Trip Start Jul 03, 2011
172Trip End Jan 17, 2012
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I arrived in Andorra la Vella with nothing more than a daypack, excited to begin climbing the surrounding Pyranees mountains. I knew there were refugios scattered amongst the mountains (free shelters for backpackers to sleep in), so I grabbed a map from the tourist center and started climbing. Soon, I realized the trails were not as clearly labeled as I´d hoped, and as I went further into the surrounding wilderness, it became clear the map I had didn´t even list trail names, just valleys and refugios. I continued on, backtracked a bit, jumped from trail to trail. Sometimes the trail marker was there, sometimes it wasn´t, yet I continued, sure I would come across a refugio if I just kept heading up. I regretted starting so late in the day, and as dusk approached my body screamed for water as I tried to ration out the last few drops I had. It was at this point I began to feel a bit panicky-- I was lost in the middle of the wilderness with no water, no guidance, and no shelter. Clearly I had not learned my lesson in kindergarten about the importance of the buddy system. Determined, I continued on until I found a small creek. Not caring about the potential bacteria, I filled my water bottle and greedily drank the sandy water. I scanned the area and spotted a cave. Reluctant to leave the first water source I´d come across in hours, I decided my best option would be to stay in the cave and find a refugio in the morning.
This decision led me to the worst night of my entire life. I had exactly 2 thin long-sleeve shirts, a tanktop, a thin zip-up, a rain jacket, one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, and three pairs of thin dress socks. I had also brought a sarong, which could double as a small sheet. Layered in everything I had brought, I huddled in my cave, wondering what animal normally lived there. I conjured up images of bears and snakes as I gripped my knife in my hand, determined to sleep but ready to attack. Eyeing the cobwebs, I repeated over and over to myself, ´¨You´re not allowed to be afraid of spiders when you live in a cave, you´re not allowed to be afraid of spiders when you live in a cave...¨
As night fell, so did the temperature, I soon found myself facing the longest period of time I have ever experienced at such extreme cold with no hope of warmth. I questioned my decision to climb this mountain without a sleeping bag, blanket, or anything even remotely warm. Unable to sleep because of the extreme cold, I eventually dropped the knife. Thinking of where ticks go to find warmth, I buried my hands against my scalp, under my hair which I had been using as a face cover. As I wiggled my toes in hopes that they would not fall off, I assured myself I was no longer afraid of any animals. I realized it was the cold I must fear. Nothing more to be done, I prayed.
Around six in the morning, my fatigue won out and I slept for an hour. I awoke to realize that my dream of sleeping in a cave and being in such immense pain I was unable to walk was not a dream. My bursitis had taken a toll on my hip, and I allowed myself ten minutes of extreme self-pity, the first and last of the week, before I thought about what my next move would be. I found that I was in a cloud, both literally and figuratively. Should I turn around and sleep on a park bench in town for the next four nights? Or should I continue upwards, knowing the temperature would drop with the altitude? Not being one to run back with my tail between my legs, I continued limping up the mountain.
After two hours of vertical climb, I came across a refugio.
The third day, I decided to follow the Dutch boys on their trek. They each had three legs (a third aluminum walking stick served that purpose), and long legs. For hours on end, they walked at a rapid pace up and down vertical slopes, but I was determined to keep up. I repeated to myself as I matched their pace, ¨Follow the blanket, follow the map, follow the blanket, follow the map.¨ When we arrived at a lake, they swam. I preferred to be dirty than cold, and watched from shore. We continued on, passing two additional refugios, either one of which I would have been happy to stop at. Each time we paused I felt my legs shaking under me, ready to give out from the physical and mental fatigue I was suffering. The only time we slowed our pace was to carefully walk through a heard of cattle as we each averted our gaze and hoped they would continue grazing without noticing us.
When we arrived at the third refugio, we stopped for the night. It was at a much lower altitude and sheltered from the wind in a ravine. Soon, a third Dutch guy arrived as well as three Andorran girls. We made a fire and played cards, sharing stories and discussing the financial crises in both Spain and Andorra. Apparently, Andorra is faring even worse than Spain, and not being included in the European Union, people are frustrated at their inability to leave to search for work. Again using the Dutch boys´ blanket, I settled in for another cold night.
In the morning, the Dutch boys went to town for food. I did not follow. Instead, I hiked with the Andorran girls for a few hours. Eventually they had to turn around, and I continued on, determined to find another refugio. Mapless, I, of course, ended up at the refugio at the highest altitude possible. Surrounded by rocks, my attempts to find firewood were futile. I was so high up even trees hesitated to grow. In this refugio, at least, two of the bedframes had mattresses, and there were a few uninflated blow-up mattresses around. I immediately claimed the thickest mattress as my own. As night fell, I passed the time talking with the three men from Barcelona and the one from France who showed up. Chilled to the bone, at one point I stood up mid-conversation and ran out of the door. I prayed to G´d to find something to burn, and He answered my prayers. As if in a craze I ran around pulling up dead roots, sprinting towards trees in the distance at the off chance there´d be a dead branch to burn. My boyd was pushed forward by the biting wind, and after a while I realized it was dark and I had lost the path. I made my way back as snow started to fall around me, arms full of firewood I thought didn´t exist, I was greeted by the four men standing outside the refugio, probably rightfully concerned at my mysterious sudden dissapearance, applauding me loudly. Happily, we made a fire. When I went to sleep, I realized the men had not claimed the other mattress or blow-up mattress. Using them to cover myself, I slept the entire night unable to move from the weight of the mattress, but incredibly and gloriously warm.
See how happy and warm I am?
The last day, I walked back down the mountain to the second refugio. It was a beautiful walk and as I went I gathered every dry log and branch I found. When I reached the refugio I had my arms stacked full of firewood. It started to rain just as I arrived, leaving me truly grateful for the sunny days I had thusfar experienced on the mountain. The refugio filled up with backpackers, and as we sat by the fire we discussed everyone´s favorite topic: the economic crisis in Spain. At night, I layered myself with some plastic trashbags I had found, and was able to sleep fairly comfortably.
I started walking down the mountain at the crack of dawn, eager not to miss my bus back to Barcelona. Ushering in the sun during my walk allowed me a chance to reflect on the past few days. I had won my battle with the cold. I had survived the mountain. I had minimized my fear of spiders, renewed my faith, seen incredible beauty, realized my limitations, and demonstrated a level of resourcefulness I never knew I had. Alive to tell the tale, with all ten fingers and ten toes, I no longer have any regrets for climbing that mountain. This is an experience I will always carry with me.
The beautiful Pyranees: