Reaching new heights in the Pyrenees: Aneto (3404M)
Intro:Standing at 3,404m, Pico d’Aneto is the highest point in the Pyrenees. Due to its lower altitude and proximity to Toulouse, is a great option for gaining experience without digging too deep into your wallet or annual leave. A two day classic with refuge night and good exposure to beginner winter/Alpine mountaineering
Area: Expedition Abroad: Spanish Pyrenees
Type: Weekend Bash Highest point: 3404m Distance: 21km & 1700m ascent Duration: 2 days (Day 1: 2 hours + Day :8 hours) Route: Normal route via Renclusa refuge Time of year: March-May preferable for those wanting more winter conditions, Summer months busier.
Contacts: Renclusa Refuge +34 974 34 46 46 Guidebook/external recommendations: if applicable
Significance: Country High Point and Highest in range
Red tape: No permits are required to visit the Natural Park of Postes-Madaleta or to climb Aneto. But there are some prohibitions because of the crowds. It's forbidden to drive on the forest trail of Vallibierna from Plan de Senarta. Neither is permitted to drive from Hospital de Benasque to Plan de la Besurta from 8 AM to 8 PM in winter. In summer the road is always closed to private vehicles. There are regular buses from Benasque with stops in Plan de Senarta and Hospital de Benasque.
The Prelude: We’ve all heard it before. “Dude, I’d love to climb *insert well known mountain here*.” We all know that despite perhaps the best intentions, a lot of people won’t ever make their first moves towards that goal. This tale begins long before our first glimpse of the Pyrenees. It begins with one of the first of those conversations that I actually believed. It was after a week’s skiing in French resort Les Deux Alpes, that I struck up a conversation with Aaron in the back of a rammed après bar… He’d heard that skiing wasn’t my primary background, and that I had a climbing background from my time in Scotland. We talked past adventures, big dreams and agreed that we were going to do something about it. Fast forward a couple of months, and there we are – roped together as a three-man team, axe in hand, crampons on, following through with the big claims of a night on the beers. One catch… Those first steps were to be taken on a punishingly hot day, in a backyard outside Toulouse, with not an incline or snowflake in sight! A mutual friend, Paul, had gotten wind of our conversation and suggested that we head for the Pyrenees and attempt Pico d’Aneto – the highest point of the Pyrenees and the third highest point in Spain. So, the day before our first strides into glaciated terrain, we roped up and practiced crevasse rescues by the pool. Writing this with the benefit of hindsight, it would be tempting to paint the picture of three experienced climbers heading out for a jolly - this wasn’t quite the case. While I had winter experience in Scotland, and each of us had good avalanche awareness as a result of our snowsports backgrounds, this was to be everyone's first time in glaciated terrain. New risks, new applications for our existing skill sets, and a lot worryingly shiny kit! In 2005 movie, Green Street, there's a line that goes - “Once you [...] realize you're not made of glass, you don't feel alive unless you're pushing yourself as far as you can go” and, for me, this is where the value was in this adventure. Were we as knowledgeable or prepared as we could have been? Categorically, no. There comes a point where courses and books can't teach you anything more, until you back yourself and start getting it done. Aneto is part of that story for me.
Day One After patching up Paul’s Ford Focus with a couple of planks of wood, we got on the road. From Toulouse, it was roughly 4 hours (and two McDonalds stops) to the La Besurta car park (1,950m) at the foot of Aneto. From the car park, it was a gentle 45min walk in on well trodden mountain tracks to Renclusa Refuge. The walk was easy, the sun was shining and Aaron dutifully reminded us to walk slowly ‘because of the altitude’ about every 50m climbed..! Renclusa Refuge is definitely one of the bigger, better equipped huts I have visited, largely due to its accessibility. At 2,140m, the manned hut is less than 250m from the car park at La Besurta. The amenities were good, the food portions were generous and the refuge served beer – what more could you want! After dinner, we took a few photos before settling in for an early night.
Day Two A combination of excitement and ungodly snoring have always made it easy to tolerate the early starts demanded in the mountains. At 0430 the alarms went off, we got some of our own food on board as breakfast wasn’t served until later in the day, and sorted our bags. For me, this section has become a ritual. I have layering options, packing order and food that works for me. But I built this trip up to be different. Bigger. If I could think of it, I carried it – expedition first aid kit, sleeping bag, 60m of rope, the lot. We will cover kit lists and prep elsewhere, but this was yet another learning point of this trip. With head torches on, we headed out the door and into the night. The skies were clear and the ground underfoot was solid, so that dispelled much of the nerves that can come when you set off in the dark. Perhaps 40min walk and we hit the snow line, put on our crampons and headed towards the silhouetted ridgeline in the distance.
This transition proved to be slightly premature, but nothing inconvenient, as we alternated between sections of moraine and snow, before the hitting the glacier proper. From there, the climb was sustained, and non-technical following the natural lie of the land. This section provided the perfect arena to discuss basic winter skills; walking in crampons, using an axe, and generally building confidence in a new arena. We took it at an easy pace, enjoying the mild conditions and taking in a stunning sunrise over the Pyrenees.
On this occasion, we were blessed with moonlight and clear skies, but there is always something special about a sunrise in the mountains. Something that is not easy to truly communicate to those who have never needed the instant heat and morale boost that comes with dawn. Instagram does a pretty good job of showing off mountain sunrises, but what it can’t show is the cold, intimidating nature of darkness of the mountains. Even on the most benign of trips, sunrise is a blessing. With our target break in the ridgeline now in full view, we proceeded to push 30 mins past the route turning … after deciding to consult the map, we followed the ridgeline down to a narrow col. This provided the first indication of the popularity of the route, and we had a short wait before a larger group let us proceed down the narrow gully ahead of them. The gully was not particularly technical, but felt unfamiliar underfoot in our newly minted crampons. But a short scramble down, and we were now on the approach to the highest peak of Aneto.
From the bottom of the gully, we traversed on a skin-track towards Aneto. By the time we hit the major ascent up to the summit, the snow was becoming noticeably softer. Perhaps we had taken the first section a little too lightly, or perhaps we had been slow, but on this occasion it wouldn’t prove to be an issue. The going was noticeably heavier in the slush and the relative dangers do rise, but we were not overly concerned this time. Aaron set the pace as the mountain rose steeper ahead of us, and marched us quickly on. At this stage, we all started to feel the altitude a little more than we had previously. Although we were not high by any means, 3,000m is more than enough to realise that you’re not being graced with quite as much oxygen but it didn’t slow as down too much.
An hour of climbing and we again spied the masses queued just shy of the summit. A number of guided groups were being roped up and ferried across what is the truly intimidating section of the route – Paso de Mohoma. We stashed our bags and proceeded across the easy, but reasonably exposed couple of steps towards the summit. Certainly, in high winds or driving rain/snow, we would have considered some basic protection – a fall at this stage would be fatal, but also unlikely. From there, we papped the summit pic and a few candid shots for facebook and we were off again.
On the descent, we really started to notice the heavy snow, at times going in up to our knees. Had this been somewhere steep, it could really have proven an issue, but here it was more of an inconvenience! We all took note of the skiers who were zipping past us – ski touring was now firmly justified! After a fairly heavy slog to the bottom of the glacier, we hit the valley, ripped off our crampons and enjoyed a beautiful walk out in fine weather.
Being a loop walk, we reached the point where we had ascended to Renclusa the day before, and I headed to retrieve our overnight kit while Paul and Aaron made for the car. After an extra hour, I joined them in the car park and we headed back towards Toulouse. Looking back
Maybe the prelude built Aneto up as a trip that hammered home some hard lessons… In reality, the most drama was with Paul’s dodge car windows! Aneto was not an crazy challenge; the route is relatively short and the terrain straightforward. However, we knocked off a number of firsts that weekend, and the door opened with some more confidence for many bigger adventures. So, our mantra - back yourself!
While you're there....
Toulouse is a fantastic young and vibrant city, be sure to have a few drinks and soak up some of the relaxed atmosphere in summer and see some of the impressive architecture.