Hiking through the Pyrenees: Ordesa y Monte Perdido national park

March 23, 2013
Alpine Living | Anna Rae Gwarjanski

Alpine Living | Anna Rae Gwarjanski

Tuesday morning was met with a mixture of emotions. It was my third and final day in Barcelona, one of the most captivating cities yet. I had the pleasure of participating in the building of a human tower with the Castellars de Barcelona, watching the best fŭtbol club in the world FC Barcelona trounce Roya Villecano at Camp Nou stadium, and finally take a tour of three wineries in the Penedés wine region.

With so much left to do and see in this lively coastal city, the last thing I wanted to do was up and leave after only three days. However I had an appointment scheduled later that afternoon in one of the most breathtaking locations I will ever experience: the Pyrenees Mountains.

When I first began planning this day trip, I had trouble selecting a national park within the Pyrenees to visit. With an abundance of options – each one more scenic than the last – and a limitation on time, I settled on Ordesa y Monte Perdido national park. Roughly four hours from Barcelona and two and a half from Pamplona, it was the most accessible and as luck would have it, I was able to acquire a guide who was more than happy to take us through the park.

My companions on the trip included Dr. Kimberly Bissell, her 11-year-old daughter Emma and Anna Rae Gwarjanski as the photographer. We arrived in Torla, a small town in the autonomous community of Aragon, shortly after 2 p.m. Located at the entrance of Ordesa and surrounded by the rocky grey cliffs that are merely stepping stones to the higher peaks of Ordesa, Torla had a quiet charm that would be perfect for newlyweds looking to enjoy some fresh mountain air on their honeymoon.

Phil James, our guide for the day, met us in the parking lot of the information center. Originally from London, England, Phil moved to a town 30 minutes west of Torla with his wife in 2007 to begin his own company Hike Pyrenees,  guiding groups through Ordesa and other parts of the Pyrenees. After a winding drive up an extremely narrow street, we arrived at the starting point of our trek.

Phil supplied us with snowshoes and hiking poles so that we would be able to traverse the 3 feet of snowfall from the previous weekend. Because of the risk of avalanches, we were confined to the floor of the Pincta valley. But I wasn’t complaining. The snowcapped peaks rose nearly 2,000 meters on each side and provided protection from the wind, resulting in a comfortable temperature despite the deep snow and our general lack of appropriate hiking gear.

Alpine Living | Anna Rae Gwarjanski

Alpine Living | Anna Rae Gwarjanski

We hiked along the trail Brecha de Rolando, or the Rolando Gap, towards two separate waterfalls. It took awhile to get a feel for the snowshoes – size 14 boots are not the best choice of footwear – but I was able to keep my feet most of the time. The girls seemed to be getting along fine as well, especially Dr. Bissell, who was hiking with a broken right foot and torn ligament.

Phil was a brilliant guide. A former scout, he stopped and shared his knowledge of the area, including different hiking routes at higher elevations and the plant and animal life in this part of the Pyrenees. His excitement for the area was infectious and I was able to immediately grasp the undeniable enjoyment he gained from his job. If only I can be as lucky one day.

We continued upward along the Rolando Gap for about three hours, stopping at breaks in the trees for pictures. The trees growing upwards on the cliffs had little to no greenery left, exposing the limestone rock underneath and creating a sharp contrast of the cliffs against the white sky.

Phil said it best: “It’s just a lovely mixture of rock and green trees, honestly.”

After about three hours of hiking, we reached the first of the two waterfalls. Cascada de la Cueva, or the waterfall of the cave, ran down over sharp cliffs and into a pool of dark blue with snow covered banks. I half expected to see polar bears holding coca-colas lounging about.

The second waterfall was a five minute hike above Cascada de la Cueva. It was easy to tell that this water source had carved a narrow cleft in the rock, giving it its namesake Cascada de Estricho, or the waterfall of the narrows. The fall ran down the cliff side and into a bed of rocks below while icicles almost five feet long grew from overhangs of the cliffs above.

Alpine Living | Anna Rae Gwarjanski

Alpine Living | Anna Rae Gwarjanski

We used the time at the waterfalls to relax. Phil supplied us with hot tea and bars of milk chocolate as we stood and admired the falls. Once we were rested we began our return hike. This went by much quicker as it was more downhill and only took about an hour. Topics of conversation ranged from Phil’s support of the futbol club Manchester United to how long a drive it was from Tuscaloosa to New Orleans.

Once we reached the parking lot at the entrance of Ordesa, our hike was at an end. We cleaned off our snowshoes, thanked Phil again and again for being such a helpful guide, and climbed into the car. We stopped briefly in Beiscas for a meal of tapas and risotto before continuing the drive to Pamplona.

We have been in Spain a week from the day I write this, and with one week to go I’m confident that this trek will remain as the highlight of my Spanish experience. It is rare to feel a sense of isolation, yet have the source of that isolation keep you company. The valley funnels you away from the people, from the cars and the traffic and the metro that can be so exhausting, and into the company of the mountains that can be so rejuvenating. I can’t wait to go back.