Back in Paradise - June 2nd 2008Oh joy unconfined! - back in Benasque with a week of mountaineering ahead of us. Ken and I pulled our hire car into the familiar surroundings of Camping Aneto at 4:45 pm on June 2nd after a long day of travelling from Liverpool's John Lennon Airport. Hola como estas?, if our Spanish was rusty before, we soon found our way back into it as we booked our stay at the refugio for a few days and made tentative enquiries about the forthcoming weekend and the likelyhood of hordes descending on the area.
We soon laid our gear out in the dormitorio and headed back down to Benasque for beer and tapas.
June 3rd - Our attempt on Forcanada 2881m.
By 5:30am we were up at La Besurta (1891m.) donning our gear and heading up to the Forau dels Aigualiuts (2033m.) our objective being the almost 3000 metre peak of Forcanada or Malh des Pois (2881m.).
Above the Forau we could immediately see that the snowline was much lower than we had found in previous years. As we crossed the Plan dels Aigualiuts, we could see how the Pico dels Aigualiuts neatly divided the terrain ahead into two branching valleys.
Taking the left hand valley we headed up over initially firm snow into the Balleta de L'Escaleta . We were looking for the Estanys de L'Escaleta where the trail divides. However, deep snow covered up any signs of the path and no cairns were evident. We decided to take a high line and shortly arrived at the top of a ridge, this being the Coth des Aranesi (2446m.). For some reason, I had the mistaken impression that this marked the Franco/Spanish border. I think it amused Ken that I didn't know which country I was in! After wiping my shades and having another look at the map we recognised the border as regional, i.e. between Aragon and Catalonia. We realised we should have taken the lower trail but nothing was lost and we contoured along the ridge towards our target of the Estany Alt de L'Escaleta. However, by this time we were navigating on a bearing as total whiteout conditions prevailed and the snow was getting softer and the going heavier. Ken commented that when he was putting his foot down he didn't know if he expected to go up or down. I experienced similar disorientation. By my Suunto, the altitude was 2605 metres but we could see no signs of the lake or the entrance to the Coll d'Alfred
We searched around for a bit, crossing over some humps and dips in the snow-covered ground but still found no evidence of the Estany.
We decided to stop and wait for a while to see if the weather would clear up and this gave us an ideal chance to try out my emergency shelter. We found an area where the snow had been blown clear by the wind and unpacked the shelter. Inside, it felt amazingly warm after being exposed to a stiff breeze previously.
After about a half hour out of the wind, with no sign of any improvements in the weather and a potentially tiring flog over the deep snow before we crossed the Coll d'Albert dropped down 100 metres and then climbed up to Forcanada at 2881 metres, we decided to retreat. We took the decision because we were already a bit tired after wading through the soft snow for a couple of hours and another 2 hours of it to the summit couldn't be justified, particularly as navigation was very difficult.
It was around 1:00 pm by this time and we made our way back down through the snows to La Besurta in 3 hours.
June 4th - The Estós valley
After our tiring first day we had a more liesurely start, going down to Benasque for breakfast and so it was 1:00 pm before we started off down the GR11 from the refugio.
It was a very warm day so we were glad of the shade provided by the pinewoods along the trail. We had 'phoned ahead to the Estós Refugio to book our bed and dinner for the night so that we could get an early start on our next objective: Perdiguero.
Although it was quite a long walk between the refugios, it was a very pleasant afternoon enjoying the scenery and the silence for most of the time.
Somewhat suprisingly in spite of the whiteout conditions the day before and liberal application of sunblock we had both acquired sunburn.
Sitting at a rest stop at the Palanca de Batisielles we looked like models for a couple of garden gnomes.
It was a beautiful spot to rest up, the crystal clear waters of the Aigueta de Batisielles running over the ford provided a soothing background music to our thoughts.
We had no need to wade through the waters though as some rickety wooden footbridges could be followed across the stream.
Further along the trail we suddenly arrived at a clearing in the pine woods and were greeted by the awe inspiring sight of Perdiguero high up on the northern side of the valley.
The National park authorities had kindly provided an information board at the side of the trail with a panoramic pictorial view of the valley complete with legends for each of the peaks in view.
We quickly agreed that Perdiguero was the snow peak that apparently topped the height of all others and was connected by a snow ridge to its lower subsidiary peak of Hito Este de Perdiguero.
We arrived at the refugio (1890m.) at 5:30pm to be greeted by Dani (Daniel) and his two dogs. I think they were working on the good cop/ bad cop principle as one licked me and the other tried to take a bite until the trekking pole deterrent worked. Ken reckoned it was the poles that caused the threatened attack or maybe I was using the wrong deodorant brand.
There were only seven guests that night so the dining hall was quiet, we joined in with a couple of the Spanish guys, sharing with the serving of the courses and tidying up the crockery afterwards.
Dani was a jovial host and we enquired about his equally jovial compadre Nando who we had met on previous visits to the refugio. Nando was on holiday apparently, so we asked Dani to pass on our regards and arranged for a breakfast tray to be left out for us early the next day.
June 5th - Perdiguero
Rising at 4:30am we forced down our coffee and cakes and headed off to the abandoned Quartel Militar back down the valley past the Cabaña del Turmo where we planned to stash our superflous gear. The idea behind this being avoidance of a long round trip hike back to the Estos hut after a potentially tiring ascent of Perdiguero.
Just before 7:00am we headed away from the Quartel through woods fresh with the early morning smell of pine.
Above the tree line we found that there was just as much snowfall as on the previous day and as we made our way up along the craggy side of Perdigueret towards the Collado Ubaga (2703m.) we found that we were crossing avalanche debris.
The temperature was just below freezing then, so we weren't too concerned about possible further avalanches. Arriving at the coll at 10:30am, we found that the clouds were down and compass navigation was required for the second day running.
The ridge to Perdiguero was to the North West according to the map and we headed in that direction, soon finding traces of previous ascendants. We found out the next day that these footprints were left by four Basque guys who also stayed at the Camping Aneto refugio. They told us that they had ascended Perdiguero on June 4th via the Ball de Remune.
Tiring work through the softening snow led us to the East peak of Perdiguero at 3170 metres, here we found that our intended course and the trail of footprints divided. However we were happy with our navigating and followed the narrow ridge between the east peak and the main summit. This was somewhat scary as we were still in whiteout and the ridge was very narrow.
We were going slowly, carefully probing for cornices until we reached the summit (3222m.) and found there a neatly stacked cairn with a prayer flag.
We didn't stop long as there were no views to be seen and so were back down at the collado by 2:50pm.
Down at the Quartel we collected our stashed gear and made our way back down the Estos valley, arriving at Camping Aneto at 7:35pm. A long and satisfying day which we celebrated with a few beers in Benasque.
June 6th - An easy day at Ball de Remuñe
After our tiring Perdiguero day we decided to take it easy, breakfasting in Benasque before going up the Esera valley to park our car at 1750 metres above the Hospital de Benasque and from there we took the marked trail along the Ball de Remuñe.
Our idea was to try and see what we had ascended the previous day and get a view of Perdiguero from a different viewpoint.
We walked up the valley admiring the spring flowers that grew in profusion all around us and were enjoying a brief spell of sunshine until we reached a point where a stone pillar arose between two valleys (2040m.).
Here it started raining and luckily Ken spotted a bivvy cave to shelter in. Safely ensconsed, Ken got out his stove and we brewed some green tea, waiting for the weather to clear. Unfortunately the clouds didn't disperse and the rain continued so we gave up on our hope of a Perdiguero view and headed back down to the car.
As we got lower down the valley the rain eased so we decided to take a look at the GR11 trail where it went east through pine forests from a campsite in the Plan de Senarta. We strolled up the hill for an hour or so but didn't go far enough to see the Ball de Ballibierna above the trees as we soon started feeling a need for sustenance. We headed back to Benasque for tapas and beer.
June 7th - To the border with France
On Saturday morning we were parked up at the Plan d'Estan (1836m.) near to La Besurta around 8:30am.
Our objective was Ken's choice, the Tuca de Salbaguardia (2838m.) and this peak lies right on the Franco/Spanish border.
The trail followed a zig-zag route up the hill to the coll that provides access to France. This is the Portillon de Benas (2445m.).
From the 2100 metre level we found substantial snowfall and routefinding would have been difficult had we not been over the same terrain a few years earlier and therefore knew the position of the Portillón.
By the time we arrived at the Portillón which was marked by an engraving on the sidewall, we were again in whiteout and therefore had to plot our onward course by compass, the trail to Salbaguardia being completely obliterated.
We followed our bearing and an indistinct depression in the terrain that could have been a path. Going slightly downhill to the west of the Portillon and then up again we found ourselves at a notch in the ridge. Still no visuals! so we set off diagonally down again and eventually found ourselves above a loose rock wall and a crevasse (or bergschrund).
A quick conflab decided that we didn't like the look of this and Ken proposed backtracking to the notch to try and trace the trail again.
We got back to the notch and as we were shuffling our kit to check maps and bearings again, two Spanish mountaineers appeared and we had a conversation with them about route finding. Although they said it was their first time on the hill too, they were fairly sure that the route should be followed diagonally upward from near our furthest point.
Being long on cunning if short on breath we said "lead on" to them and followed behind. After some time ascending rotten steps of loose snow, stones and grass we did arrive again on the ridge where we met up again.
They had been onto the ridge that led to the summit but had decided that it was too risky due to steep walls, poor vision and d