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‘It is the path to the top which gives meaning to the summit. Without the experience of the voyage, the summit is meaningless. It is only a viewpoint. The path up the mountain fuses the sensations and experiences of our inner voyage with the grandeur of the exterior.’
‘La cumbre mística’
Revista Voluntad, 22
1 October 1920
“When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
I saw this graffiti on a wall in Spain recently and have adopted it as a motto. If I just repeat what I have done before am I really alive?
So you’re going to take up hang gliding, suggested my sister. No. I’m going to climb Canigou, I say. But you’ve done it before, often. Never in winter. Winter’s different.
Last Thursday the avalanche risk was an exceptionally low two out of five. How about this weekend, I asked friends. Two of them agreed.
On Saturday morning we leave the car at Fillols. Climbing up through the woods, we bump into two lads and a dog all eating breakfast: they have risked the sump of their car to get this far. Can we drive up to the Cortalets, they ask? No, there’s a barrier. Is there snow? Anne-Marie shows them our crampons. They decide to head back to Figueras. They have come here on a whim, victims of a Catalan myth.
Canigou is the Catalan mountain, though it is in France. It isn’t the highest but you can see it from the Mediterranean. For some Catalans, it is a mountain you can improvise. You get up in the morning, drive to the Cortalets, climb to the summit at 2786m (9,140ft), eat lunch on the way down and by dusk you are home. It can be done, in summer.
The myth is sustained by the idea that Canigou is not so much a mountain as a symbol of a nation-in-waiting. And symbols are important to Catalans in the run-up to the referendum on independence. The path to the top is known to thousands: it has acquired a certain mystical quality. At the annual summer Trobada (reunion) they camp, drink and sing the night away at the Cortalets. In the morning those still fit enough to do so will lug bundles of vine trimmings to the top. A week later, on Midsummer night’s eve, the bonfire will be visible in Perpignan 40km away. There will be street parties in all the towns and villages. Canigou is the centrepiece of a celebration of Catalan identity.
For me climbing Canigou is also a celebration of identity, not as a Catalan – I’m an unredeemable gavatx  – but as a walker.
After 1300m of climbing we arrive at the Cortalets. As expected, the hostel is locked up for the winter. More surprisingly, the metal door of the unmanned hut is wide open. I clear the snow away with my shovel while Claude brushes the dust off the table and the dry bits of the floor. I search out the spring. Perhaps it is still flowing: I’ve seen (on the internet, click on Pyrenees Est and then Canigou) that the air temperature hasn’t dropped below zero for the last five days. But it is frozen, so we pass the evening melting snow and filtering it through paper handkerchiefs to remove the unidentifiable specks.
Fire, like water, is also a question of making do. We collect armfuls of twigs and bark.
Two skiers arrive. Look, says one, a stove! Come and see, says the other from upstairs, mattresses and blankets! Thomas must have put the old ones here when he took over the hostel. (See also the Facebook group about the Cortalets.)
The skiers have been coming here for the last fifteen years and are going to the summit by the standard route, like us. When one of them goes out to fetch his skis he bangs his head on the porch roof. I’ve already done it twice. Though I cleared the snow from the threshold there is still a 1 metre-high step to get out.
By sunset the table is littered with camping gas stoves. We are thirteen: the three of us, the two skiers, six youngsters, and a couple. The youngsters are going to climb the Brèche Durier followed by the Chimney to get to the summit. The difficult option. One of them, Carole, is a walker, not a climber. It will be a first for her too. Then there is the couple. The man tells us that Madame has done very well to get this far in only four and a half hours and he is very fully aware of it.
“The standard route?” someone asks.
“Affirmative,” he replies.
We eat by the light of head torches, the climbers finishing with fizz, a birthday cake and presents for Nicolas, 33 today. Tomorrow will be his 36th Canigou.
The climbers are the last to bed and the first to rise. By the time we leave, their head torches are little stars way up the valley. The couple have also gone: Madame, we are told, walks very slowly.
Canigou in January
The route is familiar in general but under the snow all the details are lost, the lake completely swallowed up. I remember a little ledge incised into the flank of the mountain but today it is indistinguishable and trying to follow it on snowshoes twists our knees.
The couple have struck off on a short cut which makes no concessions to gravity. Claude reminds me that winter and summer paths are not always the same and that the man was sure of himself. So we decide to follow them, exchanging snowshoes and walking poles for crampons and ice axes.
We are above the treeline now and I don’t like this vast white expanse. I don’t like it now and I’m going to like it even less on the way back when the sun has warmed it. The snow is too deep and too soft – turning into semolina – except where it is covered by a thin crust and that won’t help if the whole thing starts to slip. Just below the summit it is much steeper. We are not going to make it. But I don’t want to say anything yet.
I don’t say anything even when the couple return. We got to 2360m, says the man, and I’m fully satisfied. Madame doesn’t comment but she seems happy enough.
I don’t say anything even as we approach the ridge above the Pic Joffre but I know we will have to turn around. Anne-Marie says that she hardly slept the night after she agreed to come. I know what it’s like.
But the other side of the ridge is a revelation. There is as much rock as snow. Paradoxically the only place where the snow has settled is along the line of the standard route, a white zigzag to the summit. But with no avalanche risk we all relax.
We are overtaken by the skiers and then we overtake them having breakfast, their skis replaced by crampons. Our white thread suddenly disappears into a small drift, wrinkled where it has slipped. I try a couple of steps tentatively then scramble for the rocks. Further on there is a much wider drift. There are deep footprints running across it but I don’t like the look of it either so I head for the rocks again, climbing, sometimes on rock, climbing, sometimes on snow.
Anne-Marie, encumbered with both an ice axe and a walking pole, says: “I don’t like this. I don’t feel safe.” Perhaps I have made a mistake. Perhaps we should have risked the drift.
“Put your pole in your sack,” I shout back to her but she doesn’t hear. By the time we re-join the standard route we are both shaking but the summit is only a few minutes away. The climbers coming up the other side have beaten us to it and are coming down again. Great climb, says Nicolas. Dry. Carole is radiant.
In summer, some walkers scramble up here in trainers and shorts in an hour and a half. It has taken us twice as long. Winter is not the same. Nor is the scenery.
The clouds are so low, covering the Roussillon plain and lapping way out to sea. On the other side, mountains: Carlit, Madres, Géant, Roc blanc and many more, all there, crumpled paper. Nearer to, the cross is naked. Not a single Catalan flag, no toy donkeys. The orientation table is half covered in snow.
I’ve been looking at all this but my mind is blank. All I can think of is eating, drinking and getting down again. Somehow, I’m disappointed. When I’m back home lying in my own bed, then I’ll know what it means. I’m confused. This is it, isn’t it? We feel the wind for the first time. It must be just above zero and although the sun warms my face I don’t want to stay long.
On the way down the first thing I do is catch a crampon in a gaiter, overbalancing but just managing to avoid a fall. Later Anne-Marie does the same. This time we cross the big drift directly, one at a time. Our feet sink in to our knees, the ice axe up to the hilt. Afterwards Claude says: “I really didn’t mind the rocks but I didn’t like the drift at all.” Nor did I. Next time I must plan better… am I really thinking of a next time?
Lower down we circumnavigate the Pic Joffre and avoid the steep short cut but not the ankle twisting finale.
Back at the hut it is all smiles. The climbers and skiers head off back to Los Masos and we go back to our car. The Catalans from Figueras have left the remains of their hopes by the side of the track. Disgusted, Claude collects the plastic bags and dog biscuits to dispose of later.
Back at the car, I think to myself: today, I have lived. It was just what I needed.