Flight: Spain: Pre-Pyrenees

Aviation weather services do not issue forecasts based on the viability of aerial photography. They indicate cloud levels and general visibility amounts, with a cap on the high end of forecasted visibility. For the USA, the high end of forecasts is either 6 or 10 miles, depending on the type. If visibility is 11 miles or 75 miles, the forecast will say 6+. Therefore, it is impossible to get a concrete answer on smog levels. Rather, it is up to me to deduce, based on wind speed, direction, upstream sources, terrain, and all the rest whether or not the weather will be crap.

Most of time, I just look out the window. That’s all well and good, except I can’t look over the ridge behind the house to see what is going on in that neck of the woods.

Yet again, I planned to go to Montserrat, and yet again, there was an inversion on the other side of the hill, though this time it was much lower. When life throws you lemons, make lemonade. I decided to photograph the terrain that was in clear air above the terrain, known as the “Pre-Pyrenees.”

One cannot exactly call them foothills, as they can be quite severe, and sometimes as tall as the Pyrenees themselves. Instead, this somewhat lower section of the high terrain around here geologically presents itself very differently, so in effect, it’s a different zone of geography. Once in the Pyrenees proper, things take on a more standard perspective of ruggedly tall mountains with a timberline.

I noted while flying through this area that it was a combination of North Carolina, Virginia, and Wyoming, an intriguing mix of deciduous trees with almost Appalachian landforms, reverting to pine trees and Western US appearances. My wife aptly noted that not a lot of people have had a chance to see all of those places and notice the correlation from an airplane….

Cadí-Moixeró ridge line. Note that the blue over-saturation is as taken. I do not saturate any of my images.
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Pedraforca. A local pilot told me that 100% of the time, there is bad turbulence around this thing. 100% of the time I have flown near it, the air is still. Nonetheless, I have an attraction to vertical rock.

Serra d’Ensija-els Rasos de Peguera. I have no clue what that name means. I got it from Google Maps.

I love how the rock changes in Spain. Note the terrain in the valley below…reminiscent of Utah.

This feature is prone to recurring mudslides, as evidenced by three successive dams built beneath it.

Josa de Cadí. I often wonder if people hate their neighbors in villages like this, holding on to centuries of family disputes, or if its one big hippie love fest.

Some context on the village.

Autumnal subtlety. 


Closeup on the ruins.

Interesting textures – human influenced and natural.
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Pantà de la Baells. Note the power plant in the lower left, and the inversion in the upper right.

There is that inversion again. I would despise breathing that air. Then again, I did that in the Rhine valley in Germany on a regular basis. 
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One of these days I am going to drive this road in the car, especially since I got the brakes fixed!

I am not sure if I should label this by the name of the peak: Puigllançada or the ridge, Serra de Montgrony.
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I specifically bought this lens to have enough zoom to capture this terraced scene on the hill at La Molina. Now I have the image!

Other side of Cadí-Moixeró ridge line.
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Autumn down in La Cerdanya.

I can’t help some farm fields. It doesn’t help that the best fields in the valley can only be photographed while in the pattern.
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Flight: Spain, France: First Snow, Puigmal & Pic de l’Infern

The “first snow” in a mountain region, particularly a semi-arid region, is somewhat of a subjective definition. Technically, I saw a few shreds of snow on a hill in Andorra in September (north facing only), and there was also a dusting that remained on Cadí-Moixeró on the vertical north face in early October. There was also a brief blast of snow in late September during a raging thunderstorm, though it was gone in a few hours and only affected the summits. This particular storm in mid-October was a long-period rainfall in the valley, with a distinct snow level on the hills at roughly 8,500 feet, persisting for a number of days. In my definition, it is this event that constitutes the “first” snow, probably because the snow stuck around when it was all over.

As of yet, the southeastern quadrant of La Cerdanya remained unexplored: Puigmal and Pic de l’Infern (“Hell Peak”), largely due to the fact that daily thermal cloud growth had a nasty tendency to obscure this area with certain regularity. There was also the persistent fact that they are big, bad mountains, and some days I am either a wimp or simply uncompelled to get off my rear end and do something magnitudinous.

It turned out to be a flight that mimicked many that I have taken in the western United States: rocky summits with snow at the top layers, blue skies, dry air, and deliciously stunning contrasts. In my opinion, it’s about as good as it gets. When I am flying around peaks like this, I am entranced into “the zone,” aware but not consumed with worry about dramatic emergencies, focusing my energies instead on timing lighting and flight course with upper level winds and their associated interactions with terrain. “Heaven” might be a bit cliche, though at the very least, I am 100% satisfied with life under these circumstances.

Climbing in the pattern. Prats below (the border of Girona and Lleida province mysteriously cuts this town in two). Masella to the right, first snow to the upper left.

Ridgeline ascending toward Puigmal. France below, Spain on the other side.

Both the French and the Spanish have tantalizing roads like this, allowing you to get within 1 mile of the juicy views, and then they place a “do not enter under penalty of death” sign there, with no gate blocking it, tempting me to drive up anyway and blame it on being American if I get caught. 

Other side of the ridge. Note haze in lower altitudes. You’ll be hearing MUCH about this phenomenon in coming blog posts.

Looking back toward ridge – French/Spanish border.
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Puigmal (2.913m/9,555′)

Spanish side of the range.
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Puigmal again.

Ridge below is the border. Snow remains on the north-facing side, melted on the south side.

Puigmal, yet again.

Looking back toward La Cerdanya.

Looking toward Pic de l’Infern.
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This is unequivocally badass and I love every second of flying over terrain like this.

Pic de l’Infern (2.859m/9,378′), Spain as a backdrop. I can’t get over how flamboyantly they can say “Hell Peak.”

Above-timberline valleys like this are common in Europe, though are hard to find in the Rockies. Usually they are steep and short in the USA.

Looking toward France, Val du Capcir center right.
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Puigmal again.

La Cerdanya – more or less Spain to the left, France to the right. The border has a bow to the right in the middle. 

Puigcerdà (note proper use of the left accent, not right. Spanish only uses right accénts, whereas Catalan features many that point lèft).

La Cerdanya on long final. A very beautiful and peaceful flight.


Flight: Spain, France: Cadí-Moixeró, Pic Carlit

One of the elements of the European air traffic system that rubs me the wrong way is the expectation that a pilot a) flies from point A to B and b) actually follows through on the original plan. The system really doesn’t contemplate willy-nilly in flight course and destination changes. It is not to say that it is illegal, or impossible, its just that it makes no sense to anyone but me.

At least 80% of the time, I fly precisely somewhere other than what I planned. That is usually evident once I get in the air and sample what lighting and other conditions are present. I then re-route my entire expectation, subject to constraints of fuel, airports, weather, and whatever client I am deviously avoiding (for favor of flying instead of working). Suffice it to say that my pre-flight weather planning consists of checking everything in a 3 hour radius.

The thing is, Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park (sorry for referring to it as a “national” park some posts ago – it is a “natural park,” which is a lot like national forests in the USA) is not visible from the house. All of the weather forecasts in the world do not tell me about lighting and cloud texture precisely along the ridge line, so I find out as I am taking off and get the first view.

This was one of those days. The wind was out of the south, and the cloud bank was stationary along the range. As the wind descended off the ridge, the clouds dried out precisely at the same point, presenting the illusion that they were not moving. Rather, it was two air masses yet again, this time with southerly winds instead of northerly, and the dividing line was again this mountain range.

Afterward, I wandered over to France because I could, and then attempted a formation flight with a glider, which did not work, because the silly thing outran me, even at full power.

Hints of first snow.

Cadí-Moixeró ridgeline is notoriously difficult to photograph, as the 1,500 foot prominence is perpetually in a shadow.
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This is the stationary cloud boundary.
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Can you find the two deer in this photo?

Again, this massive cloud deck refuses to cross to this side of the ridge below, due to Chinook (“Föhn” in Europe) winds.
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Masella ski area.
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Looking back at Cadí-Moixeró.

Carlit plateau.

I thought it was above timberline, until I found these trees. There are a lot of grazing activities here which may impact tree growth.
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Pic Carlit, France.

The glider I could not keep up with…

LECD – Aerodrom La Cerdanya (That is the Catalan spelling).

Despite the Spanish proclivity to corruption, siestas, flamenco dancing, avoiding debt repayment, and general fiscal insolvency, Spanish farmers are constantly busy doing something. 

Flight: France: Val du Capcir

There is a certain intentional and controlled ignorance to the twists and turns of life for the past two years. One of them was the haste of deciding to live here, and the lack of any real research into the areas around where we live. It gets fatiguing to expect life to be one way in a new place, only to have those expectations smashed 100% of the time. I decided to see what happens.

It was not until the actual flight from Germany that I discovered that there was another high altitude valley nearby, one that has some characteristics similar to La Cerdanya: wide and relatively flat. Situated over a pass on the northeast side of the area, it is exclusively the domain of France, and reminds me of some areas of Montana, with mountains, pine trees, and an open valley in between.

There is also a certain controlled, though unintentional ignorance about local weather patterns. Apparently, the tail end of the summer weather pattern means that days start out with some low cloud, said clouds burn off, afternoon heat creates more, and they disappear after sunset. This was a day where the overcast decided to backfill from afternoon heat, precisely as I arrived at my destination, obviating any decent photos of what I was intending to get in the first place. There seems to be little discernible warnings as to the fickle behaviors of orographically-induced clouds.

A countervailing principle to such aesthetic miscalculation is a lesson learned flying 330 hours last summer in Wyoming: when I sit down on my illustrious Mac-powered throne to put my photographs into a pile of cohesive works, I can’t believe how many things I did not fly to that were nearby. I still can’t believe how much I flew last year, and I am remiss at how many things I was convinced I photographed that I ended up missing. Thus, I have come to discern that it is best to take the bull by the horns, explore while life cooperates, and roll with it when it the visuals end up different.

“High Cerdanya” – Font Romeu in the background.

Eyne, France

Pass to Perpignan (5,300 feet elevation or so)

Mont-Louis, France

La Llagonne, France

Road to Perpignan. I drove the moving van up this nauseating highway, at night. I also drove the empty moving van down. Needless to say, there are certain things one can do with a large vehicle on roads like this that should be illegal.

Valley of Capcir heading off to the right. Note the clouds filling in. There is a grass airport on this pass, for which the French overlords of aviation have decided that I need a special license to land at, because its too high up. The fact that I was based for a year at an airport twice this height means nothing to them. 

Note the sheep and shepherd in bottom right, and the otherwise completely enigmatic farming practices everywhere else. 

There is probably a reason for this senselessness.
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This appears to be some sort of military installation from time’s past.

“Yellow Train” – famous scenic train line.
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Flight: Spain, Andorra, France: Second Assault on the Pyrenees

If anyone is actually reading this blog and paying attention to what is going on, you’ll note that I am highly cautious of new environments. Once I get acclimated, then I progressively push the boundary further, at least until something bad happens, which is a 50/50 if I’ll keep pushing it after that. I am getting older, experienced, whatever you want to call it, and I am not as brazen as I used to be.

At any rate, I actually went past Andorra this time, emerging out on the other side to a rather high mountain on the border with France. On the way back, I ventured into a new range on the French side also. As the blog is a bit delayed (too much flying, among other things), I have since conquered the limits on this flight, and the adventure continues.

The Pyrenees are highly different from the US Rockies, as the Pyrenees descend rather steeply into deep, V-shaped valleys, and resume the incline, without a flat valley in between (La Cerdanya being the only exception in the entire range). The Rocky Mountains in the United States feature countless north-south ranges with relatively flat and wide valleys in between; a landing spot was never that far. Here? Well, you’ll see the images. Sometimes its stomach churning to think about engine issues, though I have come to learn that there are small farms, roads, and little villages just about everywhere, so its not as bad as it seems, though I do prefer the Rockies from a safety standpoint.

Ascending between the mountains, a new thing as I realize they all do not exist to kill me.

Small ski area below, beckoning me to visit this winter.
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Andorra ski hill. Yes, one begins referring to “hills” as anything other than massive vertical spires of rock after living in the Rockies and Pyrenees.

Andorra – mildly smug Catalan-speaking tax haven.

We’re Andorra and you’re not. That’s at least the feeling when visiting on the ground.

Theoretically a bit of “first snow” on a north facing ridge – taken end of September.

This traumatized me. See any emergency landing locations? It took me a few weeks before I would return, and only after scouring satellite imagery to confirm there was a place to land.
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In all seriousness, this does NOT traumatize me at all. Roughly 10,000 feet. Getting high enough above all terrain feels very safe, as I have about 10 minutes of glide time if the engine konks out.

Pic Montcalm – 10,095′. Spain to the left, France to the right. Everything in this image would be tree covered in the US Rockies. Timberline is 10,500′ to 12,500′ in Colorado and Wyoming, compared to 7,500′ here.

The large basin with trees is basically the entirety of Andorra.

One thing holds true when flying: there are way too many structures that look like phalluses, and there are a shocking amount of crosses, generally in obscure areas where no one can see them. This was on the top of a mountain in Andorra.

This appears to be an off-roading invitation.

Cattle tracks on top, erosion below, dark gray soil.

Andorra, looking over to La Cerdanya.

Paragliding at 9,200′.

To this day, I am too cautious to fly around the basin with the reservoir in it. France.

A Spanish pilot told me not to fly over here (so I did). Apparently, there aren’t any emergency landing locations, or civilization. Look at the clearing and the road in the bottom of the valley. Good enough in the Cub. 

Evidence of glaciation.

Marsh, French style.

French lake with a small forest fire.
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This looks remarkably like the Bighorn Range in Wyoming, though it is France.

La Cerdanya…