This Easter, Semana Santa as it’s known locally, i figured it was about time i made a visit to the upper Benasque Valley, with its Maladetas, its moribund glaciers..and its 1000+ meter descents everywhere you look. I’ve been a regular here in the past but in recent years my visits have been less frequent, for various reasons, though not for want of fresh projects in the area. So i decided to get after it this year and, with an eager partner in Mariano, had soon lined up several objectives for a multi-day visit.
Only problem was late planning made it impossible to stay at any of the roofed accommodations in the upper valley – it’s Easter week, right? – so the solution was.. to stay at an alternative accommodation in a higher valley still.
Having crossed the Plan d’Aigualluts in the direction of Aneto, you gain entry to the Valley of Barrancs, and continuing a kilometer and a half up this valley you come to a wide open, relatively flat area..ideal for camping out. Of course it means slogging up 600m vertical on skis & skins with close to 20 kilos on your back..but you have to pay some price for living the good life.
The second day our objective was the NorthEast approach to Aneto via Glaciar de Barrancs, finishing on the East ridge to the summit. I’ve wanted to do this route for years and while it doesn’t involve huge difficulties it does mean a solitary experience..in contrast to the pilgrimage that you can find on the normal NorthWest approach.
What you might call the crux of this route is the point where you take one of two steep ramps – in the above shot, ascending diagonally from right to left – to gain the East ridge. Both are quite steep (40-45º) and rather exposed, particularly at the high point of the lower ramp where you ‘turn the corner’..and from below, on the way up, the exposure is really in your face, a 100m vertical drop off the end of the ramp. Gulp! ..not a place to fall, you think..or be dragged down by a wet sluff. But once on the ramp the sense of exposure disappears and with good snow it’s really relatively innocent.
The East ridge itself is quite straightforward, ascending gently towards the summit. We left skis at 3330m, as the last part alternates snow arêtes and short rock passages making it impossible – short of very exceptional snow conditions – to carry out a ski descent.
As we scrambled up the final slightly steeper section of the ridge, we were surprised to find that there were no people present at the apex. Indeed we had the top to ourselves for a good ten minutes, most unusual for the much-visited summit of Aneto, monarch of the Pyrenees, 3404m. A dozen or so persons were however toiling on ‘Mohammed’s Bridge’ (El Puente de Mahoma)..keen for their moment of Paradise?
Seeing clouds building up to the West and realizing that it was still a long way home, not to mention that a platoon of Catalans was about to dislodge us, we quickly headed back down the ridge to where we had left our skis..
..we got them on, geared up, got the adrenaline going, and skied down the East ridge into the dogleg, onto the lower ramp, two or three turns and traverse off it..and it was done. Just another thousand or so vertical meters back to camp!
The snow was a bit funkier than we’d expected, just enough crust on the surface to make it less fun – and slower – to ski than might have been the case an hour earlier. Anyway we cruised on down..to around 2500m where we took a break to replenish our water-bottles.
With only two small gas cylinders for three and a half days, the option to get water without having to melt snow is always attractive..just that in this particular case there was one small rock move between us and it, and quite a drop below.
Mission successfully completed, we got on down and back to camp..hungry for a big dinner. We figured we’d earned it.
Next day the forecast from earlier in the week had suggested changeable weather, so we ascended directly towards Glaciar de Aneto and crossed to the right, away from Aneto, towards Pico del Medio, with a conservative approach to an ambitious project.
My idea was to reach Pico del Medio (3349m) and continue along the relatively horizontal but jagged crest to Punta Astorg and Pico Maldito (3354m). This would have involved some passages probably requiring a belay and in our ski-boots would have been a bit slow..and clouds were clearly building all round.
In the end we settled for just Pico del Medio, with an easy snow arête and a little scramble on rock..beautiful summit, wonderful views of Aneto’s West face. And i had never been there before. No point in being greedy, is there?
Back down the ridge, quick bite to eat – really cold at the col – and skis on. Who knew what was coming next..the best descent in four days! Which we would surely have missed if we had insisted on doing the whole ridge. The light wasn’t great at times but the snow, while still a bit challenging, was really good to ski. Plus, we had another little water-collecting adventure at the end of the descent. What more could you ask for?
That afternoon in Barrancs, spent cooking and sleeping, was a very strange one weather-wise. At moments the storm seemed about to break..then the sun broke thru the cloud and it got very warm in a matter of minutes, stripping clothes off, almost sweating..when new clouds rolled in and the temperature plummeted, clothes back on – all available clothing – such was the cold we were practically shivering. Repeat. And again. Not long after six in the evening we were both in our sleeping bags. Big sleep.
Next morning was brutally cold. Hard to believe after the heat of previous weeks down on the Meseta. Felt like deep Winter..though we had passed the middle of April. Cold Spring days! Broke camp as fast as possible and got our asses up the mountain – big packs on – towards the sun. High traverse via Portillón Superior and below Diente de la Maladeta towards Vallón de Paderna – incidentally passing up the most attractive ski, best snow of the week, on the way – and finally down to Tubos de Paderna, steep concrete bumps – what fun! – and down to Los Llanos del Hospital.