The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Monday, 25 July 2016

Day 13 - Merens-les-Vals to 2 miles before Lac de Bouillouses

Sunday 24 July
13 miles, 1950m ascent
Sunny intervals clearing to mainly sunshine by mid afternoon, with a breeze making it a nice walking temperature.

What a fantastic day that was! The only thing about it I can fault was the not-even-lukewarm cup of tea I was served at Refuge des Bésines. Surprisingly it was an easy day too - not something I expected of a day with just shy of 2000m (or 6600' in old money) of ascent.

Our initial climb this morning was 1200m over the course of around 5 miles, so aside from one relatively short steepish section, it was a pleasant gradient. Past hot sulphur springs we went (we resisted stripping off for a dip as it was so early in our day) before leaving the trees behind and making our way up a lovely green valley, a little way above the gushing stream.

The surroundings at the top of that climb were first class, and the views back were excellent too. We were happy walkers.

Yellow Trouser Man (who we now know to be called Quentin) arrived at the Gite yesterday afternoon and overtook us shortly after one of our many faffs this morning. We caught him again just as we got to the refuge (which is the end of the day per the itinerary in the Cicerone guide) and we all agreed we were surprised at quite how quickly we had got up there, given the timings in the books and on the signposts.

A good long break was had, then Yellow Trouser Man went off in a different direction for an alternative route and we proceeded via yet more stops (aquafaff, lunch). Lunch, incidentally, was the only time today that I encountered a horsefly. I think the cool morning had kept them at bay. It was also the first time this trip that we saw marmots. Two frollicked on rocks in front of us for most of our break.

I think photos are needed to show quite how spectacular our surroundings were in all directions, as we climbed up to another pass. It was a high photo count today. Very high, by my usual standards. You'll have to wait for those photos though, as I'm going to see if I can get this to transmit on the weak phone signal I have here; it certainly won't send with photos attached.

Instead of getting the map out we played "guess the location of the next pass" as we made our way down to a reservoir that is very low on water at the moment. There we overtook Front Pouch Woman (who we only sighted for the first time at the refuge this morning; it turns out it's her first day of a short trip) but she caught us as we paused for a break at Cabane Rouze. With incredible timing, considering our different routes, Yellow Trouser Man had just arrived there too, but our paths were immediately to diverge again as he had opted to go over the striking Pic Carlit whereas we were staying on the GR10.

One final pass featured in our day and even though it looked to be high above us as we stood by the reservoir, it was only the 150m climb that the map told us it would be. A large pack of scouts were coming down, in fine voice, as we ascended.

Our objective for the day was to stop anywhere on this side of the pass, but the lake at the top was rejected for its pack of grazing horses. We then proceeded to take so much time in detours in trying to choose a pitch that it probably would have been almost as quick to walk down to the refuge and hotels at the far end of Lac Bouillouses. But we've just had two consecutive nights indoors, so we did finally settle on a pitch on the riverbank, with a fine view.

Tomorrow we'll be aiming for an early start so as to catch the post office and shops in Bolquère before they close for lunch. Then a decision is to be made: to proceed on the GR10 or to take to the HRP for a couple of days.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Rest Day - Ax-les-Thermes and Merens-les-Vals

Saturday 23 July
GR10 distance: 0.5 miles

We're on the train back to Merens and I'm wondering if I can get something typed and posted before I lose the 3G signal. Or maybe the brief 3G signal I had at Merens station yesterday will exist in a more permanent form up at the gite. Or maybe the gite will have wifi. Or maybe this won't get posted for another couple of days.

As we head back to Merens we're thinking that we should have stayed two nights in Ax. It looked a good place for a full day off, particularly as it was market day today, but the gite at Merens has come so highly recommended we've opted to head back there today (I do hope we have a reservation. Phone conversations conducted entirely in French have so much room for error!).

Whilst most of our time in Ax was spent in our room (by virtue of arriving late and leaving just after noon), we did get some useful stuff done this morning. A bit of food resupply was done (not much because we ate out so much on the last leg, and did it a day faster than intended, so we still had quite a bit of food). The pole tip which Mick broke on Day 2 was not just replaced but the chap in the shop fitted it and then tried to wave off any payment for the tip, a new mud basket and the fitting. Mick has also come away with a new set of gel insoles which he'll cut up later (he has 1/2 length orthotics, so just needs the front bit of some ordinary insoles. The one's he's currently using are rather worn). I didn't come away with a new pair of shoes; the only ones I liked the look of were two narrow, even when sizing up significantly. The man in that shop was horrified that I was walking across the Pyrenees in slippers (although, apparently they would have been fine if I'd been doing the route in 16 days as part of the Trans-Pyrenees event (insert puzzled emoticon)).

(And that is as far as I got on the train. It's really not far from Ax to Merens. The gite does, however, have wifi.)

It is now mid-afternoon. We arrived at the gite just after half past one, whereupon we did as we have done more than once over the last week: despite having food in our bags for lunch today, we succumbed to the menu at the gite. We didn't need more than a main course, but then someone behind us got served one of these...

...and who can resist flan? Particularly when it's an enormous serving and comes with two mini chocolate fondants?

There will now be much sitting around this afternoon, in this fabulous building in a gorgeous setting. Tomorrow walking will resume.

Day 11 - after Col de Finestres to Merens les Vals

Friday 22 July
11 miles-ish, 900m up-ish and about 2000m down
Awful miserable start, then a few hours of sunny intervals before clouding in and raining again

Part one of Day 11 (already posted separately) saw us walk in the rain and awful visibility to Refuge Ruhle, where we holed up for second breakfast with a pack of ultra-runners taking part in the Trans-Pyrenees event.

After the best part of 2 hours of eating, drinking and chatting the cloud had lifted and there were signs of brightness so a move was made. Another heavy shower and more thunder as we put our wet things back on (always unpleasant) made us question whether we should have stayed for another coffee, but the runner to whom we had been chatting had a more optimistic outlook: "rain and hail is not bad" he said "it cools the muscles down". He was shivering as he said it too.

Happily after just one final shower, the day did finally brighten and the views were incredible. Here's the view looking back across the boulder fields we had just crossed, pausing often to step aside to let Trans-Pyrenees people pass:


Lunch was had in the sunshine just 100m below the high point of the day, and of the trip so far, which stood at 2439m.

The views down the other side, where we were to descend seemingly forever, were good too:




After a big a gap in competitors, many more pauses were had on our descent to allow more racers by (not that any of them was moving quickly - that was a steep ascent for them). It was down here that I finally twigged that at the top of their race numbers (worn, by most, on the back of their backpacks) was stated their name and nationality. We also observed that the majority wore Hoka OneOne shoes.

It was half past four by time we reached Merens, whose village fete (involving some very loud and bad music) is this weekend. We had just missed the bus and arrived at the station to find that we had an hour and a half to wait for a train to take us to Ax les Thermes. Assuming that there would be no double room available at the gite on the Friday of the village fete, and in the absence of any other accommodation, we had opted to nip along the valley to Ax (which, moreover, would also give me the opportunity to look for a new pair of shoes* as Ax has sports shops whereas Merens does not). We didn't really want to arrive in Ax at approaching 6.30pm and have to start looking for somewhere to stay, but with assistance from Scotland and eventually finding that we could buy some internet access on a local wifi network (the phone signal not being good enough to be useful for Internet browsing), a room was booked. The rest of the wait for the train passed quickly chatting to Mary, one of the British duo from the Gite in Goulier, whose week in the Pyrenees has come to an end.

Things did not go smoothly on arrival in Ax. Eventually locating our accommodation it turned out we had booked a room (officially a studio apartment, but the reality is that it's just a room) in a converted house. When we finally found out how to enter and where to find our key, it was missing - and no-one was answering the phone on any of the numbers given. So much for minimising stress by pre-booking!

All was eventually sorted and the room is good and well positioned. We won't be heading back to Merens first thing in the morning, as we're doing something very unusual tomorrow - we're having a day off!

(*my shoes have plenty of tread to finish the walk and are structurally sound, but quite a few holes have appeared in the uppers. It somehow feels wrong to be walking amongst all these French people wearing great heavy boots in a pair of holey slippers (although amongst today’s Trans-Pyrenees company they felt right at home). I had thought to make a day trip to Toulouse if I can't find suitable shoes here, but I've concluded that it would be quicker, more convenient and probably equal in price to have a pair of shoes I already have at home sent over by an overnight service, if I get to the point that I really need them. Perhaps I should have set out in a new pair of shoes...)

Friday, 22 July 2016

Occasional Pyrenean Tractors

I don't think I already posted this one, did I?

Day 11 - The first 2 hours - After Col de Finestres to Refuge Ruhle

Friday 22 July
Absolutely miserable weather

It's 9.50am and we are very happy indeed to be sitting inside Refuge Ruhle whilst hail the size of peas hammers on the roof and thunders rumbles around.

We woke in the cloud this morning with the accompanying light mizzle, but as the forecast thunder wasn't yet in evidence, we had the quickest of breakfasts, skipped our usual cup of tea, and made haste.

We had no sooner donned our freebie flimsy disposable ponchos (given to us by Macmillan Cancer Support in 2008, at which time we dismissed them as not being a useful piece of backpacking gear) than it started to rain in earnest. We saw nothing as we walked the ridge which is apparently one of the highlights of this route. In fact, even without visibility we could appreciate that the path itself is a delight and put the ridge on our list of places to which we must return in good weather.

Much to my approval, the first rumble of thunder held off until we had shucked all of our wet stuff outside the refuge at half past nine. At least we don't feel too daft being out in this weather - the refuge is full of men in tights, taking part in a trans-Pyrenees event. Flimsy disposable ponchos are also much in evidence.

Within ten minutes of our arrival, an immense sound was heard on the roof. I'm sure we heard the Spanish and the French for "I'm not going out in that!" from the multi-national collection of runners, as torrential rain turned to torrential hail.

We do have a couple of climbs ahead of us as we leave here, but even as a thunder-phobic (not really true -I have no problem with storms as long as I'm not in an exposed spot at the time) I'm quite relaxed - we will only be on a summit for a matter of minutes.

(Just talked to a Spanish participant in the race. They have a total of 400 hours to cross the Pyrenees from Banyuls to Hendaye. By my reckoning that's a maximum of 16.5 days.)

The story of Day 2 will be continued...


The only photo taken this morning

Day 10 - Cabane Balledreyt to after Col des Finestres

Thursday 21 July
12.5 miles, 1400m ascent
Sunny morning, overcast afternoon

A very good night's sleep was had last night, except for the brief period, starting at 10.45 when we were disturbed by thunder.

Rain accompanied the thunder (which was actually quite distant) which left much wet grass and bracken - and our morning involved a lot of tall grass and bracken overgrowing the path.

Route finding just before and just after last night's night-stop was the most difficult we've encountered so far on the entire route. Or, at least, finding the path has proved difficult; if we'd just opted to head in the right general direction, it would have been easy. Once we did find the path off the plateau ("is that a tiny cairn on that rock right over there?" I said to Mick after a few minutes of head scratching, and thus the path was found) it was easy to follow for the rest of the day. (We'd been enveloped in cloud when we awoke, which dispersed before we got walking - finding the path in either direction from our night-stop would have been awful in poor visibility.)

Down to a stream we went, across a meadow and quite steeply up, coming out on a lovely flat col which seemed an eminently suitable place for second breakfast.

More down ensued, all the way to a road, before we started our second ascent of the day, which, if followed to its conclusion, would continue until 1400m of altitude had been gained, with a few undulations thrown in just to boost the ascent stats. With the ascent being spread over so many miles it surprised me for how long we went steeply up. It was a bit of a bother in the bits where the horse flies were active, as it's difficult going fast enough to shake them off when you're gasping up a hill. The worst place for the beasts today was by Cabane de Claran's (aka 'horsefly central') , where we had intended to have elevenses. Fortunately horse flies don't seem to like dark, cool forests so that's where we finally paused.

Eventually, just before another Cabane, the gradient lessened and having passed the building we found ourselves on a track! That deserves an exclamation mark as generally the GR10 is on paths, not tracks, and those paths generally have one or more of these features: steeply up, steeply down, eroded, rocky, bouldery, heavily root laden or slippery. As such, "stride out" paths are few and far between. This track, being sometimes grassy and sometimes grit, continued for the next hour and a half.

That hour and a half wasn't all done in one go, as at Plateau de Bielle there is a ski centre, the restaurant of which was open, so we stopped for lunch. Three huge courses and coffee, and two and a half hours later, we finally waddled off to continue up the hill.

It was, by now after 3pm - a time when most sensible walkers in the Pyrenees are thinking about calling it a day if they haven't already. We, however, felt that there were more miles in us yet, hence on we went.

What finally stopped us was the rumbling of thunder, which made it seem imprudent to head up onto a ridge, so we started looking for a water source and a pitch.

Dumping my pack and heading down the side of the hill with two bladders I did find water, but it was only a trickle and not the crystal clear substance to which we have become accustomed. I collected some anyway, which was a slow process which involved crouching in the grass, allowing the mozzies and midges to have a field day on my back. (Post blog note 24 hours later: boy did they feast on my back! Itchity itch itch).

Whilst I'd been gone, Mick had scouted three pitch options and we very nearly settled for one of them, before the whim hit us to continue on just a bit further. A good call, as it turned out. Not far later a hut appeared before us, with a berger in residence, but also with a spring adjacent. The water for which I'd descended, re-ascended and got bitten to pieces was ditched and condensation-making, crystal clear water replaced it.

Not knowing what the etiquette is for pitching relatively close to a cabane with a berger in residence, I asked if he minded us planting our tent a ways over there (with a bit of pointing to an area out of sight, over a rise). He seemed bemused and said we could, so we did. He popped over a while later to check on his sheep further down the hill and we had a little chatette about the weather, his flock and a few other things, as our language skills permitted. Then, within the blink of an eye the clear valley became filled with cloud, which rushed up the hillside to envelop us. We duly dived into the tent, just as it really started to thunder and to rain. Time to count our blessings that we had stopped when we did.

It's an easy evening chore-wise tonight as neither of us needs a real tea after our huge lunch. Nuts and chocolate have sufficed. And now we'll settle down for the night, hoping that a) tomorrow's forecast thunder limits itself to the afternoon; and b) the sheep with clanging bells, which have just come down off the hill to surround us, wander off soon.

A track!

just the starters of a huge 3 course lunch

pitch

Day 9 - Goulier to Cabane Balledreyt

Wednesday 20 July
15 miles; 1750m ascent
Hazy start then hot with some sun then a bit of rain then a sudden change with a strong wind whipping up in an instant.

We were very nearly the last to leave the gite at Goulier at 7.30 this morning. Everyone else seemed to anticipate that breakfast would be available earlier than the stated 7am (as did we, but not by quite the same margin as the French visitors).

The main reason for staying at the gite last night was because being in Goulier (a place I hadn't even planned to pass through until reviewing our options yesterday afternoon) positioned us better for what may otherwise have been a hard day today, but there didn't seem, from the map, to be any campable terrain nearby (much steepness). Of course, within minutes of leaving Goulier behind we found a pitch in the woods. Always the way. (Incidentally, leaving the gite took 2 attempts, as after about 100m progress, I put my hand in my pocket and found a big lump of brass with a room key attached; Mick kindly ran back with it whilst I had the 'did I pack all the electronics' panic unpack).

The only people later away soon overtook us on the way up the hill, as we paused to apply DEET. It's not a substance I like to use, but the horseflies were out in force and after taking a rather nasty reaction to a bite I picked up yesterday, it seemed the lesser evil today.

The going was shaded and easy as we headed gently up over a couple of passes and down to Siguer where we were pleased to have opted to deviate from the route in passing through the town as doing so took us past a water tap (or, more precisely, a turn-the-handle water pump).

We needn't have bothered with the extra weight, as the next bit of ascent was nicely shaded too and we still had plenty of water spare when we got to the next village up the valley side. There we paused at great length, for a snack, for more water, to apply suncream as the day was now sunny and hot, and to seek assistance from the UK on the subject of what the implications are of overdosing on hydrocortisone cream* (the bite on my leg now being slightly alarming in its size (tennis ball diameter) and its swelling).

It was 1230 by the time we set out for our next climb and we feared the heat, but once again the climb proved surprisingly easy and very shaded.

We did, of course, arrive at the top with all of the water we'd carried from the previous village but even so, I wished we had carried more. Next we had another 500m of up, most of which was shadeless and we were about to reach the hottest part of the day, so I stuck to plan and took a packless detour to the nearest spring, just under a 1km round trip away. It was deliciously cold water I got from there, the bottle immediately covering itself with condensation.

Back with Mick on the pass, we thought we may as well have lunch and by the time we finished rain was in the air. It didn't amount to much and certainly didn't require waterproofs.

I found the climb up to the summit of the hill Plat du Montcamp (1904m) hard going but it's always true that if you plod on you'll get there in the end, and plod I did.

Our intention had been to stay near Cabane Courtal Marti, which we could see from the summit, but the surrounding area was being heavily grazed by cows, horses and mules, so having discounted the option of a night in the cabane, we sat outside for a few minutes considering the maps.

What a change in the weather in those few minutes! The nice breeze which had kept us cool since lunch suddenly became a strong wind, whipping dust up all around us. By the time we left the spring 300m away (yep, yet more water needed, to get us through the night this time, adding itself to that I'd diverted for at lunchtime, which hadn't been touched - it was just a day for carrying too much water!) it was raining and cold enough for me to don a jacket.

Making a meal of re-finding the path, down to Cabane Balledreyt we went, expecting it to be a ruin as that's what one of my guidebooks said. It turns out that it was rebuilt in 2014 and is now a very smart bothy complete with a camping stove, food and drink supplies and an honesty box.

A solo lady (who got subjected to my fumblings with her language as she spoke no English, but she seemed to understand me) was already in residence, but there are two separate rooms so we could have had the other. We opted, however, to camp. If I hadn't gone on such a big tour of the local area looking for the best pitch, and had taken the first option Mick had pointed out (which is also the one we finally used), then we would have had the tent up before the rain came. I'm sure the solo woman thought us mad to be pitching in the rain and stiff wind when there was a perfectly good building next to us.

None of the other eastbounders from the gite last night have been seen. Either they have had really long and fast days or the reason they were so keen on an early start and to scoot off was by way of a race for the 6 free beds available, on a first-come basis, in Siguer. The gite there closed down last year and for those without a tent it's a long way from Goulier to the next accommodation which isn't a cabane.

Well, tea has now been had inside the cabane and my chocolate mountain has been reduced a little (it was cheaper yesterday to buy five cheap slabs of chocolate than one branded slab, but I couldn't bring myself to throw the excess bars away, so we set out this morning carrying over 700g of chocolate), so our food bags are finally reducing slightly. A retreat to the tent has now been made. It's a midgefest out there. Wherever did that wind go that so battered us just a couple of hours ago?

No photos today - very hazy so no good views. (Actually, here's one of our pitch, taken the following morning:
)


(*thank you Louise - again :-))

Day 8 - Aulus les Bains to Goulier

Tuesday 19 July
Wall-to-wall sunshine

Another fabulous meal was had last night at the Gite in Aulus. Absolutely enormous, with three courses (and what is it with getting two puddings apiece in these places?), with produce fresh out of the owners' garden. The cost for this feast? €12 per head. It was a ridiculously cheap night - far more so than it should be for the quality of accommodation and food provided. Definitely one to recommend (although if you get a room on the side of the building we were in and have to sleep with the windows open, as we did, then expect to be disturbed by the church bells chiming every hour in duplicate).

As for today, with the temperature forecast to hit 34 degrees we opted for an early start, which didn't require us to get up any earlier than usual - we just skipped breakfast and omitted our usual faffing, and were away at 6.30, stopping on the trail after an hour for cereal and coissant.

A thousand metres of ascent was on the agenda this morning but thanks to the early start and lots of trees we were comfortable for the first 700m.

Then, almost immediately after collecting some 'just in case' water* from an not-entirely-satisfactory stream (it being just below a busy car park), we popped out onto a road, lost the shade, and found a water tap.

We had feared that the next 300m of ascent would be uncomfortably hot, but we had beaten the heat and were blessed with very oversized switchbacks, making the going easy.

The views on the way up and from the pass (Port de Saleix) were outstanding and we sat there a while enjoying them whilst contemplating the group heaving themselves up the next bit of the GR10.

It is from the top of this pass that the GR10 route becomes very indirect. My description to Mick, when I was studying the maps at home and he was away working, was to imagine a pair of pendulous breasts. The GR10 traces their outline. Alternative paths exist, the most direct of which goes from "armpit to armpit" (if I continue the breasts analogy). It had been our intention to continue on the proper route for a while longer from the pass, but with the day heating up, and with the reality of the climb ahead of us, the armpits route (another Tour du Pays) looked the preferable option.

A few flood damaged bits of path made the going marginally tricky in places, and shade was rather lacking. In fact, it was at the first bit of shade we found that we stopped for a very early lunch - right in the middle of the path. No-one came along; we didn't think they would. It was an indulgent lunch today featuring a jar of duck pâté.

Missing a turn down to Auzat (we may not strictly have missed it but rather misidentified it), extra distance was added to our day as we took the less direct path down to Vicdessos instead. As it goes, Vicdessos was where we needed to be, to top up our supplies at the shop there for the next four shopless days.

We struggled to locate the shop once we got there, until I remembered that Martin (phreerunner.blogspot.com) had also done a circuit of the town before finding it right by his entry point. As he had also described his route into town, we thus found it, although not before we had spent half an hour sitting uncomfortably on tarmac under the shade of a tree trying to work out where to stay tonight. Thanks to some text message assistance from the UK, for which we were very grateful, we obtained the phone numbers of the gite at Goulier (see Footnote 2) and the B&B at Auzat. The phone call to Goulier was not a roaring success. Eventually, we located the Tourist Office and had them call for us. There had been some confusion but the main message was the same: if we wanted to stay it had to be half board.

Repairing to a bar for a cold drink we dithered at great length over our options (with me driving Mick mad by going around in circles). Eventually we decided that even though we really didn't need to eat out again (we'd like to reduce the food bags - somehow our bags are currently heavier than when we left Luchon, even though, theoretically, have the same amount of food) we would stay at the gite.
Sitting on a bench under a different tree, where my thermometer confirmed that it was 34 degrees in the shade, we questioned our wisdom at setting out for another 400m ascent, but we knew it made sense, so as to make tomorrow less taxing.

It was 5.30 by the time we arrived and we're less than impressed. We were, of course, spoiled by last night's experience, but this place is so much more expensive yet nowhere near as nice. We weren't even allowed to bring our bags to our room, even though we have our own room and our bags are small.

I wonder if they'll be amenable to giving us a breakfast tray so we can escape early in the morning? We'll find out soon as we're just off down for dinner.

(Post blog note: dinner was the worst meal of the trip to date by a long way. Breakfast has been agreed for 7am so hopefully we'll be away by half past. Excitingly we met our first Brits at dinner. Easy conversation without a single misunderstanding. Oh, and Wonky Pack Man and Le Flasheur turned up too.)


(*I didn't want to lose the shade only to find that none of the steams from there on were running. By picking up water it guaranteed they would be, because our experience is that water sources are only dry when you're desperate for water.
2 - I did have a phone number for the gite but it has been changed and despite listening to the recorded message of the new number four times I couldn't get my brain to translate the numbers quickly enough to write it down
)

Monday, 18 July 2016

Day 7 - Picou de la Mire to Aulus les Bains

Monday 18 July
Wall-to-wall sunshine

I'm glad we didn't stay in St Lizier last night. Even with as early a start as I was prepared to contemplate it would have been tight to get to Aulus before the Post Office shut (or, at least before the closing time I got off t'internet last week; turns out it's open half an hour later than I thought). A morning of fretting and rushing would have been to the great detriment of my enjoyment of the morning's surroundings.

As it was we had a leisurely start from our pitch, from which we enjoyed this sunset last night (and a similar sunrise this morning)...

...and we even had time to go slightly awry at the top of a ski lift, where the signage didn't seem to tally with the map. We toiled uphill for a short while before I decided that there was no sensible route in that direction (usually where the waymarks and the map differ, I can at least see that the waymarks are taking us a sensible way). A small backtrack put us back on the right path and with only one more minor ascent our overwhelming direction was downwards.

Even by my standards, I took some very poor photos today, particularly in trying to capture the rocky head of a hanging valley and a large waterfall further down. I'll give you two photos of the waterfall here, but the contrast is too great in both:



With a food shop now just an hour or so below us, most of the remnants of the food bags were eaten for second breakfast. Pain au lait with dry roasted peanuts and Hobnobs anyone? It certainly provided a calorie boost even if a bit unorthodox for second breakfast.

Arriving in Aulus at 10.30, first our parcel was retrieved then we thought we would go and enquire about a room at the hotel. Alas, the only person around was the gardener, who clearly thought us ridiculous to be asking about a room at such an early hour, and my French isn't up to explaining that we were happy to go away for a few hours, we just wanted to know if they had availability.

So we went to the Tourist Office where the gite was recommended, with confirmation that they do have rooms for 2; it's not exclusively dormitories. And that's where we now are. They were more than happy to welcome us in before noon, showing us to a double room, with this view:

The room, which is housed in a gorgeous building, would be perfect for our needs* if either it had one extra plug socket or if I'd brought a double USB plug with us (the main point of getting a room being to get stuff charged). We're spending some of the €30 saved, compared with staying in the hotel, on being catered for again tonight. Dinner is being served in half an hour and it's smelling good already.

(*okay, so aircon wouldn't go amiss in this temperature. And doors on the showers would be good too (I say after a man decided to ignore the two showers with their changing-room-style curtains open and to whip back the curtain of the one I was in, just as I'd stepped out of the shower. Never have I reclosed a curtain so fast!))

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Day 6 - Aunac to Picou de la Mire

Sunday 17 July
1550m ascent. Unknown miles
Wall-to-wall sunshine

There is so much I could say about today and so many pictures I could share, but it's already approaching 8pm, which is very nearly bedtime, and I haven't even finished my tea yet.

Skipping first back to last night, we had a fantastic meal at the gite at Aunac. Four of us were eating (all of us camping, I don't think anyone was staying in the gite): me, Mick, Wonky Pack Man and Le Flasheur (see footnote 1) . The gite had seemingly catered for 8, with four very plentiul courses being served (and I'm counting the two different desserts per person as one course). The enormous paella and the tirimisu were the high points. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this massive and exceptionally tasty meal (of which, somehow, every morsel was eaten) cost less than our fancy lunch the day before.

This morning we were up bright and early, in a sopping-with-condensation tent, and after a slow start managed to get away at quarter to eight.

Except for a short overlap, our route today wasn't the GR10, but the GR Tour du Pays. Whereas the GR10 takes a very roundabout route to St Lizier, the Tour du Pays is relatively direct. If I was planning my own route across the Pyrenees (which I suppose I have, because we've not been slaves to the GR10 at all since Hendaye) then I wouldn't throw in a big loop except if a particular attraction dictated that I should, and that was the basis on which we took the alternative route.

We may have accidentally led Mr Indecision (Footnote 2) astray as we left our brief time on the GR10 this morning. We'd not long passed him, looking at his map, as we joined a D road which runs along a valley. Three hundred metres later we turned off the road onto the Tour du Pays, whereas the GR10 went straight on down the valley. When he followed we assumed he had also decided to take the alternative route, and didn't think much of it, particularly as we saw him check his map a couple of times as we climbed the hillside initially via a switchbacking road , and it was quite obvious we weren't on the GR10 by virtue of the waymarks being yellow and red, not white and red. However, after passing a signpost just before the village of Azas, he disappeared, not to be seen again. He must have either stopped for a really long break or realised he'd left his intended route and turned back. I suspect the latter.

Of course, we continued on, often steeply uphill, but when the path finally started levelling out (it stayed between the 900 and 1000m contours for quite a while) my apprehension that we would be in woods all day with no views were proved incorrect. It was a very lovely walk, mostly in woods (giving us blessed shade on this hot day) but with sufficient gaps in the trees and clear sections that we could fully enjoy the surrounding mountains, which were set off so nicely by the blue sky and crystal clear air. It's a steep hillside along which it goes too, and the path is narrow (even wired in a couple of places) so, as Mick understated: "You wouldn't want to slip here. It would really ruin your day."

As an added bonus to the pleasing route, a grunt and some scuffling drew our attention and we caught sight of a group of wild boar (6 adults, 8 little boarlets) as they ran away from us, on a path parallel but slightly up the hill from us.

A relatively early lunch was had just before our descent to Trein, mainly because we needed to filter some water and Mick needed to charge his Fitbit (which was fully charged last night but now was empty again; it keeps doing this on backpacking trips and we know not why), which meant that the road walk through Trein and Bielle and into St Lizier was done in the full heat of the day.

It was with excitement (due to the current food rationing) that we found that the epicerie in St L is open on a Sunday, even if it was closed for lunch (until 3.30) when we arrived. With an hour and a half to kill and with it being too hot to sit outside we repaired to the local hotel/restaurant for a coffee, which impulsively became second lunch, although we were quite restrained, having just three starters between us and a pudding each.

Then we realised that having eaten out for second lunch we didn't really need anything extra to see us through to Aulus les Bains tomorrow, although we did have a little browse of what was available in the shop and topped up our supplies with some nuts and some pain au lait (Mick's dodgy tummy is really struggling with breakfast. Hopefully he'll be able to cope with plain pain au lait.)

There had been discussion this morning as to whether to stay in St Lizier tonight or whether to push on. I wasn't keen on doing the next climb in the heat of the afternoon, but we need to be at the Post Office to collect a parcel by noon tomorrow (Footnote 3), which, from St L, would have required a ridiculously early start. Mick came up with the genius plan of hanging around St L until late afternoon, so the lunch and the shop opening times worked out well.

As it turned out, the climb out of the village is nicely shaded, just as Martin described it in his blog from 2 years ago (Footnote 4); a particularly good thing as the path is quite steep in places (very wet for some sections at the moment too) and our packs were heavy with 3 litres of water apiece to see us through to the first stream tomorrow morning (the maps showed no water sources on our route, so we carried water from town. We actually crossed half a dozen running streams, the last one being just before we hit 1100m. We topped off our bottles again there having already drunk over half a litre apiece on the way up).

Our stated destination for the day was the Col de Fitté, where it looked like we should be able to find a pitch. We must have taken some sun to our heads though, as when we got there and found perfectly good terrain for camping, we decided to go on. With a surprisingly (to us, at least) large ski resort over to our left we toiled up yet more ascent, and (perhaps predictably, having passed by good terrain where we were supposed to stop) then struggled to find somewhere that was both flat and shaded. Eventually, we took a break and I walked packlessly on to scout out the final bit of path where the topography looked like it might yield a pitch and right at the last moment one appeared. Here are a couple of piccies of the pitch and the view:



There are lots more photos I'd like to share today, but (a) has anyone even made it this far through my witterings? and (b) it really is bedtime so there's no time for editing photos.

G'night.

( 1^^ we passed this duo repeatedly yesterday. Le Flasheur got his name because for once it wasn't me who got caught with my trousers down yesterday. For some reason I was ahead of Mick when we approached Col de Lazies and as I popped up onto the top of the pass I saw far more than I needed to see of the chap standing at the top...
^^2^^ a young GR10er who dithered at such length as to whether to stay at the cabane a couple of nights ago. Incidentally, he did catch me with my trousers down this morning. That's twice in a week (to two different people). I must be more careful.
^^3^^ the fallback plan had been to pick it up as the PO opens at 9 on Tuesday, but Tuesday is forecast to be 35 degrees which will demand an early start by way of heat avoidance.
^^4
Martin: I'm so pleased Humphrey created that book and gave me a pdf copy, which I have on my phone. Whereas my blog is generally witterings, you include really useful information. It's a good resource.)

Occasional Pyrenean Tractors/Relics

This one is another which qualifies in both categories, I think.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Day 5 - Cabane Aouen to Aunac

Sat 16 July
12 or 13 miles-ish? 500m?
Wall-to-wall sunshine. Hot by mid-morning

We've been lucky with the weather for the last three days as it has been pleasantly cool, keeping us comfortable and the flies at bay. It was cool again this morning, as the frosty grass confirmed, but with not a cloud in the sky it was clearly going to warm up.

Our first climb of the day which, due to its aspect and the early hour, was in shade, proved to be much easier than expected. Yesterday afternoon we had watched quite a few people labouring slowly up the switchbacks so I'd built it up in my mind as being a monster. In the cool of the morning and on fresh legs*, it was neither.

We therefore thought we had done the right thing by stopping at the Cabane last night - until we got to the Col de Lazies and then to l'Etang d'Ayes (a mountain lake). The latter in particular would have been worth the extra couple of hours of hot/tired walking yesterday and I think we would have found a spot there, even though it was busy with other people camping.

I ran (or, at least, walked very fast) down the hill to that lake as it was a detour to get water from the inlet stream, so I thought I may as well make that detour at speed whilst Mick made his way down. Obviously, having gone out of my way we then passed right by five springs (all running, but perhaps usually dry) within the next quarter of an hour.

The GR10 splits at the next pass with a variant going one way and the main path another. The signpost there was at odds with my maps and books as to which way was the main route, but it mattered not. We knew which path we were taking - the more direct one which avoided a descent-to-reascend (and now signed as the primary route). The books warned that option would be dangerous in bad weather, which was not an issue today.

The next col was at a road, where lots of cars were parked. From there the plan had been to go off-route into Seix to resupply but we had a niggling suspicion that, with the town's lack of accommodation, it might be booked up on this holiday weekend. Taking advantage of the first good phone signal in days I did some internet research and even resorted to a phone call (I do believe the first phone conversation I've ever carried out entirely in French; I was quite proud of myself!) which confirmed that there was no room at the inn. Then we had a rethink as we didn't really want to go to Seix without somewhere to stay and we equally didn't want to walk a mile out of town in the wrong direction to a campsite.

Aunac became our new destination, having established that we could camp at the Gite there.

Onwards we went with my mind doing constant calculations (i.e. fretting) as to how our food was going to last (see Footnote 2), particularly if we couldn't resupply on a Sunday in St Lizier, when what should we encounter around the next corner but...

...a man and a donkey coming towards us, offering for sale beer, cold drinks, bread and cheese. The trail provides!

Soon afterwards we stopped to enjoy our fresh seeded loaf with some sausage, our food worries now allayed both by the bread and with the confirmation from the man (who works at the gite when not selling his wares off the back of a donkey on the trail) that we could eat at the gite this evening.

The camping set up here is good and the facilities are quite comprehensive too (I'm typing this whilst plugged into the mains (in a polytunnel) to recharge, which is always a bonus when camping).

(*whilst the legs were feeling good today, Mick is still struggling with the digestive distress that was affecting him in Day 1, whereas I had a poorly head
Footnote 2: if Mick’s malady hadn’t killed his appetite we wouldn't have had an option but to go to Seix for more food. As it is there are quite a few odds and ends left in our food bags.)

Day 4 - Cabane de l'Arech to Cabane Aouen

Friday 15 July
10 miles (per the guidebook. I wonder if they measure on the map or via GPS, as those trillion switchbacks felt longer than 10 miles)
1500m ascent (down 700m, up 800m, down 900m, up 700m)
Sunny start, bit of cloud middle of day, clearing again later.

As you can see from the ascent stats above, today, like those that went before it, had its ups and downs. It wasn't big on level walking, as it seemed that no sooner had we hit our high/low point than we would start to descend/climb again.
Switchbacks featured heavily, as did the sunshine, lovely woods and steep meadows thick with wildflowers.

The one benefit of staying in the cabane last night (incidentally, for cabane you can read 'bothy' as the only real difference between the two is the lack of toilet spades over here) was that as I opened my eyes this morning, lying on a mattress up in the loft, the first thing I saw was the view out of the window. Towering mountains set off nicely by a startling blue sky.

As Isabelle's alarm clock went off, I sprang out of bed to seize the day and thus caught the glorious glow of the rising sun. The reflected glow off the mountains to the west was made even more special by the presence of an enormous stag, grazing.

Mick, mountains, startlingly blue sky^^

We met no-one on our first descent, which was little trodden. The difference between a path with a refuge or a lake at the top and one without.

After pausing to wash socks in the river running down the valley, our first ascent of the day couldn't be avoided, so on with it we got. The first bit featured ankle deep mud. There has been much mud thus far. I think it's been a bit damp lately.

A series of cabanes dotted our route up, over and down, including one right at the pass, Col du Clot. We only looked into a couple and also took advantage of the water supply at one.

We weren't far into our second descent before we could see our next low-point, which looked a disturbingly long way down considering that we were immediately to regain the height on the other side of the valley. There was, however, a particular attraction for us at the bottom of this descent in the form of a Refuge which I had earmarked for lunch.

To get there we had to pass through a large car park, stuffed to the gunwales (it was Bastille Day yesterday, so it's a holiday weekend). The number of vehicles made it curious that we'd only seen four walkers all day, and they were all walking along the previous valley.

Lunch at the Refuge was a fancy affair, with a price tag to match, but it was exceedingly tasty:

^^Main courses


And what does one want to do after a big meal? Well, to walk another 700m up a hill, of course!


A very short-lived bit of flat walking as we left the Refuge

Our aim was to reach Cabane Aouen, but I was unconvinced that we would be able to camp here, so the fallback plan was to continue another couple of hours to a popular lake, which is probably heaving with campers this weekend. That would have been another very lony day, but happily, when the cabane came into sight, it was clearly unoccupied, with doors and windows shut (these cabanes are generally dark, dingy places. You wouldn't want to be inside without at least the door open). The small trod leading to it suggested it isn't much used either.

Finally reaching the building (which seemed to take a very long time from first sight, with big switchbacks repeatedly taking us away from it), we did find somewhere that we could just about squeeze the tent, if we kept the doors rolled back and did without porches. Or, we could stay in the tiny room, rather like a cell really, which is just big enough for two people (or three if you're really friendly). We opted for the room.

We've spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the doorway watching lots and lots of people going up and down the path. After we'd been here about three quarters of an hour another backpacker came along. He'd left the Refuge at the same time as us, and probably cursed that we'd got here first and taken the better of the two rooms. He considered the other room (which unlike our cell does have windows, a fireplace and a bed with mattress, but give me a sleep platform over a manky mattress in a dirty room any day) and he considered the pitch we had stamped down. After about an hour of considering, he opted to continue on. We continued to look around at the magnificent alpine meadow in which we are situated, which is abundant in its variety of flowers, and at the truly incredible view across the valley. What this room lacks in character it makes up for in views.

Day 3 - Cabane d'Uls to Cabane de l'Arech

Thursday 14 July
11.5 miles, 1400m ascent
A few sunny intervals but mainly overcast

I woke at about 2.30 this morning and was cool enough to think that had I been in a sleeping bag by myself I would have needed to don my fleece. As it was I grabbed Mick’s arm, wrapped it around me and, thus stealing his heat, went back to sleep. It did cross my mind that maybe the fully-lightweight quilt (as opposed to the half-ligtweight one used for the last year) wasn't up to the job, but when we arrived at the Refuge Etang d'Araing the Gardienne told us it had gone down to 1 degree last night. A chap we met on our way up to the next pass also commented on how cold it is for mid-July. Perfect for walking really.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the Refuge we had a 300m climb up to the Col d' Auéran (from where lots of people were ascending into the cloud atop the 2660m peak, Pic de Crabere). Just getting to the pass was hard enough for us. In fact, it felt much harder, to both of us, than it should have. We were feeling distinctly Day-3-ish.

Even though we were rather early at the Refuge, the Gardienne served us tea and coffee and after an interesting Franglais chat with both her and with Short Poncho Woman we moved on, not expecting to see SPW again as she was taking a route which avoided about 800m of descent and reascent. We would have been tempted to follow her lead, but it looked a long way around; moreover, the paths weren't shown on either of our maps (1:25k on the phones, 1:50k paper map).

Leaving the refuge the first thing we had to do was to regain the 200m we had just lost, plus a bit more, before starting the killer descent of the day - down 1300m*. It was cheering that my right knee only started to protest during the last 300m, through more pleasant woodland (I slipped on a wet path on Tuesday afternoon and my left foot slid off the path and into a ditch. My right foot stayed planted where it was, which was not a happy situation for my right knee).

At the tiny village of Eylie we dithered for a few minutes. Whether to make use of the Aire de Bivouac there, or whether to push on. It was 3pm, but if we went on then it looked unlikely that we would find a pitch until Cabane de l'Arech, which the guidebook told us would be 3 hours 20 minutes further with 800m more ascent. Fortunately by then we were feeling more energised, so on we went through more lovely woodland at first then back out onto the open hill with magnificent views. With switchbacks galore the ascent passed far more quickly and easily than we had expected.

A school boy error at the pass before the Cabane saw us believe a woman who pointed out the path to us. On the one hand, we should have checked the map. On the other hand the non-standard, off-piste route we took was more direct.

From the pass we could see that next to the Cabane were pens stuffed full of sheep and as we descended they were released onto the hill. The wrong hill on the first attempt, but after a bit of regathering they were redirected to where they were supposed to be, with much baaing and jangling of bells. Fortunately there were no Patou dogs present.

Alas, when we got to the cabane, there was nowhere suitable to camp (and it stinks of sheep poo outside), so, very unusually, we've opted to sleep inside. Our companions are Isabelle and Este from Madrid and Barcelona respectively. They walked the first half of the GR10 westbound last year and yesterday started their continuation to Hendaye.

(*We passed a flock of sheep being guarded by an abnormally high number of Patou dogs down the first part of that descent. They were being quite vocal at passing walkers, but despite my nervousness we passed by largely unthreatened.)

Photos! Forgot the photos again. Here are a few:

looking back at Cabane d'Uls first thing this morning^^

^^there was much prettiness^^

^^there was so much I could have said about today and I forgot to mention that from the refuge to the final pass was through an old mining area with much evidence thereof

Occasional Pyrenean Relics


Both of these were on the same property. I particularly liked the van (complete with a cat on the roof). It's a shame I couldn't get a better snap without trespassing up their driveway.

Occasional Pyrenean Tractors

I think this one also qualifies as a relic:

Pyrenees Day 2: Cabane Artigue to Cabane d'Uls

Wednesday 13 July
14 miles (ish), 4700'
Some periods of sunny intervals and only a few sprinkles from passing showers that didn't trouble us to reach for the waterproofs.

As I got out of the tent this morning an "Ooooh" escaped my lips. Although it had rained on and off through the night until gone 6am, by the time I stepped outside the cloud had lifted and I could finally see our surroundings.

Mick's day started with an "eurgh". He spent yesterday afternoon feeling under the weather and woke this morning still nauseous and generally feeling eurgh.

"What do you want to do" I asked, thinking we might spend the morning at the cabane.

"Get up and go for a walk" he said and so we did.

Downhill we went, expecting that to be our direction all the way to Fos. Then we got to a junction where our maps said to go straight on but the waymarkers said to turn right. We contemplated and opted to follow the new route.

Ten minutes or so later I was cursing the route planners, as our track started heading uphill. It wasn't steep but seemed to go for a long time.

Half way through our descent down a steep wooded hillside, I forgave the route planners. Both guide books* gave the strong impression that the way of the old route was like a double diamond black run liberally carpeted in banana skins. The new route is probably at least three times longer in distance but it's nice underfoot and relatively gentle with its million switchbacks.


the sun was out as we reached the aqueduct on the way into Fos.

A pause for water was had in Fos but not a pause for coffee as it's Wednesday and Fos is closed on a Wednesday. Happily, the auberge in the next village, Melles, was open and there we joined 'Short Poncho Woman' (see Footnote 2) for coffee. Two in Mick's case. I took that as an indication that he was feeling better.

Not a great deal more progress was made up the road before a convenient bench appeared before us. Shaded and with an excellent view, it would have been silly not to declare it lunchtime there, particularly as the clock had struck one.

Eventually, we got to the end of the tarmac and our real ascent started. Some of it was pretty steep but the path was a nice one and the surroundings were superb.


one of the gentle bits of the ascent^^

Mick started to flag on the pull up the final steep bit so I asked to pass. It's not something I ordinarily do, but I really needed a wee and I needed put a pace on to get far enough ahead of the chap we could see coming up the switchbacks behind us (see Footnote 3).

The path then levelled out a lot, and became quite boggy, then before I knew it I spotted the cabane 200m off route. With cloud rushing up the hillside towards us we wasted no time in finding a flat bit of ground and throwing (a very soggy) Rita up.

^^Rita and Cabane d'Uls


Tea was had in the cabane with Short Poncho Woman and a couple and their dog who are just out for a couple of days, before the cold got too much for our feet and we retreated to the tent. The temperature has been good for walking today, but it's a bit parky sitting around at 6300'!

(* I have two guidebooks for this route. I'm carrying the Cicerone guide in full electronically, and as much of the Trailblazer guide (out of print) as I could be bothered to type out/thought would be useful, also electronically.
Footnote 2: we're playing a large scale game of leapfrog at the moment with two people: Short Poncho Woman and Yellow Trouser Man.
Footnote 3: I didn't want to get caught with my trousers down. That happened yesterday when Yellow Trouser Man suddenly appeared out of the mist at a most inopportune moment.)

Holding post

We're alive and well in the sunshine in the Pyrenees, currently residing for the night in a cabane (or in English, a bothy) at 1600m altitude, with spectacular views.

Full blog posts are written and will be sent when I get a 3G signal.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Day 1 - Bagneres de Luchon to Cabane Artigue

Tuesday 12 July
12.5 miles-ish with 5400'
Dry start then persistent rain

After passing my "completing a transaction in the Post Office" French language test, and after a spot more shopping, it was 10.20 before we got out of Luchon.

Our next test was the "walk uphill continously until over 5000' of altitude has been gained" one. Quite an ask for the first day of a trip, but we only have ourselves to blame for not doing it last year at the end of the previous trip.

The Trailblazer guidebook (2005 edition, now out of print) made it sound like the walk out of Luchon through the village of Sode and up to the higher village of Artigue would be mainly on roads. It wasn't at all. The woodland paths weren't spectacular but it was perfectly pleasant.

After stopping for water at the tadpole-filled public fountain in Artigue, off we went again, this time to ascend into the cloud.

We saw very little for the rest of the day and thus have no idea exactly how spectacular our surroundings were.

Not long after entering the cloud base, it started to mizzle. By the time we got up onto the border ridge (involving a brief foray into Spain) it was raining. It's still raining now as I type this at 8pm.

We could have avoided the border ridge, but to do so would have involved a descent to reascend and I preferred the thought of a continuous ascent, particularly as it only went 100m higher than the bypass route. Mick may beg to differ as he was suffering a loss of energy before we got to the top. A result of the altitude or the continuous climbing, we didn't know, but to rule out other possibilities we paused for a drink and some biscuits, vaguely sheltered by a border marker, before completing the last couple of minutes of the climb.

The descent was hard going on our tired legs but by and by we reached a cabane* and decided to stay the night. Not inside, per the invitation of the two people already in residence. Rather, Rita was pitched on a bit of a slope outside.

We did pop in for tea, and by the time we left there were five people staying in there tonight (only one of whom spoke English and I was struggling to follow most of what was being said in French). As the sleeping platform is exactly five sleep-mats in width, it's going to be a cosy night for them, although at least they'll have dry tents in the morning.

(*We'd already passed 3 other cabanes. We didn't pause at the first as it contained a couple in bed - at 2.15 in the afternoon. The next two were together, with one in use by a cowherd and the other locked.)

Completely forgot to put any photos in the text so here's one of us at our high point of the day (altitude-wise) at 2193m. The sheep behind us did not move an inch whilst we were there. I don't think she was happy with the weather.