Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Pyrenees: Pico de Aneto and Pico de Alba from Benasque


Mountaineering in the Spanish Pyrenees: Pico de Alba (3118 m, PD-), a night in Refugio Reclunsa, traverse of Pico de Aneto (3404 m, F+) and a night in Refugio de Coronas.

Absorbing scrambling to gain summit ridge of Pico de Alba
We flew Ryanair from Prestwick to Barcelona then drove through the arid, dusty landscape of post-harvest Spain to the deep gorges and glaciated summits of the Pyrenees, gambling that early October would provide settled weather and no crowds. After passing a night in the pleasant mountain town of Benasque we hiked up to Refugio de la Reclunsa where we left most of our stuff before embarking on an acclimatisation ascent of Pico de Alba (3118 m). It seemed appropriate that we had come from Alba to climb Alba.  The Cicerone guide grades this as F (Facile, French for easy) so I wasn't expecting much more than a hill walk. However I was pleasantly surprised that the scramble to gain the summit ridge was sufficiently exposed and technical to get my juices well and truly flowing. My locally purchased map put it as PD- (Peu Dificile, a bit difficult), a grade which can include rock climbing up to Difficult in UK grades. Non-climbers may be surprised that a Facile (Easy) alpine route contains Difficult climbing. This is because Difficult means easy. Welcome to the confusing world of climbing gradesā€¦...

Aguja Norte de Alba


Pico de Alba summit
It's easy to be dismissive of the effects of small doses of altitude but I passed a restless night in the Refugio at 2295 m, often waking with the concern that my down was becoming dampened with knee-sweat due to the 1/2 length zip on my bag. We left the hut in the pre-dawn and ascended interminable boulder fields to the Aneto glacier, where we donned crampons and rope. The mountain is the highest in the Pyrenees but is not remotely technical save for the final 50 m to the summit, the path of Mohammed, so named because of the ascent to heaven being like a scimitar's blade. I had studiously avoided gaining any beta on the route and the POM had morphed in my head into a sharp, steep  fin of rock. I was more relieved than disappointed when I found instead a relatively level section of extremely exposed but straightforward scrambling. Certainly enough to focus the mind and to shift the needle on the juice flow gauge once again.

Sunrise during ascent from Refugio Reclunsa


Glaciar de Aneto, Pico de Aneto on left

Looking back along the 'Path of Mohammed' from Aneto summit

Rather than descend the glacier and return to Renclusa we had carried overnight kit; sleeping bags and mats, stoves and food and - most importantly - a bottle of whisky, so that we might descend the southern face of the mountain and pass the night in the Coronas Refugio, an unserviced, unwardened bothy, saving the walk out to the road for the following day. This is the antithesis of lightweight - our ascent of Aneto would have been much easier and faster without the additional weight - but it made our outing into a satisfying and aesthetic traverse that revealed the other side of the mountain to us and kept us away from the very empty midweek shoulder season fleshpots of Benasque. Fast and light it was not, but as we drank our whisky outside the hut with the milky way and a series of spectacular meteors above, there was no doubt that it had been the correct course of action.


Bothy night in Refugio de Coronas

We live our lives in a succession of interlocking concentric ruts, like Russian dolls. The peculiar thing about ruts is how comfortable and comforting they can be; how rarely one actually feels stuck or trapped. The metaphor is a good one - a rut by definition being much deeper than it is wide. When within the rut one sees only the high walls, one has to stretch one's neck to even catch a glimpse of the light above. Only from the bright open space above can one's rut be seen for what it really is - deep, dark and narrow. 

The trip took me back to a previous alpine climbing trip to the Chamonix Aguilles a full six years ago, to the feeling that with a few alpine routes in the bag anything was possible. Somehow the intervening years became filled not with classic north faces and extreme alpinism but instead with child rearing, with work and with slowly gaining the skills of ski mountaineering. This trip served as a timely reminder of the joys of relatively easy routes on big mountains, of the number of mountain ranges as yet unexplored and that, however pleasant it may seem inside, it is always worth popping one's head beyond the walls of one's rut. 

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6 Comments:

Blogger blueskyscotland said...

Looks Like a great trip Gavin. Some stunning pictures.That scramble looks bold.I've backpacked from Gabas to Ordessa Canyon But never made The highest summit as we only had two weeks.
Guess you got it just before the first snows arrive.

24 October 2012 at 00:50  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...


There had been a dusting of snow down to 2000 m the previous week. There were only scraps left in general but the glacier had a covering of 4 inches or so of soft snow.

Ordessa Canyon looks great, I'm keen to get back over there for a look at it but life being what it is I won't be too surprised if it takes me 20 years to get around to it!

24 October 2012 at 10:28  
Anonymous Andy Jones said...

Great report that brought back some grand memories. Climbed Aneto in 1993 after a wild camp in the Plan d'Aguillut. One of the most sensational spots I've ever camped. It was May and the PoM was covered in icy snow - an interesting climb! We also climbed some nameless peaks on the western side of the Benasque valley after another fabulous wild camp near the Estos Hut. A great holiday.
The night in the hut must have been fantastic conclusion to a great day/trip

24 October 2012 at 12:57  
Blogger Linda W. said...

Lovely photos! Looks like a great trip.

24 October 2012 at 20:09  
Anonymous Willem said...

Hi, nice report, great to see all those places back! When exactly you were there? Very little snow compared to when I climbed the Aneto in late july 2008!

Cheers,
Willem

4 November 2012 at 11:29  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Hi Willem,

We did the trip 7 - 9th October. A difficult time of year when it comes to choosing gear, we had fine weather but it could easily have turned wintery on us.

5 November 2012 at 22:54  

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