Kilometres walked: 12,5km / Total distance: 323km/ Elevation gain: 836m/ Elevation loss: 1807m / Time walked: 7h15min
12,5 Kilometer in over seven hours.
For a runner like me, where distance and time are the only metrics that matter, this is ridiculous. But it’s a testament to the fact that distance matters very little here, and elevation and terrain are the determining factors in how much you can do and how far you can go.
On the menu for today is one of the hardest stages of the entire route. Two mountain passes, two descents, the second of which, down Collado Añisclo, is crazy steep. You descent almost 1200m in less than 4km distance, with the first half being the steepest.
I’ve hyped up this descent in my mind for days, in a bad way. I’m not the only one. It’s been talk on the trail for days now, and every hiker I talk to is either downright scared, very worried, or just plain not looking forward to this section. I’m a combination of all three: scared, worried, and just…ugh.
But let’s back up a little. That descent is only the final part of the day and I wouldn’t want to skip the other parts, because they’re a good preparation of what’s to come and everyone only ever talks about that final descent which is why the difficulty of the first part of the day took me totally by surprise.
From Refugio Goriz it’s an easy walk up to the first pass, Collado Arrablo. The views back over the Ordesa Canyon are amazing, and the views down the other side are great as well. The first part of the first ascent is easy. Some potentially slippery rock slabs, but lots of grass and, after a few minutes, good camping! (possibly better than near Goriz, although I haven’t tested this).
After cruising on grassy slopes lulls you into a false sense of ‘this is fine’, the descent suddenly gets steeper, stepping awkwardly down limestone steps, occasionally helped by a chain secured to the wall, occasionally helped by gravity, sliding down loose pebbles and gravel. This is my least favorite type of terrain. The constant little slips and regaining your balance. It’s not dangerous, per se, but very tiring.
At least your knees have gotten the memo by now that today is serious business and they better hang in there.
Luckily you get some respite from descending because you now have to climb all the way up to the second pass, almost 700m above you. This climb is not hard, just long, mostly on easy surface, but steep in some places. The views are amazing though.
This is sheep country, and the sheep have made tracks that cross the trail, and it can be tempting to follow their tracks instead as they seem to have done a better job in creating switchbacks up and down this mountain. When in doubt, choose the path that just leads straight up, no switchbacks, and you’ll probably find a trail blaze somewhere above you.
Step, step, step, look around, be amazed. Step, step, step, look around, be amazed.
I got into some serious flow on the way up, and were it not for the notion that you’d have to go all the way down again, this would be a pretty epic climb.
The climb is long enough that you arrive at the col with serious jellylegs (or is that just me?) and you probably want a break. You want to have that break just before you reach the top, for two reasons.
One: there’s nice soft grass and boulders to lean on, and you can look back and think “damn, I just came from all the way down there“.
Two: on the other side it’s nothing but stones and if you’re anything like me it’s probably best to spend as little time as possible looking down the other side thinking “damn, I have to go to there”?!
There was no time for a long break though, because dark clouds started gathering above the peak to my right. Quick noodles, quick coffee. Now is not the time to pretend I’m not addicted to caffeine, I need the mental boost and full focus for the descent.
Let’s Do This
Walk over the other side and gasp. Holy fuck. We have to get down there?!
Breathe. I can do this. Step by step. Don’t look down further than the next trail marker, of which there are many.
Step by step. Small steps.
I find back my flow as I make my way down tiny switchbacks.
Step, step, step. Don’t look around.
There are only tiny steps. Nothing else matters now. Just me and the rocks and the sometimes impossible gradient.
Step, step, step. It becomes almost meditative.
Almost, until after a few hundred meters down I feel raindrops.
I find a tiny bit of level ground, just big enough for two feet and a backpack, and put on my rain jacket, and become instantly soaked with sweat.
Step, step, step. After a few minutes the rain stops and I remove my jacket. I do not look up.
Step, step, step. I’m another 200m down or so and almost at the treeline. I pass two French guys on the way up and I wish them luck.
As soon as I’m in the trees I feel drops again. Now I look up, and the sky that was clear minutes ago (I think, I might have lost track of time) is full of dark angry clouds. I put my jacket back on, and pull the bright red rain cover over my pack.
There is no place to take a break here, and I just want to get down this mountain.
Thunder cracks overhead and the rain becomes stronger. At least I’m in the forest now. A little bit of shelter.
I try to hold on to my flow. Step, step, step. I cannot control the weather. I can only control my reaction to it, and right now I choose to focus on the trail and keep going down, step by step, until it becomes too dangerous to continue.
The trail is wet and slippery, and there are still some very steep awkward rock sections where I can’t step but instead have to squat, sit, slide, repeat. Nothing I haven’t done before, just so much more of it.
My feet are wet. Step, step, step. Splosh, splosh, splosh. It doesn’t matter.
I suddenly realize that I’m smiling.
Am I having fun? Technically no: I’m way out of my comfort zone, on this slope, on these slippery rocks, in a storm, soaked with sweat underneath my rain jacket. Objectively less than ideal circumstances. But I’m here, and I’m doing it, I have my flow, and apparently I’m having fun. The fear that I feared is not making an appearance. Who would have thought?
Not me, that’s for sure.
Step, step, step. Repeat. And suddenly the trail evens out onto the valley floor and there is a sign pointing to Refugio Pineta, 15 minutes. I made it!
I step into the reception, pack dripping, shorts covered in mud, still grinning. I do the paperwork and head for the shower. Five minutes of glorious warm water. As I get dressed in the little bedroom I hear familiar voices outside. The trail bubble has arrived! It has stopped raining! We drink beer and eat crisps, all visibly relieved. Another round. Dinner, more wine.
We did it!