Big snowstorm in the Pyrenees”, said the forecast, “unusual weather for this time of year”. I waited an extra day down in the safe haven of the luxurious house but felt impatient to go on.
Snow in the mountains then, so a short walk the first day, a short walk the second and then it would start melting. Possible, definitely possible.
The first day I would gently ascend 800m from the valley bottom up to a refuge at 2150m, nice and simple. The second day I was less certain of, climbing up to a mountain pass at 2550m and descending to another refuge. The problem was that the first refuge was closing, I’d be there on the last night of the season and couldn’t wait there a second night if the snow experience was worse than expected.
It was worse than I expected, of course it was, or this wouldn’t be a story.
The gentle ascent went well, winding up on a road and then a stone trackway, horses munching stoically at the grass through a few cm of snow. It only got tough in the final kilometre, leaving the trackway to a thin path that climbed up through rocks and then a muddy pathway around a lake. Snow was thick but manageable until the final lake where I was clambering through drifts that were thigh high, a little shocked by the amount of snow up here.
There was a circle of mountains around the lake, covered in white, mottled with dark rock.
The first refuge was cold and a little mechanical, the staff were obviously preparing and very ready to leave the next day. I hung up wet clothing, put my socks and boots to dry by the fire.
We had to vacate our rooms by 7.30am and nobody really had time to chat. I asked about the route to refugio Restanca. “Has anyone else passed that way?” The woman made a face, she didn’t think so. She called some of the other visitors over; there was also a group of three and a couple in the refuge that night. We came together, faces covered. The group of 3 were walking some of the same route as me, climbing up to the big pass and then descending to a different refuge. They’d passed me earlier, in the final few hours of the climb. I couldn’t keep up with them but I could follow their footsteps.
We were all nervous in the preparation the next morning, going outside to look at the snow, admire the sky. It was going to be a beautiful clear day, but windy. I felt my heart beating fast in the adrenaline of nerves, sat on a bench and waited for the others to be ready, closed my eyes and tried to keep calm.
The problem is not the depth of the snow, it’s the way it gathers on the land. Filling the gaps between boulders until all presents a smooth and perfectly formed surface and you won’t know how far down your foot will sink until you’ve probed ahead with walking poles. Even then it’s not certain, perhaps you’ve hit upon a large rock and your foot won’t sink at all, no energy wasted. Perhaps though you’ll slide into the gap between the rocks, into the snow up to your thigh, all the muscles of your body have jerked and tensed in the falling to try and keep you upright and now you’re stuck and floundering, trying to push down on a soft surface to get yourself extricated and back to ground level again.
I fell multiple times that day, stuck like a turtle and having to slowly roll and press my rounded knees into the snow, trying to keep a larger surface area so I wouldn’t sink any deeper in the efforts to right myself.
It was frightening at first, struggling with every footstep and catching myself in panicked movements to keep upright, which only suck more energy and keep me manic. So much energy and effort just to travel a few steps and there was so much more ahead.
I lost the protective foot from one of my walking poles. My waterproof trousers kept flapping open at the bottom, letting the snow crust in the top of my boots every time I plunged in over my ankles. I felt myself getting angry, cursing at my crappy trousers until I took a breath and realised that the anger was fear. I was scared here, in this valley, facing a huge climb in difficult conditions. I felt alone in the face of huge danger, of injury in the snow and the impossibility of rescue.
I told myself to be calm, kept walking and focused on each step, tried to think of a few positive things about the situation, change my mood.
It took a few hours for me to properly calm down. After a long while I realised that I had stopped thinking about how and whether I would do this and was simply doing it.
The three people ahead had long since disappeared, I’d had glimpses as they began the steep climb at the valley head, admiring the synchronisation of their footsteps, the determination of the line of humans trudging slowly up the steep snow slope, only occasional huge boulders to break the sheer whiteness, each one sculpted with a skirt of blown powder.
All I had to do was follow in their footsteps, all the way up, winding as they went left and right to find the places where rocks showed through the snow or the faintest signs of grass tips, where we could be more certain that there weren’t deep clefts full of driven snow. I saw the places where they’d floundered and fallen, I saw the places where they’d slipped deep. It was easier to place my foot into their steps, to be more certain that there’d be a solidity of packed snow to press weight upon, even though there were always surprises. Every single step was uncertain, it’s exhausting.
All the while the sun shone bright and clear ahead, the wind wisped small whirlwinds of snow crystals around me and the clouds feathered in thin streams of moisture high above. There was bad weather coming, I knew that it would snow again later, and glanced towards the horizon as fresh pieces of skyline came into view, watching for the gathering of darker clouds.
It took me until 3.30pm to reach the top of the col and I gasped in amazement when I reached the top. There was an incredible view ahead, dozens of harshly pointed peaks, every single one covered in snow, the stark splendour of utterly inhospitable land. Fine powder crystals blew against my face, gently exfoliating me to redness. My eyes were dry and crusty, I broke my sunglasses back in July and without them suffered mild snow blindness as a result, bright lights flashing against my eyelids.
I remember feeling pessimistic this time last year, as the wet weather began in a Croatian October, as I faced the hard facts of a winter to come and nowhere to retreat to, nothing to do but walk through it. I feel uncovered, in the traditional sense of how humans used to face winter, without easy artificial ways to offset the cold months; as people used to be, but without their slowing down, without the months spent inside in the warmth, knitting and weaving and mending, hoarding food and waiting for the warm months to come again, waiting for the plants to begin growing.
Things suddenly felt difficult last year, not in a single day but in the looming knowledge of all the hardship to come. I felt it again this week and especially on the way up this climb, thinking bleakly of all the mountains, peering timidly at the weather forecast, seeing snow forecast again later this week after only a few days of sunshine.
While climbing, I thought about failure, the decision to abandon this route and walk lower down until the snow cleared. It was immediately clear that this was not failure. Walking alone in this territory, in these conditions, is very dangerous. I could have injured myself in any single one of those slips, where a leg became trapped between rocks and I had to struggle to get out. Then I’d just be stuck there, pathetically blowing on my safety whistle for it to echo around empty mountains, while the snow melted slowly into the gaps in my waterproof clothing.
The only failure of this journey would be if I didn’t walk from Kiev to Llanidloes, would be if I didn’t walk every step. Every other part of this journey is malleable – the places I go, the places I sleep, the amount of time it takes.
Alternatively, failure is not abandoning your route, failure is staying on it and dying.
These are not lessons for other people, these are lessons for my stubborn self, who rigidly sticks to plans and doesn’t easily accept deviations from the initial vision.
I stood at the col and looked ahead. To get to my refuge I had to descend 150m to a small lake, and then climb again 100m to another pass before descending a few km to the refuge. Absolutely nobody had passed that way, I would be completely alone with no markings to guide me. It had taken me 7 hours to climb 430m. I only had 4 hours of daylight left.
To my left ran the line of footsteps of the 3 who went before me. They’d turned south to descend to a different refuge.
Interesting isn’t it, we torture ourselves with the what ifs, the agonising over imagined possibilities, but when the absolutes come, they’re easy to deal with.
It wasn’t a difficult choice. I turned away from my route and followed the marks in the snow. Stay safe Ursula, you’ve done enough today.
Pushing my heel into the snow with each step to break the frozen crust and make sure that I wasn’t going to slip and slide down the steep slope to my right. That was the worst bit, the rest of the descent was easier. Feet could slide deep down into the snow as it all helped with the descent, I didn’t have to heave myself out of it as well as find a higher footstep to climb up to, it was all descent, whether controlled or a slip. I could even sit down on my bum and let myself slide down the steepest sections, not sure if I saved myself any time as I had to stop and sit and laugh for a while every time I did it.
Feet were long ago soaking, but fortunately I kept up enough effort that my blood circulated well and warmed the wet inside of my boots. I trudged onwards, groaning now in the shock of every bad slip, the horrid sharp jolt to my body where one leg suddenly disappeared thigh high into the snow, horribly aware that with tiredness comes lack of focus and sloppy movements, meaning increased risk of injury. So much effort to drag myself out again. I found myself sitting back against the snow, wanting to stop. My body was ready for rest but I had to push on the final couple of hours, down past frozen lakes and streams running under snow. Up high on the surrounding peaks the wind blew a steady stream of snow into the air so each mountain seemed to smoke, like a set of factory chimneys. More snow came trickling out of the sky in tiny small flakes.
Finally, in the last half hour before darkness, I knocked at the door to the refuge and was allowed into the warmth within. The three other adventurers had been warming themselves by the fire for a full four hours already and we exchanged excited stories about what an awful day it had been. When I’d seen them pacing their way up the steep slope they’d been ready to turn back; almost overcome by the difficulty of the day. “A little further, then we’ll see if we should stop” they’d been telling themselves.
They’d lost sight of me and thought for sure that I’d turned back. But I’d had their markings the whole time and thought for certain that if they could do it then I could do it, just much more slowly that’s all.
I ate a hot meal of chicken soup, omelette and pasta then went to bed by 9pm, knees and back aching.
I’m really happy that I had this experience but I’m not in a rush to repeat it.
So I’ll go down from the mountains, I’ll walk parallel for a day or two, until the worst of the snow has melted and then I’ll ascend and try again. There’s the rest of the haute route, there’s the GR11 as an option which doesn’t take quite so many of the high passes, and there’s the option to descend altogether, to walk alongside the mountains until I reach Pamplona and pick up the French camino route to Santiago.
None of it is failure.