05 April 2014

Our own mountain playground

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.