Flight: France, Andorra, Spain: Winter Pyrenees

There is a little section of mountains, akin to a “range” though lacking in distinct identity as the name implies in America, that scares the crap out of me. Its just so…harsh, and there is no good way to get out in the event of an emergency. As such, I have only nibbled at the edge, and so far hadn’t really gone over it. It is a bit to the west of Pic Carlit in France, with an altitude of 9,583 feet, which isn’t enough to impress me by the numbers. As you’ll see in the pictures, it was rugged enough. Waiting until the mountains were as unforgiving as possible with deep snow and cold temperatures, I decided to fly over it.

For some reason, despite the deep snow, penetrating cold, and harsh nature of the mountains when they are prone to avalanche, I find the entire experience peaceful and pleasant, almost a Zenist moment in the airplane, which lasts until I can’t feel my face, hands, and feet, then I head home. I don’t get the same peace flying over the same terrain in other seasons.

Ascending into the Pyrenees….Spain

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Snow drifts….blowing up the side of the mountain against gravity.

Looking into the Midi-Pyrenees region of France.

Rugged section I have been reluctant to fly over. Here we go….
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Back in Andorra. This image is practically pornographic.
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Crossing the border back into Spain.

People seriously tear up the Pyrenees with backcountry skiing. I cannot believe the places people climb to. No matter how remote….there are usually some tracks going down it.

Descending into La Cerdanya.

Where I descended from.
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Flight: Spain, Andorra: Pyrenees Sunset

I have this strange issue where I won’t fly unless I come up with some sort of stated goal. Yes, I know, I am flying a Piper Cub, and for some reason I need a purpose that is more than just going flying. On this particular day, I had an itch to go up, though I didn’t want to go far, yet I wanted to look at something I hadn’t look at already….

I hatched a brilliant scheme, falling back on my days flying in Wyoming: why not go up at sunset? The Pyrenees would have soft, yellow light cast on them, and absolutely everything in the area would look different under those conditions. The plan worked quite well, with a fantastic surprise toward the end of the flight, as I discovered a glorious overcast inversion on the other side of the Cadí ridge, set against the harsh, dry, beautiful clear air that was on the Cerdanya side. This flight ranks as a classic ten out of ten, as imagery was fantastic, and it was just plain fun to wander around without having to think too hard.


Looking into Andorra…
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I would say “that damn inversion,” except its pretty this time!
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Looking toward La Cerdanya from Andorra border.

La Cerdanya, including airport, from directly overhead.

Cadí ridge, with overcast.
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Montserrat. I feel like the thing is always watching….

Sunset, with Pedraforca to the right.

Flight: Spain: Masella, Pedraforca, Cadí-Moixeró After Snowstorm

After crawling out of my self-reflective philosophical aviation hole last December, I started to expand my horizons and creep out of La Cerdanya, venturing a bit farther into unfamiliar terrain. This concept worked as early winter weather is rather stable in Spain, so the general condition of the world around me stayed the same. Under those circumstances, my instinct is to start finding new things to look at.

That all changes when the seasons change.

As noted in a prior post, I thought our one winter blast was largely it. Sure, I expected some more snow, but how was I to know if any potential future storm would be as good as the present? I learned through experience that an entire month can go by where above-timberline peaks receive zero snow at all. Could this be the last good storm for the year?

Nope. It was really just getting started.

We got slammed again down in the valley, and logically the storm was measurably more severe at altitude, dumping prolific amounts of snow on the Pre-Pyrenees. Everything I had previously been photographing now looked entirely different. Instead of “some” snow on Cadí-Moixeró and the rest of the area, it was coated from top to bottom. That meant that my focus shifted to revisiting the more interesting of local places, to get them in an entirely different perspective.

There was that, and the fact that normal instability endemic to mid and late winter had arrived. That meant pleasant days with interesting moisture meandering around the mountains, which has a correlative relationship to moist winter storms anywhere else on earth I have flown. The more water or snow that falls out of the sky, the more likely the sky does interesting things with weather phenomenon.

On this particular day, there were cap clouds over various terrain features, with a few cloud layers here and there in some valleys, but not others. It was all set against an incoming disturbance in the atmosphere, which made a nice complement to my imagery, offering a more monochromatic look than the typical sunny day perspective.

La Cerdanya, covered in snow.

La Masella, with Cadí-Moixeró sneaking in the background.

Summit of Tosa d’Alp, hiding in a cloud, barely distinguishable from clouds in the background. Ideal flying weather!

Tosa d’Alp from a distance.

Tosa d’Alp, closeup, with cap cloud.
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Fair amount of snow cover. Puigllançada.
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El Pedraforca

North slope of El Pedraforca, with Cadí-Moixeró to the rear right. Note incoming weather.

Gósol, from El Pedraforca.
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Pedraforca again. I so badly wanted to fly in the saddle between the cloud and the snow. I have a peculiar desire to stay alive and keep my pilot’s license.

Cadí-Moixeró, with weather rolling in.

Bor. I have this enigmatic displeasure with looking up place names. I will gladly fly to them, take a picture, post them on the Internet, and identify them on my sprawling complex of maps, though I find the act of labeling them to be tedious and uncompelling. 


Flight: Spain: Cerdanya Snowstorm

While we live at 3,871 feet in a valley in the Pyrenees, La Cerdanya is not currently known as a locale that receives a lot of snow. The eastern Pyrenees are drier than the central and western parts (said western areas have glaciers) and is effectively a high altitude Mediterranean climate zone, which is admittedly pleasant to live in. Of course, while I happened to be in the United States, La Cerdanya got slammed with snow down in the valley. Fortunately, it got it a second time before we got back, so I had the chance to fly on an unplowed runway. Due to glider operations, with long wingspans and tow aircraft landing in the grass, the runway is never plowed as ensuing snow piles would linger and halt glider operations. That meant that I had to go up on a not-so-stellar day, for fear the snow would melt if I waited too long.

Ceilings were low with abundant moisture stuck in the valley, though there was enough room to fly around and avoid flying into the side of a mountain, keeping a close eye on the weather as it evolved. Instead of my traditional style of bringing the sky into my images, I opted to focus on more intricate details of life covered in snow.

PA-11, with opportunities for CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) in the background.

Prats (The town name means “meadows”).

The airport, entirely indistinguishable in a sea of flat, white light, except for my tire tracks from takeoff.

Camp de golf (Catalàn), Campo de golf (Español).
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Riu. As you can see, La Cerdanya features many villages with three letter names.

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Flight: France: Forest Fire

After some days of inversion, the air became gloriously crystal clear, a situation endemic to northerly wind events in winter, so I decided to head to the Val du Capcir in lovely France for some local wandering.

After routine rigmarole such as driving to the airport, preheating the engine, opening the hangar, preflighting, talking to Spaniards who think the PA-11 is the coolest thing on the planet, and warmup, it became evident immediately after takeoff that the air quality had become downright awful. It was obviously smoke, though as one may surmise, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of smoke when one is surrounded by it. Thus, I continued my path east in La Cerdanya, heading to the south side of the valley for favor of avoiding nasty turbulence that accompanies north wind events.

As expected, the air cleared rather rapidly, and I was then able to see that the smoke had a source somewhere in the Val du Carol on the French side, clearly getting fanned by dry air and some wind. As my flight continued, it got too bumpy and unpleasant to warrant proceeding ahead, so I turned back, flew through the smoke again, and landed.

The funny part was after landing. I asked one of the airport guys if he knew where the fire exactly was and what started it. In Spanish, he replied, “The French started a fire.” “A controlled burn?” “Yes.”

I find this dialogue amusing, as it is slyly telling with regard to regional prejudices and cross border disdain. If the same conversation happened in America, the reply would be “It’s a controlled burn.” There would be no “The [insert disdained group here] started a fire.” Then again, Spaniards will inasmuch admit that they dislike the French, and the French dislike them. As I have had some of these educational conversations, I posited the notion that the two groups share a valley, so perhaps some neighborly cordiality might be in order? “No, that is why we hate them, because they are so close.”

French Cerdagne, not in the smoke, and roughly at the point of too much turbulence for my liking.
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Someday I will get off my rear end and hike around these.
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French property division. Yes, I know, no smoke yet. Scroll down.
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Smoke spewing out of the Val du Carol and ruining everything. 
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Flight: Spain: Cerdanya Inversion

I suppose after the past few flights that the inversion is not unilaterally the end of the world. Generally speaking, La Cerdanya is exempt from it, enjoying tantalizingly clear air while most everyone else marinates in haze, diesel particulates, Saharan dust, humidity, smoke, pollen….you get the idea. Well, things changed a bit as mid-winter rolled around, creating an inversion inside La Cerdanya itself.

This sort of thing is not earth shattering. Really, the fact that La Cerdanya is so exempt from what is going on in the rest of the area is a bigger surprise. In the western US, inversions are quite regular in the winter, as extremely cold and dry air sinks down into valleys surrounded by contiguous and sizable mountain ranges. This cold air can end up having quite a temperature differential, as cold air is denser and heavier than warmer air. If it becomes significant enough, then the air pools, accumulates haze and other impurities, and remains stationary. Those who may have visited Phoenix or Denver in the winter and noted a pronounced brown smog layer are witnessing when pollution and an inversion mixes.

That finally happened here, as cold winter air settled into the valley and expressed no interest in leaving. Thus, I expressed my interest in flying around to see what it looked like.

The layer was pronounced at 5,500 feet, and was far hazier down where humans live than in the air. Once above it, it was not too terribly evident until late afternoon light started backlighting contaminants below.

Das. Note the tone of blue in the lower image. That is the inversion, despite my ironic attempts at taking photos that remove most of its effects.

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Tosa d’Alp
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Surfacing the Cadí ridge, noting an inversion present on the other side, though rather low. This is as expected, given high pressure and stable air.
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Snowpack on Cadí-Moixeró. Note the snowshoe path.
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Cadí-Moixeró with typical lowland inversion.
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And here is the inversion over La Cerdanya at 5,500 feet. As a lover of clean air, I do not particularly like descending into pre-combusted atmosphere.
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Flight: Spain: Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa

Anytime the earth historically or in the present decides to belch liquid hot magma, it makes me happy. I wouldn’t have considered Catalonia to be a place where volcanic activity took place, though it was one of those obsessive Google Maps sessions that resulted in locating a ‘volcanic park,’ for which I had to investigate, and then found what appears to be a bunch of old cinder cones hiding out under deciduous trees. In no shortage of irony, Catalonians at one point decided to build a church inside one of them (can one not see the Freudian connection to hellfire at play here?).

In keeping with my “the hell with it” approach to weather and flight planning, I did another shot at the Pre-Pyrenees ridge line, cleared it, found the view to be at the very least acceptable, and headed to Olot, where the volcanoes are located. On this day, haze was worse, though manageable. I had to remind myself that it looks 50% worse while flying than the end result on camera, which is an irony given that most things degrade when photographed.

Ridge extending from La Molina. There is a name, and I can’t be bothered to look it up. Even though “La Molina” is spelled the same in Spanish and Catalán, it is pronounced Moe-lean-a and Mull-lean-a, respectively. I find that reality to be annoying.
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I shouldn’t be surprised….and I am, every time. Serra Cavallera.
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Serra Cavallera. Mediterranean on the distance left/center horizon.
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Looking back on Serra Cavallera.
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Gave the good old farm field thing a try. Not working out as I would like today.
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Olot. More virile and raging Catalonian independence brewing here.
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Olot with two cinder cones.
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A few sneaky cinder cones.
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A not-so-sneaky cinder cone. Yes, a church was built *inside* one of these (though not that one). 
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Appalachian-style foothills, Colorado style mountains.
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Looking back toward the Mediterranean, wondering why I haven’t gotten over myself and flown to it yet.
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Pyrenees / Pirineos / Pirineus / Pyrénées (English / Spanish / Catalán / French). Why can’t there just be *one* place name?
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Montserrat in the distance.
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La Cerdanya.
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On final, runway 07.
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Flight: Spain: Montserrat!

For anyone who actually reads my blog and happens to be in possession of decent cognition and a functioning hippocampus, it would be well known that I have wanted to go to Montserrat since moving to Spain, and every single time I have schemed to do so, that pesky inversion has thwarted any attempt to do so. As for the hippocampus/cognition part, I have been ranting about sunny days on this side of the ridge turning into sheer crap on the other side the entire time.

Well, I decided that weather forecasts can shove it, and I am just going to have to fly to the ridge, and if I can see Montserrat, I’m going. A few days after the last flight, I went up, climbed over La Molina, and there she was! Even better, the inversion was in full force, though smashed down near the ground, creating quite a bit of resplendent beauty. It did take some visiting Dutch folks who walked into the hangar to propose the idea that the inversion “can be beautiful,” as I spat my venomous rancor about it to them in conversation some weeks prior to this flight. It turns out they were correct….

Montserrat, from La Molina, with the inversion that “can be beautiful.”
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La Molina ski tracks.
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Grazing terraces.
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Pre-Pyrenees, with El Pedraforca, symbol of Catalonia.
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Bergueda – The name is a “comarca,” which is the Catalonian equivalent (though not equal) of a county. Don’t forget my Landkreis rant from last year in Germany on the subject of regional naming subdivisions and taxonomy.
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Avinyó. I can practically smell the desire for Catalonian independence…..
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And the inversion. I suppose there is some beauty….maybe….
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I count 4 parachutes.
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Manresa – There are some real assholes that do not understand the concept of merging lanes here.
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Hill north of Terrassa.
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Can you see the climbers?
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Inversion, smashed down near the ground. I find the thought of flying into a windmill, in Spain, quite quixotic.
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If a blog reader could explain the proliferation of abandoned and collapsing stone houses in Spain within reasonable range of expensive houses, jobs, infrastructure, and cities, I’d be grateful.
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This is what happens when it rains on tilled soil. 
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Foothills of the Pre-Pyrenees.
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Serra d’Ensija-els Rasos de Peguera. I am not that sophisticated…yet. I copied it from Google Maps.
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El Pedraforca
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La Cerdanya – another comarca, though the name shows up for centuries as its own political subdivision in the eternal blood-filled historical ebb and flow of European governance.
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Fields – had to do it.
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Flight: Spain: First Snow in La Cerdanya

A month hiatus went by before I thought of aviation again after the last flight, much less actually flew. For those that didn’t read prior blog posts, the gist of my pause was related to the fact that it seemed more people were noticing my flying because it was “dangerous” than the actual content produced (said “danger” having more to do with the fact most people think airplanes are “deathtraps” flown by “crazies”). After my meditative wandering in a mental wilderness, I decided everyone can go to hell and I am doing what I want.

So what did I do next? Naturally, I went up on a windy day with some mountain waves and flew near some ridge lines. It was remarkably like surfing, except the waves are bigger and, well, I am kind of afraid of large and unpredictable ocean waves, so this works out better.

It was the first snow down in the valley that lasted more than 5 minutes, and I must say, it was quite majestic. For those that give a crap, this flight was just before Christmas. I am doing too much flying-not enough time for blogging (what misery, I know).

Prats i Sansor
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Urús – Apparently the accent goes right for this one. I have no clue why.
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Hill behind the house, which has demonstrated an annoying propensity to block the sun at 4:10PM.
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I might as well cut and paste the Salt River Range of Wyoming for this scene. Its stunningly similar. Just swap Wyoming rednecks and snobs for a proportionate mix of Catalonian rednecks and elitists.
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Just over Talló, looking east.
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Talló. I walked about 8 miles in January here, arriving after dark. There is something liberating about acting like a hobo.
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Blowing snow on the Cadí ridge. This is a first in the airplane.
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And, as expected, that blowing snow made descending air here. Note the mountain wave with the clouds.
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Cumulogranite. A divine mix of rock, cloud, wind, and aviation.
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Cadí-Moixeró with laminar wave cloud.
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I would like to climb these, though once I got there, I would realize they are 400 feet tall and too much work.
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Mysteriously, central Cerdanya missed out on the snow.
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Aerodrom de la Cerdanya. It is very bueno. Le France in the background.
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Flight: Spain: Puigmal, Vall de Núria, Balandrau, Serra de Montgrony

For AOPA readers, these are some more photos for the “Why do we fly?” post (aka “What the hell am I doing up here?”). For non-AOPA blog readers, I suggest reading said post.

Puigmal (2.910m, 9,550′). Of course, there is a cross on it. Note the size of the people compared to the cross.
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Vall de Núria. For some reason, I highly like this place, even though it is ill suited for an emergency landing.
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Puigmal again.
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Balandrau (2.585m / 8,481′)
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El Freser
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My grandmother, upon viewing my photos, makes repeated reference to her lack of desire to “peel you off the side of a mountain.” If it ever did happen, I kind of envision scenery like this, though I think physics would take care of concerns over collecting remains.
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Serra Cavallera. The weather has the audacity to interfere with my photos. 
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Serra de Montgrony. I had a hard time, when standing here in a horse herd in September, imagining that this could be a wintry place. Well, here we are.
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