Jun 28, 2014

La Brèche de Roland - The Roland Gap

Col de Sarradets: Summits, Sarradets Mountain Hut and Roland Gap to be seen

It must have been 10 years, since my friend Ernst first mentioned La Brèche de Roland to me - The Roland Gap, a huge natural gap in the mountain ridge that separates the French Gavarnie Valley from the Spanish Ordesa National Park. Since then, I had caught a glimpse of it from considerable distances every now and then, but never had I actually made it there. Some months ago, when Xavi and me were talking about a possible mountain trip for the summer, I proposed one, that not only would cross the gap, but also would make use of the Sarradets mountain hut, located in the very vicinity of it, and even would include the ascent of some 3000m peaks close by.

Before Xavi and me could finish our planning, my Stockholm based friend Johannes agreed on joining in for the trip. After some adjustments of our initial plan, we made a reservation for two nights in the Sarradets hut, and on Saturday, June 21, left northwards. In Fiscal, we we were forced to stop for an hour and half, in order to let pass by a bike race known as Quebrantahuesos. We spent the time sightseeing and taking chilled drinks brewed from fermented cereal and yeast. Upon 2 pm we finally arrived in St Nicolas de Bujaruelo (1338m), the place we would begin our hike from.
Yellow: 1st day; red: 2nd day; green: 3rd day

Barranco de Lapazosa
Our way up to the Sarradets Mountain Hut led us through the green canyon of Barranco de Lapazosa, which is crowned by a famous col known as Puerto de Bujaruelo. Whereas it took us some two and a half hours to get there from the Spanish side of the border, for French hikers it's almost possible to arrive there by car, because at Col de Tentes, very close by, there is a parking lot.
Port de Bujaruelo, 2273m
A short while after we had crossed col de Bujaruelo, stones gave way to snow, and we soon geared up with crampons. After a rather steep ramp we arrived at Col de Serradets from where we suddenly could make out the hut in its stunning surrounding.

Sarradets Hut, 2587m
We made it there just in time to be given our sleeping berths and prepare them before dinner was being served.

Sunday was our summit day. Our best scenario plan was to try climbing the seven 3000m summits East of the Roland gap, up to Pic de Marboré. Around 7.15 we started walking and soon arrived at the Gap which greeted us with impressing views of the Spanish side of the border. An inclined snow field and some chains, which were fixed at the rock wall, led us to yet another col known as Cuello de los Sarrios. From there, we finished our South-circumvention of the Casco de Marboré summit, that was necessary in order to find a position from where to attack it. A last steep and snowy ramp allowed us to reach the first summit of the day.
Casco de Marboré summit, 3012m
According to our route description, our next objective, 3009m high Torre de Marboré, either would be tricky to climb from the West or would need a circumvention. From where we stood, however, we could make out that on its Western flank a steep snow ramp led more or less straight to the top. The presence of snow, it seemed to us, softened the trickiness of a summit attempt from the West.  Not willing to run any unnecessary risks, we agreed to rope up. The steepness, it turned out, was not as pronounced as it had seemed, and without any problems we soon got to the top of "La Torre".
Torre de Marboré, 3009m; the three of us still roped up
In order to get to our next peak, Espalda de Marboré, we had some walking to do. Once in its vicinity, the normal route foresaw yet another circumvention, but as we stood beneath the South facing wall of La Espalda, we could make out a possible route which attacked it directly. After a somehow critical negotiation of the marginal cleft between the snow field and the rock, we gained access to the South wall. The first metres consisted of a succession of several man high steps which demanded some careful scrambling. In one occasion, Xavi, who went first, slipped and fell backwards, but luckily, I was close behind him and promptly could stop his down bound motion. I was lucky too, because only closely one of his crampons-armed boots missed my knee. A deep flesh wound up there near the top of La Espalda de Marboré certainly would have spoiled my day... Without further incidents we soon reached the top of our third peak...
Espalda de Marboré, 3075m, upon arrival
...and only 10 minutes later already stood on summit no. 4, Pic Occidental de la Cascada.
View from Pic Occidental de la Cascada, 3098m
At this point, we noticed that the fog, that until then only had been visible around Monte Perdido, had extended around Pic de Marboré and was closing in on us rather quickly. For the moment, however, we decided to stick to our plan and still climb Pic Central de la Cascada. Once there, we would adapt to the new situation. 
Colourful dots in-between rocks
On our way back
It probably did not take us more than 15 minutes to reach that 3108m high summit, but when we arrived there, we did not feel like taking pictures any longer. After a very brief summit celebration, we were on our way down again. By then, the fog was blurring our vision and I felt increasingly anxious. Didn't we want to retrace our steps and summit the peaks for another time, we would still need several hours of clear vision so as to find an alternative path back to the Roland gap.

We were lucky, for the fog only descended to something like 2900m. Below that altitude, vision stayed fine. Even so, the difficult morphology of the landscape didn't make things easy for us, but ultimately we found a very beautiful path, which I think is known as Las Fajas Rojas. At some points, it was pretty exposed to deep drops, but whenever that was the case, it was otherwise easy and demanded nothing more than a reasonable degree of focus and concentration. At several points, we did not know whether our chosen narrow path would continue being walkable, or whether the considerable amount of snow would force us to turn around, but finally we were able to proceed into easier terrain from where we could be sure to find our way back to the Roland gap.

Almost back at the Roland gap
About 10 hours after we had left in the morning, we arrived back at the hut. Strangely, people around were quite keen to know what we had done during the day and how things had turned out. The knowledge we had gained regarding snow conditions and subjective difficulties was much appreciated by some of the present groups of mountaineers who were planning their trips for the next day. Not without proud did we learn that another team of climbers had observed us from a close by summit during our traverse of the exposed part of our return path. According to them we offered a spectacular show!
Curious Marmot at Sarradets
On Monday, we had to leave and return back home. Our plan was to make it to the parking lot at the main entrance of  the Ordesa valley and from there to hitchhike back to our car. The special thing about that route would be a short via ferrata known as Las Clavijas de Cotatuero. But apart from the famous Clavijas, our detour offered us many other delights as for example beautiful landscapes.
Photo session
Cotatuero Circus
As we lost altitude, snow, rock and stones once again gave place to grass and other plant life. The exquisite Edelweiss flower to be seen in the next photo, for example, grew right in the middle of our path. I don't remember ever having seen one before.

Bugs and fly
The closer we came to the Clavijas, the more spectacular the surrounding landscape got. Shortly after the ravine we were moving in, Barranco Cotatuero, was joined by its neighbouring ravine known as Barranco Millaris...   
Water fall in Barranco Millaris
...ground gave away and we stood on top of a apparently non-negotiable obstacle in form of a vertical drop.
How about a shower?
That's precisely were the Clavijas de Cotatuero are to be found: about a hundred years ago, local hunters had driven massive iron bars into the rocks so as to form an impressive passage along the wall first, and a 10m deep pitch later. These days, adrenaline junkies not only dispose of those iron bars, but also of a wire rope where to secure themselves by means of a carbine firmly joined to their harnesses. As regards the pitch, one of the mentioned bars on top of it allows installation of an abseil rope. Since the iron bars must be very slippery when wet, abseiling without any doubt is highly recommendable.  
Clavijas de Cotatuero
After this last technical difficulty, we only had to follow the path, which led us down through a very beautiful and moist forest, mostly made up of conifers, but also of beech and birch.
Upon arrival at the parking lot we were given a lift almost immediately and around 1 PM were back at our car.

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