Mount Canigou: Tales of Ascension
Updated: Jan 28
It is said that you cannot be a true Catalan until you have climbed le Canigou, the mountain with special almost sacred significance to the people of Catalunya on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border. The Catalan flag flies proudly from an iron crucifix on its summit and each year on 23rd June on the night of the Fête de St. Jean which welcomes the summer, there is a ceremony called La Flama del Canigó when a flaming torch is carried from Perpignan to the cross and then the same flame brought back to light bonfires in communes throughout the area.
It is easy to see why the mountain has become so symbolic. It dominates the landscape far and wide and from certain viewpoints it certainly appears apposite to its Catalan name: literally “dog’s tooth.” Whenever Kate and I used to come to this part of France before we bought the Mas, the sense of homecoming was apparent only when Canigou appeared on the horizon, and now, living every day under it’s benign presence we feel it is very much a part of our lives.
Despite an altitude of only 2785m above sea level, until the 18th century Canigou was believed to be the highest mountain in the Pyrenees, not least because of its impressive flanks and situation so close to the coast. This unusual location for a mountain results in remarkable views from afar. For example, twice a year, in early February and late October, when the weather conditions are right, the peak can be seen at sunset from as far away as Marseilles.
Although we moved here permanently in 2013, it took until the Autumn of 2017 for me to make my first ascent, not entirely under my own steam I should add, but with the help of an old Land Rover Defender purchased cheaply from a hunter a couple of years after our move. This intrepid vehicle transported my friend Andy and myself to the refuge of Mariailles (1700m alt) which in 2017 was still accessible via the forest track from Vernet-les-Bains. More recently, vehicles are only permitted as far as Col de Jou (1125m alt). Since it was my first time, I guess this seemed the most manageable route to climb to the summit with
an ascent of only around 1000m. Even so, it is a day’s walk and you have to be reasonably fit especially closer to the summit where the air feels significantly thinner. I did not know it at the time, but Andy, my walking companion, had, in his heyday, run a half marathon in 1 hour 14 minutes, and still seemed to retain much of his aerobic fitness so inevitably I found it a struggle to keep up with him!
The first part of the walk is quite easy, an undulating forest track running parallel to the upper reaches of the Cady, which is forded whereupon one continues slightly upwards until you reach the Arago refuge by which time the trees have thinned out to grassy uplands. The last part is the hardest as the topography becomes rocky, bare and a great deal steeper. As the air thins, the walking becomes harder going, and one’s breathing more laboured especially as you get close to the final ascent up what is called ‘the chimney.’ This is a scramble up a creviced rock face which looks a lot more scary than it actually is. There are multiple foot and hand-holds which aid the ascent which is totally worth it for the final reveal which is quite literally, a peak experience! You climb up over the last bit of the rock face and the view opens up to a magnificent 360 degree panorama. Although there is not much room at the summit, especially if it is a sunny day, it’s a great place to have lunch provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale. The reward is all the greater if you get an early start in the morning. You won’t find any restaurants with a better view than this!
This particular route for the ascent was so good I had to repeat it with friends and it never failed to impress. The second time I went up was with a friend taking the ashes of his beloved Nelly to inter amidst the rocks at the summit. Despite the tragedy we had all experienced at the loss of a wonderful woman, the ritual was a strangely uplifting event and apparently this custom is not that uncommon. Indeed, I plan to take some ashes from my own late mother’s cremation up there one of these days. Sometimes, the natural world conspires with you when you are on a kind of sacred pilgrimage and indeed on our 2018 ascent we were rewarded with witnessing the presence of Canigou’s animal gate-keepers once we were within reach of the summit.
My third ascent of Canigou in 2019 was a rather extreme event, at least for me. I took part in the “Championnat du Canigou” – a race held on the first Sunday of August every year, starting and finishing in Vernet-les-Bains at the foot of the mountain. At just 34km this race is certainly not classed as an ultra trail endurance event but with an ascent and descent of approximately 2000m, for me it rates as ultra-Adrian especially as I was aged 57 at the time.
The night before the race I stayed with friends who then owned the Canigou Lodge, a B&B/gite very close to the Canigou trail in Vernet. Being wired up and totally apprehensive of the impending race, I barely got a wink of sleep. In the morning I fuelled up with plenty of coffee and porridge I braved the 07h00 start despite harbouring a secret wish to have remained tucked up in bed!
For me in my semi-comatose state, the first part was for me the hardest where everyone was jostling for a place. With so many racers on a rapidly narrowing track, it was clearly an advantage to push ahead early lest one get stuck behind slower runners later on. Personally, I didn’t mind getting stuck too much though especially as the early part of the trail up to the Col de Jou was pretty steep! From Mariailles, I knew the track pretty well and I could start to stretch my legs. As I approached the final ascent however, I was breathing very hard and I passed one or two runners who had collapsed by the side of the rocky trail. On reaching the chimney there was in fact a wee queue for the final push to the summit as you can see in the photo.
However, I eventually managed to make it up to the top with time for a quick selfie before starting the dramatic descent.
The downhill leg down the other side of the mountain via the Cortalets refuge was an endorphin filled blur. I love running downhill and I think the highlight of the entire crazy event came as I was racing down through the pine forests. I tripped over a root, diving headfirst into a perfect somersault which brought me straight back on my feet, and into my running stride. I hardly noticed that I had tripped, it was all in one smooth movement and the closest I think I have ever been to being what is called the “flow state.”
As we descended towards the lower slopes the heat was starting to build up especially as we were approaching the middle of the day. I was very glad of the intermittent lemonade stalls which temporarily slaked my seemingly un-ending thirst. Back in the streets of Vernet-les-Bains just before 13h00, and in time for lunch, I managed to finish in under 6 hours and by this time I was in a combined state of euphoria and exhaustion, and boy, did I sleep well that night!
A few months later I delighted in taking my wife’s son Benny and his girlfriend Emily up the usual route. Both of them are no stranger to mountains (living in British Columbia where they are avid skiers, mountain bikers, etc.) and were in fact, en route to go trekking in the Himalayas of Nepal, so they thought it might be a good bit of practice to head up the Canigou. It was a wonderful day with perfect weather and they made it up there with no problems at all with all the fitness of the prime of youth. Emily suffered a touch of Tigger syndrome on the way down (“Tiggers know how to climb up trees but not how to climb down”- from Winnie the Pooh!) Like Tigger, Emily had bounded up the chimney without a care in the world – happily onward and upward, but after lunch at the summit and on looking down over the edge to the same vertiginous route, she has ascended, she swallowed a few gulps of fear-laden qualms and tried to persuade us all that there must be another way down (which there wasn’t apart from a very long detour!). Displaying all his gentlemanly and persuasive charm, Benny coaxed Emily down foothold by foothold and all was well as we descended back into the land of running streams, forests and generally happy people and animals.
To keep things fresh, one needs to take a different perspective on things from time to time, so in 2020 I took up the invitation from some French friends who are VTT/Mountain Bike enthusiasts to head up the Canigou by a different route, and this time in the saddle.
We hit the trail above the village of Fillols around 07h00 departing from close to the campsite called “Les Sauterelles” (literally the Grasshoppers), and after about 90 seconds of trying to pedal up what seemed to me a ridiculously steep climb over rather large rocks, I was struggling to stop myself shouting: “Hey guys! I think I’ll leave you to it. Bye!” and turning around. However, I managed to keep my mouth shut and persevered only to find that there was much worse to come! Fortunately, my very smart wife Kate had packed some wonderful home-made energy bars laden with dates and other instant calorie goodies and I managed to save enough face and muscle power to keep up with the others who were French VTT specialists, oh yes and an alpiniste super-athlete for good measure.
Although it was only October, there had been a recent snowfall and as we got closer to the Cortalets refuge the landscape became increasingly white.
Fortunately the refuge was still open, despite the end of the season and the fact that this had been the first year of the Covid-19 outbreak. We were able to get a hot drink and a sandwich as well as a place to store out bikes while we made the final ascent to the peak on foot.
I hadn’t really taken account of the fact that it would be snowy up top and the only footwear I had were my low slung trainers that I would sometimes jog in, as well as some rather thin running socks. The other, more sensible riders were equipped with a change into more suitable footwear and clothing, but in the great tradition of the stupid British amateur, I marched on and was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t start to get frostbite as my feet and ankles plunged into the sometimes knee-deep snow (oh and I forgot to mention that I was only wearing shorts!)
To add insult to (my) stupidity, it wasn’t long before it started actually snowing. I love mountains, I always have, but I don’t claim to be an expert mountaineer in any way. Fortunately, Charlie, our alpiniste, a true mountain expert didn’t seem in any way phased about our continuing on to the summit despite rapidly reducing visibility. Perhaps he intuitively knew something we didn’t, or perhaps he had a very good weather app on his phone, but anyway, by the time we reached the summit, there were breaks in the cloud and we were rewarded with some amazing snowy views. I had never seen the Canigou in this way and it was a wonderful gift to see yet another face of this very special mountain.
From our home down in the valley here at Mas St. Joseph, I look up to the summit almost every day and on clear days (most of them) when one can see the peak, I remember those happy moments when I was lucky enough to find myself up there. I smile to myself, knowing I have been blessed simply by being in what feels like the centre of and indeed, the very top of the world