When hiking in the upper Benasque valley in the Spanish Pyrenees; there are many peaks to choose from when planning a day hike. Most people head towards the Aneto, the highest peak in Pyrenees. Yet when you arrive at the end of the road, a majestic peak with a classic route is stood right in front of you. The ‘Tuca de Salvaguardia’ or ‘Pic Sauvegarde’, stands at a respectable 2,738 metres above sea level. The high point of a narrow ridge that separates the watersheds of the Esera river in the Huesca region of Spain and the Haute Garonne of France.
Either side of the peak are two high walking passes between the two countries. Used for centuries by locals for trade, pilgrimage and smuggling. The nearby Puerto de Benas is only the recommended access from France. With the further Puerto de la Glera being at the far end of a dangerous ridgeline to the summit.
Getting to the start
It is possible to spend a few days climbing up from Bagneres de Luchon on the French side. You can either take a taxi or bus up to the start of the climb. Or stay in the Refuge de Venasque, just under the Puerto de Benas. Yet when approaching from the south or Spain; it is possible to climb the Salvaguardia comfortably in one day.
Head for Benasque on the A139 main road; then carry on through the town. After approximately 12 kilometres you will reach a junction where you can fork off towards the ‘Hospital de Benasque’ hotel. You can park in a large car park below the hotel by the river. However, this can become full in summer and at weekends. The alternative is to pass the yellow avalanche barrier and continue up the tarmac road until it ends. Here you can park anywhere on the side of the road.
I left the car at the end of the road and descended into a lush green mountain meadow. In places the ground appeared lavender blue with a rich carpet of Autumnal Crocus. The sound of numerous waterfalls was joined in concert by the babbling stream of the growing River Esera. A gentle breeze blew up the valley and cooled the heat of the sun as if in an equilibrium.
The current ‘Hospital de Benasque’ hotel is only a refuge for those with deeper pockets: https://www.llanosdelhospital.com/. Yet the ruins of two earlier refuges that would have sheltered everyone in times past, can clearly be seen as you cross the meadow. If you finish the walk early or just want to take a lazy rest day; then I would recommend just spending a few hours here to recuperate. Surrounded by a panorama of mountains on all sides this is a great place to relax.
However, today I felt the need to climb the peak of Salvaguardia far above. Reaching the far side of the meadow; the path crosses a stream on a wooden bridge. Before the path begins to climb up into a forest, take the path on the left towards a rocky gully.
Climbing out of the valley
Soon after leaving the meadow, the path climbs at a steady rate through a field of stones. Reaching a small plateau, a signpost directs you to the left, towards a seemingly unclimbable cliff face. Although the gradient increases considerably in places, the path is well made and easy to navigate.
Using a series of hairpin bends, the path soon zigzags up and out of the valley. I used each hairpin bend as point to rest, catch my breath and take on water. I could also look up and down the valley and take in the changing views instead of focusing on the path beneath my feet.
Reaching a section of bare rock, I thought that the path had come to an end. However, drawing level, I saw that a path had been cut into the rock face! Soon after, I climbed up over a small ridge and could only see the peaks above me.
A left turn before France!
In October, the sun was still strong, protecting me from a growing mountain breeze. The grass was lush and green here and I relaxed once again as I stopped to rest. I approached a junction with signs to the right towards the ‘Besurta’ and the ‘Refuge de la Renclusa’. I turned left towards the ‘Hospice de France’. There was also a signpost detailing the distance between Benasque and Bagneres de Luchon. This is to acknowledge the medieval trade and ‘smuggling’ route. I turned left here, towards the ‘Hospice de France’.
Just a few minutes above this signpost, the path heads towards a rocky pass in the ridge above. Here is the ‘Puerto de Benas’ where you can pass through to France. However, keep an eye out for an unmarked path on the left, which heads up towards the high ground on your left.
The path from here up to the summit passes over a series of exposed rock faces. With steep offset gradients, take extreme care when it is raining or icy. In one section there is a fixed cable to help you. Yet do not be afraid to use your hands at any point to maintain adequate grip and balance. In other sections, you will literally have to scramble up over steep steps of around two metres in height.
Although I do not want to discourage you; I feel I have a responsibility to explain the risks involved in this route. After climbing over these steep sections for approximately half an hour; the gradient begins to ease as you reach the summit ridge.
Salvaguardia summit views
They say: ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, so please enjoy the views in these photos taken on the summit of Salvaguardia. There are a few level places to bivouac in warmer weather; to enjoy the clear skies and the joy of seeing a sunrise. I was conscious of the shorter days in October, so I only stayed long enough to have my celebratory summit sandwich.
To the south you can see the whole of the Aneto – Maladeta range, to the west: Pico Sacroux, Pico de Malpas and Posets. To the north: Bagneres de Luchon and the lush green valleys far below.
When I was on the summit of the Salvaguardia; I met three very polite Spanish gentlemen. After pleasantries and discussing our routes, one Senor asked how I stayed safe whilst walking alone. This reminded me of the tragic death of an Englishwoman called Esther Dingley, on these very slopes just a few years before.
These are the ways I keep safe whilst walking alone in high mountains:
– Always check the weather forecast. Any risk of heavy rain, fog or thunderstorms and I will stay down in the safety of the valley.
– Buy a map which clearly shows the routes that you intend to use. Do not rely on your phone; it can stop working.
– Calculate the approximate time needed to complete the walk. Then begin early enough so that you will have a few hours of daylight left in case there is an emergency.
– Starting earlier; you are more likely to encounter other walkers coming up behind you.
– Carry an emergency survival bag, as well as hat, gloves and a coat. Even in high summer the weather can change quickly you may end up having to sleep out on the mountainside.
– Always carry plenty of food and drink. Carry water purification tablets so you can drink from streams. Carry some glucose tablets and high energy bars even if you are trying to avoid sugar.
– Always tell someone your intended route for the day. If you are undecided, tell them all the routes and variations that you are considering that day. A hotel receptionist or bar owner; will happily accept this responsibility and look forward to your return.
– Never be afraid to turn back if the weather deteriorates or you feel tired.
– Remember, the mountain will always be there. So, you can return to enjoy the beauty of nature another day.
Puerto de Benas
Descending to the path from France once again. I quickly had a look through the narrow ‘Puerto de Benas’. ‘Puerto’ translates as ‘door’ which is very apt, as the pass cuts through the rock like a doorway, at the lowest point in the ridge.
Taking the long way home
Looking towards France, I felt cold in the shade of the rock around me. Quickly returning to the Spanish side; I was bathed in the warmth of the evening sun. I did not stop much longer, for I knew still had quite a way to get back to the car. Returning to the aforementioned junction, I took the path towards the: ‘Besurta’ and ‘Refuge de la Renclusa’.
This path descended further up the valley of Benasque from the way I had climbed up. Over sweeping meadows I could enjoy a complete panorama of the Maladeta range. With the three Spanish gentlemen ahead of me and having plenty of daylight and provisions left; I enjoyed this descent into a mountain paradise.
A route to relax
Just before I reached the valley floor, a path forked off to the right. This kept the same me height for over three hundred metres as I walked down the valley. The path then descended to the ‘Plan d’Estan’, before descending through trees to the meadow at the start of the walk.
Returning to my car, I was tired but relaxed. All of lifes man made issues seemed so distant here and so I returned to civilisation with a fresh mindset. Cruising back to my apartment; I could only feel happy in the last of the evening sun. That night, after a hearty meal, I went to sleep a happier and more relaxed man.