Crossing a Continent 12 - Sallent de Gallego to Gavarnie

Date walked: 25/10/2015

This is the continuation of the report from a long walk across Europe in 2003-4.
The first part of the report can be read on this link.

The previous post can be read here.

Day 51

Today we will be our highest day yet - leading over a pass into France. After the sleep deprivation of last night, the start is thankfully a gentle one, up a beautiful wooded valley with many waterfalls. The route then steepened to reach a dam, holding back a reservoir ringed by snow-clad peaks. Underfoot the going is very rugged, leading past the Refugio Respumoso - a manned refuge that looks like it may have been built to withstand a nuclear strike. The winter here must be incredible.


After another reservoir we climb again and get our first glimpse towards the pass that will take us into France - the Col de la Fache at 2664m. In the distance we can see people tentatively descending steep snow - it doesn't look promising but there seem to be plenty of them doing it, so we decide to press on to at least have a look - our lightweight packs mean we have no crampons or ice axes. The first snow section is easy enough; the second begins simply but then climbs above a chaos of rocks - a slip here would be disastrous. I set out to attempt it - and immediately want to turn back, but the thought of descending back to Sallent to find a new route is too dispiriting. Instead I press on, and Helen follows, but we're both near our fear limit - but aware that heading back down it would be worse.

The climb continues up a steep slope of loose shale to reach a high lake. This is backed by an even steeper snow slope that looks all but vertical from this angle. We take an uneasy break - could things be even worse on the descent beyond? - but a Spanish man descending assures us that this is the worst of it. With no crampons, we decide to attempt to avoid the snow by passing round the lake and tackling the very steep shale beside it. It turns out to be climbable... and we make it up to the col safely, relieved and ecstatic at the amazing mountain views all around.




The descent is much more straightforward, although we are very tired both physically and mentally; the few snow patches on this side are easily crossed.

We finally reach the remote but very popular Refuge Wallon and set up camp nearby. With scattered pines around the valley and rocky peaks soaring above, the whole scene looks like how I'd imagine the Rockies.


Day 52

This morning's climb up leads up to the Col D'Arratille - a 2528m pass switching us back over the spine of the Pyrenees into Spain once more. The path is superb but leads through precipitous terrain, passing two beautiful mountain lakes. We meet a French couple who ask if we're going the same way - but they are ascending to one of the summits - a class above our ambitions!


The last section up to the col traverses another slope of steep shale but luckily the snow patches are not a problem here. We reach the pass - with its great view of the Vignamale - feeling a little more confident in ourselves.



The descent is straightforward but long - an unending 1600m loss of height, with a grassy section and then a series of immensely impressive canyons. These really whet the appetite for the great canyon of Ordesa which we will be reaching tomorrow, but for now, we continue to the village of Torla. The back-to-back epic days mean we feel justified in taking another rest day, and we book into a hotel - with a quite unprecedented two plugs in the bathroom.


Day 53

Torla is an attractive place, but there is little to do but browse the tourist-tat shops and the pretty streets. We're both still a little shaken by the problems with snow heading up the Col de la Fache a couple of days back. The descent to Pineta a couple of days further along the route seems likely to be even trickier - and could we cope with having to backtrack all the way back here if it proves impassable? After more deliberations, we decide we'll walk round the Ordesa canyon as a day trip from here, then return to Torla and cross back over - permanently - to the easier French side of the Pyrenees. The decision is made.


For the second night in a row, we are kept awake by a huge herd of cows passing through Torla at around 4am.

Day 54

Most folk get a shuttle bus to reach Ordesa from Torla, but we are committed to doing everything on foot, and so a 40km day is needed. The walk up to the foot of the Canyon passes some beautiful waterfalls, before the solitude is broken when we reach the car park where the masses join in. From here we take a route called the Hunter's Path which makes an unlikely ascent up the incredibly steep south wall of the canyon, to a ledge two thirds of the way up. The path uses extremely steep zig-zags but it's amazing that such a route is possible at all - it must be the steepest slope I've ever tackled.


There's an observation platform on a projecting rock that reveals the enormity of Ordesa - considered to be Europe's finest canyon. The path now continues along the Faja de Pelay - following a ledge above the cliffs.


Considering the dramatic setting, the going is straightforward and eventually the floor of the canyon rises and the ledge path descends until the two meet. We then make our way back to Torla all along the canyon floor.

Today has been a real highlight of the trip so far - Ordesa is deservedly a World Heritage Site - and it's a fitting finale to the Spanish part of our walk.


Day 55

The hotel breakfast delays our start on another long day - with 1,400m of ascent to head over the frontier once more into France, this time via the Port de Bujarelo mule route.


The descent leads below the spectacular Cirque de Gavarnie, which is increasingly shrouded in mist as we continue down. A big storm is clearly brewing but we make it to the campsite and get the tent up just before it breaks.


We then sit it out in the tent as spectacular lightning and deafening thunder strikes and rumbles all around the valley, followed by a torrential downpour and then massive hailstones. As it clears we head out and see the Cirque - a showplace of the French Pyrenees, and setting for Europe's highest waterfall.

Our soaring spirits are cut short when we head into the village - a dispiriting collection of incredibly ugly buildings, badly maintained, selling the worse in tat. Everywhere are wolf-whistling cuddly marmots. Finding a food shop amongst them is a relief, but the prices are double those we've been used to in Spain. Gavarnie may be a celebrated place, but we feel it's one to leave in a hurry - how we miss beautiful Torla!

To be continued

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