“Aneto stands ruggedly tall in the Pyrenees on the Spanish side of the border with France. A long range of mountains pushed skywards when the tectonic plate of the Iberian Peninsula ground against the Eurasian plate about 55 million years ago.
Our team of six set out to climb the mountain on calm but chilly day in May with the help of Dave, a calming, good natured and rangy guide from 360 Expeditions; and a local French guide, Alain, whose specialties were smiling, speed and a wiry strength that far exceeded his 5’ 8” frame.
Our crew was made up of my two younger brothers, Paul (the birthday boy) and Dan (both of whom are fitter and stronger than me); my Dad, a 64 year old landscape gardener who loves a challenge, especially with his sons; and two friends: Scott, a fit 50 year old triathlon veteran; and Chillo, a 63 year old farmer with a history of rugby coaching at home and trekking aboard, most notably in the Himalayas.
And then there was me: a 41 year old father of four with a Dad bod and orange jacket.
The ascent of Aneto began straightforwardly. A gradual climb from a beautiful valley car park to a refuge (hostel) that takes around 45 minutes. From there you can take a break or continue your adventure.
As the trek takes roughly 11 hours and we arrived at the car park at lunch time we stayed overnight at the refuge to begin the challenge at a more sensible 6am.
The refuge itself is a functional but welcoming place where you can stay for about 70 euros per night. For that, you can expect friendly staff, simple food and a comfortable enough bed where the happy cats that nestle you make up for pillows that are too thin.
The views are beautiful. A mixture of alpine and rugged.
A shrine cut into the mountain is a welcome place of reflection but a gentle reminder of the thin line between life and death; success and failure.
After a simple breakfast of cereal, cake and warm (but not hot) tea, we began.
The journey upwards from the refuge began gently enough on a stone path but quickly steepened with a challenging scramble up rocks which was tough on the legs. We abandoned the rocks and climbed the snowy ground which was easier on the feet, thighs and hips.
The trek up can be dressed up as many things: exciting, a measure of fitness, man vs mountain. For me it was mostly tiring. Tiring and, if I’m honest, a bit boring.
I like walking because you can take in the views, chat, and put the world to rights. But the uphill trek for the first two hours of your Aneto climb is a head down, slow, sweaty slog up a steep, snowy slope. It was punctuated by stops for panting to get some air into my lungs, which in my case, were not quite ready for the challenge.
I had trained. I’d played 5-a-side football, done some jogging on weekends and walked up and down my landlord’s steep field ten times with my heavy backpack on. Not enough times it would seem.
On the subject of weight, I was carrying too many pounds. Not around my stomach which is, to be fair, surrounded by a ring of happy flab rather than a bursting beer belly. I’m talking about weight on my back.
The decision of how much to carry weighs, well, heavily. I worked on the mantra of ‘better to have it and not need it’, which resulted in me carrying an oversized rucksack with a spare coat, spare fleece, spare socks, spare pants, spare t-shirt, spare thermal base layer, waterproof trousers, gaiters, food, water bottle, sun tan lotion, crampons, ice axe, and a harness.
I ate the food, drank the water, wore the sun tan lotion and crampons. I used the ice axe and harness but the other eight items were never used other than to soak up the sweat leaching through the pores of my back.
If you’re British and reading this you’ll no doubt sympathise with my clothes and weather dilemma. Climbing Aneto in May is cold work. As in minus figures cold. But climbing a mountain is also hot, sweaty work. So there’s this debate about how much or little to wear, and how much and how little to take with you. Everyone has an opinion. Mine was wrong. I took too much.
Oh, and top tip: wear one very good thick pair of socks rather than two average ones. Two pairs of socks leads to a greater chance of rubbing and blisters, as my Dad discovered.
We stopped for a break at a gap in the rocks called the ‘keyhole’. Three things dawned on me.
Firstly, I was hungry and despite being vegan I ate the salami baguette provided by the refuge.
Secondly, this first stage of the ascent was harder than anticipated.
Thirdly, my 64 year-old-Dad was struggling to regain his breath and I secretly hoped he’d decide that this was one challenge too far and would return to the refuge. I would nobly fall on my sword, sacrifice myself to the greater good, and get my father down safely.
It turns out that the old man is a tough old goat and wouldn’t give up. My only remaining hope was that the weather would close in and the whole gig would be called off. “A worthy endeavour but not to be, boys,” people would say. We could have done it, but the weather stopped us.
Like my near pension age father, the weather did not play ball.
Once beyond the keyhole on to the southern facing glacier, the Catalonian sun beat down relentlessly, burning my neck and my brother’s nose. The view was annoyingly clear and the rugged landscape spectacular. There was no turning back now.
What followed was a more reasonable trek along a glacier that I didn’t know was a glacier. It was covered in 8 inches of snow. It was a welcome chance to chat with our fabulous guide, Dave, who I got to quiz about life in southern France, which, by the sound of it, is lovely.
It gave me time to take stock and observe the challenge of summiting. It looked daunting but doable. A challenge but achievable. Dave then informed me I was looking at the wrong peak. Aneto is behind that one. Annoying.
We stopped just before the slope to the top really steepened and fixed crampons to our feet, took out our ice picks and harnessed up. The crampons and ice picks made me feel like a pro but the harness disconcerted me. Why did we need a harness?
A rope was slithered between the karabena of each harnessed man. We would climb in single file, strung together for our own safety. Just in case. In case of what? I didn’t ask but I can only imagine it was in case someone fell.
The ascent was draining. The snow meant that every time I applied pressure and took a step up my foot would fall down 6 inches as the snow compacted beneath my crampons. It felt like I did every step twice.
We stopped regularly for a breather. I couldn’t tell whether it was altitude or lack of fitness that slowed me down. After an hour or so of this we inched our way to the top, and then, I saw it.
A steel cross that marked the absolute peak of Aneto. It must be about 10 feet tall. It was glorious, heart-warming, but unfortunately lay about 30 metres away across a giant Toblerone of boulders with sheer drops either side.
Our friend Scott does not like heights and raised the possibility of not going across. He was gently persuaded by the reassuring Dave that it wasn’t that bad and that we’d go slowly. Scott, to my disappointment, was persuaded. Had he declined I might have plucked up the courage to sit this one out as well.
We set down our bags and walking poles and went for it.
I took some deep breaths, in and out. Dave asked me if I was ok. “Yep”, I said, lying.
The key for this sort of thing is not to look down, take your time and plant your feet securely before stretching your hand towards the next rock. Dave reminded me to breathe which seemed like sage advice. I hadn’t realised that I wasn’t breathing.
As I edged my way across, two things struck me. Crampons are surprisingly good at gripping onto rocks. The other was that I was not having a nice time and longed for this to be over. At this point I promised never to do anything like this again.
I was one of the last to make it across and thank goodness I was wearing sunglasses because I shed more than a tear behind those shades. It was seeing the outstretched arms of my father who must have battled through so much pain and doubt that got me.
We were at the top. We managed a few selfies and group photos before the cloud started to roll in and it was time to scramble back across the murderous 3404 metre high, Toblerone-style ridge.
On went the bags and down we went.
Sometimes walking down a mountain is harder than walking up. It’s torture on the knees which jar with every step, especially if the ground is rocky. However, this was not rocky. This was snowy and it cushioned our steps. Yes, it was slippy and I fell on my bottom more than once but hard on the knees it wasn’t. This was fun.
We were slip-sliding, joking and collapsing up to our crotches in deep snow. At one stage Paul had to dig Scott out with an ice pick as he’d sunk to his waist and couldn’t free his left foot. Naturally we mocked. Scott was panicked but I couldn’t tell what concerned him most: his stuck foot or my brother wielding an ice pick dangerously close to his penis.
Where the snow was firmer we managed to slide down as if on skis. Our guide Alain slid down on his bottom like a happy child.
I was happy, too. Happy that we’d succeeded. Happy that Paul had enjoyed his ‘birthday present’. Happy that warm tea awaited our arrival back at the refuge. Happy that I was happy.
It’s impossible to put a number on what it’s like to climb Aneto. Well, I say impossible; I’d give it 7 out of 10. The descent alone was worth 5, with the views and walk across the glacier giving it a couple more. For me, the long slog up to the keyhole and terrifying scramble to the summit knock a good few marks off.
Would I do it again? Yes.
The expedition was hard but if climbing is a numbers game then I lost count of how many times I smiled, laughed and hugged those around me. Thank you Aneto, the team, and 360 Expeditions. The happy memories are numerous.”
Huge thanks to Johnathan for the way he has brilliantly captured his Aneto expedition – certainly brought a big smile to the office team. We’re now looking forward to the tales from whatever Johnathan’s next adventure will be! And a fantastic effort from the team – this takes family get togethers to a whole new level.