Trail Talk: Peril in the Pyrenees

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Guidebook Author Craig Romano shares a story from his time as a guide in the Pyrnees.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Guidebook Author
December 28, 2019
Trail Talk: Peril in the Pyrenees

I had hiked the route from the Col de Tentes over the 7,450- foot Port de Boucharo, straddling the French and Spanish border to the medieval town of Torla in Aragon, a half dozen times. It was one of my favorite hikes to bring folks along on when I worked as a hiking guide in the Pyrenees for Portland-based Mountain Hiking Holidays. I loved looking for edelweiss, pointing out izards (a chamois native to the Pyrenees), explaining the fascinating history of the route (used by pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago and refugees during the Spanish Civil War), and highlighting so many other facets of this fascinating route to the folks I was guiding.

Over the course of the five years that I guided in the Pyrenees, this route had changed little. I knew exactly where to look for certain flowers, point out wildlife, locate a bunker, direct attention to monstrous sedums, build excitement for upcoming waterfalls, and instill intrigue for upcoming medieval ruins. But on my seventh journey something profound had changed at the end of this 11-mile route. As I approached the bridge spanning the Barranco Repetruso (Repeat Ravine) I stopped fast in my tracks and stood thunderstruck. There, in front of me, spanning the high rocky ravine was a brand new pedestrian walkway complete with shiny metal railings. Gone was the narrow bridge sans walkway and guardrails. 

I stared at the shiny new bridge addition as if I had just attained some form of enlightenment at the end of my journey. My group was dumfounded. After all of the medieval ruins and structures, cascading rivers, old-growth beech forest, and stunning high alpine terrain we had just traversed, why was their guide standing in a trance at a road bridge on the edge of a tiny village? Snapping out of my trance, I turned to them and said, “During dinner tonight, let me tell you about that bridge and one of the most intense moments in my tenure as a guide in the Pyrenees.”

Just one year prior that old bridge had put me through one of my biggest tests as a guide. When my wife Heather and I were hired to be guides in the Pyrenees, we worked hard preparing ourselves for the job. Heather, who had a degree in Spanish, now studied French as well. I spent time trying to learn the Spanish and French names for much of the flora, fauna, and natural features of the region. We both studied the area’s history and became acquainted with the communities we would be based out of, learning the food and wine of the region (one of the toughest parts of the job description – kidding). We studied maps and scouted the trails and towns before guiding folks through them. And, we also took The Mountaineers MOFA (Mountaineering Oriented First Aid) Course, a prerequisite to our being hired.

Our clients were constantly interested in the flora, fauna, and history of the region, and we got better each trip rattling off the answers to their queries. My Spanish greatly improved and I gradually learned enough French to get by, although I made a few faux pas (how apropos) along the way. My verb tense use, in particular, made for some tense conversations, like when I meant to say, “look at the izards in the meadow eating…” and my recipient looked at me aghast thinking I wanted to eat the izards in the meadow.

But while we refreshed our mountaineering first aid each year by reviewing procedures and making sure our first aid kits were stocked, we were never called on to use those skills until the bridge made it so. Ironically, I would be called to the rescue not high on a mountain pass but at a rocky ravine in a pastoral village.

It was close to 10pm and we were in a restaurant with our clients in tiny Torla, finishing a great meal complete with copious glasses of wine. It’s the way we finished most of our days hiking in the Pyrenees: with good food and wine over good conversation with our clients who hailed from various part of the states. I don’t quite recall exactly what we were talking about at the time one of our clients – who had left early to walk the quarter mile back in the dark to our accommodations – frantically burst into the restaurant and exclaimed that Simone had fallen off the bridge.

Simone was one of my favorite clients on this tour. She was the French mother of one of our American clients. She was of rural stock before moving to Paris and she displayed more of a no-nonsense, salt-of-the earth persona than one of big city pretentiousness. She walked with a limp and had bad vision in one eye, but was as tough as nails. Apparently, as she was walking across the unlit guardrail and barrier-free narrow bridge over the ravine in the dark, she was temporarily blinded by the lights of an oncoming car, and as she moved closer to the bridge edge she went over it.

Whatever light buzz from the wine I had quickly burned off. My heart raced. I’d walked over that bridge many times, and knew that it spanned 30-feet above a boulder-littered gulch. The bridge, with its semi-exposed edges, was dangerous to cross if you had to move aside for a passing vehicle. A fall from that bridge would certainly mean serious injury, or worse.

I was dressed in slacks, a blazer, and loafers. I shed the blazer and without hesitation took off running down the darkened road. Along the way my heart was racing with adrenaline from both the sprint and the anticipation of the scene I was about to enter. I kept repeating to myself to stay calm. I tried to block out images in my head of the condition I feared Simone would be in when I reached her. I prepared myself for the worst. I kept breathing deeply and telling myself to stay strong. I got to the bridge and immediately started working my way down into the thorny, rocky ravine. It was futile as it was too dark and my loafers offered zero traction on the rocks. I quickly retreated and ran into our nearby hotel, changed into hiking boots and grabbed my first aid supplies and headlamp.

By this time local search and rescue had arrived (summoned by our hotelier). I descended back into the dark ravine continuing my mantra to stay calm. As I approached I heard Simone moaning. She was alive and conscious. My light made contact with her along with two medics. I was beyond relieved that the worst-case scenarios I had braced myself for did not happen. More help descended. Heather arrived and took on role of translator, translating French to Spanish and back. I assisted in hoisting Simone out of the ravine. There, folks far more adept at major medical emergencies took over.

As we transported Simone to the awaiting ambulance, I couldn’t help repeating in my mind, “I can’t believe she is alive.” Luckily, when Simone fell off of the bridge, a tree growing in the ravine broke her fall, slowing her descent and helping to cushion her impact on the rocky floor. A couple of days later we would get word back from the distant hospital that she had broken several bones and had some good lacerations and contusions, but she would recover with time (which she did).

I got very little sleep that night, and my mind was preoccupied with the event during the next day’s hike as well. Between replaying the evening on a loop in my mind and feeling a deep sense of relief that Simone had survived the fall, I also thought about how glad I was that I had taken the MOFA class. It definitely made a difference. The role playing during incident scenarios had prepared me to know how to stay calm and to be a good responder.

MOFA is one of those things you take and hope you never have to use. Like knowing how to survive if your backcountry plans go awry, MOFA is knowledge, and knowledge is empowering. It can also mean the difference between life and death. And while I was called to act near a trailhead and not deep in the backcountry, the skills you learn in a MOFA class can carry over to other emergencies - like if an earthquake were to hit, or if you came upon an accident scene.

And there is another story here about that bridge. Simone’s fall was the catalyst to finally get the village to address it. A local business feud was partially to blame for inaction, and government officials had been squabbling over it for years. This incident put adding the pedestrian way along the bridge on the fast track. As I walked across it for the first time I stared down into the ravine and nodded one more time that I couldn’t believe Simone survived the fall. That evening I toasted her recovery and the new bridge walkway. And now all these years afterward, I am long due to refresh my MOFA skills.

Craig Romano is an award-winning author who has written more than 20 books. His latest release, Urban Trails: Tacoma (Mountaineers Books) highlights the best trails for walking, running, and hiking in Tacoma, Puyallup, South King County, and Anderson Island. Some of his other titles include: Urban Trails Seattle, 100 Classic Hikes Washington, and Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula (2nd edition).

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.