With a heatwave in full force on the French plains we made a break for the cooler air of the Pyrenees. We had just two days to kill - time for a decent summit, but easy access would be required. If you're coming from the Mediterranean coast, Pic du Canigou fits the bill perfectly.
Though it sits north of the border in France, many hereabouts still count themselves Catalan, and Canigó is something of a Catalan national emblem. Red-and-yellow striped flags often adorn its summit cross, and every year a symbolic fire is lit on the mountaintop in a torch relay that runs through Catalonia and the Pyrenees Orientales.
You don't have to be into nationalist symbols to appreciate the mountain. Catalonia has plenty, but it's easy to see why Canigou is special. With its feet near the coast and its summit up at 2784m this is a big beast, and the fact that it rises in a one-er lends added stature. From the plains of Rousillon it's the most prominent thing on the southern horizon, and until surveyors proved otherwise in the 18th Century Le Canigou was thought to be the highest summit in the Pyrenees. Apparently the mountain can sometimes be seen from as far as Marseille. But though an obvious objective, I'd always dismissed Canigou as a dull lump, an afterthought to the proper stuff further inland. How wrong could I be? Clearly I knew nothing, but after a quick post on the forums (thanks all) we had the makings of a plan.
Having coaxed our borrowed banger up a rutted track to a high car park above the village of Fillols, we started the ascent just in time for the full heat of the afternoon. A mixed forest of pine and broadleaves provided much-needed dappled shade, but even at 1000m the windless air under the trees felt like soup. With occasional signposts and paint stripes to show the way, the path climbed the side of a narrow wooded valley before making a grinding ascent via a series of zigzags. For many centuries this historic trail was the only access from the villages in the valley at its western foot to the high pastures under the peak. Few other people were daft enough to be out in the sun, and the forest hush was a relief to the ears after the maddening background chirrup of crickets that serves as a constant soundtrack on the summer plain.
Three or four hours of sweat, with a lot of breaks to avoid our heads exploding, brought us up past a small bothy with a gloriously cool water source, to the afternoon's destination, the Refuge des Cortalets. Standing in an open pine glade at about 2100m, in the mouth of Canigou's northern cirque, it is the ideal base for an overnight stay on the mountain. You could climb Canigou in a day from the valley - at about 16km round trip and with 1700m ascent (from our start point; there are other options) it's no bigger than a hefty Munro round. But making a mini expedition of it is part of the fun, we felt, and if using the facilities you hardly need to carry more than a toothbrush on top of the usual day gear.
If you're willing to throw money at the problem then the Refuge des Cortalets has you covered. Sleeping over 100 guests, and boasting modern comforts such as electricity and hot water, this establishment run by the French alpine club is more like a mountain hotel than the sort of small basic refuge you might expect in such a location. Having steeled ourselves for the usual communal sleeping platforms and loud snorers we were pleasantly surprised to be given a private twin-bunk room. It's that sort of place. With some afternoon hours to kill we wandered off somewhere quiet, an idyllic pine-fringed pool with a view of Canigou's craggy peak. This was clealy a far more worthwhile mountain than the dusty hill of my imagination.
For a price (and a small part of your soul) you can book a 4WD ride almost all the way to the door of the refuge, and with that in mind we shouldn't have been surprised by the throng: walkers just down from the peak; long distance backpackers on the GR10; a lively youth group; a couple of cellists practising for an upcoming concert at the refuge - it was a big and varied crowd at the table for the three-course dinner.
From the refuge, the standard summit route is a walker's motorway, with summer footfall reminiscent of Ben Nevis on a sunny weekend. That's not my idea of the perfect introduction to a new peak, but luckily we had a different plan (courtesy of the forums) - an ascent via the Crete du Barbet, before descending the normal way to complete a circuit around the mountain's northern corrie. With an enjoyable bit of ridge walking, a short but exciting scramble, and the promise of no crowds before the summit, this sounded right up our street. An early start to beat the rush still seemed a good idea, but as this is not the Alps there was no need to go crazy. Setting off around 7:30 still put us comfortably ahead of the pack - though I'm not sure anyone else followed us up the Crete du Barbet anyway.
We were less than 50km from the Med, and through the early morning haze the arc of the French coast could be made out, sunlight bouncing blindingly off the sea. The pine woods soon dwindled, and above the treeline the sense of space below became more obvious. It may be no harder underfoot than big British hills, but the elevation on Canigou is more pronounced than on many peaks larger still. Being an outlyer to the main mass of the Pyrenees gives it an independent feel, and wide views to match.
The Crete du Barbet is one of the more scenic parts of the massif, a well defined ridge with an outlook across the craggy northern corrie to the grey pyramid of the main peak. Why so quiet? Across the cirque, a procession of miniature figures toiling up the skyline of the standard north ridge path suggested that it's not just on the Munros that you'll find comparatively dull trade routes receiving the majority of the footfall. The Crete soon gets too interesting though, becoming a jagged crest above impressive rockfall-scarred faces (here be climbing). Since the direct link-up to Canigou looks decidedly walker-unfriendly, the path ducks down onto the gentler southeastern flank to the Portella de Vallmanya, a high breezy col between Canigou and its neighbouring peaks. Not much smaller than the headliner itself, this ridge of sculpted grassy summits running off towards the Spanish border gives the lie to the notion of Canigou as a single free-standing entity; it only looks that way from the north. At the col we joined another summit path, this one running up from the high bowl of the Plans de Cadi on the southwestern side of the mountain, and the Refuge de Mariailles, an alternative and reputedly quiteter base for an overnight ascent.
Traversing a ragged slope, we reached a rocky col below Canigou's peak. We'd lost some height, but outflanked the awkward end of the Crete du Barbet in the process. A scree plod in the full force of the mid morning sun led up to the tottering summit crags. Paint arrows and obvious signs of wear showed the way into La Cheminee, a line of weakness where things got briefly hands-on. Taking a series of steps that steepen all the way to the top, this enjoyable little scramble has good sound rock and minimal exposure; nevertheless fatalities have apparently occurred, and we'd certainly have wanted a rope if we'd brought the kids.
With its bustle of walkers and its tat-draped cross, Canigou's summit was a busy contrast to our hitherto peaceful morning. Thunderstorms were forecast for 1pm, someone said, so we didn't hang around for long and set off down with two or three hours still in hand. The standard north ridge route looked a bit of a plod, with some steep rubbly zigzags that were clearly more enjoyable in descent. Passing scores of cheery walkers still heading up, we were soon sat back in the welcome shade outside the refuge. Clouds were gathering behind the peak, and distant rumbles rolled on cue across the hillsides as we raced the rain back down through the forest. Canigou may be only a quick mountain hit, but having climbed a fair few of the big Pyrenean peaks over the years, I'd say it has to be one of the best.
IGN 2349 ET (1:25,000) Massif du Canigou
Where to stay
Refuge des Cortalets - 105 beds, food, hot showers, reservation required
Refuge de Mariailles - 53 beds, food, hot showers, reservation required
When to go?
June-September is the summer walking season. In heavy snow years there may still be significant snow on the ground up high in early June, in which case an axe and crampons will be necessary. By late September frost is common, and early snowfall can't be ruled out. During the long winter season Canigou becomes more of a mountaineering objective, and while snow cover can be variable this close to the coast, snow shoes or touring skis may often prove essential.
What to carry?
In summer, standard UK hillwalking clothing is sufficient, with the emphasis on staying cool and keeping the sun off with but the possibility of chilly nights and cold summit winds. With generally much drier conditions underfoot than you'll find at home, trail shoes may be preferable to hot, heavy walking boots (assuming there's no significant residual snow cover). It is possible to camp in the vicinity of the Refuge des Cortalets, but at the opposite extreme if you want to go as light as possible and can afford to fork out for the refuge you only need to bring some clothes and a toothbrush. A travel towel will save you having to hire one.
Mountain-forecast.com provides a detailed Canigou-specific forecast for three different elevations on the mountain
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