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Europe: Monte Perdido (Fears and Strength)

some crazy landscapes as we arrived in the pyreneesthe view from our hotel room: ordesa canyon

This whole trip brought a lot of words into my head. I wish I had written more, but I did try to scribble down some thoughts as they came to me. But I did not do this enough to really feel like I captured the bulk of the thoughts. I want to record them. I want to remember the things I have learned. I have learned so much. I have been reminded of so much. And so much has shifted during the last few weeks I am not even sure I can name what has. But I have to try or I know I will fall into old habits when I return home, old thoughts that keep me down in my rut. 

There are some of the things I was thinking about when hiking.


starting out

I have a hard time slowing down. Ben started feeling sick in Cambridge right before Paris. Then I started feeling sick too. Mostly a bad cold, but it sure feels rotten to be traveling when you don’t feel well. Even more so when you don’t speak the language where you are. But when we got sick we had to slow down. By the time we got to Barcelona and went to plan our time in the mountains we had to reduce our 5 days to 3. 

We took our time getting there and getting away. We stayed in a fabulous hotel at the entrance to the Ordesa Canyon in the Pyrenees before and after our hike. But we did still hike. In fact, we even summited Monte Perdido (11,007’ or 3355 m). We had to. We were too close not to. And it was fabulous.

We started the hike by walking out the door of the hotel and towards to canyon walls the rose high above us. We followed the road until a sign that took us down an embankment, over a bridge and up towards the well-worn G11, which follows the border between France and Spain. (Someday we will do more long-distance trails. I think this one is on the list.) Once on the G11 the trail wound along following the river flowing down the canyon. We hiked past waterfalls and through mossy forest. 

 the canyon floor

ordesa canyon

At one point I saw a large creature crossing our path. 
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. Then I looked again and found that what I really thought was a mountain lion was only the top half of a cow moving through a low spot in the trail. Ben just looked at me and declared that he was pretty sure he had never heard me swear like that before. I explained that I really thought we were in trouble with a giant cat. He looked at the cow, then at me and said, 
“If that was a mountain lion I think it would be the size of a saber tooth tiger.” 
To which I laughed and sheepishly replied that I probably have been reading too much fantasy lately.  

There were cows everywhere at this point. Cute baby ones with a bull standing guard. Big momma cow crashing through the undergrowth. It was strange to me that cows graze in the national park, but they do. I loved seeing them there, despite the chance that they might charge, but even more than seeing them I loved hearing them because they wore cowbells.

The sound was just lovely. I thought it was even better than a wind chime. The sound was raw and earthy. The layered ringing was the accumulation of each cow systematically pulling grass from the ground and chomping to its own rhythm. Each cow’s rhythm layered upon the others and floated away on the breeze. And it carried. We heard the sound resonating up the canyon from miles away later on.

Ben took this sound recording.


peak to the right: our destinationlooking back to the ordesa canyon

Once we hiked along the length of the canyon we came to the end of it, which is also the Cirque de Soaso.  Once here the only way was up. We hiked switchbacks that zigged and zagged up and up to the Refugio de Góriz. They were doing construction on the refuge, doubling its size. We camped just up the hill from it. Bought some lemon sodas from their fridge (solar power) and made our dinners of instant soup and marinated tuna packets. 

getting to goriz

ben's soup: bombay bad boy


Before bed we climbed the beginning of the route up Perdido so we were sure we knew where to go in the morning. Fell asleep under a star-filled sky with a bright, bright moon. The next morning we woke early, but not as early as we had planned. Too tired. But thankfully this did not alter our plans. We still had time.



alien landscape

So we climbed. And climbed. And the landscape got wilder, harsher and more dramatic. The walls of the canyon that had looked so big the day before grew smaller and smaller in the background. There was no more green grass. Only rock and dust. Sometimes ice.  For the entire morning we climbed in the shadow of the mountain. It was unnaturally dark as we picked our way through boulders the size of houses and climbed scrambling routes that were more like rock climbing than hiking. We were enveloped by great walls of rock and we both concluded that this was the most alien landscape we had ever been in. It was ominous and the air was tainted with a sense of foreboding.

Climbing through such a landscape – especially when there is a greater chance you will slip and die than normal – can awaken the deepest of your fears. They seep from your bones and before you know it your mind is buzzing with possibilities from the worst of your nightmares. 

At one point we were hiking through boulders in a particularly desolate spot and I suddenly imagined a madman confronting Ben and then stabbing him before running away. I saw myself cradling my bleeding husband, screaming for help all alone on the side of the huge mountain, dialing what I hoped was the emergency number for Spain on my cell phone, not knowing how to saw “stabbed” in spanish and saying “Mi esposo! Muerte! Necesito un helicóptero! El lado de Monte Perdido!” and hoping that was enough. But knowing that a helicopter would probably not be enough. 

The vision was terrifying. And where did it come from? How is it that a huge mountain can be powerful enough to draw out such elaborate and unconscious fears?

This happens to Ben too. But he does not see madmen. He sees me disappear over the edge as wind blows me off the cliffs I get too close to. He sees my body splayed out unnaturally on the rocks below.  He sees hypothermia, lightning, driving rain, and snow storms. He sees himself slipping on wet rock and landing on the glacier far below. Ben fears the elements and the edge. I do not. I fear people.

intense paths

While climbing a few sets of people passed us. We were definitely slower than most. I stepped aside for one man to pass and he responded with “Merci” instead of the usual “Gracias.” A few times along the hike he stopped to take pictures and we eventually found out that he was French and spoke more English than Spanish. We chatted about the route. He wanted to know if we knew it. We had a map.

An older couple passed us wearing t-shirts and sun hats. We were a little worried, but they were fine. A group with a guide passed us. The guide carried a short rope for some of the steep sections. We had to leave our rope at home due to weight, but he barely used it because there was no snow and the rocks were dry. Perfect climbing weather. 

Once we got to the glacial lake below Monte Cilindro we had a choice. Rock or ice? Ben chose to use the ice ax and micro-spikes he had been carrying to climb the ice field up to the base of the scree field that was the final stretch of our accent. I chose the more commonly climbed path up the rock that formed a sort of spine along that side of the mountain. We each chose what we felt more comfortable with. The thrill of pulling myself higher and higher was electrifying – a feeling I enjoy. I watched Ben pick his way along the ice in the gully below me and waved. In the pictures I took he is a speck on the ice and the glacier was actually a small one.  

ben as a speck

Often when hiking up endlessly I think of the people I consider stronger than myself. I think about the women artists I know who have blazed a trail for me. I think about the various choices they have made with their art and the ways they have found to make a living at it. I think about what path I want to take. There are a few and I will need to decide soon. I think about whose work mine is most like and what lessons I can draw from their examples. 

I think about the strong women bloggers I know too. I think about how they move people with their words and images. I think about how open they are about their struggles and their triumphs. I think about how they each have a following of people who they impact and inspire. I wonder if I even want a following like some of them have. 

I think about what success looks like. That is a tricky one because I know things are not always as they seem. Often this leads me to think about appearances and I wonder if these women consider themselves to be among the strongest of those they know which is how I see them. I’m pretty sure some of them don’t and that is important for me to acknowledge 

I was thinking about this all again while climbing this rock section of Perdido. And then there came a point as I neared the top when this dawned on me: when I climb I think about people I consider stronger than me, but who of those people would go climb a 11,000’ peak in the Spanish Pyrenees? I ran through the list. Not many. So I asked myself, does that make me strong? Am I stronger than I thought I was? Do I have a place among the strongest women I know?

Maybe. The thought is empowering. Sometimes I think strength is deceptive and allusive rather than a cut-and-dry badge you earn. Often I feel so lost I decide I cannot possibly be strong. Something I need to think about more.

After climbing the rock section I stood waiting for Ben to rejoin me and I took a moment to stare. I was looking out over mountains upon mountains. The view suddenly brought tears to my eyes as I realized that this was a dream come true. We were almost at the top. I was so very very high and I had climbed it all. The emotions were overwhelming. I felt like I had learned to fly 

After the rock and ice was scree. Scree is loose rock and lots of it. I made a movie about it for you.


And then the top. We were on top over everything. The canyon we had looked up at admiringly the day before was a crack in the landscape. We could see other canyons. We could see villages and lakes. And so many mountains. The border with France was below us and we could make out a French observatory on a far peak.

the view

the way we climbed up

Monte Perdido

the canyon from the day before...our way down

strength and successdream come true

Words can only do so much here. Pictures and a pano video shot by Ben. 

Our French friend was at the top taking pictures with a big SLR, like me. He pointed out certain mountains and I shared some of our celebratory chocolate with him. 

The way down was easier and less eventful, just tiring. We had acceded over 7000’ in two days and had to descend at least 6000’ that same day to where we hoped to hitch a ride back to the hotel. Our feet hurt so much it wasn’t even worth thinking about it. The thoughts would overwhelm. 

boulder field in the daylightchains bolted to the rock helped with this sectiondown down down

on the way down

The whole way down we were rehearsing how to ask for a ride to our hotel in Spanish. We walked faster to keep up with the people also hiking back so that we would not be the last ones in the park. Turns out our anxieties were unfounded. When we finally reached the parking lot for the national park our French friend was there still organizing his car and recuperating from the hike he had completed faster than us. He offered to drive us to our hotel and our hike was complete.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed another daily menu: a fixed price dinner with wine included. After a couple glasses of wine I was a goner. Too tired to function properly. The next morning we rented the jacuzzi in the hotel spa for half an hour to ease the ache in our muscles. Then we were off again. A night in Zaragoza before a night in Madrid before Ben flew home. I have a quick set of pictures I will post about those two cities. Hoping to go back to Madrid to explore some more. 


Europe: Zaragoza and Madrid

Europe: Barcelona