Dark Clouds Gather
In April 2006 my friend Tom and I set our sights on the Maladeta Massif, the damned mountains. In winter no less. We chose Aneto as the logical pinnacle for our endeavours, its summit standing at 3404m above sea level. In fact, we were pretty certain we could be up and down in three days, giving us time to climb Pico Posets (3375m) in the our remaining time. The fact it stood on the other side of the main valley didn’t really seem to matter.
We arrived in Benasque, the gateway into Parque Natural Posets-Maladeta, with sore legs and numb bums having spent the past five hours on buses from Barcelona. Twenty four hours later we finally dropped our bags on the shore of Ibonet de Corones, a small mountain lake surrounded by a half moon of jagged cliffs.
Wrapped up warm on the ascent to Ibonet de Corones.
‘I’ve been going just on will power’ stated an exhausted Tom. I mumbled something about never ending stairways. We’d spent an enjoyable evening before camping in forest beside the reservoir down in the valley, leaving the ten kilometre-eight hundred metre ascent for today. It would have been easier perhaps without the heavy sacks, made full by coils of redundant rope and gear we knew we wouldn’t use.
Dark clouds had begun gather behind the peaks to the south, now only marginally withheld by the Serra Negra as we sat by the lake. We’d hoped to shelter within a Shepard’s hut but were disappointed to find it already occupied by a giant ice block. We pitched the tent, and while the sky remained threatening it made no aggression towards us leaving time to kill. So we settled down onto a flat slab for a few dozen rounds of cards.
A sudden and harsh wind conveniently that called time on the game and forced us inside. With nothing much better to do we spent our time preparing a luxurious two course meal of pasta but soon I was tucked into my sleeping bag. By eight it had begun to snow, and throughout the night the sound of snowfall was broken by the low rumble of thunder. Our sleep was robbed by the sub zero temperatures of night.
Ibonet de Corones, Aragüells above.
With our heads poking tentatively out of the tent early next morning we were unsurprised to find a fresh layer of snow settles across the valley. We took an extra hour of sleep before crawling out into the cold pre dawn. The air was heavy with cloud, and the views were soon lost in the weight of whiteness. After I struggled angrily with my frozen boots we debated our situation in the dark.
‘What do you think?’ I ventured.
‘I’m tempted’ Tom admitted, ‘Personally, I’d go for it’.
Snowflakes spanned the gap between us.
‘Tempted, but I still won’t go up there’ I stated bluntly.
‘Sure, of course mate… I agree, however…’
Democratic discussion asserted itself but as we debated the lightening day revealed a dense cloud layer trapped in the valley above us. We agreed to err on the side of caution, not knowing the condition of the snow or the scale of the glaciers. Instead we decided to try our luck further to the west on Pico Posets. A voice within called that fortune favours the both, but I blocked it out vehemently. Despite the prospect of a grim day’s trekking in the snow and inevitable rain lower down we had soon struck the tent and were heading down. Tom’s hope for Aneto was temporarily relit by the presence of four skiers that came to view, struggling up the steep slopes in fresh snow, but my confidence in the mountain had already crumbled.
By the time the path had come out from the shadow of the low broken cliffs a steady snow had begun to fall, validating our decision. By the time we approached the Refugio de Corones snow had turned from slush to rain. We slammed the cabins heavy metal door shut as the heavens truly opened.
Inside, the scent and smoke from a dying fire immediately struck my senses; comfort and security replaced the cold isolation I’d felt on the mountain above. A couple already occupied the cabin and were in the final process of packing up. Our initial holas were greeted off hand but they soon warmed to our sodden pair as tom began a conversation in broken Spanish, English often augmented by hand gestures.
They were heading back to Barcelona that day but asked us to ensure that the skiers returned to pick up their packs. Contacting emergency services was not something I looked forward to doing.
Ibonet de Corones, Pico de Vallibierna across the valley.
Tom set about making soup as I poured over the map. Throughout our descent I had become surer that I was not ready to leave. Posets be damned I thought, it could wait another year. Looking out into the rain, I revealed my plan.
'Tom', I said, 'we could go get our food supply today, and head back up tomorrow'. The day before we had hidden three days worth of food at our low camp.
'Carl', he said instantly, 'that's a brilliant idea'.
'Yeah, a sustained assault- I'm not done with this bloody mountain yet!'
So we changed our objective. The snowstorm the night before and now rain had effectively cost us a day. Now we felt that the chance even for one summit, Aneto or Aragüells (a 3030m ancillary peak) would be mission enough.
With the tent at 2200m.
We rested and emptied out my day sack, leaving the large sacks and all of our gear in the cabin before setting off back down the valley. Unburdened, our initial pace was impressive, and we powered down the wide and easy track way. Within half an hour we had covered just under half the distance down, and took a rest under the eave of a second, simpler cabin. It began to gently snow once more, but this was short lived. We soon reached our low camp and I relieved to find our supply untouched. As it turned out, we had hung it above an animal warren and I felt for the poor creatures that we would have driven crazy by the smell of inaccessible food.
It took us about two hours to complete the 18km round trip to reclaim our food. As we began our climb back up, the clouds began to part and by the time we had returned to the cabin welcome sunlight flooded the valley. We were passed by the four skiers, and as we saw from their tracks the next day they retreated from less than 150m above the lake.
The morning's rain had washed the dust from the air, and our surroundings were now vivid in the early afternoon light. While Tom enjoyed a siesta I strolled along the waterways that weaved in between mountain pines, enjoying the easy photography these scenes offered.
At around three thirty pm, we once more shouldered our packs and headed back up to Ibonet de Corones. In the sun the gentle stroll through pine forest was worth the effort of the mornings hike. Even the staircase like climb to the top of the cascade to the Ibonet didn't feel so challenging today. This time we took our time setting up camp and cooking, before going to sleep at a reasonable hour.
Pico de Aragüells.
Ascent of Aragüells
Two alarms went off almost simultaneously at five thirty am. Outside, the sky was clear and already the torch added only a marginally incremental extra light. I struggled again with my boots as Tom sorted his pack for the day. At six fifteen we set off, pleased to finally climb above 2200m.
My initial pace was slower than I'd liked, although I felt in good condition, and frequent stops to remove my layers did not help establish to a steady rhythm. Regardless, the tent soon dropped below us as we made our path up a boulder field. After a time we discovered a path marked by cairns.
SE slopes of Aragüells.
The mornings winds were strong and ripped the top layer of snow from the mountain as they swept over, routinely catching the two us as we made our way upwards. Each time, save but a few, I would be caught off guard and be slammed by bitter cold. This did little to improve my mood and it wasn't until we reached the rim that I began to enjoy myself. The rim, a ridge running horizontal above the cliffs dropping to the lake and between the higher snowfields, formed the perfect pathway and offered excellent views. As we looked up at the glaciers, marked by an unbroken shield of snow and the rock ridge above, we each knew that our attempt on Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees, was over. We continued along the rim we set our eyes instead on the summit of Pico de Araguells.
Shortly after I had taken the lead from Tom, and unsheathed my axe, we came to the end of the rim. The shelter and tent now looked far below, and the higher snow slopes refreshingly close. As I stepped onto the first of these, already in the sun, I was reassured by the crust as it crunched underfoot.
Tom on the difficult section.
Directly ahead of us a wall of snow, rock and ice formed our first tangible obstacle. It rose up high above us and continued round up to the 2900m col, large snow drifts had formed at its base. Despite a good route up a solid slope to the left which would lead directly up to the summit- I had, at the time, my mind set on a traverse to the col before making the final assault. This was in disregard of the visibly strong winds that we battering the east face.
So it was with this in mind that I climbed up through the deeper and steeper snow, now up to my knees in points, to the start of a likely line up a gully leading onto snowfields above. I looped my poles and gloves over my wrists, freeing my hands for gripping the rock, with my axe ready. I began scanning for the first holds, having clearly marked this as my ascent- I was more afraid of being led into a corner than the objective danger of the climb. The fact I'd never done a committed climb like this before didn't seem to factor into the decision. I did however want to play with my new toys.
I soon felt confident in hooking my axe between rock and in deep snow to get a firm placement. I found fine foot holds to pause and reheat my hands, before sacrificing extra grip for comfort. Only when I was above the first drop did I realize my precarious nature. The thrill and adrenaline, as well as Tom's well placed note of caution were not strong enough to keep me from climbing. Yet we were alone on the mountain, and any fall would no doubt have resulted in broken bones.
When I reached the top of the gully and a firm resting place in the snow above I crashed down and laughed with elation. The weather had turned excellent and we were doing what we loved. I looked down and followed Tom's progress; my pride of the climb was only marginally scratched by his commitment to using only poles and hands.
'You're one crazy fucker' he exclaimed as he landed next to me. Perfect ratification, it had been a good climb.
It was now past nine thirty and we decided to find a good spot for breakfast. As we sat we observed the beauty of our surroundings: perfect white snow broken by dark rock, set against the bright blue of a clear day’s sky.
Throughout the morning the slopes had been swept and circled by wind devils, which are short lived whirlwinds created by rising thermals that sucked the snow from the slopes and threw it into the air. Several times, these had nudged us since climbing above the cliff and at one point looking back; Tom mentioned that the wind devils favoured the gully we had climbed. When we were caught in the centre of one during our decent, the winds had been piercingly cold and fierce. I certainly didn't like the thought of climbing in one.
It was during our break that we abandoned our route towards to the col in favour of a direct line up the south east face. This, as we discovered, a manageable but highly enjoyable scramble up through mixed ground and steep snow slopes.
Tom and I on the summit.
At ten fifty am the slope gave and we topped out onto a narrow well rounded cone, enthroned by a cairn that Tom had already converted into the base for the Bavarian Flag. The views were, as expected, spectacular. We could see to the summit of Aneto and with the visibility we could see far into the distance.
We remained at the top long enough to admire these views, pose with the flag and ice, and gorge on a bar of Swiss army chocolate before beginning the decent.
I enjoy the great views the peak offered.
The way down was more consuming mentally, as Tom suggested it would be, than I cared to imagine. Down climbing through the rock and now soft snow proved far more taxing than ascending it in the first place. By the time we had reached the rim my legs ached, and Tom- a sure sign of his own tiredness- had begun to power ahead. Conversely, the more tired I get the slower I move, so I didn't reach the tent until about half an hour after him.
Tom on the descent.
I was suffering from the knee-jarring descent down from the rim, and exhausted from the mental mind games of the day. Yet as I slumped down on a sun warmed slab by our tent, the one on which we had previously played cards, I was extremely happy. I had come to the mountains with the unrealistic attempts of three or more 3500m summits in the same amount of days, and yet had climbed just one 3000m'er; by numbers alone this would appear my least significant summit of the year. Yet as I looked back up at our summit, standing proud and clear above us, I knew this had been a successful trip.
The summit of Aneto (3404m) viewed from the summit of Pico Aragüells.