A5 – ‘El Carrilet’: abandoned wagonway

‘Carrilet’ is Catalan for narrow-gauge railway and the walk is along the track itself – still in situ! It is a great introduction to the Val Fosca area (see locality guide), which is notable for its stunning high mountain location on the borders of the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Lac San Maurici, and its role in an innovative hydroelectric scheme. Furthermore, for travellers with a sense of occasion as well as adventure, access to the walk can be achieved by a fabulous cable car ride! The walk follows the wagon-way along the eastern flank of the Montseny mountain (2,883m) at about 2,100m between the glacial lake Estany Gento and the so-called ‘Cambra de l’aigua’ (literally ‘water chamber’) where water from the reservoirs flows down a vertiginous 850m drop to the power station on the valley floor. In addition there is a further section of ‘branch’ line that begins 300m above Estany Gento glacial lakes and tarns. The ‘main’ line has five tunnels in which the track has been removed for safety. The two parts of the line were connected by a dramatic cable way whose derricks can still be seen striding up the near vertical slope to the north of Estany Gento, but for the mere modern explorer a rather difficult path links the two. Other than this short section the whole walk is easy and suitable for all levels of ability.

History: The line was built to serve the construction and maintenance of a complex system of interconnected lakes and the link to the power stations at the head of the remote Val Fosca. The scheme was the brainchild of a local man, one Emili Riu (1871-1928), second son of a notable family from Sort (in those days the Val Fosca was in the Pallars Sobirà). Riu was an economist who, having had the idea of using naturally occurring lakes linked by tunnels to supply water instead of large dams was able, through his contacts, to get the scheme started with French backing just before the Great War (1914-18). In fact were it not for the war the electricity generated was destined for Paris, but with Spain being neutral, instead it was available for Barcelona’s burgeoning industries. The curious story of the inauguration of the scheme is matched by a fascinating social history as the economy and society of the valley was transformed more-or-less overnight from the middle ages into the heart of what was at the time the cutting edge of industrial technology. Put in a modern context it was as if Silicon Valley were relocated to an Amerindian community in the Amazon basin!

Nature: The effects of glaciations dominate the environment the landscape here; the valley was formed during the ice ages and the scars left by glacial activity can be clearly seen on large rock formations. The tree line is at around 2,000m so the walk crosses this line as its gentle incline descends to Cambra. Each winter snow lies above this level and the vegetation is of tough grasses and Alpine flower species. The ‘main’ line section crosses several rivulets that shelter a variety of species from the otherwise inhospitable open hillsides. In the lakes zone, reached by following the ‘branch’ line there is very little vegetation due to the altitude and the southerly aspect, but again there are nooks and crannies with some surprises, plus the aquatic life in the tarns themselves.

The Walk: Access to the Cambra d’aigüa by 4X4 only is possible from Llessui, via Sort. Otherwise the walk begins at the hostal and visitor centre at Estany Gento. One gets there either on foot or by cable car from Estany Sallente. The climb from the lakeside is about 300m, the path is good but it is a stiff climb, but it is cool in the mornings. The path up follows the lake from the lift towards the dam. At the top it joins the walk proper just under a km south of Estany Gento. Serious hikers will also come across the line while traversing the trans-Pyrenean Grande Route section GR-11-20, but let’s leave that level of walking to the specialists!

A 5 Technical details:
Trajectory: Old wagon way from Estany Gento and the ‘Cambra d’Aigüa’ i.e. the head on the siphon to the vintage power station 850 metres below!
Rating: easy Length: 10 kilometres there and back Climb: walk itself almost absolutely level! But access to walk by cable car July – September only, otherwise 1000 metre climb!
Type of Surface: railway track! Shade: only in tunnels – shared with cattle! Facilities: mountain refuges at Estany Gento and Colomina, cafeteria at Sallente reservoir. Access by cable car in summer
Location Guide: Val Fosca Official Route: Via Verde
Notes: Note times and seasons of cable car
Start coordinates, Sallente power station: E 334955.29, N 4708249.26 (ED50 UTM 31N)

Longitude: 00° 59′ 24.0″ Latitude: 42° 30′ 25.8″ (ETRS89 Geodetic)

The cable car is operated by the power generating company FECSA and its use by the public is somewhat of a courtesy. The service runs from the beginning of July to the end of September and has two return trips per day: 09.00 up and 13.00 down plus 15.00 up and 17.00 down. Note that in the height of the tourist season, during August, the service operates on demand once a quorum of passengers had assembled, but be prepared to walk down as if the last run is full that’s it! There is a handy café/restaurant and the head of the lake where one buys the tickets before queuing up at the cable car installation. The whole place has an air of a James Bond film set!

It may be best to do the ‘branch’ line section first as the climb up from Estany Gento, although short, is quite tough going. The top is called La Portella and the rails are found here. Follow the line north towards the refugi at Estany de Mariolo. The line ‘terminates’ at Estany Tort but a path continues onward. South of La Portella the track meanders through bogs and marshes, which are good for dragonflies, as far as the top of the old cableway where there are fabulous views right down the valley as far as the distant Serra de Montsec! A good detour is to go up the path to the Refugi de Colomina. This was the engineer’s residence when the project was built and is a fascinating ‘Swiss Chelet’ style building! The refugi is manned and has a bar! The circ of tarns here is worth the short hike beyond.

Back at Estany Gento, the advantage of doing the ‘branch’ line first is obvious; one can walk as much or as little of the ‘Carrilet’ proper as time or energy allows! The whole walk is on a gradual grade. In summer be aware that grazing cows shelter in the tunnels – don’t worry they’re quite used to close encounters! The path down to Sallente is clearly marked. It is worth pressing on to the Cambra d’aigüa as the view of the drop is spectacular and its woodland setting makes a nice picnic spot.

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