Just past the border of Spain, in the natural park of Aigüestortesi Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, lies a natural wonder than many have attempted but few have conquered…
My brother Olivier, ever the nature enthusiast, ran it in the summer with his great friend Daniel, putting this incredible trek on my radar. For those who are not aware, this challenging 8000 meters up and down path was first devised 15 years ago by Miguel Sánchez i Murcia, the keeper of the Ventosa refuge, as a test for super athletes: the initial idea was that the route had to be covered in a single 24-hour period. Astoundingly enough, people manage to do just that. This is called the Sky Runner category and the record is 10 hours 35 minutes. For me, making it through in five and half days was enough of a challenge. Looking at the map and timings it seemed easy but once I started I quickly realised that the timings given were probably derived from an Izard (the natural mountain goat native only to the Pyrenées).
The trek started from Arties, a typical mountain village that doubles as a ski station in the winter. From there an easy dirt trail took me to the lower parking area a good three hours from the first refuge where I was to pick up my map, baseball cap, and passport to stamp all the refuges to complete the famous Carros de Foc. The weather was absolutely perfect at a balmy 21 degrees in sunshine, and my only concern besides hydration was to pace myself and protect my skin from sunburns. The path was well worn and easy to follow and a few tour groups from Spain were happily chatting away while climbing steadily on increasingly challenging terrain. A winding path of dirt and stones was bordered by pine trees and blackberry bushes and I felt great climbing steadily while looking for markings (non existent!) or updates of how far I had yet climbed before reaching La Restanca.
Once on the last turn, after a particularly sharp hairpin, I was graced by the sight of a stone water dam on which the refuge was built, and I happily crossed over to get my passport. Unfortunately, there were no maps or baseball caps as the refuge was out of them.
The refuge was located along beautiful turquoise waters that were clear as glass, and I could easily see the bottom of the natural pool from my view point on the dam. From Restanca, I was planning on reaching EstanyLlong but was told that it would be another 7 to 8 hours before completing that segment. It was already nearing 15:00 and since the refuge has a strict policy of dinner at 19:00 I elected to change my itinerary and go to Ventosa. That was supposed to be an easy 2 to 3 hours but instead I made it just in time for dinner. The climb following Restanca was quite steep and a good warm up for the next day, for what would turn out to be the hardest climb of them all…
On the way to Ventosa I was graced by more beautiful emerald lakes and the rush and hiss of competing waterfalls. At one moment, the only sound was the percussion of a raven’s wings beating against the air as it flew past. A few courageous hikers were taking a dip in the lake, but it was way too cold for me!
The weather was changing and getting darker and I hurried to the refuge. The trail was not well marked and I had to ask a Spanish coupleto confirm my itinerary. Carros de Foc is wilderness, and wilderness areas have a kind of common culture, but this one is in a part of Spain that has a very particular, and decidedly mixed, cultural and linguistic heritage. It’s in Catalonia, where many speak Catalan, a language similar to Provençal; but it’s also part of a smaller enclave, the Val d’Aran, where some people can still speak yet another language, Aran. Thank God the people I met spoke Spanish, as do I, and they gave me good information on where to go and how long it would take to reach the refuge. They were running the trail with only water and energy bars and were training to complete it in less than 2 days. I later on shared a table with them at the refuge for dinner and learnt that they were prison guards in Spain working only 3 days followed by 5 days off and that their passion was trekking.
The Ventosa refuge was never a better sight in my life than when it appeared before my eyes. Although nothing special by any stretch of the imagination, it called of warmth, safety and rest for me and I was really glad when I finally reached it. I entered by a small door into a‘mud room’ filled with backpacks, boots and walking sticks, as the refuge policy is very strict and no one is allowed to enter the main room with any camping equipment. Once passed the vestibule and lightened of all my trekking gear, I was given a small plastic bin in which to put all my valuables for the night and with this I was invited to a small shower (ice cold water only) before dinner. There was just one shower for over 50 people and then a bunk on the upper floor in a huge dormitory that I shared that night with 49 other people as the refuge was full. I was really glad that they still had space as although I chose the end of the season to climb, the refuges were still quite full and the reservation system does not allow for changes, so once you make a reservation you lose your deposit if you cannot stick to it and have to make a brand new reservation.
Dinner that night was hearty, with noodle soup, potatoes and sausage and some sort of chocolate cream dessert. Then I climbed on my top bunk as assigned and amid snoring, headlights and people moving around, slept soundly thanks to my earplugs and eye mask.
The next morning after a breakfast of bread and crackers with jam, honey and cereal I started up again for the famous Col de Contrainx, a moonlike world made of big grey granite stone boulders, the sheer rock towers of the Spanish Pyrenees. Jumping like a Izard with 12kg on my back from boulder to boulder felt very uncomfortable at first but with practice became a rhythm that I carried on for hours and hours until I reached the peak.
The start of the trek was on the shadowy side of the mountain and kept the temperature cool enough to provide natural air conditioning. The effort produced was really intense and upon reaching the top I took a small break to appreciate my surroundings. I embraced the magnificence around me coated in a blanket of surreal silence. Sheer peaks with vertiginous drops, cows sparsely occupying the lower part of valleys, flowers gracing the sides of my path, birds circling high above… I just wanted to sit at the top and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment I felt. Unfortunately, time was precious and I had to press on to the next refuge of Estany Llong. At 1985 meters, the lower altitude felt like heaven after going downhill for hours and hours. From the Col de Contraix at 2749 meters to the refuge is a nearly 800 meters – a really steep drop that is quite hard on the knees. EstanyLlong, naturally situated along a river, has one hot shower limited to 5 minutes for 2 euros, but it felt like heaven after the ice cold shower of the day before!
Dinner was lively and soon the banter flew between Spanish, French, Dutch and German hikers. Once again, sausage was the main meal with pasta and a piece of fruit for dinner. After a meal loaded with carbohydrates, it was time for a well deserved rest again accompanied by my neighbour’s snoring and night bathroom breaks. There I met a lovely French lady, a professional mountain guide who became my go to source for the latest information on routes and weather for the rest of the trek. She also saved my feet by providing “double peau” double skin to protect my absolutely destroyed blistered feet…
The next morning saw me on the road again, this time to climb to the refuge of Colomina, which was by far my favorite place with an amazing view of the valley and a balcony overlooking a steep precipice. The untimed hot shower made it feel like heaven and the early arrival to the refuge allowed me to finally enjoy the scenery and ambiance of the place.
I met with a very funny Spaniard, wearing his flip flops Japanese style with his socks pinched in between his toes, and I have to confess, I did adapt the style for the rest of the trek as nights were quite chilly up there. In the middle of the night, after yet another hearty meal shared on long pine tables with benches organised dormitory style, I could not sleep and decided to go out on the balcony to gaze at the stars and enjoy the fresh clean mountain air. Following a quick storm we had right after dinner, I was graced with amazing stars and peaceful silence. I also got rewarded by the sight of Izards, reddish-brown animals akin to antelopes, as sure-footed as mountain goats. Their black facial markings were clearly visible in the full moonlight. I soon got cold though and retreated in the safety of my sleeping bag inside. To be continued…
Words + Photos by: Anne Elizabeth Cecillon