A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Mystery Of The Unknown

For centuries the Pyrenees basked in the mystery of the unknown. Unaccountably dismissed as holding little of importance to the climber, mountain walkers ignored them almost completely. But all that has changed and the Pyrenees have now become the focus of attention for mountain activists of all degrees of commitment. Not just walkers and climbers, but parapente enthusiasts, mountain bikers, white-water kayak buffs, bird-watchers, butterfly and flower lovers, cavers, and those who gain a thrill from descending horrific waterfalls and seemingly inaccessible canyons - the sport known as canyoning. As an arena for outdoor adventure the Pyrenees fulfil so many dreams.

The Alps they are not, and it would be a mistake to attempt comparisons. These are mountains of another order, with something to offer every climber and walker. There are peaks in excess of 3000 metres that are within reach of most hill-walkers weaned on the heights of Snowdonia or the Lakeland fells, but also vertical faces of awesome stature to test the stamina and expertise of the ardent rock specialist. There are valleys lost in the transient mists where weeks of high summer pass with barely a vistor - though these admittedly are growing fewer with the passage of time. There are tracts of unspoiled upland to answer the dreams of the devoted backpacker, and acres of alpine flowers of such rich variety that the botanist could happily spend months of worthwhile exploration there...

...The range is one of startling contrasts. On the northern slopes mountains fall steeply to the plains, while the Spanish side is confused by a series of successive ridges - or sierras - which run in a maze away from the main crest to subside in the badlands of the Ebro basin. In the west the Basque country receives heavy, moisture-laden winds from the Atlantic, but the eastern sector has a truly Mediterranean climate with low rainfall confined to the winter months, and summers that are very hot.

Scenically the landscape is full of diversity, offering a rich variety of features guaranteed to excite and entice the first-time visitor. Forests of oak, pine and beech in the west are far removed from vineyards and orchards that dress the sun-baked plateaux of Catalonia. But between these two extremes the High Pyrenees contain all the attractions of alpine scenery: sharp, irregular peaks splashed with snow, shallow glaciers, deep, trench-like canyons, great amphitheatres (cirques), and many hundreds of glistening mountain tarns.

From the Introduction to Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees (2001, 4th ed) by Kev Reynolds

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