After a cold nights sleep, the view we saw in the morning made it all worthwhile. It was a spectacular sight to see out over the valley in front of us as the sun came up;unfortunately I was a bit sleepy and tired and couldn’t be bothered taking any photos. Despite the tiredness, goat feet, dodgy knees, bruised hips and broken backs, we where in surprisingly good spirits after the prison breakfast when we set off. Mental note: going down is hard……
So off we set on the mammoth task of descending 700 metres over a very small distance, not exactly what you want first thing in the morning. We traveled from a muddy coloured rock face down into a lush green valley and eventually ending up at a dam at the bottom. What I thought may be gentle leisurely stroll down the mountain turned out to be just as difficult as climbing up the mountain. I suspect the gremlin was back putting rocks in my rucksack over night. A downhill section like this isn’t ideal or exactly what you want first thing in the morning. By the time we made it to bottom we where both shattered and feeling like we had already been walking for a whole day.
After a brief tea and biscuit break at the dam, we had enough energy to set off again into yet another valley with a completely different style and terrain. After our short time in the Pyrenees the thing that made the biggest impression on both of us was the vast differences in terrain and environments you would come across in the mountain range. Every pass we crossed or valley we entered looked like a completely different mountain range to the one we had come from.
After an hours walk from the dam we got to the T-junction for GR10 & GR11. It was here we met a perfect example of what can be possible if you live a healthy life, a 65-year-old German who was as fit as fiddle. Whilst we were dying on our feet, here was a man double our age who although he had been walking all morning hadn’t even broke a sweat. I think this gave us the extra motivation to march on through the valley at a swift pace towards the climb to our only pass for the day.
View back into the valley from the pass
With this new found energy (I think its called pride, or maybe shame) we delayed lunch and carried on up over the pass to arrive at the lake of the cows for around 3ish. Sitting at 2,300 metres, it was like a cinematic scene with the eerie sound of cowbells echoing all round the bowl within which the lake sat.
It was during our lunch of cuppa soup that the novelty of the cowbells started to turn into an annoyance that would follow us for the rest of the day and night.
At this point going to add a video of the cows with their bells so you could hear and understand what I am taking about. That was until I found out that you have to pay $59.99 for the privilege of adding videos, so unfortunately your going to have to just use your imagination.
It was during lunch that for the first time on the trek the weather started to go against us. We had to scramble to pack up sharply, then headed off past the lake and up over the ridge before an initial steep downward scramble that then turned into to a walk down a dry dusty mountain. As the day wore on the knees was starting to cause Ian some pain as he hobbled along and my feet where starting to feel like hobbit feet. But after a few hours of gradual decline we eventually arrived back at tree level and our Refugio for the night at around half 5 (our the earliest finish since we started).
This was the first of 2 unmanned shelters on the map, which were basically 2 stone barns. We where considering carrying on to the second one, but due to our injuries decided to call it a day and stay here for the night. In all the national parks around here it’s prohibited to make a campfire, so you can imagine our joy when we discovered a fireplace in the barn. Like 2 cavemen (we where starting to look that way) we could perform our primeval instincts and make fire before staring at it in amazement for the rest of the night. The same logic as when you have a barbecue and all the men end up stood around it staring. However as always is the way, our joy was short-lived when we discovered that all the nearby rivers were dry and all the cows in field were wearing bells (and also had insomnia). So we had a night of rationing water like Ethiopians and the sounds of bells that wouldn’t have been out of a horror film. Surprisingly we had a great nights sleep.
I think it is worth mentioning at this point if you haven’t managed to make a mobile phone mast from the wilderness yet, you can possibly get reception here (if you stand outside barn) to phone the worried girlfriend.
Day 4 Sandaruelo (1600m) to Refugio de Goriz (2170m)
Distance: 13 km Time: 7 to 8 hrs Height Gain: 570m
– Sandaruelo (1600Km) to Puerto de Bujaruelo / Port de Boucharo (2270m) 3km
– Puerto de Bujaruelo / Port de Boucharo (2270m) to Refuge des Sarradadets/ Refuge de la Breche (2587m) 3km
– Refuge des Sarradadets/ Refuge de la Breche (2587 m) to Refugio de Goriz (2170m) 7k
So up we got, put a bit of oil on the aching joints, a timeout washed down with a thimble of water, and we where all set to go. However firsts things first, now we where back below the tree line we had to find some type of walking sticks. After fighting with several bendy trees (which got the better of me), I resorted to attacking an older dying tree and butchered some trusty sticks that would serve us well till the end of our journey. I think the lack of water was affecting my brothers sanity since he decided to name his Thelma and Louise, but more on their adventure later.
The initial start was a steep walk up shale with no real path. However we made good progress on the steep climb and within an hour we where at the next barn along the route.
View back towards the barn (bottom left)
Along the way we managed a find a small stream of water, that although couldn’t be trusted as pure drinking water due to the amount of cows about, would do for our prison porridge before we embarked on our climb over the next pass back into France. Once again a different pass and type of scenery and terrain. This was a lush green valley with a gradual path leading all the way up.
I would like to mention at this point that every bit of France we have walked in had the red/white markings, and fairly regular signs with estimated distances (even thought they are a little bit too optimistic). In complete contrast to that, the Spanish don’t seem to see the need for any signs or basic markings. They have the odd yellow patch of paint on rocks, but that could easily be missed or mistaken for a spilt drop of english mustard.
View back into the valley
Our good old French friends had put us a sign post at the top, so after another timeout washed down with a thimble of water (we didn’t trust the dirty water we boiled), off we went knowing we were going in the right direction and the approximate distance. It was a pleasant walk which after a short climb levelled out to make it quite easy and enjoyable whilst having some great views off to the left. To our right we had a glacier and the mountain faces that we knew sooner or later we would have to climb.
When we first heard it we weren’t sure it was real, we carried on hoping the wind wasn’t playing tricks on us, and then there it was, a precious stream running down from the glaciers. No more thimbles of water or complaints about carrying too many water bottles, we basked in this precious gift of the earth, drinking, bathing and paddling in it (didn’t really bathe or paddle was getting a little bit carried away. It did taste damn good though). It was quite ironic that we had been praying for water, and soon we would be living to regret that.
Repairing the knee (although still seen no doctors note)
After an hour we came to the climb we expected, and the furious waterfall we hadn’t. There was road access to the pass we had just come from, so along this part of the trek we had met a few day-trippers, some of the older generation. Therefore we didn’t expect any dangerous or precarious bits on this part of the trek. However to get over the waterfall you had to grapple over rocks whilst pulling yourself up on a rope. There was no way you wouldn’t get wet, and it was a struggle for both us. How some of these day-trippers managed it I don’t know, but you could certainly see the fear in their eyes. Surprisingly we never we saw any evidence of accidents, and didn’t hear any cries for help (although that could be because I don’t understand French). After another 15 minutes climb you eventually reach the Refugio, and can see what they have been risking there lives. The view of the valley was truly spectacular, and although I have a picture I don’t think it does it even nearly justice. It is one of those points when you know there is no point taking a picture since it is impossible to capture it all as you see it.
Surprisingly we where making good progress, and due to the sticks felt in good shape when we got to the Refugio. We celebrated still being alive with a beer and omelette to get ready for what we thought would be a fairly tough climb up to next pass then a gentle stroll down to the nights stop. It needs pointing out that no Refugios sell bread, that must be due to the international price rise in grain that has had a knock on effect on the communities of the Pyrenees. Alternatively it could just be down to the money grabbing Refugio owners who want to sell you there overpriced food rather than allow you to make your own sandwiches. Therefore we had to resort to smuggling the few pieces of bread we got with our meal out with us, which is a trait that unfortunately followed us when we got back to civilisation.
Once again, just when we had that glimmer of hope, that idea that we were at last a match for the Pyrenees, a treacherous few hours hike was waiting for us that nearly broke my back, Ian’s knees, and did break Thelma.
At 4 we set off from Refugio de la Breche at 2587m, up a steep gravely climb to the pass at 2807m. Near the top it levels out before climbing up over a glacier to the pass that looks like someone cut a giant’s door way in the mountains. From here it is a spectacular view back into France, a fitting point to bid farewell to our French sign posting friends and off into Spain for the next few days searching for any illusive signs we could find. Once again the picture doesn’t do it justice, it is just a pity I didn’t have a professional photographer with me, and if I did they probably couldn’t have been bothered to get their super expensive (and heavy) camera out anyway.
Au Revoir Frances
From here it was meant to be a few hour stroll down to the Refugio, however the scramble down from the pass to the lakes was a 2 1/2 hour nightmare of stumbling, climbing and falling over different terrains from fallen rocks, to white marble covered with grass. Ideal for mountain goats, but not ideal for a crippled skater and a glass-backed mule.
So after arriving at the basin a few hours later than planned, it was tempting to camp here and start work on the complaints letter Mr K ‘I don’t know distances’ Reynolds whose Pyrenees book reckoned you could get from the pass to the Refugio easily in a couple of hours. However after a quick consultation with some passing overly optimistic climbers (who were living in a cave), we decided to try to beat the light and weather and make it to the Refugio. As has been the tale of our trek, it was over a very long journey through a variety of different environments (with no signs). First it was a climb up a slate mountain to what can only be described as a moon like plato, then down from here to a kind of meadow, before eventually climbing over a mini ridge to be confronted by a granite valley.
Found the pot of gold, but was too heavy for the rucksack
At this point our luck with the weather eventually ran out, and instead of just rain we got pelted with hailstone. From here it was a 2 hour hike down and through the granite valley, avoiding craters and slippery slopes trying to guess where the Refugio (and more importantly the cerveza). So after following the non-existent signs, and with a bit of help from some other hikers, we had to clamber down a cliff face, which was where Themla met her demise. If you picture the scene off the start of cliffhanger, it was very similar to that and I was worried for a moment Ian wouldn’t recover from the shock. However he showed tremendous courage, and despite the loss we stumbled, tripped, and crawled onwards towards the Refugio. We could now see our destination ahead of us, but it was impossible to speed up over a very dangerous and treacherous path without risking a serious injury.
In the end, 8.30 at night, after 12hrs of walking we arrived. We lost Thelma, destroyed a knee, broke a back, but we made it. So up went in the tent in record time in pitch black, and then 2 broken souls sat enjoying a beer in a packed Refugio that resembled a british pub. Little did these part-time hikers know the trouble and tribulations these 2 mountain goats within their midst had gone through.
I would like to put a note in at this point to Mr Kev Reynolds who wrote “Walks and climbs in the Pyrenees”, if your reading this, 3 hours from Breche to Goriz…….. what drugs were you on. Have you ever walked this path?????
As a fitting end to the day, just as we were sat outside making our tea, God decided to play one last trick on us as the heavens opened up. However after the day we had, the starter of pate and stolen bread followed by tuna pasta bake with laughing cow tasted like a meal fit for kings. Washed down with cheap rum, we saluted our lost comrade, Rest in Peace Thelma.
Day 5 Refugio de Goriz (2170km) to Road to Biesla (1612m)
Distance: 20 km Time: 6 – 8 hrs Height Gain: -558
– Refugio de Goriz (2170km) – Collado de Arrablo (2329m) 2 km
– Collado de Anisclo (2499m) to Refugio de Larri (1612m) 4 km
As you may guess after the lengths of yesterday we weren’t up at the crack of dawn, and didn’t set off till 10ish. Due to the lack of signs we got slightly lost so probably wasted an hour or so getting back on right track. We were lucky we bumped into a Spanish family or would have been walking in the wrong direction for a lot longer. Although it hadn’t already been officially decided, we both kind of knew that this was going to be our last day of serious hiking. If we didn’t know now, we certainly did later when we arrived at the edge of the canyon and saw how much downward hiking we had to do. We became accustomed to the uphill parts and could manage them at a steady pace, but as the trek went on the downward bits were taking their toll on the knees.
We are now in Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Period which is full of vast canyons stretching as far as one can see. We had 2 options when entering the park, either through the canyons or over the top and around the canyons. We did the over the top bit yesterday. To get to our next port of call we could either go down through the canyons or carry on up and head round them on the edge of Monte Perdidio. Because of the knee we decided on route around the top, but didn’t realise before or at the time just how high and perilous the journey would be. You don’t realise the magnitude of it until your finished and you look back up at were you have just come from. In typical spanish style there are no real signs, so you have to relay on the rock mounds fellow trekkers have left along the way. For some reason the French have been here in parts and left a few red/ white markings on the rocks. I never thought I would be praising the French, but at this rate we are going to become friends.
The rock mounds, your only guide in Spain
You start at 2300m and clamber up different types of paths until you reach a level at about 2800m, where a path takes you round the edge of the mountain. It a basic shale path with big drops below and awe-inspiring views down into the canyons.
Spot the Hobbit
Near the end of the trail you reach a perilous climb up which means putting your full trust in rusty chain whilst trying to clamber over what must be a waterfall in the winter. This part is quite scary and I would hate to do it in bad weather when the waterfall is there. This is the peak of the climb, but the downhill part isn’t that simple due to the slippery wet marble rocks. At one point you have to once again trust a chain as you edge yourself down the rocks. I think this bit over Monte Perdido is the very edge of what you can do with full packs on, I think you would struggle if you had to climb any higher.
Amazingly both us survived to tell the tale and reached the edge of the canyon for 3. As we stopped for tea and biscuits it was only then looking back into the canyon that we realised how high we had climbed. It was also at this point we realised something any 2-year-old could have told us, what goes up must go down. All this climbing we had done for the last 5 days equalled up to a lot downhill to come.
If you look top right, the shale above the rock face is what we walked round
Tonight we are meant to be camping at 1600m, so to go down from 2300 to 1600 in the space of a few km is going to be steep. After a bit of difficulty trying to find any of our Spanish friends non-existent signs, off we set descending steeply for a few hours until at long last we found a small grassy area were we could stop for lunch. This was probably the only place possible to camp along the way down, so after discussing over a lunch of noodle soup it was decided to carry on and see how far we could get. We were back at tree level, so this last part of the trek was deep through the forest all the way to the bottom. On the way it began to rain, worried that the paths would flood, we ended up running, clambered, slipping and sliding with a few calculated falls on the way. Somehow we made it to the bottom as darkness was falling with no more casualties but plenty of blisters, aches, and bruises. I certainly wouldn’t want to be climbing up that way. Along the way there where no signs to give yo a clue on distance, time or direction, just signs to tell you its a national park which you obviously already know. Then at the bottom just to rub it in, they decided to put a map at with probably more information than I have seen anywhere in the Pyrenees. From here it was a short walk 5 minute to the nearest Refugio, but on arrival we found out they don’t permit camping and the nearest camp site was 4.5 km away. You can camp round the bottom of the valley, but apparently the national park police are a bit keen and like to hand out fines to anyone they catch. It is a pity they don’t reinvest that money into signs…..
So off we set for another hour along a pitch black road with a torch looking for what we thought would be a small campsite. In the end it turned out to be big holiday village type campsite that you could never miss in a million years, so at 9.30 we eventually arrived at our resting point. I dread to think what the people thought when they saw these 2 broken sole stumbling into reception, but I suppose they should count themselves lucky we didn’t take our boots off and start compare blisters in front in the dining room in front of them.
Day 6 Road to Biesla
So with us finally having to concede defeat to the mountain Gods, the next day was just a gentle stroll into the small village of Biesla. We planned to stay the night here before catching a shuttle bus at 6am to Anilsa, to then catch the next bus to Barbastro, before finally a bus to Barcelona. You would have thought Spain being a civilised first world country would have regular busses, but from Biesla and Anilsa there is only 1 bus per day, and in Bielsa they only ran 3 times a week. As you can imagine, like the earlier part of our trip the supposed easy journey to Barca didn’t go quite to plan. When the bus arrived there was only one space left, so we ended up freezing cold at a T- junction trying to hitchhike a ride to Anilsa.
Would you give this guy a lift?
Eventually when we got to Anilsa we already had missed the only bus of the day to Barbastro, so either had to hitchhike, stay the night, or bite bullet and get a taxi. We decided that it was highly unlikely that 2 bearded smelly cavemen like looking fellows would be able to hitchhike, so bit the bullet and paid 65 euros for a taxi to. Once again the Harding luck prevailed. There were only 2 buses to a day to Barcelona and the earlier one was full. So after hanging around for 5 hours in the town, we eventually made it out of the Pyrenees alive and back to civilisation. That is if you can call the moody ignorant people of Barcelona civilisation.
So what have we learnt?
1. Don’t skateboard when your younger. Although you may think it is cool at the time it screws your knees up in later life. At least if you must skate, be good at it and don’t fall off onto your knees much.
2. Weight is key. Get a good rucksack, even out the weight and do a few trial runs in advance.
3. Don’t buy french rum, it tastes horrible.
4. Bring lots of bread if you plan on making sandwiches.
5. Walking sticks are good.
6. Learn to read map contours properly, going down is hard.
7. The french like signs, the Spanish don’t.
A helpful French sign
A useless Spanish sign