A final one for this series. There was one other of which I would have liked a snap, but I was put off by having to ask (in my embarrassingly bad French) when there were seven farmers stood around it, chatting.
Thursday, 30 July 2015
There's nowt like a sudden and unexpected thunder storm to get us moving in the morning. It was 6.22am when we first heard a rumble and, having arrived at our pitch in awful visibility we had no idea how exposed (or conversely, how well protected by nearby prominences) we were. We did know that we were still very high and thus quickly decided that we should get moving.
No cups of tea were drunk (in fact we ended up ditching the entire 2 litres of water we walked so far to find yesterday), no breakfast was eaten and away we packed. We didn't beat the all-time speed record held by the night of the wild horses, but that 16 minutes from bed to walking was in dry conditions. Today we both had to pack away completely in the confines of the tent, and waterproof everything* before going out into the lashing rain. It took us 31 minutes from lying in bed to setting off. Still not bad, I think.
Off we went, sometimes in the murk, sometimes in the gap between two layers of cloud, until 45 minutes later we reached a cabane just outside of Superbagneres. I was just eyeing up the covered porch of the cabane for breakfast purposes when a Conrad-esque** incident occurred: the shepherd poked his head out of the door and asked if we would like coffee.
Did we ever?! The poor chap had no idea, when he put a pan of water to heat and we stripped off our outer layers on his porch, that he was committing himself to an hour of communication difficulties (he would have much rather have had you round for coffee, Conrad!). Fortunately he was a very good communicator, with great powers of expression, such that only once did he have to resort to drawing a diagram to explain something we just couldn't grasp (in our defence he was telling us about a caterpillar-tracked digger with arms which grasp the hillside enabling it to operate on extremely steep hillsides - he later pointed it out to us in one of the clearer interludes, where it is sitting in an unfeasible position, digging the foundations for a new ski lift). It was a very enjoyable and informative hour but eventually we felt we ought to move on, even though the rain was still bouncing off the roof.
We went all the way to Superbagneres (maybe 10 minutes away) before next seeking shelter. With none of the cafes yet open we simply stood as inconspicuously as we could in the corner of the lobby of the Grand Hotel (where no cups of tea were available, or we would have happily given them some custom; we still hadn't had anything to eat either) and dripped gently onto the floor.
There was no option for an easy out from here: the gondola to Luchon had been closed (or, rather, not opened) due to the weather. Thus, off we set for the final couple of hours down to Luchon.
The walk was quite nice. The weather was pure comedy, as the most ridicously heavy rain fell and fell and fell (and thunder still rumbled). I would imagine that if we'd had a long day ahead we might have been made miserable, but with town so close, the weather was a source of amusement.
Pleased to have reached town, and very hungry indeed, we found ourselves an eatery with covered outside tables (we were way too wet to go indoors) and got well fed before finding somewhere to stay. It was by luck rather than judgment that the place we went for has a drying room, where our outer layers are now residing, whilst the other wet stuff adorns the room.
Sitting here this afternoon we have considered our options and concluded that whilst we've enjoyed the first half of the GR10, neither of us is feeling any great enthusiasm for finishing it. We can't put a finger on why. The walking has been straightforward enough (demanding but not excessively so), the surroundings often spectacular, and we've enjoyed the majority of what we've done (the major exception being the night of the storm below the Pic du Midi d'Ossau!); we just can't drum up the enthusiasm to continue. So, unless either of us has a change of heart tomorrow***, we're heading out to Toulouse and from there home. I'm sure we won't be home for more than a few days before we head off to do something else. Maybe one day we'll come back and finish what we've started ...or maybe not. Who knows? We will, for certain, return to the Pyrenees.
*In my rush I failed miserably in waterproofing everything. The camera died as a result. The quilt and my spare clothes are drying out.
** for those who don't know Conrad (conradwalks.blogspot.com) he has an incredible record of being offered cups of tea, and even meals and the use of people's gardens as a camping pitch.
***it's now definite that we're going home. Tickets are booked.
Wednesday 29 July
Just as the light faded from the sky last night, the cows all around the bowl started loudly and persistently to bellow. We peered out of the mesh of the tent (we generally sleep with the fly sheet tied back) but couldn't see what was going on. After about five minutes of the fracas there came a human shout. Today we learned that one of the herds wanted to be where Steve was pitched and had become a bit agitated at his presence. The shout was at the point when one of them shoved its nose down into the flysheet, understandably causing alarm from within the tent, not knowing if a hoof was going to follow. At least it's not just us who has occasional trouble with livestock!
Happily (and very much to my surprise), not a single cow came to trouble us in the night. I would, therefore, have had a good long sleep, if I hadn't made a stupid error at 8pm. With a headache that was showing signs of getting really stuck in, I took some painkillers. When, at about 11pm, I was still feeling wide awake, it occurred to me that maybe I had taken the wrong ones. A shufty in the first aid kit revealed that I had. Instead of plain paracetamol I'd taken the stronger painkillers which contain caffeine. Doh! I don't usually take those after 3pm. Eventually, after much audio book listening, I dropped off.
After a bit of a lie in (short day ahead and all that) we set off this morning for the first climb of the day: 500 metres up to a pass. Very pleasant it was too, with the descent down the other side made more interesting by a big band of vultures which had found a meal. We stood and watched a while (what an evil sound they make) before starting the drop down the very steep valley side to a bar/restaurant at the bottom, which we had earmarked for coffee.
The steep drop turned out to be fast and easy thanks to well graded switchbacks, although we did dead-head and cross the stream (dry-shod) at the bottom rather than detouring, per the proper route, to a bridge further along the valley. We were at the cafe by 10.45 and only 45 minutes from the intended end of our day at Lac d'Oo.
Joined by Steve for coffee, over an hour was spent chatting before we headed off to the lake - along with the rest of the world and his wife. That path really was ridiculously busy, so much so that we wanted to be out of the crowds ASAP, and thus took the ascent at quite a lick (only possible because it was another gently graded one).
Well, I know that I promised a short day today, but we couldn't stop at quarter to one, and besides it was too crowded at the lake to make stopping an attractive option. Instead we went on a little way to a patch of shade and had lunch whilst admiring the surroundings.
It's no wonder it's such a popular spot. Just the shape of the bowl in which the lake sits is impressive enough but added to that is the spectacle of any number of waterfalls tumbling into the lake, the most impressive of which is a big gusher standing 273m tall. Our lunch spot had a great view of the biggie.
With lunch eaten (peanut flavour wotsit-type corn snacks, anyone?!) the third climb of the day was on the cards, this one being the biggest of the day at 800m. Again it was relatively friendly, as ascents go, and once we turned off from the path which leads from Lac d'Oo to Lac d'Espingo we lost most of the crowds. Unfortunately after about 600m of ascent we also lost the views, as the cloud came down to meet us. We have no idea what our surroundings were like for the rest of the day.
Our day wouldn't have been as long as it turned out to be if we hadn't erred with water. At the last guaranteed stream we picked up two litres apiece (not wanting to carry more so far up and over the pass), knowing that if push came to shove we could make it through the night with that. Based on experience to date it seemed almost certain that one of the subsequent seasonal streams would be running. They were all dry, and we really didn't want push to come to shove and to have to manage with what we had.
So, we didn't stop at the next flat area but continued on up another two climbs to get over the next pass (bringing the total ascent for the day to 1950m), in the hope that the spring mentioned in the Trailblazer guide book (mentioned in a "don't rely on it" way) on the other side of the pass would be running.
Seldom have I been so pleased to see running water. I may have even done a little happy dance. Then I collected up 2 litres whilst Mick went scouting for a pitch. Where we've ended up is not going to win any Pitch Of The Year awards. The whole area is liberally scattered with dried sheep and cow poo. But, given that it was raining by this point, the quality of the pitch was pretty irrelevant; we found somewhere flat, level and reasonably poo-free and we're now ensconced in the tent until morning. Maybe by then the cloud will have lifted and we'll find we have a stunning view...
As for that short day we're due: tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.
Other random stuff:
You may have noticed that I'm not giving a daily distance figures at the top of each post. That's because I don't generally know how far we've walked, as we're not following the guide book stages and I can't be doing with measuring with a bit of string. Ascents are usually easier to work out, hence I'm mentioning those figure more frequently.
Wednesday, 29 July 2015
So tired was I last night that when I went back out to the supermarket to pick something up for tea, I couldn't face thinking about the other things we needed. So, this morning, after breakfast, off I went again for a shop that was successful save that I was thwarted in my tomato purchase by having forgotten to weigh and label it before I got to the till. If only the Carrefour supermarkets were consistent on the point!
It was gone 9.30 by the time we left the campsite under grey cloudy (slightly mizzly) skies and ambled off up the hill, where with great relief I skipped up the hill without trouble; so off-colour had I felt yesterday afternoon that I dreaded another day the same.
Two notable things happened as we ascended into the cloud to our high point of the day:
1) we encountered mud obstacles! 250 miles of walking and that's our first significant mud - pretty good going, I'd say.
2) on a nice level piece of path, Mick went 'ooh la la' (or some such British equivalent) as his knee 'went' with an audible graunching sound. There was no stumble or fall, no drama, just an unfortunate twisting motion that disagreed with some soft tissue.
He limped on, finding that it was fine on most terrain but that on certain cambers it would give way. Not good.
Elevenses was had at the top of the shoulder, before we started our descent to Loudenville (the supermarket croissants had for elevenses weren't a patch on those I'd bought from the boulangerie van which appeared at the campsite just after I returned from my shopping trip this morning). It was as we sat there that, with incredible rapidity, the clouds suddenly disappeared. Wow! There were impressive mountains all around us - and lots of paragliders jumping off them.
The path down to Loudenville was steep and eroded but soon we were there and there we intended to stay. Except, as it was only 1pm it seemed sensible to get the next bit of ascent out of the way and stay in Germ instead. So, an hour and a half after arriving (proving once again our inability to arrive in a village and leave again within the hour) we headed up, up and up in the warmth of the afternoon. Twenty seven degrees said the display outside of the chemist, but it's not nearly as humid as last week so it didn't feel too bad.
We knew that we could pitch at the gite in Germ, so we headed there but found the 'bivouac terrace' to be dreadfully sloping, except for one spot which was already taken. That spot was the only bit with shade too.
We had a brief chatette with the host of the gite and she confirmed that there was good camping around Cabane Ourtiga about an hour and a quarter further on. We were feeling fresh and lively enough and had no trouble deciding to go on. So much for our short day!
It was quarter past five by the time we came upon Steve camped on a tufty and slopey bit of ground on the east side of the magnificent bowl in which the cabane sits. We poked around a bit on that side of the bowl before deciding that beside the cabane was the best bet. It was a bit of extra distance but was perfect: a bowling green pitch and a bothy, with table and chairs, in which to cook.
The tent was up, tea being cooked and cups of tea being drunk when it all started to go pearshaped with the arrival of four chaps, who gave all appearances of being city boys. Their intention was a night in the bothy and a fire outside. Our tent was outside. It didn't look like we were going to get a peaceful night. So, as soon as tea was eaten, away we packed and back down to the riverside we went. Such a shame, as it was such a good pitch (and free of cow pats; there's a lot of livestock around here and most places are liberally adorned), but I'm sure the four lads will have a better night too, knowing they're not disturbing us.
We're now pitched just across the river from a French family who we first saw yesterday lunchtime (an inquisitive cow tried to steal their tea tonight!) and it's almost guaranteed that we'll be visited by cows at some point in the night. As long as they don't trip over the tent...
As for tomorrow, I promise that we are going to have a short day. If we don't, you have my permission to roundly abuse me.
Other random stuff:
1) Conrad asked about the availability of screw top gas canisters. I've not specifically been looking for them (we're using a stove which fits either screw or Campingaz, so have been using the latter) but I have noticed screw top cylinders in four or five places, including a couple of very small shops, so it looks like their availability is pretty good these days.
2) Lying here in the tent (on pitch no 2) Mick said he could see the shape of a giant gingerbread man in the hillside. I did think he was losing his marbles for a second, but he's quite right - I can see it too :-)
3) I cannot believe I have phone signal here!
Monday, 27 July 2015
Monday 27 July
I am absolutely knackered. Therefore I'm going to try to be brief. Brevity not being a forte of mine, I shall strive for it by abandoning my usual practice of full sentences, for this I apologise in advance.
Woke in our spectacular location with clear skies above and cloud below. By the time we left it was with compass in hand; that cloud had drifted up from the valley. Pockets of vis up to final pull to pass then got above cloud again. The top of the pass was a very special place for second breakfast. As we sat there a couple of chaps ran up, took a couple of minutes to stow their poles the ran down the other side. We were rather slower and were soon back in cloud.
Brief sunshine atop next pass then we passed a couple of dozen school kids toting day sacks adorned with off-balance loads of car camping gear. Most looked miserable. Some carried their tents or sleeping bags in their arms. Poor things!
Very steep descent to Lac de L'oule and sunshine whilst we had lunch there.
The next ascent wasn't steep but my legs wanted to stop. Finally it levelled out and the final 3km to the pass (along a very newly upgraded path, in place of the old eroded line) would have probably been a delight if we could have seen anything. As it was the clouds that obliterated any views found they could no longer hold their water. We were mizzled on to the point of needing jackets.
Just before the pass we picked up water for a dry camp. An hour and a half or so later we got to our intended destination. We ate M&Ms and debated the merits of going on. All arguments pointed towards staying put. We poked around for a pitch but decided the ground was too skanky so opted for the outrageously long day after all, finishing with 800m of descent (today was a very high descent day).
Taking a cut off between switchbacks on a road wasn't wise - should have checked map - turned out it was in wrong direction. Once back on track it wasn't a bad path down for the first 600m.
Arriving exhausted at the campsite (on the far side of town) we received the worst news possible after a monster day: they were full. Aaaarrgh.
A skanky little patch of grass was found for us. We may have had to pay for this skanky option (whereas the skanky ground on the ridge would have been free) but at least we get a shower tonight and, thanks to being further on than intended, a big lie-in in the morning.
I walked back to the supermarket to buy tea; a whole roast chicken, a salad for 4 people, a big pack of olives and a pan of smash has been consumed in the tent. Now for a shower, then I'm for bed. I'll try to resume normal service of writing in full sentences tomorrow (considering I'm struggling to remember my own name right now, I don't think I've done too badly tonight!)
Other random thoughts:
1) Is it reasonable for 2 people to eat half a kilo of peanut M&Ms in 2 days? It seems outrageously piggish but my calculations suggest that it is in fact reasonable.
2) Talking of food, I forgot to mention the abundance of wild raspberries and bilberries yesterday. Very tasty even if they did slow us down considerably!
3) Alan S and Alan R - that little tractorette - it was a Ferrari.
Sunday, 26 July 2015
Sunday 26 July
The packs were heavy this morning, particularly mine as I had a new canister of gas and a new tube of toothpaste on board as well as the results of a 'shopping whilst hungry' episode. We only needed food for 2 days; the bulging food bags suggested we'd gone a little OTT.
It was a hard morning. I found it harder than any other to date. I think part of the problem was psychological, in that I'd read that it was an easy day after an initial steep climb, but hadn't looked at the map in detail to see that the 'initial steep climb' would go on, almost without respite, for the best part of an hour and a half of the 4 hour stage to Barège. It didn't just feel slow; I think it's the first stage where we've been smack on the Cicerone guide's timings, of which we are usually ahead (particularly on the ups. Not so much on the steep downs).
Things became slower when we stopped for lunch 15 minutes before Barège, then stopped for a long coffee break in the village, where there is still evidence of the devastating flood that swept through 2 years ago (for more info have a read of Martin's blog (phreerunner.blogspot.com) for this stage of the GR10 in 2013; when he and Sue arrived there, their pre-booked hotel was just being demolished due to damage sustained). Happily, there was still more evidence of 'shoring up' of the river banks and general new construction.
Knowing that both GR10 options out of Barège had been damaged in 2013, and although we suspected that the higher of the 2 was now perfectly passable again (it was; we could see the new bridge as we passed) we didn't want to risk ascending to be thwarted, so we took to the road for 2km. The road in question is the one that leads over the Col de Tourmalet, which I understand is a feature of the Tour de France. It's obviously popular with cyclists in general. Some of those who passed us in a downward direction were doing astonishing speeds. Those heading up looked pained.
Then we headed away from the crowds (or so we thought at the time) and up for our second big climb of the day up towards the highest pass we will visit on the GR10 (we went higher on the HRP), the Col de Madamete.
The valley up which we climbed is gorgeous. The gradient of the ascent a delight. The going underfoot interesting (plenty of rocky and bouldery bits to keep the mind occupied). The number of potential pitches huge (big grassy plateaus appear at short intervals all the way up). So nice is that we bonjoured to many dozens of people who were heading down (including one wearing flip-flops; just like a trip up Snowdon!).
We had said that we would walk till 5 then take the next nice pitch. As it happened, at 5pm we hit the exact place we had hoped to reach today by a cabane and a lake at 2150m (bringing our total ascent for the day to over 1700m). It's an absolutely spectacular place to camp, which is probably why there are so many people around. We quickly chose a pitch and got the tent up (then unpegged it, turned it round and repegged it - something we do ridiculously often; we really should pay more attention before pegging the first time). Meanwhile, a chap who arrived at the same time as us took about a week and a half to choose a pitch, then a further week and a half to get his tent up. The way he's been faffing around I'm getting the impression that this is his first ever night wild camping.
In other news:
1) I established last night, in a mission to use up the last of our first canister of gas, that it's possible to boil 5 large eggs in one go in an MSR Kettley Thing. I often hanker after eggs on a big walk, but don't usually have the gas to fritter away. Today's lunch of boiled eggs, fresh bread, Manchego cheese and crisps was lovely and only wanting for a couple of tomatoes to reach picnic perfection. How did we forget to buy tomatoes?
2) where is everyone? We saw one other backpacker at a distance yesterday and no-one else. Today, until arrival here we saw only day walkers. Even the other people around us tonight don't appear to be GR10 randonneurs.
3) My memory must be going because I have no idea what I was going to put as number 3!
Saturday, 25 July 2015
Not the best snap, taken badly and through a waterproof case, but I liked this one so much that I ventured up the driveway and asked the chap standing next to it if he minded if I took a photo. I think he was somewhat bemused by this odd foreigner who wanted a snap of his workhorse.
Saturday 25 July
After a run of consecutive hard days last week, we're having a couple of half days this weekend, having arrived at our destinations for the last two days just after lunch.
There's not much to be said about today's walk as finally our lucky streak with the daytime weather (which lasted 14 days and 17 stages (per the Cicerone guide)) broke. Within half an hour of leaving Cauterets and before breaking the 1000m of altitude, we were in heavily mizzling cloud with very little visibility.
We lasted an hour and a half before breaking out the jackets (it was comparatively cold today at just 15 degrees in the valley but quite nice for walking until we got over 1500m when it got a bit nippy).
It wasn't until we got over the col (1950m) and descended back down to 1500m that we dropped back under the cloud and could see some surroundings. They weren't anything special (perfectly pleasant but nowt wow-worthy).
Having lunch in the watery village of Grust, overlooking our destination we couldn't believe that we were still 2 hours away; it just didn't look that far. A look at the map revealed that the GR10 takes a roundabout route. We didn't; we shortcut by taking a footpath from the village of Sazos down to Sassis, before taking a short road walk into town. It does mean that we missed Pont Napoleon, which is apparently a sight worth seeing, but I can live with the omission.
Since arriving in this valley the day has hotted up and having finally had the sense to download the Meteo France app I now know that we should be back to good weather for the next few days.
In other news:
1) the new bra is fabulous!
2) having now lost the extra pounds I put on before this trip I've decided that I need to eat more. You'd not believe how much I consumed even before lunch today - it helps that shops are plentiful for this next stretch.
3) For this trip Mick is wearing Brooks Cascadias on his feet, same as he's worn for every big walk since the start of 2012, except that the design keeps being tweaked so each of his four pairs has been slightly different. The previous pairs have happily done 800 miles each. His new pair for this trip have holed in the same place on each side of each shoe (right on the crease point) after just 200 miles. He's understandably annoyed! A new pair of shoes will be in order soon.
Friday, 24 July 2015
Friday 24 July
With a short and easy day ahead of us (<10 miles and all downhill bar a couple of undulations) we had a lie-in this morning, and then hung around outside the refuge for a while, before heading off for Cauterets, to rejoin the GR10. There was no heaving on of our packs today; our food bags held just a few dregs and we didn't need to carry more than a litre of water, making our loads so light that we had to double check we hadn't left anything behind.
After the spectacular scenery of the last few days I didn't have high expectations for today, so found myself very pleasantly surprised. The first section was lovely but relatively unremarkable (save for having to stand aside for a flock of sheep being herded up the hill by two shepherds), until we got to Pont d'Espagne. The guidebook said this place would be busy and it was, so much so that we took a quick snap then hurried on through the crowds. As soon as we were onto the GR10 path we were almost on our own, at least for half an hour. From then on we broke the world record for the number of bonjours per kilometre.
What I didn't know about this section of path was that it clings to the most gorgeous river which is festooned with forces and falls. Very picturesque indeed, hence its popularity.
We were only 2km away from Cauterets at noon, but thought we may as well stop to eat the remaining contents of our food bags having carried them so long, then down into town we went.
After far too much walking around trying to decide where to stay (we'd walked out to find the nearest campsite, per my 2005 guidebook, only to find it doesn't exist any more and the others were further away than we wanted to go) we opted to sit in a cafe and drink coffee until the tourist office reopened after lunch. They gave us info on hotels and thus we found ourselves in a very basic place (in a set of rooms for 5 people, just for the two of us; pity it's on the top floor!), but it'll do nicely for the night.
Some shopping was needed once we got here. My t-shirt (for the patching of which I sacrificed part of my buff last week) desperately needed replacing (not sure I mentioned that on here - wet merino + rubbing bra clasp is never a good combination) and yesterday my heretofore comfortable bra became unbearably uncomfortable. So, this evening I have invested in a new t-shirt and have spent more on a new bra than I have ever spent on a bra before in my life (or, indeed, in the last five years combined). If it proves comfortable it will be worth it.
The bad news is that we were unable to get any SeamSeal here. We found SeamGrip, but that's not suitable for silnylon tents. Fingers crossed that we can find some in Luz St Sauveur tomorrow (or even a tube of silicon will do). Annoyingly, I carried a tube for the whole of the five weeks we were on the PCT in 2012 in case of leaks, but we had no rain. That tube has long since gone off, hence setting out on this trip without any. Oh, hindsight is such a wonderful thing, isn't it?
Remeber the other day I mentioned the Chemin de la Mature, a trackway carved into an almost vertical cliff in 1772? Here's the photo. It wasn't at all vertigo inducing, thanks to being a reasonable width (unlike the ledge route we took 2 days ago, but there was no way I was going to get my phone out to take a snap on that!).
Thurs 23 July
Our pitch may have had the tops of a couple of rocks under it, but NeoAirs are very forgiving and we slept well. A treat awaited us when we awoke: the cloud had disappeared and we could now see in what a spectacular location we were pitched. The day continued in the same vein with plenty of 'oooh look at that' surroundings. Whilst I may have been swayed towards this HRP detour on the basis that it was a shorter route to Cauterets, with less ascent, I'm now glad that we took it just for the surroundings - not that I know what we've missed on the GR10, of course.
It was another slow start so it was 8am by the time we set off (with fleeces on!) up our first pass of the day which stood just 150m or so above us. It wasn't high and it wasn't far away but it was bouldery and slow going (in common with most of today's terrain).
De-fleecing and sun-creaming at the top we looked down on what was to come: a very pretty lake below and a very steep rocky descent to get there. Skipping and slipping our way down we passed Jerry (to whom I apologise if his name is spelt Gerry) who had got a head start on us this morning, then a couple of minutes later we paused for a chat with a trio who reached the lake at the same time as us. Then we had a bit of drama.
Jerry had made it to within a few paces of the end of the boulders when he had fallen and upon hearing his cry and seeing him lying among the rocks off ran the boys to help. Soon a call came from Mick for a first aid kit and off I trotted too, supplies in hand. Once we'd mopped up all the blood (there was so much that I at first though he had a severe cut on the side of his head) and steri-stripped the sizeable gash on the bridge of his nose it turned out that he had been relatively lucky. He now sports a crooked broken nose with a big gash in it, but if you're going to fall and break something in such a remote location then your nose has got to be better than an arm or a leg (although it would be easier to deal with deal with a big gash on an arm or although leg). As it was, after sitting a while to let the bleeding settle (the steri-strips weren't entirely useful in closing the wound in that they don't stick well to sweaty skin) he was able to walk on with the other trio to the next refuge.
Unable to be of any more use we continued on ahead, enjoying a lovely walk past various lakes, with the path taking us gently up and down, until into sight came the lake of Respumoso, half way along which was the refuge we had earmarked for lunch.
We almost ran the last 20 minutes to get there as a group of 30 backpack-toting teenagers (one of whom impressively had a huge, and brand new, frying pan dangling off the back of his pack) were seen heading up from the valley and we really didn't want to get stuck behind them either on the trail or in the refuge. We beat them to the top of their path by seconds and to the refuge by quite a margin.
The host at that refuge speaks no English and no French (we had passed into Spain at the top of our first pass and were know on the GR11), and our Spanish language skills are sadly lacking but I managed to muster enough words to order tea and coffee, and by mime Mick managed to convey that we wanted to eat. A soup starter, a chicken and pasta main, and a yoghurt pudding was what resulted. The chicken was particularly tasty.
It was an hour and a half later by the time we set back off, in the direction of France which we re-entered after a long pull up to a pass. At 2664m I've a feeling it may have been the highest point we will reach on this trip.
With so much of the day having been on rocky terrain or on boulder fields (with a few scree slopes thrown in for good measure) and with rocks and boulders being such good heat stores, by the time we were half way down this big descent the feet felt like they were being pounded within a furnace. Anyone watching us cross the biggest snow field of the day would have wondered why we were taking it so slowly, considering it was horizontal and thus presented no difficulty. The answer was that we were trying to cool the the feet down. With limited success with the snow field tactic, a stop was had at the next stream where we plunged our feet in repeatedly until they were numb. That was better - it took them a good half an hour to overheat again.
By then we could see Refuge Wallon, which was to be the end of our day, but the path was cruel, wiggling along a very indirect route to take us there. Even so, we arrived half an hour before the time I had stated as my optimistic estimate this morning and an hour before my realistic estimate giving us plenty of time for sitting around, as well as giving us the choice of pitches as few others had pitched up by that point.
I was certainly glad to get the weight off my feet. The day may have been short on miles and have had far less ascent that other recent days, but it was slow going and hard on the body. Tomorrow should give us an easier day, as we head off downhill to rejoin the GR10.
Wed 22 July
After our disturbed night we weren't quick in getting up or getting away this morning, which wasn't ideal as we knew that if we were going to make it to our intended destination then it was going to be a long day with a profile which went: 720m up, 1000m down then 1000m up.
The first ascent started from our pitch, right at the bottom of the switchbacks that led up from the valley floor, and made its way up and around the foot of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. With the skies now being perfectly clear (thankfully the towering peak gave us shade for this climb) we could see the magnificent spectacle of not just this hill but all the others for miles around, as we plodded our way up.
A whole family of marmots was seen up by the lake and from there we were into the boulder field, where after a brief chat with a British family on their way down after a night at Refuge Pombie, we skipped our way up from big boulder to big boulder. I do like a good boulder field!
A brief pause was had at the pass for second breakfast, in the company of a couple who had also camped last night and had been terrified in the storm. They were taking the time to dry their tent up there in the sun, but my mind was on getting down to the refuge and getting some food. We knowingly started this section with inadequate food bags, knowing there would be opportunities to buy some meals on the way, and by the time we reached the refuge I was ready to eat a scabby dog. It was a bit early for lunch when we arrived but when asked by the chef what we wanted (it was between breakfast and lunch service) and having answered "anything you've got" he commented that we must be hungry and said he could serve us a spag bol in 10 minutes. I readily agreed even though it's one of the food combinations most disliked by my stomach. It was delicious - and plentiful, and worth any discomfort it may cause.
A long break was had in the company of the couple we had met at the top of the pass (she's a Belgian teacher of English, living and working in France, so communication was no problem) and as we left we had our doubts that we would make it as far as intended. There were other options to stop short, so off we went to see how far we got.
The 1000m of down (now on the HRP) was straightforward, as was the first 900m of our final ascent which was mainly gently graded. Then we got to the choice of whether to descend-to-reascend, or whether, at the end of a 10 hour strenuous day, after a night of little sleep, and in appalling visibility, to take the shorter 'passage delicat'. We twice started down the easy option before I decided I couldn't face unnecessary ascent at the end of the day. Back we went and onto the passage delicat, which the HRP guide book says is very straightforward, but shouldn't be tackled in bad weather or by sufferers of vertigo.
Well, we had very limited visibility but it was dry and no ominous clouds had been seen before we had ascended into the cloud, and surely not being able to see is a benefit when you're about to embark on walking along a ledge with a sheer drop below? Even without the visibility I focused very hard on not looking anywhere but straight ahead and I clutched onto the wire for dear life (except where the wire has become detatched and now forms a trip hazard; that didn't instill much confidence in the protection it afforded) and soon enough the ordeal was over. The guidebook had been right - it was very straightforward; far more so than the earlier boulder field, and any quaking of the knees was entirely caused by my overactive imagination.
The refuge was then only a few hundred metres away, although so bad was visibility that we couldn't see it until we were half way across the adjacent dam, about 30 seconds away. With relief there's no one else camped here tonight as the pitching options are severely limited.
The first person we spoke to on arrival had also stayed here last night. Her group had left today only to fail to find their way and return for another night. I do hope we have better luck tomorrow.
(Incidentally, the sleeping quilt was used in anger for the first time of the trip last night. Upon arrival this evening both fleeces and warm jackets have been called into action. If I could have been bothered digging them out I would have put my gloves on for the final ten minutes of the day. A bit of a change!)
Night of Tuesday 21 July
At 2 o'clock this morning I decided that I'm not cut out for backpacking, which may appear a strange conclusion to reach at this point of my backpacking career. It probably goes without saying that we hadn't been having the best of nights.
The rain that caught us as we finished our day stopped before we got the tent out but it was but a small lull. By 7pm I was regretting not cooking tea during that lull as Rita Rainbow isn't a tent best suited to cooking indoors and it had been lashing down (with thunder rumbling) for a couple of hours. Finally just after 7.30 there was another lull and tea was finally had.
Any thoughts at that point that the worst of the storminess had passed were sorely optimistic. At 10.29 (to be exact) the real storm arrived. Gosh! That was some storm!
There was only a quarter of an hour when I was really quite scared (that was when the flashes and bangs got to two seconds apart), but I cannot tell you how many times during the ensuing three and a half hours I reminded myself that we had pitched in a safe place and we weren't in any great danger (easy to say in daylight - a bit harder in the dark night with a storm raging). I also cannot tell you how many times I counted from one to various numbers up to 12.
It was after about an hour and a half of very heavy rain that I noticed that the one small seep on the seam which we had discovered during the late afternoon rain had been augmented by another seep. About half an hour after that Mick found the same on his side. Great - a leaky tent in a deluge.
It was far from a disaster; the leaks were only dripping once every few minutes, not constantly, and they were easily dealt with by repurposing both of our towels.
However, the chances of sleeping with that level of flashes and bangs and that volume of rain were nil. Hence, after 3.5 hours of relentless storm, I decided I would rather be at home.
At 2am it finally abated. What happened next was pure comedy: within five minutes of the raging elements giving way to peace and quiet, a herd of bell-toting cows decided that of all the grass in all of the square miles they had available, that around our tent was what they wanted to eat.
Exhaustion won before they wandered off and finally a whole three and a half hours of sleep was had.
My assumption during the night was that this sort of storm is normal and that we had just been lucky to date. So, it was a relief to meet a couple who had camped a little higher than us last night, and who have lots of experience in the Pyrenees, who reported spending the night terrified and having never experienced anything so bad in any previous trip. The guardienne at Refuge Pombie also commented that it was unusually severe, although she did also say that the water is much needed as it's only the second rainfall they've had in over a month.
As for never wanting to go for a big walk or sleep in a tent ever again, I'm pleased to say, as I type this at the end of (a very long and hard) Day 11, that we've had an excellent day, and this mode of travel is definitely a good one!