Cloudy weather, low atmospheric temperatures and occasional rain showers. These were the conditions of the present year's MIUT, during the past Saturday, in contrast with the sunny weather of last year's edition.
Regardless of the meteorological inconsistency, sending to the organization the clear sign that the best time for mountain activities in Madeira still remains the month of May, the event is increasing in popularity, with a presence of 750 athletes, from 27 different nationalities.
In the picture, a solitary trail runner, arriving from the Encumeada pass, approaches the highest peak of Madeira, during the present year's edition of the Madeira Island Ultra Trail.
Picture taken with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI standard lens. Post-processing in Nikon View Nx2 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, ver. 4.1
As we can read up on the Wikipedia, the Brocken spectre "is the apparently enormous and magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun".
Due to the frequent local optimal conditions for this phenomena to take place, the peak of Brocken - Harz Mountains, Germany - gave its name to this particular atmospheric halo. However, its presence is frequent in mountain regions, as long as you are walking above the clouds and the sun is on the right angle to project your shadow onto them.
Strangely, these conditions in Madeira are not the easiest to find. Most of the times the atmosphere is either fully clouded or not at all.
Or, as one fellow hiker wisely pointed, on the vast majority of Madeira hikes you're walking in the cloud.
Sometimes, nevertheless, generally at morning or evening times, we can also have a glimpse of this optical phenomenon, while hiking along our highest peaks:
The Spectre of Brocken, photographed two days ago, at evening time, on the trail and close to Pico do Areeiro.
Picture taken with Nikon D40X and cheap AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 G II ED with B+W 52 E KR3 1.2* filter.
Legendary among mountaineers, the Spectre of Brocken has a mixed fame, which is both mystical and sinister. Perhaps the most famous of the latter connotation was achieved on the nineteen century, during the first successful climb of the Matterhorn.
The mountain, "conquered" in 1865, by a party of seven, claimed the lives of four on the descent, falling to their deaths due to a broken rope.
According to Edward Whymper, the expedition leader, on his book "The Ascent Of The Matterhorn", this tragic finale was preceded by a spectral vision forming in the clouds nearby and resembling crosses.
To this day many Historians still claim that the phenomena they saw was simply the Brocken spectre playing games with their already exhausted minds.
The spectral phenomena witnessed by Edward Whimper and his companions, while descending from the first ascent of the Matterhorn, as illustrated on his book "The Ascent Of The Matterhorn".
Concluding a strenuous work which started on the past January, a team of construction workers finished today the repair of the most celebrated of all the Madeira mountain trails: the PR 1, connecting the highest peaks of Madeira.
Just in time to be ready for the present year's edition of the MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail), scheduled for the next Saturday, the repair operations suffered several meteorological setbacks, namely rainy and snowy conditions, forcing the constructers to slow down.
Well, better later than never. And the island's trail event, growing famous year after year, will, once again, have on its route the notorious path connecting Pico Ruívo to Pico do Areeiro.
The Pico Ruívo mountain hut will be, once again, a mandatory passage for all the athletes participating in the present year's MIUT. Here pictured yesterday, at midnight, during a particularly amazing and clear blue sky.
Picture taken with Nikon D610 and Sigma Aspherical 24mm f/1.8 D EX DG Macro mounted on Sirui T-005 travel tripod and ball-head.
Post processing in Nikon View NX2 (conversion from NEF to TIFF) and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, ver. 4.2
As the biggest and highest mountain massif in the continental Portugal, Serra da Estrela is, bar none, our own mountain playground. Its high above sea level, ending at nearly 2000 meters, together with a gentle climate and its location and accessibility, makes this small mountain range the Portuguese climbing and mountaineering school by excellence.
An initiation place for generations of Portuguese mountaineers, in a country with negligible tradition in the sport, I remember reading some touristic pamphlets in my infant years stating that "one week on the mountain equals one year of health".
In fact, by the nineteen century the Serra da Estrela massif was nearly unknown for the vast majority of the nation. In a time when the nation was poor and the communications all over the country were almost non-existent (worth remembering that the construction of the Portuguese railway system only started on the second half of the XIX century) and the social structure of the contry consisted basically on the small and rich aristocracy and bourgeoisie for one side and the vast analphabet rural population on the other , a shepherd living in this mountain range might as well be living on Mars.
The place was so remote that, in 1881, the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa (est. in 1875) organized an expedition to the area, in order to perform some scientific studies and install the first meteorological observatory - one of the firsts in the whole Europe. Leaded by the Navy Officer Hermenegildo Capelo (a Portuguese Africa explorer, contemporary of Richard Francis Burton), the expedition departed from Lisboa, by railway, with a team of 42 expeditionists. According to a news correspondent of that Era, they were "dressed with a full pack of sheep's wool over them and above that... a revolver against the wolves and pig's bacon against vipers bite".
But regardless that auspicious expedition to the Portuguese Himalayas, the Serra da Estrela massif remained on the next decades a place of wolves, sheep, the fabulous Serra da Estrela cheese and sanatoriums.
Its role as a recreational area started only after the Second World War, when the nation developed and the middle class expanded.
Then, and only then, the Portuguese looked at the Estrela as more than a sanatorium for the cure of tuberculosis.
As the decades rolled by, and with the raising interest in nature tourism and sports by the population, the Serra da Estrela started to show its hidden potential.
Potential that can be resumed in one word... well... two: (meteorological) stability.
Contrary to the other massifs in Europe - namely the Pyrenees and the Alps - subjected to violent and sudden changes in the weather conditions, the Serra da Estrela climate, after the Winter season storms, is gentle and predictable.
This means that you can engage yourself in a full week activity on the mountain without having to look, apprehensively, and every hour, to the barometer.
In this moonlit landscape photo, taken at the crossing near the Centro de Limpeza de Neve (Snow Cleaning Center), in Penhas da Saúde, are pictured the most dramatic geological formations of Serra da Estrela. In this particular place, known to us as the Central Plateau, are visible, in the foreground the Nave de Santo António, with its conspicuous chapel, and on the horizon line - from left to right - the escarpment of Covão do Ferro with its icy corridors, the Cântaro Raso, the Cântaro Magro and the Cântaro Gordo. Behind the Cântaro Raso lies the Torre plateau, the highest place in continental Portugal and not visible in the picture (see The Sno-Cats odyssey in this blog).
Granted, it's not the Himalayas and neither the Alps or even the Pyrenees for that matter. But there are still good conditions in Serra da Estrela for some nice Winter mountaineering activities. Higher than the Scottish peaks, the birthplace of the British technical Winter mountaineering, the Serra da Estrela massif has, nonetheless, a shorter Winter season, meaning that the snow and ice will stay less time on the ground. Also, the global warming is not helping since the temperatures can now change in the massif from minus ten degrees to plus eight or nine during the course of one week. That makes precipitation inconstant.
During one week might be snowing and on the next one it's probably raining.
I miss the full Winter seasons of the late eighties and the early nineties, when the temperatures would stay below freezing for weeks and the conditions for ice climbing were near perfect.
However, we can still be blessed with some years, once in a while, when the mountain keeps its snow cover for a longer period of time.
In the picture, taken on the past 10th of March, my brother Rui reaches the top of a small ice route, not far from the Torre plateau, on the slopes of Covão Cimeiro.
Since Serra da Estrela is our small "playground" for all mountain activities, from mountaineering to ski, we can find on it all the details (on a smaller scale) that are present on the big mountain ranges of the world. That makes, somehow, Serra da Estrela an invaluable school for initiating the younger generations into the wonderful world of the mountain sports and environment.
Not wanting to be left behind in such a typical mountain event, Serra da Estrela has also its avalanches, as you can see, above, on the remains of one, portrayed on the Covão Cimeiro.
They are probably not so dramatic as the ones you can see at the Annapurna basecamp, but an avalanche is an avalanche.
And the same rule applies, either in Nepal and in central Portugal: just make sure you are not below them, when they start to fall.
When we think about Serra da Estrela we think not only about snow and ice but also about sheer rock. Pure, clean and hard granite. Regardless the many sandstone crags equipped in the last twenty years all over the country and responsible for a formation of a full generation of competent sport climbers, and with the utmost respect for a granite massif located on the northern Portugal - and our only National Park - the Peneda-Gerês mountain range, no mountain has contributed more, in Portugal, for the development of technical rock climbing and mountaineering as Serra da Estrela did.
It's our rock climbing cathedral
And if any cathedral has its altar, Serra da Estrela's one is the Cântaro Magro. Raising nearly 500 meteres from its base, near the camping ground of Covão da Ametade, this massive granite monolith is, unquestionably, the symbol of the Portuguese mountaineering.
On the picture above, my brother Rui searches for a nice spot to give proper use of his Pentax K5II, while facing the North-easterly face of the colossus.
The Covão da Ametade, pictured here lit by the midnight moon, during the past March, is the usual camping ground in Serra da Estrela for the Portuguese mountaineering community visiting the "serra". The Cântaro Magro stands, in all its greatness, 500 meters above us, making us dream about faraway places and remote mountains. Here it's where all begins.
According to a story we heard, the technicians of Jaguar, the British car maker, highly praise the sunset light in Serra da Estrela, saying it's the best in the world. So, they keep coming to Portugal to direct their commercial videos here. I'm sure they are worldly persons, so I think we must take their opinions for granted. What do you think?
In the picture: sunset in Torre plateau, the highest point in continental Portugal.