Aketegi

Creepy sanctuary


Aketegi, another Spanish provincial highpoints in a really Basque part of the country, was my last peak before flying home. Waking up in our weird hotel, Mike and I drove north and west through the mountains toward the north coast, at first on the autovia, another spectacular alternation of bridges and tunnels. It cut straight through the hills from the dry southern side to the permanently wet and dreary north, under villages, farms, and fields. Once on the side-roads, we wound crazily in and out of valleys on a narrow strip of unstriped pavement, traveling much farther and more slowly than the straight-line distance on the map would suggest. We briefly saw some limestone cliffs through the clouds and mist, but for the most part the drive was free of scenery. The road signs were all in Basque and Spanish, with the towns having seemingly unrelated Basque and Spanish names, and the latter were usually crossed out in green spray-paint. Spain is more of a passive-aggressive agglomeration than a nation…

Creepy in detail

According to Peakbagger, the place to start hiking for Aketegi is Arantzazu, a large Catholic sanctuary and tourist attraction, and a vision straight out of a horror film. The sanctuary’s architecture would be disturbing even in the best conditions, lacking only the twisted, screaming faces of sinners on its spindly, spiky, hostile towers. When we arrived mid-morning, ours was the only car in the large lot, and we were the only visible people. The local businesses, one of which I hoped would sell food, and the supposedly full guest house where we had tried to make a reservation, were all closed and locked, and the open public restroom was foul and unlit. The thick mist and thin drizzle made it impossible to see more than 100 yards.

Arantza zu?! Gipuzkoa, LOL!

Tired and suffering from caffeine withdrawal, I almost stayed in the car, but Mike convinced me to go for a walk in the rain. Thanks to a downloaded GPS track, we managed to head in the correct direction through town, where we found the only open business, a bar that seemed to be serving both breakfast (coffee and pastries) and dinner (beer and salty snacks). I ordered coffee and some food, and felt much better about the day as the caffeine hit my brain. Again following the track, we found the correct dirt road taking us out of town, which wound through mossy woods toward who-knows-what, slowly deteriorating into a trail. A couple of signs along the way featured cartoon Basque people doing characteristically Basque things like being friars, herding sheep, and pronouncing words with too many k’s, x’s, and z’s.

Forest track

The trail/road eventually led to an open plateau, where we continued along some confusing roads in the general direction of the summit. We eventually reached another bar/cafe, again showing some activity, but it seemed like a locals-only joint. Somehow vehicles reach this plateau, and I was a bit concerned that we would get in trouble for crossing someone’s land or harassing their sheep. After following the main road a bit too far, we cut cross-country back toward the track leading to Aketegi, passing through rolling territory dotted with limestone outcrops looking a bit like tombstones.

Summit views

What is apparently the correct track ends at someone’s house, where we saw a car, no people, and an aggressive but thankfully chained dog. Passing quickly by the barn, we eventually picked up some braided trails with occasional pain markings leading toward a ridge. It had been drizzling for awhile, and the limestone, mud, and grass were all slick, making for careful going in my worn out trail runners. The sheep had made a maze of tracks, which became much more confusing on the other side. Navigating purely by phone, we made our way up the best sheep-paths toward the summit, trying not to slip and coat ourselves with a mixture of clay mud and sheep droppings. We finally reached the narrow ridge crest near a summit marker, from which we could see a bit of grass to one side, and mist and a cliff to the other. I visited both the marker and the red dot on Peakbagger, marked the latter green, and considered my work done.

Basque horses

Returning down the slick sheep paths, we found a trail that worked its way above the barn and angry dog to join the driveway lower down, and took something more like the correct path back to the cafe/bar. Life was finally emerging as we returned, and we saw a few hikers in raincoats, plus some short, stocky horses with hairy fetlocks and long tails, apparently domesticated but serving no purpose. Back in Arantzazu, the clouds had lifted enough to see the tops of the creepy towers, and a few tourists were wandering around. The businesses were still closed, but there was a table selling local goods near the parking lot, where Mike bought some filled doughnut holes. There was no ticked on the windshield, but someone had cordoned off the car with tape and bollards. We packed up, then I quickly took down and replaced the tape for us to drive out. The clouds had lifted enough to see more of the surrounding valleys and cliffs, but this did little to dissuade me that Gipuzkoa is a real-life horror movie.

Cerro Alesna

Climbing cactus-fields


Cerro Alesna is one of many volcanic necks around the Mount Taylor Volcanic Field west of Albuquerque and north of Grants, home of the much more well-known Cabezon. It is located in one of the least-populated parts of the state, and not visible from any paved road that I know of. Though it is a striking landmark from Mount Taylor’s summit, I had not noticed it when racing the quadrathlon, and only became aware of it on a bike-n-hike outing with Mike a couple of years ago. We had scrambled another neck, Cerro Parido, and were riding around the northern end of the Mount Taylor plateau (Mesa Chivato) on a random dirt road when we saw an impressive spire of columnar rock to the south. I identified it as Cerro Alesna via the Peakbagger app, but we ran out of time and energy to try climbing it that day.

Investigating it more later, I found little information about it online, and no documented ascents. The land in the area is a messy patchwork of Forest Service, BLM, ranches, and mines, with the road we had ridden labeled on some maps as “private” despite being ungated and seemingly free to drive. Alesna itself is almost certainly on private land belonging to either a near-defunct mine or a ranch to its south. Trying to reach it from near Grants last year, I found aggressive signage and active use to the south, and turned back. This year I finally came back to it from the quiet northern side, finding the scrambling surprisingly easy at no more than class 3 on the southwest side.

I had known Nolan for some time online, but had not done anything with him, so a desert bike-n-scramble was a bit of a risk. He seemed fit and enthusiastic, though, and if the scramble got sketchy, at least I thought it would be fairly short. We agreed to meet at the turnoff from Highway 550 at 8:30, but thanks to having to stop at Walmart for calories, I was fifteen embarrassing minutes late, a mistake that would come back to bite us later. His car being more capable than mine, we piled both bikes into the back and drove around the north side of Mesa Chivato, stopping about 25 miles from our objective. We could have driven the rest of the way — the dirt roads are Subaru-able, or fine for a passenger car with a careful driver — but wanted to get in a full day and to be somewhat discreet.

Alesna from approach

It was chilly and breezy as we set off by bike, and I soon found that the road was sandier than I had remembered, a problem for Nolan on his 45mm tires. He was a good sport about it, though, and clearly practiced in dealing with such terrain. As expected, we met no one on the ride. Most of the volcanic necks are on the other side of the mesa, but we passed a number of interesting-looking sandstone bluffs that could be worth climbing.
I found the long-abandoned spur road north of the peak exactly as I remembered; the same cows might even have been grazing near the tank.

We locked the bikes together near a rock, then took off straight for the summit, now less than two miles away across a dry wash. This was probably the most unpleasant and difficult part of the climb, since the wash is wet enough during the spring and summer to produce a crop of thigh-high grass and grape-sized burrs. Continuing my theme of disregard for others’ welfare, I bashed straight through in my tights, with Nolan following along as best he could in shorts. Beyond the wash we found a quad track along an old fence, with a convenient crossing point making it unnecessary to pick our way through the barbed wire.

Talus skirt and lower gully

The vegetated slopes below the plug were teeming with cactus, some of it blending into the grass, making it difficult to both walk and scout a route up the peak. The columnar trachyte, while solid, looked too steep to scramble directly, but a left-trending ramp from the peak’s southwest side seemed promising. Reaching the southwest corner, we scrambled up some steep terrain, then traversed right to an easy cactus-slope that we should have taken in the first place. This slope eventually turned into a gully ending at a sort of headwall, where the columns were angled and broken into steps, allowing us to head up and left to reach the lower end of the ramp we had seen from below. It was not hard, but almost every surface that could collect dirt was home to a cactus, so I almost pet one, and Nolan got a bit more friendly.

Summit view north

The bench looked loose and cactus-y, but the terrain straight up and to the right was steep and rocky enough to be unvegetated, so I headed that way. I found a bit more third class scrambling leading up a slot to just below the summit ridge. This might have gone directly at class 4, but the rock near the top was less columnar and more chossy, so I traversed left to a gully then climbed that to a notch. From this notch it was a short and easy scramble to one summit, where I found no cairn or register. The next point south looked equally high, separated by a small but steep and loose notch. We both cautiously traversed across, knocking down numerous rocks in the process. The other summit was much like the first, with what might have been the broad ruins of an old cairn, but no human evidence. Since Alesna stands by itself, I found the views underwhelming, with barren scrub desert to the north and west, Mesa Chivato to the east, and Mount Taylor its usual blobby self to the south.

With more knowledge, we took a better route on the return, descending the gully between the two summits, retracing our route to the fence, then following it through the dry wash to cow-paths and an old road leading back to the bikes. Even at this modest latitude, the days are painfully short this time of year, so despite generally favorable winds it seemed likely we would need headlamps before reaching the car. We met one truck driving the other direction on the road, whose driver paid us little mind, and another pulling a cattle trailer. Before we reached him, the driver rummaged in the cab and presented us with a water and Gatorade, apologizing that he had nothing better. He told us he was gathering the calves, and asked if we had seen the “other cyclists,” which turned out to be us on our way out. He and his companion were friendly, and did not seem bothered that we were out there. He also said that one could follow the road we were on all the way to Grants, contrary to my suspicion that it was gated somewhere south of Alesna. Whatever the map says, it seems property rights are forgiving in this little-used or -loved corner of the state. The final ride turned into a cold game of headlamp chicken with a new moon, but neither of us caved. Nolan drove me back to the highway, leaving me with a 90-minute drive back to Santa Fe. The whole outing was around 14 hours door-to-door, not unreasonable but long compared to most of what I do these days.

Tourmalet and Tres Reyes

Tres Reyes summit castle


I had to make some miles to meet Mike in Tarbes (best pronounced in the most American way possible, with a strong “r” and voiced final “s”), but thought I might be able to squeeze in Mount Rouch, a prominent peak on the Spanish border. I rode up narrow pavement and rough dirt (closed to cars) to where the trailhead was supposed to be, and found the trail, but it looked overgrown and steep, and I was too tired from the previous two days’ unaccustomed hiking to fight it. I instead took a nap under a bush, then headed down ever-larger roads to the north. After following a mix of roads and bike routes to Salies-du-Salat, I avoided the main highway on some rolling country roads to the south, arriving in Tarbes with some time to spare.

Road to Mont Rouch

Mike arrived from Spain late that evening, and we took off from the hotel at a reasonable hour to ride the famous Col du Tourmalet. The road goes from nowhere to nowhere, connecting two roads that are not major highways, so I was not expecting much traffic. But for some reason the road through Bagnères-de-Bigorre was solid cars, as was the road on down the other side through Lourdes, with its famous cathedral. The pass itself was impressive enough, winding and fairly high, and it attracted plenty of cyclists, but it was probably my least favorite day of riding in the Pyrenees. The Col de la Pierre Saint Martin and Port de Lers to either side are much more fun to ride, despite being lower and less famous. I felt bad for dragging Mike far from home and over to the expensive side of the border for such a disappointing checklist ride, but I had no reason to anticipate it.

Evening on Pierre Saint Martin

Returning to Tarbes, we somehow crammed both bikes into his new car, then drove back over… the Col de la Pierre Saint Martin! It was evening, and the sun cast long shadows and illuminated the cloud deck below us on the French side. The refugio on the Spanish side of the pass was nearly empty, so we got a whole dorm room to ourselves for not much money. The hosts and clientele all spoke Basque, and while they were not hostile, it did feel like a different country, a feeling reinforced by their early hours — the restaurant and bar closed at 9:00! Mike asked the host about how to reach Mesa de los Tres Reyes, the highpoint of Navarre and our goal for the next day.

Tres Reyes from hostel

Uncertain about the afternoon weather, we started fairly early the next morning, hiking down a sort-of trail where the map and refuge-keeper had indicated. However the area is lousy with cows, and the grass grows quickly, so the trail was impossible to follow initially. We eventually found one of several paths leading toward the peak, intermittently marked with painted stripes on rocks and trees. Different colors and patterns indicate different levels of trail, from main GRs to local routes, but none seemed especially popular. The terrain is immensely confusing, with small defiles leading between short limestone crags, and dense deciduous forest. Fortunately the map continued leading us in the right direction, and we eventually emerged in an open valley below a long ridge leading to the summit.

Tres Reyes scramble

We passed a couple of other hikers on the faint trail to the ridge, then continued along the rolling crest. Once the ridge turned toward the summit, it became sheer on its right side, dropping off to rolling country and the plain of northern Spain (in which, by the way, the rain does not mainly stay). Some sort of eagle cruised by below us, seemingly oblivious. The summit looked far away, with some scrambling along the ridge. I would have enjoyed it, but after two days without caffeine the withdrawal made everything seem pointless.

Tres Reyes summit castle

At the last notch before the summit we found a much better trail, probably coming from another refugio to the south, along with a minor crowd. We continued past the summit, then followed bits of use trail up a minor scramble to the top, where we found a group of young Spaniards, who were characteristically loud and self-absorbed. We found a spot amidst the noise to eat lunch, I took a few photos, then we descended more directly to the trail before returning mostly the way we had come. Mike had hoped to tag Aneto, the Pyrenees’ highpoint, the next day, but with the forecast calling for thunderstorms, we decided to settle for Aketegi, the highpoint of what turned out to be an even more Basque province. We drove for awhile toward Spain’s northern coast, then found another cheap-ish and very strange motel for the night.

Pic des Trois Seigneurs

South from Trois Seigneurs


[And now back to the Pyrenees… — ed.]

Waking in my cold camp downstream from the Port d’Envalira, I swiped around on my map, looking for an interesting way to get from where I was back to Tarbes in the right number of days. The quickest route would head downstream to the plains at Foix, then turn west to grind out the miles, but I could hike again, and had time to do a few final peaks. Looking around for prominence points on Peakbagger — usually a good way to find summits with a view — I spotted the Pic des Trois Seigneurs a reasonable distance to the northwest.

Ariège mine

I followed the N-20 down the Ariège River to Tarascon-sur-Ariège, where I resupplied, then turned west on a side road up another river valley to Viadessos. There the road splits, with most branches dead-ending at various villages or ski resorts. However one branch continues over the Port de Lers to the Arac River, passing the trailhead for Trois Seigneurs along the way. OpenStreetMaps has surprisingly good coverage of shops and water sources, so I was expecting to find water in Viadessos, but the fountains and taps it indicated were all shut down. I had first noticed this in the French Alps between Alpe d’Huez and Grenoble, where signs explained that this was due to the hot, dry summer. Presumably the same was happening in the Pyrenees, a sad loss of hospitality brought on by climate change.

Port de Lers road

The road on this side of the Port de Lers is narrow and seldom-used, making it popular with cyclists, and I saw several on their way down. It was painfully hot lower down, so I was on the lookout for water, and soon began seeing seeps and rivulets emerging from the limestone hillside. I stopped at one, walked into the woods with my bottles, and found a piece of hose forming a makeshift tap. There were clearly livestock in the area, but the water appeared to be flowing straight from the ground, so I trusted it enough to drink. Water problem solved, I continued up the narrow, winding road, barely more than a lane wide. The few times I met a car going the other way, we both dodged with room to spare, but the prospect of oncoming traffic kept me alert.

Upper Port de Lers

I found a trailhead a couple of switchbacks below the pass, locked my bike to the trailhead sign, then waited for a break in the hikers to change into my hiking clothes. I have little interest in lakes, but apparently the area’s main attraction is the Étang d’Arbu, a decent-sized lake in a bowl south of the Pic des Trois Seigneurs. I followed a well-used trail that traversed across the bowl out of the woods, then climbed an open bowl to the lake. It was brutally hot and humid, and I quickly went through my single bottle of water. A teenage kid from one of the families headed for the lake left his parents to hike with me on the climb, and I was hard-pressed to keep up in my out-of-shape state.

Étang d’Arbu

The lake was scenic enough, in a bowl filled with white rock outcrops surrounded by peaks, and the warm day was good for swimming. Most people were content to sit around on the rocks, but there was the expected middle-aged shirtless Frenchman standing waist-deep in the lake. The trail becomes much fainter past the outlet, but I found a path continuing around the left side, then winding between rock outcroppings toward the ridge. I filled up again with water at one of the streams, confident that I was above all the livestock and most of the humans. I passed a few people headed in the opposite direction, but mostly had the climb to myself. There was even a brief passage of third class scrambling, where I cautiously tested my toe’s edging capacity.

Trois Seigneurs ridge

Near the ridge I joined a slightly stronger trail leading from the pass to the Pic, and turned right to follow the ridge to the summit. The breeze made it pleasant or almost a bit cool, and I could see an impressive spread of higher peaks to the south, as Trois Seigneurs stands somewhat apart from the main chain of the Pyrenees (yay, prominence!). Unfortunately I shared the summit with enough young French people to be loud, so I did not want to stay for long. Rather than retracing my steps, I followed the ridge over to the Pas de Lers, crossing a couple of other minor summits and passing quite a few people. I even saw some paragliders, who launch near one of the switchbacks just on the other side. It was a pleasant stroll, but I was mindful that I needed to descend and find food and water before dark.

Back at the pass, I hike-jogged the road back to my bike, then hid behind someone’s parked car to change back into bike shorts. I rode over the summit, then descended to the first sizable town, Massat. I had intended to stock up and find a place to camp off the road, but it seemed I was back in the more-settled regions where finding an out-of-the-way place would require effort. So I followed the signs to the town campground, and paid a few dollars to sleep on the grass next to too many other people. There was some sort of gypsy-folk-rock concert going on that night, and while I did not want to mingle with the crowd near the band, I did enjoy going to sleep listening to it at a distance.

Coronado, Sinking Ship, Escalante

Sinking Ship and Coronado from rim


One way or the other, my last day in the Canyon would be spent near its eastern end, along the Tanner and New Hance trails. There are a number of greater and lesser summits in the area, ranging from the interesting but not prominent Sinking Ship to the prominent but not interesting Grandview Benchmark. The ambitious plan would be to connect the New Hance and Tanner trails via the Escalante Route on bottom and a hitch-hike on top. (I was traveling without a bike for the first time in awhile.) This would allow me to get in a nice long run and tag Coronado, Cardenas, and Escalante Buttes via short side-trips along the way. But it would also require ambition, which I once again found lacking. Not wanting to waste the day, I opted instead to make three short outings from the rim to tag Coronado, Escalante, and the Sinking Ship.

Coronado summit

New Hance seems to be the most obscure and least maintained official trail on the South Rim, with nothing but a couple of “No Parking” signs indicating the trailhead. I parked at one of the dirt pullouts west the signs, threw some food and water in my pack, and started off hiking in my down jacket, barely warm enough thanks to the wind and shade. Coronado is close to the rim and only class 3, so it unsurprisingly sees a fair amount of traffic. I bumbled down the trail to just below the Coronado-Rim saddle, then left it to follow intermittent use trails toward the butte.

“Exposed” ledge

All options eventually converged on a traverse around the right side of the butte, and the use trail predictably improved, with even a cairn here and there. I had skimmed a trip report about Coronado, so I knew the route went up a steep gully, then traversed to another via an exposed ledge. Unlike on the less popular Pattie and Lyell, there was no guesswork involved, and the “exposed” ledge was tame by climbing standards, broad enough for a faint trail. In short order I was on the summit plateau, where a little scrambling got me to the highpoint. The copper register box contained many entries, some recent, and even a few historical curiosities, though it only went back to the mid-80s.

Sinking Ship from New Hance

I sat on the summit for awhile, debating whether I wanted to continue down the trail and around to the Tanner, but the Sinking Ship had drawn my eye all morning, perfectly lit by the low morning sun, and I had already seen the Tanner and Escalante. I meandered back down Coronado, picked up the New Hance, and hiked back to the car to drive a mile in the wrong direction to park at another random pullout. There was no trail here, but the woods were open, and it was only about a mile to point along the rim closest to the Ship. I crunched through the intermittent snow on this highest part of the South Rim, listening to a podcast and occasionally checking my phone to make sure I was headed to the right place.

Nice box

There were bits of use trail leading through the oakbrush off the rim, and enough lingering snow on the north slope to make the ground slick. I picked my way down to the saddle, then up to the Ship’s bow, knowing only that the route went more or less up the front. It turned out to be the day’s most engaging scramble, starting up a corner to the right, then tunneling left to a steep, chossy gully with a tricky chockstone to surmount near the top. I looked to the right again, then scrambled up and around left, arriving at what I suppose was the fo’c’sle. I saw that, though the ship was going down, the poop deck was still highest, so I continued through a breach, crossed the main deck, and headed left to what seemed the likeliest way to the summit. This proved surprisingly challenging, with a wide stem to get around a large chockstone. Beyond, I continued up easy ground to the summit cairn, which was for a change not on the highest point. I signed in, impressed but not surprised that Bob had beaten me to it by a month, then tagged the highest point. I briefly looked for an easier way off the back side but, finding nothing appealing, retraced my route to the car.

Cardenas from Escalante

I still had daylight to burn, and felt that driving up Grandview Benchmark would be too lame, so I drove over to Lipan Point, put a mostly-empty jar of peanut butter in my pack (my only remaining trail food), and took off jogging. The Tanner was high and shaded enough to hold snow, and popular enough for that to have been packed to ice in places, so I could not make very good time up high. I followed the trail to the saddle with Escalante Butte, admired the peculiar Seventyfive-Mile Creek, which runs west into the Colorado where it makes a 90-degree bend, then picked my way up the Supai to Escalante. The summit area consisted of several large Coconino blocks, of which the northern two proved to be the highest. Reaching the actual summit requires a scramble to the left block, then an easy but heady step across to the right.

Birds of any season

It seemed like I could continue along the ridge to Cardenas, nabbing another unnamed butte along the way, but I felt that sufficient unto the day was the effort thereof, and I took thought for the morrow’s long drive. So to the rim I returned, mingling briefly with the tourists before driving out of the park to camp at another frigid place with cell service. The Grand Canyon wears you down like so many deserts: the plants scrape and tear at you, the rock wears your skin, the day-night temperature swings leave you dehydrated or shivering, and the sand gets everywhere. But my to-do list is longer than it was before I came, so I will lick my wounds and return.

Pattie and Lyell Buttes

Newton from the rim


The route straight off Shoshone Point was one of the lines on Harvey Butchart’s maps that interested me before this trip, and Pete’s recommendation made it a top priority. It is an ancient route, as evidenced by some Moki steps, and the most direct access to three Supai buttes: Newton, Pattie, and Lyell. Pattie and Lyell are moderate scrambles with short low-fifth-class cruxes, while Newton apparently involves some more serious 5.7 face climbing. But this outing is interesting at least as much for the route down to the Hermit Shale as for the minor plateau bumps. As it turned out, Newton’s crux was more than I felt up for, Pattie and Lyell were more my speed, and the whole thing was a good education in Canyon cross-country travel.

Ridge from Shoshone

I drove into the park early again, then parked at the small, unsigned Shoshone Point lot, spent some time preparing, and hiked the old dirt road to the picnic area. It is a surprisingly popular area for being out of sight of the road, and there was a gaggle of tourists milling around taking photos. I wanted to see the point, and was not sure where the route began, so I waded through them to scramble down the ridge crest. I was eventually stopped by a taller cliff band which seemed to have no easy route through, so I waded back through the tourists and started down the gully southeast of the point, following some game and social trails.

The terrain was classic Canyon: loose, steep, and slightly brushy, with occasional small cliff bands. I picked my way through these, at one point using a conveniently placed small dead tree, then traversed back toward the ridge when doing so looked reasonable. I followed a game trail through some slightly less pleasant brush, finding recent dot-rubber tracks suggesting that I was on course. These tracks continued along a flatter stretch of the ridge crest, then confused me at another larger cliff band. There may be a sneaky way directly through this, or some Moki steps, but I instead traversed right again to pick my way down a lower section of the earlier gully before returning to the crest, this time on a more obvious use trail.

Scrambly bits below Shoshone

From here the route stayed near the crest, weaving back and forth to traverse ledges and descend slots through the Coconino. I found some cairns in this section, which were reassuring but not particularly helpful. At the top of the Hermit, I followed the approach shoe tracks back left, then along the ridge toward Newton Butte. There were some mildly annoying blocks and cliffs in this section, but it was mostly easy walking. Once I reached the plateau before the butte, I headed right and made a gradually-ascending traverse, aiming for the most likely place for a route to exist on this side, a slightly-broken area near a large detached block.

Newton crux

An old piton told me I was in the right place, though I found it odd that it was well left of the big block. Later I learned that the route climbs the short face past the piton to traverse left along a ledge 10-15 feet off the ground. But I though the other direction looked better, so I chimneyed up between the block and the butte, then headed right to inspect some steep parallel cracks. They looked like they might lead to easier ground above, and go at about 5.7, but my head was not in the right place, whether because of the cold or my unfamiliarity with the Canyon’s style of scrambling. I backed off, retraced my steps, and headed for Pattie.

Pattie Butte

The first order of business was getting down to the top of the Redwall, which usually offers a low-angle and friendly bench to travel along the Canyon. Following the Butchart map, I backtracked a bit to get down a mostly-undercut cliff band, then continued descending to near the Redwall rim. Pete had claimed there was a “good trail” in this section, but I would characterize what I found as an “intermittent and faint game trail.” The ground was littered with the usual twiggy brush and spiky plants, and the route wandered in and out of many shallow washes, but it was still efficient travel by Grand Canyon standards.

Pattie summit

From the base of Pattie Butte I started up more or less straight toward the summit, dodging the first cliffs left before returning to the ridge. I found the crux through a short white cliff-band on the right, a sort of chimney followed by a cramped step left on a ledge to another short slot. The chimney felt awkward and grovel-y, but as I was learning, this is typical for Canyon scrambling, and fairly secure. Above, a bit more easy wandering led to the summit plateau, where I found a metal post, a set of deer antlers, and the usual copper register box. Looking back the way I had come, I could see one of Harvey’s Redwall breaks, a steep slot near a pillar leading into upper Cremation Canyon. I debated taking that and returning via the Tonto and Kaibab with a possible side-trip to O’Neill Butte, but I had just ascended the Kaibab a couple of days before, and was not confident that I could handle it with my current attitude.

Pattie from traverse

I instead retraced my route to the plateau, then continued around the other side of Newton near the top of the Redwall. The best path seems to stay close to the rim, where it is less steep and brushy, with occasional detours higher to avoid some gullies. It is only a couple miles in a straight line from Pattie to Lyell, but the meandering way along the rim is far longer and frustratingly slow. I was getting a bit worried about my return time when I finally reached Lyell’s base, and almost considered skipping it, but that would be too pathetic, so I headed up toward the summit.

Lyell crux

Lyell’s main challenge is getting through its obvious large cliff band, but there are several smaller ones below and above that require a bit of meandering. I headed right, briefly considering a steep-ish route through the main cliffs before continuing to find the obvious route, which was… you guessed it, another chimney. I scraped and scrapped my way up with a mixture of stemming, chimneying, and a couple hand jams, eventually reaching the top to find a cairn. From there I continued traversing up and right, finally breaking through onto the summit plateau via a tumbledown slot. From the slot I hopped through spiky rock and agaves back to the summit cairn. I took in the afternoon view of Brahma and Wotan across the way, shook my head at Newton, then retraced my route to the plateau.

Return to Shoshone

Continuing my tour, I traversed along the Supai back toward Shoshone Point, aiming for the gully leading to the saddle between it and the unnamed butte west of Lyell. This part was again frustratingly slow, but became more pleasant once finally in the gully, where periodic flash floods wash away the loose dirt and keep the plant life in check. I enjoyed the hike and scramble up the gully, then tolerated the final climb from where it faded to the ridge, where I eventually picked up faint bits of trail joining my morning route at the base of the Coconino. I halfheartedly looked for a more direct route up the ridge, but mostly retraced my descent, finally taking a more direct route left of the ridge through the Kaibab.

It was still some time before sunset, but the sun is low enough this time of year to offer good picture-taking light by mid-afternoon, so I jogged past quite a few people hiking the road out to Shoshone Point. I also found a herd of musty-smelling cow elk, utterly indifferent to the tourists taking their photos. The icy water jugs left on my dashboard had mostly melted, so I would have easy water for dinner after I once again drove out of the park to the convenient National Forest. I had one more day in the Canyon, and had to decide between more- and less-ambitious ways to use it.

Lookout and Cope Points

Cope from Cathedral Stairs


Cope Point is a Redwall fin just off the Hermit Trail, a minor and uninteresting thing compared to a major butte like Isis or Brahma, but supposedly a worthy scramble. I had only been to the Hermit area of the Park once, many years ago, so it was a good excuse to return. I hoped to do a more ambitious loop down the Hermit and up the Boucher Trail, but between the cold and short days, the mandatory shuttle system, and my feeling lazy and preoccupied, a trip down the Hermit to Cope proved enough for the day.

It was dark when I woke up, and my gallon water jugs were about one third frozen, so getting moving was a challenge. But I needed to get past the entrance station before it was manned, which I guessed happened around 7:00 AM, so I warmed up the car, scraped the ice off my windshield inside and out, and made my way into the Park along with a handful of sunrise photographers. I had planned to drive to Hermit’s Rest, but these days the road west of Grand Canyon Village is permanently gated and shuttle-only. As I later learned, overnight permits for that part of the park come with a gate code, but that was not an option for me. Fortunately it was too cold for the Village to be crowded, so I found roadside parking next to the shuttle stop, packed my backpack, and was soon on my slow, meandering way to the end of the road with some cold tourists and a burnt-out bus driver.

Santa Maria Spring

The upper Hermit trail is mostly well-built, with sections of the labor-intensive vertical sandstone paving found on the Grandview, but rough and steep enough not to be much fun to run first thing in the morning, especially with treacherously slippery frost on the log steps. It follows a collapsed section through the Coconino to a junction with the Waldron trail and, soon thereafter, the Dripping Spring and Boucher. Had I known better, I could have taken Forest Road 328 to the Waldron trailhead and avoided the entrance gate and shuttle entirely.

Lookout Point

From the Boucher junction, the Hermit trail makes an endless, rolling, but generally downhill traverse through the Supai to Lookout Point, a minor bump a short distance off the trail. I passed a surprising number of backpackers on this stretch, and unlike on the main trails, both they and I were open to conversation. To my surprise, none were doing the Boucher-Hermit loop, instead opting for either an out-and-back or a shuttle loop from the Bright Angel. Someone had added Lookout Point to Peakbagger, so I went over to tag it and turn a red dot green, finding it class 3-4 on the front and class 2-3 on the back.

Cope crest from the saddle

Back on the trail, I continued to the top of the Redwall, then descended the “Cathedral Stairs,” a section of tight switchbacks through a north-facing break. I left the trail just past them, following faint game and/or use trails to the saddle with Cope Point. The crest looked serrated and steep, and the west side looked tricky as well, but I assumed I would find cairns or at least a viable route once I got closer. The east side was far too sheer to consider, but I found a cairn a short distance up the crest, and a faint route traversing along the west face. I learned later that the crest goes as well, but I was in the mood for a sure thing.

Horus, Isis, and Granite Rapids

I traversed along rubble and poky plants until they gave out, then eyed a likely rib. Climbing it directly seemed like a bad idea given the exposure and untrustworthy limestone, but the chimney/corner to its right felt safe. I climbed this for awhile, traversed on another rubble bench, then wound my way through short cliff bands to the crest. From there it was an easy walk to the summit, where the copper register canister held a couple of surprises. First, despite being a class 4 scramble to a minor summit, Cope sees a surprising amount of traffic, perhaps a half-dozen people per year. Second, an original Butchart register is still hanging on, in which Harvey notes that his was not the first ascent.

Monument

The summit is a better lookout than Lookout Point, and I wasted quite a bit of time there, admiring the Granite and Hermit Rapids, the Monument in Monument Creek, and the Hindu Amphitheater across the way. I also studied my intended route down to the Tonto, around to Boucher Creek, and up the Boucher Trail with a side-trip to White’s Butte. The endless Tonto meandering and the Boucher’s long Supai traverse ate at my will, so after eating most of my food, I returned the way I had come. With only a daypack, I caught several of the backpackers I had met on the way down, and even felt the energy to jog a few flat stretches. The shuttle driver on the way back was much better at his job, singing to himself and telling stories about himself and the Canyon. I lack the temperament to drive the same short route over and over for years, but it was a pleasure to watch someone doing a miserable-seeming job well.

Isis Temple, Cheops Butte

[I will hopefully circle back to finish writing about Europe, but I have actually been doing things here lately. — ed.]

Isis from Cheops


Isis Temple is one of the larger buttes off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, a few miles west of Bright Angel Creek. While I had dayhiked Brahma Temple this past spring, I had little experience scrambling in the Canyon, having mostly hiked on its more- and less-maintained trails. While there is not a lot of information about Isis online, it seemed slightly harder than I would like to scramble. So when my friend Dan, whom I had not seen in a year or two, proposed climbing it with ropes and such, I jumped at the opportunity. November is a bit later than prime Canyon season, with short days, but still fairly comfortable below the rim.

I drove out the day before, sleeping off one of the forest roads outside the park, then drove in to the South Kaibab trailhead before the entrance station opened. (The National Parks are one of the best things our government does, so I am usually happy to support them with an $80 annual pass, but I won’t need one again until next Spring.) This being a holiday weekend at the Canyon, the picnic ground across from the gated road to the Kaibab trailhead was already full, and cars were already filling the shoulders of the rim road in both directions. The park has instituted a sometimes-mandatory shuttle system in the past decade, which I support, but the rules of parking are still odd. There is a central lot at the main shuttle terminal, but parking is also legal in most places where you can pull completely off the pavement without getting stuck. And while the road to Hermit’s Rest is shuttle-only, those with overnight permits receive the gate code, and can park at its end. It all works for now, but I doubt it will last.

Day 1

Sunrise Kaibab start


Since the picnic area was full, I continued to meet Dan and Paul at the main lot, where we gathered gear before shuttling back to the Kaibab. I had been busy and distracted of late, so my packing was rushed and haphazard. I remembered all of my camping gear plus a 60-meter rope, and brought adequate breakfast and dinner, but badly underpacked my daytime food, with only four sandwiches and ten granola bars (now down to 160 calories each thanks to shrink-flation) for three days.

Entering the Inner Gorge

The initial shady switchbacks through the Kaibab were cold, but pleasantly free of snow and ice, and temperatures became fairly comfortable by the time we reached the Hermit Shale rest area. However the entire Southwest was experiencing a cold snap, with highs on the Rim little above 40, so I was still wearing a fleece and gloves until much farther down. We met a number of people backpacking to or from Bright Angel or Phantom Ranch, and even a few runners going rim-to-river, but were there at the wrong time for the likely rim-to-rim hordes, who would have started at or before dawn.

Climbing through Tapeats

I had not, for once, been responsible for doing the research for this trip, so other than downloading some maps and knowing which rock we were supposed to climb, I had no idea where we were going, but fortunately Paul had been out to neighboring Cheops. After refilling on water at the Bright Angel campground, he led us directly to the somewhat obscure trail up out of the canyon to Utah Flats on the Tonto Plateau. The trail was fainter than any of the official trails other than parts of the New Hance, but mostly easy to follow, thanks to canyoneers who come this way to descend the narrow lower Phantom Creek. Other than a bit of boulder-hopping climbing through the Tapeats, it was a straightforward walk.

Verdant cactus meadows

The trail faded on the Tonto, and the best route likely continues along the wash until it is easy to exit. However I bravely took the lead, promptly leading us straight up some more challenging sandstone scrambling. Sandstone seems to get worse as one heads east: Red Rocks’ is compact and often varnished; Zion’s is often gritty, and scary when wet or snowy; the Grand Canyon’s seems one step worse. After a slight delay while the others groveled up a sloping corner, we continued along the plateau, soon finding cairns and bits of trail. The trail led northwest toward the upper, open part of Phantom Creek, passing through a lush cactus-meadow and past Cheops Butte before descending to a healthy creek lined by cottonwoods.

Nice part of Phantom Creek

We were aiming for something called “Hippie Camp” (remember, I had done no research), so we continued upstream as the short day faded. The canyoneers’ trail had given out, and while we found occasional cairns, we mostly rock-hopped up the streambed, sometimes following faint game trails along either side or thrashing through grass and brush. The stream disappeared and reappeared, but generally became weaker the higher we went. We were therefore questioning the wisdom of continuing when we finally reached Hippie Camp, a flat, sandy spot big enough for a few tents, marked by a small collection of antlers and unusual rocks on a boulder. We collected water to filter from a sorry trickle nearby, then set up camp and cooked dinner just before headlamp time. There would be a lot of that at this time of year, but we at least had a bright moon in the morning to help prepare for our dawn start.

Day 2

Approaching Isis summit


After a night of surprisingly good sleep for me, and little for Dan, we got started around 7:00, picking our way up the wash a bit farther, then climbing a steep dirt-slope to the necessary Redwall break. The route climbs some ledge-y terrain left of a dryfall, then traverses back into the upper streambed. While most of the canyon is gritty sandstone, the Redwall is sticky limestone. However it is no more reassuring, as it is usually fractured and untrustworthy. The climb starts out with some steep, exposed fourth class, which I found somewhat heady being out of practice and on unfamiliar rock. A bit of cautious and exploratory climbing got me through, and Paul did fine as well, but Dan didn’t have the head and/or heart for it. He passed up his harness for me to use (we had two among the three of us), then headed down to poke around the side-canyons.

Isis from Supai traverse

Above the Redwall, the route makes an endless traverse along the lower Supai, eventually crossing a saddle between Isis and Shiva Temples before beginning the climb. While the route up the Redwall from Phantom Creek was tricky, the route down into Trinity Creek on the other side looked straightforward. I believe the normal route to Trinity crosses the Isis-Cheops saddle, but this looks like a viable alternative. Like Brahma, Isis is a Coconino butte, but the crux is actually getting through the lower Supai group, which is a mix of hard and soft, i.e. steep and flat, layers. The route meanders up the west side, surmounting the steep bands through various shenanigans; I was impressed by the first ascenscionists’ persistence and ingenuity.

The crux is a large band lower down, climbed via about 20 meters of arete. Most of the climbing is low fifth class, but the crux move, pulling on a flake while smearing on a gritty slab, feels a bit more serious. There is a piton to protect it, but I was glad not to be soloing it in trail runners. Paul had brought rock shoes, so we dressed up as Real Climbers and he led it ably, pausing for a minute and clipping the old pin before pulling the crux. I followed cleanly, hauling his pack in two stages as I went.

Chimney/chockstone above crux

Above, we scrambled another short, steep step, then climbed a wide chimney and tunneled behind a giant chockstone to get up the next band. Above, the route wandered back and forth, finding varied weaknesses in the bands. One was a squeeze slot narrow enough to force removing our packs; another was a steep crack/chimney ending in an inconvenient bush. A third was the so-called “belly crawl,” which required climbing a gray arete, traversing a ledge under a bulge, groveling up a short chimney, then making a mantel or wide step-across. Unlike the more famous “belly crawl” on the Owen-Spalding route, this one involved actual crawling, pushing or dragging our packs.

We finally ditched the climbing gear on a broad bench near the top of the Supai, enjoying finally carrying normal day-hiking weight as we traversed around left of the Coconino summit knob. This section was supposed to involve some sketchy hard-packed side-hilling, but recent precipitation had softened the dirt enough to make most of it much easier. After trying one route through the Coconino and backing off, we found our way up another, probably fourth or low fifth class, to reach the summit ridge. From a notch, it was a meandering but easy scramble to the summit.

Return from Isis

Despite being near midday, it was chilly in the breeze, so we both found ourselves putting on our down jackets as we hung out. The views were predictably grand, from nearby Shiva and Buddha Temples, to Brahma and Zoroaster across Bright Angel Creek and, farther away, Wotan’s Throne and Angel’s Window. As I later found on other Canyon summits, a local has been placing well-made copper register boxes with good Ziploc bags, pencils, and even pencil sharpeners. The Isis register only went back to 2008, showing 1-2 parties per year. We added our names, snacked, then headed back for camp.

Rappel around crux

We had both hoped to get back in time to move camp, to be closer to both water and the trailhead (Dan and Paul had to drive back to Phoenix the next night), but the descent proved almost as time-consuming as the climb. We — or mostly I — repeatedly overshot the subtle breaks in the Supai bands, wasting time looking. I at least partly redeemed myself by quickly locating the correct tree to rappel the crux. The sizable juniper had two old slings, which we replaced with a fresh cord, and an ancient locking biner, which we reused. One free-hanging 20-meter rappel later we were back below the crux, putting away the climbing gear for the long hike back to the Redwall. This dragged on far longer than either of us remembered, and the shadows were long by the time we finally reached the scrambly part of the break. We were both comfortable downclimbing the thing, but there was a fresh piece of cord above the upper part, so we rappeled that before stashing the gear for the last time.

Water vs. limestone

The lower downclimb was heads-up in a couple of places, but I was noticeably more comfortable on steep Canyon rock after a day of practice, or at least desensitization. We dragged into camp a bit before dusk to find Dan in his sleeping bag, trying to catch up from the sleepless night before. There was still daylight left, but not enough to make it downstream to a better campsite without a fair helping of headlamp time, so we decided to stay where we were. My dinner was basically the same — a packet of instant potatoes and a tin of sardines — but I had the excitement of “Louisiana hot sauce” flavor instead of “oily jalapeño.” I was briefly grateful for my lack of daytime food, which made me hungry enough to enjoy this.

Just as we were getting ready for our sleeping bags, we saw a couple of headlamps coming up the wash, and met some poor backpackers who were hoping to sleep at Hippie Camp. They could have squeezed in, but I think all of us wanted and expected solitude in this obscure canyon, so they found another spot a short distance up a side-canyon. Their plan for the next day was to climb the Redwall breach we had used, then descend to Trinity Creek and return via the Isis-Cheops saddle. That seemed like a long grind to me, but they were carrying small overnight packs and appeared to know what they were doing.

Day 3

Cheops Pyramid from Butte


We woke early again, more because we had to pee and were sick of lying in our bags than because we expected a long day. After the usual morning nutrient glop for me — oats, protein powder, and trail mix — we headed back down Phantom Creek. The others were heading straight out, but had convinced me to make a side-trip to Cheops Butte. It was a short and moderate scramble, but Paul had already done it, and Dan had no interest.

Handline into lower Phantom

At the point where the route leaves the creek, we took a short side-trip to see the start of the slot canyon. There is a waterfall blocking further easy progress, but I found a handline on the right side anchored to a bolt leading down a near-vertical face. It looked old and faded, but was doubled over with regular knots, so I could have easily descended it and perhaps climbed it unaided. We had slings and a 60m rope, but knew nothing about the canyon, and it was probably too cold this time of year anyways. Dan generously gave me some of his food — pop-tarts and potato chips — then we climbed out of the canyon together before parting ways where I would take my side-trip to Cheops.

Cheops from base

I tanked up on water, shoved my remaining granola bars in a pocket, then took off light and fast up the steep, loose, prickly hillside toward the base of Cheops’ north ridge. I found no trail on this part, but there was an unnecessary cairn at the base of the ridge, and the route was obvious from there. It was mostly short stretches of walking separated by short class 3 steps, and not particularly exposed, but the crux was a bit harder and steeper, and very exposed. Above that, the route crossed a small natural arch to the summit plateau.

Super-benchmark

I checked in at the register, again in a copper box, noted a bit more traffic than Isis, then spent some time exploring the plateau. I found an odd survey marker farther on, embedded in a large steel cylinder filled with and planted in concrete. Clearly someone with a lot of money and helicopter time had had some fun in the Canyon. I continued to the south end, wanting to see the connecting ridge to the lesser Cheops Pyramid. I had faint hopes of traversing it to make a loop, but a quick look convinced me otherwise. The initial downclimb may have been reasonable, and the middle part was frighteningly narrow but doable à cheval, but the final climb looked steep, rotten, and highly exposed. I was not in the mood.

West from Cheops

Returning to the north ridge, I was surprised by a man just reaching the top. He was wearing shorts, a windbreaker, and approach shoes, and clearly knew what he was doing. In our half-hour conversation I learned that he was one of the people I had seen in Isis’ summit register, and that he had been exploring Isis’ supposedly doable-but-scary southeast ridge, a much more direct route than the standard one we had taken. We parted ways, and I returned to my pack in a bit of a hurry, expecting him to catch me on the long trudge across Utah Flats. However he must have been dawdling, because he did not catch me until I was just about to leave Bright Angel campground.

Snow to the north

I was carrying an overnight pack with a rope at this point, while he had just a daypack, and I expected him to take off jogging on the grind out, but we ended up hiking together and talking the whole way out. He turned out to be a 20-year local, and to know the Canyon well enough that to me he seemed like a modern-day Harvey Butchart. He had plenty of suggestions for my remaining time in the Canyon, some of which proved excellent, while others I recognized immediately as far too ambitious for the season and my current mindset. As we climbed, I watched a snowstorm descend on the North Rim and upper Phantom Creek. The clouds eventually reached the South Rim, and we felt a few flurries passing through the Supai, but nothing serious enough to stick.

As it turns out, we reached the rim only a few minute after Dan and Paul, so while Pete took off jogging back to his car, I caught up with my companions. After an early dinner at a Mexican place in Tusayan, they began their long drive home, while I drove into the National Forest to sleep. I unpacked as best I could without spreading Canyon sand all over my car, then settled in for a night forecast to reach 20 degrees on the rim. I had the gear to be warm enough, but the long, cold night would sap my ambition for the next day.

Andorra and Coma Pedrosa

Back in normal shoes


At last the big day had arrived. After a month cycling around in an orthopedic shoe, and a few days trying out a normal trail runner, it was time to hike to an actual peak, and a country highpoint at that. I have done very few of those, having been denied access to Chimborazo, failed on Huascaran, and never been interested in Denali or Logan. However Coma Pedrosa, the highpoint of Andorra, is a straightforward hike of about nine miles with 4300 feet of elevation gain. With higher neighbors clearly visible to the north and west, it is not particularly impressive or prominent, but then neither is Andorra.

Into Andorra

Taking off from La Seu d’Urgell fairly early, I had a cool ride into the country from the south along the Riu Valira. The country more or less consists of the headwaters of this river, whose valley provides its only year-round access to the outside world. Entering this way during the morning commute felt like riding along a highway through an outlet mall, with big-box stores, lots of traffic, and few places to urinate in private.

Dirt road approach

The Principality’s main city is Andorra la Vella, located in a wide junction of the Valira del Nord and Valira d’Orient. It looks like a mini-banking metropolis, some towers, luxury shops, and public artwork, but retains its European character with a maze of narrow, one-way streets. I was glad not to be in a car, but even being on a bike, and therefore able to use sidewalks and flout traffic laws, it was a challenge to reach the highway up the country’s left branch to Arinsal. The road up the valley climbs consistently, and steeply in places, and the metropolis gives way to a ritzy resort, full of hikers and mountain bikers this time of year.

As is often the case in Europe, it is unclear how far one is allowed to ride a bike, but I stopped at the main trailhead to lock my bike to a tree, then hide behind another to change into my neglected hiking clothes. I tied my shoes, then began tentatively walking up the trail, trying not to limp or bash my toe. The route I chose starts with a narrow, root-y, sometimes muddy trail next to a steep stream, then joins a steep gravel road coming from somewhere to the right. I felt slow, weak, and sometimes unsteady on rough ground, but better than expected given my time off.

Meadow with sheep pen

The route leaves the road at a sign, returning to a steep, rough trail. Despite being the path not only to the country highpoint, but to a nice hut and much of Andorra’s hikeable terrain, the trail is only slightly developed and admirably steep. There is some haphazard signage, but I found the map on my phone helpful in navigating the minor trail maze. I split off right shortly before the hut, descending to cross a meadow with an abandoned stone hut and sheep pen, then climbed up along a heavily mineralized stream, following a smattering of fellow hikers along the braided path.

Summit

Just before the one significant lake along the way, Estany Negre, I turned right along one of the two alternate paths to the summit. This one picks its way through a talus field, then follows the peak’s southwest ridge. I met a few people along the way, and found a bit of easy and optional scrambling by staying closer to the ridge. I was leery of the talus lest I bash my toe or shin, and pathetically slow, but managed not to get passed. The summit had a big, flat map, and a crowd of people talking loudly in Catalán. Not feeling sociable, I stood off to one side and the other to take in the view. I could see the whole country to the south and east, including the Port d’Envalira, my exit route. To the north and west were higher peaks in France and Spain. In the distance I could even see some glaciers on what I believe are the high peaks around Aneto, the range highpoint.

View into Andorra

For variety I took the other trail on the way down, meeting more people either because they are essentially Spaniards and keep Spanish hours, or because it is slightly easier. A trail-running kid bombed past me before stopping to relax at Estany Negre, inspiring me to jog a few of the smoother sections. My legs were feeling the unaccustomed activity by the time I reached the steeper sections below the hut, so I had no trouble patiently walking back to my bike. I changed behind the tree again, then carefully descended back into town, with a stop for food along the way.

The fun part

From Andorra la Vella at the junction of the country’s “Y” it is a 4500-foot climb to the Port d’Envalira, but there is a two-mile tunnel connecting the two branches about 300 feet higher, and I was determined to take it. Fortunately it is not only downhill in this direction, but features a dedicated bike lane. This was probably my favorite part of cycling through Andorra, flying down a well-lit highway tunnel in top gear.

Upper Port d’Envalira

Soon enough, though, it was time to grind out the climb. There was a fair amount of traffic, but thankfully far less than on the road in from La Seu d’Urgell. The road winds well above treeline to the location of the speed-skiing world championships, where it splits to a toll tunnel and the old, free road. This road has a number of sharp switchbacks, but is wide and well-paved, feeling somewhat Swiss. It was windy and cold on the top, so I huddled in the lee of a gas station with another cyclist to put on my warm clothes before descending to Pas de la Casa, a cluster of big-box stores just inside France.

It was forecast to be a cold night, and the northeast-facing valley would be even colder, so I needed to lose quite a bit of elevation before I camped. I passed the intersection with the Col de Puymorens, another interesting route leading in the wrong direction, then scouted an old service road before settling on a grassy road to an abandoned hut farther down. The hike had gone well, so before I went to sleep I spent some time looking at the map, planning my route back to pass by some other easy summits.

Collegats to La Seu d’Urgell

Collegats access road


The previous day I had wondered about climbing activity on the limestone cliffs of this Spanish backwater. Soon after starting, I had my answer: the Collegats gorge is a well-developed and moderately popular sport climbing area, with spectacular scenery and routes on both sides of the river, the ones on the far side approached by an intimidating Tyrolean traverse. While the current road goes through a long tunnel, the old road remains as a bypass open to pedestrians and cyclists, with signs along the way explaining the area’s geology and demonology. My first clue that this was a climbing area was the larger-than-usual number of camper vans, including one American-style hashtag-vanlife Sprinter. I saw one pair of active climbers as I passed through, but the area was mostly quiet.

Somehow demons are involved

Beyond the gorge, the road continues climbing slowly along the river to Sort, a decent-sized and very crowded tourist town. I stopped there for water and supplies, then began a long and winding climb of nearly 3000 feet to the Port del Cantó. This section is popular with cyclists, and since I was somewhat tired and loaded for touring, got to see several as they passed. One blew by me like I was standing still, impressing me until I realized he was doing hill intervals and almost caught him again during his recovery. Another was a young guy in the middle of a long day, who was riding at about my speed and spoke English well. He turned out to be doing his longest ride ever, something over 100 miles between his family’s and his girlfriend’s house. We chatted for the rest of the climb, then stopped to eat at a scenic picnic table at the pass.

Port del Canto

He quickly left me on the other side of the pass, as I had to be cautious before the turns with my less-than-excellent brakes. I eventually made it to El Segre, the river leading southwest out of Andorra. This is the main road, and in winter the only road, in and out of the postage stamp-sized country, so it is broad, crowded, and unpleasant to ride. Though it was warm down in the valley, the night was forecast to be cold and rainy in Andorra, which is mostly much higher. I waited out some squalls in La Seul d’Urgell, first at the Spanish version of a Costco, where everyone from Andorra apparently shops, then outside the tourist office.

I was hoping to make some use of the rest of the day, but it became increasingly clear that camping in Andorra would be cold, wet, and hard to do. Hotels there were also predictably overpriced, so I found a cheap place in La Seul d’Urgell, spread out all my things to dry in the room, then returned to the mega-market to buy supplies for a long and long-anticipated day. For my first hike in over a month, I hoped to tag Andorra’s highpoint, Coma Pedrosa. On either side of that, I had to first ride into the country and up to the trailhead, then back out into France via the Port d’Envalira, the Pyrenees’ highest pass.