Beats of freedom in Montgarri

Kim Calbetó comes out of the kitchen with steaming plates full of beef stew.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
17 August 2023 Thursday 11:08
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Beats of freedom in Montgarri

Kim Calbetó comes out of the kitchen with steaming plates full of beef stew. "Do you want to repeat it?" he asks the hikers who will start the next morning to cross the Pass'Aran, between the Val d'Aran and the French department of Arieja. After a hearty dinner, diners take a short walk and go upstairs to rest in this comfortable mountain accommodation. Kim, 48 years old, is the veteran guard of Montgarri, formerly a small town of just a dozen houses that was depopulated in the middle of the last century. After decades of neglect, in 1998 life returned to this enclave, at more than 1,600 meters of altitude, when the refuge was opened in the old rectory.

Kim, who shares the guard job with his colleague Andrés España, has made this section his home. The bond with Montgarri was forged in his tender childhood. "I took my first steps here, or at least that's what my parents told me, and it's an idea I like. Since forever, every 2nd of July a pilgrimage is celebrated, perhaps the most crowded in the Pyrenees, people come from Pallars, from Ribagorça, from Val d'Aran, from France... We gather 1,500 or 2,000 people. And I also took part in it, as a child, with my family", he recalls one morning in July after the breakfast shift has ended and he has dismissed his guests. Some start the Pass'Aran, others do sections of the Upper Pyrenean Route or some variant of the GR-10 or GR-11.

He explains to Kim that Montgarri had a reputation, not so long ago, of being a very inhospitable, rough place and prone to avalanches. A corner where you shouldn't go. "People told us that it was dangerous to approach here. In Can Cabau, where the last inhabitant lived, when the snow fell naturally it caused turbulence that even broke the windows. That's why, when I used to go skiing as a youngster and when I came back I explained it, at home they thought I was crazy. Now everything has changed and in the winter there is a significant flow of skiers", says Kim, satisfied to have turned Montgarri into a cozy home within walking distance of untrodden peaks, away from the overcrowding that other mountains suffer from.

Being able to live here with his wife and daughter has been possible thanks to the efforts of the Associació Amics de Montgarri to recover the old rectory and consolidate the church, built in the 16th century on a Romanesque hermitage from the 12th. The two buildings are owned by the bishopric of Urgell, which has ceded them to this association for having been involved in their recovery.

"I used to come in the summers to work on the reconstruction works of the rectory and in 1995, at the age of 19, they proposed to me and two friends to open a place to serve drinks and sandwiches to hikers. This was the beginning, as I soon decided to leave INEF studies and proposed to the Association of Friends to also offer accommodation". In this way, what would become the current shelter was born in the outbuildings of the rehabilitated rectory. In addition to the common rooms, it has a suite with a maximum of four places for people looking for more comfort.

Montgarri, a few meters from Noguera Pallaresa and surrounded by pastures, cows and peaks, draws a bucolic postcard. The old paintings are in ruins, but in the summer the meadows continue to attract herds that arrive from Ribagorça, Lleida, Solsona... "I estimate that 1,000, maybe 1,500 head of cattle are concentrated in these months. Before, until the beginning of 2000, shepherds still settled in the cabins, but now the owners take turns and come every two or three days to control the animals and give them salt", he explains.

Tourism, encouraged by the landscape and the range of mountain sports, is the main activity in this corner of the Val d'Aran, a few kilometers from the ski resort of Baqueira Beret.

This is one of the starting points for Pass'Aran, the five-day circular route that invites hikers who still have strength left after completing stages that exceed 1,700 to also climb the peaks of Barlonguère, Mont Valier, Crabère or Maubèrme meters of positive gradient. The success of the pioneer, the Carros de Foc, in the national park of Aigüestortes and Estany de Sant Maurici, has led to the creation of new routes in the Pyrenees that, more and more, attract a greater number of followers.

Kim, together with the keepers of the refuges of Estagnous and L'Étang d'Arain, and of the lodgings of the Maison du Valier and Eylie, a picturesque village in the Arieja where only two people live permanently and where it seems that time has stopped, they launched Pass'Aran in 2011. “We wanted to make known unknown places of great beauty; the idea is having a good acceptance and has contributed to increasing overnight stays", he adds.

He lives here with his partner and daughter most months of the year, even when communication with the outside is only possible by snowmobile or skis, as the access track from the flat de Beret becomes impractical.

Living in Montgarri allows you to ski outdoors in secluded corners, in the Tuc de Gurièr, in the port of Orla, in the Malh de Bolard, in the Marimanha valley and in many other areas to discover. He only closes for a few months a year and settles with his family in Vielha. "But when you get used to living in the mountains, you miss the shelter, you get over the neighbors and the noise. Here we are freer."