HRP Chapter 10: Max the Beautiful Dutchman
In the morning, Harv and I hike out well before sunrise. We’re nearly to the top of Paso de los Caballos by the time it’s light enough to switch off our headlamps.
We left Pyrenees National Park a few days ago and the scenery hasn’t been as lovely since. Today’s hike is fairly uneventful until we reach the Refugio de Viados, which is situated in a valley full of old scenic barns.
Not long after the refugio, the GR11 and the HRP separate. We decide to stick with the GR11 for a few days. There are a few tough stages on the HRP coming up, especially the Col de Molières, which features a notorious downclimb. I will later regret missing this section of the HRP, but right now, taking the GR11 alternate seems best.
It might be safer, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy route. The first thing we do after leaving the HRP is climb “rather steeply” to the Puerto de Gistain (as described by Tom Martens, King of Understatements). We keep a strong pace on the climb despite the calf-incinerating gradient and reach the pass in less than half the estimated time.
There’s supposed to be a lake just beyond the pass called Ibón de Posets. The guidebook doesn’t mention it, but it’s on my map and looks like a good place to camp.
Sadly, the lake turns out to be Fake News. When we get there all we find is a dry bowl that looks like it hasn’t held water in many years. You heard it here first, folks: Ibón de Posets is no longer a thing.
The bowl does offer some excellent spots to pitch a tent, though. Harv is all for stopping even though we have hardly any water.
I hate to be the one driving us onward, but I’m also way too thirsty to contemplate a night with no water. Looking down into the valley, it seems like we’ll be able to find water and camping pretty quickly, so we carry on.
We do not find water or camping quickly.
Every time our route joins the GR11, the day ends the exact same way: with an endless, hot descent toward a valley floor that never seems to get any closer. Today is no different. I’m staggering around on fumes by the time Harv spots a promising floodplain on the far side of the valley.
We follow a dry streambed across and are thrilled to find both flowing water and an established campsite – with shade! – when we get there. Harv to the rescue yet again.
We set up camp and spend the remainder of the day lazing about in the shade, staring aimlessly at the leafy canopy and the clouds of blue butterflies that erupt from the grass by the stream every time we walk by.
Today is a good day because we’re going to town. Yay! We start around 6:30, and I spend the four-hour descent fantasizing about the shower I’m going to take and the tea I’m going to drink and how good my clothes are going to smell. I cannot wait.
At the bottom is a parking area. We stick out our thumbs as we walk through it and score a ride to Benasque before we even reach the main road. Hitchhiking in the Pyrenees is super easy; I love it.
The man who picks us up is excited that we’re from America. As we drive, he happily reels off an impressive list of all the US national parks he’s visited and the ones he’s planning to see in the next few years.
The first place we visit in Benasque is the supermarket. It’s very nice. We get tofu and apples and ice cream and walk to the local park to enjoy our eclectic lunch.
A balding EMT approaches us soon after we arrive and asks in Spanish if we have a lighter. It takes us a minute to understand the question and several more to remember that we do, in fact, have a lighter, but the man is very happy when we finally fish it out.
A few minutes later, a hiker decked out in Altras and Gossamer Gear walks up to our bench, smiling like a politician. “Are you guys hikers? Do you need some antacid?” He’s bought too many and is clearly desperate to offload the excess.
We never use antacid. Still, I figure it might be a good addition to the first aid kit, so I say sure, give me a couple tabs. He immediately presses like 15 tabs into my hands and then backs up several paces, as if to prevent me from giving some back.
We chitchat for a few minutes. He tells us that if we haven’t booked a room in town yet we’d better get on it, because the Spanish summer holidays are in full swing and the hotels are booking up fast.
As soon as Antacid leaves, I pull out my phone and scope out our lodging options. He was right – a lot of the hotels are full. I eventually find a place, though. It’s a little spendy but looks quite nice.
When we arrive at the Hotel Aneto, we discover that it is not merely nice, but rather extremely fancy with a literal 15-foot-tall gigantic revolving door like the gateway to heaven itself. I feel a little ridiculous even entering the posh lobby. Everything in here is so shiny and glorious, and I am so … grubby. I fight the sudden urge to start giggling like a lunatic.
The room is every bit as ostentatious as the lobby, and I am here for it. It has a sort of antechamber thing and a giant bathroom with a towel heating rack and fluffy white robes on the shelf. The toilet is in a separate room with a bidet and, for some reason, an ethernet port.
You might be thinking that, given my whole wilderness/hiking thing, I should be slightly less enthralled by the pleasures of civilization than your average first-world human. And you would be wrong, my friend. Completely and totally wrong.
Have you tried living out in the elements without regular access to indoor plumbing, etc.? Yes, it’s liberating and exhilarating and all that stuff. But another reason it rocks is that it makes it impossible to take modern comforts for granted. Electric lightbulbs? Hot water? Yes, please. These things are pure magic.
I’ll sleep under the stars as often as possible, but that doesn’t mean I’ll turn my nose up at a luxury hotel room with an ethernet port by the toilet. What, a face mask? Yes, give me a face mask too. Cucumbers over the eye-holes and everything. Never let it be said that Kelly doesn’t know how to lounge.
So anyway, we laze about the room for a while and then go out for an early dinner. Afterward, we get smoothies and wander around town.
Benasque is mostly modern ski-resort construction, but it has an old quarter that’s very beautiful. The streets fill with people in the gathering darkness, and I’m lulled by the peaceful drone of conversation and music.
In the morning, we mosey down to breakfast a few minutes after it opens, and it does not disappoint. Like everything else about this hotel, it is utterly decadent. Harv gets scrambled eggs from the omelet bar and chases these with endless plates of smoked salmon from the buffet. I eat a large amount of zucchini and drink as much tea as I want.
I’m sipping tea and staring absentmindedly out the window when the pinnacle of human physical perfection plops down in the seat across from me. What? What is happening right now? I blink several times, and then I realize it’s Antacid, the hiker from yesterday.
How did I not notice his godlike beauty when we saw him in the park? Sitting opposite him now, I feel like I’m staring directly into the sun. I feel like I’ve just discovered the long-lost fourth Hemsworth brother.
We learn that Antacid’s real name is Max. He’s Dutch but has lived in Finland for many years. He started his westbound hike on the GR11 but is contemplating switching to the HRP for the second half. Go figure.
Nothing much happens after breakfast. We visit the outfitter and wander around town some more. I laze about the room in my borrowed bathrobe and contemplate the existence of my small but very real mustache.
“There is no mustache,” Harv insists. “Yes there is!” I shoot back, stroking it defensively. “It’s very soft.” Harv rolls his eyes but doesn’t respond.
I have loved our strange, luxurious interlude in Benasque, but I’m also conscious of the miles we aren’t making while in town. It will be good to get back to the trail tomorrow.
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