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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Pyrenean Trek Part 1: Béarn

Having some additional vacation this year, a perk in my contract after ten years in the job, I was able to add four weeks trekking in the Pyrenees onto a work trip to Europe. This is the longest period off work I have had since the gap between handing in my PhD and taking up my first job back in 1988.

Camping just below the Brêche de Roland
I met an old friend from my student days, Hugh, in London and we flew to Biarritz before heading up into the mountains to begin our walk at Lescun, a mountain village in Béarn, the region of France immediately east of the Basque country. There are three long distance tracks along the Pyrenees, the GR10 on the French side, the GR11 on the Spanish side, and the Pyrennean High Route (HRP), which stays as close to the top of the mountains as possible. At least for the first ten days we planned to follow the HRP. We had made bookings in mountain refuges for those ten days using the day-sections suggested in the Cicerone HRP guidebook. This turned out to be overambitious.

Pyrenean Trek Day 1. 
This was a grind up to the level of the High Route - total ascent 1300m - and we took it slowly with lots of rests. Hugh proved much fitter than me, as he had the good sense to train in the gym with a full pack for the past few weeks, while I had done very little while working in Vienna for a fortnight, followed by a week's beach holiday to say goodbye to Karola and then a crazy week sent almost entirely online getting things at work into a state where I could go away for a month. We had about 32kg to carry between the two of us, as we were carrying some minimal climbing gear as well as our trekking gear, I was really not fit enough, and after a bit Hugh kindly offered to move the rope (3kg) to his pack to give me some chance to keep up.

When we reached the top we had a great afternoon walking along the ridge separating France and Spain. There were extraordinary views all the way, including Pic d'Anie which Karola and I climbed in 2013 and Pic du Midi d'Ossau which we would try to climb on Friday. We halted at the idyllic Refuge D'Arlet by an alpine lake - 1986m.

Leaving the hostel in Lescun
On the Spanish border
Our first view of the distinctive split peak of Pic du Midi d'Ossau
View from Refuge D'Arlet
Hugh with lake and Refuge D'Arlet

Pyrenean Trek Day 2. 
Today we had to go down 1000m down and 500m up crossing the Val d'Aspe. It was hot down in the valley - about 30C - and we  envied the donkey trekkers who walked past us with no packs! We stopped at an Albergo in the ski resort of Candanchu on the Spanish side.

Taking a break
"Why do I always have to carry the pack"

Pyrenean Trek Day 3. 
Realism set in last night as I was finding it tough walking down stairs in the Albergo! I was counting on getting fit as we walked, but the sections suggested in our guide were just too long for that. Day 4 was scheduled to climb the Pic du Midi d'Ossau, one of the highlights of the trip, and the Day 3 we had planned was harder than either of the last two days.We had bookings in refuges for the next week and they are busy this time of year, so stopping at an earlier refuge, even if they had a slot, would throw the whole plan into disarray. So we cheated and got a lift to Col du Portalet, from where it is only 400m up to the refuge, so effectively a rest day. By early afternoon we were settled into the delightful Refuge de Pombie at the foot of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau, with views across the Vallee d'Ossau to Mt Pallas, where we will head on Day 5.

Col du Portalet
Pic du Midi d'Ossau and Refuge

Pic from the Refuge (actual summit is the rear peak and 800m above the lake)
View across Valle d'Ossau to Pallas

The mountain refuges have simple but excellent food - soup, a hearty main course, cheese, and a tiny desert, with wine as an extra, but the sleeping arrangements can be pretty tight. Rather than bunks, the traditional mountain refuges have big shelves on two or three levels and you get about 80cm of shelf each. They get very full in July and August, and at the refuges that have an 'aire de bivouac'  people also put up tents outside - Pombie served dinner for 60 the first night we were there.

View from our dorm

18 person bunk
Hugh reading Leviticus. It is a good thing Icebreaker shirts are pure Merino as apparently mixing wool with other fibres is an 'abomination'??!!

Pyrenean Trek Day 4. 
We climbed Pic du Midi d'Ossau (not to be confused with the Pic du Midi, which has a road to the top!) on a perfect summer day. The mountain is only 2880m, while many of the surrounding limestone peaks are over 3000m, but it dominates the Atlantic end of the Pyrenees because it is a tall, isolated granite plug - a former volcano - that you can see from far away. There is also no walk-up route. There are many serious climbs, and an easy 'voie normale', which has the lowest rating in the French climbing grade system - PD (peu difficile). We did that, naturally. The peak is 800m above the refuge where we had bunks and a meal last night. The first 300 is walking, then there are three climbs and finally a steep glacis of boulders and scree up to the summit. The climbs are all straightforward, but it is steep all the way and hard on the knees on the way down. We met friendly Spanish and French local climbers and shared ropes for two of the abseils coming down. The walk back in the mid afternoon was baking hot and as soon as we arrived back at the refuge I went for a swim in the lake while Hugh had a cold shower.
Refuge at dawn

Hugh climbing
The famous Croix de Fer at the top of the third chimney
The summit
On top
View mainly into Spain

View to France

Hugh heading down
Hugh coming down

Pyrennean Trek Day 5. 
We were sorry to leave Refuge de Pombie after a nice evening chatting with the guardian and his assistants over a (free) whisky. We paid 233 euros for two nights - beds, dinner, breakfast, packed lunch, 1/2 liter if wine each night and a couple of drinks. Excellent food! We dropped 700m to the bottom of the Vallee d'Ossau and climbed 1000m up the other side to our next refuge. As we climbed we got better and better views back to the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. Sometimes we were in full sun, sometimes in thick fog. We stopped for lunch and a cup of tea just below the Col d'Arrious, and then headed off to find the Passage d'Orteig, a narrow path along a rockface with steel cables fitted for safety. Just before we reached it the fog cleared for an instant to give us a view if the Lac d'Arrious. We passed the Passage in thick fog, but the fog was warm, as if the sun was just a few meters above, trying to break through, and there was no dew, so the rock was dry. Then we followed cairns through the fog along a bare limestone ridge until we heard voices and finally the Refuge d'Arremoulit and its lake appeared out of the fog a few meters in front of us. This is an old, traditional refuge, and quite small with fairly primitive facilities. Like many others, it has an 'extension' consisting of a big expedition tent to accommodate more people. But the dining area is tiny, so it was fortunate, that the fog cleared and we could have  dinner outside the refuge in bright sunshine - extraordinary views. We met the first English speakers since we started, who we had a nice evening with, fortunately, since we were sleeping on the same shelf. This evening, sitting by the lake, surrounded by the high peaks with alternating bright sunshine and drifting fog was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Hugh looking back to Pic du Midi d'Ossau

Lac D'Arrious

Passage d'Orteig

The bathroom at the refuge
The sun came out

Lake, rock and mist
Wonderful evening
Pyrenean Trek Day 6. 
Overnight there was a big thunderstorm and the ground was covered in little drifts of hail. But we woke to more sunshine and were able to enjoy the 'jardin de bain'. Over breakfast we did a rethink. Over the last few days we had discovered a new principle of relativity - nothing can travel slower than Paul up a big mountain - people try not to pass me, but time dilates to make that impossible. French grandmothers carrying huge packs and ropes zip past at unbelievable speed! We had planned to get to Vignemale in two days, but now we know our rate of progress it seemed the 8 and 7 hour sections in the guide would be 11 and 10 hrs, even if our knees could cope with the big ascents and descents. Part of the problem is that we are carrying too much gear. So we walked back down to the Vallee d'Ossau by a different route and skipped one day-section, getting a lift around this massif and walking up from the other side. The 1400m climb back up was no more than we would have had to climb that day anyhow, and over a shorter distance on better tracks.  From Day 10 we had no more refuge bookings, so I could set my own pace.

Refuge d'Arremoulit from below. The big white tube is a long-drop - do not drink from lakes below refuges!!!
Morning view from Arremoulit

Pyrenean Trek Day 7. 
We started again from the Refuge la Holle near Gavarnie and climbed to Refuge de Baysellance, the highest staffed refuge in the Pyrenees (2650m) and the usual starting point to climb Vignemale. Total elevation gain was about 1400m, and most of it came after a long horizontal walk, in a final steep pull. I was feeling weak and a bit nauseous in the morning, as we trekked up the valley through the mountain pastures. It was a bit galling that people were driving along the road below us, and when we had to lose 100m of height to get to a carpark and join day walkers off to see the first waterfall I was quite grumpy! But as we climbed up and started to get real mountain scenery again I cheered up, and after a hot lunch (we were carrying too many freeze-dried meals) I really enjoyed the final couple of hours of the walk. It got colder and windier as we climbed, but the cloud base kept rising, giving us views of the glacier of Vignemale and even, briefly, the summit. We were here for two nights and luckily it was an excellent Refuge - big, modern and with bunks instead of shelves. They even hire crampons and ice-axes, which we did not know. We spent a nice evening chatting with other walkers and late in the evening the clouds lifted to give us spectacular views back to Gavarnie.

Refuge de Baysellance

Gateau made with love, and ice axe hire

Pyrenean Trek Day 8. 
There was a fierce hailstorm last night, leaving drifts of large hailstones all over the mountain. Today we intended to climb Vignemale, a 3300m peak with a glacier crossing. We awoke to thick fog. Nothing daunted, we hired crampons and ice axes from the hut guardian and were on the track at 07.00. We walked a bit back down the track to the Refuge before heading across the face of the mountain. It was quite slow going, as the slope was steep and the rock wet. At 2900m we got to the bottom of the glacier, still in thick fog and with no obvious route. Our plan had been to follow another party across, as we know nothing about walking on ice. We spent an hour hunting for signs of an established route, finding a cairn that seemed to suggest climbing a steep, exposed arête, which seemed a bad idea on wet rock, and a broken trekking pole in a pile of rocks, signifying nothing we could see. The fog was getting thicker if anything, and we were getting cold, so we decided to give up and head down, on the way encountering two other groups who had given up too. At 12.00 we were back at the refuge for lunch. We hoped for at least a shorter walk up Petit Vignemale but the fog stayed thick all day and people just played games in the main room or, like us, read and slept in our bunks. Finally, after dinner, around 8.30 the clouds lifted to give us a spectacular sunset and amazing views.


Anyone seen a track?


Evening view back to Gavarnie

Pyrenean Trek Day 9. 
Today we had to return to Gavarnie for Hugh to head back to England. We had toyed with trying to squeeze in another day for him, to attempt Vignemale again, and when we woke to a bright morning with clear views of the summit it was very tempting. But impractical. So we said farewell to Stoyan, the Bulgarian walker we had spent the last evening chatting with over rather too much wine and myrtle digestif. He had been caught in a flood we had been hearing about for a few days from other walkers and we got the full story. An ice dam broke in the storm three nights back and most of the tents near Refuge de Renclusa were washed away. No-one hurt, but our he awoke to find a torrent rushing past two meters from his tent door, pulled his pants on and ran to the refuge, where they all slept on the floor. He showed us photos of camping gear strewn for kilometers down the stream the next day as he walked along it. Now he headed up the mountain while we headed down. We were soon quite glad we had not tried again as fog descended lower and lower as we walked and a freezing wind came up - we were walking in long pants, beanies and rain jackets even at 1500m and it would have been well below zero on the mountain. A cold snap in mid-August. As a result we walked fast and were at the Refuge de Holle by lunchtime.

Refuge de Holle

Pyrenean Trek Day 10. 
We had a farewell dinner in a good restaurant in Gavarnie last night and got back to the refuge in time to hear a concert last night from a jazz band who are walking and playing in mountain refuges from Mediterranean to Atlantic. Hugh headed back to London today and I had a rest day, getting a bus to Luz St Saveur to buy provisions and washing clothes before heading up through the Brêche de Roland tomorrow. Hugh took the climbing gear home with him, and I collected my tent and sleeping mat that I had mailed ahead to Gavarnie. I met Stoyan the Bulgarian hiker again, who had come down from the mountains to go to a jazz festival in a nearby town. He made it up Vignemale yesterday, but there was thick fog on the summit and no views.

Pyrenean Trek Day 11. 
Time to leave Gavarnie (1365m) and head up to the Brêche de Roland. This is one of the most famous sights in the Pyrenees. The crest of the range at this point is a huge, regular wall of brilliant white limestone separating France from Spain. One section has fallen, creating a pass. Legend has it that the hero of the medieval Chanson de Roland cut the breach with a dying blow of his sword. The refuge next to the Brêche is closed for renovation, so I camped next to it at 2587m, which I think is the highest I have pitched a tent. Although it's 1200m the climb is on good, steady tracks and would have been quite easy with a day pack. But with the camping gear and a week's worth of food mine was about 17kg and despite taking it very slowly I found the climb to the final Col pretty hard. The views were beautiful all the way, but at the top, camped just below the Brêche and looking out over the Cirque de Gavarnie, they are extraordinary. This campsite was another highlight of the trip to me. An amusing feature was that around 6.00pm, when about half a dozen tents were being erected in the little rock circles left by previous campers, the guardian emerged from the closed refuge and insisted that park regulations allowed no tents before 7.00pm. 'Sadique!' muttered the Frenchman next to me. We all sat next to our flat tents and cooked dinner and at 6.55 there was a sudden flurry of tent erecting.

Cirque de Gavarnie

Brêche de Roland

Cirque de Gavarnie from campsite
My campsite

Brêche de Roland



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