Kilometres walked: 18km / Total distance: 405km / Elevation gain: 1531m/ Elevation loss: 400m / Time walked: 6h3min
My pack is heavy. We did groceries in Benasque yesterday and I’m carrying 4,5 days of food. The next town, Espot, is five stages away and although I don’t think it’ll take five days to get there I rather not run out of food. This is, I think, the longest food carry of the GR11, and the weight difference is very noticeable. At least I don’t have to worry about dinner for tonight and breakfast tomorrow morning; I have a reservation at Refugio Cap de Llauset.
But before I get there there is a 1700m climb (according to the guidebook, my watch is a bit more optimistic) over the Collado Ballibierna, one of the “roughest and toughest passes” of the route, according to the same guidebook. We’ll see. One possible complication could be that it’s a long climb up and the col is towards the end of the day, just before reaching the Refugio. And thunderstorms typically develop mid to late afternoon, around the time we will cross the pass. So we cross our fingers and make pace.
I say ‘we’ because it’s Jan, Ernesto, Eelco and myself walking today. All at our own pace, but meeting each other during breaks. The first part of the climb is along an easy dirt road, to Puen de Corones (there’s also a bus that drives up there, but hardcore as we are we’re obviously walking). At the bus stop we meet Jesús, a Spanish hiker who worked as a street musician in Amsterdam. We’ll be leapfrogging with him the next few days.
Unfortunately Eelco hasn’t really been enjoying the trail the last few days, and on this climb his achilles tendon is bugging him. He says he’s quitting the trail. We try to convince him to take a few rest days instead and then keep going, or to skip a section and catch up with us later. He says okay, but the next morning we get a text that he has decided to quit. Sometimes it’s like that, but doesn’t need to be.
The three of us hike up. No more road, just a regular trail of grass and dirt and rocks through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen so far. It’s typical alpine terrain, but like the prettiest, unspoiled, most wild version of it. I keep stopping to look around. Up and up we go -lunch break under the pine trees along the river- and slowly the trail gets rockier until it changes into boulderfield. Progress is slow because I have to watch every step, stop to take in the view, and of course to catch my breath. Not for too long though, because clouds are forming overhead. They don’t look too threatening yet but if there’s anything I’ve learned the last week is that can change very quickly.
The last section of the climb is just brown and grey rocks, trail invisible if it weren’t for the blazes. There is one awkward section which requires a jump down from a ledge onto a single boulder -at least I don’t see any other way- and for a moment the fear kicks in. I take off my pack, pass it to Jan who is already down, and jump easily without the weight of the pack. Later I hop from rock to rock, use my hands to pull myself or to keep my balance. This is hard, yes, but also fun. I’m the first to make it to the top. It’s still dry, there is still some blue sky, and miraculously there is very good cellphone service up here, so I record some messages and send some photos.
The descent is short and easy. Soon we see Refugio Cap the Llauset, which, with its modern architecture, looks both really out of place yet somehow fits in perfectly with the landscape. Kudos to the architect! Give minutes before we get there the rain starts slowly. Ten minutes after we’re in it’s a proper downpour. Luckily they serve the best hot chocolate here (tip, if you pass by). A hot chocolate, a nap, a glass of vermouth and an excellent dinner and a bit of singing of very sad Argentinan songs by Ernesto and Jesus later (I’m not making this up), it’s time for bed. Another magical day on the trail.