Hiking the GR11 – Days 3, 4 & 5

Collett's Mountain Holidays

September 5, 2016

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

Day 3 – Refugio Repromuso to Baños de Panticosa

12.2km/7.5 miles – 700m ascent – 1150m descent.

Our fourteen man dorm room had been an experience. By the time we had returned to the room and clambered up into our bunks it was already pretty toasty and the whole thing was authenticated by a couple of snoring Frenchmen. It was just that though, authentic, and the group were all in good humour the next morning as we emerged sleepily for breakfast. Then gathering outside on the refugio decking to put our walking boots on. The air was crisp and clean and the bowl was still in shadow, perfect walking conditions.

Cam and I had already been up for hours as we had returned to our hill spot to watch the sunrise, forgetting we were in a bowl and that it wouldn’t make an appearance for ages. It was lovely nevertheless. We watched the mountaineers’ head torches wander off up the various paths from Repromuso in the dark and wondered what plans they had for the day.

The sun finally appeared after we’d been walking for twenty minutes or so but we were using that to our advantage as we had all of our ascent for the day to do in one, starting straight away. The sooner we could get it done before it got too hot the better.

We were lucky in that mackerel clouds began to gather as we climbed, creating further shade for the long trudge up, although they were worth keeping an eye on in terms of incoming weather. The weather never arrived though, or at least it didn’t catch up with us. Our climb took some time, zig-zagging our way up through grassy slopes, passing small lakes and snow patches. The snow was too much of a temptation for some and a snowball fight broke out during a snack break at the base of the final climb. We then pushed on up a long scree slope. The path was narrow and lose and the dark, dusty rock reflected the light back up at us making it pretty tough. The only redemption was that the view back down towards Repromuso was stunning. One of the mountain ranges in view reminded me of a glacier-less Marmolada (a familiar sight for visitors to the Italian Dolomites). Finally we were making the final scramble to our highpoint. Again the ground was lose but we all made it to the top safely.

We were greeted by a sapphire lake surrounded by the charcoal down slopes of the Infiernos. It was amazing that on that first day they had seemed so far away and yet here they were right in front of us. The snow like marble slab up close was even more impressive and the climber in me began to wonder how one would even begin to get up there. We took in the view and then began our descent to find a suitable lunch spot. What started as a moonscape of rock and scree soon became green again and we found the perfect place for lunch at the Azules lakes. I could have stayed there for a very long time. The sun was out, the water was clear and a cool breeze moderated the temperature. I took off my boots and dipped my toes in the icy water whilst I ate my sandwich. The group spread out across the flat, grassy banks at the water’s edge. It was definitely one of my favourite lunch spots I’ve had in the mountains.

We packed up and continued our long descent towards Baños de Panticosa, passing the Bachimaña lakes with their enormous limestone islands and glacial scarring. The sun had been steadily burning off the cloud and the afternoon was turning hot and hazy. By the time we reached refugio Bachimaña everyone was happy to have a number of cold drinks in the shade. We still had around 600m of descent to go so we made sure to rest our knees there for a while.

The final descent followed a section of one of our most popular day walks in the Pyrenees. The track passed numerous waterfalls and plunge pools, winding in and out of the trees. It was pretty unrelenting for the knees and I think everyone was ready to put their feet up as soon as possible but the views out in the direction of Panticosa were remedying. Finally Baños came into view. A bizarre mixture of almost every form of architecture mankind has ever experimented with all in one place, all in varying forms of dereliction. We finally arrived there weary from the day to be greeted by the Pyrenees team who had come to pick us up and take us back to Panticosa for the night.

Staying out in the mountains for two days had really felt like a mini adventure and the group had bonded over our experiences. It was now time to get back, shower and change, have a pre-dinner drink, chat and then enjoy the meal! The next day we were all being treated to a rest so we discussed what our various plans were and in the most part that involved not a lot. Very sensible indeed.

Day 4 – Baños de Panticosa to San Nicholas de Bujaruelo

18.6km/11.5 miles – 1000m ascent – 1200m descent.

We returned to the front porch of Hotel Sabocos early Thursday morning. In the most part we were rested and ready to go for the final two days of the GR11. Many people in the group had taken the opportunity to visit the local outdoor pool, mooch around the shops or go for short strolls in and around Panticosa. There were two exceptions: one being one of the chaps who had sustained an injury on Tuesday and was still in need of rest and the other being Cam who had decided to summit Monte Perdido (3355m) on his day off. This wasn’t enough to stop Cam from setting a good pace and taking on our rather immediate 1000m climb from the Baños carpark without a problem. Unfortunately our guest’s injury meant him dropping out for the day with the hope of re-joining n Friday.

I ended up being dropped to Baños early so that everyone else could fit in one mini bus. This gave me time to re-contemplate the bizarre architecture. Baños has long been recognised for its spring water and has a rich history reaching back to Roman times. It became a fashionable for a while when favoured by the Spanish Monarchy but has since fallen into disrepair. The hotel and spar are still well kept and could be easily compared to the quiet austerity of Greenwich, London. The buildings surrounding them however span hundreds of years between them, with a series of small builds that look like a Victorian train station and unfinished concrete high rises that could easily be from the 70s. To top it all off, at that time of day, the place was mostly deserted. It reminded me of Portmeirion in North Wales (the chilling setting to TV series ‘The Prisoner.’).

Finally the group arrived and we started walking. Baños is steeply walled in on almost every side so the only way to go was up! We could see our path from Tuesday afternoon snaking its way up through the trees. Our aim was to climb higher than the lakes of Bachimaña too so I think many people in the group were less than looking forward to gaining so much height in one go. Cam reassured us that the path was extremely well graded and when this turned out to be true everyone seemed reinvigorated. We climbed steadily away from Baños for a long time but at no point was the climbing incredibly strenuous. Eventually we reached a series of lakes where we took a break. Once again it was near deserted, the air was still and the water was like glass. Over our shoulder, back in the direction of Panticosa, a cloud inversion had been steadily forming throughout the morning and from this height is was more or less at eye level. The familiar sight of Telera was making an appearance over the cloud bank.

We pushed on to our high point for the day and finished the last part of our 1000m climb on a gently ascending traverse through a lakeside boulder field. It was pretty scrambley and everyone was careful to watch their feet but finally we reached the col. The col saddled two beautiful views: the cloud inversion one way and Vignemale (3298m) the other way. Vignemale is a stunning peak and one of many that marks the border between Spain and France. Imposing and enormous it seems to have every aspect of a mountain all in one! Glaciers, sharp ridges, pinnacles, smooth marble slabs, rolling grassy shoulders, long scree slopes and boulder fields. Basically it looks impenetrable. Lucky it wasn’t on our agenda for the day however. Instead we were to descend and skirt beneath it, joining a wide valley leading down to Bujaruelo.

We enjoyed a long lunch at the col sharing the sunny spot with a group of French ladies. One of our group produced an umbrella and shaded himself from the sun which made me smile. Moments like that must cement our reputation as English and I was in no doubt that the ladies knew from where we hailed!

The walk down from the col crossed more boulder fields as it followed the river down. This proved quite tricky and the group moved more or less in single file, concentrating on their feet. Each time we paused to sneak a look away from our shoes Vignemale was becoming more and more dramatic, rolling in and out of cloud. We were keeping an eye on the weather with still quite a way to go. We had only just started our 1200m of descent to reach our pick up point and nobody was keen for the rain to put in an appearance. As we crossed the increasing river and joined the valley however the sun broke through, lighting the place in an autumnal glow. The dry grass was soft and golden and the grassy lower slopes of the surrounding peaks were a dampened mossy colour. The gradient almost levelled too, continuing to descend only slightly. This was a relief for everyone’s knees! Especially one of the guys who had started to experience an uncomfortable twinge in one of his. Unfortunately the twinge worsened as time went on and getting to the end of the day was tough for him. The group was supportive however and we took a sociable pace onwards.

The best part about the valley was the company we found! For surrounding us on every side were marmots. They scampered around, diving into their burrows, standing proudly on lookout rocks nearby and whistling incessantly. What started as an excitable first sighting eventually became common place as we saw them in their tens maybe even hundreds over the next few hours.

The path changed lower down, skirting through trees and into impressive gorges. At one point we were walled in for hundreds of meters above and below as the path became cut into a gorge wall. By this time in the day the light was aging and the clouds slowly pulling over. Everyone was tired and about ready to reach the end. Every now and again we’d be greeted by a new and beautiful sight which would rekindle the enthusiasm, for example the long shadows of autumn trees over a grassy shoulder above us. With the charcoal sky and the fiery trees it looked quite surreal.

We dropped into a flat basin just above Bujaruelo. The wide path allowed everyone to group together and chat as we walked, although such a wind picked up that the gusts made it tricky at times. The river water ran silver beside us below a mackerel sky. Enormous limestone cliffs watched us as we passed. We crossed a few final bridges and arrived in the sleepy collection of buildings where we were to be picked up from and sure enough Ric was there with the van. Everyone piled in, happy for a seat and were driven down to our hotel for the night in Torla.

Cam and I waited for the second pick up at the local refugio and too enjoyed a well-earned sit down and drink. We people watched for a while. Children were playing in the river, climbers were hanging up their gear on a nearby fence. Tents were being constructed in a busy campsite too –the place really was a hive of activity. As we sat there the sun, which had already left the valley, cast a pinky-orange glow on the very top of the cliffs above us. It was reminiscent to the Enrosadeiras of the Dolomites. Not long after Ric arrived to take us back to the hotel. It was a scenic drive even though evening had truly set in and we arrived in the castle town of Torla just in time for a shower and change before dinner. The guests assured us there was no rush – they’d happily discovered the bar. The chap who had dropped out that morning had joined us at the hotel too, feeling much better after another rest day. It was nice to have the full team back together.

The Hotel Bujaruelo is sizable and yet cosy like a mountain lodge. The communal spaces, which include a dining/breakfast room, reception area, sitting room and bar, are well kept and carefully designed to be both modern but warm so that visitors feel immediately at home. The room we were shown to was enormous with an amazing bathroom. The beamed, sloping ceiling added to the chalet feel and a little sitting room area had a dark wooden floor and comfy leather seats – a proper snug.

There wasn’t much time to explore as it was dinner time so we made the turn around and emerge back downstairs feeling a little more human. Dinner was three courses and once we had navigated the menu with Cam’s translation help we all tucked in to a lovely and sizable meal. When dessert was cleared and coffees distributed it was evident that the long day had taken its toll and it didn’t take long until people started heading to bed. Everyone had earnt a good night’s sleep.

Day 5 – Faja de Pelay and Ordesa Canyon

20.3km/12.5 miles – 800m ascent – 800m descent

The final day! It had come around surprisingly fast as these things have a habit of doing. We had reached our final section of the GR11 which was to be a walk along the iconic Ordesa Canyon. Ordesa is a must when visiting the Pyrenees. Around 15km in length the gorge delves 1000m deep in places and its enormous limestone walls provide incredible views throughout.

We had planned to walk the Faja de Pelay, an impressive balcony that runs high above the canyon floor before descending and returning alongside the river itself. Unfortunately we woke up to grey skies and foreboding weather forecasts. The majority of weather sites Cam and I checked predicted some form of thunderstorm at some point in the day but none of them could quite agree as to when it was going to happen. Now the last place one wants to be in a thunder storm is 800m above the valley floor on an exposed ledge without an escape route, so I was keen not to make the wrong decision. We all agreed that we would get the bus up to Ordesa all the same and reassess when we arrived.

The weather in the Canyon was perfectly undecided. Moody grey clouds were collecting overhead but equally warm shafts of sun and blue sky were escaping through them regularly. We checked the forecast again and it remained determined that there was likely to be some form of storm mid-afternoon. After a fair amount of discussion and division in the group it was eventually decided that we would walk the canyon floor route up to the valley head. This way we would stay nice and low and we could turn tail if the weather changed its mind at any point.

The valley floor route was very beautiful. Silver birch trees lined a well-kept path and their canopy was a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows and oranges. The sun kept popping out, teasing us and there were plenty of looks skyward throughout. I wondered if we’d made the wrong choice backing off of the Pelay at times too but the valley walk was lovely. We stopped at plenty of viewpoints and waterfall plunge pools. Apparently in early season the water is quite ferocious due to melt water and heavy rain. We climbed steadily but it was easy going in comparison to our previous days.

The lunch spot was excellent. By a waterfall terrace a series of rocks similar in style to the Giant’s Causeway turned on their side jutted from the bank. These made amazing seats and the group spread out finding their own rock benches to have lunch on. The water was clear and cold but that didn’t stop us from dipping our hands in.

It was only a little further to reach the head of the valley. The narrow river track opens out suddenly into an enormous glacial bowl at the foot of Monte Perdido -The lost mountain (Known as that because of the way it is obscured from view to the French side). It really did become the lost mountain when it suddenly became obscured by a heavy, black cloud. We kept an eye on the cloud but celebrated the official finish of our GR11 trail, enjoying the moment.

When we turned back down the path big, fat drops of rain began to bounce off of the dusty path. They carried on just long enough for us to stop and put our coats on, then stopped, giving way to warm sunshine a little further on. Many of the group stopped again to remove their waterproofs again but sure enough it began to rain again five minutes later. This went on for around half an hour before the decision was made by a loud rumble of thunder off in the distance. Coats went on and stayed on as the shower built into a downpour. We put our heads down, sheltered slightly by the tree canopy but soon it was torrential and the thunder seeped into the valley sending shattering bouts of sheet lightning clattering off of the Ordesa’s high walls. By the time we got back to the refugio and bus stop everyone was soaked through.

It was a dramatic end to the GR11 walk but we all agreed that we had done well to escape bad weather throughout the week, only getting caught on our last afternoon. I for one was also pleased that we weren’t up on the ledge when that storm came over… We caught the bus back to Torla and got picked up by the Pyrenees team, heading back to Panticosa for a very much deserved warm shower, drink and dinner.

Earlier in the day one of our couples had announced their 49th wedding anniversary so over dinner the bubbly flowed with an atmosphere of twofold celebration. The group was all back together a week later after walking a considerable section of one of the world’s best walking trails. The five days had seen us travel approximately 76.2km/47 miles, climb 4200m of ascent and descend 3850m. Not bad at all.

The next day we all met for some pre-departure tapas. How else would you finish a holiday in Spain? It was lovely to see how the group had bonded over the week and lunch was a lovely affair of easy conversation and a great relaxed atmosphere. Cam and I were both very sad to wave off our group of walkers as they climbed into the van heading to the airport. It had been a fab week and one that we’d do again in a heartbeat.

Join us next summer hiking the GR11

To book click – Hiking the GR11