Pyrenees Snowshoe Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expedition

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Right now I’m in Barcelona, resting up and taking time to write a blog about a fantastic week snowshoeing in the French Pyrenees with Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award participants from Shrewsbury School. This week’s qualifying expedition was the culmination of 18 months of planning and preparation. The expedition team began their training exactly a year ago, spending four days in the snowy Cairngorms practicing winter skills and undertaking their snowshoe practice expedition.

This week’s qualifying expedition took place in the Pyrénées-Orientales, about 2 hours north-east of Barcelona. The area is characterised by a high plateau at around 1,500m to 1,800m, with higher peaks around it reaching  up to 2,900m high. The terrain is great for snowshoeing with rolling hills covered in pine trees, beautiful lakes, lots of wildlife and stunning views. This part of the southern Pyrenees is actually the sunniest place in France with 300 days of sunshine a year.

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The expedition was organised in partnership with Altitude Adventure. Run by Ian and Angela Pendry, they provided in country support: airport transfers, logistical support and full board accommodation in their guesthouse before and after the expedition. Ian and Angela are also International Mountain Leaders with lots of local knowledge about the area. This was the third time Aspen Outdoors Ltd has partnered up with Altitude Adventure to organise a Gold expedition in the Pyrenees; more are planned, with a summer Open Gold Expedition running 10-17 August 2019 and more Snowshoe expeditions next year.

Having arrived at our base in the French Pyrenees on Saturday evening, Sunday was spent preparing: menu planning, making a selection from local French food; and, a practice walk to get used to the snowshoes, do some navigation and practice some avalanche transceiver search drills.

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On Monday the expedition began. The participants were a little nervous to begin with but quickly got into their stride, snowshoeing from Coll del Llosa to Refuge du Coll del Torn over pathless wooded hills offering fantastic views all around. Whilst their Scottish practice expedition had been cold and snowy; here in France, it was warm and sunny with not a breath of wind.

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The accommodation overnight was a mountain refuge called Refuge du Coll del Torn. We sought special permission from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (and from hut guardians) to stay in refuges. This enabled the participants to experience the local culture of hut to hut journeys in the mountains. They cooked all their meals in the kitchen, engaged with the hut guardians in French and left the hut clean and tidy.

Day two involved journeying north to a refuge called Refuge Estagnols. The route took the team over more hills and peaks (up to 2093m high) before reaching Coll de Sansa where a snowy track led to the refuge.  On the way we saw lots of animals tracks including: wild boar, red squirrel, ptarmigan, fox, isard (Pyrenees chamois), red deer, roe deer, partridge, crested tit, mountain hare, stoat and capercaille (see photos below).

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Refuge Estagnols was like a bothy, a simple stone building with outside toilet,  wood burning stove and this time no hut guardian. Water was collected from a nearby stream and for dinner, the participants cooked some sausages on the BBQ.

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Day three would be the most demanding and exciting of the expedition. The participant’s goal was to reach the summit of a mountain called Roc Negre (2,459m). The first part of the journey involved the ascent of a 500m wooded slope. The team by this stage was getting really good at finding an efficient safe route through the landscape, zig-zagging up, until they reached a high plateau. Here the walking was easy, across big areas of ice and over well consolidated snow drifts. With so little rain in this part of Pyrenees the snow transforms very slowly, melting a little in the sunshine then freezing overnight. Small pine trees covered the plateau, stunted by the wind and cold. Over weeks the snow lying on the branches of these trees softened, slipped off, then froze turning into  beautiful snow crystals that sparkled in the sunshine. The plateau was also covered in animal tracks allowing you to read the movements of the wildlife: a fox tracking a hare, ptarmigan foraging for heather, isard crossing from one corrie to another.  The views all around were beautiful and again, there was no wind and lots of sunshine. Beyond the plateau lay the summit of Roc Negre, another 150m higher up. Before long the team were on the summit and making lunch.

The descent from Roc Negre was via a snowy easy angled valley. Again the team did a great job of navigating their way back to the refuge, ending a big 8 hour day in the mountains.

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Having returned to the refuge the participants enjoyed their last evening meal and night of the expedition. On the last day of the expedition the team spent part of the morning on their expedition aim, filming a multiple casualty search drill using their avalanche transceivers. After that the team journeyed west, back to Coll del Sansa, then further west and downhill to the town of Formiguere.

The team has achieved the first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award snowshoe expedition, showing determination and learning lots of specialised winter skills. They demonstrated they could navigate to a high level, but most of all they demonstrated what it takes to be an effective team: being patient and calm with each other, being organised, supporting one other and having a good sense of humour.

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For more information about expeditions in the Pyrenees (whether snowshoeing – December to March – or summer trekking – April to October) please get in touch: alastair@aspenoutdoors.co.uk, 07427326697. We have an open Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition in the Pyrenees running on 10-17 August 2019.

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