HRP Chapter 18: Canigou

Day 33

Tom Martens says to carry water for this stage because it’s very dry. To that end, Harv and I fill up our bottles at Ull de Ter and start hiking early to beat the heat.

We descend into the valley and do a bit of road walking through a ski resort, pausing to chat with a lonely GR11 hiker when our paths happen to cross. “Well … goodbye,” he says forlornly when we excuse ourselves from the conversation. Poor bastard. I hope he finds a friend in his remaining kilometers to Cap de Creus.

The route of La Vuelta through the Vallter 2000 ski resort.

Thick coats of red paint have been laid down on the road to mark the route of La Vuelta. The bike race began a few days ago in Barcelona; I wonder whether it’s already been through this area or whether it’s coming through in the next few days.

After the resort, we get back onto singletrack and start to climb. It doesn’t take long to reach the wide, grassy plateau that will make up most of our scenery today.

It’s easy to walk and pleasant to look at. After lucking out with such an epic day yesterday, I’m ecstatic that today’s scenery seems pretty good too.

We swing our legs on the gentle terrain and make excellent time. The trail goes just to one side of a long, rocky spine and enters a scrubby pine forest. For now, the sun is shining bright and roasting the pine needles, making the air fragrant.

But as we proceed, an impenetrable wall of cloud piles up on the far side of the ridge, splitting the world into darkness and light. Tendrils of fog spill over to our side here and there, threatening to engulf us.

We start to dip in and out of the shade, forever chasing those elusive patches of sunlight as we search for somewhere warm to stop for lunch. I’m keen for a nice, long break, but the shadows are too cold to allow such a thing. Finally, we outpace the cloudbank and take lunch in a warm, grassy hollow next to the trail.

Chiaroscuro in real life

Arne passes us as we’re eating, as is his wont. He was hoping to catch us for lunch but finally got too hungry and couldn’t wait anymore, so he already ate a little while ago.

The sky remains dubious. Harv and I end our break when the clouds catch up to us and soon join a dusty road. We catch Arne again while he’s chatting with a hiker who’s doing a loop hike called the Tour du Canigou.

That man is planning to spend the night at Refuge de Mariailles and summit Canigou first thing tomorrow morning. The rest of us hope to push farther and get a headstart on the nearly 2800-meter summit tomorrow.

Checking out the Cabane de Pla Guilhem

Arne is feeling especially strong today and has half a mind to summit tonight by the full moon. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

As he points out, it would be advantageous to start the narrow manmade cheminée that leads to the summit before crowds of hikers clog it up and start kicking loose rocks down on our heads. The route, which was opened up with dynamite in 1896, is supposedly quite steep and treacherous.

Ultimately, the three of us decide to take advantage of the moonlight with a predawn start so we can reach the top in time for sunrise.

What a wonderful, easy day we’ve been blessed with in the meantime. Harv and Arne are reading aloud from the guidebook and giggling about the many road crossings Tom Martens references between here and Refuge de Mariailles.

“‘Turn left and follow the dirt road … meet the dirt road again … leave the dirt road’ – oh man, how many more can there be?! – ‘meet the dirt road again … finally, you come back to the dirt road and turn left … arrive at a junction of dirt roads …'”

When we arrive, Arne finds a rotten carrot on the front porch and puts it inside his shoe. This behavior mystifies us. Evidently, it’s his way of remembering important things – in this case, his watch, which he’s taken off to charge.

I’m zoning out on the porch when I hear a clatter and look around. Someone has tried to sneak a grubby carrot into my backpack, but they didn’t count on my giant cooking pot being right on top to sound the alarm. “How did this lumpy old carrot get from your shoe into my pot?” I ask, narrowing my eyes at Arne. He shrugs.

We climb 650 meters after the refuge, blowing past the unmanned Cabane Arago to a small plateau around 2400m. Harv leads the way; he starts out hiking at a normal pace but keeps getting faster and faster. Pretty soon he’s kicking up sparks.

Arne laughs in disbelief and day hikers going the opposite direction raise their eyebrows at our blistering pace. I feel like I’m part of a high school physics problem.

“If a hiker starts climbing at a rate of 1 m/s with a constant acceleration of 0.4 m/s, at what point will his girlfriend go into cardiac arrest?” I’ve been feeling great today, but this pace isn’t sustainable for my stubby legs.

It doesn’t need to be, though. We boogie up to the plateau in what must be record time and then spend 20 minutes locating a decent spot to pitch two tents. As the sun sets, a heavy dew comes dow and drenches our hiking clothes, much to Harv’s chagrin.

Camping below Canigou

Day 34

Three a.m. comes early, but I’ve been awake since midnight, so I jump up when the alarm sounds. No one says a word while we pack.

Harv’s headlamp is dying, and his recently purchased backup batteries are nowhere to be found. They don’t materialize, so we make a Harv sandwich with Arne in front and me bringing up the rear, and between the full moon and our two headlamps, there’s enough light for everyone. (Don’t try this at home, dear readers.)

We stop for water at a spring, and I end up in front when we resume. I struggle to get into my rhythm whenever I’m the lead hiker. I always feel like I’m going either too fast or too slow, and I get anxious about leading us astray. This is a useful exercise in not fixating on other people’s needs/opinions, though, so I accept the job of locomotive without complaint.

The way grows harder and rockier the higher we ascend. Partway up, we pause and stow our trekking poles to free up our hands for climbing. Where is this so-called cheminée we’re supposed to be climbing?

I scooch up one narrow chute, but it cliffs out after a few meters, and I worm my way back down in irritation. Arne’s voice drifts up to me through the darkness. “I don’t think that’s the way, Kel, but good thinking to scope it out because now we can rule it out for sure!” Yes, all part of my plan.

From Canigou

Soon after, we find the actual cheminée. The guidebook made it sound pretty intimidating. However, although it’s quite steep, the rock is more stable than any of us expected, and there are plenty of reliable handholds.

We climb and climb through the endless dark. Someone remarks that maybe it’s better we’re doing this before the sun comes up. There’s less vertigo when you have no peripheral vision, after all.

Just as I’m starting to wonder how much farther it is to the top, I lever myself up another few meters and come eye-level with a break in the rock wall. Through the gap, I see thousands of electric lights sparkling in the inky darkness: a city. It’s a surreal moment; we haven’t seen lights like that anywhere on this hike, not since Hendaye.

From there, it’s only a few meters to the summit. Wow! We did great. I expected far more trouble from that ascent, especially in the dark with only two headlamps.

First glimpse of the Mediterranean

Dull bands of yellow and orange rim the horizon, creating a faint reflection on the Mediterranean. I’m disconcerted. Although I’d read that we would catch our first glimpse of the sea from Canigou, it’s different to come face to face with tangible proof that this hike is ending, and soon.

The moon is still up and the sun is imminent. The sky gets lighter and lighter, and the sea reflects an increasingly vibrant sunrise. This is the best moment ever. This is magic.

Of all the sunrises we’ve seen on the HRP, this one is by far the most beautiful. And to see it from up here, accompanying our first glimpse of the sea I once wondered if I would ever reach, with the full moon at our backs and two of my favorites to share it with … it’s a heady feeling.

I’m euphoric, we all are, but I also have to fight the overpowering urge to start brooding. The HRP has been a living lesson in worldly attachments. The more I love it, the more I dread its ending, the more I cling to it, the more miserable I become, and so on.

I’ve never experienced so-called post-trail depression at the end of any other hike, but I can tell it’s going to happen this time. Maybe that’s because when I finished my past hikes, my circumstances favored ongoing happiness, future adventures, etc. In contrast, I anticipate traumatic life changes after the HRP ends, and everything feels uncertain.

Orientation table atop Canigou

This glorious sunrise is far too poignant for my liking. I start to retreat inward as big feelings from every part of the emotional spectrum threaten to overwhelm me.

Eventually, we start the long downhill to Refuge de Cortalets, where the kitchen is closed and the guardian won’t even sell us a croissant from the giant stack by the cash register. Sadness.

In the afternoon, nothing much happens. We pass the wreckage of an old plane crash and get delayed by a group of cows crowding the trail. Arne practices his American hiker slang. “I hope I don’t get cliffed out when I do a pack explosion on my zero day, bro,” he says. “Good job,” replies Harv.

Refuge de Batère is the stage end. It’s not really a mountain refuge in the sense we’ve grown accustomed to. It sits on a paved road with cars parked alongside and more buildings in sight down the lane. No! I’m not ready for all this civilization!

Tom Martens describes the menu at Batère as some kind of culinary sensation, but Harv is unimpressed by the dry old cheesecake he orders. I don’t get anything. While we’re sitting on the covered porch, it rains. Heavily.

We get talking to a Spanish/French couple named Tania and Tristan. They’re hiking a hybrid HRP/GR10 route of their own design, and they sit and chat with us about trails and things for a long time.

All five of us go off to bivouac in a grass lot down the road. We sit around in a circle talking until Tania and Tristan go off to dinner at the refuge.

Shew, what a day. I’ve experienced an all-you-can-feel buffet of human emotions over the last 24 hours, but I settle on happiness as the evening winds down.

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