Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Cathar Way

The Cathar Way wends its way from Foix, across beautiful countryside taking in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Aude department before dropping down to the Mediterranean Coast and finishing in Port-la-Nouvelle - a total of 250kms! Today, in beautiful, warm, spring-like sunshine, Andy, Kev and I scratched the mere surface of the route. It started with a steep ascent from Foix up to the beautiful Pech de Foix with its fantastic views down the Ariege Valley towards Mont Fourcat .... ...and then along good paths and forest tracks to the Col de Touron and back. The run totalled 15kms and included 680m of ascent. It was wet with melting snow in several spaces and still icy and snowy on sheltered northern sections but nevertheless, some sustained running on undulating terrain was possible. I felt strong but towards the end, it became clear that more stretching and releasing of tight muscles is required! At some point in the near future, it would be good to extend the run and finish down at Roquefixade, which would involve 1100m of ascent over 16km and then to eventually be able to do the return loop for a total of 32kms and 2200m of ascent. Good training if I am to realise my ambition of completing the Mont Calm marathon at the end of August which covers 46kms and 2900m of ascent! Well, I can dream!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Snow

As predicted, following Saturday's violent storm, yesterday dawned calm and clear and we saw the return of blue skies. We took advantage of the break in the weather to fell and log a couple of dead trees in order to replenish our wood stores. It was a good move, as by early evening the clouds were building with more poor weather on the way. We waited in anticipation for the snow which had been forecast and sure enough, by the time we went to bed, flakes were falling. This morning we had a covering of up to 6" in places. Eventually the skies started to clear and the snowy vista revealed itselfHowever, temperatures have risen this afternoon, more clouds have moved in, it is raining and the snow has turned to a wholly unpleasant wet slushy mush. Let's see if the further snow that is forecast for overnight actually materialises?

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Update

This from the BBC. "Torrential rains and winds of up to 172km/h (107mph) are being reported. At least one million homes in France are without electricity, road and rail links are blocked and airports closed...... the strongest winds and heaviest rain has been concentrated around south-west France. " The storm is being described as "the most damaging since the devastating storm of December 1999 that killed 88 people." We have got off lightly, it would appear.

Chaos

Severe gale bordering on storm force winds have been buffeting us all morning. The electricity has been on and off throughout the day. Anything not battened down has been whisked away. The pine tree to the front of the house has put up a good fight but in the end it's roots, which are embedded in the terrasse, have been severely weakened and the structure of the terrasse is being pulled apart by the movement of the tree. It became clear that it would be unable to resist much more of the wind's sustained attack and there was a very real risk of it being uprooted and possibly falling on the house should there be a change in the wind direction. It had to go.

video

The wind is due to lose much of its strength this evening and overnight tonight. However, it will have left a great deal of damage and destruction in its wake. Here's looking forward to calmer weather shortly.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Taking the rough with the smooth

We've been spoilt with fantastic weather recently. But no more! A period of poor but mild weather with high winds and rain has moved in this morning. I have battened down the hatches, fixed down the tarps on the wood piles, transferred my planters to a sheltered spot and brought in anything that could be picked up and whisked away by the expected 100-130kph gusts. Fortunately, there are not any trees in proximity to the house which could be brought down, so we will just sit it out and wait for calmer conditions to return early next week. A good dump of snow is expected on Monday - excellent!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Soulcem

It's been 3 or maybe 4 years since I last held ice axes and wore technical crampons on B3 boots. When it comes to ice climbing, I would be easy for me to say that I have all the gear but no idea, but that may be a bit harsh. I have dabbled in the past but don't feel like I have really experienced proper ice climbing. The general condition of the cascade water ice down here at the moment is excellent with plenty of big fat ice developing, but I felt I needed a refresher before I could commit to any ice-climbing outings. So today I have been on a beginners ice climbing course run by the Guides d'Ariege which took place up at the Barrage de Soulcem, a breathtakingly beautiful spotThere were 7 of us on the course including my mate and dog-sitter Donna. The cascades were in excellent nick, with some very hard ice in parts which made first time axe placements difficult initially. Our 'guide' Fred, put top ropes on the main 'beginners' cascade. I found my movements on the first couple of routes unnatural and awkward and my forearms were burning - a sure sign of poor technique! But eventually, something clicked and my movements and axe placements became more flowing and natural. Some fantastic routes followed. I was loving it.
Fred also put a top rope on a mixed route which he then proceeded to demonstrate, but unfortunately it was way beyond the capabilities of us mere mortals!
In the course of the afternoon, the 06.00 rise this morning and the physical exertion started to take their toll and tiredness started to hit me. The sun was by now hitting the cascade and the ice was changing in structure. I had had my fill and was pleased with how I had climbed, particularly the last climb which had included a short steep section which I was able to find my way up. It had been a cracking (but long!) day out which has given me the taste and confidence for more.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Mont Fourcat

Ruth is a talented climber and used to coach my old climbing buddy for a while when she lived in Sheffield (my old home town). So when I found out recently that she, her husband and 2 young children had moved down to Foix last year, I was keen to make contact. We finally met up today for a snowshoe outing up to Mont Fourcat (2001m) which is the main peak overlooking Tarascon. The weather was perfect, clear blue skies, calm and a few degrees milder than over recent days.

The snowshoes stayed on the pack for the first couple of kilometers as we wound our way through pretty woodland where the snow was thin and patchy in parts. But they soon became necessary as we left the trees behind us and started to make our ascent up towards the Pic de Lauzate. We could see our target, Mont Fourcat, in the far distanceThe snow was compacted where other showshoers, skiers and a snowboarder had preceded us, but the slopes were generally wide and sweeping with snow-crusted powder.... perfect for a ski tour! We made it up to the summit cairn within 2 hr 30 mins and the view was truly breathtaking with Pic de Barthélemy dominating the view down towards the Mont d'Olmes ski station.
Otherwise, the vista was an unbroken scene of snowy mountains .... beautifulAfter a much needed bite to eat, Ruth obligingly posed for the obligatory summit photo...
...before we started our descent. The cornices were impressive on the north eastern edges of the ridge...
....and the view down towards Foix was a perfect contrast between our snowy environment and the brown shades of the flatlandsThe lengthening shadows provided us with some entertainment as we made our way downAfter just under 5 hours we were back at the car. It had been a cracking day out and we have promised ourselves that it won't be too long before we repeat the exercise elsewhere!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Ascou

Pat and Kev have not been to the Ascou Pailheres ski resort before. It had been the starting point for our ski tour up towards Pic de Tarbesou a week ago and I was keen to revisit the resort and have a play on what seemed to be some rather interesting and steep runs. However, we could probably have chosen a better day on which to visit. A couple of the lifts were not operating today which ruled out three of the pisted runs that I was keen to play on. However, this was reflected in the price and there were still some good runs to go at and, after all, the resort is in a spectacular and beautiful setting and the weather was perfect.
The lower runs were very icy and hence challenging, so I was quite pleased not to end up in a crumpled heap in the course of the afternoon, although I did have a couple of close calls! The top runs were however an absolute pleasure and gave me the opportunity to really work on my turns and technique. By the end of the afternoon, Pat commented on how much 'neater' and 'tidier' I was skiing which gave me a real boost :-) So another successful outing!

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Local exploration

There are several waymarked walking and VTT routes in the Massat area, many of which we have covered but many of which remain unexplored. With fine weather today, I reckoned it was about time we had a look at no. 14 "Le Boucle de Ouert" which would take us up from Biert to the ridge which dominates the skyline that we can see behind Pissou. The leaflet suggested a duration of around 3h45 and an ascent of 610m. We were intending to run as much as possible, but with some snow still on the ground and sodden, muddy ground elsewhere, it was never going to be super quick. It took us 1 hr 10 to reach the high point of the Pic de Ouert which was 5.5 kms into the walk/run. From there, we had an interesting descent which alternated between the very steep old 'chemin creux' paths (treacherous, with snow covering rotting leaves and not inconsiderable quantities of mud!), short sections of tarmaced roads and then pleasant running on winding woodland footpaths which seemed to go on forever. In just over 2 1/2 hrs we were back at the car having covered just over 13kms and 670m of ascent according to the altimeter. It was a pleasant circuit which I am looking forward to revisiting in the summer when the terrain is more runnable.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Skiing - again!

We have had a couple of inches of fresh powder in the last 48 hours and temperatures have plummeted. The grey clouds gradually lifted this morning to reveal the most wonderful winter blue. There was really no hesitation - the skis were calling! So we headed to Guzet this afternoon and briefly met up with Lee and Ian. Whilst they were challenging themselves on offpiste black stuff, we flexed our muscles on the pisted reds which I still found challenging in parts. But I felt wonderfully in control and able to handle whatever the pistes had to offer. Even my pole plants and turns were taking on new dimensions by the time we called it a day. It is a lovely feeling, to be able to relax and really enjoy the skiing!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Hungry birds

With the fresh covering of snow, we have seen a marked increase in the great tits interest in the net of fat and seeds that we put up for them recently.The cold weather is set to continue with possibly more snow towards the weekend.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

More snow

We have had more snow today - probably a couple of inches have fallen here at 826m. The ski stations will be relieved, as they were starting to wear a bit thin at lower levels due to the heavy Christmas and New Year traffic that they have experienced. It is set to be very cold overnight (-8 deg C is forecast) and over the coming few days, which also bodes well for some ice climbing towards the weekend. It will be the first time in 3 or is it 4 years that I will have donned ice climbing gear which is both quite an exciting but also quite a daunting proposition. Otherwise, a trip to Guzet is on the agenda. So much to do, so little time!

Monday, 5 January 2009

Mont d'Olmes

We had a fantastic afternoon skiing with P&K under more sunny blue skies at the Mont d'Olmes ski resort today, just over an hour from Pissou. It may be small, but it is perfectly formed and wonderfully quiet now that the holiday period is over. The snow was hard and icy and some of the runs were steep and featured which made for an interesting time. But I got my edges in and felt that I skiied really well, which has boosted my confidence enormously. The only thing that spoilt the afternoon was my altercation with the button lifts, which resulted in my being ejected into a flailing heap in a rather unlady-like manner on two occasions. Oh well, at least there were few people in the vicinity to laugh at me and at least I didn't fall over whilst actually skiing!

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Skinning and skiing

The weather is glorious at the moment - clear blue skies and low temperatures. The avalanche warning has stabilised at cat 2 at around 2000m, so we headed down towards Ax-les-Thermes with the intention of bagging Pic de Tarbesou 2364m on a ski tour. The starting point is the small Ascou Pailhères ski station which is in a fantastically wild situation in the hills to the NE of Ax. It was decidedly chilly (-5 deg C) when we set off from the car park which was in the shade, but we soon found ourselves on sun-bathed terrain where it must have been in the 20s. The initial ascent was parallel to or on the pisted slopes which made the going straightforward. We could see our target ahead with its snowy blanket glistening in the winter sun...
We eventually reached a point at which we had to leave the pistes behind to continue the ascent. The terrain changed noticeably with patchy ice coating the windblown snow and heather. The ski crampons were deployed and we headed up towards the Crete de Mounegou. The wind-chill was significant and we were still some 700m distance/200m ascent from the Pic. I was becoming concerned at the prospect of descending in the icey conditions. It didn't help that I had left the walking crampons that would attach to my ski boots in the car, so removing the skis and progressing on foot had to be ruled out. We didn't have any alternative but to head back down. The initial descent involved tackling Sastrugi, which was not exactly pleasurable. But then we veered off to the East and flew down some fantastic sun-crusted off-piste slopes to the Pla de Mounégou before heading back to join a blue run which took us on a gentle descent back to the car park. It was over all too soon. One thing is for sure... I need much more off-piste practice in icey conditions in order to build up my confidence for skiing in conditions such as today's.