HRP Chapter 16: There Is No Such Thing as Snow
Turns out the bus from La Massana is free all week because the city is hosting the mountain biking world cup. Free stuff for the win! Granted, the bus only costs 20 cents normally, but still.
We start the climb full of energy and reach Refuge de Sorteny after about an hour. When we arrive, Harv frowns and nods at a couple standing outside the building. “Weren’t they on the shuttle this morning?”
Gosh dang it, they were. Turns out we could have taken the bus all the way to the refuge and saved ourselves all this darn walking. It’s Benasque all over again!
It’s supposed to take four hours to reach the pass, but whether due to our superhuman hiking skills or some mathematical mishap, we arrive after just 90 minutes.
Valerie and Silvan catch up to us at the top. What a cheering surprise! We follow them down to a small tarn below the pass and chat while we all filter water. Valerie tells us about her graduate studies and her upcoming trip to visit extended family in the US.
The conversation turns to the weather. After weeks of stifling heat, I’m eagerly awaiting the cooler weather forecast for later this week.
I’ve been so ecstatic about the temperature drop that I failed to notice the associated high winds and torrential downpours that are also being forecast. Silvan points out that, in reality, conditions will be brutal and snow is likely on the high passes. Shew.
“He is wrong,” I think to myself stubbornly. “Completely and utterly wrong. Everything is fine and there is no such thing as snow anyway.” But later I get a forecast from the Garmin, and sure enough, it looks like a complete shitshow coming up. How did I miss this? Talk about magical thinking, jeez.
My heart sinks at the thought of delaying our hike with another tedious, overpriced zero in Andorra. Well, maybe there is such a thing as snow, but surely that doesn’t mean I have to change my plans because of it. I am tough and strong and have definitely never cried in public because of being cold. Yes, I’ll just hike right through the storm! What could go wrong?
I mull things over as we hike to Refugi de Cabana Sorda, where we stop for water. I grab a few liters and sit on a rock above the stream to filter them, still deep in thought. But wait – where’s my phone? Suddenly, I realize it’s missing. I look all around, but there’s no sign of it. “Maybe you left it by the stream,” Harv suggests.
I go to look. The phone isn’t on the stream bank. It’s at the dead-ass bottom of the fucking stream! Just sitting there in the water, all innocent-like, like everything is fine and it does this kind of thing all the time.
Oh no oh no oh no, I chant as I fish my poor rectangle out of the water. It looks like it’s still working, but I don’t want to find out whether a short circuit is imminent, so I immediately turn it off. I don’t have any rice to put it in; would couscous work the same way, I wonder?
I put the phone out of my mind for now so Harv and I can tackle the remaining kilometers to a windswept cabin by a lake, where we make camp.
Valerie and Silvan are resting on the leeward side of the building when we arrive, so we join them for a few minutes. We probably won’t see them again; their section hike ends tomorrow when they get to l’Hospitalet-près-L’Andorre.
Just like with Lukas and Nathalie, saying goodbye to these two makes me feel a prickle of anxiety. Fourteen stages to go and it already feels like the hike is coming to an end.
Despite the gale, we’re resolved to stop here for the night. It will calm down eventually, right? Right?
As we wander around the lake, two earnest-looking teenage boys walk up to us.
“Hello,” says the older one with a winning smile. “My brother and I will make camp just over here by the lake. If you get in any trouble tonight, you can let us know. And if we have any trouble, we’ll make this signal to you.”
He gestures to his little brother, who pulls out a silver emergency whistle. A second too late, I realize we’re about to get a close-range demonstration of The Signal. “Oh, that’s not necessa–”
A prolonged and deafening whistle blast cuts me off. Ears ringing, I can practically hear my mother’s stern voice in the back of my mind. “Hearing loss is permanent,” she warns. But although I’m mourning my lost hair cells, I can’t help but like these boys. They seem like sweet, responsible kids. And now we know the signal, anyway.
By the time Harv and I go to bed, the wind has only intensified. We pop in earplugs to dampen the earsplitting noise. Every 20 minutes or so, I get a faceful of wet DCF when a particularly strong blast of wind makes the tent fabric bow inward onto my forehead. Neither of us gets much sleep.
Powerful gusts batter us as we stagger out of camp in the morning. When we reach the valley floor, I can’t help but notice that it’s not windy at all here and there’s excellent camping all over the place. But there’s no point regretting that now.
The morning climb is mentally and physically taxing: it’s not steep, but numerous micro ups and downs make it hard to develop a steady rhythm. I have no clue what time it is because I still have my phone off after submerging it yesterday.
The rain and wind return in full force as we gain altitude. Two-thirds of the way up, we stagger into Refuge de Joclar and just sit at the table for a few minutes, regrouping.
Now that I’ve been helpfully reminded of how awful it is to be stuck outside in the cold and wet, hiking through the coming storm is starting to seem like not such a great idea. I could get used to this whole “being indoors” thing.
It’s still raining and the wind has reached a fever pitch by the time we leave the refuge. Forty, sixty, seventy kilometer-per-hour gusts beat against our eardrums. We totter past the two Joclar lakes on uneven terrain while the gale occasionally sends us stumbling. Oh yeah, baby, we are definitely getting off trail as soon as possible.
It’s instantly better when we get to the other side of the pass, and the conditions keep improving as we descend. I question my sanity as the clouds break and the weather turns mild. Did that storm even just happen? Is it over for good? Does this mean we can keep hiking after all?
Our plan is to stay the night at l’Hospitalet’s municipal campground and hike a few kilometers to an unmanned cabin tomorrow. We can decide from there whether to push into the high country or shelter in place.
The campground is noisy and the sky looks like impending doom. We sleep like babies despite it all.
Pas de la Casa
The new day dawns heavy and grey. With no need to leave camp early, we lay around listening as cold drops patter against the outside of the tent. Of course, the rain intensifies the moment we get up. We pack quickly and dash over to the bakery for breakfast.
I remain hell-bent on hiking until the moment I set foot in the cozy interior. Coming in here is like sinking into a hot bath, and I feel my resolve melting away.
I look behind me at the cold grey rain sheeting down outside. Then I look back at the pile of warm, buttery croissants behind the bakery counter. I suck in a lungful of cinnamon-scented air and exhale a long sigh of resignation.
In truth, the writing has been on the wall for days: tackling this storm is a dumb idea and we shouldn’t do it. The precipitation, the windchill, and the high elevations we’ll encounter in the next section could be a deadly combination for an underprepared hiker.
Harv has always been on Team Don’t Hike Through a Snowstorm and has been patiently waiting for me to get on his wavelength. Now that I’m here, he wastes no time bumming us a ride to the closest town with any available lodging.
Pas de la Casa is a soulless, cursed place. The Andorran border town consists of about 25 “supermarkets” that mostly sell frying pans, perfume, tobacco, Jim Beam, and giant boxes of nougat.
Above the storefronts loom several dozen high-rise hotels for people who need multiple consecutive days to peruse the 25 supermarkets. There’s nothing else: no cafes, no parks, no houses – nothing that would help create the vibrant fabric of a real town.
But it’s perfect for a couple of hikers desperate to escape the weather. We get a room and hole up for several days while the wind howls and the mountains slowly turn white. We read, listen to the news in Spanish, stretch, and make endless cups of tea.
I turn my phone back on and it works perfectly. Miracle! I guess it’s true what they say about the new iPhones being waterproof.
While we’re lazing around town, Karel Sabbe sets the supported FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail: 46 days, 12 hours, and 50 minutes. He just finished the PCT in less time than it’s going to take Harv and me to hike the freaking HRP. What a guy!
I text our Belgian friends about it. Lukas and Nathalie respond – they say it’s pretty rough in the mountains right now, but they’re weathering the storm so far. I’m glad they’re safe.
This unplanned zero is frustrating but not as depressing as I’d feared it would be. It’s hard to be salty about staying safe and warm indoors when the outside world looks so very uncomfortable.
Sadly, all this snow means we won’t get to summit the iconic Pic Carlit on this trip. But I’m proud of us for respecting our limitations and making a decision that feels smart and safe. We’ll hike out again when the storm clears.
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