GR11 Week 5: Canyons of Swirling Mist

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….”- ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats

Tent at Goriz

Ordessa- Pineto- Parzan-  Puen de San Chaime

Total mileage to date: 388/812km

Week 5 was the week when things changed, we reached the half-way point of our trek, and September broke upon us, bringing mist, the drama of swirling clouds, cold and the first dusting of snow on the high peaks. The light seemed to change too, the glare of summer being replaced by a clarity of autumn light that bought depth to the colours around us- the vivid red of rosehips, the gold of spent summer grasses and blue-purple haze of wild plums.

End of Ordessa

Looking towards the headwall of the Ordesa Canyon.

After a couple of well earned rest days near the town of Torla, we returned to the trail. The GR11 cuts straight through the mighty, and very beautiful, Ordesa canyon, along forested tracks for much of the way, but then opening to a wide bare valley where the river falls in spectacular cascades. Ahead lie the almost vertical headwall, up which we would have to climb to reach Refugio Goriz and our camp for the night.

Strangely, after being fighting fit in the past week, the climb up the headwall to Goriz was one of the hardest parts of the GR11 for me. My strength evaporated and legs were like lead, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath, feeling exhausted. It was soul destroying to feel so weak, and a little mystifying as I did not feel ill otherwise. Traversing the undulating terrain towards Goriz took every ounce of strength, and for the first time in 4 weeks of hiking I doubted my ability to continue. Barry contrastingly seemed to be coping pretty well!

Climb to Goriz

Barry ascending the headwall, the wild uplands around Monte Perdido lay ahead.

Refugio Goriz is spectacularly situated near the lip of the Canyon with the slopes of Monte Perdido rising behind.  Camping in only allowed here on the condition that tents are only up between 8pm and 8am.  We bagged a flat spot in the camping zone, and after cooking up some noodles, I spent the rest of the afternoon laying out under the open sky in my sleeping bag, drifting in and out of sleep.

The afternoon passed in a drama of swirling clouds that rolled across the cliffs and traced shadows across the landscape of scoured rock. Beams of sunlight would gleam through the roiling mist, a golden eagle appeared hunting in a patch of light, and a lammergeir emerged and disappeared into the gloom.

Tired at GorizLooking down into the Ordesa Canyon from our camp spot by Goriz Refuge.

The night was calm and quiet, but we were woken early by lightening out over the plains to the south, giant cumulonimbus thunderheads, yellow and pink in the dawn, lit from within by brilliant, flickering light.

Climb up CoronetsEarly in the ascent to Collado Coronets, sunlight pierces the gloom of damp beechwoods.

Day 29 dawned wet and dreak, nestled deep in the warmth of my bunk at Refugio Pineto, I heard the other hikers stir in the darkness of the dorm and later watched as they headed off in full raingear. A late start to begin the ascent up Collado Coronets, for the first time since we started I was reluctant to hike and dragged my heals getting ready. As soon as we were out on the trail however, the sky brightened and it felt good to be striding along in the cold air between the scented pines. By the small church of Pineta, the soft calls of a family of bullfinches alerted us to their feeding on clusters of bright rowan berries.

Cloud Coronets

Watching the play of clouds above the majestic Pineto valley.

We soon turned steeply up through beech forest on a broken, slippery track, and maybe it was a lingering weakness from the previous days, but the climb was unremitting. There was no respite from the steep, rough trail, and added to this the threat of thunder, pushing us to go more quickly than ideal, to get up and over the col. Emerging high above the Pineto valley, we did take time to admire the turmoil of cloud, lifting, building and dissipating among the limestone crags, the air humid and potent with the coming storm.

Cow valley campCamp in Rio Real valley, a small patch among the rocks and cow dung!

Reaching Collado Cornets (2159m) the hail began and lightening flickered from the purple darkness across the distant ranges. We descended quickly to safety on slippery, loose shale. The Rio Real valley was a bleak prospect, dark, rain-soaked mountain flanks massed above us, while the valley floor was overrun by cattle that bellowed throughout the coming evening and night.

Picking our way through the copious dung, we found a flat and sheltered place and managed to pitch just before the storm broke, bringing torrential hail and thunder that rolled around the rockwalls like a kettle drum. During lulls in the storm, there was the thunder of waterfalls, while warm and dry in our sleeping bags the dark afternoon faded into evening and night.

Cloud gleam

A moody autumn morning in the Rio Real Valley

Day 30 and our objective was a resupply stop in Parzan before another wild mountain stage. In the cold of first light we broke camp and walked down-valley where the mist mingled  above the forest and sunlight spilled through to illuminate derelict barns and the colours of autumn fruit by the trail side.  Rock buntings and Citril finches scattered on the trail ahead of us and a chill, damp wind below down from the heights of fresh snow.

Swirling clouds

Panorama of clouds and sunlight on descent to Parzan.

Early that morning the cows had stopped bellowing, and with a turn in the trail we found out why. The bull had left the herd and was ambling slowly and grumpily down-valley. With 8km still to go before Parzan we needed to pass him, but approaching him too close, he stopped and swung his head round, fixing us with a stare that left us in no doubt that we should not pass! With cliffs to the left and a steep drop- off to the right, we could not skirt round. Finally, to our relief, he spied another group of cows for his attention and lumbered off the trail to meet them.

Resupply Parzan        Resupply at Parzan, the usual selection of high calorie (junk!) food.

After arriving at the village of Parzan the rain came, and we sat under the veranda of a roadside café munching pork baguettes, French fries, finished off with hot chocolate. As the hours passed, the water slid across the road in glassy sheets and the gutters overflowed in torrents. A few sodden hikers traipsed by to the local hostel, but we held out for a break in the weather. We laid our mats out on the floor under the veranda and spread our jackets over us to keep warm as we huddled together.

I felt strangely happy sitting there, as I often do when out in the world with only backpacks and out feet to carry us, a contentment in which the moment alone is sufficient. Barry read aloud from ‘The Tree of Man’ (by Patrick White) and we watched the rain and people pass by. No-one looked or acknowledged us on the floor, we were as if invisible, happy nomads who had side-stepped the busy world.

Shepherds hut fire    Warm and dry in the shepherds hut.

By late afternoon the rain abated and we took a chance, hiking up the valley to camp, and so prepare for the crossing of Collado Chistau the next morning. But our gamble backfired, and after 2 hours the rain came again, heavy and cold, along with the thickening darkness. Worried that we would become dangerously cold and wet, we stood under our umbrellas, strategizing.  As so often happens on the trail, serendipity stepped in, and through the grey downpour we glimpsed a shepherd’s hut on the slope above.

I am in no doubt that the hut saved our bacon that night. We were able to make a small fire with dry boxwood that crackled as it burnt, the flames roared and the damper logs smoked a bit, but were able to hang our clothes and make a warm meal. We stood our pots out under the dripping eaves to collect water and made a simple bed on the wooden boards, sitting in our sleeping bags drinking tea and watching the flame shadows leap.

Outside the rain continued for hours, clearing late in the evening to a night of brilliant starlight and an icy wind that made the tin roof groan. The fire had warmed the stone hearth which kept the chill at bay, and in the darkness we could see the starlight through chinks in the tin. It would have been a very peaceful night had it not been for the mysterious rodents that chattered and rustled in the corners, scattering out of site each time we tried to find them in our torchlight.

Morning at hut        Morning at the shepherds hut.

Dawn on day 31, a paling sky and bitter cold wind blowing down from the snowfields. The autumn had come so fast, would the sun and warmth return? I lit the gas stove (our dependable MSR Pocket Rocket) and watched the blue flame in the darkness of the hut, all was quiet except the moan of the wind and rumble of waterfalls. The evening’s fire had crumbled to ashes, but the sweet smoke still lingered and would scent our clothes for days to come.

We had a further 300m to climb to Collado Chistau (2346m) and set out into the dark valley wrapped against he cold. As the sun rose we reached the final ascent, zig-zagging up a rocky talus slope. The warming sun was melting the night’s frost and releasing small stones which trickled and clattered as they rolled, there was the crystalline quietness of a perfect morning. At the top, huge rockwalls reared up into the blue, all was sunlight and the glitter of early snow dusting the peaks.

Senda PirenaicaA perfect morning near Collado Chistau on ‘La Senda Pirinaica’.

Descent was gentle across grassy slopes, walking high and free in the bright air, snowy panoramas ahead of us, a truly joyful moment and rare stretch of easy walking on the trail. We meet an American hiker called Marie on the way down and hiked together for some time, chatting about her life in Texas, liberal culture in a conservative state, and her plans/hopes for the future. It was great to have some company, but Marie was superfast, and we both struggled to match her pace, slipping and sliding while she made it look so effortless!

High walking

Walking high and free, descent from Collado Chistau.

That evening, tired but happy, we relaxed in the warm evening sun by Refugio Biados, growing pleasantly hazy on Ambar beer, and chatting with our temporary trail companions, Marie, a couple Izzy and Shana and John. Marie was doing the mountain sections of the GR11, while Izzy and Shana, who  live in Spain are completing the trail section by section each year. John, a Brit now living in Finland, is a veteran of the GR1o and now undertaking the challenging and remote High Route (HRP).


A rare social gathering for us on the GR11 outside Refugio Biados.

For that one evening it was a joy to be in such good company, a momentary gathering in trail- life of people on their own adventures, but with a common shared experience.  As the high peaks were shrouded in evening cloud, there seemed nothing more perfect than to lay back in the summer grasses and listen to the chatter of hikers.

Day 32 and the final mountain stage before our arrival in Puen De San Chaime and the (almost) half way point of the Gr11. Well before dawn hikers were stirring in the dorms, outside the morning star hung above the cold peaks that rimmed the paling sky. We hiked up-valley in the grey dawn with John, before parting ways at Plenta d’Anes Cruces, a confluence where streams jumped and splashed in sunlight. John would go north on the HRP while we tackled the Puerto de Chistau on the GR11.

The ascent was long, and started brutally with steep gradients over screes, and even though the climb relented later on, the start had knocked out my pacing and energy. With legs burning it was a mentally as well as physically challenging ascent, the col on the bright skyline, never seemed to get any closer, and I needed to stop often, completely exhausted. Then, a revelation! The problem was that my mind wanted to get there before the body was able, causing frustration and a sense of defeat. What was wrong with just being where I was, in the present, was the ‘now’ not good enough?

View from the col

View east toward Aneto from Puerto de Chistau (2572m)

After that things became easier, I slowed down to a crawl and didn’t look at the skyline any more. It was, after all, a day of marvellous blue, the stark clarity of rock and rumble of waterfalls rising from the void below. The silence and sunlight magnified everything and made it significant.

Reaching the col, the view opened to the massif of Aneto (the highest peak in the Pyrenees), and there was a rare and complete quietness, broken only by the sigh of a vultures wing as it circled and rose, back eye glinting. I suspect that the silence I experienced in that moment was amplified by an inner silence. Perhaps it was the arduousness of the ascent, my relief at reaching the col or the sheer beauty around me, but a space had opened inside. Exhausted and emptied of all thought, there was an innocence of perception, a ‘broken-openness’ as I stood alone on that col on that perfect, blue, mountain day.

Looking back on this experience I am reminded of a moment in Nan Shepherds beautiful book ‘The Living Mountain’, in which she wades into the crystal clear waters of Loch Avon, deep in the heart of the Cairngorms.

I looked down; at my feet there opened a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped..[…]..I motioned to my companion who was a step behind, and she came and glanced as I had down the submerged precipice. Then we looked into each others eyes and again into the pit. I waded slowly back into shallower water. There was nothing that seemed worth saying. My spirit was as naked as my body. It was one of the most defenceless moments of my life“.*

Barry descent on screeDescent across screes from Puerto de Chistau.

The doors of perception soon close, but for that fleeting moment on Puerto de Chistau, and for that moment alone, I would have walked the entire GR11, such is the rareness of those moments in our life when, freed from ourselves, we seem to be in touch with universe.

The rough descent was tiring, especially for kneecaps already frayed from miles of jarring boulderfield, and by this time we were both using knee supports on steep sections. Footsore, and hobbling we pushed on beyond Refugio Estos, along a merciful and sunlit trail between pines with views back to granite uplands and plunging cascades. The prize that evening was ‘Camping Aneto’, a hot shower and ‘real’ food. After 5 weeks on the trail, we would walk a very long way for that!

We reached Puen de San Chaime, and the half way mark of the GR11 that evening, and celebrated in the campsite bar by sharing a salty and crunchy ‘platos combinados’ of 3 pork loins, 2 eggs, salad, chips and fresh bread. Never was a plate licked so clean!

Barry doing washingBarry hanging out our laundry on an improvised washing line at Camping Aneto.

Day 33 and we still woke early, as was our habit, to a pale sky and a late moon, feeling a twinge of regret that we were not camped high among the peaks. But then the luxury of a rest day sunk in, laying in the warmth of our sleeping bags, making tea with real milk (!) and sharing a fresh baguette with cheese for breakfast. Sipping tea and just chatting, with nowhere to go, the sun broke over the ridgeline and we pottered about camp, enjoying the sense of domestication and the simple joy of hanging clean clothes to dry in the sunlight.

A so ended week 5 of or GR11 journey, with many gifts bestowed, although nearly always hard won. I started to wonder if sometimes the GR11 was just too hard to really enjoy. With heads down and so often focussed on another ascent or decent, there seemed little of the ‘lightness of being’ which makes me love walking so much.

Indeed it was a week of doubt, when arduous ascents and exhaustion started to erode confidence in physical ability. A week when nothing could be achieved quickly, and we had to submit to the scale of things, and at times, our own limitations- something we as individuals and a society can find hard to accept. Slowed to the pace of a snail, often tired and sometimes exhausted, there was no way round or through, only up, ever upward, and just our own inner resources and will-power to carry us.

Barry was and is better at this than me, he took it slow, step by step, and always reached the top still smiling, but it took me longer to be patient, and be present, to stop wanting to be further or higher than I was. I came to understand that the only place to be is ‘here’, to be fully present is to expand with the joy a moment can hold, and may be the surest way to get when we wish to go.

I hope you have enjoyed this latest update, and sorry they are trickling in so slowly! Please keep reading and watch out for the next instalment:

GR11 Week 6: Trial on the Trail: The Beast of Ballibierna!

* The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Published by Canongate Press, 2011.


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