Gavarnie to Congales

Path to Horquette d'Alans

The next stage takes me from Gavarnie to near Hospitalet de Vielha. This is the third stage of my walk and takes me to the half way point. On reaching the end of this stage my coinfidence was high. I had lost weight on my body though not in my sack but I had carried my sack over the highest cols. I was anxious about the heat and access to water but I had walked through temperatures in the 30s. Bringing the umbrella had been an inspired decision.
Monte Perdido
 Day 16 Gavarnie to Heas

The Cirque was in cloud and the weather looking iffy. I was reluctant  to start off without sufficient supplies and a weather forecast.

I’d had a day and a half rest but was still feeling a bit wobbly. However I had done more than two weeks of serious backpacking and was meaner and leaner than Dave. His pace was slower than mine but this had the real advantage of enabling me to proceed without exhausting myself. A few slow days were going to be as useful as another days rest in Gavarnie would have been. Also Dave had come well equipped with foot dressings and provided a bit of common sense about footcare. I noticed that he was more observant than me. My head down, best foot forward approach was causing me to miss sightings of birds and marmots. It was more conducive to spotting interesting rocks.

Our progress was slow and when we got to the dam at the end of the reservoir and were on the road we opted to hitch into Heas. We paid for our sin. The driver didn’t quite understand us and took us down the wrong road. We spotted a campsite, Chez Ernest, and asked him to drop us there.

Chez Ernest was a quiet little site along the river. Few people were camped there but we were welcomed by neighbours who had lit a large fire. This was a family with children. We cooked up our pasta and sardines and went to bed. In the morning the attraction of the site became obvious. This is where the serious flyfisher was to be found. Marc , our neighbour, emerged equipped and dressed for the hunt. He told us  he had been coming here for years.

When we went to the house to pay we were invited to have a coffee by the farmer. He was interested in our walk and very curious about the Veron book we showed him. He was delighted that his house was on one of the maps. I gave him the book as a present glad to reduce my weight. He was planning a motor tour of the Pyrenees in the next few days. In fact we were to meet him again...

Day 17 Chez Ernest to Barroude
We walked up the road to Heas and got breakfast. The day was starting slowly and the heat was building fast when we started uphill out of Heas. Our progress was slow. My tent was very wet from the heavy dew of the night before. I had packed it wet. We stopped at Cabane d’Aguillous for a rest and I took the opportunity to dry it out. This was one of those places where the route ahead is clearly visible, or so you think but you are wrong. The obvious col ahead of us was not the crossing we assumed it to be and we were a bit off track before realising it. We were walking up the valley when we should have been zigzagging up the side.

Horquette de Heas really is invisible until you reach it when it opens up as a gap in the ridge looking into the next valley. Bare rock slopes into the barren scree. The valley we had come up was green. The one we were decending into was a wasteland, a wonderful beautiful wasteland. Dave commented that it felt like the Cuillins. The path at least was clear but another col had to be climbed. Joosten shows this as not a climb at all. In our sorry state I can tell you it was. Once over Horquette de Chemantas we were into the limestone moonscape leading to Barroude. At one point the path goes along the edge of an overhanging wall from which we could hear stones falling. I was developing another blister but had decided to suffer in silence until we reach the refuge and set up camp. If the overhanging wall was impressive it was nothing compared to the Barroude wall when we saw it. This is one of the most spectacular places in the Pyrenees. It was getting dark when we set our tents up but I boiled up some pasta to which I added a tin of sardines. It wasn’t actually as dark as I thought it was. I was still wearing my sunglasses though unaware of the fact.

A full moon rose over the Barroude lake illuminating snowfields on the wall long after the sun had set.

Day 18 Barroude to Parzan (Bielsa actually)
I was able to buy bread at the refuge. This is a little know fact but something I was able to take advantage of a number of times. Some refuges bake their own bread. They make big heavy loaves and will sell you a chunk if they have enough. Sometimes it will be stale and occasionally it will be fresh and warm. I can’t remember how I found out but I rate it as about the most useful service I have had from the refuges.

The climb over Port de Barroude takes us again into Spain. The path down is rough and rocky but the backward views of the sun rising on the Barroude wall are jaw dropping.  I often wondered about these cross border paths and who used them to bring sheep to market or guns to fight fascism. At one point the track across a gully had completely collapsed in a landslip except that it had been rebuilt in a magnificent feat of drystone engineering. The path must have been an important route for people to have put such effort into restoring it.

Dave at the  Barroude Wall
An American blog I had read comments on the quality of the paths in the Pyrenees referring to the fact that they are not as well maintained as paths say on the Appalachian Trail. My biggest complaint was that sometimes there was a route but no path at all. But sometimes you just had to be impressed by paths cut through rock or built like this one in impossible places.

We eventually reached the floor of the valley and walked out to the road along the valley. When we reached the road we decided to hitch a lift into Bielsa, beyond Parzan. I had hoped to find somewhere I could buy new shoes but we needed groceries, I fancied a pizza and looked forward to a shower at Bielsa campsite.

Bielsa is a lovely town. I got my pizza and very nice it was to. We bought some groceries. I managed to check email in a bar with internet facilities. I had an ice cream. Eventually we walked out of town to the campsite and it was when we were walking onto the site that everything went pearshaped.

A passing car honked at us an pulled up. Here was the farmer from Chez Ernest delighted to meet his old friends and keen to be helpful. We explained that we were going to the campsite and in the morning make our way back to the GR11 to continue the walk. Why didn’t we let him take us back to the GR11 now, we could camp there and be ready to start on the path in the morning. Says I “but it is a dirt track up a steep hill, there is nowhere to camp” and inwardly “but I want a shower”. Says Dave “Thank you that sounds like a good idea”.
So our bags go in the boot and we are driven back to the route with about an hour of daylight left. We tried to be optimistic as we went further and further up the dirt track. We didn’t even have water and couldn’t find a stream. Eventually we found a place where a stream was dammed, I think for hydro electricity. The place had a big fence around it and concrete steps leading down to the dam. I went down with bottles. The only place you had any hope of filling them was at a side sluice where a torrent rushed past the steps. It took a little bit of stretching and judicious use of a skyhook but I got water.

We then found a spot along the track where we could lay out our sleeping bags. There was no room for a tent, the ground was stoney and sloped away dramatically but, yes, I did sleep.

Day 19 to Camping Forcallo.
We continued along the dirt track past the hydroelectric station to Puerto de Urdizeto.  By the time we reached the top the day was clear, bright, sunny and hot as hell. There would be little shelter on the decent and when we reached some we stopped for half an hour to savour it. The valley floor levels out well before the campsite. There are two campsites. The first one is some kind of youth camp dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I had to reassure Dave that what we were looking for was a little further on, though he was so hot and tired I think he would have accepted conversion.

Forcalla reception and cafe is on the road side facing a pleasant grassy area which I assumed was the camping area. After registering I wandered off to a perfect little pitch near a stream and surrounded by large boulders. I went off to have a shower and wash my underwear. When I returned an air of panic had decended. Campsite staff were seeking me out to demand what the blazes I was thinking of pitching my tent on private property. Clearly there had been problems before.
They thought me particularly stupid for not noticing their beautifully laid out campsite with water and electricity points.

I harumffed and moved my tent. Steve from Gavarnie was already at the site. He had climbed Posets that day.

Sunset on Posets
The sunset on Pico de Posets had to be seen to be believed. We had arranged to eat at the campsite cafe and meet Steve there. Walking over to the cafe the view of the mountain was striking and I returned to my tent to get my camera. The face of the mountain is the most impossible tangle of folded strata which probably, to the knowing eye, tells the full geological history of the Pyrenees. These tangles glow in the evening sun. The walking photographer should not miss an opportunity to see this.
The meal in the cafe was superb. We washed it down with a few beers and  discussed  how to put the world to rights. Steve had some wonderful stories that can’t be retold here for fear of libel actions.

Day 20 Camping Forcallo to Camping Ixeya

Another slow start. First stop at Refuge Viados to buy some bread. I’ve read good reviews of this refuge though all I can say from experience is that the warden was helpful, the bread was tasty and there is a public phone.
The slow start again dropped us into noonday heat. The path ascended slowly up the valley side until it reached a point where three streams meet. The path divides here. The HRP carries on towards Refuge de la Soula and into the high country. The next three days of the HRP are the other three ‘E’ days. The GR11 turns east at the three streams toward Refugio de Estos. Joosten offers the GR11 here as a variant route to the HRP to be used in poor conditions. The poor conditions I was experiencing were my disintegrating shoes.

Dave and I parted company here. He headed north to the highlands hoping to catch Steve and I headed east.
The variant route is not a doddle. It rises to over 2700m and takes you through appalling granite boulder fields. Joosten allows three days, I did it in two. On the third day I hitch hiked into Vielha to buy new shoes.

After saying goodbye to Dave I climbed the rocky path that leads to Puerto de Gistain. On the way up I met a couple who had come the other way on the GR11. They had spotted that vultures were interested in a carcase further up the track and were waiting for them to return so they could photograph them. I asked them about temperatures at the Mediterranean end and also if the path had been damaged by the recent forest fires. They told me they had started before the fires and didn’t know what damage was done. They also told me that the weather had been stifling and one of their friends had dropped out after one day because he found it too hot. I asked about finding food on the route and the assured me that on the GR11, unlike the GR10 through the Ariege, they had no difficulty finding small shops.

Curious rock formation
The path continues over the col and decends slowly on barren scree. The rock formations here very interesting. One type of rock had very clear smooth black rectangular features on  yellow background. I couldn’t imagine how it had been formed. Further down the valley where strata have been completed turned to the vertical a gorge cuts through a particularly thick yellow strata which  stands on both sides like natures gateposts.

Refuge Estos has a pleasant balcony on which I sat and ate an omelette sandwich (torilla bocadillo). I had been making good time and decided to carry on down the valley. I passed an unstaffed refuge and a cabin with a sleeping platform but carried on to Camping Ixeya.
I loved Camping Ixeya despite some obvious weaknesses. The welcome was very friendly. It had a delightful, and cheap cafe bar. It had free internet access with a computer in the cafe area. The toilets and showers were pleasant and free. I like moths and in the morning when I went to the toilet block the white walls hosted a rich array. Coffee and bread were available  at 7-00am, as was the internet.

What were the weaknesses? The ground was pretty lumpy. It was situated on horrible grey sand that could barely hold a tentpeg. But like Chez Ernest this was a warm friendly welcoming place.

Day 21 Camping Ixeya to wild camp  (T 316032 4718578) near N-230

The route divides
I had an early start to long day For the first couple of hours I followed a dirt track which rose along the valley through woodland. The trees thin out. Streams flow from different directions and among an increasing number of boulders. I find a flat grassy area for lunch. At this stage the walking, the scenery and the availability of water, shelter and a soft place to put your bottom make this an ideal stopping point. But this walk has stings in its tail.

The route, let’s not call it a path, takes you through granite boulder fields. Let’s not call these boulders. This isn’t like hopping from one rounded rock to another along the seashore. These are massive sharp edge rocks skewed at all angles. Sometimes you do hop along confidently. Other times you freeze at the thought of the consequences of a slip. I couldn’t help thinking of the guy who trapped his arm in rocks and was stuck for days until he cut his own arm off. I wondered if I would be able to reach the swiss army knife in my bag. Should I for instance, wear it around my neck. This landscape encouraged dark humour. A couple of cols are crossed before you emerge into idyllic meadows which provide an opportunity to call it a day, put up your tent and watch the sunset. Actually the clouds were building.
I pushed on and soon regretted it. The route again becomes tricky and descends through a stream course, the shortest route downhill, through woodland. It was 7-00pm and I would camp wherever I could now but it took be a further two hours to find a flat piece of ground the size of my groundsheet. The walk along the Barranc D’Anglos in the valley bottom is pleasant but I was practically at the road before I found a place to camp, A beautiful clearing by a wide river coursing through, you guessed it, granite boulders.

These shoes are 4 weeks old. I have been hiking in them for 3 weeks only.


selfpowered said...

great stuff Roger. We did exactly the same thing at that cabane for the horquette. Lost 3 hours or so. The track off the motorway up the hydro is sooooo long. We found a sneaky place to camp in the meadows, but a fair bit off track. I liked the campsite after that, but someone did nick my warm hat form the shower room. Didnt know you could get bread from viados either, that's good to know.

Unknown said...

Sorry to hear about you hat, a precious item in strong sunshine.I lost two hats on the trip.
I can't remember where I first heard that refuges will sell you bread, but I was glad to know it.