"Pyrenees"

Haute Route Pyrenees - the journey one year on

Just over a year ago, I finished walking 900km coast to coast across the Pyrenees from Atlantic to Mediterranean.  It was never just a walk, and it probably never is.  It turned out to be a life changing trip for me personally in ways I never foresaw.  But this post isn't about me.





Many of the readers here donated to the two charities I chose to walk for.  To date, you helped raise £3,527 (includes the gift aid) - for conservation and education.  I had no idea we could raise this much together just by doing a long walk, I am really grateful to you all.  The money was split between the John Muir Trust, and Soundmix.  I wanted to update you with how your donation had been spent and to say a massive thank you again for your support.

Soundmix is an education charity working with young refugee people without family support in the UK.  In the last year the charity began the process of moving venues from 2 community centres in which the project was based, to work with schools in the south London area where many of the young people live.  This enabled improved access to the music and arts services Soundmix provides.

An initial 6 week pilot project at one school led to regular classes in 2 neighbouring schools, a further 4 week project based at the Refugee Council, and now a new class on Saturdays working with Compass, a community group in the Croydon area.  There was a successful handover of leadership from the founding director to a new and very capable manager, with Trustees taking on more of a directorial role.  The two music staff are now aided by two previous students who volunteer as mentors, providing encouragement to the students and gaining valuable musical and tutoring skills themselves.

Soundmix is a small affair, and retention ranges from 37% to 88% dependent on the school/community centre client group, total numbers stand at 91 for the year, a mix of young people from (in order) Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Eritrea, amongst many other nationalities.  The age range is now lower than before, which reflects the new schools work, 68% being under 18 years old.  Given the client group, and the demands that resettling makes on their lives, these are excellent results.

The diverse mix of cultures, languages and musical influences continues as a healthy environment for the young people to study keyboards, guitars, vocals and composition, but also to gain confidence and other social skills useful to them in the wider world.  The group has performed live at a end of term concert with great success, but the long term improvements in well being, confidence and ability to interact are even greater.  This has a direct and proven impact on school attendance and ability to self sustain long term by engagement in employment, housing and further/higher education opportunities.

The John Muir Trust is a conservation organisation that aims to conserve, campaign and inspire.  They directly protect 24,000 hectares of wild land and contribute to community land partnerships across many thousands more.  They run an award scheme to encourage people of all ages to engage with and care for the natural environment.  They also campaign for better protection for wild and remote places, to protect habitat and wildlife against inappropriate development.

In the last year, the organisation continued to gain ground in its wild land campaign, contributing to Scottish National Heritage’s wild land mapping, an essential tool for protecting sensitive habitats against accelerating wild land industrialisation and planning deregulation.  There have been several representations to Scottish parliament, 460 delegates engaged at party conferences, 5 objections made to development threats to wild land, and the employment of a new advocacy officer based in London to bring the case to Westminster.

The education program remains a hugely energetic and vital part of the organisation, empowering many to experience nature sometimes for the first time.  Last year the Award worked with well over 23,000 participants, 27% from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  An audit of Award conservation work showed a staggering volume of voluntary engagement undertaken by participants, totalling close to £1million if valued monetarily - an area the size of 100 football pitches cleared of invasive species, over 82,000 bin bags of litter cleared, the list goes on...  The Award is a key 'in' to conservation and environmental concerns for the urban majority across the country and often the first point of contact and information for children and adults about these issues.

Work on the Trust properties continues apace, with productive partnership agreements made with Harris and Rannoch estates, a Wild Land Management Standard introduced across all the land in their care, (with an accompanying website launched in order to share information with other land managers), and a growing depth to the scientific monitoring of biodiversity across all the properties.  20km of path were maintained by staff and volunteers, with an increased level of coordination provided by a new paths officer, working Trust-wide to better balance access and conservation in this way.  On Knoydart, where volunteering activity has had the longest time to have an impact, exclosure fences were removed for the first time, allowing deer back into their natural habitat for the first time in years.  The native woodland is blossoming there.
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I hope this update has been useful and not too long.  I think both of these charities are quite different in terms of scale, but not in terms of outlook.  What inspired my support (and maybe yours?) at the time of the walk is still true - both organisations are focused on refuge, and engagement through inspiration – providing a practical platform for change, 'digging where you stand'.

Funding is an ongoing challenge for both these charities. You can still donate if you feel moved to do so - by clicking HERE  In return you get detailed route info, screensavers, a gear report, and nearly 5 hours of audio trip report.  Also a copy of the video below.  Here are what one or two backpackers had to say about the Trip Report they received for their donation:

''David’s is one of several blogs that I referred to in preparing my own trek along the Pyrenees.  His is the best. It is different in that it is only available if you make at least a £10 donation to his charity page. The £10 donated to charity will help save walkers other, more rash expenditure.  I carried the notes on Joosten with me on my journey and found them very useful. Referring to them saved me from getting lost a number of times. David provides much additional information about where a short journey off route can save you days of carrying additional food and water.  The pictures form a slide show which is creatively  spliced with short video. The slideshow is inspirational and at times amusing. It records not just David’s journey but also the changing landscape of the Pyrenees''  Roger O Doherty 

''I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audio reports; they captured a sense of the journey and provided some interesting insights into the highs and lows of the HRP.  Footsteps crunching up gravelly slopes, the clanking of cowbells, or the rumble of distant thunder were great audio markers for the passing of time and the occasional interview with someone else broke up the fascinating narrative nicely... I also enjoyed the slideshow, really appreciating the opportunity to see more of David’s excellent photography, and getting a better visual sense of the changing scenery and landscape... I found the kit list a useful reference. I’m sure that, though specific items may become outdated, the ideas and approach will remain valid.Nick Bramhall

"David’s pack of podcasts, slideshow and notes gave me an enjoyable way to gain some vicarious pleasure from a wonderful walk that I’ll probably never be able to do.  Some of the pictures were jaw dropping. For anyone wanting to attempt the route, David has provided some useful information with maps used, amendment notes to the guidebook he used and a kit list with comments. All in all, I’m happy to have contributed to some good causes and received a good report of his trip." Robin Evans
As a reward for reading this far (!) and to celebrate the route which many more people will have experienced for their first time this year, here's a slideshow of the trip.  Vive le HRP...

'HaRPin' On' - Trip Report Bundles Now Available




The Trip Report is finally finished.  Its good to work on a labour of love but its good to finish too.  If you donated, please make sure you email me at davepowered AT gmail DOT com if you want the words, pictures and sounds from the coast to coast Haute Route Pyrenees Trip in the summer.   

I have already sent the first batch of download links, so keep an eye out for an email, and don't forget to check your 'spam' box if you've not had an email from me before, just in case it ends up there.  There are 3 links, all fairly large downloads for which a broadband connection is highly recommended.  I'd appreciate if you'd  keep these links secure and don't share them - please encourage people to give instead. 

Thanks for the support, those who gave it - you know who you are.  Many of you are part of the backpacking community, and its this kind of participation that makes a community real - we helped others and not just ourselves.  So, the downloads are a way of saying thanks, giving a little back to you in return.  I'd be really interested to know what you think about the bundle, whether you enjoy it and also what could be better, so please feedback via twitter or the comments box below. 

If you didn't yet donate (where have you been?!) but would like the info, then please go HERE and push the button. A minimum £10 gets you nearly 4 hours of live-as-it-happened mp3 trip report and field recordings, 12 large size screensavers, a 20 minute photo and video slideshow, a gear review of every single item I took tested over 64 consecutive days including some A-B comparisons, and some technical info on the route, including 10 pages of updates to the current English guidebook published by Cicerone. You can of course donate more, which will make me very happy, although you can rest assured I will not otherwise benefit - 100% of the money goes to 2 great causes.  Half the money to an educational charity and half to a conservation charity, so you can feel twice as nice about giving ;)

Remember, if I don't have your email and amount/date of donation, I can't send you the links...

Have a fantastic new year everybody. 

 


Haute Route Highlights

I met up with Andy Howell recently, who knows the Pyrenees well, and he asked - 'So, what were the highlights of the trip?'


It flawed me a little.  Partly because we were walking through the city and its been a few months and alot has happened in the meantime.  Trying to sum up is pretty impossible, because the whole is more than the sum, and all of it counts, even the parts that weren't so inspiring or comfortable, so its not really divisable.  And because what I now remember most clearly is a feeling of wholeness and yes you can laugh and please, be my guest - but that's what doing a long distance walk feels like.  Once your metabolism has changed and your in the zone hypnotised by the excercise everything is fluid movement, a blur.  Your purpose is to be there, full stop - 360 degrees of sensory equilibrium.  You are acutely aware of your mortality but glide through glorious country as if immortal.  You are in the landscape, not on it, not quite sure where it ends and you begin.  After a few weeks, it all gets a bit jedi knight, but without the self agrandising.  Na, that's for later, when you try to describe it.  But I did fall in love with the world again on that trip, shed my cynicism and left behind the hard shell.  I needed to lose some mental ballast, and ended up traveling light - became an optimist again, returned to myself.  It was some kind of alchemy, and I'd recommend it.

That said, I thought about it some more, and here are some of my own highlights.  It'll be different for you of course, and there's more out there than what's in here, but it might give you an idea of what to look forward to, if you do the walk.  The best camps are here, the other peaks are here:

The beautiful walk out from Burga.  I walked long into the evening after summiting the first 1000m+ top of the traverse in high temperatures.  As the day began to fizzle away and the shadows grew longer, I felt myself sink into the rhythm of the walk for the first time.  I knew I was in for the duration, I had arrived and was completely present in the moment.  The beech forest at this stage of the walk is unfathomably lovely.


The mighty Pic D'Orhy is the first 2000m+ summit on the walk, and is quite a challenge.  Its a 3 parter, all dry as a bone - the first a long and tiring walk in on a big bold hump strafed by crows, the second a pretty bracing arete with a scrambly drop at the end, and the third a high steep pull to the summit.  After that you drop off the peak to its right, then around to bounce down and along the ridge you can see on its left in the photo.  Its a good one to size up to and get under your belt early on, and its great fun when you do.  Not advised in bad weather, pretty exposed.

 
The Sierra de Anelara is the high limestone ridge around the Pic d'Anie.  Its just heaven here - meadows, butterflies, spikey crags, sinkholes, Isards, alpine nirvana.  Watch out, though, all that limestone means its beautiful, but deadly.  I will be back here...but with more water next time.  Or maybe in winter?

The view from most of the way up Pic d'Anie.  I already told you about this one.  It took us 14hrs there and back from Lescun, I nearly killed Mark doing it and he nearly killed me after for dragging him along.  Access is good and relatively straight forward, and the walk in is long and beautiful, though country lanes and paths in fields and cloud ringed fairie woodlands.  After the refuge and the tundra and the shepherds hut you climb high on a stream side and turn onto a broad buttress.  Crossing a sudden threshold from granite to limestone you finally see the Pic, pretty arrogant looking.  Then the ascent starts.  Definitely best done over 2 days.


We took a detour via the GR10 for a few days, just for variety.  Then we took a detour from our detour.  Rather than join the tourist throng at d'Ayous, we cut the back way via Co d'Aas de Bielle, wandering down through this misty iris covered paradise with an eagle for company.  We got a bit entranced and forgot the sore legs for a while.  We stopped for lunch at an ancient looking stone table by a mountain hut and later went for a swim in the dam.


The walk between Wallon and Refuge d'llheou was Mark's last full day and a walk of 7 swims.  We'd all had a tough stage and I was exhausted and missing my girlfriend, but this redeemed us all.  Mark jumped in every lake on the way and had a Roger Deakin moment in the reedbeds.  Tim and I took pictures and snoozed.  Things lightened up.  Then the vista as I turned the corner under Castet Abarca stopped me in my tracks, dead.  The clouds flew in and out fast over the Valle de Marcadau and we waited there for ages to watch, speechless, mesmerised.  If you need to go to Cauterets (and its far better than Gavarnie), go this way.  Its a high pass over to a knee busting valley that time forgot.  Magic.




The phenomenal Col de Mulets is at the head of the walk into Odessa.  Its a place of zen terrors and some folk get the wobbles here on the scree slopes.  The wind is ferocious.  I love it - when I laugh in the face of the universe's indifference here it laughs right back with me - we cackle together like lunatics.  From here you can take a day to walk down the Val de Ara into Spain.  It gets less exposed but still with big skies and serious mountains on all sides.  Superb.


At the other end of Odessa, the landscape up to the Breche is just a little bit out there.  Its as if someone shook a sheet out and froze it mid shake - immense ripples, giants fingerprints. This is the backside of Monte Perdido, (high above on the left out of frame, with refugio Goriz at its foot) something of a hallowed summit for many Spanish mountaineers.  Maybe next time.

There will be those who will regard the Breche de Roland as passe but on a cloudy wet day, with no-one else around, it was great.  Here be monsters!  This photo is from the day after, when you could see more. 



Taillon is also well worth a visit, since you're in the neighbourhood.  We had mixed conditions but the ridge ascent is right on the border and just fantastic - if the weather is good you can see for miles over both France and Spain, and right into the cirque de Gavarnie.  Don't rush through, stay a while and do a summit or two. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The Barroude lakes are something else.  The wall is just vast, it blots out most of the sky, and the lakes are still and quiet and seem to bear witness somehow.  Marmots nest on tiny peninsulas that jut out into the water, and you can walk through the cotton grass and the shallows and sit on a little mound with them.  The route over the pass from Heas is pretty great too, all slabby like Transformers on the top and loose scree as you descend. Beware the walk out from Barroude, to Parzan is a day in anyone's money, the descent to the lakes takes forever, and then there's motorway after that.

 The George Blanc.  Now there's a thing.  Next time.



This is looking back on the Col de George Blanc.  Safe to say this whole stretch blew me away.  The wind nearly blew Tanya away, literally - she took a small fall in that scree mess in the middle.  Its an incredible place, and the start of the really high stuff.  Alot of the 'highlights' of my trip are crammed into this small chunk of the walk - its where we were challenged and for that reason I remember it vividly.  Its also like nowhere else I've been, save perhaps Teide - a completely surreal and alien landscape.


This is the Col de inferior de Literole, the pass after Portillon and the highest of the trip.  The weather swelled in and out like a tide as we descended.  It's quite tall.  One or two went down without axe or crampons whilst others used rope and belayed as well as the winter kit.  We used axe and kahtoolas and were fine - it was good to get a little practice again after last years course.  The walk out from here was a taxing and disorientating granite wildnerness, snow and talus tumbling over miles down to the Valle de Remune.  Incredible.  Awe full.


I'd say the same about Aneto.  We didn't summit, though not for want of trying.  Weather was serious and we had to turn back or get zapped by the lightning storm on the summit.  It was still worth every step, and I will revisit this area.  There's enough here to keep you in mischief for a month or two.  Utterly spellbinding, this land of rock and ice.



The Mulleres pass is also pretty darn heavy duty.  The guidebook is seriously off the mark here, and it would be easy to get caught out, fatally - it wants to send you off the pink coloured col you can see to the left of the walkers, where rock is disintegrating almost by the second.  That is not advised.  The maps don't give much away either.  On the ascent the granite becomes enormous, rounded, glacial, as if a brontosaurus were buried.  It sort of feels like as if it might wake up and throw you off too - a little tenuous.  And that is precisely its charm.  It spooked Tanya a little, I enjoyed it, although she was better on the steep and quite technical scramble down from the Col than I was.  This picture is taken as we climbed up the back of Tuc de Mulleres, too far south, to the appropriately named Cap Deth (cough!) Horo de Mullures, attempting to find the Col.  I am looking back towards the weather on Aneto, which had continued the day after our attempt. 


The lakes on the HRP just along from the Port de Rius.  A fantastical watery labyrinth of rocky islands and rainbow trout coloured granite.  The weather was finally calming down and the sun did its thing on the tops all evening.  The photo of alpenglow at the head of this post was taken here as well.  It lasted precisely 45 seconds.  The walk out the following morning was another piece of magic, through the inlets and over the mounds, between the mists swirling over the tops and across the lakes.  A morphing wonderland.  I'd be happy to end my days in this place.  There's even a beach.


Looking back the way we'd come, from the summit of Tuc de Marimanha.  Its the start of the red and blue country - iron rock, azure crystaline views.  No path up here, and we missed the summit the first time ending up on a ridge to the left just too edgy for big bags, so went back down a few metres and tried again.  Thomas was fresh from the fleshpots of Barcelona, but held his own through the first few days of hurt.



After the tuc you follow quite a sketchy little ridge and drop down on Talus to this little beauty.  The dark patch at the back is where the alien octopus lives of course, it goes all the way down to Nemo's lair.  Humbling terrain. 



This is the Pic de Certescan.  It doesn't look like much in the photo but since you go past, it'd be rude not to climb it wouldn't it?  Someone randomly left a whole packet of chocolate biscuits at the col below, which I took as a good sign.  500gms of sticky, artery clogging palm oil and chocolate flavoured goodness - that's the good weight, not the bad kind.  I dumped the rucksack with Thomas and went up to a false summit, swung back left and nipped along the ridge to this.  All of France under cloud on one side, Spain swimming around in the haze on the other.  It feels pretty wild up there, not many visitors, none whilst I was there.  On the way back the weather swooped in and battered me with hail and sleet - I fairly ran down.  I had a laugh at my own expense, but Thomas was a bit worried and both of us were soaked to the skin. 


This is looking over to France, on the way to Pic d'Estats, the highest mountain in Catalonia, and possibly the highest thing I've done solo at a little over 3000ms.  It really is quite a special mountain and is clearly held in total reverence by all who climb it, judging by those I talked to on the way up, who all had a lovely twinkle in their eyes from summiting.  By this point I was really fit and hooned up this in 2.5hrs as everyone else was coming down.  I had the top to myself for half an hour at teatime.  I might write this up in its own post at some stage, there's something really lovely about this one, the fact that so many hold it in such high regard.  On the top there are tens if not hundreds of memorials to departed friends and relatives.  I felt quite honoured to be up there alone with all those memories, paying my respects.  You know you're alive on Pic d'Estats.



The lac de Negre, after the Port de Baiau.  The ascent of the port is fairly serious, so be en guard.  Scree and then some.  Keep your party close, but not too close, comprends?!  The views at the top are worth the work.  It also marks yet another watershed in terrain as well, where it really does become more Mediterranean.  Then down to a path alongside this cold dark lake in the shadow of Pic de Sanfonts.  I loved this valley, its plainly cut off from much human contact and as a consequence feels suitably untamed and brooding in atmosphere.  Thomas was convinced that there was black magic afoot in one of the stone circles, I thought it was just a well cleared tent pitch.  Maybe we're both right.


A valley after Llortes.  More insects than I've ever heard or seen in my life.  Its a takeover.


Don't let me hear you say, life's taking you nowhere.  Angel.  Sorry, where was I?  Oh yes.  Don't let anyone tell you its all over in the east.  Not true.  Lake to lake high above Hospitalet pres d'Andorre.  Natures bathtubs keeping us clean and cool after a serious cooking in the sun.  Some fantastic walking around the Pic de Rulhe


This is the end of the Noarre ridge, which in a way is the big surprise or secret of the last stage.  Its enormous, a good day long, two if you count the incredible plateau walk that comes after, and the rock formations are out of this world.  Seriously windy, it was a job to stay upright at times, but big horizons and superb views in all directions.  Bracing stuff.


A blissful walk in under Canigou, the last hurrah of the walk.  We went in too late, too high, but the golden light left me speechless.  We went quietly though forest paths, too late to be joined by many others, accompanied as always by the glassy tinkle of icy mountain streams.  It was good.

Just the tip of the iceberg really....there's still time to donate and find out more.  Push the button HERE, and leave a tenner for 2 charities.  After that, email me, and I'll send you the stuff listed HERE.  Its nearly ready, I promise ;)

Oh yeah, and happy holidays by the way.



How to Kill a Mountain


"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.''  Ed Abbey 

This is the second of 2 posts on environmental impacts seen in the mountains of the Pyrenees.  In the first post I looked at some of the most immediate and personal impacts that we make in the mountains.  We know that backpacking is a lower impact way of experiencing countryside, but as discussed before, we still leave a mark unless very careful.  In this post I'll try to consider some of the more structural impacts of tourism, development and increased access.  

Tourism & Access

Roads and Trailheads
A trailhead allows good access to places of 'natural beauty', or backcountry areas.  It is a road end, usually with turning circles, shops, toilet and refreshment facilities.  This is a trailhead near the highest mountain in the Pyrenees, Aneto.  There's a regular bus service in the summer every 10 minutes.


A conservation based argument for trailheads might run as follows - that they prevent further encroachment of roads into undeveloped areas with associated damage to habitat.  What are trailheads accessing?  In Odessa National Park, huge numbers of people are bused in and out for gentle strolls to the waterfalls and back on a highway of a path.  The paths are uniform, well maintained and wide, and walking off path is discouraged.  Whilst this might prevent further damage to local ecosystems, it does mean the experience is sanitised, medicated, cleaned up - as I wrote as the time, the idea of nature rather than nature itself.  Does this matter if nature is conserved?  Well, for starters, I'm not sure it is - buses, shops, toilets and ease of access mean more people, and more people lead to wider paths and a more frequent bus service with more roads...and so it goes on.  


Then again, a trailhead may prevent what we see below - the colossal carpark at Hospital de Benasque.  The Spanish seem to have a different idea of conservation to the French, one which prioritises access.  In this context, trailheads start to look positively rosy. 


The lakes in the Carlit region are another area easily accessed by road, and have become nature's interzone - overwalked, overfished, the wide paths constantly in need of maintenance due to erosion by massive footfall, spoilt by the spoilt.  This image shows the dam, hotels and trailhead for Carlit.



Taking about access is difficult.  The argument runs, that access allows remote communities to survive, and visitors to enjoy remote places.  A relative lack of access means a completely urbanised population cut off from nature and alienated from its animal self and means of future sustenance.

I'd go along with this, but I think its too simplistic.  My own view is that we're selling ourselves and the natural world short.  By road, its all very pretty but its kept at arms length.  Its too easy, too convenient.  Nature is neither, nature has teeth.  It may be an equally natural impulse for humans to subdue nature, to try and make it safer, but I don't want it sugarcoated.  Places with easy access by road and bus service, with viewpoints and little bridges to prevent wet feet, are the Walt Disney cartoons of the outdoors - perfectly acceptable but ultimately bland and tasteless.  They present us with a sanitised notion of nature and one that insulates us from a full (and sometimes uncomfortable) experience, in turn making further development, pollution and environmental degradation a certain reality.  We need the friction provided by difficult travel, in order to grow as travelers.

We also know that with transport infrastructure, supply feeds demand.  We know this because we have been finding it out all over Europe at least, since the invention of the car.  Build it, and we will come - its a monster that's never fed.  Even trailheads, seeking to control access, may end up compounding the issue by embedding a service which ends up feeding demand and stimulates growth in unsustainable tourism.  This happens not because people from remote villages need to eat and work, but because people from cities like to look at scenery and like to do so in 'style'.  In a tin box, with the windows up and the air con on.  Eye candy.
 
I don't know what the answer is, but I know it isn't unfettered access.  We can't keep building, or there won't be anything left to visit and get all misty eyed over.  Besides, the access 'rights' of human beings aren't the only thing at stake.

 

Ski Resorts  are big business and cause massive clearances, road building and widespread destruction of mountain habitat.  Its also the choice of holiday of a privileged few.  This photo shows what it does to upland areas in the eastern Pyrenees - mining for money.


I realise I'm probably in a minority here, but the effects are just massive.  I'm not talking about the noble art of telemark, or ski touring, self sufficient and low impact and highly skilled.  I'm talking about hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, shops and car parks on the sides and tops of mountains.   I'm also less concerned with 'visual impact' and more concerned with habitat.  There's no room for wildlife here, all of the top line predators - bears, wolves and lynx are extinct from the Pyrenees and there's little possibility of re-wilding because there are no corridors available - so much of the space is filled by resorts and associated infrastructure.  Nothing wrong with skiing, plenty wrong with resorts.  Here's a (hazy) shot of a development in Andorra - how much of the money made from these places even stays in the local economy?


I spoke with 2 French guys qualified to know about the development of skiing in the Pyrenees over the last 50 years.  One worked for CIRED and the other was a refuge guardian and ski patrol worker in the Valle d'Aspe.  Both were adamant that money was the driving force, and that much of the Pyrenees was impoverished as a result, both the people and the fauna.  France is often mocked for its protectionism, but both pointed to the area around Lescun as a good example of resilience in the face of development.  The Valle d'Aspe was almost the sole area along the range that refused the advances of ski resort development in the 60's, arguing that the local economy and therefore culture would be destroyed.  As a result its one of the few areas that still produces its own sheep's cheese (Brebis, food of kings) and still has native shepherds, and a strong, vital cultural history that now attracts tourists.  It was one of the areas trialled for the reintroduction of bears a few years ago.  Elsewhere, shepherds were bought out, heritage demolished and hotels erected.  Places like the Valle d'Aran lost it in the 60s...about which more below.



Vacation homes and other development
Much in evidence across the central Pyrenees, but especially in Andorra, which has fallen on hard times since losing it status as duty free capital of mainland Europe in the 90's.  High up on the tops, Andorra is wild camp heaven, but down in the valleys urban sprawl threatens in the form of second homes for Russian oligarchs and rich Spanish entrepreneurs.  In El Serrat, the highly surreal site of holiday homes at 1700ms surrounded by gardens of AstroTurf only confirmed to me that we are daily becoming more insulated from the realities of nature in all its glory:


AstroTurf.  Development and gentrification was also much in evidence around Salardu in the Valle d'Aran.  Where once this Valley contained its own multi dialect language and a rich culture, evidenced by many unique and ancient Romanesque churches, the opening of the Vielha tunnel put paid to its relative isolation and the developers moved in.  Now its full of second homes, golf courses and ski resorts.  The development continues to this day:


Here's a shot of the Hospital de Vielha which we passed a day or so earlier.  Important to note that these 'hospitals' were medieval places for tradespeople and pilgrims to rest, wayfarers inns, places of refuge.  Now this is just a motorway between France and Spain, the little refuge here closed for most of the year - People pass through, local economies die.  I guess roads aren't working out so well here, then.


Last, but definitely not least, worth of mention are the many border towns that I walked through.  Places like Parzan, Perthus, Hospitalet pres d'Andorre, and Col d'ibardin (shown below) are consumer vacuums or places of transportation only, where locals and tourists alike load up their cars on booze, fuel and perfume, taking advantage of the slightly cheaper sales tax on the Spanish side.  Sometimes, like the example below, these places are completely artificial and only exist as shopping centres, other times, the border/tax equation has ripped the heart out of a thriving community.  Once again, international politics and capital dictate, local culture and the environment pay the price.  Every time.



Signage and interpretation  is obviously essential, in case one forgets where one is:


But seriously, information is power and power is wielded over nature by information.  There's a fierce debate over interpretation in art galleries and museums as it can dictate one's level of engagement or understanding.  Signage outdoors could be considered as equally controversial, as illustrated by the recent debate over the No.4 gully marker on Ben Nevis.  Signs confer ownership and denote importance as well as inform (or not).  I'm glad to see that others found the sign above as absurd as we did, judging by the number of stones thrown at it. 

The French and Spanish approaches are very different.  Below, the Spanish interpretation boards around Parzan, an ancient mining area still being dug up for its extensive water resource:


Large and obtrusive signs describe the human influence in this part of the world - the mining history, the economics, and so on.  Once again, the mountains are illustrated only in as much as they have instrumental value, their use for human exploitation.


Perhaps the most bizarre was a whole board describing where all the other boards were, which is what philosophers call a tautology and made me cross eyed.  There's an extract shown above.


In contrast, on the French side around Portillon, things are handled with a little more tact.  Single posts, which are weather worthy and double as trail markers in snow, which contain both local, natural and even mountaineering history.  Here, the mountains have both instrumental and inherent value - notice is given, quite literally, to ecology and natural systems as well as human, and the area has value in and of itself - its not to be exploited but it is to be enjoyed by all its inhabitants and visitors.

Am I being picky here?  Maybe, but I think these signs are important, because their purpose is education.  People look to them to instruct, inform and sometimes to navigate, so the emphasis they place and how they sit in the landscape is really significant. 

Lastly, then, to the types of development that are older than tourism.

Farming  has taken as severe a toll in these hills as in the uplands of the UK.  Land is cleared and soil is eroded.  Muir called sheep 'hooved locusts' and I'm inclined to agree.  Here you can see the damage caused to a hillside near Pic d'Orhy in the Basque, by overgrazing. 


There's nothing wrong with sheep or cattle farming, per se, but where, when and how much are the critical questions.  At the moment a balanced ecosystem is absent in many mountain regions of Europe - certainly there is a monoculture of grazing animals right across the high Pyrenees.  In parts of France where wolves have been re-introduced, shepherds are suffering heavy losses to their flocks due to over predation.  Wolves will choose easy pickings in an environment that is bereft of other prey due to a decline in habitat brought about through farming and over development over generations.  What else would you feed on, if the hill looked like the one above, cleared of all foliage that would provide home to other species and food sources?  I met a shepherd working in one of the affected areas who had returned home to the Eastern seaboard - the region had lost 300 sheep to wolves that summer, and he was crestfallen.

Supper's ready...



The same situation applies in the Pyrenees with regards to the much mooted Slovenian bear reintroduction program:  twice tried, and twice failed, most shot by farmers.  Its hard to blame the farmers in isolation, its their livelihood at stake, although they are compensated for flock kills by predators throughout France.  There are rumours of the odd bear still lurking in the foothills, but its probably wishful thinking.  These tangled webs show its difficult to parachute a rewilding program in, out of context of entire ecosystem management, and especially in areas of high population/industrial density, because its a direct challenge to our current dominance.  Hard to do at all, let alone do well and without conflicts of interest - where does one start?  I wonder if we shouldn't eat less lamb and beef and more rabbit and marmots, address the supply chain and deal with introduced species?  Incidentally, the symbol of the French National Park system is, um... a bear. 

Energy:  By far the chief resource extraction in any mountain range is energy, be it mining of rock, mineral, but mostly, water.  Its our most precious resource and mountains are full of it.  Mountains are the home of watersheds and controllers of climate on a global scale.  We extract water in vast quantities and the Pyrenees is no exception.  Below, the tapping of mountains at Refuge de la Soula:


and at Hospitalet pres d'Andorre, a transport hub and power station on the border.


In most cases, the water is used to generate electricity.  Cheap and clean?  Its cheaper and cleaner than coal, oil or nuclear, that much is certain.  But what happens to the water table, the river habitats and the plants and animals that depend on them?  In common with the UK, many of the lakes in the Pyrenees are also dammed.  We really have it covered, if you'll pardon the pun.  Dams mean drowned valleys and the destruction of more habitat.  Water exploitation is severe and has changed the landscape dramatically.

The story of any conservation movement is the story of resource exploitation and a story of attrition: enclosures, clearances, overgrazing, forced planting, hydro electricity, nuclear, wind.  Its easy to point the finger, and naive to suggest we can't do without at least some of this energy.  But the elephant in the room is how much we use, and the fact that there is almost no concession to the environmental damage caused by such intrusions.  An increasingly small monopoly of companies are quite literally making a killing.  Nature labours, and our markets and institutions exploit, and that means ultimately we are paying...why, so a shareholder can buy a second (or third, or fourth) home?  Possibly in Andorra, surrounded by astroturf, on concrete foundations laid over small, local and culturally diverse communities.  To what end, gluttony or happiness?


Whats left?  
I may have painted an overly bleak picture of the Pyrenees.  It is a stunningly beautiful place still, you should go there, travel lightly and quietly, by foot.  In many places there were examples of nature resisting our worst attempts at destruction.  A few days before Hospitalet pres d'Andorre and a depressing resupply, camped in the S bend of a motorway, I walked into a verdant valley full of crickets and butterflies, bees and wild flowers, so busy it was difficult not to tread on the insects filling the path.  They were everywhere.  It was a chattery, joyful paradise.  Just by the dam shown above, the railway line that helped engineers build the dam was slowly being reclaimed by the forest, the iron railings rusting and contorted, the sleepers rotting away to nothing.  High above Lescun, the Isards played off trail in large groups, highly adapted with powerful front legs, covering ground that would take a walker 15minutes in a matter of seconds.  I pushed on through alpine pasture without water and a little lost, my way carpeted in wild flowers.  There is stone that imitates wood when wet and flowers that grow on stone without soil.  There is talus, rubble the size of buses and cars that stretches out for half a days walk, reminders of an endlessly changing geology.  Bullet hard granite smoothed by glaciation over unimaginable timescales, surreal limestone dreamworlds, milky white quartzite crests and waves, the solid in motion, frozen, incomprehensible and bewitching.  There are salamanders, snakes and frogs, and black carpenter bees and rare jersey moths.  Buzzards, eagles, kites and vultures fly patrol.  The water is plentiful, mostly, and clean, nearly always.  The weather is wild and changeable.  There is peace and there is quiet, and there is adventure and humility.

It really is special and the French National Parks system, in particular, is trying to learn from past mistakes and keep it that way.   I had the sense they 'get' conservation in a way that many of the parks on the Spanish side did not - the natural world has an inherent value, regardless of how humans exploit it for themselves.  We do not just hold this in trust 'for future generations' to enjoy, we hold it in trust because it is unique, magnificent, intricate, dazzling, and full of wonder.  I think its worth looking after even if I could never visit again.  Its way beyond us, hugely reductive to see it merely as a tourist or energy resource.
 
But the encroachments of humans are serious and long term, and things I saw on the HRP are mirrored elsewhere too.  Humans are rapidly and systematically reducing the number of flora and fauna on the planet, we have reversed evolution, the drive to diversify, and have installed monoculture and inbreeds everywhere with horrific results.  It's genocide on a massive scale, largely through habitat destruction, and driven through development.  We are not, as I've mistakenly written in the past, the keystone species, we are much more like parasites - consume all, move on. 

Closer to home, people have said to me, ''motorway laybys, wildest places in Britain, Dave'' with an air of patronising smugness, as if they talk to a romantic Essentialist or a Luddite who wants to deliver them back to feudal times.  Clearly they haven't read the manual.  And this, to quote a friend, sees us "damned by faint praise''.  Is that the sum of our ambition, are motorway laybys the best we can do?  Is that now the wildest it gets?

So, how should responsible, conscious parasites act?  We need to legislate to protect whats left of our wild land, and we need to do it now.  Without full legal protection for places we agree to keep free of development and resource exploitation, there can be no freedom or equality - for animals or for people.  These places are sometimes called 'wild', and we need more of them not less, so we should be attempting to reverse engineer our more recent excesses and reclaim spaces for nature, before we lose them forever, and ourselves into the bargain.  There's alot at stake, and nobody else in charge.  We are the only stewards, and its our coffin too.