Monday, June 28, 2010

A Busy Day at the Refugio

High up in the Pyrenees, a six hour (sometimes terrifying) bus ride from Barcelona, there is a little ski-resort town called Benasque. Some genius named Pedro Pasquale had a brilliant idea of putting a physics center in this little town. In the language of physics, this center is in the same “universality class” as the Aspen center for physics where I will be again later this summer.

The Pyrenees are quite beautiful, and at least for the week I was there, the weather was mostly beautiful too. The Spanish locals are very friendly and have an enlightened view of life --- which includes a lot of partying and only mild work. The only negative thing I can say about the place is that the vegetarians amongst us seemed to be having a hard time finding much to eat (although the goat cheese was delicious). I, on the other hand, broke my recent vow to eat less red meat and enthusiastically gobbled down chorizo.

After giving a bunch of lectures at the INSTANS (Interdisciplinary Statistical and Field Theory Approaches to Nanophysics and Low Dimensional Systems) summer school early in the week, I relaxed for the latter half of the week, watched a lot of the world cup with the locals (and other enthusiastic Europeans), made much of my very limited Spanish vocabulary (which includes only the words “hamburgesa” and “cerveza”) and took the opportunity to go hiking a few times.

On Saturday, with no classes scheduled, a large group of students and postdocs (plus me) decided to take a long hike. (Some of these students were apparently out dancing at a disco bar until 5am the previous night, and still woke up at 9am to go hiking! Needless to say, dancing til 5am was out of the question for me). The intent was a 10+ hour hike starting in town and going up to almost a local high point (about 1500 meters of elevation gain, I think).

The mountains near Benasque do not look like the Rockies, or the Alps, rather they look like New Zealand. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but I’ve watched Lord of the Rings a bunch of times – and except for Sauron’s watchful eye and the absence of hobbits – the Pyranees look like middle earth.

On the way out of town we had to walk through a herd of rather loud, but not unfriendly, cows. These cows were not mooing, or even lowing, but they were positively bellowing. I’m not exactly sure what they were saying, but perhaps they meant to say “you idiots, can’t you see it is going to rain”. At the time the weather looked great, but…

After about three hours of hiking (and not *too* much elevation gain) we came to the “Refugio” - a tiny shelter by a clear mountain lake at a fork in the trail - where we stopped to eat our lunch. There were a fair number of hikers on the trail, and many of them had stopped in the same place. After a bit of planning, we divided into groups who intended slightly different hikes from there and set off for the hard part of the day. I ended up in the middle-speed group (which was fine with me, being too many years older than the next oldest hiker that day). After only another half-hour of hiking we made it to another mountain lake, and looking ahead, we saw the advanced party of faster hikers on the other side of the lake just starting the hard slog up the steep part of the mountain. Unfortunately, we also saw some ugly looking clouds coming in over the mountain. There was a bit of debate, but rather quickly we made the decision to turn back and try to get back down to the Refugio before getting completely pummeled by the storm.

Within only a few minutes the rain started. Then the rain turned to hail. Then the hail was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Then it just turned back into drenching rain. The trip down was probably almost as slow as the trip up because the rock had gotten slippery in places. By the time we made it back to the Refugio, we were all pretty much soaked to the bone. But alas, the Refugio (which was really tiny – maybe 8 feet on a side) was completely packed with other people who had gotten there first – 16 people in fact. So, a few of us were left out in the rain (I was given an umbrella to help me wait out the storm).

The rain continued far longer than I expected. After about another 20 minutes or so, the advance-group made it down to the Refugio and just decided to keep walking down. Being completely soaked already, and hoping to be able to walk on less slippery surface, I stayed up at the Refugio with the others waiting for it to let up.

An hour later, the sky finally cleared. Fortunately, it was not too cold out, so, although I was very very wet, I was not too uncomfortable (except for numb-ish hands). So we started the long wet slog home. On the hike down, we saw the cows again – who just looked at us and mooed happily “we told you so”.

PS: I saw a Great Pyrenees in the Pyrenees. It made my day.

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