Safe snowshoeing (2): techniques and technology

February 28th, 2018
Snowshoeing near Chioula, Aude

Snowshoeing near Chioula, Aude


After my last disastrous outing, I’ve compiled a snowshoeing safety checklist for future use. My intention is to summarise the main issues involved, but this is not a definitive guide to snowshoeing and readers need to compare my thoughts with other sources.

As far as safety is concerned, snowshoeing is the equivalent of skiing. Many ski resorts now have dedicated paths for snowshoeing, which are perfectly safe. Anywhere off these paths and you are faced with the same issues as skiing off-piste. You either need to pay a guide (see list below) or to review the situation carefully.

Checklist for safe snowshoeing in the Pyrenees

  • Planning
    • Check out several alternative treks, so one can be selected on the day, according to weather and experience of group. Have a Plan B for when things go wrong.
    • Calculate slope angle on and near route. Aim for less than 20° (37%) for greatest safety. Mature, dense forest also provides good protection from avalanches.
    • Check out known avalanche zones online.
    • Locate potentially dangerous snow bridges, over streams and in areas of karst.
    • Is the path well used so that the snow will be trodden-down? If not, walking in fresh deep snow can take twice as long.
    • If in doubt contact a professional guide or mountain rescue.
  • Weather
    • Follow the weather forecast for one week before the walk.
    • The day before the walk, check out actual snowfall, wind and temperatures online and by telephoning your accommodation, nearest town hall (mairie in France, ayuntamiento in Spain, ajuntament in Catalonia and Andorra) or ski resort. Is the snow likely to be soft, hard, icy?
    • On the day, take particular note of the weather trend.
    • Wind speed and cloud cover are as important as temperature.
  • Experience
    • Check the experience of the group and adapt the snowshoeing to the weakest link.
    • Only take people you know on difficult walks.
  • Equipment
    • I’m not going to consider avalanche beacons, shovels, probes, crampons and ice axes here. My philosophy with groups is to avoid areas where the slope angle is steep enough for avalanches to be possible.

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Safe snowshoeing (1): Cautionary tales

February 27th, 2018
Snowshoeing near Chioula (Aude)

Snowshoeing near Chioula (Aude)


The last time I organised a snowshoeing expedition in the Pyrenees, I mucked up. We arrived at our destination over three hours late, in the dark.

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A serious situation

February 11th, 2018
Gisèle Gouazé with part of the flock grazing on their winter pasture in Betchet

Gisèle Gouazé with part of the flock grazing on their winter pasture in Betchet


Early last June 838 sheep went up to their estive (summer pastures) near Mont Rouch as they do every year. But, despite the presence of a shepherd living with them on the mountain, nearly half of them didn’t return. The reason? Bears. Read the rest of this entry »

Snow reports for walkers in the Pyrenees

January 29th, 2018

From mid-July to September, apart from occasional showers, the only snow in the Pyrenees is the icing on the glaciers. But for the other nine months of the year walkers need to take into account the possibility of drifts and avalanches.

So when and where can you hike in the Pyrenees this winter without crampons or snowshoes? Please help me to reply by filing snow reports below.


* indicates the first high ground encountered on the GR10, HRP and GR11 trails where snow may be a problem, between 15 October and 14 June

* indicates the first high ground encountered on the GR10, HRP and GR11 trails where snow may be a problem early and late in the trekking season

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Can sheep be protected from bears in the Pyrenees? No, says Éric Fournié

January 4th, 2018


My last article was based on Catherine Brunet’s book La bergère et l’ours [The shepherdess and the bears] in which she declares that the measures proposed by the State to protect sheep can work. Here, I reproduce interviews given by farmer Éric Fournié and his shepherd Gérard Pujol about their experiences in the mountains in the summer of 2017.

Transcript of the interview with Éric Fournié and Gérard Pujol

For the last five years Éric Fournié has done everything the State has recommended to protect his sheep. This summer 223 went up to the estive [mountain pasture] at Arréou [near Seix, Ariège] and he thought that this year was going to be a good one.

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Can sheep be protected from bears in the Pyrenees? Yes, says Catherine Brunet

December 28th, 2017
Tarasconnaises sheep

Tarasconnaises sheep


It is twenty years since bears were first reintroduced into the Pyrenees and yet the question of how to protect sheep is still being debated. Some breeders assert that a shepherd permanently on site with a patou (guard dog) and who brings his sheep together at night will have minimal losses, particularly when compared with natural mortality. This is the authorities’ official line.

Others, notably in Couserans (Ariège), say that cohabitation with bears is not possible especially in areas where the slopes are steep and rocky. The flocks disperse into smaller units (escabots) in search of sustenance. Some shepherds have tried to follow the official recommendations and report difficulties.

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Rewilding the Pyrenees: news about bears

December 13th, 2017


Last Saturday I went to a meeting of farmers, politicians and officials called to discuss the effect of bears on sheep farming in the Pyrenees. There are now about forty brown bears in the massif following two waves of reintroductions over the last twenty years. Their presence is still controversial, particularly in Ariège where the meeting was held. Ensauvagement, rewilding, is a dirty word in some quarters.

To my mind, there were two significant developments at the meeting which went by the name of the États-Généraux du Pastoralisme. One was the announcement of a scientific investigation into whether the government-recommended measures to protect livestock really are useful. And the second was the President of the Ariège council’s announcement that he could envisage, albeit reluctantly, that the bears are here to stay.


The famous video in which a group of armed men dressed in balaclavas threaten to “restart bear-hunting in Ariege”


The discussions started in the morning but it wasn’t until the Prefect [the government official responsible for overseeing the department] had left that things started to heat up. During the final plenary session, a man who had just arrived asked for the microphone. He grabbed the attention of the audience by mentioning “the famous video that you have all seen, with the guns” and then went on to say that bears had no place in the Pyrenees. The audience clapped and a few minutes later he left. For him, that was all there was to it.

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Crying wolf?

December 11th, 2017
Wolves in the Maison des Loup, Orlu, Ariège

Wolves in the Maison des Loups, Orlu, Ariège


Are too many wolves being culled in France? Or not enough? Ecological associations here are taking the government to court, demanding that it changes its policy on culling. Up to 36 can be killed each year if they repeatedly attack sheep. The associations want the government to take the (relatively low) total wolf population into account and reduce the number of wolves killed. But, as a recent demonstration showed, some farmers in the Pyrenees are unhappy about predators and don’t want any more. Read the rest of this entry »

In the corridors of the (future) Mountain Parliament

November 30th, 2017

Part of the audience at the preliminary meeting


I was in Quillan (Aude) earlier this week, for a meeting on the future of our mountains. Following a major reorganisation, the new region of Occitanie (articulated around the two metropoles of Toulouse and Montpellier) has decided to create a Mountain Parliament.

The idea is to give stakeholders a voice. According to Carole Delga, the region’s president: “The aim is to encourage communication and the emergence of new ideas so that regional policies can be adapted to the needs of the whole population.”

And mountains are a significant part of the new region:

  • 55% of the surface area
  • 20% of the population, ie 1.13 million inhabitants
  • 47% of the communes, ie 2153 in total

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Access to Canigó to be restricted?

November 18th, 2017
Canigó summit: often crowded

Canigó summit: often crowded


The authorities are considering limiting access to Catalonia’s favourite mountain. This has practical implications (details below) but it also heralds the start of a new chapter in the way we perceive Canigó and the Pyrenees in general.

Initially remote, wild and dangerous, Canigó has become a Catalan emblem – frequently nicknamed la montagne sacrée [sacred mountain] des Catalans. It has been exploited for minerals and wood, and narrowly escaped some of the worst ravages of mass tourism. Now it seems to be heading for a quieter life.


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