An epic climb to the summit of Posets, the second highest mountain in the Pyrenees. Starting from the valley floor at 4am, I experienced the whole majestic beauty of this mountain in one day.
I have spent many happy holidays in the Benasque Valley over the years. From cycling the many paths and roads, walking up in higher meadows and even up to Aneto. Then skiing up at Cerler in the winter. However, on my last holiday there, I had a niggling feeling that I had yet to reach the lofty heights of Posets.
Standing at 3,369 metres (11,053ft); Posets is the second highest mountain in the Pyrenees. With the name coming from the small ‘pocets/ pozos’ or wells of water that surround the mountain massif. A walk to the summit from the Benasque valley far below; is a great day out into the peace of nature and all its wonderful beauty.
If coming from further afield, then I would highly recommend arriving a few days earlier to rest from a long journey. The Benasque valley is sometimes called the ‘Hidden Valley’ due to its remote location and difficulty to access. A road arrives from the south and the great plains of northern Spain, through a road in a narrow gorge. An alternative is turning off the main road from Vielha to Lleida. This way you have to climb two passes over a road that was seemingly built by a spaghetti loving engineer.
It is better to arrive early and stay in the nearby town of Benasque; with its many hotels and bars. I would personally recommend the Hotel Araguells (https://www.hotelaraguells.com/), which is on the left of the roundabout at the start of the town. Or stay at one of the few campsites in the valley or sleeping in your vehicle is permissible almost everywhere.
As you approach the starting point in the village of Eriste. You will see a reservoir to the right of the road. It is possible to have a relaxing walk around its far side. Further up the Benasque Valley, there are more easy walks in the meadows below the Maladeta range.
So, when arriving to the village of Eriste from the south; you will first see a reservoir on the right with houses on the left. Shortly after, you will cross a bridge. On the left just before the bridge you will see the hotel and restaurant Tres Picos. Just after the bridge you will see a large building that is a hydro-electric plant. Then on the right you will see a swimming pool and large car park. Park here to begin this walk, or to take the bus up the closed access road, in the summer months.
I was lucky to be staying in an apartment in Benasque. I packed my rucksack, the day before, even laying out my clothes to save time in the morning. As well as filling a stovetop cafetiere to minimise the painful time between waking and that first sip of coffee. I had rested for two days as I waited for a decent window of good weather, so I was keen to start early. So, although I went early to bed, with so much anticipation I awoke before my 4am alarm.
Fighting off the weight of sleepiness; I rose from my bed and got ready in a short time. My coffee was still so hot; I had to take it with me. Quietly leaving the apartment, I avoided a patrolling police car to avoid the risk of them delaying me. I then drove the couple of kilometres to the next village of Eriste. Parking at the back of the large car park; I double checked my rucksack and put on my comfortable Lomer hiking boots. It was quite cold so early in the morning, here by the river. So, I decided to take an ice axe and crampons in case there was snow and ice high on the mountain. Locking the car and starting to record the route on my phone, I was ready to walk at four in the morning.
From river deep to mountain high
I crossed the road to the hydroelectric plant and walked over a bridge towards the village of Eriste. Turning up a small road to the right of the buildings; I then passed through the quiet backstreets. It is possible to be confused in these narrow streets; yet by studying the map, the way is clear. Even the dogs were asleep; so, no one noticed as I walked into a yard by mistake and then stopped to study Google maps.
Realising my mistake; I soon saw a sign for Posets and began climbing a smooth footpath out into the night. This path also serves as access to fields; so, there are numerous gateways. However, the path up is clear to follow, even at night with a torch. I was using a Petzl headtorch; to keep my hands free for my trekking poles. An irrigation stream was built into the side of the path; so, I was relaxed by the constant cacophony of the tumbling water.
It is possible to drive up a narrow and rough access road, which will save just over an hour of hiking each way. Yet I decided that to truly experience the majestic grandeur of Posets I would climb from the river on the valley floor. If you are not so stubborn and wiser; you can drive this road outside of the summer months.
Take care though; for there are long drop-offs with few passing places. If you meet another vehicle and they are unable to reverse; do not be pressurized into going near the clifftop. Get out and explain to the other driver that you are going to take your time reversing to a safe place. Do not let someone else’s ego or impatience; cause you to suffer from your forgiveness. Furthermore, the car park can soon become full; with the risk of your car being blocked in until its owner returns from the mountain.
For this reason, only a bus is allowed on this road in summer months. The timetable is poor, and it is possible that the early morning busses will be fully booked. I would recommend trusting the strength of your legs and the relaxing quiet path.
The dark forests of the night
After crossing over the Eriste river on an old packhorse bridge; I followed the aforementioned access road to a small car park. As noted in various guidebooks; it had taken me just over an hour. I am not the fastest of walkers and I had a fairly heavy rucksack; so, I was quietly confident for the climb ahead.
Escaping the last reach of the car; the path crossed the river again by two tall waterfalls. I knew they were there because I have seen them before; yet now I could only enjoy that relaxing sound of falling water. Here, the path climbed into a very deep and dark forest. The path was a smooth mixture of stones, roots and mud. Yet the now steep gradient and the overhanging trees made me feel like I was walking through the recesses of my mind in some epic dream.
I was glad I had fully charged my headtorch and was carrying a reserve USB power bank. Without light, this path in the dark would be dangerous. With random stones ready to twist your ankle, slippery roots and puddles; I looked to each step.
Strangers in the night
Walking in the dark meant I was relying on the beam of my headtorch. Naturally, we are still diurnal animals; with our senses heightened in the dark. Therefore, as another beam of light moved through the trees I naturally froze. I had thoughts of being chased by police confusing me for a drug smuggler or maybe an escaped deranged madman. Yet those thoughts were quickly dispelled by the silhouette of a runner.
He soon caught me up and cheerfully greeted me with: “buenos dias“. “Buenos dias” I replied, then apologised for being English and my terrible pronunciation of Castellano. We asked each other about our planned routes, with the runner taking in a spectacular clockwise circuit of the Espadas ridge, ending with the summit of Posets. Not wanting to delay the Senor anymore, I bid him a good day and he ran into the night.
Soon after the runners headtorch light disappeared too; I was met with four lights beaming towards me. I stopped to try and understand what I was seeing ahead of me on the path. I laughed when I realised it was the reflection in the eyes of two docile cows. They were laying on the smooth dirt path because either side was rough stone or sharp grass.
The first one began to stand up, so I spoke to them with a calming voice. Reassuring them I was a friend and apologising for disturbing them; the first cow laid down again. I have encountered the local breed: ‘Bruna de los Pirineos’, many times before. Although male adults can weigh over a tonne; they have a very docile manner. Allowing you to pass close by on a narrow path such as this one. However, as always, I would take care near young calves and try and maintain a distance if possible.
The night skies
After the excitement of passing the cows, the next hour seemed to drag. With no landmarks in the dark, I was literally following the path and helpful reflective round markers that are tied to tree branches. I wasn’t afraid to stop and catch my breath, to sip water and eat a snack. My adrenaline was fuelling me at the moment, and I didn’t feel hungry; yet I knew I had to take on energy to avoid lagging later on. My favourite food for these situations is a flapjack or cereal bar. The slow release of energy in oats is complimented by the immediate sugar in the honey.
When I was not concentrating on my step, I could look up and see many constellations in the night sky. Obviously, without streetlights and buildings, the views were amazing. I could spot the obvious constellations such as: Orion and the Great Bear or Plough. I felt annoyed that I could not identify the brighter planets of our solar system yet was in awe of seeing a long shooting star. It made me feel good and grateful to be alive and well. I was an Englishman, stood high in the Spanish Pyrenees, watching the all the wonder of the greater universe.
A spectacular sunrise
Relaxing into a rhythm, I slowly but surely gained altitude. Walking out from beneath a line of trees; a large building suddenly appeared above me. At three storeys high, with lights in every window, it reminded me of a behemoth of a ship bearing down on a small yacht in the dark. I had reached the Refuge Angel Orus; a 96-bed refuge that is open all year round! If you do not fancy such an early start and long day; find out more and book your stay here: https://www.alberguesyrefugios.com/angelorus/.
I walked around the right-hand side of the building over the metal walkway in its entrance. Stopping to read an information board on the far side; I could see the guests were having breakfast. I wanted to enjoy my solitude in nature for a little longer, so I picked up my pace for a while. The first slivers of light were beginning to appear in the eastern sky as I soon left the refuge behind me. Studying the maps, the night before, I remembered that passing the refuge meant I was approximately halfway in both distance and altitude.
Here, for over a kilometre, the path now followed a rocky series of steps up to a pass on the left of the valley. The red and white painted markers were sometimes hard to see in the lowlight. Some had been worn away or others were on a rougher more obscure path that seemed to be the naturally wrong direction. Taking time to stop and look up at the route ahead; I slowly made my way through this rocky maze.
Forks in the road
Reaching a yellow signpost; I turned left towards the: Collado de la Forqueta and the Refugio de Viados. Here the rocky ground was replaced by grass that appeared almost golden in the increasing morning light. A large ridge appeared to my left; with two jagged rock formations that resembled the teeth of a fork. These peaks were succinctly named by the locals as: Forcau Alto and Forcau Baixo. Which roughly translates as the Upper Fork and the Lower Fork, of course!
The path meandered up alongside a stream and then zig-zagged to gently gain height. Reaching small ridge in the path; I was now facing east and back towards the way I had come. The distant horizon now had a golden line along its ridges. It was almost sunrise; so, I laid my coat down on the soft grass. Taking a sandwich from my rucksack and a carton of orange juice; I sat back to watch the coming spectacle.
At first the golden line seemed to stick to the ridge, then it grew bigger. Within no time, the sun clearly climbed above the horizon, and I could stare no more. Turning to look at the landscape around me; the grass, the limestone and granite changed colour as the sun rose. Pinks, orange, yellow and gold; I was in yet another dream like place as I experienced the raw power of nature’s beauty.
After a while, cold wind picked up, reminding me that I could not stay here. Rising to my feet I started marching up the path once more. However, I noticed the great bulk of Posets and the narrow access gully called: Canal Fonda, was now to my right and I was starting to walk past it! When I was descending from Posets, I realised that I should have taken an unmarked path off to the right. This fork in the road was now far below me, so I carefully walked across the grass, avoiding any drops or rough ground.
Taking care whilst cutting across to the right path, I soon arrived at the base of the Canal Fonda gully. This gully is very deep here, due to the force of all the rain and melting snow from the Posets summit ridges above. In winter, the snow can lay over two metres deep in places. So, in spring, the power of the melt water must be immense.
In many guidebooks, they recommend carrying crampons and an ice axe to traverse the Canal Fonda. However, climbing in early October there was no snow or ice anywhere. Although, my crampons and ice axe are made from light metals, I would have not carried them if I had known the real ground conditions. In hindsight, I should have asked in the friendly local bars and cafes for up-to-date advice.
So, in a mild October, I was walking up over bare rock. Although the path was in generally good condition and easy to follow. In places the rock has broken into a loose scree. Therefore, at times, I would slide back to my last step. It was cooler in the shade of the Tuca Alta peak to my right, yet I soon returned up into the brilliant morning light.
In daylight, the path can clearly be seen climbing up to the left of the Canal Fonda gully. The path zig zags close to the sheer face of the Diente de Llardana to the left until reaching a Coll on the horizon. In fog or heavy rain, I think it would be possible to still follow the path. Yet keeping this sheer face close by; would be a good way to maintain orientation,
Even at my slow pace, I soon reached the Collado del Diente. Looking back down the Canal Fonda I was amazed at the force of water on solid rock. Stopping to adjust my attire and sip more water, I could now see the upper slopes of the Diente de Llardana peak. Diente is tooth in Spanish and this peak truly resembled one thrusting up into the open-mouthed sky.
Turning to climb once more, I was met with a steeper scramble over a small ridge. There are a few different routes here with some cairns to help guide you. Take your time and choose a route that suits you. Dont be pressured by other walkers behind you and just concentrate on your footsteps and handholds.
After this, the route opened up a steep and wide exposed scree slope. This area is called the: Espalda de Posets; or the ‘Back of Posets’ in English. Taking care to gently increase altitude by zig zagging up the various worn paths I slowly but surely gained height. The summit of Posets is hidden here, yet its direction can only be up!
Looking to the left, I could see the Espadas peaks gently curving round to meet Posets above me. For a moment I was worried that the peak of Las Espadas was Posets and I had a long summit ridge to climb. Yet double checking the map I was relieved to know I only had to go up!
In the clear morning light, I could see a yellow dot steadily moving across the Espadas ridge. I realised it was the runner that had passed down in the forest. It made me think to my own level of fitness; struggling to climb just one mountain at the same time. Yet being positive; I felt happy that I was making the most of the day.
Looking back the Diente de Llardana grew in spectacle as I gained the same altitude as its peak. Further away, the horizon opened up to the south and the lower land of the Aragon. To the east, the sun was now powering into the sky above the peak of Aneto.
Posets summit ridge
The broad ‘back’ like slope I was walking on, began to narrow as it reached a steeper ridge. Climbing over this small ridge; the slope narrowed considerably as it rose up to the summit cone. The rock appeared red in places due to the Iron content and looked spectacular against the clear blue sky. The route still consisted of well-worn paths over loose scree, yet it was still easy to walk steadily upwards.
The yellow dot I had seen on the far peaks now turned into a runner. It was the same man I had met in the forest hours before. Whilst I was carrying a fairly heavy rucksack with emergency clothing and bivvy bag; the runner had just a small hydration vest. He stopped to speak once more, so I commended him on his efforts. He explained that in winter; it was possible to climb Posets using skis! These special skis have a detachable material which enables a ski to easily go uphill! This type of skiing is known as: ‘ski touring’ or ‘back country skiing’. Not wanting to delay the Senor again; I wished him all the best and waved goodbye.
Tightrope to the summit
As the summit marker post came into distant view. The ridge ahead narrowed considerably to less than two metres in places. Although the route was clear; there were big drop-offs on either side. For this reason, I would not recommend taking young or nervous children as well as small dogs.
Taking care, I resorted to using handholds in places. Some people use trekking poles, yet I prefer to get a good grip with my hands. Even if I was not alone, there is no shame in taking your time and being careful. Focusing on each step, I soon approached the summit.
I was in awe of the views all around me. To the north, the delicate ‘Glacier de Paul’, the Estos Valley and France. Looking to the east: the serene lakes of the Batisielles and the Aneto. To the south: Diente de Llardana and Forcau Baixo peaks, and Spain. Looking west: more lakes, the welcoming green valley of the Chistau. In the distance: Mont Perdido and more mountains rolling into the distance. It felt that I could not trust my eyes; I kept looking but could not take in all the beauty. Someone once said: “on a mountain, all your troubles seem far away and below you”. Maybe, I was struggling to understand the freedom that I was experiencing in this magical place?
Remembering my natural limitations, I took off my rucksack and put on warmer clothes. Then sat with my back to the wind with a ham and cheese filled baguette. Being a ‘bon viveur’, carrying a can of the local beer made this picnic all the more enjoyable. Aware that I was still only halfway I stayed for just twenty minutes on the summit. A young German man arrived at the summit and could only boast of his other recent climbs in record time. Politely excusing myself; I used this as a reason to begin my descent.
Summit views from Posets
The summit of Posets is a fairly small area. So, try to get here early for uninterrupted views of the surrounding landscape. There are a few birds that flock here to scavenge leftover food. By all means give them nuts of pieces of your sandwich. Yet please take inedible food, such as orange peel and nutshells.
Taking it steady on the descent of Posets
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” ― Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps
After packing away the foil and can from my lunch; I pulled a pair of thick gloves from my rucksack. This was not only to keep but to not damage my hands if I slipped or touched a sharp rock. The narrow ridge that seemed easy to climb; was now a tightrope with drop-offs on either side.
Taking my time, I steadily descended this narrow ridge. In the places where the next step was too far to reach, I would turnaround and climb down on all fours. The German soon appeared behind me, so I found a wide area and let him past whilst holding on to a rock. Knowing I was now the highest man on the mountain I relaxed into a natural rhythm that suited me.
I soon reached the wider ‘Espalda de Posets’ and enjoyed sliding down the scree slopes. I was taught by an army instructor; that if you keep your knees together you can safely jump down a scree face. If I was not sure of the surface ahead; I would stop and take my time. A twisted ankle this high on the mountain would almost certainly require expensive helicopter rescue.
Natural meditation by the stream
Reaching the Canal Fonda once more; I paused to look back at the summit. I was grateful to the mountain for presenting with a challenge of both mind and body. Taking in the high views once more, I turned and descended the Canal Fonda.
Returning to the grassy meadows below the Canal Fonda; I was glad to be off the higher ground and stopped for a moment by the babbling waters of the ‘Torrente de Llardaneta’. I filled my two bottles with water that tasted better than Evian, then closed my eyes as I laid back on my rucksack. The sun warmed my tiring body, and the sound of the tumbling water soothed my mind.
The voices of a passing couple; roused me from my siesta and I waved as they cheerily passed by me. From here the descent was easier as I walked down over a clearer and smoother path. Passing the refuge, I was happy that I did not have to spend the night there. I could never sleep in a refuge; with all the other people snoring away, I would lay awake all night.
Descending further, I met many walkers ascending to the refuge. This is so they could make an early start the next morning. I met a lovely young Spanish couple who spoke clearer English than me. They asked me about summit conditions when they saw my ice axe. Explaining my mistake and the perfect snow free conditions I reassured them, that they would have an enjoyable ascent of Posets. They thanked me and I felt good for simply helping them. I passed older and younger men that seemed very cold and abrupt. Yet do not worry if you encounter these men, the art of ‘machismo’ is still alive and well in Spain. It reminded me to always meet strangers with a smile and treat them as if they were me.
Tired but relaxed
I took my time walking down through the forests. I still had a long way to go; yet I had plenty of daylight, plenty of food and water and my comfortable Lomer boots. Before I knew it, I had returned to the waterfall above the small car park and its access road. The ‘Cascada d’Espigantosa’ is a tall but narrow waterfall that is a sight to behold; surrounded by the trees in full autumn colour. Resting on a long bench made from a tree trunk; I enjoyed the view whilst resting my weary legs and feet. I stuffed my pockets full of sweets that I could regularly eat as I walked the remaining hour back to the valley floor.
By the time I returned to the village of Eriste I was very tired. My feet were free of blisters thanks to my boots; yet my leg muscles had begun to burn with exhaustion. Instead of stepping, my legs seemed to move like uncontrollable elastic bands!
However, reaching the main road; I happily waited for the speeding cars so I could cross. Driving the short distance back to Benasque, I was tailgated by an irate lady on her phone. Yet connecting with nature I could only feel relaxed.