature's Churches. Some people do take it too far, hike where they shouldn't or aren't up to the difficulty of the climb, bad weather and under preparedness, or some people are just nuts like Killian Jornet. Born in Sabadell, Catlonia (yes, where I live!), he was basically brought up on the mountains, and now has achieved so many mountain feats including the fastest known time for the ascent and descent of The Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Denali. He's only 29. When I'm up a mountain, I feel younger, happier and more level - you wither get this or you don't - some people don't and will never understand, for others, there is no need to explain. At the top we enjoyed the view and the achievement, took and a few photos, got some taken of us and took some for others. Sometimes it's to be alone at the top, but sometimes it's far better to share with good friends and even with complete strangers who are sharing the same elation as you. We came down much faster - a combination of running, sliding and tumbling head over heads in the snow. Sometimes you just have to be a kid and laugh so hard your jaw hurts and tears stream down your face!

Rasos de Peguera.

The 'city-slickers' getting their dose of the country life.
Super models taking a walk.
The trail - snow and sun!

As I mentioned before, sometimes mountains are best shared with good friends. I'd climbed Nuria with 3 great friends, real adventurous people who I go climbing and hiking with all the time. There were 3 of us in Matagalls and the next trip, to Rasos de Peguera, there would be 6 of us in total! The drive to Berga up the C-17 is a nice one, past lovely towns like L'ametlla del Valles and La Garriga, following the road where there are of 'colonias' hugging the river, a sign of a now extinct textile industry. These colonias are the housing built by the factory owner for their workers, which seems like a nice thing to do for a boss or company, but really these places are in the middle of nowhere so there was no option - you would have to buy everything from the company, food, clothing and household goods, and you wouldn't get paid that much to begin with - that and it would be hard to get a day off too. Basically slave labour. Nowadays, primary school kids visit summer camps and call them 'colonias,' probably not knowing what they used to be.

The mining village of Peguera.

Rasos de Peguera.
The walk to the restaurant and beer o'clock.
One of the ruined houses.
Rasos de Peguera is a ski resort near the town of Berga, not far from the Pyrenees. Interestingly, this was the first place you could ski in Catalonia, and in 2008 they celebrated the centenary of it being open. We weren't skiing however, much preferring a hike instead. We walked over and past the ski slopes, past the 'pisa-pins,' 'domingeros' and 'weekend warriors,' all out to get some snow, fresh air (with a cigarette) and of course photos of them doing it - preferably selfies. Everyone likes to get away for a day or a weekend, but these people can't drive in the country, have no idea about mountains, and really just want their Facebook life to look good as they're in the snow and countryside, but not doing anything except drinking, smoking a taking mobile selfies, which they do in the city too. We passed them and the noise dropped off and the relaxation set in. Aaaahhh. We followed a trail through the mountains, enjoying the views and spectacular weather, walking to the abandoned village of Peguera. This is where the valley got it's name, and once it used to be an important mining town, coal being the resource, and people were pulling the black stuff out of these hills until the closure of the mine in 1928. Today, there isn't much left - a few ruined buildings, walls leaning over and crumbling and roofs that have fallen in. The village is still quite pretty, but it would be a little spooky at night - you can stay here, and people do, inside a few of the abandoned houses, which I'm not sure I would do as we checked on out and the second floor made noises as we walked on it. Yup, leave quickly but carefully!

Renovator's delight!

The city of Berga

A great day with great friends.
After the hike, we found a cute little restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking Berga where we tucked into bravas, a refreshing drink (or three) and galtas (pork cheeks). Our legs were feeling tired but good, the sun was shining, cold beer was at hand, and I was with good friends - this is life. Not every day can be great or special, no matter what the 'positivity gurus' tell you, but there's nothing wrong with that! If every day was 'amazing' or worthy of an Instagram photo, a Facebook post, then what would you look forward to? What would you have to compare it too? Too many people think that every day should be 'carpa diem' - getting on your table and yelling to the World and being awesome all the time. I'm sorry, but screw that, some days you need to do your washing, go to work and put up with shit, or just chill in your bed or on your sofa and do nothing - those moments can be 'awesome' too. On the other hand, don't just work away your life just for the weekend escape. Balance is important. Find your balance and be your own 'happy,' not someone else's.

Find your own happiness.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...