Coma Pedrosa – 9,652ft
Date: June 24, 2011
Andorra must be the adventure capital of all of Europe. From what I can tell, the country’s whole economy revolves around skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and any other form of outdoor activities you can imagine. Unfortunately I only had 13.5 hours in the country, so I had to make the most of it.
My conference in the Netherlands ended Thursday afternoon, and I immediately hopped on a train heading south. After a 3-hour layover in Paris (enough time to run out and snap a picture of Notre Dam and the Louvre), I took a sleeper train to Toulouse, arriving Friday morning at 7am. Now here came my first dilemma: to get to Andorra I needed to take a bus which left at 10:30am. I had bought a ticket online on Wednesday afternoon, and I was supposed to get my tickets emailed to me within 24 hours, but they didn’t make it before I left the Netherlands. According to the website, if I didn’t present my ticket on the bus I’d have to buy another from the bus driver, assuming there was space. Unfortunately it was an expensive ticket and I didn’t want to have to buy multiple redundant tickets.
So my options were to find internet somewhere in Toulouse and print out my ticket before the bus showed, or hope there was space and just buy another on the bus. I asked around in Toulouse and eventually found an internet café, but it didn’t open til noon. Shoot. I gave up and started walking around town killing time until I had another thought – don’t libraries have internet too? I started asking around about a bibliotheque (library in French) and eventually found the Toulouse Bibliotheque just a few blocks from the internet cafe. Opening time: 10am.
By now it was 9am and I knew it would be cutting it close to get in the library at 10am, figure out how their computer system worked, print out my ticket, and get back in time for the 10:30 bus. Being an engineer, I decided to time exactly how long it would take me to walk from the library to the bus station. I started my stop watch and started walking at a brisk pace until I reached the station 11 minutes and 27 seconds later. That would give me 18 minutes and 33 seconds in the library, assuming the library opened exactly on time and the bus driver left exactly on time. I had no clue how punctual French and Andorran people were, and that sounded like a pretty slim safety margin, so I decided to take the hit and buy the extra ticket on the bus.
The bus pulled up at 10:15am and I quickly got in line after a bunch of senior citizens.
“Ticket?” the bus driver asked
“I have a reservation but didn’t get a chance to … “ I started, until I saw a quizzical look on his face.
“Espanol?” he asked, obviously not understanding me. Luckily I knew a little spanish and explained the situation. He then asked for my passport, looked at a list that must have had my name on it, and waved me on. Good thing I hadn’t gone to the library, because the bus actually left six minutes ahead of schedule at 10:24 and I might have been stranded in Toulouse for the rest of the day.
We headed south into the Pyrenees, climbing higher and higher until we popped out above treeline. The road wound around a bunch of switchbacks until we reached the top of the ridge and the official Andorran border. A customs agent waved us through and then we dropped down the other side, past numerous ski resorts and touristy chalets until we reached Andorra la Villa, the capital city, at 2pm. I switched buses here and the second bus dropped me off at Arinsal, the trailhead town, at 2:30pm.
“El proximo autobus es a las cinco de la manana, no?” I asked, repeating the information I had read online that my bus left at 5am the next morning.
“No, a las quatro y quarto,” he replied, 4:15am.
Ouch – that meant I’d probably have to be back to Arinsal by 4am in case the bus left early like before. If I could have gotten all the ideal trains and busses I could have had a full day in Andorra and taken a later bus, but there was no space left at the convenient times for someone with a Eurail pass like me. My next train was scheduled to leave Toulouse Saturday at 5pm, and only two buses leave Andorra per day – a 4am bus and a 2pm bus that wouldn’t get to my train in time.
I waved goodbye to the bus and quickly started walking toward the trailhead. Coma Pedrosa, the highest point in Andorra, was supposedly a “4.5-hour” hike one way (they don’t give mileages in Europe it seems), so I had no time to fool around in the city. The road went steeply through the little village until it passed the last few houses and changed to dirt. I passed quite a few hikers descending, and hiking must be a popular pastime when people aren’t skiing or mountain biking. Luckily the trail was well marked with “Coma Pedrosa” signs every once in a while so I knew I was heading the right direction.
The road eventually changed into a normal trail, and after 1.5 hours I reached the edge of treeline in a huge meadow. I had been feeling really slow and tired, and thought it was probably due to a lack of sleep on the train the previous night, but I felt better when I pulled out my guide and realized I had still shaved an hour off the book time for this location. At the edge of this meadow was the Refugi de Coma Pedrosa, a little lodge you could stay at to break up the long climb. It was swarming with people, and I decided to keep my distance from it.
Past the lodge there were fewer people, probably because everyone had started much earlier than me and were already done for the day. I crossed the meadow and started climbing higher until I reached huge patch of snow on the edge of a little pond – Estany Negre. The Andorran snow tasted about the same as any other snow, and I looked forward to glissading back down on my descent.
At the top of the snow the trail veered onto a steep rocky ridge that required some scrambling once in a while – it was pretty fun. To the right the mountain dropped sharply away all the way to Arinsal, and to the left it dropped into a big bowl with an icy pond in the middle.
By 5:30pm I reached the highest point on the ridge and found myself on the roof of Andorra. Looking to the east I figured I could see the whole country. To the north the mountains dropped down into France, and to the southwest there were even larger, glaciated mountains in Spain. It reminded me of the Sierra Nevada in California and there would be plenty of mountaineering to be had here on the weekends if you lived nearby.
I had shaved 1.5 hours off the book time, so I figured I could hang out at the summit for 1.5 hours no problem. There were two ladies up there from Barcelona, and we talked a little before they headed back down to stay in the refugi that night.
I got my customary juggling and jumping pictures, sent off a few text messages home saying I was still alive, and then started my descent. But I couldn’t go back the exact same way – I took a slight detour that let me touch my toe across the border into Spain on a nearby ridge. I really wanted to camp out up there above treeline near the awesome snow-filled lake, but I knew that would mean getting up at midnight to give myself enough time to reach the bus. If I were certain of getting a good rest the next few nights I would have done it, but the way my train schedule worked out it was possible I would have to pull two all-nighters the next few nights, so this night had to count as a full night’s sleep. I decided to hike back down to sleep as close to the trailhead as possible and maximize my sleep that night.
The descent was much faster, especially with a little glissading thrown in, and I was down to the meadow by around 8pm. There was actually an old stone hut here as well, which was free to sleep in and could hold 10 people. I had planned to stay there if it were raining (I was going light and hadn’t brought a tent), but the weather looked good so I kept descending.
By around 9pm I reached the last level spot I remembered before the trailhead, so I laid out my sleeping bag on the ground and went to bed. I wasn’t certain how long it would take me to get back from here so I set my alarm for 2:45am to be safe.
Somehow I got up on my own at 2:40am (beating my alarm), and quickly scarfed down some granola and hit the trail. I reached the bus stop at 3:30am and there were still a few people wandering around the streets leaving the bars. I was mad at myself for not sleeping in another half hour, but was still relieved to have gotten there early. The bus actually arrived at 4:05am (early, as I had come to expect of these punctual Andorrans), and I got on. I was already planning my next country highpoint – Chemins de Revoirs, the roof of Monaco.