“I sat upon the setting sun…and never wanted water once….” – Cat Stevens
Days: 20-25. Sallent de Gallengo- Banos De Panticosa- St Nicholas Bujaruelo- Torla
Mileage to date: 277km/812km
By week 4 we were entering the heart of the granite mountains, and the days that followed our departure from the town of Sallent de Gallengo promised to be some of the physically toughest on the whole trail, with the crossing of two major alpine passes, Cuello de Tebarrai and Cuello de Brazato. At 2765m Tebarrai was both the highest and most technically difficult pass on the GR11. We could have felt intimidated, but on the positive side the route promised to take us deep into Alpine terrain and some of the most pristine environments in the Pyrenees.
Barry showing off his new green trail shoes….the choice of bar was his…..
Before setting of into the hills we took a couple of much needed rest days in the town of Sallent de Gallengo, where we ate some decent food and re-supplied for the days ahead. We also enjoyed our first hot bath after 3 weeks of hiking and wild camping….it is hard to describe the exquisite luxury of this experience!
Barry had been having trouble with his right boot, causing one of his toes to become inflamed and painful. Given how remote the route would be over the next week we took action and decided to replace his boots with a pair of trail shoes (Salomon 3D Pro’s). This was a bit of a risk, jumping to untested footwear, but having now completed the trail in them, he can report that they were brilliant!
GR11 trailmarker- The way back to the mountains and to sanity…….
Our stay in Sallent de Gallengo was split between a hotel and a casa rural (room in a house). On the second day we moved to ‘Casa Serena’ on the quiet backstreets, the gloomy room was adequate, but during siesta we heard plates and cutlery banging upstairs, and an endless tirade of shouting from the proprietress. A man then left the building. A short time later he returned and we heard a scuffle, with ominous thuds reverberating through the floorboards. We considered leaving, but with nowhere else to go stayed on despite the tense atmosphere. To avoid another night in Casa ´not so´ Serena we left town the next day (Day 20), glad to escape to the quiet of our tent in the mountains.
Camped by a wild river and relieved to be back out in nature.
Afternoon on Day 20, loaded with food for 4 days, we began the two day hike up-valley in preparation for the crossing of the infamous Cuello de Tebarrai. That night we made camp in a secluded spot where tall firs and granite cliffs rose around us, the wild river bubbled away all night and the stars were spectacular.
Nearby a lone hiker was also camped under a small tarpaulin, smoke from his stove rose into the cold air and we could not help but admire the simplicity and elegance of his style! We were travelling fairly light, but for some long distance hikers, reducing their kit to a minimum is an art form. This trend towards greater simplicity, hiking lighter and freer, is something we hope to evolve towards, but it takes time to develop the confidence and resourcefulness to do this.
We woke early on day 21, the valley was deep in morning shadow and a heavy dew lay on the tent. As we sipped black tea and went about our camp chores the granite spires caught the dawn and flamed like candles. Setting off in hat and gloves the ascent was mercifully gradual as we wove through the quiet morning forests where the tracks of animals lay fresh in the dew. The river, becoming livelier as we climbed, fell in great cascades down the granite walls, flinging water droplets high into the sunlight.
Entering the wild granite backcountry.
By mid morning we had ascended to the reservoir of Respumoso, a huge lake of deepest blue, beyond which lay the wild granite backcountry. The midday sun was strong and unforgiving, but the winds from the high peaks swept away its warmth. We lay out of the wind munching cheesy biscuits and salami, spreading the tent on the rocks to dry. The afternoon would be spent climbing higher into the valley to position ourselves for the push up and over Cuello de Tebarrai the next morning.
Our camp, nestled into the corrie, the pass lies a further 400m up and behind us.
We camped in a high corrie where the water flowed in glittering curves across the meadow. An old shepherd guided his flock across the stony slopes, guarded by three feisty Pyrenean mountain dogs that saw off any hikers that got too near!
A shepherd with his flock.
Watch out! Two hikers unaware that a Pyrenean mountain dog is on the loose. Apart from being strong, the breed is not known for its aggression but rather its loyalty to and protection of the flock.
From camp we had vast views across the distant granite ranges, bare slopes and scattered trees, that glowed red in the setting sun. The long evening hours were spent contemplating the bubbling river and taking photos of mountain flowers. Later as the valley fell into shadow, the unmistakable silhouette of a Lammergeier soared and circled above before returning to its crag for the night.
Derelict sheepfold. Shepherding still persists in the high Pyrenees but it is a vanishing way of life.
Dawn in the high country.
Dawn on Day 22, we packed in the icy cold and gulped hot tea. The peaks grew pink with the first light and to our delight the Lammergeier, released from his night-time crag, circled before drifting off across the ranges. We were focussed and purposeful as we set off, knowing the task in hand, aware that the pass would be exposed and tricky…but to what extent we could not gauge. Climbing up from our night-time corrie to a small lake, we passed 3 tents, the occupants still sleeping, we would be the first on the pass that day.
The steep, foreboding approach to Tebarrai.
The approach to Tebarrai was a steep ascent up loose, dark screes towards a jagged ridge. Approaching 9000ft the wind became icy, Alpine Accentors scattered and called from the boulders around, and near the top we passed patches of late snow. Tebarrai had a sting in its tail, at the last moment the trail, apparently heading for a dead end below a cliff, turned sharp right, requiring a scramble up an exposed, very precarious gully. Loose rocks and gravel fell away at our feet as we clung to any solid outcrops we could find, anything to help haul ourselves and our 16kg rucksacks upwards. The weight of the rucksacks and the way they affected our balance added greatly to the sense of exposure, no grip or foothold seemed firm or safe enough, and looking down with nothing to break or slow a fall, it was battle of nerves to keep climbing upward.
Atop Tebarrai, Barry makes a leap across the rock gully to begin the descent.
At the top the wind caught us off balance and we tottered along the sharp ridge, hands and face already numb with cold. Below lay the dark waters of a high tarn, cloud shadows raced across magnificent ranges to the south, and 3 chamois bounded away over the boulderfields. The gully down was equally steep, and the wind took our voices away as we shouted ideas and tried to plan a strategy. We considered roping the bags and lowering them, but in the end there was enough firm hand holds to edge down slowly.
I had frozen with fear on the ascent, now it was Barry’s turn to go wobbly on the way down!
The wind was becoming fearsome and we were glad to descend rapidly, glaciers lay in the high corries around us and we criss-crossed their meltwater streams. The landscape that opened before us was the crystalline heartland of the high Pyrenees, a granite moonscape dotted with sparkling blue lakes.
The only downside of this spectacular terrain was the miles and miles of boulderfield to cross, rock-hopping for hours, jarring knee joints and demanding our attention when we would rather have concentrated on the views! In fact the GR11 was rarely forgiving underfoot, often steep with broken rock or slippy gravel, moments of ‘good tread’ when we could just walk along and forget about our feet were rare and precious.
Land of granite and lakes, the wild backcountry beyond Tebarrai
Despite the tough terrain we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular and surreal scenery in the Pyrenees, the valley of the Rio Calderes took us down into a deep, smooth granite canyon with plunging cascades and ancient twisted pines. By late afternoon we reached a grassy meadow by the river, ideal for camping, and we sat on the warm rocks, bathing sore feet and watching the blue-green water slide past. It was a sweet tiredness that evening, one of fulfillment and efforts rewarded, the windburn on our cheeks a reminder of the wild heights we had scaled.
Days end, tired but elated after the toughest stage of the GR11.
It is not in the GR11’s character to relent for a few days, and no sooner had we descended to the exclusive spa town of Banos de Panticosa on Day 23 that we once again began climbing towards another alpine pass. As the trail zig-zagged up out of the spa we looked down on exclusive hotel complexes, where white-robed guests shuffled around in slippers from steam-room to pool, encased behind glass in their strange and sterile world.
For us there was nothing purer than the pine-sweet trail, and plodding upward, the weight of our rucksacks grounding us in the moment, we were filled with the simple joy of being. Clearing the tree line we sat among the luminous yellow grasses snacking on cheese and crackers, listening to the whisper and rattle of cricket song. We chatted about Cat Stevens and a line from one of his songs, ‘I sat upon the setting sun, and never wanted water once, no never never, never‘. We both felt that nothing better summed up our feeling of life on the GR11, and I would often hear Barry singing this song as he hiked along, happy trail days that seemed to unfold without end.
Camping high in granite country.
That day we stopped early, the scenery was too beautiful to pass by and we were high enough to attempt the pass in the morning. We found a spot perched by a rocky lochan and spent an afternoon gazing down into the wild and cavernous valley below, dark pines threaded with silver streams. The gusts of wind brought the sound of rushing water from the void, only to fall silent again, and the hum of insects to return. How long since a footfall was heard down there? I sat and dreamed that a bear would emerge and animate the wildness, but as time passed there was just the wind and river, and falling rocks dislodged by Chamois.
Sometimes it is impossible to know how to comprehend a place or a moment, and that evening when the sky turned red we knew that ‘this was it’, what we had come here for. A moment when nothing else is needed or wanted, silenced and totally absorbed by the wonder of our world.
Emerging into the dawn light on Col de Brazato.
Day 24 and we were hiking well before dawn, climbing steadily on rough boulder paths towards Col de Brazato. We were deep in shadow, but the eastern corries of bare shattered stone lay in bright sunlight, a strange world of stark outlines and silence, broken only by the whistles and echos of marmots. Heard but unseen, were the bells of sheep on the slopes around us, the crystalline tinkling reminiscent of monastery bells in high Himalayan valleys.
Before the final climb I heard Barry shout behind me and turned to see three Lammergeiers sailing silently overhead, silhouettes in the pale light. This was their world, enigmatic dwellers of the high ranges, in them the inhospitable beauty of that place was distilled, and in their passing, a moment of grace.
On the broad shoulder of Col de Brazato we take in the view ahead towards the towering the peak of Vigemale.
With hands gripping cold granite we climbed closer to the sunlight, higher than all the land around us, until just before the col (2500m) we pulled up a final rock-step and emerged into warmth and light. Ahead was the colossus of Vigemale (the highest of the French Pyrenean summits). With a long day ahead we began the descent down steep boulderfield, the sun warmed us and the boulderfield was alive with the chack-chacking of wheatears and black redstarts flitting before us.
Further down, past deep blue tarns we followed the racing river across meadows, glinting in the glare of midday, gasping with the shock as we splashed our faces in the torrent. Drawing closer to the foot of Vigemale, a flock of Choughs dislodged from the ledges above and scattered their shadows on the rock-walls, acrobats of the high, bright air.
Spot the Chamois!
Entering the mighty Ordessa Canyon.
Entering the might Ordessa Canyon at the end of Day 24 was a special moment and a significant marker point in our hike. It had long been a place we had wanted to visit and there was a touch unreality as we finally arrived, having walked every inch of the way from the sea. I never dared to believe that we would make it that far. With slight consternation we also noted that the trees had started turning here, a reminder of the marching seasons and the many miles of alpine terrain that still lay ahead.
That evening, after another alpine pass complete, we were ready for rest and a little celebration. We camped next to a popular refuge in the valley floor and ordered the set-menu in the bar as a treat. After 4 challenging weeks on the trail, ‘hiker hunger’ had set in, this being a state of constant hunger, a hollowness in the belly that no amount of food would sate. Nothing can describe the ravenous delight with which we ate the herby chicken casserole and crunchy salad, sinking deep into our chairs afterwards, pleasantly hazy from the draught beer and warmed by the late sunlight. We must have looked hungry as we attracted some curious glances. Hiking and living as we were had re-set our ‘clocks’ on many everyday-experiences, giving them a new dimension and value. I wish we could always experience things with such appreciation and gratitude.
I remember week 4 as the purest of our GR11 experience, a tough week physically, but a time when we were happy and carefree living high among the peaks. There was exhilaration at climbing each of the alpine passes, but sometimes it was hard not to feel defeated by the sheer scale of the GR11. But then, laying in our tent, bodies buzzing from the exertion of the day, the mind would come to rest in the present moment and the beauty that surrounded us. Where on earth would we rather be? And that was the trick with the GR11, the whole trail as an entity was inconceivable, it could only be undertaken moment by moment, step by step. Totally absorbed in our hiking and awake to the beauty around us, we came to live in an eternal present, more alive that we had been before. The journey would take care of itself.
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Watch out for our next installment: GR11 Week 5: Canyons of Swirling Mist coming soon.
Now that we have finished we will also be posting some thoughts and reflections on our GR11 experience and some reviews of our equipment for anyone interested. If the blog has inspired you to consider hiking in the Spanish Pyrenees then don’t hesitate to get in touch.