Alta Ruta Pirenaica, number 3.5

(3.5 because we also did a winter traverse of Monte Perdido which linked up #1 and #2.)

Javier and I spent another 11/12 days in the Pyrenees from 27 September to 7 October, continuing our push towards the Mediterranean. As always, following Gorka’s mildly sadistic interpretation of the Pyrenees High Route/Alta Route/Haute Route. And as always, weather and reality forced us to make compromises with Gorka, and we took several shortcuts and (a first) hitchhiked some boring bits.

Once again, it was a stunning combination of beautiful mountains, fun bits of easy scrambling, unexpected snow, solitary refugios (always wistfully passed, onward to colder nights in my tent) and lots of cows and cow poop. We set off from Baqueira with uncomfortably heavy packs; 12 days of food is a lot to carry no matter how special and light your sleeping bag/tent etc are! We walked up to Montgarri, possibly my new favourite refugio despite its car-accessible location. It boasts a stunning old church that can’t ever have been used by many, and a history as a stopover point for Jewish refugees escaping from France during WWII.

We slept (not much) with a cohort of cows clanking their bells around us, and the next day crossed into France, with the beautiful Mont Valier in the distance as our day’s objective. Beautiful lakes, and no people (a common theme in the mountains in autumn) until we came to the wonderfully perched Refugi Estagnous. After a slightly exposed walk, we pitched our tent on the tiny Col du Faustin, made dinner (couscous) and had a quick jaunt up to the summit of Mont Valier (2838m) — what views! Clouds and sunset and mountains all the way back to Aneto and beyond.

Day three was an epic. Up a quick chimney to Petit Valier, down to Col de Peyre Blanc, and then a horrible, wet, misty slog down grassy slopes with plenty of no-fall areas and not much hint of a trail. It was a long day, and after Cabane d’Aula and its friendly horses and an uphill slog, we were happy to ask for a hitchhike when we hit a mountain road — we skipped out another 1200m of descending down to Couflens. Then it was a quick hike up to the Gite d’Rouze, the most beautiful little French cottage converted into a hiking bunk. The farmer saw us coming and we were quickly won over by his offer of a fire, warm showers and comfy beds for just €15.

The next day was not much easier. Still cloudy, still misty, still wet and muddy. We went up and up and up, moving slowly and slipping lots, before getting to the summit of Pic de la Tese (2254m). A gap in the clouds showed us how far we’d come in nearly seven hours (not very) and how far we still had to go along the grassy ridge before any hope of a place to sleep (very). We paused for a bit and decided to bail; a weighty decision for it meant retreating half our day, and going back down to nearly 1000m altitude, as there were no trails on either side that didn’t require starting right at the bottom of the valley. We’d found a funny old French couple on the mountain, so we chatted (gesticulated, mostly) to them, and then trailed their speed march back down the mountain for 2.5 hours to where they’d parked their car. They then drove us down to Ustou and negotiated us into a camp site that seemed closed. The manager was kind enough to let us sleep in the rec room.

And so day five promised a return to Spain! Dry trails, no mud, and grippy grass! We hitchhiked again, getting taken out of Ustou and up to the trailhead by a very kind shepherd of some sort. Then up, up, up and finally over the Port de Tavascan/de Marterat (depending on your politics) and into Spain. We left the trail and some serious bushwhacking gave us a great shortcut to the Estany (that is, lake) de Flamisella. And had a sunny swim! What a joy compared to the misty days before. I also learned that modern iPhones make astrophotography absurdly easy.

And so on we went the next day, up to the Col de Certascan, but not up to the peak, as the wind was howling and a thick blanket of clouds didn’t make it look worthwhile. The friendly guard at the Certascan refugi recommended we try to get to Andorra before the coming snow dump: es otro mundo, he said. We put on the gas, but my knee was getting a bit sore, possibly as a result of my weak wrist making my right pole less supportive than usual. We went down down down and then up up up to a cowherd cabin, where we spent a warm night inside with the scurrying mice, while the wind blasted outside. Going so low (and then having to come up again) is exhausting, but Catalonia has some beautiful forests, and the quantity and variety of mushrooms is mindblowing!

Day seven started with terrible weather, that just got worse as we crossed over the Col de Sellente: whitehorses in the lakes and horizontal rain in our faces. We quickly realized getting to Andorra that day was unlikely, and aimed for the Vallferrera refugi, down down down again. To a car park! Always jarring to see infrastructure like that when you feel like you’ve just crossed into the unknown through a storm. The not-very-friendly guard at Vallferrera was closing up, which was perfect for us because it meant the winter room was open. We went to sleep in the much calmer weather, dry mountains and whispy high clouds, wondering if we’d made the right choice…

And woke up to a white new world! And then seriously wondered about our decision-making! At this point we completely abandoned any pretence of doing the high route, having already skipped la Pica (d’Estats, the highest in Catalonia). After considering pointing away from the snow, we decide to give it a shot, and spent another day with wet feet: this time from post-holing through snow for hours. The first snow is my absolute favourite, the dustings of white contrasting beautifully with the harsh dark mountains. It was slow going finding trails under the snow, but we got to the Refugi Baiau for a quick rest (thanks whoever left the can of tuna) and wondered which of the many cols we saw was the one for us. We decided to just follow the most obvious cairns and markings we could find through the snow, and came without much difficult to the Coll dels Estanys Fourcats. After a fun little traverse, digging our feet and poles deep to avoid the steep slide to the left, we eventually escaped the snow and got down to the cabin at the Pla de l’Estany — our first night in Andorra! And our first night seeing anyone else camping, though on the other side of the lake.

Day nine started with a jaunt down to Arinsal, our packs now lovely and light. We bused to Andorra la Vella, the very depressing capital sunk deep in a valley. After some Starbucks WiFi (Andorra is annoyingly not part of the EU easy roaming deal), we bought some extra food (sardines, tomatoes and bread) and pointed upwards again. Steeeeep, straight out of the city. Just up and up again, towards Spain. We slept in another Andorran free cabin (the Andorran ones are by far the best in the Pyrenees), a group of about 30 Barcelona teens and their guides camping outside making a weird change from our otherwise solitary nights.

The next day was sunny but cold and autumnal. Stunning patches of yellow and red amongst the green of pine trees. We passed the futuristic Refugi de l’Illa, and crossed into Spain. The secret-seeming Vall de la Llosa was beautiful but cold, and we pushed on to get down and up again to hopefully get some more sun. We considered redeeming our non-high route with a summit of Puigpedros, but that would have meant sleeping in the Refugi Engorgs, and the signs warning us hi ha rates/here are mice/hay ratas, son simpáticas, pero hay ratas convinced us this wouldn’t be a good idea. So we marched on, eventually getting down to the (closed) Refugi Malniu, where we pitched tent in the picnic area.

Our final day was a surprisingly long walk down to Puigcerda, but the views of the Cerdanya valley made it worth it. Having crossed a good portion of the Pyrenees, Cerdanya is unique: wide, flat and sunny, it seems an agricultural paradise, but is still surrounded on every side by impressive mountains. We got to Puigcerda train station at 12:30 on 7 October, and took the slow train back to Barcelona an hour later.

Next year we’ll be back, with only ~10 days until the sea!