Living at 10,000 feet is hard, more so if you’ve spent your life at sea level in Oxford. You have a perpetual, vague headache, you walk slowly, and take rests when you’re climbing stairs. There’s 30% less oxygen than at sea level, and at night when you’re trying to sleep, your body wakes you every few minutes to check you’re still alive. You read about unwary tourists dying of altitude sickness in Machu Picchu, but the Pic du Midi is 1,500 feet higher. You’re so high up that, miles below, the fearsome climb of the Col de Tourmalet looks like a gentle Sunday bike ride.
|Picture by Pascalou Petit - Licensed via Wikimedia Commons|
The Pic du Midi is a meteorological, astronomical and ecological observatory perched on top of the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. It looks like Blofeld’s lair. It is also, after the recent very harsh winter, surrounded by snow, rather than the pristine rock shown in the picture.
The most distinctive feature of the complex are the multiple cupolas housing many different telescopes.
The Pic has converted 6 rooms previously used by the scientific staff into guest bedrooms so that people can stay at the observatory overnight, watch the sun go down, see Venus and Jupiter rise, watch the rings of Saturn and Jupiter’s moons through a telescope, see the Milky Way and all the stars in the sky, sleep briefly, watch the sun rise over the mountains the next day, view solar flares through a coronascope, visit the huge TBL telescope with its 2 metre mirror, and then go back down the mountain by cable car to somewhere you can actually breathe.
|Rocks, snow, cloud, June|
Of course, this being France, you also get a four course meal with red and white wine, and a bijou bottle of champagne which the maitre d’ says you can drink or take back to your room.
There is a long safety briefing when you first arrive, and great stress is laid on the emergency number you can call if you are taken ill (there is a fully equipped sick bay), and there is an emergency phone in each bedroom. I think they’re concerned about shenanigans.
|It’s behind you. Actually this is a coronascope and it is taking pictures of the sun, not the moon.|
Unsurprisingly there is not a lot of fauna this high up, but we got to see vultures soaring, alpine choughs, and snow finches.
|The author about to strike...|