As a trek leader, there are times when I pack the bags, and rush out of the door, passport, first aid kit, emergency shelter, and gaffer tape at the ready. Often with little time to appreciate the incredible variety of landscapes and experiences that I work in. And then, there are the other times, when I just wish I could bottle the essence of mountain, and sell it to the world. The Aiguestortes would do that trick rather nicely. A nice short journey, good weather at the destination, the most stunning mountains, and fantastic food, this trip has it all.
Just a short hop from the UK to either Pau or Lourdes Tarbes airport, and from there are drive of around an hour and a half, will bring you to the trailhead for one of the finest mountain experiences available in Europe.
This piece describes how you might consider this as a bit of a wham bam, quick hit and run on the
Pyrenees. You can cram it into a Budget flight weekend,
but of course, you could happily double, triple, or more the length of time to
dedicate to it.
We flew into Pau airport (but you might use Lourdes - or if pushed, even Biarritz), and after a short transfer to the French Spanish border, then through Vielha and the Vielha Tunnel, we pulled up at Hospital de Vielha - ready to take on the Pyrenees finest. With poles extended, laces tightened, and food squashed in as best we could for the 2 days ahead, we climbed out of the valley, inevitably winding our way up towards the high and wild mountains. As we climbed up through the pine forests, our breathing adjusted slowly to the task that lay ahead; 2 days of mountain trekking. Our small team of 3, used to trekking together, chatted eagerly for the first couple of kilometres, before settling down to the task ahead. As the first
at 2320m approached, that special
feeling of anticipation started to build. With blue skies overhead, and the sun
rising rapidly in the sky, the canvas was set, for a very special couple of
Crossing the Port de Rius, the landscape undergoes a simply incredible change. From the unassuming climb, we snuck through a narrow nick of rock at the top, over and into the outer reaches of the
. Immediately we knew we were in for a special
treat, as the first of a series of impossibly beautiful and pure Glacial lakes
came into view. The deep blue of the lake makes an impressive backdrop, and
contrasts beautifully against the brightness of the pristene wind scoured
granite. The sublime combination of colours and crystal clear air are
intoxicating, and make the soul and the spirits soar. We sprung along
lightfootedly beside a series of lakes, and marvelled at the beautiful waters,
and perfect reflections. The walking is so absorbing that miles and hours pass
so quickly. The horizon draws you in, the intrigue and amazement of the ever
more spectacular surroundings is breathtaking. Aigues
Our end of day destination was the Refugi de Colomers, an innocuous 12 miles of walking - but of course, cols at 2355m (Port de Rius) and 2570m (Port de Caldes) conspire to make this trek somewhat more arduous. Depending on how you are travelling, this could be a tough day, or fairly manageable. Our recommendation for a fast break like this is certainly to pack light, and enjoy every minute. Also, the weather will change the undertaking considerably, summer weather in the mountains is perfect, especially here in the high
where we spent most of the day above 2000m. You should expect temperatures to
fluctuate in the middle of the summer from 25 degrees down to 5 or 10 degrees
(closer to feeling like zero with a stiff breeze blowing). We trekked with
small packs (as we were making full use of mountain refuge facilities) - and so
the day's walk was around 8 hours.
With perfect weather conditions, our lunch break beside one of the high mountain lakes was a blissful affair, the warm sun keeping us just warm enough to stretch out on a nice soft grassy lawn. Nothing can really get close to the feeling of soft grass, clear air, and warm sunshine. Add some Spanish Omlette and some Chorizo, and lunch is just what the doctor ordered. Let your eyes close, lay back, and take a few deep breaths... this is what mountains are all about.
The walk remained high up for the afternoon, and we reached the intermediate Refugi dera Restanca in the mid afternoon. Across a long hydro electric barrage, the path reached the Refuge, and our slightly dehydrated bodies were pleased to find the Guardian already serving cold drinks. This was just the tonic we needed to continue on the second stage of our day's trek. Tempting as it may have been to roll out the sleeping bags, our 'camino' wound on, up and over another pass - and further amongst these wondrous peaks.
The twin passes of Gueliicrestada and Caldes require a further 500m of ascent, but once again, it brought us into sublime territory. The feeling here is certainly of remoteness, and the mountains became more atmospheric as the day drew towards its close. The whispy white clouds in the deep blue sky had developed through the afternoon, becoming heavier, and greyer as we marched on. By Port de Caldes, our
for the day, as is so often the
case, the wind had freshened to a stiff breeze, whipping our rucsack straps,
and encouraging us to hurry off down the hillside towards Colomers. The trail
roughened and steepened up coming down the final 400m down towards the lakes of
the Circ de Colomers. Certainly this kind of terrain deserves some thought and
consideration. Whilst it may not be the domain of extreme altitude, and it was
on the waymarked GR11 trail, a slip and tumble here can have serious
complications, and can turn an easy and enjoyable day into something very
different. With wearying legs we trod carefully on our final descent of the day
- and down to the lakeside which we skirted to find our way into the shelter of
the Colomers Refuge. high point
The refuge is a wonder of the
, and no matter how many times
I visit, it is always such a great experience to be able to be fed and watered
up high in the mountains. Some may find sleeping cheek by jowel with folks from
across Europe a disconcerting experience, but I find it life affirming, and
always a fascinating way to spend a night. Dinner was served bang on the stroke
of 8pm, and with three courses, including thick creamy polenta, tasty gravy
sauce and local mountain meat (probably horse!), followed up by fruit for
afters, and a cold beer, life just doesn't get much better. European Mountains
An important aspect of any trip to a mountain refuge in
is the etiquette of life in the refuge. First rule is that all bags must stay
downstairs (usually in storage lockers or similar). Second, you will usually be
offered slippers for use whilst in the refuge, and you should definately NOT
enter the refuge with boots on (unless you want unspeakable things to be done
to your dinner !). Thirdly, if you get any choice over your bed for the night,
there are 2 key factors; firstly stay on the bottom deck, and close to a toilet
escape route, or, if you don't generally need night time pit stops, you could
consider a window spot, to benefit from fresh air. Fourth: Keep your Headtorch
easily accessible. Fifth: Whilst Refugi may look like hotels in the mountains,
don't treat them as such. They are staffed by a small team, and any help you
can offer clearing tables, putting rubbish in bins, and generally keeping the
place tidy, always goes a long way. Finally, remember to take home everything,
including all your rubbish, the refuge has enough of its own rubbish to dispose
of, and it all has to be carried out. Spain
Inevitably the next morning, we all looked around to identify the phantom snorer, who had gurgled and growled through the night. Every person was ready to lynch the person who looked like they had enjoyed a good nights sleep. 11 trekkers had been awake all night, one slept like a baby. Should be easy to guess who? As quick as we could we squashed our sleeping bags away, and made for breakfast. For those of you who are not experienced visitors to rural
, it could be that the
breakfast ('Desayuno') will take you by surprise. Forget Egg and Bacon, forget
Porridge, in fact forget anything apart from coffee and some stale bread and
biscuits. The Spanish simply don't believe in breakfast. It could be something
to do with often taking dinner at 10pm at night. For trekkers used to early
nights, and big days however, this can be tough. Forearmed is forewarned
though, and you might just want to pack some little extra treats from home for
this part of the weekend's adventure. Spain
The upside of this less than memorable meal is that it hardly held us up from getting off and away. Good thing too, as outside the day was dawning bright and beautiful, once again we tramped straight into the continuing mini lake district of the Aiguestortes, or in English - the Park of winding Streams. Immediately our path plucked a route through the heart of the park, through the lakes of Plan, Long and Redon, before climbing up to Obago. The pleasant fresh mountain air warmed steadily as the sun climbed higher and we emerged from the morning shadows into warm sunshine.
The second day of this two day trek is very similar in distance, at 12 miles, but easier physically with just one pass, at 2580m the
of this trek. We were then once again treated to another incredible change in
horizon. From being drawn to the incredible lakes, and the reflections and
shades of blue in the water, over the Port de Ratera, our eyes were drawn to
two incredible peaks. The amazing silhouettes of the high point Enchanted
Peaks - 'Els Encantets' greeted us
like the Twin Towers
of the Pyrenees. Positioned perfectly amongst
an impossibly beautiful layered landscape of blues and purples, the 2 twin
peaks draw the eye inexorably. The path descends at a gentle rate through the
layers of a perfect mountainscape, and provides some most enjoyable walking.
With time to savour the epic view, and not requiring high concentration we
walked on, and chatted as we dropped away down towards the Lake of Estany St Maurici,
and then onwards into the . Espot
As the afternoon wore on and we dropped further and further the sun became ever warmer and more powerful. Our feet appreciated a generous lunch break, once again beside the water, where we dipped feet in the freezing mountain stream waters gurgling down the valley bottom. The trek finishes off with a steady descent of the sweeping
following the lightly used valley track which eventually gives out to a narrow
tarmac road. Our journey is at an end, and we turn to savour these 2 amazing
days in the mountains. Espot Valley
To cap our 2 incredible days of trekking off, we had reserved a night in La Guingueta, in a reasonably priced but very comfortable simple Spanish Hotel. Either a short taxi ride, or a further 6 miles down the road, brought us to La Guingueta - where there are a choice of places to eat, and a couple of nice places to stay.
After a pleasant overnight, and more than a couple of cool fresh Estrellas, a classic tasty Spanish dinner was our reward for 2 days on the trail, and the journey home was a mere formality. The hotel connects perfectly for the return journey, and is just over 2 hours by road to the airport. From here, the wonders of the budget airlines will bring you back to the
2 of the finest days of mountain walking, to be found anywhere. That's
anywhere, any continent, this is mountain-ness of the highest order. What are
you waiting for? Get going! UK
Best Time of Year
Mid June - Mid September
As ever - you should expect everything. But it should be pleasantly warm most of the time - increasing to hot in the valley bottoms (up to 27-28) and cooler at the tops of the Cols (typically down to 10 -15 degrees).
The trails are well marked using the Grand Randonee Red and White splashes. Also from time to time named signposts exist. However, nothing should replace your ability to navigate. Poor visibility can render the high mountains disorientating, and although the trail is generally benign, terrain just off to the side can be difficult and dangerous. Best of all would be to engage the services of an International Mountain Leader for such a mountain journey. www.adventure-cafe.com 01460 249191.
Essential Kit List
Mini Storm Shelter
Sleeping Bag / Silk Liner
Change of Clothes
Water Bottle + Extra Water Carrying Capacity
Snacks (& Optional Breakfast Extras)
Maps / Mapcase / Compass
Good Quality boots
Refugi Colomers - http://www.refugicolomers.com/
Last Minute Items
Food / Trekking Gear / Medical etc. Available in town of
just before passing through the tunnel to the start of the trek. Vielha
May be done by taxi (relatively expensive) - or by hire car. Or you can join an organised trek - to take away some of these difficulties.
Airport - Hopital Vielha - Approx. 1.5 hrs
La Guingueta - Airport - Approx 2 hrs.
Adventure Cafe recommends the Institut Cartografic Catalunya Series - which are generally accurate and sufficiently detailed for accurate navigation.
Richard McLaughlin is a member of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders, and leads treks around the world, in Africa, Asia, Europe and all around the
, in summer
and winter. Experienced as a mountain leader, climber, cyclist, caver and by
Sea Kayak, he has been lucky enough to travel the world extensively. To find
out more, or to engage his services, contact Adventure Cafe.