Category: Basque mountaineering

Harri mutil, an elephant, and “that was good sheep country”

This past spring your Basque Books Editor had the chance to climb Elephant Mountain, in the far northwestern corner of the Black Rock Wilderness Area, about 7 hours north of Reno by car. This wild and remote mountain, really just a foothill outcropping of the larger Black Rock Range, gets its name from its appearance, of being a elephant charging up the desert. Growing up in this corner of Northern Nevada I spent many days dreaming about that mountain, which in addition to it’s distinctive, imagination-shaping form also served as the edge of the horizon, so, as it were for a young boy riding a horse, it was the very edge of the world.

Elephant Mountain, seen from Leonard Creek Road near the intersection with Pearl Camp Road in northern Nevada

But it wasn’t until a recent weekend that I had the chance to actually scramble up it. On a overcast day we drove south and climbed up along one of its ears. We stopped for lunch in the saddle where ear turns into head and then continued upward. It was a short, steep climb until nearing the top it rounded out and the vast expanse of desert and mountain range after mountain range opened up before us. Loving to explore in the desert moutains, the expanse did not surprise me, but the presence of what was most likely a harri mutil (“stone boy”) did. On the crest, looking generally northward toward the Pine Forest Mountains and eastward toward the Jackson Mountains, and with the full sweep of the desert at its feet, was a large stone marker or, according to Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe in Speaking through Aspens, a “sheepherder’s monument.” These large stone cairns were made by the sheepherders to demarcate ranges, but may have had other uses as well.

The stone marker, looking west toward the Black Rock Mountains proper

The hiking crew, celebrating from where we have come and where we are going!

It was such a pleasure to find this marker, here at the edge of what was once my world, showing what went beyond. I recently had the opportunity to make an oral history interview with Frank Bidart (only 94 years young!) who also grew up in this area when they still ran sheep, and he had told me about trailing sheep down across the desert “almost to Lovelock” in the winter. They would have trailed them just below, maybe across, where I stood. “That was good sheep country,” he had said. Maybe he had climbed here and added his own stones to this harri mutil; maybe he had, as a young man, dreamed about what went beyond it.

Basque climber to embark on most extreme challenge of career

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Basque mountaineer Alex Txikon. Photo by Amaia Larruzea (Mendialdiak) at Alex Txikon’s website.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog you will know by now just how important mountains are to Basques; and how Basques, so relatively few in number, truly punch above their weight when it comes to forming part of the world’s mountaineering elite. For example, here on the blog we’ve looked at the careers and impact of Edurne Pasaban, Juanito Oiarzabal, and Alberto Iñurrategi. In the same vein, one of the rising stars of Basque mountaineering, Alex Txikon from Lemoa, Bizkaia, recently announced his intention to embark on the most extreme challenge of his career to date, “even,” he himself suggests via his website, “the most ambitious challenge in the world of mountaineering”: an ascent of Everest, in winter, and without oxygen. To put this challenge into some perspective, bear in mind that nobody has attempted to climb Everest in winter in more than two decades, and that it was first scaled in winter only in 1980, with oxygen, by the great Polish mountaineer Krzysztof Wielicki and his companion Leszek Cichy.

Txikon (in green) and fellow expedition members get a real Basque send-off from a txistulari at Loiu Airport, Bilbao. Photo at Alex Txikon’s website.

Txikon came to the attention of the mountaineering world, together with companions Simone Moro and Ali Sadpara, after they climbed Nanga Parbat in Pakistan–the ninth highest mountain in the world at 8,126 meters (26,660 ft) above sea level–in the winter of 2015; the first ever winter ascent of the so-called killer mountain (check out the story of that adventure and some great images here). On the expedition to climb Everest in 2017 he will be accompanied by Carlos Rubio as well as cameramen Aitor Bárez and Pablo Magister.

If you want to follow this adventure, check out Alex Txikon’s website here, where you’ll be able to follow the whole expedition in real time! (By the way, at the same website Alex recounts an amazing nighttime climb in Oñati, Gipuzkoa, as part of his training for the Everest ascent, with some incredible pictures. Check out that story here).

On Anboto

 

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The distinctive limestone peaks of the Urkiola Range, Anboto is the peak farthest on the right. From the hamlet of Urkiola.

It’s December again and I can’t believe it has been a whole year since I was last in the Basque Country! Since I wasn’t able to go this year, I’ve been fondly remembering my last time there, especially my last day there, a Sunday when my coworker and his partner offered to take me on a long-desired visit to Anboto. The mountain dominates the skyline of Durango and, just as a hiker looking up at it on breaks from the Azoka Stand, I’ve always wanted to make a shot at it, so I jumped at the chance. Although Anboto is actually lower in elevation than Reno at around 4,370 feet (Reno stands, according to Google, at 4,500 feet), it stands out from the landscape as an overpowering juggernaut. It is an immense mass of limestone, with cliff faces of 1,000 meters (roughly 3,000 feet) over Atxondo Valley. Anboto is one of the most known and most characteristic summits of the Basque Country.

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Looking south from Urkiolamendi Pass at the beginning of the true peak ascent. It is easy to understand the grip the mountain has had on the Basque imagination.

With its distinctive shape, Anboto is not only easily recognizable but it has always played a role in Basque mythology, most famously as the home of Mari, the Basque goddess who is said to control the weather. She is said to live in a cave on the front face of the mountain. She is also known as Anbotoko Mari (“the Lady of Anboto”), She and the god Sugaar were (also known as Sugoi or Maju) connected her to the weather. When she traveled with Sugaar hail would fall. And in general her tos and fros across the sky brought storms or droughts.

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Mari was said to control the weather from her cavern on Anboto.

We left the car at the hamlet of Urkiola, in the Parque Natural de Urkiola, alongside the Sanctuary of Urkiola, a Roman Catholic temple that famously celebrates the Day of Saint Anthony of Padua on June 13. This saint helps those looking for lost objects and for love, but we needed nothing as we started off on a crisp December morning with mountains dotting in and out of thick fog. The walk is a popular one and we passed many other strollers and even some Basque ponies or pottoka.

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A wild Basque pony, clearly used to passersby and photo opportunities, similar to Reno’s local mustangs.

It was so pleasant walking and talking with my coworker and his companion, who have also become my good friends over my years working as your Basque Books Editor. Once we get past the fog layer the day is clear and bright, an anomaly for the Basque Country in this time of year and we soak it in. At Urkiolamendi Pass my companions, having been here many times before, decided that they would forsake a summit attempt and they sent me on alone. Now the trail became braided into various use trails and, with the beautiful day and with the Basques’ love for the outdoors, hiking, and mountain climbing, there were many people on the pass. Climbing up through steep limestone, at first the trail remained in the treeline, but it was truly stunning when it emerged and you could see how very steep this mountain really is.

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That is a long way down!

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The peak in sight now, sharing the trail with lots of visitors

I emerged onto the top of the ridge to a sublime panorama of what seemed to be the entire Basque Country. Durango in the valley below me, farther away toward the coast where Gernika was, and then, over there, even where Bilbao would be although it remained out of sight.

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Emerging onto the highest ridge, looking toward Durango and Bilbao.

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The last climb to the summit, dotted with people.

I started climbing the last, narrow, very steep climb to the summit. I think that maybe Mari go to me, or Sugaar, because I started to get really nervous. My more or less street shoes didn’t seem to be finding the traction they should on the still dew wet grass and the number of people (in Nevada it is much more common to hike alone) made me feel claustrophobic. Particularly one couple, with the man convincing an increasingly reluctant woman that she should continue while younger, fitter people clambered all about us. I was probably only meters from the summit when I realized that it didn’t matter so much, that I had done what I had set out to do and that it was time for me to get off of the mountain without officially having stood on its summit. My companions, a txakoli, and lunch would be awaiting me down at the bottom, while there was only the wind and myth and fate left on the summit. So I retraced my steps. Rejoined my companions for an excellent lunch in Urkiola, and left Anboto behind for another year. I’ll be back!!!

Happy holidays and New Year to all of our blog readers. Thanks so much for following along with us and for staying abreast of what is happening at the Center and in Basque culture. Here’s looking forward to 2017!

Agur!

Your Basque Books Editor

The 2016 Bilbao Mendi Film Festival

This year’s Bilbao Mendi Film Festival kicked off on December 9 and runs through December 18. This is an annual festival that celebrates cinematic representations of mountains, mountaineering, hiking, climbing, skiing, adventure, exploration, extreme sports, and the great outdoors in general. Check out the trailer on the main website to get a flavor of what it’s all about.

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Basque-themed work appearing at the festival this year includes Akabuko Martxea, a documentary directed by Aitor Gisasola and Fredi Paia about efforts to recreate the tradition of sheep transhumance in herding sheep from the Urbia Mountains to the Uribe Kosta coastal district.

In the fall of 2015 two Gipuzkoan shepherds, Mikel Etxezarreta and Eli Arrillaga, spent five days herding 250 sheep from Zegama in Gipuzkoa to Getxo in Bizkaia. Their aim was to recreate the tradition of transhumance, a way of life that came to an end in the early 1980s. Indeed, Etxezarreta himself last carried out such a trek in 1982.

The Basque-made documentary, Kurssuaq. La exploración del Río Grande, will also be shown. We covered this amazing kayak expedition in a previous post here. Similarly, Humla, produced and directed by Mikel Sarasola, charts the adventures of four kayakers as they attempt to negotiate the mighty Humla Karnali, the longest river in Nepal.

The documentary Common Ground, meanwhile, charts the expedition of a group of climbers, including the brothers Iker and Eneko Pou from Vitoria-Gasteiz, to the remote Chukotka region of Siberia. In a similar vein, Eñaut Izagirre’s Incognita Patagonia, produced for National Geographic, covers a climbing expedition to the Cloue Icefield on Hoste Island, at the southern tip of Latin America.

Elsewhere, Jon Herranz directs Mar Alvarez No Logo, a documentary about woman firefighter and part-time climber, Mar Alvarez.

In somewhat of a different direction, Iker Elorrieta’s film I Forgot Myself Somewhere examines the challenges faced by women in northern Pakistan to get an education.

And Xabier Zabala’s Imaginador is a biography of photographer Santi Yaniz, famed for his work in the Basque Country and the Pyrenees.

See a full list of the films on show here.

November 3, 1968: Mountaineer Alberto Iñurrategi born

One of the world’s great mountaineers, Alberto Iñurrategi Iriarte, was born on November 3, 1968 in Aretxabaleta, Gipuzkoa. He became the tenth person–and the youngest to that date at thirty-three years of age–to complete all fourteen eight-thousander summits, the highest mountains on earth, in 2002 (see an earlier post we did on Juanito Oiarzabal climbing these peaks here).

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Alberto Iñurrategi Iriarte

He climbed twelve of those peaks with his brother, Felix, who tragically died on the descent of one of them, Gasherbrum II, in 2000. What’s more,  Iñurrategi climbed the peaks in an Alpine style using few lines or sherpas and no bottled oxygen, making him the fourth person to have climbed all fourteen peaks without bottled oxygen.

Here are the figures for his successful ascents of all fourteen eight-thousander summits with the years he did so in parentheses.

  1. Makalu (1991)
  2. Everest (1992)
  3. K2 (1994)
  4. Cho Oyu (1995)
  5. Lhotse (1995)
  6. Kangchenjunga (1996)
  7. Shishapangma (1996)
  8. Broad Peak (1997)
  9. Dhaulagiri I (1998)
  10. Nanga Parbat (1999)
  11. Manaslu (2000)
  12. Gasherbrum II (2000)
  13. Gasherbrum I (aka Hidden Peak) (2001)
  14. Annapurna I (2002)

Iñurrategi thus joins a long line of distinguished Basque mountaineers and today stands, alongside Juanito Oiarzabal and Edurne Pasaban (the latter of whom we have also posted about here), as the most famous member of this intrepid group of Basques.

April 29, 1999: Juanito Oiarzabal reaches last eight-thousander summit

Born in 1956 in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba, Juanito Oiarzabal is still one of the most renowned mountaineers in the world today.

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Juanito Oiarzabal (2007). Photo by Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela (crop and editing by Lucas, same licence). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On April 29, 1999, on reaching the summit of Annapurna in Nepal, he completed an odyssey that had begun way back in 1985: to reach all fourteen eight-thousander summits, that is, the fourteen mountains on earth that are more than 8,000 meters (26,247 ft) high above sea level. He was the sixth verified person ever to do so, behind Reinhold Messner (Italy, b. 1944), Jerzy Kukuczka (Poland, 1948-1989), Erhard Loretan (Switzerland, 1959-2011), Carlos Carsolio Larrea (Mexico, b. 1962), and Krzysztof Wielicki (Poland, b. 1950), and the third to reach all the summits without supplementary oxygen.

Additionally,  he went on to be the first person to conquer the top three summits  (Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga) twice and, with  a record of twenty-seven successful eight-thousander ascents in total, is second only in ranking to the Nepalese mountaineer Phurba Tashi (on thirty).

Here are the figures for his successful ascents of all fourteen eight-thousander summits with the years he did so in parentheses.

  1. Everest (1993, 2001)
  2. K2 (1994, 2004)
  3. Kangchenjunga (1996, 2009)
  4. Lhotse (1995, 2011)
  5. Makalu (1995, 2008)
  6. Cho Oyu (1985, 2002, and 2003, the latter on two separate occasions)
  7. Dhaulagiri I (1998)
  8. Manaslu (1997, 2011)
  9. Nanga Parbat (1992)
  10. Annapurna I (1999, 2010)
  11. Gasherbrum I (aka Hidden Peak) (1997, 2003)
  12. Broad Peak (1995)
  13. Gasherbrum II (1987, 2003)
  14. Shishapangma (1998)

As if all this were not enough, Oiarzabal is now seeking to be the first person to complete all eight-thousander summits twice! As you can see from the list above, he is four ascents shy of reaching this amazing goal, and this year he’s planning ascents on Dhaulagiri I in May and, if successful there, on Broad Peak thereafter.

Just out of interest, Basques are pretty well represented in the order of mountaineers who have reached the summits of all eight-thousanders, with Alberto Iñurrategi (b. 1968) from Aretxabaleta, Gipuzkoa, coming in at tenth (being the youngest person, at thirty-three years of age, to accomplish the feat), and Edurne Pasaban (b. 1973), from Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, at twenty-first (and the first woman to do so).

Pyrenayca, 90 years old

This months marks the 90th anniversary of the journal Anales de la Federación Vasco-Navarra de Alpinismo or, more easily, Pyrenaica. It’s the journal of the Basque Mountaineering Federation (originally the Basque-Navarrese Mountaineering Federation), an organization founded in Elgeta. Gipuzkoa, in 1924. Given the tremendous interest in all forms of hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and other outdoor pursuits in the Basque Country, this is still an important organization today.

First number of <em>Pyrenaica</em>.

First edition of Pyrenaica.

At the time of the journal’s inception, the Basque Country was experiencing a cultural renaissance: Eusko Ikaskuntza, the Society of Basque Studies, had been founded in 1918, followed by the creation of Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language, a year later in 1919. Despite the fact that the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera was ruling Spain at the time (1923-1930), this was an era of fervent Basque cultural activity, and Pyrenaica was part of this flourishing movement, demonstrating the key symbolic importance of mountains and mountaineering in Basque culture and to Basque identity as a whole.

During its long history, the journal has changed with the social transformations going on around it. To see these changes as reflected in the pages of the journal, check out the different editions of this valuable sociocultural historical resource over time here.