I like to believe that I arrive at conclusions based on accurate information. Vegetation, weather data, and conversations with locals implied that Cerdanya gets some snow each winter, though not much, and it “always melts the next day.” As I have heard around the world, the elderly speak of how winters used to be worse and actually had some snowpack, though now…not anymore.
Fair enough. Last winter was supposedly exceptional, as Levante events off the Mediterranean favored the south side of the valley with purportedly a year that is unlikely to be repeated. As I was told, in some recent winters barely any natural snowfall fell on that side, so I was duly impressed and happy with what we received.
Granted, measurable snow fell from early November to late April in the valley, sometimes up to 8 inches at a time, and melted as promised rather quickly, each time being told its “normal,” despite wheat crops getting smashed and lawn sprinklers running while it was snowing. As winter gave way to summer, I was greeted with snowfall on the mountaintops (9,000 feet) in every single calendar month, despite valley temperatures at 4,000 feet reaching almost 100 degrees last summer. This is something that happens once every 10 years in the Rockies, so I thought it was exceptional. The locals told me it was normal.
Then we received 18” of snow on green leaves at 6,000 feet, merely 2,000 feet above the valley….on September 13th. Again…..”normal” according to the locals.
Curiously, September 13th was not a harbinger of things to come. We had a wicked drought where temperatures were summerlike well into the fall, snow didn’t fall on the mountains for months, and reservoirs dropped down to 37% of normal seasonal levels – a story that sounds a lot like California. This continued into December, with no real snow, nice weather, and a nagging presumption that I saw the best that Catalonian winter had to offer in the prior year.
In January, the Battle of Winter began.
It started with a wallop of snow that came while I was driving back from Switzerland, coming over the pass in France greeted by roads that were reminiscent of a war zone. The next available moment, I went flying thinking that was probably the best we’d see for the winter, plowing through the unplowed snow for takeoff.
A few days later, I was surprised that the snow was still there, so I went up again to photograph some remaining river fog, still taking off through somewhat thick snow on the field.
I then ventured out to the Pre-Pyrenees, to try to play again with persistent winter inversions, and despite not much snow on the other side, I did encounter some nice tones. Maybe winter is slacking off as expected.
A complicated story in itself, the focus of my next day’s flight was a checkride for my European pilot certificate, which took us out of the Pyrenees as part of a test of cross country dead-reckoning skills. There, we were able to test the diversion requirement without the examiner making something up; rather, we encountered localized clouds blocking our path, and in so diverting discovered a pocket of winter. Perhaps things are starting to remind me of last year after all, even though I have been taking off through slush and snow for days on end?
The next day, it was a bit windy, as the infamous “north side” of the Pyrenees had gotten some snow, which seems to be the focus this year. Despite the continuing upper level winds, a raw, guttural desire to attack came from within, and I weaseled around some cloud layers to sneak up to 10,000 feet around sunset.
For some reason that I cannot remember, I felt the need to fly yet again, and this time found Tosa d’Alp with some snow, but really not that much compared to the prior year. Alas, we had our shot of winter and I guess that is that?
The three essential ingredients of Pyrenees winter are: waves, snow, and inversions. This image features all three, followed by my new fixation: a dual band 590nm infrared camera, which shows foliage in a separate color tone than sky. I still am perplexed why I viewed the inversion last year as such a negative…
The following flight proved my hypothesis. Despite lingering snow pack now for two weeks at the house, winter is localized this year and is basically a joke. Heading halfway to the Mediterranean, I was able to view alpine tundra lacking any serious snow…in late January. Last year, this part was completely covered and had avalanches. Alas, my new toy did handle haze well in lower elevations, and life goes on without real winter.
So it snowed again. Curious.
And then it started to blow. 20 knots at field level, 40 knots at 9,000 feet, and 60 knots at 12,500. I had a strong intuition, with a northeast instead of north wind, that I could sneak around Cadí-Moixeró with blowing snow and 40 knot winds, and this I did without encountering downdrafts or turbulence.
It was finally time to head over to the “north side” to see what all the fuss was about. Whatever snow we were not getting on the Spanish side was falling on the French. I am told this is normal, as many years its good on either side of the valley, and not both. Apparently, this year belongs to the French, so I might as well check it out.
French backcountry skiers.
The mountain waves strike again, though I still am operating on the delusion we are not experiencing winter, despite three weeks of snowpack.
A storm was predicted, 12 inches, so I snuck up in the beginning of it to enjoy some good old flying in the snowflakes (you can see them whizzing by). This is an age-old pastime that I take very cautiously, having never experienced ice, though almost always merely dabbling on the edge of a snow shower. If someone decides to fly into an ice storm without a FIKI system because of this image, he or she should consider some instruction.
And the coup de grace: attack of the Mediterranean! 3 feet of snow. Flying took a break until I could a) find the car b) get it out and c) get to the airport to find out how much fell and who to bribe to get enough removed to do some STOL activity and go flying. Thankfully, capitalism won and the flying club paid some heavy machinery to clear the field.
Unfortunately, temperatures dropped to -9F / -22,8C and that caused the foundation to heave, requiring a tractor to open the hangar, a Barcelona TV crew to block what limited taxi space was available, three airplanes, a tractor, and two cars to get parked in the way, and an insulting shovel stuck in a snowbank that I had to power off to remove for wing clearance. After 2 hours of removing obstacles at a rate slightly faster than they were presenting themselves, I was able to see some of the Pre-Pyrenees with snow uncharacteristically low. Ironically, the flying club went through three tow planes, unable to start any of them. As I taxied up to them in my significantly older and carbureted engine, I offered my hairdryer, and they indignantly declined, looking at me like some kind of hobo.
I would go up today as I write this, except winds are gusting to 50mph. While I absolutely in all seriousness would relish the chance to see a ground blizzard from the Cub, there are some things that are just not possible.
In a nutshell, winter is quite pretty and enjoyable, though I may suggest altering suppositions about Spain’s purportedly temperate meteorology.
In a decidedly less wintry theme, I have published “Field of Dreams: American Agriculture from the Sky,” my second work covering a national subject as seen from the Cub.