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 Catal├ín. 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.

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