Each September, Collett’s offers the opportunity of a week of high level walking on the GR11 in the Pyrenees. We follow five consecutive stages of this world renowned long distance footpath – showcasing some of the best hiking in the Pyrenees amidst stunning landscapes dotted with mountain lakes and spectacular views - To book click here
The final few weeks of each summer season bring a change to proceedings in our Spanish Pyrenees resort of Panticosa. For two weeks only our team splits operations and two dedicated organisers leave the day to day goings on in resort to join guests on a five day tour of one of the world’s best walking trails. Five days of walking and one additional rest day back in Panticosa sees the group spanning three valleys, skirting along the Spanish side of the French/Spanish Pyrenean border.
For the first week of the GR11 2016, Cam and I (Colletts walk organisers) were lucky enough to be those assigned to the trail with a group of eight due to arrive on Saturday evening. We prepared our maps and routes, checked the weather for the week ahead and collected our walk packs, then headed across the Hotel Sabocos (Our base in the Pyrenees) to greet them.
Once everyone had been shown to their rooms and settled in we reconvened on the terrace to share in a welcome drink. As Panticosa became bathed in a soft evening light we perused our routes and began to get to know each other. Soon enough it was dinner time and headed into the restaurant to tuck into our first three course meal of the week. As usual Hotel Sabocos didn’t disappoint and with a healthy accompaniment of house wine we reached the end of the meal satisfyingly full. It was time for bed for tomorrow was the start of our GR11 week.
Day 1 - Canal Royal and Ibones de Anayet
14.5km/9 miles - 900m of ascent - 600m descent
The next morning with walking gear on and ready to go we caught a lift to the Valle de Canfranc. An impressive start point the cliffs here are as good an introduction to the Pyrenean landscape as any other. Towering, tiered mountains toy with the nature of a Wild West film whilst grassy plateaus allow for a more alpine angle. At the time of year our GR11 walks run the landscape is just being touched by the first breath of autumn, so as we posed for a team photo and shouldered our packs we started a steady ascent into a golden grassed, glacial valley.
We scaled the side of a gentle river for some time, its banks scattered with rosehip, pausing briefly at the overgrown ruin of an old rifugio. The further we climbed the more highly the valley walled us in, building to an impressive crescendo and soon enough we had reached the head of a glacial amphitheatre. It seemed as if, to the untrained eye, that we had reached a dead end. The way ahead was the steep back wall of the murrain so we pressed ahead towards it in order to find our path, passing bell-necked cows and dried up river beds.
The group settled comfortably into their uphill paces and we began to climb an unobvious track amongst the copper green and purple scree to the high point of the day. Steadily we climbed high above the valley, improving our views as time went on. We made sure to take plenty of breathers to make sure the views were fully appreciated.
We were rewarded at the top by a dramatic change of landscape. Most noticeably in the distance were the peaks of France, in particular the Pic du Midi D’Osseau (2,884m). The Pic du Midi is a regular in the Pyrenean vista, with a recognisable twin peak and dark rock. It positioned itself behind the wide, shallow Anayet lakes, making for a stunning photo opportunity which we all took advantage of.
From here the group split into two. Cam offered to accompany people on an extension to a further peak whilst others who were keen to descend to the end of the walk could stick with me. We watched as Cam’s group paced off up the hill then turned to wander across the flat, grass land, passing grazing horses and a good smattering of the classic red and white striped GR11 markers. As we reached the edge of the plateau we left views of the Pic du Midi behind us and were instead greeted by the Infiernos. Picos del Infierno (Hell's peaks) consist of three peaks, the Western (3073m), Central (3082m) and Eastern (3076m) all of which are joined by an exposed and impressive ridge. From a distance these mountains seem as if they are home to an enormous snow patch when actually the dark rock is instead divided by a smooth marble slab. These mountains quickly became my favourite view in the area.
The path dipped lower into the valley, chasing a stream into the midst of a system of ski lifts. The area is home to a popular ski resort in the winter months and we were heading to base of numerous ski lifts to finish our walk for the day. As we arrived into the lower valley a number of helicopters made an appearance and continued to circle for some time. After a certain amount of hypothesising their purpose for being there we remembered that just over the hill was the finishing line for that days Vuelta stage (Spain’s answer to the Tour de France). Sure enough as we climbed into the resort mini bus at the end of the walk by Dan (One of the Pyrenees team), we saw all of the team buses packing away and heading off to their next destination. An exciting way to bring the day to a close!
Cam’s group arrived back at Hotel Sabocos just in time to shower and join us for a well-deserved dinner.
Day 2 - La Sarra to Refugio Repromuso
10.6km/6.5 miles - 800m ascent - 100m descent
We snaked our way up through narrow mountain roads in the minivan to our trailhead. We were heading for some hydroelectric works north of Sallent de Gállego. The area is tied together by a network of hydroelectricity plants and pipes stemming from reservoirs, Franco’s stamp on the area. They fit in quite well with the landscape, snaking up the hillsides to water towers and dams higher up the valleys, trapping enormous and beautiful bodies of water. The van dropped us off by the reservoir’s lapping waters.
We walked up through the trees for some time, pulling steadily away from the river down to the right. As we gained height we found ourselves above an impressive gorge with steep drops. The trees here were definitely showing the first pulls of autumn and the colours in the canopy were scattering a beautiful light on the path. Eventually our tree cover broke and the gorge opened up with views of a few large waterfalls. This was our turn off point for the Ariel lakes. These lakes aren’t on the GR11 trail but instead provide a lovely detour and addition for what would otherwise be a very short and easy day. For anyone who wanted to head straight to our accommodation for the night (the Refugio Repromuso) they would need to head straight on towards the largest right-hand waterfall. Our whole group turned left however and began our steep climb up to the lakes. It was a long pull up over lose ground and narrow tracks but we took it steadily with plenty of breaks to help ourselves to the wild raspberry bushes that lined our way.
The last part of the climb reminded me of the landscapes seen in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Great shards of rock clung together to create an epic entrance to the lakes. The rock was the colour of rusted iron and cadmium yellow. We had lunch by the first lake on a grassy outcrop jutting out into the water. We were walled in on all sides by scree slopes and boulders and some derelict buildings on the far side of the basin suggested old mining works in times gone by. It was very peaceful and a gentle breeze rolled across the water to meet us. After we’d eaten and enjoyed the sun for a while we climbed up to the next two lakes, each one more beautiful that the last. Pico de Pallás (2974m) provided an impressive backing for the last lake where we had the place completely to ourselves. In fact we didn’t see another soul until we arrived at the reservoir Repromuso. We approached on a high mountain track, well above the valley below. We were at eye level with many of the great peaks for a good amount of time and then dropped height towards the dam where we watched a helicopter delivering supplies by winch. It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached Refugio Repromuso. Its triangular red roof was recognisable from quite a way off. Cam had skipped ahead to sort out our keys and room so we met him there and then enjoyed some afternoon nibbles with a well-deserved beer.
What remained of our afternoon was spent chatting in the bar, taking our things up to our dormitory room and waiting for shower space. It was the proper mountain experience. Repromuso was a real hub, people from all over the mountain spilling in from outside. Mountaineers, climbers and hikers all together, from all over the world, sharing their day’s experiences. It was great! Cam and I got chatting to a couple of French guys sharing our room who had been ticking off a number of peaks in the area. They had some amazing photographs to share and we muddled through with our basic French and their better English.
There was still an hour before dinner and all of our guests seemed happy busying themselves with showers and unpacking so Cam and I took a stroll outside to watch the sunset. We walked up onto a hillock next to the refugio and watched as the light turned a rich, burnt gold. The sun settled perfectly into a gap in the mountain view, above the dam wall. It was silent and peaceful and exactly why both of us love the mountains. A bruised dusk overtook the lake and the water suddenly looked unfathomably deep. Little waves picked up by the increasingly cold breeze lapped heavily, moving with an oily thickness. It was time to head inside to the cosy warmth of the refugio.
When we returned the place had come alive. Everyone had finished showering and come down from the rooms and off the mountain. Instead they had filled the dining room with a buzz of people. There was a great atmosphere and everyone queued up at the bar to receive their dinner. It was a hearty three course of soup and a roll, sausages and rice and a yoghurt. We were joined once again by our French friends and we shared stories and wine until it was time for bed.
It was lights out at 10pm so Cam, Tony (one of our GR guests) and I headed up onto the roof to spy the stars. It was pretty cold but worth it for the lack of light pollution and the starts were getting better by the minute. The Milky Way stretched out across the 3000m peaks, knitting together the glacial bowl. We even saw a few shooting stars. Not a bad way to finish a day in my books.
Join us next summer hiking the GR11
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