Jonathan Cook battles against snow and broken boots in a world of twisted water, towering mountains and shattered stone as he takes on a challenging high mountain circular route in the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees, curiously named the Carros de Foc.
Lying in the far north-western corner of Catalonia in the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees lies a wild, high mountain region virtually unknown to those outside Spain and France. The Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is one of only 14 Spanish national parks and the only one in Catalonia to be awarded this status. As well as vying for the title of Spain’s most beautiful national park, it definitely takes the title for the most difficult name to pronounce. Home to towering granite peaks rising to over 3000m, the park is a land of deep valleys covered by rugged boulders and pine forests.
It is hard to believe that in a country famed for its hot weather and droughts, the standout feature of the park is its water.
Containing over 200 mountain lakes as well as numerous waterfalls, rivers and glacial valleys, water is a constant presence, giving the park its unique atmosphere, vibrant colours and ecosystem. Even the name of aigüestortes literally translates as twisted water in Catalan. Estany de Sant Maurici (Lake Sant Maurici) is the largest lake.
The curiously named Carros de Foc, which is Catalan for Chariots of Fire, is a 55km high mountain route inside the park consisting of 9200m of elevation gain. It connects together nine mountain refuges, forming a beautiful loop that winds all the way around the magnificent Aigüestortes. With an average altitude of 2400m, it is a tough, unrelenting circuit.
To this day the exact origin of the name of the route remains unknown but it was created in the summer of 1987 when some of the refuge wardens decided to make a circular walk of the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici Park in just one day, paying visits to each of the refuges. Carrying out the traverse developed into a tradition and the Carros de Foc was born. The route was formalised and became official in 2000 with a forfeit (passport) system operating, which allows walkers to collect a stamp at each refuge visited.
What’s really great about the Carros de Foc is that there is no set direction, starting point or pace for walking the route, meaning you can make the loop in just a few days or a week, staying in as many or as few mountain refuges as you wish.
The official site recommends five to seven days and reservations for the refuges can be made online through the Carros de Foc website. There is a picnic option, which means that all walkers have to worry about is hiking.
Attempt number two
In September 2017, we’d abandoned our attempt at walking the Carros de Foc after the first stage due to unseasonably cold weather, including an early deluge of snow, which made part of the route impassable.
In July 2018 I returned with my friend and trekking companion James, determined to conquer the route. With unprecedented snowfall this year across Europe, including the Pyrenees, I had emailed the Carros de Foc office the week before to check on the route conditions.
My worst fears were confirmed when the reply came back informing us that there was still substantial snow on the highest parts of the route and crampons and an ice axe would be needed to cross safely.
The alternative would be to miss out the highest pass of the route, Coll de Contraix, and take the park bus to the next access point. I desperately hoped over the next week there would be some snow thaw.
I picked up James at Barcelona airport on a humid Saturday morning in July. After a brief scare when we thought British Airways had lost his rucksack, we made the three-hour drive north-west via minor winding roads to El Pont de Suert, where we spent the night and made our final preparations. The following day we took a short drive north through the Vall de Boí – a UNESCO world heritage site – passing the park control at Caldes de Boí and driving up the narrow winding road to the Presa de Cavallers, an impressive dam and reservoir, where we left the car for the next five nights.
We began in the hot sunshine around midday and made our way around the spectacular Estany de Cavallers. The landscape was notably green as water tumbled from all directions. We began to climb up the valley towards the Riumalo waterfall and the land turned more rugged as we continued on up, following the yellow marker posts crossing stepping stones and boulders. It wasn’t long before Refugio Ventosa i Calvell came into view, perched 2220m above Estany Negre (Black Lake).
We arrived just in time as in the blink of an eye the weather changed and an almighty storm erupted. This would set the pattern for the rest of the week. The refuge was where we would spend our first night, collect our forfeits and officially begin the Carros de Foc route. I was impressed with how organised it was. They were expecting us and on presentation of our reservation we were allocated bed numbers and table places for dinner and breakfast.
We also each received a map and a good-quality cap, not to mention the most important thing of all, our first official stamp of the route.
We left our rucksacks and boots in a large porch area outside the main refuge, retrieving essential items. Walkers are given a kind of plastic basket to put things in, which makes life much easier once inside. The refuge was undergoing refurbishments, which meant there was only one working shower and no hot water. After an ice-cold shower, we passed the afternoon looking at our new map and the route, the bad weather outside and contemplating what might be on the menu that evening.
At 7pm sharp, we sat down at our pine bench as plates and cutlery were brought to our table. We were the only people in the refuge not from Spain or France. At our table were a group of four teachers from Marbella, a couple from Pamplona and a group of three friends from Barcelona. They were all very friendly and asked us where we were from and how we came to hear about the route. The evening meal was good: we started with chicken noodle soup, followed by salad, pork loins and an Oreo-themed pudding, which was exceptional.
Later, I listened to animated exchanges in a mixture of Spanish and Catalan about the conditions and wondered if we would indeed be able to pass Col de Contraix without crampons. The group from Marbella had already decided to take the alternative route. The conclusion after some discussion was that if we stuck to the stones it should be possible to pass without crampons.
James and I decided to give it a go and if at any point we felt outside our comfort zone, we would simply return.
At 9.30pm we were tucked up in our bunks in a long dormitory-like room with 70 other hikers. Blankets and pillows are provided but I was glad to have a thin sleeping bag liner, although I woke up overheating. At 10pm it was lights out and so began a long night as I battled with the noise of other sleepers; at one point the window was opened and a cool mountain breeze came rushing in. Around 6.30am movement began as people started to prepare and breakfast was served at 7am. It was basic but functional, with cereals, toast, cheese and ham. We didn’t know it but it was one of the best breakfasts we would have.
We collected our picnic, packed away the last of our items into our rucksacks and at 7.50am we began the relatively short, but arguably the hardest, stage. It was a bright, fresh morning and it was great to be outside in the open after being inside the refuge for so many hours.
We began by descending to the river before beginning a gentle and pleasant climb. The surroundings were lush and green as we traversed a stunning lake. From here we encountered a series of large boulders, which were challenging to overcome, but with the help of the yellow markers we finally made it past this hard and unrelenting section. In the distance lay the Coll de Contraix, a tiny gap between two foreboding towers of stone. After a quick drink and snack we pushed on, joining a large snow patch that eventually led all the way to the Coll. The yellow marker posts disappeared, covered by snow, but the way ahead was clear following the well-defined snow track.
We took our time and I was grateful to have my walking poles for added stability as, bit by bit, we closed in on our target.
The final section was exhilarating and a little scary, but with adrenalin pumping we scrambled between loose boulders and snow to the small platform at the top of the pass and the highest point of the whole route, at 2748m.
The views were stunning, a moonlike world of grey granite, rocky towers and lots of snow. The lake below was still partially frozen, even in July. After a quick photo, we began the descent. Below, a group had stopped to put on their crampons. We took our time kicking steps into the snow, passing one snow patch followed by another until, finally, we reached the lake named Estany de Contraix with its deep turquoise colour. It was a long, steep but beautiful descent all the way to the forest floor below where a well-defined track led us to the small Estany llong refuge. It was hot and we were tired and, unfortunately, we walked straight past the refuge, doing an extra kilometre before realising our mistake and returning.
That evening in the small refuge we enjoyed a hearty dinner of Butifarra, a delicious local Catalan sausage, and rewarded ourselves with a beer. We were sitting with the same group as the day before and spirits were high. I had no such problems falling asleep that night. Unfortunately, I had to get up in the early hours and, despite all my good intentions not to make any noise, I will be remembered as the Englishman who crashed into a wooden stool in total darkness, waking everyone.
Stage two, Estany Llong to Josep Marie Blanc, was a long stage at nearly eight hours of walking, but it was my favourite. It will also be remembered as the day James’s boots began to fall to pieces. After another chaotic breakfast we left the smell of burning toast behind and began the day by climbing out of the valley on a pleasant pine tree-laden path before traversing a wonderful balcony with lakes below. After the first serious climb of the day over the Collada de Dellui we passed many lakes that had been touched by the hand of man, crossing many dam walls before picking up an old train line that was used historically to transport building materials. When we reached Refuge de Colomina we were tired and hungry. After devouring our picnic we were a little bit disheartened to see the sign that indicated we still had 3hr 30min to our destination.
It was at this point, climbing Col de Saburo, the final col of the day, that James informed me that the front of one of his boots had completely opened up.
I always carry a spare lace and we made some running repairs before continuing. After a long day we finally arrived at the spectacularly placed Josep Maria Blanc Refuge. From a distance it seemed to be floating on the water. It is the most spectacular setting of all the refuges on the route and was full to brimming once again. This refuge is a short distance from Espot, one of the main entrance points to the route and can be accessed by vehicle, meaning the food is excellent. It is one of the few refuges with wifi and a webcam but, more importantly, to our surprise sold tubes of glue, which we used to patch James’s boot.
Stage three took us over the other high point on the route, the Col de Monestero. After descending a rather enjoyable steep gravel descent, we now knew that the snow wouldn’t thwart us but our boots could as my right boot had also begun to come away at the heel.
After passing beneath the Els Encantats (enchanted peaks), which tower magnificently above the St Maurici lake like a giant set of molars, we passed the largest and most stunning of the park’s lakes – Saint Maurici – which gives Aiguestortes the second part of its name. The surrounding pine and fir forests feature some stunning waterfalls, most notably the Cascada Ratera, which tumbles and roars into the lake below, and the area is busy with day visitors from Espot. It was a long walk up to Refugio de Amitges on the GR11, which passes through the park. That afternoon’s storm was ferocious as hail battered the windows, but we enjoyed another good meal, sharing a table with an Italian couple and two French climbers, who all spoke English.
Two shorter stages took us over the Port de Ratera and several more snow patches before the landscape began to change as we moved away from the granite towers to lusher green meadows and a rich variety of flora and fauna.
The surprise dinner of the trip was on our last night at Refuge de Colomers, where we enjoyed a whole trout each as the menu took on a seemingly more French feel. We were in the heart of Val d'Aran and some of the refuge wardens could be heard speaking yet another language, Aran.
After more essential repairs to our boots, our last day saw us climb the Port de Caldes, before we began the descent back to where it all started at Refuge Ventosa, which seemed an eternity ago. After retrieving our final stamp, joyous, we retraced our steps back to the car at Embalse de Cavallers, where the water level was noticeably higher than the week before and our walking boots just about made it over the finish line. Sadly, it would be their last outing.
We had conquered the Carros de Foc (myself at the second attempt) and survived the snow. It had been a hard and rewarding five days walking over relentless high mountain terrain. The Carros de Foc is a must visit for all lovers of the high mountains. The stunning beauty of its unique landscape makes it one of the best and most beautiful walking routes on the planet.
The Carros de Foc route is officially open from 4 June to 24 September. We walked it at the beginning of July and there were still substantial amounts of snow on the route. The best place to get more information about both the refuges and the Carros de Foc route is online, where one can make reservations at any or all nine refuges. During the peak season of July and August, reservations are essential.
There is an official Facebook page, which contains useful and up-to-date information on the route conditions. All the refuges also have their own websites.
The map given to walkers can be bought online, which is a good way to familiarise yourself with the route.
General advice and recommendations
D'Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is a three-hour drive north-west of Barcelona, about 25 miles west of Andorra. The main entry points for the route are at Espot, Arites and Boí, where in most cases it is roughly a two-hour walk to the nearest refuge. There is a park bus in operation and park taxis. It is also possible to get to the park via a coach from Barcelona. More information can be found here.
I recommend walking in a counter-clockwise direction as the ascents are more gradual than the other way around. Although some of the stages aren’t long in terms of kilometres, the terrain really should not be underestimated and, generally, the walking times indicated by the signs are fairly accurate.
The average height of the route is around 2400m, with a lot of ascent and descent, therefore I recommend trying to pack as light as possible. As with all high mountain routes, the weather can be extremely changeable so waterproofs, hat and gloves are essential. We couldn’t have done the route without our walking poles as crossing the snow safely wouldn’t have been possible.
Being able a speak a little bit of Spanish or French is useful, particularly to be able to converse with other walkers at mealtimes.
Day 1: Embalse de Cavallers to Refugio Ventosa i Calvell – 6.37km – 2.5hr
Day 2: Refugio Ventosa i Calvell to Refugio del Estany Llong – 12.5km – 6hr
Day 3: Refugio del Estany Llong to Refugio Josep Maria Blanc – 20.5km – 8hr
Day 4: Refugio Josep Maria Blanc to Refugio de Amitges – 15.5km – 6hr
Day 5: Refugio de Amitges to Refugio de Colomers – 12km – 5hr
Day 6: Refugio de Colomers tp Embalse de Cavallers – 13km – 5hr
The complete track, including some highlights for our route, can be found here.