We crossed the French border and arrived in the sleepy Pyrenean town of Vernet-les-Bains about one hour later. As he shuffled around bananas, snack bars, pyjamas and warm gear in the backpack that rested in the trunk of the car, I set about changing in the backseat, slipping on my tight but supportive sports bra, airy trail pants and hiking boots. Our mission was to reach the Refuge de Mariailles (1,700 m) by daybreak and continue to the Pic du Canigou at 2,785 meters (9,200 ft.) the next morning. We clicked the car closed and followed the road until the pavement disappeared. This first leg of the hike came rather easily to both of us and we finished in under two hours, just in time for a hard-earned beer, cigarette and a bit of warming up at the refuge.
Built onto the rocky base of the trail to Canigou, Refuge de Mariailles is open year-round to accommodate those who wish to run, hike, rock climb, motorbike, ski tour, snowshoe in the area. Upon arrival we met the manager who showed us around the facilities (but only after insisting we take our boots off, of course). The bedroom, lined with cozy bunk beds, can accommodate around 50 people. The bathrooms are surprisingly clean and modern. There’s also an outdoor terrace with benches to hang out with a cup of tea or wine while socializing and sharing some juicy mountain gossip. It’s where first-timers can learn from those who’ve already been up there about the climb ahead of them, what to look out for, what trail signs have recently faded and are now barely legible, what treks lined with loose pebbles are best avoided. It´s where you discuss that one detail of paramount significance, the short-term weather forecast. It’s also a good place to learn exactly what scaling the Cheminée du Mont Canigou entails, the much feared and aptly named last few meters of rocky and very steep “chimney” one must master to reach the peak.
As darkness sets over the valley, guests filter into the cozy dining room, where the tables are already set and seating arranged for a warm meal. It’s simple and hearty and homemade fare to warm your bones and knock you right out so that you sleep deeply before the hike. There’s wine for that too, red wine that goes great with both the mood and the food. Bowls are brought out to each table and the chatter dies down only long enough for an elderly French lady at our table to take the lead in serving the stuff, a mom-reflex hard to shake, apparently even when in the company of strangers. We meet all the characters around a table: a Catalan woman who does this hike every year and her friend who is with her for the first time, a French family with a teenage son who seems unnaturally fond of hanging out with his parents for his age.
Next comes a rich beef curry with plenty of delicious sauce poured over white rice. The cubes of meat are cooked to tender perfection and mixed up with soft bits of tomato and onion, as well as crunchy peanuts. The flavors are round, complex and robust, a very welcome change after so many dry and dull energy bars. It’s quite hard to stop eating the stuff and I refill my plate twice before I start craving a warm bed.
But not before dessert, which is a duo of moist cakes dusted with either shaved coconut or cocoa powder. They’re eggy and dense, but perfect for soaking up the last bit of tea or wine left on the table.
After a final tea with some cookies that we brought along with us, hybernation beckoned. Very full and very satisfied we climbed to our beds on the top bunk and cozied up under several warm blankets, setting the alarm for 7 and falling immediately into what was perhaps the soundest slumber I’ve enjoyed in months. Breakfast the next morning was bread and jam, cereal and coffee. We set out, un-showered and very well rested for our final ascent. We reached the peak at around 2:00 p.m. and made it down before 6, just in time for a slice of quiche and surprisingly fantastic craft beer in the town of Villefranche-de-Conflent before the drive back home.