Andorra: adventures in the vertical world

With a helicopter on hand, Matt Carroll thought scaling the peaks of would be easy. But in a land where even the mountain goats are careful, one wrong step and things can go downhill very quickly indeed
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The Independent Travel

Scrabbling my way up a steep slope of blackened scree, it feels like I have landed on another planet. Apart from the scrunching of stone underfoot, there is not a sound to be heard.

It is only when I stop and turn round that I spot some reassuring signs of civilisation: across the craggy peaks, tiny clusters of houses trickle away into the distance. The dense forests surrounding these villages have neat strips shaved into them, telltale signs of the ski runs that bring many thousands to Andorra every winter.

I am here, however, to try out an activity that requires an altogether different set of blades. As the name heli-hiking suggests, it involves taking a helicopter to the tops of moun-tains, instead of schlepping there on foot.

It is something skiers have been doing for decades, and in recent years, hikers have begun to catch on. The theory is that it allows you to see more of the mountain in a shorter space of time, while avoiding the blister-inducing march normally endured when accessing really high backcountry.

It also means I am able to lure my girlfriend away from London on the prom-ise of leisurely mountain strolls. ("The views are fantastic and you won't even break sweat.")

With fewer than 75,000 inhabitants, Andorra is a tiny nation in comparison with its neighbours: France (to the north) and Spain (to the south). But it is a hidden treasure for hikers.

While the French and Swiss Alps become choked with legions of red-faced walkers every summer, in Andorra you can head out into lush green valleys carpeted with wild flowers, and stroll along shady forest paths, without seeing another soul all day. With a helicopter on hand to take all the effort out of getting up there, all you have to do is enjoy the view.

At least, this is the idyllic image I have in mind as we strap ourselves into the helicopter. A few minutes later we are swooping across high mountain pastures, sneaking a peek at creatures normally hidden from view, among them izard - a kind of mountain goat/antelope similar to the Alpine chamois - which we see sprinting down perilously steep slopes without putting a foot wrong. This despite a buzzard circling menacingly on a thermal overhead, awaiting any slip-ups.

After 10 minutes the pilot drops us off at the foot of the Coll Arenys, 2,600 metres up. He then disappears, leaving us to our own devices for the rest of the day. This is not exactly what I had in mind; while the heli ride has certainly given us a head start, by the looks of things we are still in for a long climb. Our guide, Mark Chrichton, is leading us up a steep hillside of small, slippery stones. The only thing stopping me sweating profusely in the blazing sunshine is a gusting wind.

The route Mark has mapped out for us follows the footsteps of the Travessa d'Ordino, a notoriously tough foot-race through the Andorran mountains which takes place every August. While competitors in the Travessa will cover two to three peaks in a couple of hours, however, we are taking our own sweet time.

Along the way, Mark points out some of the sights: "That bird up there is a lammergeier: a vulture that eats bones. Until a few years ago they were nearly extinct." One animal that was eradicated from this part of the world is the brown bear, hunted to extinction. However, thanks to a French government programme to reintroduce them, you might be lucky enough to see Bouxy (pronounced "Booshy"), a shy Slovenian cub who has been spotted in Andorra recently.

"It's so peaceful up here," Mark says. "It's one of the few places in Europe where you can spend a whole day without tripping over other people; an increasingly rare experience nowadays."

After an hour of huffing and puffing, we arrive at the top of the Pic de l'Estanyo, or Little Lake Peak. Our reward is a stunning 360-degree view of the Pyrenees, stretched out before us like giant rocky rooftops. In the valley below us to our left, towards France, lies a gorgeous jade-green lake, from which the peak derives its name. According to Mark, it is absolutely teeming with fish: "A lot of people come up here in summer to fish," he says. "There are little huts which you can stay in overnight for free. You catch your own food and cook it over the fire."

Our lunch is a tad more varied. As well as good skiing and tax-free shopping, Andorra is renowned for its fabulous food. As we sit perched on a cluster of rocks, Mark produces a veritable feast, including a white sliced sausage known as bull (pronounced "boo-eel") made from pig's tongue, cured ham and a gorgeous bottle of rioja. At an altitude of almost 3,000 metres, this makes things rather interesting as we start our descent back to the valley.

Although I promised my partner an easy time of it, the hiking has been pretty tough thus far. At times we are scrabbling over rocks on all fours, with a palm-sweatingly scary drop looming on either side. But this is not the case with all of Mark's walks; he will tailor each one to suit the ability and inclination of his clients.

With a couple of glasses of red making their presence felt, I am struggling with the loose shale we are walking (sliding) on. Mark explains the technique for tackling this type of terrain: "Don't point your feet straight down the fall-line; point them to the side and dig the edges into the hill, like you would with a pair of skis. It's a good idea to take a set of poles with you for the steep stuff."

It may be remote, but this area is steeped in human history. On our way down Mark points out what look like several cave entrances, dug into the side of the mountain. "They're actually old iron-ore mines, which date back to 1610."

Many of the trails we follow were originally mule tracks used by miners to bring supplies to their settlements. What I assume to be a pile of rubble at first glance is in fact an old miner's cottage, destroyed by centuries of snowfall.

Lower down we find ourselves in the lush, green valley I had been envisaging all along. Beautiful as it is in July, if you visit in June you will find yourself walking on a carpet of colour, as 750 types of wild flower vie for your attention.

Six hours after the helicopter has dropped us off, we finally make it back down to the village of Ordino, about five miles from Arinsal. My legs have turned to jelly during the three-hour descent and my neck is burnt to a crisp. This has definitely not been a mere walk in the park.

Inghams (020 8780 4433, inghams.co.uk) offer a package of four nights at the four-star Hotel Sport-hotel Village in Soldeu and three nights at the four-star Hotel Princessa Parc in Arinsal from £483 per person, including British Airways flights from Gatwick to Barcelona and resort transfers. Flights also available from other English airports at a supplement. Book now for next summer and you can save £100 per couple. Heli-hiking costs €155 (£105) per person per day, including guide. For more details, contact Mark Chrichton at Experiencia Muntanya (00 376 337 770, experienciamuntanya.com)

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