A lifetime of walking and climbing in the Pyrenees
20 minute read
Alf Robertson has spent the last forty years exploring the Pyrenees, starting with summer trekking trips in Andorra before enjoying the crags, peaks and lakes from subsequent homes in Spain and France.
My flirtation with the Pyrenees began in the early 1980s. The first edition of Kev Reynolds’ now classic Cicerone guide to Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees seduced me down on the long drive from the north of Scotland to France on my first ever European walking holiday. I made an initial foray into the rocky, lake-bejeweled Neouvielle massif with a misty trek up broad and easy Pic de Campbeil.
Still guided by Kev Reynolds, I continued across the border into Spain in search of more sunshine. I found it in the Encantados range where an ascent of Montardo d’Aran proved the highlight. I remember sitting beneath the ragged fluttering Catalan flag on the summit gazing out over endless ridges of peak upon peak. Even then, I thought it was enough to fill a lifetime.
Later, after much eager reading on where to go next, I reluctantly bypassed the grand Ordesa gorge for the less spectacular but equally beautiful Benasque valley, drawn in by the highest peak of all, Pico de Aneto.
A successful ascent of this splendid and still gently glaciated peak proved to be ‘snow’ on the cake of a memorable holiday and I made the marathon return journey to my northern home well satisfied and with the seeds planted of a lifetime love of the area.
Despite this, other life priorities took over for many years, and the Pyrenees and I parted company for some considerable time. Yet numerous Alpine explorations over the next two decades, no matter how enjoyable, did nothing to blur the memory of that marvellous first foray into the mountains of Europe.
Then in 1997 fate took a hand, as it does in all romantic love affairs. Having left teaching for a new career as a professional walking guide I found myself posted to the ‘Pais de los Pyrenees’ – no, not Spain or France but the odd little political anomaly known as Andorra. Beyond the ski hordes and duty free shops this small principality boasts fine peaks and grand walking to match any in the rest of the range.
Over the next few years the comfortable hotel in Encamp became my regular summer home and I trekked virtually every path in the country either with groups of clients or on long day-off jaunts of my own.
Glorious valleys like world heritage site Madriu and flower strewn Sorteny became beloved haunts. Lunch by lovely mountain lakes such as Pessons or Juclar became a habitual pleasure. Rugged peaks like Pic de l’Estanyo and Pic de Font Blanc, or naturally the highest Pic de la Coma Pedrosa, repeatedly graced my summer work programme.
More obscure but equally fine summits like crumbling Pic de Medacorba or remote Pic dels Llops offered me long strenuous expeditions for the all too rare free days when I could go AWOHL. On these same days of freedom, I discovered that Andorra also offered a delightful range of testing via ferratas where the frustrated climber in me could find brief respite.
In the intervening years the Cicerone guides to the range had progressed to become a great deal more detailed and sophisticated but still only superficially covered the mountains of Andorra. The opportunity was no sooner spotted than grasped.
I spent a diverting couple of years collating and organizing my now voluminous first-hand knowledge into our very own guidebook. Writing the guide under the friendly professional supervision of the Cicerone team was not only a pleasure in itself. It was another important step in my developing relationship with this superb part of the world.
Hence when I decided a few years later to leave the UK and domicile myself in Europe, there was never really any doubt about where I would end up. It had to be the Pyrenees.
The delights of the Pyrenees
This area does get into your blood in a unique way. It may no longer be the wilderness described by early explorers, and occasionally glimpsed in that first pioneer Cicerone guide, but it still much more tranquil than the Alps and blessed with benevolent weather for such a high range. It is a sierra of high contrasts in terrain and culture.
In the west the peaks are green, misty and romantic and intertwined with the intriguing and deeply rooted Basque culture. In the centre lurk high Alpine peaks still (just!) graced with icy white glaciers plunging into the plains of Spain and France via deep cut gorges: to their south the dry harsh culture of Aragon; on the northern border the sophisticated greener civilization of Occitania. And then in the east you find the warmth of the Mediterranean embracing you as the peaks become sunnier and the rich Catalan culture unfolds on both sides of the range.
Three countries, four languages, excellent wine, tasty
gastronomy and history in spades. For the lover of the outdoors it has
everything – walking countless lakes and peaks, trekking numerous
long-distance trails, assaulting high alpine ridges, climbing fiercely
steep valley walls, canyoning vast deep gorges, trail running or biking
well marked trails, winter exploring on snowshoes or skis.
Nowadays for better or worse, the mountain range also offers easy road access, a convenient network of marked trails, well appointed and comfortable mountain refuges - and do not start me on the sunshine (I am an escaped Scotsman after all.)
The Spanish Pyrenees
Spain tempted first for the simplest of reasons: my Spanish was better than my French, it was cheaper and I was working a great deal in Spain at the time. My first Pyrenean home base proved to be the austere Aragonese town of Huesca where I spent five highly active and contented years.
Sitting on the northern edge of the central Spanish ‘meseta’, Huesca was a natural gateway into the Pyrenees yet with excellent travel connections for my work elsewhere and low living costs when at home. However there were two all important features which drew and kept me there.
Firstly, immediately around the town is a stunning wealth and variety of sport rock sport climbing. The well-known gorges of Rodellar are only an hour away while the fine and lesser known cliffs of Vadiello sit just on the doorstep. Only a short distance further away the myriad famous crags of Catalonia sit to the east and fine climbing is to be found in the drier south near Zaragoza at Morata de Jalon.
For five all too short years I climbed regularly with undiminished enthusiasm on dozens of crags either with local acquaintances or with British friends who were only to keen to take advantage of offered hospitality.
But the big issue was even closer: the world class venue of Mallos de Riglos was a mere half hour from my front door. These giant 300m conglomerate walls offer world class climbing with more than a trace of adventure. The climbing is awesomely steep, the rock is often suspect, the bolts widely spaced, and descents can be complicated.
The most famous of the routes were well beyond my modest abilities, notably the celebrated Fiesta of Biceps at 7a+ (thought by some to be the best sport route in the world!). However, there were plenty of great adventures to be had at a more modest grade and I worked my way steadily through all the great middle grade classics like the bizarre pinnacle of El Puro (the cigar, 6b) or the blunt arete of Adamello (5+). Perhaps best of all was the polished but elegant line of Mosquitos (6b) skirting the edge of Visera, reputed the steepest climbed crag in Spain and outrageously confronted by the aforementioned ‘Biceps’.
I have endless memories of heaving over the typical ‘panzas’ (bulges) on slippery rounded ‘bolos’ (precariously cemented water-washed boulders) in the vain hope of thank God finishing holds, with bolts winking at me from well below my feet and vultures jeering at me from nearby precarious ledges. I had to learn to mantelshelf and live with fear, but I survived to tell the tale, abseil into space and trail home exhausted with some of my finest climbing memories.
Even more of an attraction was the situation of the town exactly in the centre of the massif with endless options for trips north into famous Spanish valleys or even over the border into France. The intriguing Sierra de Guara, an extensive range of rugged, conglomerate 2000m peaks famous for the best canyoning in Europe but offering a multitude of lonely scenic walks, loomed over the town only a few minutes drive away. But two hours in the car offered a score of magnificent Pyrenean climbing and walking areas.
I re-acquainted myself with lovely Benasque, repeated the ascent of Aneto, scrambled and climbed on the fine Maladetta ridge and trekked round the huts of the adjacent Posets massif. I finally made it to the Ordesa, a strong candidate for Europe’s finest gorge, and walked the remarkable exposed ‘Faja’ ledges around the stepped canyon walls.
The magnificent Ravier brothers’ route on the intimidating Tozal del Mallo tower at the entrance to the gorge gave me a memorable day out with two Scots friends for my 59th birthday, unquestionably the best anniversary of my life.
The even shorter drive to the granite wilderness around Balaitous gave me many fine days out. Perhaps the most memorable started as a plan to climb the main peak via the famous Devil’s Ridge from the Respomusa refuge but metamorphosed on a bitterly cold morning into a grand long scramble across the sensational narrow ridges of Picos del Infierno. It would have been churlish to be disappointed given the entertaining scrambling and glorious sharp cold views of the whole chain: I drove home well chuffed with my sparkling memories and clutch of ‘tres miles’.
Peak bagging 'tres miles'
Here a 3000m diversion may be appropriate: there is an official list, recognized on both sides of the border, of 129 such peaks. By this time collecting them had become more than a passing interest - the youthful Scottish Munro bagging genes die hard.
In terms of challenge the Pyrenean one comes somewhere between the aforesaid Munro list and the internationally celebrated 4000m list of the Alps. It is a technically harder task than the Munros as the summits involve a great deal of F+/PD scrambling (dozens of In. Pinns. to put it another way) but considerably easier then the major challenge of the Alps, particularly as the glaciers recede, ironically making the Pyrenees easier as the summer Alps become more dangerous.
Most Aragonese walkers diligently tick the ‘tres miles’ as they pass over them, though only a few of the hardiest and most determined actually complete. The friendly and active local branch of the Spanish Alpine Club had a penchant for driving round into France (the rain-starved Aragonese love the relatively cool and green landscape of their northern neighbours) and making long two-day treks back over the peaks into Spain.
It was a pattern which offered me several splendid trips and excellent summits, though full time work at the time limited my opportunities. Despite this I successfully wooed well over 30 of the said peaks during my time in Huesca, particularly savouring the network of little-known high peaks around Perdiguero, which is the most extensive area of 3000m summits in the range.
Exploring the lesser-known peaks and climbs
However, the peak bagging never took over and the endless selection of great peaks below the arbitrary height limit gave equal satisfaction. Indeed, some of my favourite haunts over these happy years lay further west, far from the relatively crowded valleys leading to the ‘3000ers’. As the Pyrenees decline gently in height from Balaitous towards the Atlantic they offer a sequence of idyllic valleys where tranquility reigns, such as Anso and Hecho for example.
Surrounded by splendid peaks of around 2500m these valleys offer great walking and fine rock climbing as rewarding as any in Europe (and so obscure they don’t even get in the Cicerone guide!) If you do not believe me try ascending the graceful peaks of Ansabere or climbing on the neglected limestone slabs of Etxaurri. In this direction it was not far to France over the Somport pass and like my Aragonese friends I used to love crossing the border to enjoy the superlative rock climbing.
Pride of place must go to the elegant profile of the wonderful Pic du Midi d’Ossau. This fine peak does get into Cicerone as one of KR’s personal favourites, and justifiably so. The testing scramble up the ordinary route to the summit is a jewel and the multi-day circular walk round the peak one of the best short treks around.
However, I found time for several routes on the famous Pombie wall of which the most memorable was the great classic SE Face (5+), another Ravier masterpiece. A glorious long route which rivals Tozal Del Mallo to the claim of my best route in the Pyrenees.
Several other French venues offered climbing of almost equal quality such as Lescun and Gourette and fine routes are too many to list here. And the graceful cirque of Lescun with its fierce Dolomitic Ansabere pinnacles stands out in memory as perhaps the most idyllically lovely corner of the Pyrenees I have yet discovered. Get yourself there and do the great 6c arete on my behalf – its way too hard for me to climb myself!
The French Pyrenees
After my five years of northern Spanish life, lurking Francophilia started to itch and after much agonizing I abandoned the tapas for the casse croute and crossed the Pyrenees to explore the world on the other side.
In the seven years since, I have found myself contentedly settled in the more verdant and peaceful haven of Foix. The green rolling foothills of the Ariege have substituted for the wide dry plains of Aragon and the vast slabs of the Dent d’Orlu have replaced the crumbling steep walls of Mallos de Riglos. (An extreme contrast in style but the bolts are no closer and the adrenaline courses round the same.)
It rains a little more and life is not so cheap but the walking and climbing possibilities remain endless. The peaceful, wooded foothills around the town offer me a network of marked trails where I can ramble and run and cycle to my hearts content in any weather – and latterly a blessed escape from Covid19 confinement.
The steep little path up to the prominent cross on the Pech de Foix, with its wide view over the castellated town to the nearby mountains, has become a regular bout of running exercise (and one day I will get it down below 30 minutes from my present PB of 30 minutes 4 seconds!) Just so has the gently green climb of the old railway line Via Vert become a regular run on the bicycle, though as a feeble cyclist I do not compete even with myself. (Those great Tour de France Pyrenean passes I leave to younger friends.)
Just beyond, the hills rear their heads to become true mountains and superb walking is available on imposing peaks like Pic de Saint Bartholomew or Pic des Trois Seignours, topping out above a respectable 2000m little more than half an hour from home. And from these peaceful and modest summits the views extend deep into the truly high Pyrenees beyond.
North of Foix the land flattens as the Ariege river leaves the hills behind and winds across the plain to join the grander Gironne at Toulouse. The rose city offers a wealth of culture and a convenient airport barely an hour distant. In the other direction the valley narrows and steepens as it cuts south, and the sides are littered with steep limestone and granite outcrops extensively developed for sport climbing.
Twenty kilometres of valley either side of Tarascon-Sur-Ariege amply fills a plump Rockfax guide and local topos available free on internet extend the choice to a lifetime’s worth of delightful sport. Calames has always been justly popular with a splendid range of grades and routes including a particularly varied selection of modest grade 5 and 6 pitches.
Nearby Genat, once exclusively the overhanging home of mutants, has recently been developed into a true rival by a rich crop of easier routes on the wings. Like many of the Ariege crags these faces catch the sun. Great on mild winter days but purgatorial in summer and even in early spring or late autumn it is sometimes necessary to retire to the shadier granite faces around Auzat or the recently developed north face of Lordat.
Dominating them all just south of Tarascon, the huge crags of Sinsat offer both gentle sport on the lower roadside walls and mega adventures on the giant walls hanging high over the road south. These lovely crags and many others have blessed me with scores of delectable days out for most of the last decade. A mild, sunny day out on the crags of Calames in deepest December with snow scattered thickly on the surrounding ridges is a hedonistic mountain indulgence second to none.
However, the grandest climbing is to be had on the savage tooth of rock above Orlu. Vast sweeps of slab have been generously bolted on the Dent d’Orlu to provide a wealth of slab climbing probably unmatched in Europe outside Switzerland.
A multitude of lines crisscross the enormous SE face, ranging from single pitch relaxing ‘couennes’ to committing multi- pitch monsters like the prestigious 27 pitch Les Enfants de La Dalle (6a+). A number of these lines have given me agreeable and technically testing outings on perfect friction slabs. Most of them finish rather arbitrarily and abseil back down at random points where the clean rock dies out, but the quality of the actual climbing is unarguable.
After the lovely drive up the picturesque Orlu valley and the steep scrambly 45-minute approach through the trees, a route like the delightfully named 12 pitch L’Ourse en Peluche will send you abseiling and scrambling down well satisfied. Or you could make it easier and have a shorter outing on the equally fine 6 pitch Conflit de Generations (6a).
Yet for myself I have a sneaking preference for the less grand but more elegant East face. The hour-long approach walk through the woods is a delight, the views out over the Carlit massif as you climb are divine, the twelve or so pitches fill the day with delectable climbing and the routes finish with short scramble to one of the finest summits in the area. Make a leisurely ascent with small rucksacks, picnic on the summit and scramble back down to the main sacks in approach shoes and you really get the feel of a mountain day out.
And of mountains of course there is no shortage around here. The aforesaid Carlit has a dozen or more outstanding peaks rising to an imposing 2900m from low lying valleys above a remarkable collection of mountain lakes.
Enjoying the best of the Pyrenees
On the other side of the valley my old stamping ground of Andorra offers similar peaks barely an hour drive from my home. The border peaks I enjoyed traversing so much while working there offer me new vistas and varied routes from the other side now. The Puymorens pass and tunnel which bisects the two ranges offers a quick route into northern Spain and further wonders.
Further east still it is not too far to the warm delights of Roussillon, the sunniest department of France. The main attraction here is the isolated peak of Canigou which has provided great climbing on the granite of Little Yosemite and a magical scramble to the summit on the knife edge Quasemi arete.
But I have also had lots of more gentle fun exploring the Dali-esque rock landscape of Cap Creus where the last vestiges of the Pyrenees thrust their toes into the wine dark Mediterranean and the nearby Alberes foothills from where the great GR 10 launches itself westwards towards the distant Atlantic. Between home and this lovely coast, the more pastoral but equally enjoyable Cathar Trail starts obligingly at my front door and snakes off to link the various mediaeval ruins as it crosses Aude to the sea.
Among my immediate local mountains, the highest and most notable targets, and the only ones above the 3000m barrier, are in the Estats/Montcalm area. So the splendid summit of all Catalonia has become a regular haunt, another peak where I know both sides now. The great ranges of the central Pyrenees now require a little more driving time than of yore but are perfectly weekend-able.
As I write I am packing for a weekend of camping and scrambling ‘tres miles’ in the Neouvielle where it all started nearly forty years ago. And thinking as I do that it is high time I made it the short distance beyond to the yet untested joys of Gavarnie and Vignemale. There is so much more still to explore! The dense network of local paths; the thousands of bolted sport routes on fine rock; the dozens of un-ticked 3000m peaks; the intriguing deep valleys and the remote lost peaks of less well known areas.
And then there is winter! With the snow all this becomes a parallel universe. I am a miserable failure as a skier but when the white cover arrives, out come the ‘raquettes’ and a whole new set of pleasures and challenges opens. In the Pyrenees here one can easily find oneself cragging in warm sun on Calames and snowshoeing deeply covered slopes in the same weekend.
Next winter I shall be semi-retired and might even sharpen up my ice axes. There is just so much to do here. I no longer sit on Pyrenean mountain summits thinking there might be a lifetime of activity here: I sit knowing that nine lives would not be enough.
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