HRP Chapter 12: That Belgian Guy

Salardú is magical, but soon enough it’s time to move on. We’ve gotten caught up in Spain’s third brutal heat wave of the summer, which has made the hike more challenging and, admittedly, a little less fun. Suddenly we have to be disciplined about early-morning starts and frequent water stops. Gone are the days of our carefree past, when we slept in until 7 and did whatever we wanted.

Regardless, we’re about to embark on what will end up being of the most magical sections of the HRP. There will be no topping the scenery of Pyrenees National Park, now far in the past, but many of our best adventures and closest friendships are yet to come.

Day 23

Tuc de Marimanya is the highlight of our morning. The cross-country climb to the rocky summit looks intimidating, especially for me because I’m feeling kind of sick. But we pick our way up, slow and steady, and the 360 views from the top are an ample reward. It’s more arid here than the lush mountains around Gavarnie. The landscape has grown desolate and feels a bit more wild as a result.

View from Marimanya

I’m jazzed. The HRP crosses many passes but few summits, so scrambling to the pinnacle of Marimanya is a rare treat. I think about Arne, who side-quests to every summit within a 10km radius of the trail. We haven’t seen him since Parzán; I wonder where he is right now.

I find a grubby baseball cap up top and absorb it into my gear. Finally, I have a normal hat! Hopefully it’s not full of lice or anything, but honestly, it would be worth it if it was. My adult life has been defined by a long procession of increasingly stupid-looking hats, and I am ready to break the mold.

From the peak, we follow the narrow ridge down and then cut across more talus to Col d’Airoto. We would get to the col much sooner, but I keep getting distracted by all the ripe bilberries dotting the slope. I catch up to Harv at the pass and we break here for lunch.

Look at my fashionable new hat!

A young Swiss couple comes up. Their names are Silvan and Valerie, and they’re doing a long section of the HRP from Lescun to Andorra. They’re super friendly. We stand around chatting for about 15 minutes, and then Valerie squints up at a peak on the other side of the pass. “I wonder if that’s that Belgian guy,” she muses, nodding to the tiny figure silhouetted on top of the peak.

“Tall? Curly hair? Wears a compass around his neck?” we ask excitedly. They nod, and we cheer. That couldn’t be anyone but Arne. There’s no guarantee you’ll ever see someone again after you part ways on a thru-hike, and this trail is not long enough to make chance reunions very likely. I didn’t really expect to see Arne again after our stint on the GR11. But now, who knows. Silvan and Valerie camped with him just a couple days ago, so he must be nearby.

After lunch we descend to a small tarn and then set out across a field of giant boulders. There’s been very little trail since before Marimanya, which makes the whole day feel more adventuresome. So far the talus on this hike has been pretty manageable, but the huge boulders here pose a greater challenge. I’m reminded of the Winds more strongly than ever, especially when I almost face-plant a giant spider suspended between two rocks.

Ugh. I hate spiders. Yes, I know they’re tiny and mostly harmless and good for the ecosystem and all that stuff. There is a reason they’re called irrational fears. On the AT, I once jumped backward so hard upon encountering a spider that I pulled a muscle and almost couldn’t finish my hike. Does that sound like the behavior of a rational person? There are hundreds of these little monsters – cross spiders, Valerie tells me they’re called – in the talus. I’ll probably be in a state of nervous collapse when we reach the other side.

Harv and I totter around like amateurs while Silvan and Valerie, who have been downplaying their abilities since we met them this morning, stride across the boulders like a pair of hiking gods.

On the far side of the talus, we realize we’re way too low and end up bushwhacking straight up a steep, eroding slope covered in slick grasses and loose stones, which is even sketchier than the boulders. It’s grueling all the way to the pass and a shitshow on the way down. We discuss camping by a small tarn but decide to press on to an identified campsite a few kilometers ahead.

I’m slightly, OK fine, I’m very irritable by the time we stop, but I revive somewhat once we set up camp. We’re just starting to cook when someone comes up behind us. Oh my god! It’s Arne!

He sprawls in the grass across from us, grinning like a maniac, and fills us in about his dinner plans tonight with a friend who works nearby. He’s talking so fast that I wonder if he’s on speed or something, but no. Apparently he was tired at the last refuge, so he mixed a bunch of sugar into his water bottle and now he’s … like this. It’s wonderful to see him, but he can only stay for a few minutes since he’s already late for dinner.

Before he leaves, he gifts us a handful of caramels and several slices of homemade bread. This is a very Arne thing to do; I don’t even bother asking how he found the time and means to bake bread. He also shares the number to his rad new flip phone (he lost his smartphone weeks ago). Harv tries to pawn off some of our extra couscous, but Arne fends him off, and then he’s gone.

Day 24

Alós d’Isil

We start early today. Even before sunrise it already feels hot. We start down the road, immediately miss the shortcut we were hoping to take, and eventually end up in a small hamlet. There’s a car parked outside one building. How on earth did it get here? The road we took to get down here dead-ends at a parking area high in the mountains, and I can’t see another one leading downhill.

In related news, we have no clue how to get down from here ourselves. We spend ages wandering around a sloping meadow full of thistles and thorns below the hamlet. Eventually, we give up on the trail and just plunge straight down. Too late, I remember that Tom Martens wrote something about the descent to Alós d’Isil being infamous among HRP hikers because of the level of improvisation required. I feel slightly vindicated.

I’m still not feeling very good this morning, but I hope it will pass as the day wears on. Alós d’Isil is a charming old hamlet full of dogs and random sleepy cats. In the center of town we meet Arne, who is in a jam because he’s just lost his sunglasses. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, he gives them up as a lost cause and we all hike out together.

It’s hot. Once we get out of town, I let the guys go ahead and change into shorts, hoping this will make me feel better. We keep climbing, get slightly off-route, and end up bushwhacking steeply through some trees. I can’t really keep up with them today and fall behind a bit, but I hear their voices ahead, so I’m not too worried.

Also, look at this crazy flower! Evidently this is called marsh grass of parnassus.

Shew, I’m tired. What is wrong with me today? We burst out of the trees and keep climbing – always with the gosh dang climbing on this trail! – through a beautiful meadow. At lunch, I drink water but feel too sick to eat.

Setting out after lunch is an instant sufferfest, at least for me. Harv is in the lead and sets a strong pace to Col de la Cornella. Blah, blah, hike, hike, eventually we make it to the pass with much internal groaning and self-pity on my part. “That was a tough one,” observes Arne, while looking completely fine. “Ugh,” I reply. “Mmph.”

From the col we can see lakes down below and the continuation of our route over two passes: Curios and Calberante. Harv says he feels like stopping by one of the lakes below and saving the passes for tomorrow. What a sweetheart. I know he’s only saying that because I’m so obviously a mess today.

Arne on the steep descent from Col de la Cornella

Arne continues on to Refugi Enric Pujol so he can summit Mont Roig first thing tomorrow. Harv and I make our way down the treacherous slope toward the lakes and find several nice tent sites and a big rock to provide shade from the afternoon sun. I’m staggering around camp complaining about how tired I am when I underscore the point by tripping on flat ground and face-planting in some dry old cow shit.

Whatever, it’s fine. The cow shit is an apt metaphor for this entire day: terrible, but to such a ridiculous extent that I have to laugh at it. Even though it sucks in the moment, Future Kelly will look back on this day fondly. I sleep it off. Tomorrow is a new day.

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