Ain’t no mountain too high – in the Spanish Pyrenees – proved mum-of-two Lisa Carter when faced with climbing Pico Aneto for her charity of choice
Having supported the Kids Company charity for a year or so, I always keep a keen eye on their newsletters. Back in May I spotted an invitation to join them on a fundraising challenge to conquer the highest mountain in the Spanish Pyrenees, Pico Aneto. The two-day autumn ascent promised glorious weather and a sprinkling of snow on the glacier – meaning ice axes, crampons and ropes would be necessary. The second day’s climb would begin by torchlight as we headed for the gullies and then onto the eventual steep traverse to the peak.
The last time I’d done any serious hiking was five years ago in Nepal, but I had never actually climbed a mountain. In the brief it said: ‘Intermediate fitness levels required’. I play regular tennis and attend fitness classes, so that sounded fine to me, and before I knew it I had signed up. Suddenly the summer holidays, usually a time reserved for lounging around in the sun, involved vigorous tennis, brisk walks, horse riding, jogging and the odd spinning class. I did my best to take it all in my stride, however, and as the climb approached, I felt fairly confident about my fitness levels.
Even more suddenly the day of the trip, 26 September, was upon me. At 5am we departed Gatwick on an EasyJet flight to Toulouse where we were met by a representative from Warthog travel company. A four-hour minibus ride followed, stopping to pick up our guide John Howie, and we were eventually dropped off at around 4pm in, what I would describe as, a beautiful car park at the foot of the mountains in Benasque. With little hesitation we heaved our weighty rucksacks onto our backs (we had been advised to travel in our walking boots) and embarked on a fast but fairly flat 20-minute march, setting the pace for the trip. After stopping briefly for a coffee – on the advice of John who clearly thought we needed a kick-start – we set off again, buzzing with caffeine, for the ‘gentle, two hour part of the walk’ heading to the Refugio Renclusa, 2,140m up.
The aim was to arrive in time for supper at 7pm, so off we went, following John at a race of knots. This ‘gentle walk’ would have been better described as an intense, up-hill, rock scramble that lasted for about three hours. When we finally reached the refuge, I felt the first tingle of achievement. The walk we’d just done was harder than any I’d done for years. The air was fresh and clear and the sun was just starting to sink behind the miles of beautiful Pyrenean mountains. Any pain or strain was forgotten; I felt amazing and was ready to face the big challenge.
After a quick supper of sausage stew and a couple of glasses of red wine, we retired to our dorms where we unpacked, got organised for the next day and crashed out, ready for another early wake-up call. At 5am the next morning we strapped on our head-torches, slung on our rucksacks and headed into the icy cold darkness. The stars were still twinkling above us and the air smelt of rivers and vegetation as we marched quietly up a steep, rocky path for an hour or so, watching the morning light slowly started to glow from behind the mountain-tops.
The stretch ahead was to prove more difficult than I could have imagined, requiring a great deal of strength and balance as we had to stride between bigger rocks up an incredibly steep slope. Three hours in, I started feeling very tired, weak and daunted by the never-ending boulders ahead of me. But there was no stopping until we’d reached the Portillon Ridge 2,900m above us. Eventually, most of us short of breath and light-headed, we reached the ridge where we stopped for another snack. I looked down at what we’d scaled so far: a huge expanse of blinding white rock, steeper than I could ever have imagined I could climb, and there was just the one peak looming above us, Pico Aneto. We moved off again quickly so as not to stiffen up, but my heart sank when I looked around the corner and saw another boulder field leading to the Aneto Glacier. Focus and stamina were what was needed to continue. John expertly coaxed us on for another hour until we crossed the next ridge, and were met with a change of terrain.
We were now on the side of a very steep, icy glacier. John helped us to attach crampons to our walking boots. I felt desperately tired but motivated by the change of ground and glimmering peak of the mountain ahead of us. John started to walk across the 60 degree angle of snow and ice, but my body started to tense up as it went against all instinct to stand on black ice at that angle. If I was to fall, I would tumble miles, with only my ice axe to dig in and hang onto. John coerced me into trying to relax and trust the crampons, but my legs were so tired it was hard not to stumble. Having traversed the ice, we headed straight up hill, to rope-up at the top, and walk across an icy ridge, using every last bit of energy to climb up the steep summit ridge.
We ploughed on over more rocks and boulders finally reaching the highest point in the Pyrenees, Pico Aneto at 3,404m. I was on top of the world. I’d achieved my goal. And raised £4,000 for Kids Company. Mission very much accomplished.