A walk in the moonlight

The central Pyrenees as seen from the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. The Néouvielle Massif is in the foreground, and the mountain crests in the background mark the French-Spanish border.

In the wake of the latest IPCC report on climate change, I noticed an item in the French press about recent temperatures recorded on the summit of the Pic du Midi. Now, there are actually two sites called Pic du Midi in France, both in the Pyrenees. Pic du Midi d’Ossau sits near the Spanish border.

This view of Pic du Midi d’Ossau is from the French side of the border. There are much better views. I thought that the view from the cable car station at Artouste was spectacular. Notice the Guardia Civil on the hilltop at the left. They carried submachine guns. In 1965 Franco still ruled Spain with an iron fist.

Detached from the rest of the range, the mountain towers over the valley of Laruns, and its silhouette immediately attracts the eyes of those strolling on the Boulevard des Pyrenees in Pau.

On the Boulevard des Pyrenees, the old fellow’s telescope seems to be pointing directly at the Pic du Midi d’Ossau. The valley of Laruns goes directly south to the Spanish boarder and its dip gives a view of the mountain.

The Pic du Midi de Bigorre is also visible from Pau, though one must look to the southeast. This 9,500 foot mountain is on the northern edge of the Pyrenees, well in advance of the main crest which marks the frontier with Spain, and higher than most of the mountains around it.

The Pic du Midi de Bigorre, in the center of the photo, is also visible from Pau.

The Pic du Midi de Bigorre has several claims to fame. An observatory on the mountain is famous and many years ago telescopes there captured photos of the moon used by the British astronomer Patrick Moore to create a detailed atlas of our satellite’s surface.

The remote site on the peak was chosen for its dark sky and clean air and accessibility. By the twenty-first century, light pollution had become a major problem for the astronomers working there. France has initiated a Dark Sky Reserve, the first in Europe, to deal with the problem.

When I was 11 or so, I developed an interest in astronomy, and I actually knew who Patrick Moore was when I arrived in Pau, as well his role in astronomy. On the other hand, I hardly knew anything about France, especially the southwest. The discovery of big mountains and proximity to the ocean was a joy.

A few days ago, the press noted that the temperature on the summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre had just equaled the previous record high temperature for an August night and approached the all time nighttime high for any month. On the night of August 13–14 the temperature reached 58° F (14.5° C), only equaled once before in August, 2012. None of these temperatures can be described as balmy, but the mountain is almost 9,500 feet high. The record high of 58.8 (14.9° C) was recorded in June 2019, and the climate on the mountain is clearly warming. Incidentally, the annual nighttime low for mid-summer is 35.4° F (1.9° C).

The article on the Pic du Midi reminded me of my own youthful encounter with the summit many years ago. In the summer of 1965, I was studying French at a summer program for foreigners in Pau in southwest France. I had come to France that summer to extend my stay in Europe, occasioned by an autumn semester abroad in Montpellier. The trip to Europe was my first and I was determined to make the most of it. Learning French was the goal, but after that I had no clear idea about what I wanted. I had never heard of Pau until the summer program there was recommended by an upperclassman at my college. Despite having had 4 years of French, my command of the spoken language was minimal, and my ignorance of the history and culture of France was immense.

The people of Pau are justly proud of their native son, Henri IV, who brought peace and prosperity to France after years of religious turmoil. He was assassinated by a religious fanatic. The inscription is in the local language, not French.
Leaving Montreal on a Cunard liner.

Around July 1, Canada Day, I took the train from Niagara Falls to Montreal, and left the next day on a Cunard liner bound for Liverpool. As I remember, the ship took well over a week to arrive. The route up the St. Lawrence River and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence took two days by itself. The ship didn’t stop in Quebec City, but it slowed down and took on passengers from a motor launch.

Quebec City is only a few hours downriver from Montreal. My ship reached it late in the afternoon. This photo was taken a year or two later, probably from a ferry from Lévis.

The ship passed through the strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador, rounded northern Ireland, and stopped briefly to unload passengers in Greenock, Scotland. There were a lot of Scots on the trip including a table full of Scottish Canadians from Toronto with whom I took my meals. Scots make up Canada’s third largest ethnic origin after the English and the French.

My dining companions aboard the ship. Ross, three ladies of the Orchard family, and Peter, all ready to debark at Greenock.

After leaving the St Lawrence, whales and icebergs were the only sights till Scotland. There wasn’t much to do aboard. The ship, in its last years of service, was definitely not a luxury liner, but it was as inexpensive as the cheapest air travel, and gave me an opportunity to experience a transatlantic ship passage. At Christmas, I flew back on an Air Canada flight to Toronto, seated beside Italian immigrants.

Floating ice off the coast of Labrador.

Arriving in Liverpool, I took the train to London and spent a couple of days sightseeing. By chance, standing outside Westminster Hall, I saw a carriage with the Queen and President Eduardo Frei of Chile, in London for a state visit. I suppose that this event was a highlight. Otherwise, I saw only a small selection of the standard tourist sights. I knew a lot about how parliament operated from my Canadian studies, but virtually nothing about Great Britain.

On July 14, I took a train to France and arrived at the Gare du Nord, the streets still displaying litter in the aftermath of Bastille Day. I then caught an overnight train with couchettes to Pau, arriving on a brilliant summer morning. I don’t think it rained more than a day during my six-week stay. Pau deserves its reputation for a mild and pleasant climate. One of the least windy areas of France, Pau was a center for training paratroopers.

I didn’t live in a dormitory. I rented a room from a wonderful elderly widow who took in students studying in Pau during the summer. The other lodgers were older than me and I didn’t socialize much with them. By the third week I hadn’t made any friends, and was beginning to feel a bit lonely.

Though I had a room in Madame Pineaud’s house, I took my meals in the communal dining hall at the summer school, a lycée during the regular scholastic year. I still remember the entrance to the school building, which had a quote from the Roman playwright Terence over the doors: “Je suis un homme, rien de ce qui est humain ne m’est étranger.” (“I am a man, nothing that is human is foreign to me.”)

One night at dinner I met a Finnish student and asked her if she’d like to go out for coffee. Sitting on the terrace of a cafe, we conversed in somewhat halting French until the subject of where we were from came up. When I said that I was from Niagara Falls, she replied that she had grown up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. From that point, we spoke English which she spoke just as well as I did, though with a softness from her native Finnish. Her family had moved to Canada after WWII, when she was very young, then moved back to Finland when she was in her teens. She had spoken enough English by then to affect her Finnish.

Terry and I spent much of the rest of the summer together, hitchhiking around the local countryside. In those times it was easy to get rides, and we carried flags that identified us as foreigners. The French were gracious about picking us up.

The road from Pau to Spain.
The valley of Argelès-Gazost. Our route from Pau to Pic du Midi probably went through Lourdes and Argelès.

Wednesday afternoons were free from classes so it was easy to visit places within 30 to 40 miles or even more, though sometimes we got back to Pau as dark was falling. Weekends offered the chance to go much farther, and on one of them we decided to visit the Pic du Midi.

The 6,000 foot high pass, le Col du Tourmalet, on one side of the mountain, is part of a famously difficult bike segment of the Tour de France, but Pic du Midi’s real renown comes from its observatory as well as the summit, which was then accessible by auto for visits to the observatory and a spectacular panorama.

The main telescope.

One Saturday Terry and I set off for the mountain. Though it was the beginning of August and the roads were full of tourists, we did not arrive at the Col du Tourmalet until late in the afternoon.

On the Col du Tourmalet, tourists pause for photos of a Pyrenees dog. Bred to guard sheep, these dogs can be fiercely protective of their flocks. In the background, the old unpaved road to the summit. Difficult to maintain, the road was closed after a number of fatal accidents. Tourists can only reach the summit on foot or by cable car today.

Without much thought about the time, we decided walk up the toll road to the top, about 3,000 feet above the pass. The road had already closed for the night so we knew we would have to walk up and back down.

On the way up, afternoon clouds slid down the mountainsides and filled the valleys.

We arrived just before dark. The valleys were clouded in, but the sunset view was spectacular. We knew that we had a long, but downhill walk back to the main road and there might not be much traffic there when we reached it, but we took the chance. We were rewarded by a breathtaking sunset on the deserted mountain.

Pausing for photos neat the summit, Terry poses for me.
Time to start down, most people would say. Terry is shooting the sunset.

The temperature was beginning to drop, and at 9,000 feet in the Pyrenees the nights are quite cold. On an earlier trip to the Lac d’Artouste, we descended on the last cable car of the day in summer attire and the trip down and back to Pau was chilly. We were lucky. This August night was not especially cold, and though the air cooled rapidly, our walk kept us warm enough. Terry had a light jacket. I just had a sweatshirt.

From Tourmalet down, the few cars that passed us did not stop. We had decided to head to the closest ski resort, La Mongie, a few thousand feet and four kilometers away. The clouds evaporated. The night was clear and a full moon lit the ridges and valleys. The heights cast deep shadows, and the sky was full of stars despite the moonlight. We were very tired when we reached the resort, but not exhausted. When we arrived, the desk clerk expressed surprise that he had not heard a car—few guests arrived without one. The hotel was virtually empty. La Mongie in those days was a place for winter fun, and today is one of the largest ski centers in the Pyrenees. Since the road we walked to the summit is now closed, most of today’s visitors take a cable car from La Mongie.

The next day we headed back to Pau by the same route. A French family picked us up, and took us back up to the top of the mountain with them and, as the weather was clear, we got to see the expansive panorama of the central Pyrenees that the mountaintop offers visitors.

The next day, with the family who took us up to the summit with them.

We had little trouble hitching back to Pau that fine Sunday afternoon, and were satisfied with an excursion that turned into an adventure, a long moonlit walk through rugged and deserted mountain scenery.

Climate change has indeed come to the Pic du Midi. Daytime summer temperatures there used to reach 68° F (20° C) only about once every twenty years. That temperature has now been exceeded for three years in a row: 2019, 2020, and 2021.

The Glacier d’Ossoue. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The largest glacier in the Pyrenees, le Glacier d’Ossoue, stretched 5 kilometers when Count Henry Russell, an Englishman who fell in love with the Pyrenees, climbed Vignemale and surrounding peaks.

Count Henry Russell
Henry Russell outside a cave on Vignemale.

Today it is only 1.3 kilometers long, and the glacier is likely to disappear by mid-century, if not much sooner. When it disappears, the caves that Henry Russell had blasted into the side of Vignemale will only be accessible to skilled climbers. In his day, Russell had them stocked with food and wine, threw elaborate dinner parties, and spent nights in them from time to time.

Three of Russel’s caves on Vignemale. Photo: Wiki Commons.
The classic view of Vignemale. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Pyrenees are about as high as the northern Rockies in the United States where the glaciers of Glacier National Park are melting. Mountain glaciers around the world are receding rapidly. In some cases, the effects may be catastrophic. The demise of the Himalayan glaciers will have tremendous impacts on India and Pakistan, where the great rivers that flow from those mountains into the plains of the Indian subcontinent provide irrigation water during the dry season of the monsoons. Tens of millions of small farmers will face disaster, ironically, in the very area where one of the earliest civilizations arose.

Everyone should take a course in historical geology, coupled perhaps, with another on the history of science. Few people seem to be able to grasp the scale of geologic time. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old. A million years is a relatively short period.

I try to explain geologic time this way: the earth’s climate has been rising rapidly due to man-made activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. The change has accelerated substantially since the 1950s. What we are talking about in our discussions of the causes of climate change has happened over only a century or two.

The meteorite that created the Chicxulub crater sixty-five million years ago created immense damage in a few days. The power of the collision of that meteorite with the Earth really staggers the imagination, and I doubt that even the best efforts of Hollywood special effects artists could capture it. The extent of plant and animal extinction, and, especially, the total disappearance of sea animals, such as the hitherto highly successful ammonites, as well as all non-avian dinosaurs testifies to the effects of habitant disruption by a climate change that happened virtually overnight, though we can be certain that the effects of the Chicxulub meteorite continued on for hundreds and thousands of years before the climate stabilized. If one measures a few days up against a few centuries on a geologic scale that is measured in millions, the difference becomes almost insignificant, particularly in view of the fact that the effects of current climate change, like those of the Chicxulub strike, will continue long after the causes have disappeared.

There is an old joke about a man who tries to talk with God. One day, at long last, his efforts are finally rewarded when God answers.

“What is it that you want from Me?”

The man replies, “Please tell me, God, how long is a million years to you?”

God replies, “A million years is as a second.”

“And how much is a million dollars to you?” asks the man.

God answers that a million dollars is as a penny.

Finally, the man asks God, “Can you lend me a million dollars?”

God replies, “Of course. Just a second.”

People must adjust their thinking to time frames far beyond quarterly profits and election cycles to have any chance of managing climate change. Time has almost run out for limiting the rise of the earth’s temperature to 1.5° C. Should climate change continue unchecked and global temperatures continue to rise, the world as we know it will be gone forever.

Last week scientists noted the first rainfall ever on the Greenland Icecap. Rain had never been witnessed there before. Indeed, the scientists had no rain gauge among their meteorological equipment to measure the amount, since none had ever fallen.

My theory is that it wasn’t rain at all, but tears shed by God as He looked down upon what man has done to His creation.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

3 thoughts on “A walk in the moonlight”

  1. Ah the Col du Tourmalet, I haven’t been down that way for many years. We visited when my wife was pregnant with our eldest ( he’s now over 30! ) and we drove up the Tourmalet in a successful search for griffon vultures. The other spectacular site I remember is the Cirque de Gavarnie which is well worth a visit – where we saw an alpine chough.

    ( I’m now off to get my 1962 Auto-Parade Annual to try and identify some of those French cars. The Renault Dauphine and the Citroën Ami are OK but I need help with the assorted Peugeots! )

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    1. I’m so happy that someone reading the blog post has been to these places. Yes, Gavarnie certainly merits its reputation as grandiose, sublime, beautiful. I have seen choughs in both the Atlas Mountains and the Alps. As for griffon vultures, I cannot yet put them in my life list, though there was a summer day when I climbed above the cable car station at the Pic du Ger, through wet snow, and sat in the sun while my shoes dried. The view back over the valley of Laruns was impressive. High above the valley, large raptors or vultures turned lazy circles. They were just specks so identification was not possible, and I was pretty much ignorant of Old World birds. I never saw any griffon vultures in a Morocco, where they also are found, and it’s a bird I would like to see. Here I content myself with turkey vultures, which are common and which occasionally perch in the trees in my back yard. This year, my wife and I also have seen several bald eagles in our trees. They are not common in the highly urbanized region where we live. Eagles have made a comeback since DDT was banned. So have Great Lakes cormorants, which I never saw in my youth, to the point where sport fisherman blame them for poor catches.

      I can’t help with the cars, but the mention reminds me of the old black 1940s Citroën gathering dust behind the primary school in Sefrou. I imagined that it would have made a great vehicle for any gangster!

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      1. It’s great to see pictures of places I’ve actually been! As regards vultures then the Cévennes region in the south of France is the place to go apparently. After a re-introduction in the 80s you can see four different types if you’re lucky – griffon, black, bearded and the odd migratory Egyptian vulture. We were there in the early 90s but only saw the griffon version.

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