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.