Sacred Mountain – A climb up Canigou   21 comments

When we decided on Roussillon and the Pyrenees Orientales for our holiday I was taken with the idea of climbing a proper mountain. In Provence where we’ve stayed the last couple of years the scenery is magnificent but the walking is a little limited. I did manage a rather splendid walk along one of the ridges above the Verdon Gorge and was keen to repeat another adventure this year. We’d already had a couple of local walks on the Canal de Boulet and up to the local ruined castle of Montferrer but I wanted something more challenging.

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Canigou from Chalets de Cortalets

The local magnet and highest mountain in the region is Canigou so that seemed an appropriate target. I have numerous guidebooks to the Pyrenees but none of them cover the mountains this far east. Without a guidebook and only the IGN maps as a guide I took the view that Canigou would have well-marked and used trails that would be easy to follow. It would serve as a good introduction to the region and once I had a feel for the area I could be more adventurous.

The main problem was that the main routes are all from the north and we were on the south giving a lengthy 1.5 hour drive to reach the start. Also the summit is at 2784m and most of the starts were at less than 1000m leaving a hefty climb in the summer heat. My tourist guidebooks mentioned forest roads that could be driven up to over 2000m that would make the ascent much easier. However they also mentioned tales of large potholes and suitability only for four-wheel drive and I wasn’t keen on taking my family car up there and coming a cropper. With this in mind I found what looked like a good compromise with a route from the east starting from a tiny hamlet called Los Masos. I figured it was about an hour from the house and would save a lengthy drive and looked a pleasant route.

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Puig Del Roc Negre

As luck would have it I managed to find a decent guidebook to the area while we were in Prats de Mollo. It was in French but it did have my chosen route in it. Bad news was that it confirmed a total ascent of over 1800m, nearly 6000 feet in old money. It didn’t kill my enthusiasm so I packed up a full sack of water and food the night before and set my alarm for an alpine style start at 4am. I figured I wanted to get the ascent out-of-the-way before the day got too hot and I fervently hoped that the temperatures would be a little more bearable up high.

I slept badly and was awake well before my alarm so I crept out of the house just after 4 and drove the silent empty roads in the dark. My drive took me up to the same road I’d used for the walk on the Canal de Boulet with D. The dirt track was easy in the daylight but much more intimidating in the dark so I took things easy. The drive was enlivened by driving through an electric fence gate that you just push open with the car – a novel experience – and seeing some baby wild boar cross the road in front of me. I arrived at the Los Masos car park just before 5:30 and there were a couple of people sleeping by their car. I parked up quickly so as not to disturb them and headed off into the darkness finding my way by the light of my headtorch. I’d been concerned about finding the start of the path and keeping to it in the dark. I needn’t have worried as it was well-marked with paint splashes and apart from a couple of pauses to look around I had no problems. I settled into a slow steady pace up the 600m of zigzags through the forest and the light of dawn through the trees started to light the way just before I came out into the open at Portillon. It had only taken me an hour to make the climb so I was pretty pleased. As I emerged the sun was just rising.

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Sunrise from Portillon

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Clouds over the Roussillon Plain

I’d expected to see the Roussillon Plain and the coast laid out beneath my feet but instead there was a layer of low cloud and I was above it. It was breathtaking. I wandered until along until I found a spot to perch on the edge of the steep slopes I’d just climbed and catch my breath. The mountains were still dark and brooding but the sun was casting a glow of light over the clouds beneath my feet.

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Ras Del Prat Cabrera

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Sunrise over Ras Del Prat Cabrera

A few people had driven up the forest road and had camped for the night. One tent was perched right on the edge of the cliffs with a roaring fire going. I was mesmerised and sat for a good 30 minutes just soaking it in. I came back to reality as cars started coming up along the forest road and I soon realised that it was perfectly driveable with all sorts of cars making light work of the drive. It probably wouldn’t have saved me any time but it would have avoided a 600m climb in the dark. If I came up again I’d drive up and camp in this lovely spot.

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Islands in the clouds

I still had a long walk and a lot of climbing to do so I pushed on. From Portillon there is a choice of routes, either up the road to the Chalet de Cortalets or along a higher path from the Ras Del Prat Cabrera. I chose the latter. It was an excellent route up through the trees with ever-expanding views and no-one else about, a real sense of peace.

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View from my Breakfast spot

Well it would have been if I hadn’t been accompanied by a couple of hundred buzzing flies. They were to be my constant companions for the rest of the day. There was a constant low hum from the undergrowth and a buzzing in my ears. It was like having tinnitus. They seemed intent on exploring all my facial orifices and were deeply annoying. I pressed on until I realised I’d been walking for over 3 hours and hadn’t eaten. I stopped on a pile of boulders and had a stonking breakfast of croissants and jam washed down with a fresh cuppa. The flies seemed to respect mealtimes and left me alone. The weather was still warm even at 9am but not too hot as yet. As I packed, a large group, the first people I’d seen, walked past and greeted me with cheery “Hola”s to remind me I was in Catalan country. The walk to the hut was airy and spectacular and it was great to be amongst real mountains again. As I approached the hut, walkers became more numerous, likely they had stayed overnight in the hotel after ascending Canigou the previous day or perhaps this morning to watch the sunrise.

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Chalet de Cortalets

The hut itself was huge and there were numerous people having breakfast so I pushed on past and started heading towards the main climb to the summit. The hut is located in a high alpine style bowl with spacious trees and a dried up lake. There were several people camping in the woods and it would be a splendid spot in spring when the lake would be full and the wild flowers would be in bloom. As I emerged Canigou and its north ridge, my route of ascent became visible and it looked magnificent, all brooding crags and rock ridges.

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Canigou north ridge

The path from here heads across to the Pic Joffre where it meets the north ridge and I could see a steady stream of people ahead of me. The temperature was rising so I just settled into my routine pace and ate up the metres. Alpine starts never used to agree with me when I was younger and it was clear they still didn’t. My breakfast was sitting heavy and became a bit of struggle to keep going. The views were awesome and that kept me going.

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The Tete Valley from Pic Joffre

As you climb onto the north ridge Canigou rises dramatically above you and from a distance looks rocky and impregnable.

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Canigou north ridge from Pic Joffre

As I reached the bottom of the final climb (along with tens of other groups, the path traversed out onto the western flank and climbs to the summit in a series of long lazy zigzags. With hindsight I could have avoided the crowds and just climbed the ridge direct as it didn’t look much harder than a grade 1 scramble and I could have easily just traversed back onto the path if things had got tough.

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Final summit slopes and ridge

I was mighty relieved to reach the summit and enjoy the 360 degree panorama along with a couple of hundred other people! It was just after 11 and I’d completed the long climb in a little over 5 hours including rests

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North ridge from my summit spot

Canigou is a sacred mountain in Catalan culture and climbing the summit is a pilgrimage to many as well as magnet for walkers like myself eager to climb the highest point. The large summit cross is draped in the Catalan colours.

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Summit Cross

There is a colourful orientation table but the only pilgrims worshipping it was a cloud of flying ants (why do they love mountain summits so much!). I quickly dropped a few feet from the summit and found a quiet peaceful spot overlooking the way I’d come up. The local mountains looked superb and I took a long and lasting rest while planning numerous other routes from the basis of my new guide.

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Puig Del Roc Negre & Puig Dels Tres Vents

When I’m back this way I’ll bring my bivvy gear and do the donkey work in the evening, sleep up high and walk the summits and ridges in the early morning. It’s great walking country and I’d be pretty sure that, away from Canigou, you’d have it largely to yourself.

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Your tired hero!

I was still feeling less than 100% and couldn’t face much of the vast weight of food I’d lugged up. I lay back on the rock and sunbathed for a while I ate my fresh fruit. I was pleased that the temperature was bearable and the light wind was most welcome. The realisation dawned on me that I had to reverse the 1800m I’d just climbed so collected my stuff to head down.

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Forest around Chalets de Cortalets from the summit

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Heading down, stragglers still heading up

I had half an idea to make a circuit and head down via the Crete du Barbet. However this involved a nasty descent of La Chiminee, all loose rock and people bouncing stones down it and another 100m of re-ascent. I couldn’t face it and decided just to return the way I’d come. As I headed down there were still loads of people coming up, most of whom looked decidedly unhappy as they were now climbing in the full heat of the sun.

Now I was on my way down I had the spring in my step back and I was enjoying the situation a lot more especially the lovely wander through the trees and meadows back to the hut.

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Chalets de Cortalets

Having done a major day I decided to treat myself to a cold coke and a large jug of iced water (had I not been driving I would have a had a couple of beers but I’d probably have fallen asleep at the table and scared the tourists!). It was a great spot for a relax and it was a real effort to pick myself up and continue down – I still had a long way to go. As I passed the corner of the hut I noticed it had a tap dispensing cold water. I knew the hut would sell bottled water but had no idea it had a fresh water supply. I’d carried several litres of water with me to last all day so it was a little frustrating to realise I hadn’t needed to. Lessons learned!

I hadn’t the energy to repeat the high level path I’d ascended in the morning so I just walked back down the forest track. It wasn’t as bad as I thought with hardly any traffic with most people still out on the mountain. I plodded down grateful that the sun was behind the trees keeping the temperature bearable. As I came back out onto the edge above the forest where I’d sat and watched the sunrise I came out into the sun. It was blisteringly hot and I suddenly felt overwhelmed and overheated. I had planned a stop here in the sun before I went down the final slopes but it was unbearable.

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Canal de Boulet from Ras Del Prat Cabrera

I walked as fast as I dared and plunged down into the forest until I found a shady rock in the trees. I was soaked through with sweat with rivulets running down my arms and legs. I just sat fanning myself with the map in an effort to cool down, lightening my load by drinking a hefty guzzle of water. I took off my trail shoes to let my feet breath and massage the blisters that had formed on my toes. It was a struggle to put them back on and move off. I was pretty knackered by this point and longed for the air-conditioned comfort of the car. I pretty much jogged down the 600m to the bottom, chased by the flies and amazed at how steep the path was and my speed of ascent in the dark earlier. I crossed a small, very welcome stream and ducked my head to cool down before I finally reached the car at 3.30.  10 hours for the walk which was just within the guidebook time, not bad going in full summer heat allowing for my tendency for long rests.

I arrived back, footsore, grubby and totally wiped out to a warm welcome from the family. One of the real pleasures of the holiday was waiting for me, a cooling dip in the pool.

What a day! I’d been above the clouds, climbed a sacred mountain and worshipped its glory. I was tired but fulfilled. I’d sleep tonight, and tomorrow I’d rest 🙂

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21 responses to “Sacred Mountain – A climb up Canigou

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  1. How lovely post with excellent photos (enough big). I love this kind of post which are in reality photo stories. Thank You.

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  2. Looks fantastic! We were in the Pyrenees last summer, but over near Cauterets. Wonderful walking there too.

    You didn’t climb it in your bare feet did you……?

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    • It was an epic day, a little crowded but superb scenery. I’ve climbed in the central Pyrenees once (near Benasque) and it was one of favourite holidays of all time. We some magnificent wild camps and climbed Pico D’Aneto and a couple of un-named mountains. They are a magnificent range. This area was more arid but no less dramatic, already planning a return next summer and climb some more mountains with some overnight wild camps and bivvys

      Considering the blisters I got that day possibly barefoot would have been better 🙂

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  3. Wow – what a day!
    I went ‘off piste’ a couple of times when TBH and I were in the central Pyrenees and, shall we say, found it to be exhilarating – I seem to remember that quite big stuff could be loose and a great deal of care was needed. I didn’t have a guide and so was judging by eye whether or not a route would ‘go’. Great fun.

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    beatingthebounds
    • Pretty awesome and epic in every way. Possibly the hardest mountain day I’ve done in quite a while when you consider the heat in the afternoon. I’d be much more confident in going off-piste in this area in future now I know the lie of the land. The ridges are high and go on for miles, finding/carrying fresh water is the main issue but I think Bivvying with early starts is the way to avoid the heat.

      The main chain of the Pyrenees needs my attention they are a superb range and avoid the nasty snow/ice/glacier risks of the big Alpine climbs. I pine for those summer alps trips though, I really do 😦

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  4. Me too.

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    beatingthebounds
  5. Hi, really great descriptive account with lovely pics. Don’t suppose you could provide the details of your guidebook? I’m looking to take in The Canigou in the summer and have appropriate map but a guidebook would help me with my route planning. Thanks.

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    • Hi Ted. Glad you enjoyed the write up. This region doesn’t seem to be well known in the UK. I’ll drop you an email with the guidebook details when I get home in a few days. Happy to answer any questions you may have

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  6. My wife and I have been considering a climb up Canigou and it appears that the route I’ve researched is the same that you used. Can you recall the total distance of your trek, and the elevation gain? (I’m showing about 7.1 miles distance and 5700 feet of elevation gain for the ascent?) We’re trying to determine if this would be a single-day hike, as well, for us (that’s our goal). Any help you can give me is appreciated…thank you!

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    • Hi Clay – I do have a guide book for this area that you can buy in the UK – its in French but you can get the gist of the descriptions. It shows 1800m of ascent in new money but not distance. At a guess I’d say a round trip of about 10 miles but its a fantastic mountain although pretty busy as I did it in summer on a Saturday. I did the walk in a day but it was long and pretty hot on the way down. You can drive up to the Refuge de Cortalets, the road is a bit rough but looked ok to me. That would shorten the walk dramatically. I’ll drop you a mail with some more details and you can ask me any details you need, happy to share 🙂

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      • By the way — we ended doing this peak during a trip in November of 2015, shorty after we corresponded. We followed the GR10 Tour de Canigou from Los Masos, bypassing any route on the road (except for a short unavoidable stretch near Ras de Prat Cabrera). We enjoyed the trek so much — especially the cirque, on the section of trail just east of the refuge — that we did it a few times. And, to confirm, total out-and-back mileage this way is 14.5 miles with an elevation gain of just over 6250 feet. We saw all of three or four people all day at that time of year. The only issue was quite a bit of ice on the last half mile of trail — but we brought light traction with us, so we were fine. Beautiful peak. We’ll go back some time, and do more ridge-walking. Thanks for the information from your blog; it was very helpful.

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  7. Andy, Love your pics! We’re in Prades in June for a week and short of time. We are thinking of driving in a small hire car to the Refuge de Cortalets: do you think it’s feasible? The alternative is using the local 4×4 transport service “Le Canigou en 4×4”, 9 seater Land Rover Defenders for €30. Jeremy

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  8. Addendum: from http://www.mostlywalking.com/FrancePage/DayWalks/Canigou_website/index.html. “An easier option is to drive up towards the Chalet des Cortalets by way of a nail biting route on a steep and narrow unsealed road which hangs on to the cliff edge as it negotiates 31 hairpin bends with great drops looming into space on either side. With a 4 x4 vehicle you can drive all the way to the chalet, though we left our vehicle further down to make more of a walk of it.” If the Defenders do it a couple of times a day, it should be possible!

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    • Hi Jeremy. Glad you enjoyed the write up and photos. Canigou is a superb mountain and June would be a perfect time to climb it. It was pretty hot when I did it and the meadow and lake behind the Chalet would be superb earlier in the year.
      I didn’t drive the lower section of the road but certainly the upper section I walked along would be no problem for any car driven carefully. There are a few potholes but the road is quite wide and it would be easy to avoid them. The vast majority of the cars I saw were standard vehicles not 4WD. You can park either near the hut or on the approaches or indeed where the road emerges from the forest at the Ras del Prat Cabrera. The views from there were superb and the walk to the Chalet was good.
      Hope you find time to fit the walk in, its well worth the effort

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  9. This is great: thanks for putting it out there. We’re planning to walk to the Canigou summit later this month (June 2017). As we’re only moderate, middle-aged walkers, we’re planning to spend a couple of nights at the Refuge Cortalet, spending a day to get to the summit and back. I’ve been reading official French guides but your personal account and the photos have answered many of the remaining questions I had. Thanks.

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    nicolas leaver
    • Always a pleasure when my blog helps someone plan a day out in the mountains. June would be a superb time for an ascent, much cooler and clearer and none of the crowds. Its a cracking summit. Hope you have a great time and thanks for the kind words

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