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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not quite Le Pic

A son of the desert finding himself in France after a conference, with the kind offer of an apartment in Pau at the foot of the Pyrenees, it seemed natural to go for a walk. A former colleague, Jack, who has walked with us in Australia was at the same meeting and we decided to try and climb the Pic du Midi D'Ossau, a prominent 2884m peak at the southern end of the Pyrenees.

We started quite late, after an enjoyable night sampling the food and wine of Bearn with our wives. Nevertheless, Le Guide Rando advised us that the climb is seven hours return, so even allowing or a leisurely pace and margin for error we had time to complete the walk in daylight. However, we then made the fatal error of parking at Cabane de Callou (1403m) instead of Cabane de L'Aralle (1720m)! It's a very nice route, but added another 300m to our planned 1100m ascent.

As we began the walk we passed a farmer returning from the high pastures with a canister of fresh sheep's milk on a donkey.

It was a gorgeous day and although the ambient temperature was only 17C, down from 30C back in Pau, it was very hot in the sun and we were glad of mountain streams to cool off.

After an hour we left the beech forest to cross the open pastures, ringing with the bells of hundreds of of sheep and cows in the first stages of cheese production. Here we could see the mountain in front of us:

Another hour brought us to the Refuge de Pombie, where we stopped for lunch.

From here, behind what seems to be the caretakers hut, the mountain looks quite intimidating:

Behind the Refuge is a tarn, still partly filled with ice. The track to the voie normale at the northern end of the mountain winds around the tarn and across boulder fields and small snowfields to the Col de Suzon.

By the time we reached the Col the weather was looking quite ominous and it was spotting rain.

We headed up the ridge to the beginning of the climb, cheered on by some French and Spanish climbers celebrating their successful descent with a bottle of wine. A combination of Paul's dimly remembered school French and Jack's somewhat better Spanish elicited the information that we were probably a bit late to reach the summit, that this did not apply to us because Australians should hop up like kangaroos, and that it was absolutely necessary that we have some wine. They also offered to take a photo of the two of us:

Since it did not seem to be raining any longer we decided to get as far as we could get before five o'clock, allowing us time to get back to the car in daylight. We put on our helmets and headed up.

At the second of the three chimneys that need to be climbed to reach the summit plateau we ran out of time and headed back down. On the way down we used ropes for safety. Here is Jack almost back at the start of the climb.

This otherwise useless photo shows the permanent gear that is installed throughout the route:

What is also evident in that photo is that it is about to rain. As I descended the last section we had the one serious thundershower of the day and it was like climbing down a waterfall.

Here we are wet but happy to be over that:

The rain lasted less than quarter of an hour, and we romped back down the mountain without further incident. On the way back we had a great view of a Marmot, which sat on a rock and stared at us until we produced a camera, when it disappeared between the boulders.

Eventually the sun came out again and we had beautiful views of the other side of the Ossau valley, and the shadow of the mountain.

We were back at the car after ten hours on the mountain. We had passed a farmer milking sheep outside his summer cabin, and near the car we met another who sold us some beautifully sweet fromage frais straight from the muslin cloth in which he was draining it, and a chunk of aged Brebis. So all in all a wonderful day out in the high Pyrenees, even if we did not reach our objective. Perhaps next time...


  1. This looks fantastic, as do Jack's fabulous boots. I guess you're just west of the pleasant walk we did from Luz Saint Sauveur to G├ędre towards Gavarnie. I would go back there in a heartbeat. Nothing so bold as this, though! Impressive.

  2. Hi Chris - we should look out for the next big conference in Europe we are both at and see if we can do a walk. This trip was addictive!


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