GR11 – Trip report part II/II

This is the second part of my hike in the Spanish Pyrenees 2016. You can read the first part here.

DAY 11 – Canfranc to Ibons d´Anayet (13km, 1058m/84m, 12:45-17:15)

The regional train circles slowly around sun burnt valleys and fields back towards the Pyrenees. The closer to the mountains I get, the more contradictory I feel. When the train finally stops at the end station of Canfranc, there’s not much left of my love of adventure. I can’t really understand why – maybe it’s just me being nervous.

From Canfranc I continue along the pilgrimage route of Compostela, which runs from the mountains towards lower lands. The path is well marked until the crossroads, where the GR11 trail turns and starts its climb to the lake of Ibon’s D´Anayet.

I wonder if the signposting has been changed because suddenly I lose completely the right direction. An overgrown dead-end follows one after another, and only after half an hour of searching I’m back on the right trail, along a wide river valley.

I zigzag up a steep slope for an hour. An easily recognizable giant of Pic du Midi d´Ossau rises on the French side of the Pyrenees, its stony fin ploughing majestically through waves of mountains.

It’s late afternoon and the day is getting quiet. Most of the day walkers have gone back down already. A band of horses graze freely at the plateau and a Northern Wheatear welcomes me by jumping cheerfully on the rocks. A Red Kite flies over few times. From the eastern ridge I catch up a signal and I call home. I’m feeling strangely lonely and for a moment I’m not sure if I even wanted to be here. The air cools down quickly and the evening got darker.

DAY 12 – to Ibones de Brazato (Panticosa detour 24km, 869m/1248m, 06:00-16:00)

During the small hours of the night silent, eerie flashing of lightnings wakes me up. The wind picks up speed and starts to shake the tent more and more furiously. After five a o’clock I decide that it’s better to pack my gear and leave the grim plateau behind. It’s cold and raining but when reaching a lower altitude I see a beautiful day waiting in the horizon.

I descend past the ski resort of Anayet and the hill side village of Formigal, all the way until Sallent de Gállego where I enjoy a long breakfast break.

Even if I have mentally made my mind, I’m still mulling over the upcoming route. The GR11 would ascend to the refuge of Respomuso and the most snowy and demanding part of the trail behind it – the passes of Cuello de Tebarrain and de l´Infierno. Without having an ice axe or crampons I don’t want to try my luck, as I have heard very contradictory news about the condition of the trail.

After making a final decision, walking feels light. The sun shines brightly for a moment but dark clouds are gathering behind the surrounding peaks. I’m passing by the lake of Lanuza towards the spa resort of Panticosa.

From the resort I climb up a steep, 600 vertical meter wall. Under the relentless afternoon sun, one hour and a half feels like an endless task. Further up the short mountain pines won’t give any shelter but the view from my wild campsite towards west and evening light is certainly breathtaking. Flies are buzzing around until the dusk.

DAY 13 – to Camping Valley de Bujaruelo (20km, 481m/1400m, 06:45-15:00)

The whole night it kept raining hard, thunderstorms flashing and playing silently somewhere behind the surrounding ridges. After another badly slept night, the morning reveals itself calm but in low spirits. Gray clouds are hanging low over the peaks.

I quickly ascend close to the pass of Brazato (2566m) but then the trail disappears under a field of treacherous boulders.

On my way down I need to wade through the fast-flowing Rio Ara. The ice cold mountain water makes my feet numb but after the bath walking feels easy. Marmots are following my progress among tall grass, whistling occasionally after me.

Even if it’s just half an hour to the campsite of the day, I rest a whole hour next to the ancient arch bridge of San Nicolás de Bujaruelo together with many other people enjoying the outdoors.

For long I have waited to reach the famous Ordesa national park but for my disappointment the river canyon is steep walled, which creates quite a pressing impression. The campsite of Valle de Bujaruelo is terraced on many levels on a forest slope without any views to anywhere.

Immediately after pitching my tent it starts to rain. Passing thunderstorms make horribly loud sounds, echoing long in the narrow canyon.

In the evening I notice how a familiar tarp has appeared to the campsite. For my great delight, I found Stephen under it with his brand new hiking boots. Reunion after a week feels great, and the rest of the evening we share trail stories. At the campsite bar we meet another Irishman, David, who has an ambitious plan to walk the GR11 in exact 30 days.

DAY 14 – to Rio Bellos (28km, 1524m/924m, 06:30-18:30)

David had already gone when I start my approach towards the Ordesa heartland in dim morning light. I follow the roaring river at the canyon floor until Torla intersection, from where the trail heads upwards. Against my expectations, the Ordesa canyon continues still narrow and densely forested.

I stop admiring mighty, roaring waterfalls every now and then. The morning has remained quiet but the huge parking lot at the end of the public road is already full of life. I wonder the amount of people realizing this is where the hardship would start.

After finishing my break, I have no other option but to join the flow of people. I try to dodge the other walkers and tourists the best I can, a grim expression on my face, but despite of every measure, every now and then someone sees the chance with a unpleasant smile on their face, shaking their cameras speaking the words I hate the most: “foto, por favor”.

Suddenly, the rest of the canyon widens and the trees get more scarce. The landscape transforms itself into the same that is seen in every postcard and photo album of an Ordesa visitor. I’m staring at that view from down, surrounded by impressive rock walls. The refuge of Góriz waits behind this secret valley of Circo de Soasa, around 400 vertical meters higher than where the easy path ends.

I truly enjoy the straightforward push, zigzagging the lower slopes of scree, up until the first ridge line.

The refuge of Góriz is popular for a good reason; in addition to front row mountain views, it offers a good base camp for conquering the summit of Monte Perdido (3348m). I sit aside on the grass and follow how group of climbers arrive to the yard, helmets and climbing gear jingling, faces red from exhaustion and sun. Everyone congratulates each other and order then lunch plates. One woman faints but recovers after quick nursing.

I got surprised when also David arrived. The day was still too early to stop and spots for tents in the open mountain side next to the refuge felt too exposed for winds and famous storms traveling along the Ordesa canyon. We keep going forward for six more kilometers, first up to a nearest ridge, then down to meet the Rio Bellos, before ascending to a small meadow for the night, near the end of the next valley.

DAY 15 – to Collata las Coronetas (17km, 1840m/1610m, 06:00-18:00)

We both wake up feeling anxious. After a short morning climb, a thousand vertical meter drop to nothingness below would wait us. We want to get moving before the sun reaches the ridges.

The view from Anisclo pass is just wild, and feels impossible to get down from there. But somehow, within time, the path has found its way with tight turns. Descending demands full focus and some head for heights but fortunately it doesn’t feel overly dangerous.

But one vertical kilometer in rocky and difficult terrain takes its toll. After reaching the valley floor, we enjoy refreshments for a long moment before continuing the day. Under the afternoon heat we tackle the wall on the other side of the valley before reaching a good spot for wild camping. Fearless flock of sheep wonders around but we are too tired to care much. Clouds are moving fast during the rest of the evening, bringing in few showers.

DAY 16 – to ref. Biados (32km, 1576m/1818m, 07:30-18:00)

At midnight it begins to rain harder. For some time, the night sky is full of silent, distant flashes until suddenly a loud bang echoes from the middle of the darkness. I’m fully awake, realizing the desperate situation. We’re in the middle of an angry thunderstorm which roars now directly above and around us. A lightning after a lightning illuminates the surrounding slopes scarily close, accompanying with thunderous rumble. I’m squatting on my sleeping pad, terrified to move. I shout to David, who’s also awake.

Thundering lasts a long hour until the rain suddenly ceases and we thought the morning had come. But only a brief moment later another thunder cell creeps in from behind the ridges and starts the hammering. We escape again to our tents thinking whether we’ll survive or not. The second storm rages even more fiercely, throwing lightnings everywhere. I could feel the lightning hitting the tent any second. Wind and rain shakes the tent without any mercy. The second hour goes by even more slowly and few times I’m nearly crying. I feel myself utterly helpless under the powers of nature.

After an eternity the second storm cell decides to leave us alone. We seize the change and hurry down to the valley as fast as we can. The relief grows with each step but the night of terror weighs heavy on my mind the rest of the day. I can’t take another night like that.

In the afternoon the hard days of walking and badly slept nights start to wear me down. The way to the refuge of Biados seems to take forever, and the couple of kilometers beyond thirty just continue and continue.

The next day I would need to make some tough decisions as we would arrive near to the busy village of Benasque which is a good transportation hub.

DAY 17 – to Puen de San Chaime (22km, 1094m/1422m, 07:00-14:30)

From the very beginning of the day I feel low on energy and I have big difficulties to keep up with David who strides forward without a worry. While ascending the long but gentle slope towards Puerto de Chistau (2572m), my legs stop being cooperative, breathing turns heavier than ever before on a hike, and body temperature changes uncontrollably. It felt like my whole body is sensing the end approaching and wanting to give up. I had experienced similar feeling few times before, also during the last days on GR5, and slowly I started to know what I should do. Heavy mist covers the pass and the temperature drops noticeably before we reach a lower altitude again.

The whole day I was wondering what to do because the walking simply didn’t feel good. After Benasque waited the highest and the most rugged heartland of the central Pyrenees, and camping wild and the nightly thunderstorms worried me. Here it seemed the thunders develop very late in the day, and were hard to predict. Without sleeping well, I couldn’t recover as I should and enjoying the walk would become more and more difficult.

When we reach the village of Puen de San Chaime and Benasque, I’m utterly exhausted and shaking in fever. There’s only one choice to be made. For this time, the half way of the Pyrenees crossing would be enough and I decide to quit.

The decision feels like a huge relief and big disappointment at the same time, naturally. I had had high hopes for this trek but for some reason I wasn’t feeling it the right way. For the first time, I lost the duel with a hiking trail but more important was to make a right call, no matter how hard it was. Simply, I wasn’t enjoying enough. But don’t get me wrong here, the experience was great and blister-free, landscape beautiful and fellow hikers super nice. I was just missing that something to justify the upcoming weeks.

Check out the trip video here:

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