Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pyrenees Hiking Adventure, May/June 2014

Who said there would be Snezi?
View from Pedraforca
"Did you see the forecast?" Chris asked. "You mean the foot of snow predicted to fall in Torla tomorrow? Ya... I saw that." I replied.  We looked at each other in silence over the iPad, heaps of Pyrenees guidebooks and hiking maps strewn about the bed in our Barcelona hostal. "Well, guess it's time for Plan B."

Chris and I had been planning to go hiking somewhere, anywhere on the planet, for the purpose of exploring moutains as well as a new culture.  We limited our optioned due to timing; we picked the end of May, in part to utilize the time off for the Memorial Day holiday. Autumn was a possibility too, but this trip was a gift from Chris for my 40th birthday last August.... it was already March when we started planning the trip, so we were eager to go. After all the options were thrown onto the table, Barcelona was a place neither of us had been and where both of us wanted to visit. Not far from Barcelona were the Pyrenees, which runs along the border of France and Spain, which has excellent hiking  opportunities. May would give us the opportunity to explore the mountains before the summer crowds arrived and the Barcelona architecture had been as enticing as the tapas they served - so there were plenty of good reasons abound! I even had several guidebooks from my half-baked plans to visit my sister-in-law when she was traveling there for work years ago. Add that to a great recommendation from some hiking friends, and the GR 11 in the Spanish Pyrenees was our choice, hiking for 6-7 days with a 3 day pre-venture in Barcelona.

The city of Barcelona is vibrant and full of things to do with it's cosmopolitan highlights of great food and modernist architecture mixed with medieval Old Town destinations. Of course there is so much more to Barcelona, and what we experienced there was just the tip of the iceberg, but this is a hiking diary afterall. So after our three days of fun in the 70˚F weather in Barcelona, we rented a car like a couple of Americanos and headed north towards the Spanish-French borderland.

Casa Batlló rooftop
We had read about the possible conditions we faced in the Spanish mountains: sun, rain, sleet, snow (or "snezi" as we liked to call it), and temps ranging from 30-70˚F. So we packed winter single layer boots, crampons and ice axes in case we needed them, but you have to understand, it was spring in Boston when we left. Gardens were growing, people were finally putting away their sweaters, and after a harsh winter we weren't exactly looking forward to hiking in more snow and ice, despite being winter backpackers. We wanted to backpack fast and light and had some nice new backpacks & daypacks to try out , so we decided to modify our plans on the account of snow and headed to the town of Baga to hike in the Parc Natural Cadí-Moixeró, in the foothills of the Pyrenees for a day. We hoped the lower elevation, sub 2600m, would mean less snow, easier driving and better spring hiking weather.

Baga greeted us with a hail storm upon arrival (insert snickering about the weather here). It had been thundering and raining since we left Barcelona that morning, part of the same storm that was supposed to dump snow in the high peaks. We found shelter in a hostal at the edge of town, settled in, and our caretaker soon left for the evening, as we were the only occupants for the night. Chris and I walked the empty streets of town, talked to a few shop owners and found the one restaurant that our caretaker recommended... and the only one open. Baga is a tourist town for skiers, hikers and campers. This restaurant, Niu Nou, was of very high quality, the prices were decent and we had one of the best meals on our whole trip. Everything was local and fresh, artfully presented and thoughtfully cooked. We were the only ones here too. I guess no one comes to the mountains in May.

Hostal Cal Batista in Baga
After a fitful sleep, our cheerful caretaker made us breakfast and we headed to the ranger's station to discuss hiking options. We had read about a nearby mountain on a hiker's blog that had a strange, double camel hump profile, called Pedraforca (meaning stone pitchfork) It looked steep even at 2497m, a bit nasty, majestic even. After conferring with the rangers, I insisted to Chris that we hike it, as it seemed the most challenging hike around and the weather was looking great. I was itching to hike after 3 days of city tripping, and this looked to fit the bill.

Pedraforca
The views of Pedraforca on the drive over were jaw dropping... and stomach churning. What was I thinking?? Were we really going to hike that hulk of limestone, with that cleft in the middle and the snow running through it? Something about it, maybe ithe striking size for the surroundings, or the pictures of steep dropoffs on the blog, told me to turn around, but I shook off my jitters and drove on to the trailhead.

We started hiking and soon passed one of the many hiker huts in the Spanish system. We asked to make sure we were going in the recommended direction of anti-clockwise, due to the steep ascent where you do some rock scrambling. The hut worker pointed in the direction we were heading, and in broken English said, to be careful, and motioned with his hands and feet, pretending to slip and shaking his head, saying not to do that. We also knew once you started up the scramble, there wasn't a good way down. From there you had to complete the whole thing, up and over the summit, hiking down the steep scree slope on the other side.

We said thank you in broken Spanish and I began slipping almost immediately. Was it my new boots, or this pudding stone rock, the wet terrain and snow, or was the conversation with the hut guy getting the best of me? Chris said he was slipping too, but I was convinced he was trying to make me feel better. After a few hours we reached a pass, with only about an hour more of hiking/scrambling to get to the summit. We saw a few guys ahead of us on the steep part and they seemed to be doing fine and moving quickly. But at that point I decided slipping wasn't an option, and hanging at the pass would have to do for me & my boots today.

We hung out on the windswept pass, had lunch and enjoyed the views... and views there were! Absolutely spectacular to the south, north, the ridges all around us, and over towards the summit itself. We spent a hour or more of lazing around in the sun,  taking pictures and hiking up a little higher. We didn't summit that day, but it was the right decision for me - to enjoy these new mountains in a more humbled way. (As it turns out it wasn't my boots at all, but the pudding stone rock itself. The boots performed great for the rest of the week on different rock surfaces).

Hiking up Pedraforca
At the pass
Another fine viewpoint
Above it all, almost
Enjoying the views
Relaxing in front of Pedraforca summit
Trail Marker
Spanish Huts and Bunkers
Returning to the car, we looked at the map and decided to drive north that evening to Espot, a ski town that sits on the edge of one of Spain's National Parks: Aigüestores i Estany De Sant Maurici. We arrived around 10pm, passing through various hamlets and tourist towns on windy, s-curve mountain roads, far more suitable to the Mercedes and BMW's on the road than our Kia. We heard more rain was in the forecast, so we settled into a room for 2 nights at a local hostal. It was palatial for the two of us and sparsely inhabited, as we were becoming accustomed to.

Espot hostal
The next day we hiked out of our room to Estany Negro, or Black Lake, where another mountain hut was situated. The hike was easy enough despite gaining 3000 ft - it only took a few hours to reach the hut. All the hiker huts we visited on our vacation were still closed, and they wouldn't open for another week or two, however you could still enter the hut's refugi, which was often attached or a separate building next to the full service hut. The refugis are free, bunker-like establishments that weren't a half bad place to be so long as you had some food and water (and good water was always nearby). The refugis have bunks with mattresses & blankets, often with shelving, an eating table, chairs or benches, electricity and a heat source - more offerings than some of my local Americano huts in winter! The huts themselves are even better; large, nicely maintained huts often of several floors with full service in the summer including showers, toilets, heat, food options, beds, blankets and beer/wine to boot:)

The colors of the GR11
Hut near Estany Negro
Free refugi, bunker-like atmosphere
Estany Negro
Wild succulents
Huge black slugs were everywhere on this trail
The next day we chose to backpack to another hut, D'Amitages, on the GR11 again, where we planned to stay overnight in the free refugi. We had originally planned to hike in this area as a three day backpack, but after talking to the rangers in Espot, they told us we would need snowshoes, crampons and ice axes to get through the high passes. Since snowshoes were not in our fast & light spring backpacking plans, we decided to skip the passes and hike where we could with winter boots and microspikes, which still allowed us to go just beyond 7000 ft.

The hike up to the estany (lake) included a stop at the St. Maurici chapel built up against a rock cliff and passing by several herds of cows and horses grazing one after another. The peaks were dark, sharp, and topped with misty clouds and a smattering of snow. This area was one of the most beautiful we had seen, and normally it would be packed with people. But with all the snow and cool weather, we had the place to ourselves, including the refugi.

Not what I usually stumble upon in the woods
Keyhole peek inside St Maurici chapel
D'Amitiges Hut
The farther we hiked, the deeper the snow, though it stayed below our shins most of the time. We passed a massive waterfall and a few other lakes and viewpoints before arriving at the D'Amitiges hut. The building adjacent was the refugi, also built of stone with a split iron door. Inside were the usual 2 story bunks, mattresses, blankets, a storage shelf, a lamp and a gas heater! Since it was just a little above freezing and starting to snow, this was an exciting discovery. We unpacked, searched for a water source, soaked in the views and soon retired to the refugi to eat dinner. Chris plugged in his iPhone to the outlet and we had music & podcasts playing by the IKEA lamplight and Jetboil.... what could be better? We were never able to get the heater to work, but our sleeping bags kept us plenty warm, even with the falling temps and snow.

Water crossing by Estany St Maurici
Hiking to viewpoint
Refugi
Electricity with our dinner
View from the D'Amitiges hut
Pyrenees Paninis & Pass Passing
It was within this hut that I discovered my love for Jamón Ibérico. The Spanish are fanatical and quite proud of their thin sliced, aged ham products, and this was some outstanding stuff. I bought a package of it in Barcelona, not the cheapest but not the most expensive option either, which was perfect for my immature Jamón palette. Paired with goat cheese, basil and tomatoes all piled atop a french baguette, it was a slice of Spanish Heaven. Trader Joe's make a pretty good version if you can't find any in your area, though they seemed to stop selling it after only a few weeks of my discovering it. Oh Trader José's, please, bring it back!

The next morning we hiked out, hopped into our car, and headed for another trail head on the opposite side of the park. We were originally planning on hiking thru to this point as our Day 2 of the backpack, but ah the snow. We hiked in past the usual bell ringing cows, avalanche slopes and waterfalls and to the hut  - which was easy and only a few hours in. The weather on this day was the worse we've had thus far - the winds whipped as we crossed over the dammed lake by the Colomers Hut - so we hustled ourselves inside the hut door. This area had 2 huts, one was closed, maybe for good, and the other was newer, just opening for the season. The hut masters had arrived only hours before us, so it wasn't really open to the public. But since they were in the process of cleaning up the free refugi, they let us stay in the regular hut for 10 euros each. They allowed us to cook our own meals with our Jetboil too, which usually isn't allowed (in the regular huts, they feed you). So we cooked up our dinners and ate in the dining room, which is normally bustling with hikers and served up meals in the summer. Instead the hut workers did their chores while we ate and explore the library shelves. I spied a shower in the bathroom (oh the luxury!) but decided not to use up their precious heat & hot water. We chose a bunk room and read our Spanish magazines before drifting off to sleep.

trail markers always falling down
friendly hut dog
numbered bunks

The following day the weather wasn't much better, so we didn't stick around to hike up higher to see the non-views. We still had another night left in our trip, so we took a long drive west and then south amongst farmland and to a small church some 10 miles away from the main road high atop a hill with nothing else around but vineyards and a farm. We hiked up to the small church at the tippity top of this cliff, just then a thunderstorm rolled in the distance. We hurried down, but not before peeking into a few homes and yards of this rustic little village of stone huts. Once we reached the car, we continued driving to our last destination, Montserrat.

Small town house
A little closer to God than most
Poppies were everywhere
Monks on the Hill
Montserrat is a strange-looking mountainous outcropping that rises 3000 ft into the air above the rolling hills surrounding it, sticking out like a dark & spiky thumb. The Benedictine monks found this land long ago and made it their own, building  a monastery high atop, now complete with a few hotels and lots of trails for hiking, walking, meditating and rock climbing along the strange sandstone spires. We drove through the cliff-huggung park and parked at the Cremallera station, a people-mover type train, and stayed at our first hotel of the trip near the mountain top. How posh to have such a big shower... and quaint, with two single beds for a couple:) We hiked up hundreds of stairs along the trails toward the top of the cliffs and found a nice picnic spot for dinner at sunset. It was like being in a rock canyon high above everything else; the birds sang and flitted about as we looked down from our perch - the monastery and everyone below us, and further below that, the rest of Spain thousands of feet below. Our last night was spent here among the quiet & contemplative rock canyons, caves and spires of Montserrat, which turned out to be a perfect place to reflect on a fantastic vacation.

Funicular going up Montserrat
Monastery and hotel
Looking down at the monastery
Arches
Rock spires, a great rock climbing location as well
Prayer candles
Though we never did backpack through the more spectacular high passes within all the Pyrenees, we saw some beautiful things, visited an unplanned and spectacular natural park, and had an excellent time hiking in healthy frosting of snow without the crowds. I would love to return during spring/summer weather with green grass and sunshine to walk through those passes we didn't see, visit the huts we didn't reach and see the cirques we didn't marvel at. Spain has a wide variety of terrain from dry and hot area to snowy cold peak to more temperate areas - all worth taking the time to explore. We only stayed in the upper right corner of the country, in Catalunya, which has plenty to offer on it's own.  I hear the southeast coast has great hiking too, along with the better known Camino Santiago region in the west, and many many other walks they highlight cross country (Spain is big on long distance walking trails). But for now, the memory of snow in Spain will linger with much affection. Bon Dia!

For more pictures and descriptions of the trip, see my Flickr collection of Catalunya, Spain


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Kilkenny Ridge Backpack: Cohos Trail Section Hike

A Section Hiking Adventure 
Section #3, June 2014

View from The Horn
Our first AMC Cohos Section hike of the summer, on the summer solstice. It was quiet in some sections and busy (much to our surprise) in others. The backpack is moderate in gain, has some lovely views of the northern Presidentials, and goes through areas that hikers rarely visit. With each Cohos section hike we find ourselves further and further north, though this trip was an exception. We skipped this section last summer, so we backtracked south a little bit from where Mike and I last left off. Our two day backpack would take us over much of the Kilkenny Ridge on the northern stretches of the White Mountain National Forest, between Jefferson and York Pond Fish Hatchery near Stark, NH. Over the 21 miles and 7000ft of gain, we summited the peaks of Starr King, Waumbek, South, Middle and North Weeks, as well as Terrace Mtn, Mt. Cabot, The Bulge and The Horn.

Not fish eggs, but Maureen's Chia seeds!
Three of us from the Boston area (Mike, Vinny and I) gathered at the Fort Jefferson Campground which had private wooded campsites in the high 60s and 70s, though the rest of the campground was dominated with mostly seasonal RVs. We spotted a car at York Pond Fish Hatchery and later had dinner at the Mountain Fire wood grilled pizza in Gorham, NH. Our fourth hiker, Abid, met us late that night and by morning we were all headed up Starr King.

Packing Note: I used my Gossamer Gear Kumo for this backpack, which fit all my gear for 1 night and 2 days perfectly! I paired down a little by using Chris's 1 person Big Agnes UL 1 tent and his new Thermas Rest 3/4 length (which drove me a little crazy). I can say with confidence that the Kumo made my trip so light and comfortable, I will carry this little guy on as many 1-2 nighters as possible. Because I carry alot of food that doesn't squish down too well, and a real tent, it would be difficult for me to use it for more days than that - but I wish I could!

At the trailhead we were greeted by 15 or so hikers from the AMC Worcester Chapter bound for Starr King and Waumbek, along with a few other smaller groups. The lot was nearly full but we squeezed in the last 2 spots. We played a game of tag with the large group but eventually chatted with them on the top of both peaks before departing for the Weeks. This section was new to me, lovely and quiet, filled with waist high ferns, Bunchberry, Blue Beaded Lilies, Painted Trillium, Starflower, Gold Thread and the occasional toad. The ridgeline along the Weeks had many up, downs, and blow downs! So numerous were the obstacles that we humped over trees about every 10 min.

Team Kilkenny
Newly blooming Blue Beaded Lily
After 10 miles and ~6 hours, we came upon our campsite, which was a thing of beauty. Tucked away off trail and just over a running stream, it had a sweet tree for bear bag hanging, a fire ring with dry wood and a birch bark pile, and a few spaces for tents and a hammock. After some concern about Vinny's tent proximity, we lit a small fire to keep the bugs at bay and enjoy a some classic camping ambiance... thankfully no tents were melted in the process. We ate heartily and listened to everyone's stories before mashing out the fire and retiring to our tents.

Fern spores
The next morning we packed up and headed to the summit of Terrace Mtn, where someone had spent the night; their own person mtn top campsite. It's a tiny spot of a summit, just big enough for one two person tent. It has restricted views but still, a very nice idea! They were still sleeping inside so we spoke in hushed voices, took in the view and carried on. Sorry I didnt get a pic of that.

Hiking thru
Toad
My tentsite
Junction
We carried on to the view from Bunnell Rock, an open ledge viewpointn, perfect for lazing in the sun. We languished here for a while and continued on to Mt Cabot cabin and summit, where we passed 2 large backpacking groups of Boy Scouts and several other hiking groups, busy busy! We also said hello to the 3 gals we saw the day before on Waumbek. After the summit of Cabot, we didn't see another person all day.

Stopping briefly at the Bulge, we hiked on to the Horn, where Abid and I scrambled on top of the biggest bolder to be at the very tippity top. We stayed for a while to eat lunch and enjoy the amazing, nearly 360 views and later headed down to Unknown Pond (where all those poor hikers we saw on trail had stayed the night before, crowded!) Unknown Pond is a lovely little spot, but we didnt stay long...on we had to go, down the muddy, ferny, overground Unknown Pond Trail and to our spotted car. From there we drove to the start, exchanged belonging and had dinner at the Woodstock Inn. Another successful 21 mile section of the CT... done!

Vinny on The Horn
Horn Rock
Ladyslippers in big bunches!
Knows where his key is, in the blue bag!

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