Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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For our summer vacation, we took our girls and my dad on a 4-day family backpacking adventure in the Posets-Maladeta Massif in northern Spain. With 40 km/25m of trails, 2,500m/8,200ft elevation gain and 3,200m/10,500ft elevation loss, the trip was no cakewalk but the views were so spectacular and the streams so clear that we forgot all about the effort. In fact, my 10-year end enjoyed it so much that she forgot all the stress of going back to school and my 9-year-old loved sleeping in a different refugios (Spanish mountain huts) each night. We even made new friends in the refugios and became part of a wandering community that we’d bump into at the end of each day, once the hiking boots were stored away.
With spectacular mountains, great company, and Spanish weather, this is an amazing trip I’d happily recommend to other mountain-loving families.
Hosting the two highest peaks of the Pyrenees, the Posets is a surprisingly little-known gem that a local described to me as indescubierto. “Spanish mountaineers know about the Posets,” he said, “But El Monte Perdido gets all the tourists.” Indeed, the Posets-Maladeta Park hardly gets mentioned in guides and I struggled to find any information about it when I started planning my trip in London. Some valleys didn’t even have hotels 10 years ago and the Spanish pueblos still hire shepherds to walk the cattle to high summer pastures. It felt like Heidi come to life, only the Spanish version with raw garlic on pan con tomato.
Benasque, was the port of entry to our Spanish adventure, an unassuming small town with more mountain gear windows than grocery stores and peaches (melocotons) larger than grapefruits. We’d left the Languedoc before dawn and driven all day towards and through the Pyrenees to get there. Five hours is all it took to leave croissants behind and reach the heart of Spain. Have you ever tried to eat lunch at noon in Spain? Good luck with that.
We wanted to hit the trail in the early afternoon and literally begged a tourist taverna to take us in. The waitress gladly accepted but the kitchen must have been on Spanish hours so during the long wait, we explored the nearby mountain stores. Oh, the temptations! Incidentally, we found two essential items for our trip: a 1:25,000 map of the park (our walking bible for the next 4 days) and a tin cup for my dad who doesn’t like drinking from water bottles. All set!
At the Benasque Valley trailhead, we loaded the backpacks and laced our shoes while my 10-year old chased grasshoppers–an activity she can repeat without ever getting tired with lizards and beetles. Finally, we hit the trail. Our destination: Estos Refugio – 3 hours and 550m of elevation gain ahead of us. Pleasantly, the lower parts of the valley were incredibly lush and green. (I later learned that the summer had been very rainy, keeping hikers away.)
Under the shade of hazelnut trees, I screened the foliage to find young hazelnuts hanging like green jewels at the end of branches. They’re such a delicacy in the early autumn! I picked a few hazelnuts (to eat and also to use as checkers pieces in the evening) and my youngest found bright red wild strawberries and wild raspberries under trailside leaves. Thus snacking our way along the Estos river, we walked on and even took a side-trail to admire a roaring waterfall. When the valley opened to reveal majestic mountains, we spotted the tiny stone cabin named Cabana del Turmo, an idyllic mountain hut that inspired the Spanish band Celtas Cortos to compose a song about it.
Past the Cabana, the trail gradually went up until we reached the Refugio de Estos, a busy beehive of day walkers, ambitious mountaineers and people (already) lining up to take a shower in the rustic building out back. Most were Spanish-speaking but we noticed a lot of Germans and a few Brits. Entering the Refugio, I was delighted to find the refugio provided Crocs in all sizes so that mountain boots could stay in the hall. I’m used to whip out my flip-flops but this was much appreciated and they felt like slippers with my thick wool socks. Once we were settled in, I borrowed scotch tape from the kitchen and tightly wrapped my dad’s boots, boots whose soles felt like free spirits and wanted a life of their own.
Before the sun set, we left my dad to play a game of hazelnut tic tac toe with my 10-year old while my 9-year old, my husband and I crossed the river to walk around the Fuen de Posets, a white ribboned-waterfall descending the valley flanks in gurgling pools. I couldn’t resist a refreshing dip (without swimsuit, much to the horror of my little girl) and we had lots of fun fording the river Estos barefooted to get back to the refugio.
Dinner was chicken broth, lentil stew, meatballs in tomato sauce and yogurts. We were still hungry after dinner.
Day 2 started at 6.30am with a barely-exciting breakfast and left all hikers behind (I’m guessing they overnighted at the refugio to bag surrounding peaks) to continue up the valley. Suddenly, we heard a series of high-pitched whistles. Marmots! Even better–marmota marmotas, the fluffy species reintroduced in the Pyrenees in 1948. My 9-year old dug out the pair of binoculars she received from my dad for her birthday and we took turns spotting the furry balls running on the hills. “I see it! There’s a second – and a third – one! Over there!” Clearly, the binoculars were a success (my dad beamed) and they found a prime spot dangling at the end of a carabiner outside my daughter’s backpack.
The whistles work as a warning system and indeed, we soon saw raptors circling above and witnessed a dramatic flight chase where a white bird was hunted down by five black birds. Leaving the carnage behind, we walked on and reached the pass Puerto de Chistau just for lunch. Even though the wind was quite strong, we sat down and enjoyed a glorious view on Estos Valley now basking in the sun. If we ever do that trip, I need to give you a heads-up over the picnic lunch we ordered from the refugio. Brrr, none of us liked it. It consisted of a bruised apple, a small orange pack, 2 chocolate wafers, 2 enormous sandwiches with (super salty) salami and cheese and elastic baguette, an unidentified cheese triangle (laughing cow type), a portion of salted peanuts (in fact our favorite item), and a round spongy vanilla cake wrapped in plastic. My dad winced. My 9-year-old declared she wasn’t hungry. My husband and I ate only a quarter of our sandwiches without the bread. Oh, how nostalgic we were for the picnic lunch we had bought at the French refuge the previous year – it was so much better! And thus we decided to cancel all the following picnic lunches in refugios and shop for our own food. The question was – where?
Stuffing most of the picnic lunches back in our backpacks, we went over the pass and right behind, found the long steep descent that would take us to the Refugio de Biados. The path was so steep that we occasionally turned around and imagined how painful the going up must be. Little did we suspect we’d do something similar the next day. My dad’s soles hang on at the front, but they were loose at the heel so I used a bandage roll for a quick fix. How much longer would they hold?
The itinerary was L-shaped that second day and when we hit the bottom of the valley going west, the path crossed the river over a bridge and went at a right angle up the sides of the next hill south and then south-west. Another Cabana adorned the flanks of the mountain but before we before we took that route, we opted for a water stop by the stream, the Rio Zinqueta d’Anes Cruzes. At that spot, it bounced on rocks and slabs, creating charming little pools and waterfalls. Five minutes later, I was getting a waterfall back massage and my girls picked grasses. Summer bliss!
It was quite fortunate that we stopped there as the path never found the river until the next refugio. It only got higher and higher as the valley got steeper and steeper and the stream turned into a raging river down the gorges. As soon as we stepped on the terrace of the Refugio de Biados, the soles of my dad’s shoes fell off in a rather spectacular fashion and two by-standers’ jaws dropped. The boots had made it! However now, my dad needed a new pair and we were 2 taxi hours from Benasque. The refugio’s owner suggested that we try the next village, 45 minutes away, where we might find “a few shoes.” The thing is, taxis aren’t really commonplace in remote Spanish valleys. Fortunately, a jolly band of party people from Barcelona invited us to join them on the taxi they’d ordered later in the afternoon. At 5pm, we entered at the back of a van with a group of strangers and my girls stayed with my husband, ready to practice somersaults with the majestic Posets summit and the sugarloaf-shaped Puntel de Barrau as a backdrop.
After 45 minutes of rough dirt road, we reached a small village called Plan. The Barcelonians left us and the taxi driver (Gustavo?) showed us to the store. It was the Supermercado Aro Rojo, a grocery store of all places! A tad skeptical, we entered and in our best Spanish, explained we needed botas. Botas? While the clerk rushed to the back of the store to find his patron, I gazed at the aisle of biscuits, cold cuts and fresh veggies. I’d found picnic items alright but mountain boots? Saint Bernard of Montjoux must have been listening as in that store, my dad bought the only pair of botas. Yes, they were a size too big and yes, they were too cheap to last, but they’d do for the next couple days. Happily, we taxied back to the refugio and I listened to wonderful tales of the valley told by Gustavo (who doubles as ambulance and school bus in the winter). It was fascinating.
Do you realize, this remote valley of Biados falls completely asleep in the winter? Nobody except the hardiest mountaineers roams the mighty massif until springtime. As soon as the first snow falls, all roads close and the cattle comes down from the mountains. If by accident the cattle comes down too early (early frost), the shepherd guides the cows and sheep back to the mountains so that they graze a little while longer. The cabanas we’d passed on our hike were cabanas where pueblo families used to send one of them to watch the animals during the summer months, each person “volunteering” their time one week at a time. Only a fireplace and a stone platform inside – talk about getting away from it all!
Nowadays, villages have a “community shepherd” (pastor) who they hire for the pasture months and who drives a 4WD as far as vehicles go to check on the animals. Things aren’t quite what they used to be. Gustavo has a couple heads of cattle himself (to keep the tradition for his kids) and as we were driving, he waved at a 4WD. “Es el pastor”, he said. Next, we passed the school teacher. Indeed, they all know each other on this mountain, the mountain where, as Gustavo said, each pueblo has its own mountain. Don’t ask me how, that’s what he said in between bits about 18th century pasture agreements with France and mountain rescue ops carried out by the Guardia Civil. Oh, and the Refugio de Biados was a good table, we’d eat well that night. Hurray!
Indeed we did and I admired a framed mountain photo on the wall, signed by one of my heroes, Killian Jornet. On this poster, the champion trail runner is one of two children who crossed the Pyrenees with their parents. The poster says: 43 days, 750 km, 40,000m elevation change. He was 10, his sister was 9. I was in awe!
Dinner that night was chicken broth with vermicelli, raw garlic with pan con tomatoes, broad beans with potatoes in oil, meatballs and yogurt. Quite nice!
In the early morning, my girls were ready to tackle the most challenging day of our trip. We were looking at 6 to 8 hours of hiking minimum with the highest pass on the way. Steadily in single file, we crossed the last of the pastures, walked through an evergreen forest and entered the wonderful mineral world of high mountains. Above the tree line is my favorite part of mountains because of the unobstructed views. We were lucky and could almost see our trail between the various summits. “It’s through this gap and beyond,” I said to my girls, showing them a microscopic spot on the left that seemed very far away.
The going got steeper and we split into two groups to accommodate everybody’s walking pace. My 10-year old opened the march with my husband while my 9-year old, my dad and I brought up the rear. It wasn’t particularly difficult but it was long. From the refugio to the Collado de Eriste took us 5 hours and 30 minutes. Finally, the steepness relented and we stood on a wide rocky saddle framed by mighty dinosaurs. The views were breathtaking–a circular ridge of jagged peaks encircling a glacial valley with a blue lake sparkling at the bottom. The very spine of the Pyrenees was looking at us, playing hide and seek with cloud formations as dramatic and impressive as the scenery.
To enjoy our picnic lunch, we moved higher to a rocky ledge that sheltered us from fierce wind gusts. Unexpectedly, a couple of walkers popped from above us. Where did they come from? La Forqueta, they said, a summit they qualified as “facil” (easy) and within “mediahorita” (half-an hour’s walk). Teased, my husband got up and asked if anybody would join him. Both my girls dropped their sandwich to go on the Forqueta adventure while I stayed with my dad. I moments like this, without any knowledge of the terrain, you just have to hope that everything will be alright.
PigLit, our stuffed pig, stood watch with me. Half an hour later, my husband waved at us from high up the ridge. They were back! As it turns out, they were about halfway up the summit and the hiking had already turned into hands-on scrambling when they’d been faced with a 3-foot jump on a knife edge with steep drops on both sides. They did jump but a few rocks later, my husband heard my 10-year old in his back. “Oops, my hand slipped!” Ah, kids, always having a good time. Instantly, they turned around and the girls came back to me with a fun tale to tell.
Actually, wasn’t it high time we left? Ah yes, dark clouds were being blown our way by nasty French winds. Behold the Gallic intruders! One by one, we went single file down the steep Eriste side of the mountain. My, this massif knows something about steep and slippery. On the opposite ridge, we spotted the silhouettes of four mountain goats and used our binoculars to admire their graceful antics. How cool! By the time we reached the lake Ibon de Llardaneta, low clouds wrapped the plateau in pure Scottish fashion. I say, time for a dip!
The water was fresh and clear and it felt great after the long climb up and down the pass. Given the weather forecast, I didn’t linger and soon enough, we said goodbye to this magical glacial bowl to go down the long Eriste valley. Two hours and many boulders later, we reached the Refugio Angel Orus, a modern hut built on top of the original 1950s stone cabin. The cool part is that they’ve incorporated the old building (didn’t even tear it down) into the walls of the current refugio and you can see it inside. Neat, right?
In this architectural eagle’s nest, we were assigned the ultimate refugio luxury – a private dormitory with en-suite bathroom. Let the hot water run! After a well-deserved shower, we whiled away the rest of the afternoon on the terrace drinking sodas and tea. My girls played checkers and did drawings while my father watched the scenery and my husband read. We even found the German family we’d been bumping into at each refugio since day 1. They were really nice and I was in awe that their teenage daughter was cool with a hiking trip with her folks. She led a mean game of poker three tables down the terrace. Who says teenagers are all glued to their screens?
That night, we had a fun chat with our table neighbors from Portugal and the Canary Islands. They were aiming at summiting the Pico de Posets the following day. Our German friends were planning to join the Estos valley parking via a lakes route. We were going to go down the Eriste valley all the way to the village and catch a ride to the Estos parking lot.
Dinner consisted of the (now-familiar and much-loved) chicken broth with vermicelli, asparagus salad, broad beans with potatoes in oil, grilled chicken and banana yogurt (the gelatin variety).
Once in our thermals, we all went to bed with our headlamps and I read a few chapters of Heidi to my girls. They seemed to really enjoy the alpine story and it totally clicked with our mountainous surroundings. Unfortunately, the building was super noisy and our dorm window benefited from generous sewer smells, so much that our night was on the short and forever-tossing side.
Last day, back to Benasque.
At breakfast, I shared half of our loaf of bread with our German friends as we had way too much for our bunch. Also, our bread was only two-days old and theirs was four-days old, which might improve their last picnic lunch in the Pyrenees. After packing our bags, we laced our shoes, picked up our walking sticks , wished good luck to the Portuguese mountaineers and off we were. Oh, how light the load seemed now that we knew we were coming back to comfortable beds! We even paused long enough by the river to enjoy the view of idyllic waterfalls.
Why did I not know about the rivers and waterfalls before coming to Spain? They were such a lovely surprise along the trail. That and, at least to my girls’ eyes, the many many hazelnut trees that were heavy with green hazelnuts. If hazelnut shelling was a sport, we might have a go at the qualifiers.
We were now by the last parking lot, and we still had 6K to walk to the Eriste down the valley. We had completed our trip and I want to conclude this piece with some words from my 10-year old. She’s generally not the biggest enthusiast of long hikes when we’re home but once she’s on the trail, she’s always very enthusiast. Anywho. As we were going down, she casually said.
She: “What I like about hiking is that it really makes you forget your worries.”
Me: “How so?”
She: “I completely forgot the stress of going back to school next week.”
Her 9-year old sister: “Really? Not me.”
Ah, kids. They love being in nature anyway:)