GR11 Week 6: Trial on the Trail- Before and After Ballibierna

‘I am uncomfortably aware of the very little I have seen and experienced of things in general, and of our country in particular’ Miss Trevelyan had just confessed, ‘but the little I have seen is less, I like to feel, than what I know. Knowledge was never a matter of geography. Quite the reverse, it overflows all maps that exist. Perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind’Voss, by Patrick White.

Barry near col of Billabernia

Puen de San Chaime- Refugio Conagles- Espot (not continuous)

Having reached the half way point of the GR11, with no ill effects (not even a blister between us), and our enthusiasm still intact, we had good grounds for confidence.  We had even dared to believe in the reality of reaching the Mediterranean. During week 6, the GR11 would take us up and over another major alpine pass, the col of Ballibierna, and then through the beautiful Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici national park, the latter a much anticipated highlight of the trip.

Despite our confidence, we had never been complacent in our undertaking of the GR11, in fact I plan, worry and doubt more than most people I know, but events that were to unfold on the Col of Ballibierna at the start of the week were a stark reminder that bad things can happen, even to the most cautious. Reflecting back on Week 6 it was a turning point in our journey, such was the difficult imprint that events made, both physically and emotionally, on the rest of our trip.

Trail mix

Freshly re-supplied, a (self-made) trail mix of rare quality! Peanut M&M’s, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and dried cranberries.

Day 33 and our objective was to hike up-valley as far as possible and prepare for the crossing of challenging Collado de Ballibierna the next morning (and avoid a 1700m climb in one day). Also ahead lay a 6 day stint without food re-supply, apart from meals available in refuges, so trudging up the long, steep ascent into the valley of the Barranco Ballibierna, our packs were more than usually heavy with 5kgs of food each. Despite the weight and logistical difficulties, the route ahead lay through high country of glittering lakes, and we were excited about spending a longer, less interrupted time in the wild.

Hiker cave art

Some hiker ‘cave art’ sketched on the wall of the unmanned Refugio Puen del Corones.

As we hiked steadily, enjoying the new vistas that opened with each turn in the trail, we fell to talking about mountains, and more specifically ‘how can we ‘know’ a mountain’. There are many gateways to knowledge, some more prized than others, and in western society, the intellectual is often valued above all. But how far can this aspect of knowledge really take us in grasping the ‘whole’ nature of a thing or experience?  I often feel that intellectual (rational) understanding leaves me feeling unsatisfied and remote, like standing on the tideline, it allows me to look, but not fully comprehend, the full nature of the sea.

Over the past 5 weeks on the GR11, the physical experience of walking the Pyrenean range had opened a deep appreciation (knowledge) of the scale of this landscape. Simply through the energy taken to walk each contour we had, in a way, taken its scale within ourselves, we had come to know it in a direct way, and in some sense, it had also become part of us.  Like tree rings that record years of rain and drought through their width, so the GR11 would leave its trace in us.

Often considered a crude form of knowledge, the physical is also pure and unfiltered by preconceptions of the intellect. In transcending the limitations of our thoughts and clearing a space inside us, it is no co-incidence that through physical knowledge, earth-bound and base as it is, may lie a gateway to the most intangible knowledge of all- the spiritual.

Looking at the Pyrenees as I write this, 2 months after we finished, the range is now covered in snow.  I can name the summits and cols on the skyline, can recall the poetry of valleys and rivers in sunlight, and I also know something else, very deeply, that is a part of me now, that I never knew before

Back to Day 33, and high in the valley the cloud was swirling down from the amphitheatre of peaks around us, we had done enough to push over the col the next day, and made camp among an army of twisted pines.  Unusually, it was grey, cold and windy, we made a quick dinner and went to bed, hoping for clear skies at dawn.

Billabernia dawnThrough the mist of a foggy camera lens, the moon hangs in a freezing, clear dawn above the col of Ballibierna.

Day 34 was mercifully clear but achingly cold, too cold in fact to do anything but pack up and walk, a proper breakfast would wait. The sunlight came late to the valley, and the cold seemed to intensify before dawn, frost was forming before our eyes and breath came in misty gasps. But as the sun lit the granite uplands above us and we climbed through a wonderland of gushing streams and ancient, sculpted pines we were too absorbed to worry about our fingertips freezing inside our gloves.

Grnite upland to Billabernia

Setting out from camp into a freezing dawn, the granite uplands of Ballibierna beyond.

Pine tree

Silhouettes of ancient pines against the paling sky.

In fact, the hour-long climb up from our camp to the Ibon Inferior de Ballibierna (lower lake) was one of the most beautiful and enchanting bits of trail we had walked, and all the more appreciated for being unexpected. Barry was particularly inspired by this atmospheric morning hike  and has written a poetical piece below describing his experience:

“Step lightly in pristine palace of shimmering, sculpted rock and sculptured pines, into the amphitheatre of light.

Serene stillness, timelessness- heightened senses attuned, silver crystalline valley, where everything attains significance. Fingered roots gripped within tight crevices and shape upwards to silhouette, shadow and surprise. Delicate mauve flowers emerging between boulders reflected in the glistening stream, playing and dancing over stones.

The stream’s music plays, chants from small cascades as high above an eagle drifts between towering pinnacles. Van Morrison’s music intertwines with natures chorus…..all is wonder, all is one, swirling together, inseparable ”let you soul and spirit fly into the mystic’….”.

Mauve flowers Vallibiernia - Copy

After another 45min scrabbling over a section of monster boulderfield, we arrived at the highest lake, settled serenely into a stark corrie of shattered, ruptured rock. Being in warm sunlight for the first time that day, we decided to break and refuel before the final push. Laying the tent out to dry (a wet flysheet adds significant weight) we made salami baguettes spread with cream cheese and sat watching hundreds of small frogs in the lakeside shallows.

Corrie lake

Corrie lake below Collado Ballibierna.

Fuel for the climbFuelling up for the climb, the foreboding headwall of Ballibierna ahead.

The final climb to Ballibierna looked worse than it was, we had done most of the hard work, and after a section rock-hopping over boulderfield we ascended the final steep steep zig-zags to the col. On reaching the top I yelled out (in relief as much as anything), ‘yeah baby – we took Ballibierna!’….only to realise, embarrassingly, that another hiker was sitting in contemplation just below….I smiled sheepishly, it’s usually me that complains about noisy people in the wilds!


Loads and loads of boulderfield.

Barry followed shortly afterwards and we stood eyeing up the unpleasant descent and sudden build-up of cloud over the nearby ridges. The trail was not done with us yet, we would have to descend and climb over another Col before a long, slippery descent to Refugio Anglios, an unmanned ‘shed’ that was our shelter for the night. The scenery was staggering, but I was concerned about the cloud, now boiling ferociously into towering cumulonimbus, not a good time to be stuck between high cols.

Down towards Anglios

A necklace of lakes amid wild terrain on the descent from Collado Anglios.

The thunderstorm never materialised, but on the steep descent from the second col, Barry called that he felt dehydrated and needed to stop for more water. As I desperately filtered 4 litres of water from the lake his condition rapidly deteriorated. I am reluctant to re-live the details, suffice to say that he had severe dehydration and it took 4 hours of sliding down through avalanche smashed forest to get to the nearest road and try to hitch to the nearest manned Refuge of Conagles.


The remote and beautiful Refugio Anglios- we never did get to stay there.

After 4 hours we finally heard the rush of an HGV through the trees, the relief was immense.  Barry rested by the roadside as I stuck my thumb out, but as car after car sped by without stopping, it became clear that (ironically) we were almost as isolated here by the side of this busy road than we had been high on the mountain. If only they knew, speeding past in their new Lexus’s and Toyotas how much we needed a lift and how little it would have cost them to take us 3 miles up the road! How isolated we are becoming  in our bubbles of personal space…..

We had no choice but to trudge on up the tarmac, Barry was at least feeling less dizzy by now. We had given up thumbing, when a horn sounded behind us and a farmer pulled up in a Citroen Berlingo to ask if we wanted a lift! We thanked him profusely as he dropped us outside the refuge, he smiled and handed us two beautiful large nectarines each. There in the dusky gloom of that busy expressway, amid the hiss of HGV brakes and red glow of tail-lights I knew there are indeed saints among us….!  All it takes is one human to see the human in another.

Looking back now, there was our GR11 journey before Ballibierna and after Ballibierna. Before Barry got ill that day, the thought of going into the mountains was a joy, and the longer the stage and the more remote the better. The trauma of the experience for me caused what I can only describe as a ‘change of state’ or perspective, from one in which we were happy and free in mountains to one in which we were now vulnerable and alone. I started studying the maps for each stage calculating the distance to the nearest roadhead…just in case.

Ironically, despite being physically diminished by the event, Barry worried very little, while for the remainder of the hike I struggled to regain sense of carefreeness and simple joy that had been before. Week 6 was a reminder that despite good preparation and awareness things can still go wrong, and it is not until things go wrong that we realise the true extent of our vulnerability.

The challenge for me in the remaining weeks was to keep this new sense of vulnerability in its ‘place’, to maintain a healthy perspective between the dangers and freedom of living in the mountains. We had become a little careless about looking after ourselves, not fully rehydrating or having proper food stops, and Ballibierna was a reminder to keep an eye on these sneaky, creeping risks at the edge of our vision that might just catch us out.

Watch out for the next instalment: GR11Week 7: Deserted Villages of the Dry Valleys


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