Hokusai’s Great Wave and the Mountain: Pic de la Colilla, Catalunya, Pyrenees
Colossal. I stood on my way to a narrow rocky ridge leading to a summit in the Catalan Pyrenees, with my daughter and my father, when I looked up to the cloudless sky and was struck by the shape of the slope awaiting us. I thought it was colossal.
I say shape now, but then in August 2022, it seemed to me like the mountain was in motion, heaving and sighing, like the grassy mineral slope was getting narrower and rising steeper. It was Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, looming over us at 9,000 feet.
Despite its name, the Great Wave off Kanagawa is actually a depiction of Mount Fuji, one of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji painted by 19th century Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. In his 1830s woodblock print, Mount Fuji, source of immortality in Japanese mythology, stands as a central figure and draws the eye even though the mountain is largely dwarfed by a massive wave about to engulf rowing boats. I was the rowing boat.
In the Pyrenees as I looked up, affected by my fear of heights, the wave and the mountain collided into a single green wave in motion and nothing could stop it crashing down. What was hiding beyond the top, would it be a sudden drop or a level plateau? Instinctively, I guessed the latter was unlikely. Left and right, two glacial valleys framed the mountain range, and although the ridge was a comfortable wide saddle, I felt as if the edges were inching ever closer to my hiking boots and might drop off unexpectedly.
My own human fragility took the better of me. I sensed that the walk, outside of any trail, was too exposed for my risk appetite. Intimidated, I backed out of summiting Pic de la Colilla that day, but my 17-year-old daughter, fearless and sure-footed, ascended the Tessa del Sirvent to take pictures and show me the panorama. So thoughtful. Sitting on a rock, I munched on a lunch of country bread, sheep cheese and carrots, pondering the alternatives.
From a promontory on the Andorran side, I carefully skirted the edge and discovered, there before us, the jagged outline of the rocky ridge that we would have followed to the summit of Pic de la Colilla. No way we could have done that with my fear of heights and my 82-year-old father’s uncertain balance.
I remembered the words of Genni, the mountain refuge guardian, that morning. “No es tecnical,” Genni said to me in Spanish, or as she wrote in Catalan on a hiking cheat sheet at the refugi, “es tracta d’una carena tècnicament molt fàcil.” The trail follows a ridge technically very easy. Easy, easy, she says. It didn’t look easy to me. Mountain people certainly don’t have the same appreciation for heights that us, plain people, do.
Feeling momentarily defeated, I pictured the topographic map and its contour lines, turning it around in my head, replaying another view I’d glimpsed from the corner of my eyes the previous day from another summit, Pic de Perafità. Another lunch with country bread, sheep cheese and carrots. Maybe there was another way, less obvious, through a back valley. A back door to the summit, if you will.
Only problem was, we needed to leave the following morning by 10am. In order to get to the top and be back by 9am for breakfast, I calculated that we needed to get up at 5am. I asked my 17-year-old daughter and she was game. The following morning, we left before dawn for our second attempt at summiting Pic de la Colilla.
Mountains have many faces. Pic de la Colilla, also known as Tosseta de la Caülla or Pic dels Estanyols, is a mountain reaching up to 2,887m (9,471 feet) in the Catalan Pyrenees, perched on a ridge separating Spain from the tiny country of Andorra. The mountain has mostly two faces, two approaches. The first approach that we tried initially was via the Port de Perafità, across the Tessa del Sirvent, the Serra del Sirvent ridge, and all the way to the peak. The second approach was a cross-country wild romp with no trail, cutting across slopes, hidden valleys and following streams to coast the ever-steeper sides of surrounding mountains to get to the brim of a glacial cirque, walking up to the summiting cairn to breathe in well-deserved fresh air.
To get there, two challenges were facing us. First, there was no trail which meant that we would need to navigate entirely with a map and compass to find the best path. Fortunately we could do it, as both of us were confident navigators. Second, we planned to leave at 5 in the morning in the dark, so as to summit before sunrise. Nighttime navigation is always spicier as you cannot rely on daytime sights to find known waypoints. Who doesn’t love a proper adventure, eh?
Both of us were excited and almost looked forward to the short night. Pray God that our 10 other dorm-mates were not heavy snorers like the first night. In the evening, with what little phone signal I could glean, I tried to find hikers’ accounts of the route to triple check that I had not missed anything, that I was not getting my 17-year-old daughter into great peril, but Pic de la Colilla was on nobody’s top ten Pyrenees list.
In the world of mountains, Pic de la Colilla was but a minor peak. At under 3,000m or 10,000 feet, it was so minor as to be absent from English forums. Because of its remote location and minor significance, it attracted local winter cross-country skiers and summer hikers whose spoke either Catalan or Spanish.
Switching my language brain on, I read a couple of accounts in Catalan (which I do understand). Again, everybody concurred about the lack of difficulty. Easy, easy, she said. To find our way, Genni gave me two clues at dinner time: the faint trail starts by a square plaque around the refuge, and we would need to follow a stream, keeping it on our left.
At 5am, my phone alarm rang. Already? Both of us wormed our way out of our sleep sacks and in the dark, tried to find the pile of clothing prepped at the foot of our mattresses. I really hoped I’d just put on the long comfy socks rather than the short scratchy ones. Impossible to tell. Tiptoeing in the hallway, we went down the creaky wooden staircase and downstairs, filled up our water bottles in the communal area by the bleak light of ceiling lamps.
Once outside, we switched on our headlamps to lace up our shoes. We stretched the topo map on a table outside, calibrated the compass and calculated the general direction. Blinded by the headlamp, we looked for a square plaque and surprisingly, found it right away. Indeed, a faint dirt trail started up the mountain there and we promptly followed it. This was off to a good start.
The night was quite dark and the faint waning moon was no help at all in lighting up the way. The only sound we could hear was the sound of our voices which, in the moment, sounded way too loud. Everything was so quiet around us. After cresting a first ridge, our boots sunk in the ground and we found ourselves in a field of spongy grassy bumps. Water. We must be near a stream. Well, well, this was going swimmingly, or so we thought until we realized that the stream was alas flowing north-west to south-east instead of north by north-east to south. This was not our stream.
A dozen feet away, another stream was silently flowing down the mountain and again, it came from the wrong direction. How on Earth were we supposed to find the right stream in the dark? By then, our boots were beginning to be wet. We hopscotched on several grassy bumps, checked the map several times, and took the shortest route uphill to escape to drier ground.
The sky was now a paler shade of dark blue and our eyes could guess a dip between two hills. “Let’s head that way,” suggested my daughter. “From there, we might get a view on the hidden valley ahead.” We took the map out and checked. It was too north by northwest so I suggested we go diagonally north by northeast between the dip and the imaginary peak. We didn’t want to end up on a cliff in the dark.
Soon, we entered a pine forest strewn with chaotic rocks and boulders. At times, we thought that we’d found the trail and a providential hiker’s cairn, but we lost the trail soon after and just navigated by compass.
It wasn’t so dark anymore and we switched off our headlamps, silently going up and up the slope until we realized that we had reached the hidden valley skirting the ridge from down below. We only had one option now – onward and forward. We kept a steady pace and cut a line progressively going up the mountain. From time to time, I checked my Garmin watch for the elevation gain. 100 meters, 150, 179, now 214.
Now, above the treeline. The stream had petered out, but it didn’t matter anymore because we knew where we were and where we were going. It was the furthest notch on the mountainscape in front of us. Our only worry was that we were walking too slowly, so we kept a good pace, though we did stop to rehydrate and catch our breath.
At one point, we turned around and stopped in our tracks. Dawn was rising and the morning sky was colored pink and blue. Across from us, we could spot the Pic de Perafità where we’d stood two days before. How satisfying it was to get to know a landscape and recognize geographical features that were mere names on a topographical map hours before.
Facing the Pic de la Colilla, I had a double take. The final slope leading to the summit was a smooth slope interrupted by a few sizable rocks. “I think I’m seeing a rock with a neck and a head,” I told my daughter. It’s a rock, she assured me. It wasn’t moving at all. I was fascinated by this rock that, from afar, created the illusion of a mountain goat. “This rock sure looks like an isard,” I told my daughter. Isards are mountain goats endemic to the Pyrenees. It’s only your imagination, she said, and then the rock bent its neck to graze on the grass.
I changed the lens of my camera to the tele-lens and started shooting.
As fuzzy as the image was, there was no denying we had encountered isards on their morning stroll. “It’s an entire herd!” exclaimed my daughter, “They’ve started to run across the slope.”
Agile and fearless, they were dashing across terrain that was so steep that we would never even have considered it. We could spot a couple of young ones too.
As we walked ever closer, I kept the camera at hand and adjusted the settings to make the background lighter and see the herd better. Oh my, there must have been two dozen isards at least. Such a magnificent sight.
“Vultures!” my daughter said, pointing to a spot behind the summit. As the herd of isards disappeared on the other side of the mountain, we admired the graceful flight of vultures circling high above the ridge. It was magical, so full of life. Sights like these were the true reward of early morning hikers.
I knew that to reach the summit, we had to gain roughly 420m of elevation, possibly more. I also knew, from checking the ridge and the map, that behind the summit was a long steep drop into the valley of Madriù. Slowly, step by step, I took my daughter’s hand and made my way to the summit. When finally we saw the summital cairn, the weight of Hokusai’s great mountain wave lifted off my shoulders. We’d done it! My daughter gave me the biggest hug, saying how proud she was of me.
From the summit, Pic de la Colilla really earned its proud mountain badge. From there, our eyes embraced a breathtaking view of the valley of Madriú in Andorra, made all the more breathtaking by the sharp drop of several hundred meters on the north face almost at our feet.
What a sight. Elated, we took a selfie with the cairn in the background and sat down for a sip of cold mountain water and an energy bar. The sun had not fully risen above the ridge and some parts were still in the shade, but where we were, its golden rays were giving a golden glow to everything around us, whether it be grass, rock or cairn. I checked my watch. Final tally, 442m elevation gain at sunrise.
Not too shabby.
It was time to walk down the mountain and return to the refuge where, hopefully, a plate of pan con tomates was waiting for us. We had left specific breakfast instructions to my dad, my oldest daughter and her boyfriend, and trusted that they would stash away a big plate of this delicious staple of Catalan breakfasts for us.
From the top of the world, we could see all the mountain valleys and the topography of the area so clearly that it felt like we were embracing the landscape from a bird’s point of view. It’s crazy how clearly mountain relief can show on a cloudless day from the highest point of a range.
A last summit pic for the road and we almost ran down the mountain, cutting across at its shortest and steepest everywhere we could. Now that night had turned to day, it was so much easier to carve our way through the landscape.
We stashed away camera and GoPro in our backpack to benefit from free hands as we careened down short slopes and jumped from rock to rock. Finally, we spotted the tin roof of the refuge. My dad was waiting outside, sitting at a table and watching for us. We waved our walking sticks in the air and he responded, waving his hand.
As promised, we were back at the refuge before 9am and as expected, a large plate of pan con tomates was waiting for us.
How tasty the reward.
As Gary Snyder said, “Range after range of mountains. Year after year after year. I am still in love.”