STUCK on a ledge. Progress has come to a halt in a sort of juddering fashion. On either side of this narrow and chaotic ridge the ground falls away alarmingly to steep scree slopes hundreds of feet below. A short distance ahead, the ridge rears up like the side of a church, block upon block in a vertical wall. Rocks are stacked up at all angles – some as big as cars, some thin with sharp edges, some loose and dangerous. Behind, the ridge descends a couple of hundred feet in jagged steps to a grassy col where a group of Spaniards stand watching me.
If I continue, I shall have to climb this teetering stack of slabs to reach the summit of Tuc de Marimanha. And once at the summit, I shall have to return the same way. I move forward gingerly, and the slab beneath my feet makes a grinding noise and tipples slightly. This is enough to deter me from going further. Retreat is the best form of staying in one piece.
I’m going to sit here for a few minutes and collect my thoughts. So, just to put you in the picture, this is how I arrived in this situation. I set off from the ski station at Orri, above Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees, at 8.40am beneath a cold though brilliantly blue sky and was standing on the shores of the Lacs de Baciver by 10.15am (right).
Everything was so still, so pure, and so peaceful. Only the sound of birdsong disturbed the morning air. There was not a breath of wind, and my main peak of the day – Tuc de Marimanha (2,679 metres, 8,789 feet) – was mirrored in the water along with the seemingly unassailable ridges that lead to its summit.
Having done some preliminary though not too extensive research in the tent last night (no guidebook route up this mountain, just maps), I headed for the lower slopes of the Tuc’s south ridge and was soon on its broad and very stony crest. I met a couple of Germans retreating from the higher slopes with big packs on their backs. They had attempted to scale the final arête to the summit but were beaten back. Not a good omen, that. The final ascent is a knife-edge ridge, about the length of Striding Edge on Helvellyn, but composed of shattered rocks piled on top of each other.
I scrambled a short way along, ascending all the time, to reach a narrow section with steep drops on either side and a vertical wall of chaos in front. And that’s where I am now. Sitting on the crest of the ridge like a gargoyle perched on a flying buttress of a gothic cathedral.
Let me introduce you Luis – an hombre with a bottomless bag of cherries (seated in picture). Luis is standing on the broad stony ridge I traversed from the valley – at the bit where it begins to get steep and nasty. He is watching me clamber down from the hill of stones to the col that separates us. He shouts something to me in his native tongue and I respond with a wave and a hola as I stroll along the col to meet him.
Luis is leading a party of twelve amigos, who are strung out along the broad ridge like a line of ants, though making enough noise with their hooting and hollering to pass for the participants of the Pamplona bull run. Luis hands me some cherries and surveys the summit ridge. He agrees with me that “eet eez steep” and “eet eez dangerous”.
After a great deal of loud and animated discussion, Luis and his amigos decide to abandon the south ridge. Their new plan is to drop down to the valley, skirt beneath the crags through an expansive boulder field, and attempt to climb the mountain along its north-west ridge. They invite me to join them – the Eengleez hombre – which I do gladly. Safety in numbers, and all that. An hour later we are standing on another narrow col between Tuc de Marimanha and its sister peak, Cap de Marimanha.
The north-west ridge of Tuc de Marimanha begins with a 15ft climb up a wall of rocks, then lurches off into the distance in a mass of boulders, haphazardly stacked and every bit as unwelcoming as its southern counterpart.
There is a great deal more hooting and hollering, waving of arms and dramatic gesturing. The plan changes again. Tuc de Marimanha is abandoned. Spanish eyes turn towards Cap de Marimanha, which is a short, steep climb up tussocky, bouldery banks, and not very far away at all. “Vamose,” says Luis, and we all scramble to the rocky though pleasant summit of the Cap (2,628 metres, 8,622 feet).
Luis passes me another handful of cherries while the amigos assemble for a group photograph. I am to take it with Enrico’s camera. They are grouped there on the peak like the Spanish football team. I say: “Say cheese.” They say: “A-cheeeeze.”
I sit for a while in the sun while the Spaniards retrace their steps to the col, singing their heads off. All around me are snow-capped mountains, green foothills, brilliantly blue lakes, crags of grey and brown stone, treacherous boulder fields, and distant forests of pine. The air is still and unseen birds are singing. The summit of Cap de Marimanha is a paradise I am reluctant to leave.
I rejoin the amigos at the upper lake Baciver and we descend to where the tree line begins. Under a great leafy bough, they sit in the shade, open their sacks, and get out the food – tins of sardines, salad, fruit and bread.
This is where I bid them farewell.
“Adios,” I say, and give them a wave as I continue down the rocky path. “Gooood-a byeee,” they say good-naturedly.
Tuc de Marimanha. Not for the faint-hearted. Steep and nasty with joggly rocks. But it’s a good place to make friends and eat cherries.