A classic high mountain itinerary in the Pyrenees.
Setcases to Nuria 19.5kms
This was my last day on the trail, as tomorrow I’d be hiking down from Nuria to get the train home. I was feeling a little sad to be honest. I’d had a great day on day 8, hiking all the way from Beget to Setcases – hot but beautiful sunny weather and unforgettable scenery. I’d also met some cool people on the trail and sadly even lost one. But as we all know, everything comes to an end, whether you’re ready for it or not. Most of us aren’t ready for change, and even fear it, but it is change in our lives that bring challenges and opportunity. If you miss something, like a person that you don’t see any more, or as often, an old apartment or car, even a country or city, then that means it truly meant something to you and should be missed, but remembered fondly. So, taking my own advice, I went to sleep on day 8, ready to start day 9 and finish this little journey of mine. I knew I would miss it but it’d been the best time. Today was an “itinerario clásico de alta montaña en los Pirineos” (a classic high mountain itinerary in the Pyrenees) and I knew it was gonna be tough but amazing. My route would take me from Setcases, snuggled in the mountains at an altitude of 1,270m, up to the ski station of Vallter (1,910m), past the “Eye of the Ter” or Ulldeter refuge (2,236m) up and over the highest point in the hike today at Collado de Noucreus (2,799m) and then down to the Nuria valley (1,960m), my final destination. To make things a little happier, I got a text from some friends who wanted to meet me in Queralbs for a quick hike – a great way to finish everything off.
The 3 of us packed up and headed off early, walking out of the village of Setcases just before the sun got out of bed. I’d stayed in bed a little longer than the Basque couple, not because I was older and needed the rest, but I liked spending those few extra minutes lying in bed enjoying it. That and I don’t eat breakfast until my first stop. I offered the guys some of my muesli and powdered milk; it was my last day and didn’t need it anymore, but they were going right till the end. We set off together, striding up the road, making good time, all the while the mountains around us got bigger and higher. We turned off the road, hooking around to the left to follow a rougher trail, greenery and rocks on either side. I was stopping to take some photos occasionally and before long my hiking buddies overtook me and disappeared. I always knew they would and had said goodbye in the morning, promising to send them some photos when I got home (which I did!). I stopped at the Vallter 2000 ski resort to have some breakfast, having walked for about 2 hours and climbed from 1,270m to about 1,900m. Not too shabby! I sat down and made my muesli for the last time, looking around me and where I was and where I’d started over a week ago. I was feeling a little sad, but more happy and very proud of myself to even have made it this far, to have at least started my dream of hiking the Pyrenees. I quickly washed up and packed before setting off again, tired of sitting down and also feeling a little cold. I walked up and past the ski resort, finding the path and a few cows wandering around. Before too long though I had the feeling that I was going the wrong way. Again. Thankfully I had that gut feeling and checked - I have no problems asking people to make sure either. I saw a guy coming up behind me, running and jumping around like a crazy mountain goat, wearing a t-shirt, shirts and some trainers. I asked him about the trail, but he didn’t know anything about the GR-11. He told me that if I was going to Nuria, I should turn around the head straight up to the top of the ridge and then just go down the other side. I looked to where he was pointing and wasn’t filled with confidence, as there was no discernible path and it looked very, very steep. I thanked him and headed back down to where I’d made the wrong turn. I checked my GPS (which decided to work today!) and found the path that I’d missed earlier. I was going to go the correct way, follow the path, not trust some weird guy who looked like a Viking on a Summer holiday in Europe.
I linked back up with the correct trail (I’d been following yet another off-shoot of the GR-11), cursing myself for the wasted time. I relaxed a little when I got to the Ulldeter Refuge at 2,236m, had a short break and decided to stop being angry with myself. It was the last day and there was no rush to do this – I knew I’d make it today. Also, if I hadn’t gone the wrong way, which only cost me an hour, then I wouldn’t have got to see the mountains and resort from a different viewpoint. The Refugio de Ulldeter was a classic mountain hostel; stone walls, chimney running up on side, but this one also had a cool café with seating outside and big windows for those who wanted to sit inside and see the view. I was tempted to sit and eat something, have a beer, but I knew that I would just waste time here – I told myself that I’d get something nice at Nuria, maybe even a cooked dinner. It was quite busy here as well, being so close to a road and a parking lot, so I wasn’t alone when I started the hike up to Collado de la Marrana. There were a few guys in army camo t-shirts and inappropriate shoes, struggling and sweating profusely, constantly out of breath and stopping frequently to catch it (they lit up cigarettes as soon as they reached the top). There were a few small groups as well, but what made me smile happily was a couple and their small child. The dad had the kid, who must have been under a year old, on his back in a special backpack, and was pointing out all the peaks and explaining everything in great detail to his son. Dads! Even though the child couldn’t understand or say anything back, we looked around and had a very serious look on his little face. Very sweet. I made it up the uneven, sometimes grassy path, to the crossroads at the top – and nearly blew right off the ridge! The wind here was incredible; anything not tied and secured surely would have blown away. It was also very sunny and I was squinting against the glare, still wishing I hadn’t lost my sunnies on day 7. I found a nice spot out of the wind, behind a purposely built, rough stone wall, sat down and had a snack of peanut butter. From here, you can climb to the peak of Ulldeter, which I did many, many years ago – one of my first trips in Catalonia too if I remember correctly. I was heading straight on though, a path that would lead me down into the lush valley, before heading up and skirting the border with France.
It was nice to be out of the wind, which abruptly stopped the moment I went over the ridge. It also made a nice change to be walking downhill for once! I picked up the pace a little, knowing that I would have a hard time of it on the other side of this valley – I could see the trail ahead of me and it looked impossibly vertical. I crossed a small mountain stream and stopped dead in my tracks. I could see at least a dozen Isards, Pyrenean Mountain Chamois, standing around and grazing. I unslung the camera and snapped a few pics from quite some distance away before realising that there were people walking past without even frightening the animals. I walked slowly, trying not to make much noise or any sudden movements, and I got a lot closer to these beautiful creatures, even enough for some real close-up shots. Their faces have what looks like war paint on them, all around their eyes, possibly to reduce the sun’s glare, and their horns are cute things that curl backwards and slightly to either side. I saw some babies in the herd too which is always special. I took way too many photos, but couldn’t help it as these chamois were pretty much unafraid of me – one of them grazed while another kept a look out, then they took off for a few yards, then back to eating. How could it get better than this? Well, not 5 minutes after I put my camera away and started walking again, I heard a quiet yet distinct squeaking noise. Groundhogs. Although these critters of the rodent family are fairly common in this area (and are actually called Marmots), they aren’t easy to spot and even harder to take photos of because of their shyness. You can hear them calling out to each other, but they quickly duck back into their burrows. I was quiet and patience and managed to get some good pics before they went back underground. On a high from my animal close encounters, I keep going, but frequently had to stop to catch my breath. I wasn’t sure if the altitude had anything to do with my out-of-breathness (is that even a word?). I was only at 2,799m, so it shouldn’t have made a difference, and my backpack was lighter than ever. It must have just been my traitorous legs – they could see the end of the hike and were starting to give up. I struggled up, reaching the peak and looked out over France. Well worth it!
Looking out over France, with its beautiful mountain forests and lakes, it was hard to just stay here. There was only myself and 3 other people; a mother and her 2 children. The poor woman was well and truly about to have a heart attack – and here I was worrying about myself! She said that she’d started from the refuge and was heading to Nuria, and up until now didn’t know what that entailed (thanks kids!). I wished her all the best (gave a silent prayer) and followed the trail until down to Nuria. You know how I said that walking down was nice? Well, that’s not always the case! The last hour or so down to Nuria was hell on my knees; lose rocks, steep inclines and strong winds. I was very, very tired by this stage and nearly lost my balance a few times, which in all honesty could have been fatal. I half-jogged, half-limped down, trying to get a pace going that would make good time as well as being a little easier. As I walked into the Nuria valley, everything evened out a little and became that much greener. I walked past herds of horses, the babies lying down in the sun which struck me strange as you don’t normally see horses on the ground, but I guess there isn’t much to fear up here. I found the camp, which was free due to Covid. Most of the buildings here at the complex were closed, and those that were open, had a skeleton staff. The bar was open, thankfully, and after I set up my camp, changed into some (slightly) fresher clothes, I found a comfy seat and celebrated with a couple of beers. I snacked on some salty chips, not caring how much the bartender charged me for the pleasure. I had dinner back at home, the last of my pasta, watched the sunset and went to bed. I was very happy that I’d made it – I never doubted myself really, but then again, I never really knew how hard it actually was in parts. I got lost, ran out of water, fell over a few times, lost my glasses, got lost (again)… so many things could have been worse too, but so much of it was incredible; the people, the scenery and the pure please of being in the mountains and walking 200 kilometres on your own steam, camping all the way. The memories would stay with me forever.
I got up at about 6am, casually packed my bag, not caring too much as I only had to walk down 2 hours to get to Queralbs. I headed off just as the sun was coming up, feeling refreshed and ready to rock. I think my energy levels come and go in 2 day cycles – one day I feel great and think I can walk forever, the next day I struggle right from the start. maybe that’s the problem – I do too much the first day and pay for it the next. Today was a good day and I got down to town in about and hour and half, found the first bar and went in. I ordered a coffee (my first in 10 days!) and a big baguette of pork, bacon and cheese – an absolute feast! My friends Anna and Carles joined me shortly afterwards, with their little daughter in tow. We had breakfast together, chatted for a bit, then dumped the Red Beast in the car before setting out on a light hike. It was such a relief to have nothing on my back – I felt naked almost, but loved it. Nothing like lose 17kgs in an instant to put a spring in your step! We followed an easy path which led down to a river, where we chilled out and even had a swim. The water was freezing but felt amazing once you got used to it. We headed back to the car and drove a little to a house they were staying at in a tiny village not far from Queralbs. We had some lovely white wine and a barbeque – true pleasures in life! The words said by David, about experiencing more in the mountains, came back to me, never sounding truer. Not only do you feel things more while hiking, the taste of pure water, the feel of the breeze in your face, but when you get home and meet with friends, have a glass of wine or smell sausages cooking on a BBQ, that is also more. I hope you made it David! Actually, I know he did, as he was as tough as they come, and he probably overtook me at some point without me realising! They dropped me off at the train station, as there were only this train and one more, so I couldn’t muck around. I sat on the train, mask all the way, headphones in playing soft music to keep out the noise of the people on the train. I smiled to myself, full of happiness that I’d done this, especially after such a tough time being in lockdown with Covid. It would be hard to re-adjust to city life and noise again though. That’s ok, my dose of the mountains should carry me through for a bit. Thank you GR-11 - see you again one day.
Remember to also follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/myuncletravellingmatt
MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2020.