Pic de Racofred and Pic de Plá de l’Estany in Valls de Comapedrosa Natural Park, Andorra.
In many years of visiting the Pyrenees i have been careful to steer clear of Andorra. Andorra, land of the ski-lift..land of the interminable piste..land of mass tourism in the mountains. Not for me, thanks. So when my friend Marcos proposed going there at Easter i was less than enthused..but i let myself be convinced. We arrived there at two in the morning so on my entry to the mini-country i didn’t see much other than a lot of lights and urbanization..not making for great first impressions. The next day when i got up i was coughing badly, my nose was running like a troll, i felt feverish and had a headache. Just right for a hard day in the mountains! I could have just said ‘to hell with the hills today’..but i knew that the weather was due to change somewhat in the following days, so i started spluttering up the trail with my pack weighing heavily on my back.
Hiking the first 300m vertical with little or no snow.
We began to walk from just above the ski-area of Arinsal, heading towards the Valls de Comapedrosa zone on the north-western edge of Andorra. Comapedrosa is the Principality’s highest peak at 2942m and its surrounding valleys are classified as a Natural Park. The fact that these valleys have not been developed for mechanical skiing is perhaps partly due to their south-facing access, making it difficult to retain snow below 2000m. Starting at 1600m we had to hike to 1900m before we found continuous snow. From there on the white stuff was more or less abundant. As was the evidence of avalanche activity along the access route..
Avalanche destruction along the access route to the valley of Pla de l’Estany.
Perhaps another reason not to build lines of ski-lifts into this area? Anyway we soon entered the high valley of Plá de l’Estany..a truly magnificent wild alpine valley. Flanked on one side by Comapedrosa, the top of the valley was closed by a spectacular cirque composed of a semi-circle of 2900m peaks.
The East face of Comapedrosa, and the Canal de l’Alt.
I have seen many alpine valleys..and yes, some are surely bigger than others, some more intimidating than others, but i have seen none more beautiful than this one.
Bigger yes, but more beautiful -i repeat- i have not seen..
Of course our attention was immediately drawn by the 900meter-high couloir to our left, the Canal de l’Alt..
La Canal de l’Alt
..and when i say that it is 900m high, that’s what i mean, i don’t mean long..i mean high, 900m of vertical gain to the top. Truly Alpine dimensions, in the sense that this is something you might not be surprised to find in the Alps. But this is the Pyrenees.. and not even the high Pyrenees, it’s silly Andorra! And we were entirely alone in the valley..all day. And there were a few faint old ski-tracks here and there, from maybe a week or more ago..?
Unfortunately, even though i had improved considerably from how i was a couple of hours before (amazing what synthetic drugs can do), i was still more sick than well..and another 900m of climbing was going to be a bit much for me. Nevertheless, we started up it..changing to crampons after a couple of hundred meters as it got steeper. Reluctantly i told Marcos not to wait for me..seeing how slowly i was wheezing my way upwards, and knowing that it was already relatively late in the day..we hadn’t set out early. So he whizzed on ahead.
In the lower section of the couloir, Marcos whizzing up it.
I knew that realistically i couldn’t hope to make it to the top, so i set myself the target of 2500m..and toiled on up. It wasn’t particularly steep, never over 40º..but pretty sustained at 30-35º in general, and my lungs weren’t functioning at max output. I felt like i was gaining a meter every minute..60 meters in 60 minutes, jeez, i thought, at this rate i’ll make it to 2500m in five hours!
Marcos (at about 2700m) looking down at me..having wheezed my way up to 2500m.
Tough going. Anyway, i finally made it. I reached 2490m and thought “time to ski”..! And that’s exactly what, after snacking and resting a bit, i did – ski..and what a ski! Perfect corn snow, sweet sweet turns..and turns and turns and turns. Among the best turns i’ve had all year, all the way down to the valley floor at 2030m. Totally sick, man!
From there i decided to head up the main valley a bit, to visit the small refuge of Plá de l’Estany. There i could comfortably wait for Marcos..
Refugi de Plá de l’Estany, with..quite a lot of snow round and about.
When i reached the hut i took my skis off, went inside and sat down to eat a bit..and spent a while reading people’s entries in the visitor’s register, not many visits in Winter, more in late Spring and Summer. Then i took some photos..
View down the valley from the door of the hut.
..and seeing as how Marcos still hadn’t appeared, i decided to skin a bit further up the valley. The day was advancing towards evening, the sun was beginning to drop in the western sky, the late light making the alpine valley even more alluring. I was feeling somewhat better.
Looking back down towards the hut..as the shadows grow longer.
As i gained height once more, now in the upper valley, moving in the most relaxed manner possible and stopping every few steps, I began to have a Stendhal type experience..all alone in the valley, the beauty of the place in the cold evening light was overwhelming, it almost made me want to cry.
Looking down on Andorra..an almost untouched, practically pristine alpine valley..no lifts, no people.
It seemed somehow incongruous..paradoxical even: here i was in the Land of the Mechanized Mountain, on Good Friday (holiday time, lotsa peeps in the hills) with excellent weather..and in a radius of several kilometers about there was not only no visible evidence of human activity but there was probably only one other human (about whom i was beginning to worry a little) in a place of insurmountable beauty which also incidentally offers some of the best skiing i can imagine.. do you get it?
Looking up to the heights of Comapedrosa..sublime.
My ruminations were interrupted..down the valley Marcos suddenly appeared riding his board out of the Canal de l’Alt, so i clicked in and skied down to meet him. Again, luscious turns at speed..possibly even better than before, on immaculate late afternoon corn. Once reunited we decided to quickly head down to the mechanical world..but then managed to linger another half-hour on a nearby knoll, taking still more pictures, taking in the wonder of the valley.
Once in a while, life throws a really surprising one at you..
All in all.. sick day in Andorra!