The following is an exerpt from my sketchbook written immediately after the challenging ascent to the Molieres Refuge from Tunel Vielha during the afternoon of October 4th, 2013.
17:00: Molieres Refuge Hut (2390m): Bus drop-off location, notice the low cloud level
“I thought I was a goner just a couple hours ago in the Val d’Aran region of the Spanish Pyrenees. I started hiking tired and slightly sick from not sleeping and drinking the night before, followed by a 6-hour bus ride. The mountain forecast for today called for light rain with about 10mm total rainfall in the afternoon."
Hiking an Adirondack Peak in early May 2011
"Being an avid outdoorsman, I have been in a couple sketchy survival situations before. Light rain forecasted for one out of three days on a trip in the mountains is actually very good. However, where I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, nearly all land is below tree line and the slopes are steep, but not nearly as open and craggy as the Pyrenees. The highest peaks in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, respectively, are Mt. Mansfield (Stowe) at 1339m, Mt. Marcy at 1629m, and Mt. Washington at 1917m. The Pyrenees have very little vegetation at all and are mostly composed of rocks and sheer cliff faces. Most of the peaks in the Val d’Aran region are between 2500m and 3000m in elevation. Aneto is the highest peak at 3404m. The Aneto and Maladeta Glaciers stretch for hundreds of hectares and there are numerous permanent snowfields above 2500m, all over the Pyrenees. These glaciers and snowfields exist because of their elevation. All things being equal, Upstate New York and New England actually have a colder climate than the Pyrenees, but the difference in elevation is significant." "Frita" (sp.?): Catalan for trail marker
"Back to my experience here, I began hiking with decent weather conditions; about 55 degrees with a very light sprinkle at the south entrance of Tunel Vielha at 1600m. Dense fog at around 1700m, the beginning of the ascent
As I climbed higher, the fog became denser and the rain steadier, but neither was unexpected. I was prepared to get wet and was keeping extra clothing dry in my garbage-bag protected backpack. Thankfully, the extra clothing included wool garments. My mother made many of these wool garments and they sure did come in handy, big time."
"Not so much entirely unforeseen, but a combination of predicted elements coevolved into an unpredicted severe storm. As I began the steeper part of the ascent, it began to downpour with increasingly strong winds. This was as severe as I had anticipated upon the start of the trip, and I was prepared to get soaked. At this point, I was about half way to the Molieres Refuge Hut where I would spend the night. I started noticing that the streambeds were filling up quickly and high-velocity torrents covered the same places I crossed a month ago. After a matter of minutes, the mountains turned into a series of rivers, channels, and waterfalls. I could not follow the trail because that too had turned into a river. I found myself rock climbing in the middle of a Pyrenean flash flood event. I was not entirely surprised – I have been in less severe flash floods and knew they could be much worse than previously experienced. But then came the clamorous thunder and lightning. Between random waterfalls, wind, rain, and fog, I could barely open my eyes, let alone see any trail or even where to find a grip or footing. Being above tree line, there was no shelter. I did my best to keep climbing upward, but as I gained altitude, conditions worsened by getting colder and even more severe. All the water was freezing, much of which was overflow from the Molieres glacial lakes. I thought that this was as bad as it was going to get, but I was proved wrong once again." The beginning of the end. I have no pictures during the blizzard, that was the last thing on my mind.
"After reaching an elevation of about 2100m, the rain quickly turned into pea-sized sleet and wet snow. Combined with the dense fog, unpredictable flash flooding, booming thunder/lightning, and strong winds, this morphed the Pyrenees into a blizzard-like environment. The rock faces I had to climb quickly became icy and very slick. The temperatures were now in the 30s Fahrenheit, and I knew the possibility of hypothermia was very real. In order to avoid hypothermia, I also knew I had to keep my heart rate up to stay warm and not take any breaks that would cool me off. At this point, I was walking directly in the torrential currents without attempting to hop rock-to-rock across them. I was already dripping with water and ice." Video-still view from the hut as the storm moved on
"When I finally caught sight of the Hut, I thanked God and was very relieved. I had one last channel to cross and a few vertical meters of icy rocks to climb, but that was it. At this point, I knew I could make it, so I even took a short break underneath a rock – the first sheltered cove I had seen the entire ascent. The Hut seemed so small from there compared to the massive rock faces, obscured in the weather surrounding it." View from the Hut-window
"I scrambled over the river and up the rocks to the Hut. The door was latched shut and the entre exterior was simply a metal box secured to the bedrock with a dozen metal cables. However, after unlatching the metal door, the interior blew away my expectations. It was empty, with finished hardwood floors, a table, benches, stools, shelves, and nine beds with clean sheets, pillows, and plenty of wool blankets. There were matches, a lighter, hot coco mix, milk, candles, and more in the shelves, intended for wary mountaineers. There were even two solar powered lights that would remain on for an hour at a time. There was no heat or running water, but that would have taken all of the fun out of it anyway. It was already more comfortable than my room in Barcelona, which is not saying much." This is why it was all worth it...the next morning
"After entering the hut, I immediately stripped all my wet clothes, did some pushups and jumping jacks as I dried off, put on dry clothes, urinated in a plastic water bottle to put in the bottom of my sleeping bag, then buried myself in the sleeping bag and wool blankets with some mixed nuts and Fritos I brought, in that order. Success after near deadly failure! Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and clear so hopefully I can dry out my shoes and make it to the summit of Tuc de Molieres."
Check out my friends' article on the climb to the Molieres Summit on their blog, Els Perdut, Catalan for "The Lost":