The Alps is a monstrous mountain range that extends 1200 km’s through eight European countries and reaches a height of 4800 ft m. With iconic mountains such as Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, there’s a reason why so many choose to flock to the Alps to enjoy Europe’s ‘finest’ mountains. Additionally, thanks to social media, the Dolomites have become a popular tourist destination
Here’s the thing.
As stunning as The Alps and Dolomites are, there’s a smaller mountain range in Europe that exists without the crowds of tourists and exploitation. The Pyrenees is a beautiful range that sits as a natural border between Spain and France. The mountain range is an amazing place to get ‘off the grid’ in Europe and enjoy the alpine.
The Pyrenees essentially spans 500 km and extends 3,404 m. The Pyrenees mountains are divided into three sections, East, Central, and West. The famous walking route Camino de Santiago, (the famous Christian pilgrimage) is located in the West of Spain and spills over the West Pyrenees, crossing the political and geographical border of Spain and France. The lesser known and lesser visited areas of the Pyrenees mountains are located in the East Pyrenees. Located about 75 km East from the coast of the Balearic Sea, the end of the Pyrenees.
If you draw a line on a map exactly 120 km North of Barcelona, Spain, 2km shy of the French border you will find the Vall de Núria, where my partner and I chose our Pyrenees experience to start. To give you an idea of how remote this place is, there is no way to access Vall de Núria by road. The only way to get to the valley is by a rickety rack rail or your own two feet. I suggest taking the rack rail as you’ll want to preserve your legs for hiking up the rugged peaks.
Starting our journey originally from Barcelona, on the coast of the aforementioned Balearic Sea, where the small mountain range of Serra de Collserola can be seen in the backdrop of the city, topping out a 512 m on the peak of Tibidabo. No one really visits Barcelona for its small yet scenic mountain peaks though… rather for it’s bustling city, beautiful architecture, and it’s warm beaches! We enjoyed a few days of cycling in the city and sunbathing next to the warm ocean, before heading into the still cool, alpine region of Catalonia.
Ripoll would be our home for a few days, deep in Catalonia province, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. We had spent the last few months at sea level, so it was a welcomed opportunity to engage with Spanish mountain culture. Our evenings were spent at different restaurants eating tapas, drinking beer and trying to decipher the Catalan language that sounded more French than it did Spanish. Most of the days were spent sight seeing around the province, taking on loop hikes and local trails.
After a few luxurious days in and around Ripoll sitting at 691 m, we set off to Queralbs 1,236 m (population 182). One train heading directly north, higher into the foothills took us there without any hitches. After reaching the train station in the small Village of Queralbs we waited for our “rack rail” otherwise known as a tram, to take us to the resort of Núria. The only other way to get to the resort would be a 3-4 hour hike up the valley from Queralbs. The train station also doubled as Queralbs’ town hall, the building simply looked like a small cobblestone house. Finally the tram took us up the valley climbing almost 800 m in about 20 or so minutes. Twisting through switchbacks, peaking over trees and going under tunnels, revealing glimpses to a beautiful and picturesque sub alpine valley, into the Valley of Nuria.
Vall de Núria sits 2,000 m above sea level. To give you some idea of scale; imagine Lake Louise, Canada’s highest resort or village, being only 1,600 m above sea level by comparison. We were well into the mountains now.
After departing the rack rail we approached the info desk inside the hotel/resort, purchased a precise map of the area and paired it with our other maps that we already had. We told the gentlemen at the desk of our plans to hike to the summit of Pic d’Eina 2,789 m and then adjacent summit Pic d’Noufonts 2,851 m for a total of about 8 hours of hiking and returning in a circuit. The gentlemen at the desk informed us that the two peaks were still covered in ice and would only be accessed with crampons, axes, and ropes until later in the month after the snow melts. Following the weather closely, I felt confident that we had a good chance at finding a safe route with no serious exposure. After thanking him for his warnings and additional information, we proceeded anyways, map in hand..
The first hour was the hardest; acclimating had never been so drastic for us. The summer prior, we did all of our mountain summits from Banff, Alberta. Banff is situated pretty high in the mountains to begin with, so we were always pretty well acclimated. Starting from Ripoll to the Summit of Noufonts, would be 2,160 m elevation gain in just one morning, much more drastic to anything else we’ve done so far. Ascending the valley, there were massive peaks surrounding us in every direction. Our beautiful views were shared only with a few herds of red deer, and furry mountain animals. Nobody was in eyesight or shouting distance almost all day, the only exception was one small group of four backpackers. The backpackers were doing a long hike from well into France over the border inevitably getting to their destination in Queralbs.
After a few hours of hiking at a strong pace, we found the snow that we anticipated, on the ridge leading up towards the summit of Pic d’Eina. Scoping out the exposure on either side of the ridge, and checking for the quality of the snow, we deemed it perfectly safe to carry on. The snowy ridge only lasted 100 m or so, and as suspected, caused us little trouble.
The hike was strenuous to the top of Pic d’Eina, but it offered some of the finest summit views. After snapping some photos, and exchanging high fives, our attention was diverted to the north east, where we saw our second peak, Pic d’Noufonts. The entire ridge leading from our peak, to the next peak was visible from the summit of Pic d’Eina . The height gain was minimal and the traverse was a mere 300 m or so, but with a lot more exposure on this ridge, there was also a lot more ice and wind..
We observed each other’s wind burnt cheeks, and with one foot in France, the other foot in Spain, we headed decided not to tackle the next peak, and instead headed back down the mountain.
If you’re looking to get lost in what’s left of Europe’s wilderness, The Pyrenees is a good place to start. Depending on where you are, you’ll hardly see another soul exploring the range and there’s a good chance for you to say that you’ve stood in both Spain and France at the same time!