Kilometres walked: 21km / Total distance: 539km / Elevation gain: 1588m / Elevation loss: 806m / Time walked: 6h58min
I’m in Andorra! I walked all the way here, can you believe it?
I’ve never been in Andorra before.
But let’s back up a little. I wasn’t supposed to be in Andorra yet (according to my own arbitrary planning, at least). This morning I left the camping in Areu early after a rainy night. I was walking at 06:45, before sunrise. Early, because bad weather (thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, strong winds) are predicted for today and I wanted to reach my planned destination for today, preferably before the storm hit. Nothing too unusual, afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Pyrenees, but these were predicted to start as early as 13:00.
So, crunch mode on and time to get going! All uphill, through some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire trip: hanging valleys, grassy meadows, streams, waterfalls and lots of wildlife! Deer, squirrels, a wild boar (from a safe distance, this time), marmots and chamois. I meet only one other person.
Hanging valley (Pla de Boet)
It is seriously beautiful and I try my best to enjoy it, but also to make pace. One eye on my watch. Making pace works and I arrive at Refugi Baiau just before midday.
This little hut looks like someone dropped a sardine can on some rocks and then decided that they might as well put some bunk beds in it and call it a mountain hut. It’s iconic, kind of famous on the GR11, and I planned to stay in it tonight so I could cross the difficult, high pass into Andorra first thing tomorrow morning when the weather is good.
But…it is only midday and the sky doesn’t look too threatening yet. It looks like, sure, there will be storm today but not like within the next hour or so. Although in the mountains you never know. In any case, there are still patches of blue sky and most clouds look white and fluffy in a non-threatening way.
I have three options:
- Stick to the plan, call it a day, stop at Refugi Baiau and hang out in/around the hut together with two older German hikers and whoever else will show up later. This would be the safe, reasonable and conservative option.
- Keep going along the ‘official’ GR11 and cross into Andorra over a known tricky (steep! loose scree!) mountain pass (Portella Baiau) and then continue to the manned refugio Comapedrosa, and hoping they’d have space. This would be the stupid option.
- Or…take an alternative route, a variant of the GR11, via another mountain pass. I don’t have a description of this pass, I only read that it’s allegedly easier and that there’s a hut on the other side. Potentially another stupid option, but less stupid than the other one. And I could get into Andorra today?
I weigh my options, and decide to walk for a few minutes, check out the alternative route and assess from here. If either the trail or the weather doesn’t look good I’ll come back to the little sardine can.
GR 11.1 via Estanys Forcats
I know nothing of this route, except what I can gather from my map. Not the terrain type, the exposure, the steepness, the difficulty, the waymarking. Only that -and this is according to a random person on the internet (Facebook, of all places)- it’s easier than the official route and that waymarking is fine once you’re in Andorra.
So I have a look, and see a faint trail splitting of from the official route up a grassy slope to a gulley. Looks pretty good. The sky still looks okay, a bit darker than before, as expected, but calm. The clouds are way above the peaks still, so at least there won’t be any fog (as far as I can tell from this side of the pass, what’s on the other side I don’t know).
I decide to go for it. If the weather turns, as predicted, I can always seek shelter in the hut just on the other side. Mind you: I also know nothing about this hut, only that it exists.
The climb is easy. I lose the trail a few times -waymarking is indeed pretty spotty on this side- but it’s pretty obvious where to go. Once through the gulley (on the left side) the trail turns into boulderfield and you just hop your way up the pass. Nothing too steep, nothing too complicated. There are the occasional trailblazes and cairns but they seem to take different sides of the boulderfield. It doesn’t really matter, eventually you’ll end up at the very obvious col.
A couple of chamois run over the rocks like they’re nothing.
I’m in Andorra now!
Below there are a few small lakes, the Estanys Forcats, and I know somewhere beyond them is the hut, but I can’t see it yet.
The first few meters down are along scree. Steep, but stable. Then boulderfield, but relatively small and easy, not too steep. More chamois. I take a video, and then start going down. The white and red paint blazes of the GR11 are now supplemented with yellow circles that are easy to follow.
When I’m at the third lake it starts raining, slowly. I put on my rainjacket. I must be almost at the hut -still can’t see it- but I don’t want to get cold.
As I pass the lake the rain picks up, and so do I. Where is this damn hut? It must be here somewhere!
I follow a yellow painted dot around a rock and start to laugh out loud. Just around the corner, slightly above the trail, is the tiniest hut I’ve ever seen.
I called Refugi Baiau a sardine can. I take that back. Compared to this little, metallic…match box, Baiau is a palace.
The metal door has fallen out of its metal frame and is now placed horizontally across the opening. I want to say ‘entrance’ but that would be too fancy of a word for what is essentially just an opening in the metal walls.
The doorframe is flapping uselessly in the wind.
I bend the sheet metal of the door and wedge myself past it. Inside, on the floor, is some crumbly foam that once passed as a matrass, a comforter bundled together with some twine, and bird droppings. Someone left an old Coleman tent hanging from a hook on the wall, almost as if they were saying “are you sure you want to stay here? If you need shelter this tent is a better alternative”.
I’m not sure I want to stay here but right now I have no choice. The rain has transformed into hail and the wind is howling. The temperature drops, I’m shivering in my merino shirt under my rainjacket now that I’ve stopped moving, and visibility has been reduced to around 15m.
Right now I am incredibly grateful for the tiny metal matchbox, and decide to get comfortable. The matrasses go up against the wall and I sit down on the comforter. This makes for a pretty comfy chair.
I strip out of my damp merino shirt and bra and put on my fleece and my down jacket. I make ginger tea and read my book. Sometimes a hailstone the size of a 2 cent euro coin bouncess off the doorframe through the opening and lands on the floor. Wind blows through the cracks in the walls and the sound of hail on the metal roof is so loud that I barely hear the thunder outside, but it’s fine. I am dry, I am sheltered, I am safe. And the best thing? There is cellphone service, so I text back and forth with Antonio to pass the time.
It was 13:30 when I arrived here, and now it’s 16.00. The hail stopped and the wind calmed down and there’s now a drizzle and sometimes light rain. I’m not sure what to do. Again I have options. I could sleep here. It would be dirty, and uncomfortable, but my sleeping bag is warm. Or I could go out and descend another 600m to where I know there is another hut. And this one has a fireplace and bunk beds, google tells me. I just don’t know what the descent is like. If it’s 600m of boulderfield it’ll take forever. But sattelite view shows me that it’s mostly grassy, rocky slope. That should be okay.
I put on all my waterproofs and go. I wave to the tiny hut. Goodbye my little friend, thank you for keeping me safe and dry.
The descent is fine. Wet and slippery, but nothing complicated, although I’m pretty sure the wind would have blown me off the ridge if I was here two hours ago.
View on the way down. The other hut is somewhere near the lake
In less than an hour I’m at the second hut. Two Argentinans who work in the next town are preparing a salad and another girl is sleeping inside. I drop my stuff on one of the bunk beds. The Argentinans brought beer, cold beer!, and hand me a can.
This is amazing.
I make my bed, change clothes, make dinner while I drink my beer, read my book. Someone lights the fireplace. The others play cards and tell stories in Spanish but I’m too tired to join the conversation.
Today could have been, potentially, a very bad day. But I think I played my cards right. I’m in Andorra, I had shelter from the storm, and now I’m in an amazing free mountain hut. None of these things I take for granted, but for now I feel, as cliche as it sounds, blessed.