Roger's Pyrenean Traverse- Urdos to Gavarnie

Looking across a sea of cloud from Pic d'Anie to Pic Midi d'Ossau, where I would be in a couple more days.

I was very satisfied with my progress through the Basque country. I had expected navigational problems due to the area's notorious low mists. The lushness of the area is testament to an atlantic climate.  The next stage to Gavarnie would take me through much higher, rougher country. I was confident that if I could complete that stage in reasonable time I would be able to complete the walk.

Day 9 Urdos to Refuge d’Ayous.
I started at 8-00am still feeling anxious about the weight I was carrying on what would be a long ascent. This route took me along the Chemin de la Mature. This is a striking route through a channel cut into the face of limestone cliffs. It could be pretty freaky for anyone with a low tolerance of exposure but is a very safe walk, at least in good weather.  At the beginning of the route you could hire a donkey or mule to take you through. The route is long and relentlessly uphill. It eventually takes you into woodland but until then the views are striking. Today’s route is wholly on the GR10.

When you leave the woodland you follow a clear well marked path to the Col d’Ayous. When I did it the col was blanketed in low cloud and visibility poor. I was glad of the frequent markings indicating the path. It was here I had one of the oddest experiences of my journey. I had seen very few people all day, though I did find a hat on the path which replaced one I’d lost earlier. Very near the col itself I hear a child crying. I could see nothing and reminded myself that I was more than 2000m above sea level in the mist on a craggy slope.  I called out being reluctant to dash into the mist and maybe have difficulty finding the path again. No one replied but I did hear another child’s voice that had no hint of fear or distress in it. I walked on deciding that I would inform the staff at the refuge which was now about 20mins walk.

As I dropped out of the mist on the other side of the col I saw ahead of me two adults leading two mules carrying their baggage accompanied by two children, a boy and a girl certainly both under ten years old. The children were roaming all over the place and now the refuge was in sight were heading down across the slope making a bee line for it. The adults seemed reluctant  to leave the mules but were trying to call the children back. I followed the children down the slope to keep an eye on them. They were both wearing cycle helmets and oozing confidence. At one point the little girl let me tie her bootlace.

I booked a meal at the refuge and set my tent up by the lake facing Pic Midi d’Ossau. I’d read about the possibilities here of photographs of golden sunsets light up the mountain. With the low mist I knew this wasn’t going to happen but was pleased with the shots I got.

I dined at a table with two young  French men who were out for a few days walk though not well equipped. One explained to me that he made a living from internet poker. He assured me that although the rewards were not great that a skilled and safe player would always earn enough to live on. He spent about 10 hours a day playing. I thought bank robbery might be an easier and more reliable source of income. Anyway how could being in prison be worse than full time poker playing?

The food was very good. The refuge was packed and preparing for a second sitting at 8-00pm. The meal cost  17 euros. The refuge was raking it in without of the need to meet the expectations a customer in a restaurant would have-like sufficient toilets, choice in your menu, the freedom not to be ushered out of your seat after  45 mins.

There  were many tents along the lake shore so many more people were eating at the refuge than staying at it. I knew now not to order breakfast a refuge. Breakfast is a very different experience in that at dinner you get fed well, at breakfast you get dry bread and coffee. A totally unwarranted lightening of the wallet. Anyone gambling that a refuge breakfast would set them up for a day’s hiking would be wiser taking their risks at internet poker.

 Day 10.  D’Ayous to Pombie.

Today my navigational skills deserted my. This wouldn’t have been too bad except that my common sense took the day off to. I forgot my golden rule, that when you stray off the path you should back track to a point you are confident is on your route. It is fun sometimes to navigate your way out of tricky situation but in these hills it is dangerous. The route today would divert from the GR10 and I was a bit anxious about managing without the familiar red and white stripes. It was however a well trodden route and if I had just followed the flow all would have been well. I would be going over Col de Peyregret on the shoulder of Midi d’Ossau. This involved a long steep climb to above 2300m. I wasn’t yet attuned to the scale of these hills. Sign posts and guidebooks usually gave distances as timings. These weren’t always reliable but they told you “don’t expect to reach the col before 3-00pm” which is very useful for quietening the little voice in your backseat of your head chirping  “Are we nearly there yet?”

The scenery was magnificent and the stop by Lac de Peyregret astonishingly beautiful. There were lots of people about and I noted one photographer even carrying a tripod. So I had a brew up and watched the trail of people ascending to the col along no obvious path. They had all gone by the time I set off. The path swings north on a gentle rise before climbing and I became confused, sure that I had missed a turning,  and headed uphill. I did realise my mistake and got a clear fix on my position but again decided I could navigate my way back onto the right track. I was soon on very steep ground which was shaley and slippery. A detour to safety brought be into the middle of boulder fields where a sharp edge snapped one of my precious carbon poles. I ended up circuiting Pic  Peyregret rather than going over the col, a longer and much more difficult walk than I had planned. But in all it was a relatively short days walk and I got to Refuge Pombie mid afternoon. I think the fact that I knew I had plenty of time encouraged me to explore a different route.

At Pombie I was a too early to put my tent up but another walker had spread his tent out on the ground without actually erecting it. At some refuges it is difficult to find a nice level spot and walkers will stake their claim to a site by spreading their tent out. The rules forbid tents being put up before 7-00pm. They have to be down by 9-00am.

Pombie was very busy refuge. At dinner I was sat with my neighbour and new companion for a couple of days. Also at the table were a group of Danish people on an organised trek. All spoke English during the meal for my benefit and our paths would cross again at Wallon.

The sunset was wonderful.

Day 11. Pombie to Larribet.

In Joosten’s book this is the first of four days graded as ‘extreme’. There are two crunch points on this long and difficult walk. The first Passage d’Orteig is a roped traverse across a rocky face. This proved not to be difficult. The second is the Port Du Lavadan. This and the subsequent decent is a serious undertaking which should be avoided (like the plague) in poor visibility or high winds.

The day was bright and sunny and the afternoon very hot. It started with a long decent to a road, the D934. You have just squandered 640m but don’t worry you are going to claw back them all and more, much more.  By Col D’Arrious you have climbed a further  940m and the day is young. I cooled my feet in Lac D’Arrious before tackling the Passage. My neighbour from Pombie had caught up with me. He had done the route before and I was glad of his company. We then proceeded down to Rerfuge D’Arrimoulit. By now the heat was blistering. My friend was stopping at the refuge but I was continuing on to Larribet. I decided to wait a couple of hours in the hope that the sun would cool. I lunched. I set up my solar panel to charge batteries. I watched younger braver folk swim in the lake and I studied my map determined there would be no navigational errors on the next very difficult stage of the walk. As I left the refuge someone asked me where I was going and wished me ‘Bon Courage’. I was indeed a little nervous.

It was a hot dirty climb. I got to Col Du Palas without difficulty. I took a bearing on the invisible Port Du Lavadan and I stuck to it. I am now in SpaIn. There were a few cairns to remind me that I was on course. They would have been difficult to find if I had not been on course. Nothing prepares you for the sight of the port. This is a rocky gully running up the slope across the line you have been walking (sorry crawling). It is full of large boulders which you haul yourself over. It leads magically to a col looking down a vicious scree slope to a lake. Refuge Larribet is not yet in view. I am back in France.

The most direct route now is down the scree slope but the guide book tells me there is an easier safer route on the rock to the left. I tried to find it but was soon in a dangerously exposed place and decided to take my chances with the scree.  A one stage I took a short cut across a snowfield which was easier to walk on in my micro spikes.
This is where the concept of the HRP breaks down. The route here takes you north to Larribet before turning south again. The variant route from D’Arrimoulit to Respomuso is just logical. Having done the Port I have no wish to do it again.

It was nearly 9-00pm when I reached Larribet. I asked at the refuge if I could eat there. I had to wait until the 8 o’clock sitting was finished and was presented with a feast. While waiting I set up my tent in the bivouac area. There was one other tent with two pretty uncommunicative blokes. They told me in the morning they were climbing Balaitous.
The ground was a bit lumpy and the night windy.

Day 12  Larribet to ?

I rose early to make my way to refuge Wallon. The day started again with a long decent which took me through some pleasant woodland. The route then turned south and rose steadily along a valley side at one point climbing steeply in zigzags. I stopped to cook lunch by the river (Gave D’Arrens), a feed of pasta and sardines.

The afternoon got hotter and hotter as the place rose through a shelterless dusty landscape. I worried about finding water but was reassured by people coming the other way. The path took me right up to the Spanish border before dividing. There was a pleasant looking drop into Spain but my route was to take me over one more high col, Col de Cambales.

The directions in my guide book were skimpy and misleading. My compass and satnav were telling me I was on the wrong track but I wasn’t listening. I struggled over a col that fitted the description in the book, snowfield, lakes, path to the right of the lake, blah blah it looked right but it was wrong and a long, enjoyable decent took me into the wrong valley. I kicked myself because I managed to believe what I wanted to believe and ignore for instance the fact that I was walking into the setting sun, something you seldom do on a easterly path.

The sick part was that I had landed in a spot I could have reached a day earlier if I’d taken the variant route from Refuge D’Arrioumulit instead of scaring myself on Port du Lavadan. It was late and a wild camp was in order. There was already someone pitched on the plain so I joined him. Jorge was Spanish and enjoying a few days in the hills. He was very pleasant company for the evening and we exchanged some meagre food supplies. Before bedding down I made sure I had my bearings and was clear about the next days route which would take me over Col de la Fache and on the refuge Wallon.

Day 13

There were many compensations for my unplanned detour.

I met Jorge

I crossed the magnificent Col de la Fache and got some of the best photographs of my journey

I met a Scottish teacher, John,  who was pleasant company, though we disagreed on a few education policies. He had arrived with a friend who had to return home quickly due to a medical emergency.

My delayed arrival at Wallon coincided with the arrival of the people I had met at Pombie.

I started off tired and a little demoralised. The climb to the col was steep and rocky and I stopped a couple of times to rest. Arriving at the col there was a snowfield across the path. I tried a route along the lakeside but it was impassable so scrambled up to the higher path and across the snow. There were quite a few people at the col.

It was a long decent to Wallon and I was tired and footsore. I was developing burn blisters on the balls of my feet. I met John on the way down and we met an English couple going the other way. These were the first native English speakers I had met on my trip. The scenery in this valley is stunning and the views backward to Gran Fache amazing. Marmots were everywhere and here they seemed to have little fear of humans. This is not always the case. John was a keen photographer also and stopped to do a bit of exploring. He had been up early to climb the summit of Grand Fache.

He caught me up later when I stopped sooth my feet in the stream and take a few of my own photographs. He was already booked into Wallon and directed me to the dining area. After lunch I risked a beer.  I thought it might knock me out I was so tired.

I set up my tent by the river, washed myself and a few moldering clothes then rested until dinner time. At dinner the Pombie gang showed up. They didn’t cover the miles but they were having fun.

John also introduced me to moleskin plasters for my feet. He was gone early the next day and I didn’t get a chance to say farewell, I hope he wasn’t upset at my comments about Michael Gove.
{I had said “Well surely we can agree that Michael Gove is the Devil’s spawn?”  No he replied ,”he is just an idiot journalist who has suddenly found himself as Minister of Education, what do you expect?”)

Day 14. Wallon to Barrage d’Ossau.

Despite my weariness of the day before this would be one of the biggest walking days of the trip and pass through magnificent scenery moving from glacier eroded granite to iron rich sandstone to wild limestone cliffs and ravines. I would have lunch at Oulettes de Gaube facing the Vignemale glacier and hear my first threatening rolls of thunder. This was also the day I saw a bear.

The climb away from Wallon is gentle and beautiful taking you to Lac d’Arratille where only a philistine could resist stopping. I had started off on my own but by reaching the lake had been joined by my friends.

There followed a steep stoney climb to Col D’Arratille. We passed a number of snow bridges over streams where the dangers of walking on melting snow were all to obvious.  Karen, the Danish guide, told me she had been in the area two weeks previously to scout for this walk when there had been much more snow about. She told me she never walked on soft snow fields for fear of dropping through into who knows what.  The wind at the col was very strong and although the Danish group had decided to stop there I thought it wiser to carry on out of the wind. The path drops down from the col and contours around the valley head to re enter France at Col des Mulets from which it drops down to Oulette de Gaube.
I had lunch at the refuge and the group arrived shortly after. The sky had clouded over and rain was starting to fall. It quickly became heavy and was accompanied by thunder. I was worried that the weather would finish my walk for the day but looking at the sky felt reasonably confident this was just a passing shower. The group were settling in and advising me to stay and not risk a further climb over Hourquette d’Ossoue (2734m) to refuge de Baysallance.

The rain stopped and I nervously headed up the track keeping a close watch on the sky. I could see no sign of frontal activity so didn’t think the overall weather pattern was changing. I was aware of the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms in these mountains and had felt fortunate that I hadn’t experienced more of them. The ascending path gave striking views of Vignemale and it glacier and rose to one of the highest points on the walk. Although there was loose scree on the col the walking wasn’t too difficult and I was soon looking down towards the refuge.

This was smaller than the more popular ones I had visited but a real mountaineers refuge. Few day walkers would arrive here. I was totally dismayed though to see the sharp flakey stone that covered the ground which, for me, ruled out the possibility of camping. I asked in the refuge where I might find levellish, cleanish ground to camp. I was told that people did camp around the refuge and indeed a couple erecting a tent, but it would be two hours walking to find anything better. I decided to carry on.

The decent through the valley from Baysallance to Barrage d’Ossoue is an extraordinary trek through glaciated limestone. You have the sense that the glaciers have just popped out to the shops and will be back in a moment. Snowfields filled the gullys and the path was broken in places by rockfalls. It was occasionally steep and hazardous. I met no one on the way down. A twisted ankle could have serious consequences. I passed Henry Russell’s Grottes de Bellevue. I regretted that I was moving so hurriedly to find a camping spot before dark. This wilderness begged to be photographed and the setting sun was showing it at its best.

Eventually the valley levelled out. I could see tents on the opposite side of a reservoir but decided to pitch where I was. There were a few cattle about that I hoped wouldn’t sit on my tent. I had dropped 900m from the Hourquette and was only a few hours walk now from Gavarnie.

Day 15 Barrage d’Ossoue to Gavarnie

 Today I awoke relieved that by lunchtime I would be camped in Gavarnie, grazing on pizzas and able to replace my broken pole. I was still carrying it (like Strider’s broken sword) as I had yet to find a rubbish bin. I’d taken the opportunity to test it by breaking  the remaining bits on sharp rocks. It snapped like a carrot. I was also looking forward to meeting  Dave in Gavarnie.

I had been walking in trail shoes (North Face Hedgehogs) which I now realised were not going to last the whole walk. They were wonderfully grippy and  generally comfortable except for a strange ridge on the insole which I’m sure was causing fiction burns. I just don’t think I could have covered the distances in boots. I traded the security of my ankles for lightness and speed. I did suffer a couple of scuffs on my ankles. These were  painful at the time (like hitting your  thumb with a hammer) but didn’t slow me down.

I walked the road into Gavarnie and found the Tourist Information Office. From there I was able to email home and get directions to the campsite. The campsite is out of town towards the Cirque. The pitches are stoney but the grass had just been cut. I spread cut grass under my groundsheet. It was cheap and welcoming though definitely sniffy (rude)about my poor French. They also charged 2 euros for showers. Gavarnie is a tourist hotspot and a bit up its own ass.

Pizza time.
I rested. I showered. I washed my clothes. I rested. I would rest the next day as well. At the time I thought I might even have to rest the day after that.

A glimpse of the Cirque through the mist
I bought new poles in the hiking shop which confirmed my view of the town. It was overpriced and the staff were rude.  Had I not needed use the shop I would have left resolving not to darken its door again. If it had been more welcoming they would probably have sold me a pair of shoes as well. I consider poles to be essential safety measure for a hike like this especially in shoes.

I wanted to buy some moleskin for my feet but there was no pharmacy in town.

The Cirque is quite a magnificent sight, almost on a par with the Barroude wall or the Cirque de Lescun. The town developed as a day outing for pilgrims to Lourdes and a major activity is pony rides from the town to the cirque.

Dave arrived and we met a couple of other walkers. One Thomas was trying to complete the HRP in 30 days. Another, Steve, was walking some of the high hills in the area. We would meet him again a couple of days later at Viados on the GR11.


selfpowered said...

you saw a bear!? did I miss the part where you tell us about this?

this is big news, they are rarely seen anymore - tell us more (or email me!!)

Anyway, great blog - am loving this. thanks for bringing back happy memories

Unknown said...

I have emailed you but am giving no public details.