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Ski Touring Trip Reports

A Day in the Picos

Fuente De cable car station – according to the plaque on the wall, opened by Chief of State Generalissimo Franco in 1966 (“oh, that w........”, according to local inhabitant Olivia May Stuart (11, a Barcelona and Burnley supporter and resident of Tama, Cantabria)) –

and, on 16th May 2009, start-point of another epic ski tour guided by the Picos de Europa’s and Cordillera de Cantabrica’s number one Burnley-supporting ski-touring guide, Michael Stuart, father of Olivia and known to his friends simply as “Mike”.

“F***, f***, I f***ing can’t believe it I left my f***ing jacket at home” said Mike (Watch your language! - Ed.) in the car park at the cable car based station as he commented on the almost military precision with which he had prepared for the trip. Thirty seconds later his careful choice of language, as well as his pre-planning, was rewarded as he pulled the aforementioned item from his rucksack and the tour was able to move onto its next stage, the ascent to the cable car top station (by cable car, in case you were wondering) and another 30 minutes of faffing about to get skis on, bindings adjusted, skins cut to size, dumps dumped and a coffee contemplated but finally left un-drunk.

Our objective? Well, basically, it was to go ski-touring. Beyond that, we were heading for a mountain in the Picos. “Mike” seemed to know where it was; I was just following him. Our route was initially to the Cabana Veronica (2325m) with, it seemed, most of the other tourers out in the Picos that day. A Catalunian ski tourer and colleague had warned me earlier in the week that there would probably be so little snow in the Picos that we would be skiing “from patch to patch”; in fact, other than the band of rocks that Mike guided us unerringly across soon after leaving “El Cable” (a Spanish term, which my guide helpfully translated for me as “The Cable” – the breadth and depth of his local knowledge is almost awe-inspiring) the snow cover was, as one Spanish visitor insightfully commented, “like Zermatt”. “Si, muy parecido” commented the Burnley supporter, in (what he explained to me later was) a barely-concealed attempt at irony in Spanish. But it was true, there was more than enough of what reports of this nature often resort to calling “the white stuff” but which might more simply be termed “snow”.

Tom's guide

Cabana Veronica was reached with little trouble; the cloud base was hovering around 2300 metres and there were excellent – and very snowy - views to the south and the Cordillera. “Cheeky bastard” commented Mike, several times, as he contemplated my Catalunian colleague’s advice. “Next time he’s here, he’s getting it.” His thoughts on this matter were periodically interrupted as his first generation Fritschi binding dropped out of climb mode for the nth time that day but, other than that, the climb was a pleasure.

The Cabana was full of tourers from Bilbao and other places. At this altitude, the wind was making its presence felt as it howled around the curious battleship radar tower structure until recently permanently inhabited by a soft-drink peddling hermit named Mariano but, inside, there was a real feeling of camaraderie and bonhomie across the cultural and linguistic divide (probably aided by my own attempts at communication – a cheery “hola!” always seems to work wonders!), that is, at least until Mike arrived and checked to find that someone had stolen the frying pan he had left there two weeks previously. “Why would they want to take a frying pan?” was a query unanswered by those already inside the Cabana, probably because none of them other than myself could speak English, and I was thinking “A free frying pan? Why look a gift-horse in the mouth?”, but didn’t want to say so.

We pressed on as the cloud based (temporarily) lifted to 2310m. Our goal changed, to another mountain, Torre Blanca, at 2617m slightly smaller than the first objective, and one that I had skied once before and Mike perhaps more times than he cares to remember. From the col from which one normally crampons up to the top of Torre Blanca, there was no visibility and a howling gale and so we skipped the final ascent – which would have been too redolent for me of climbing Munros, except with snow – and headed back down around 400m to another nameless col, under and to the east of Torre Llagu. All was going well; the sun was now almost out, we had plenty of time, and we were on a circuitous route back to El Cable.

The author showing off his calf muscles

A few technical issues then arose which I will skip for reasons of brevity and pressures of time, and also because I don’t want to embarrass Mike. (Are you sure about this? Ed.) After a climb to another col to the west (de Casares), we enjoyed a rather fine descent of around 300m before a final climb across Colladina de Las Nieves and then a wonderful descent eastwards down Canal de S Luis through soft and quite forgiving spring snow (“some of the best snow I’ve ever skied in the rain”, as Mike put it) down to El Cable and, as reports like this often say, a “much-needed” beer, although one that in reality I probably could have done without. Another top day out in the Picos marred only by a few minor technical issues and some heavy rain in the last half hour. Around 900m of climbing, 900m of descent and 8 km of skiing.

Report contributed by Professor Tom “Irrepressibly Jolly” Rye. With many thanks to Mike for a great number of wonderful days out ski-touring in the Picos and Cordillera; long may they continue.

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