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!
Tuesday, 21 July 2015
Total Distance to date: 150 miles (ish)
Ascent to date: 11,000m
What a stunning day! Quite a bit of effort with a smidge under 1600m of ascent, but stunning.
The main feature of the morning was the Chemin de la Mature, of which I took a photo which I will post as soon as I have a good enough signal (I'm amazed to have a signal at all where we are now but it's not good enough for sending a photo). In the meantime I suggest that anyone who hasn't walked this way nips off for a minute to ask Google for an image.
This Chemin dates back to 1772 when it was found that the forest above the Aspe valley contained trees of the right size and quality for the much-needed masts for the French Navy. The problem was that those trees sat above an almost vertical wall of a gorge. So, did they say "this can't possibly be the only place to find suitable trees in the whole of France?". Nope. Instead they had convicts carve a trackway into and ascending that rock face. Incredible!
It was up said feat of engineering that our route took us and it was slow going, purely because we had to keep stopping to take photos and (in my case) ponder how this could possibly have been the best solution to a need for masts.
An hour and a half into the day an excellent pitch was found at the top of the Chemin and a while later, ascending through woods there was another. Useful information should we ever find ourselves passing this way again.
Shaded woodland then took us so far into our 1700m ascent before all shelter was lost just a handful of paces before we entered the National Park. A sign there told us that (amongst other things) camping is forbidden but bivouacing permitted provided you are an hour away from the park boundary and any road (actually, it said 'or' but I'm sure they mean 'and').
Thankful for a few bubbling clouds occasionally blocking the sun we plodded our way sweatily up to the top of the pass (our highest point to date at 2185m) enjoying superb views. Then we popped over the top with a "wow", as ahead of us stood the distinctive and towering form of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. We sat a few minutes with the map picking out our route for tomorrow morning, then down to the lake below we went for lunch.
By the end of lunch we were glad not to have been an hour behind ourselves as thunder started rumbling around.
That thunder (or more precisely the attendant risk of lightning) meant that the decision was made as to where we were going to end today. We weren't going to walk over the side of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau in this weather thus we were going to camp in the valley below.
Joining eight billion people (or so it felt) we made our descent from the lake into the valley and once there we left the GR10. We will rejoin it in 3 days' time in Cauterets but in the meantime we're off onto the HRP.
A few minutes later we were to be seen throwing down our bags and whipping out our jackets as huge lumps of rain started pelting us. The dozens of people rushing from all directions back to the car park looked at us as if we were mad for walking in the opposite way in such conditions. We didn't go more than a few minutes further before pitching, right at the bottom of tomorrow's ascent route. Being 3pm, about 200m from a Park boundary and within an hour of the road end we are breaking all of the camping rules. Hopefully being amongst rocks, and with Rita Rainbow looking like a rock, will help us to get away with it. I suppose that if moved on we just have to go 200m away to put ourselves outside of the Park (I should probably clarify that I didn't realise our position in relation to the boundary until I looked at the map after lying down in the tent).
Monday, 20 July 2015
The children staying at the refuge were taken off to bed at 10pm last night and the chap who had been eyeing up the fire ring and breaking up branches didn't come back to start a fire next to our pitch, so the only minor disturbance to our night on our very comfortable pitch was the loudest donkey in the world. The cow bells were continuous, but that made them easier to ignore.
Not knowing the opening hours of the shop in Lescun, and not wanting to arrive too early, a lie-in was had followed by a leisurely walk down, including a bit of an out-and-back detour when we both managed to miss a very obvious 'turn here' waymark.
Proving once again our inability to arrive in a town or village that has facilities and to leave again within the hour, a while was spent deciding what to buy in the shop (whilst Mick drank coffee down the road), then eating croissant so as to lighten our loads and ... well, I'm not quite sure where the rest of the time went but it was 10 by the time we continued on our way with heavier and bulkier bags than we'd been carrying on arrival.
That meant that we hit the biggest climb just as the day started to get really warm, which wouldn't have been a problem if we could have taken it slowly. Alas, we had to almost trot up much of the 600m of ascent because of the swarms of horse flies. At the point where there were hundreds of the bastards, and I really wanted to stop to apply DEET, I couldn't even break stride for fear of being eaten alive. As it was, five got me within the space of a couple of minutes (cue repeated shouts of "you bastard" followed immediately by a sharp slapping sound). And I had been so pleased to have got through yesterday with only one extra bite added to the substantial collection (although Mick is doing worse than me; he must be extra tasty).
Having passed a family, complete with a load-bearing donkey, in the final 20m of the climb and having come out on the other side of the pass to a stunning view, lunch time was declared. Extra care was taken with my tomato today, although the main danger wasn't rolling off down the slope but being scoffed by the donkey whose head kept appearing (complete with a million flies) over our shoulders (the family was also lunching nearby; they did retrieve the beast each time before it made too much of a nuisance of itself).
It was (literally) all downhill from there to the village of Borce and for once I found myself glad to be descending not ascending (usually on a killer descent I think it would be easier going up). It must have been the humidity that was making it seem so hard, as the thermometer told me it wasn't that warm today (the highest it read, in the sun, was 33 degrees).
A couple of cooling off breaks eventually saw us down to Borce where there is no campsite. It's possible that we could have found a pitch if we had carried on a while further, but so overheated was I feeling that I couldn't face another climb, so we asked the owner of the bar (in which we were supping cold drinks) whether there was a Chambre d'Hote nearby. There was, and he offered to call them, but found that his battery was flat, so he nipped outside (ignoring his other customers) to borrow a friend's phone, but found that one had no reception. He disappeared for a longer period (whilst his other customers patiently waited some more) and eventually came back with the news that they did have a room available - it turned out that he'd abandoned his bar and run up the road to ask in person!
So, we are now in a basement room (we chose it ourselves for its coolness) in a very interesting old building. In fact the whole village is very interesting, as we found when we went for a wander around earlier.
As the skies darkened and flashes and bangs started to be heard last evening, the two chaps camped to one side of us were not happy, having discovered the previous night that their tent (which it would be generous to call a festival tent) is not waterproof. It also isn't long enough, as evidenced by the feet sticking out the door this morning. As it went, they were saved from an uncomfortable night by only a few minutes of very light rain hitting us.
Happily, it was a cloudy morning, as our first task was to ascend 1100m, unrelentingly. Up to and through the cloud we went, in conditions cool enough to induce goose pimples when we stopped for second and third breakfasts (I was hungry today!). When moving, however, it was a sweaty affair, so we were thankful it wasn't another hot start.
The sun did break through as we reached the pass (although the valleys remained cloudy all day) and by the time we reached the ski resort of La Pierre St Martin it was hot enough for us to need shade during our coffee break at the refuge. There we considered the contrast of an incredibly ugly set of buildings in the ski resort to the backdrop of a truly spectacular landscape.
Suddenly gone was the greeness of previous days and around us were stunning jagged peaks and limestone pavements, dotted with trees. Progress was slow through the rocky terrain but then we weren't in any rush.
Lunchtime came, shade was sought, a perch-with-a-view found and food bags opened. On the menu today was a huge chunk of bread, a big chunk of cheese and an apple-sized tomato each. The tomato, in particular, had me almost drooling in anticipation, so imagine my horror when I fumbled it and it went rolling down the steep hillside, directly towards a yawning chasm below, from where recovery of errant fruit would have been impossible. The fruit-saviour of the hour was a dead tree which had fallen across the entrance to the hole. In its branches the tomato came to rest and after a bit of a clamber and some careful manoeuvring it was recovered, in incredibly good condition considering its journey. It was delicious.
More spectacular scenery and an impressive pass filled our afternoon until at 15.45, a few minutes after loading up with litres of water for the night, we found ourselves a nice pitch.
The only problem was that it wasn't shaded and after sitting there for the best part of an hour we figured that rather than sitting around waiting for the day to cool before we could consider being in a tent, we may as well walk further. A good decision from one point of view as the onwards path was through woodland and we descended back below the cloud. The downside was that the places we had hoped to find a pitch yielded nothing, so we've ended up furher on than intended, near a refuge filled with screaming school children not to mention a donkey braying louder than a donkey has ever been heard to bray before. Could be an interesting night...
As for people today, they seem to have disappeared. After having spent the last two nights in the same locations as two groups of six, two twos and a singleton, all of whom we leapfrogged at least once yesterday, today we saw just a handful of daywalkers.
Saturday, 18 July 2015
The pricing at Logibar was a bit odd, in my opinion. A bed in a shared room in the gite d'etape was €14.50 or €32 for half board, plus €2 if you wanted sheets. A double room in the auberge was €32 per head (including sheets), or €41 half board. I have no idea why food is €20 for gite dwellers but only €9 if you're in a room, but i wasn't complaining! The gite appeared to be full; we had the corridor of individual rooms all to ourselves.
Last night's storm appeared to have cleared overnight and it looked like it was going to be a fine day as we made our way next door to the gite for our breakfast tray this morning (a popular choice - everyone had opted for one rather than waiting for the proper breakfast service at 8am). By the time we made our way up Gorges d'Olhadubi (which is now the official route of the GR10; the main route used to go a significantly shorter but less interesting way) those clouds were looking dark. Then rumbles of thunder were heard.
The rain hit just as we got to The Bridge: a wire suspension bridge which I think warrants capitals for its length, bounciness and mostly for its height above the gorge. I confess that I walked across looking nowhere but dead ahead until I was about 10 paces from the far end, when I braved stepping to the side, clinging on for dear life and looking over the edge. It was a loooong way down!
The rest of our ascent of the gorge was accompanied by heavy rain and a thunder storm, but it was a good hour before we donned jackets, so warm had we been. Eventually the rain gave way and, after just one more violent squall which hit us at the end of the first big ascent, out came the sun and the wind dropped a bit. Another hour later there wasn't a cloud to be seen and we were again baking.
A nicely surfaced track (think UK forestry track - smooth surface, fast walking) took us level for a while and after one last pull uphill on a path through grass, we came to a pass. Contrary to yesterday's never ending wait for the final descent to come, today I couldn't believe it had come so quickly and easily. I had expected the day to be much harder going.
Of course, we still had a long way to go and I'm generally finding down to be harder than up. The hardness of this one was the amount of baking hot tarmac, although it was broken up nicely by a good length of shaded, damp sunken lane.
I couldn't believe it when, hitting the main road at the bottom of the valley, an ice cream stand was there before us. It would have been rude not to, so we did.
The final road-slog to St Engrace passed quickly in the company of Heather (from Australia, but actually South African) and having sat down for a cold drink, thoughts of moving on got converted into "can we have your last pitch please?". So we're pitched cosily with others around the back and taking advantage of the kitchen facilities.
(Louise - I'm not sure you'd have liked that bridge...
Conrad - six days to Logibar. If you look at the post title i always start with the day number.)
We stepped out from our sheltered (wonky, midge-infested) pitch this morning and as the breeze hit us it felt like we were standing in front of a warm fan. The cloud cover had completely disappeared overnight, after rain which amounted to maybe a total of 10 minutes (and on reflection I think that thunder must have been a plane), so it looked like we were in for another hot one.
Our path to rejoin the GR10 was easily found and followed, but we hadn't got far before I asked Mick to stop so that I could smell him. Detecting no offensive aroma coming from him I had to conclude that the awful smell emanated from me (it wasn't a sweaty smell but an awful not-washed-for-months one). For the next hour and a half I continued to complain in the same vein (and sniffed Mick a few more times) before Mick finally remembered that we hadn't passed a bin since lunch yesterday ... and we'd had sardines for lunch. That'd be it: fish juice gone off. It was a relief when we found a bin at Chalets D'Iraty and the smell miraculously disappeared (lesson learnt: if eating fish in this weather, rinse the empty tins at the first opportunity).
By Chalets D'Iraty, I was ready to eat a scabby dog, even though it was only 10 am and we'd only had second breakfast half an hour earlier (it must be all this effort in this hot weather). Accordingly, it took great self-restraint not to mug a chap walking up the road clutching two baguettes, but not long afterwards we found the shop and had our own bread. I managed to make it a whole pace out of the shop door before biting into one of them and a sizeable chunk failed to make it into my pack. We then went next door to the restaurant and had a proper second breakfast overlooking the most stunning cloud-inverted view.
An hour later when we came to leave (armed with a platty full of ice-cold water) we had a route decision to make. One option was the variant route which goes down the road via Larrau, which comes in at about 6 miles. Then there is another variant which simply omits the main lump on the main route, saving 1.5 miles and a chunk of ascent. Or, there's the main route which goes over Pic D'Escaliers and is 10.4 miles. Given that it had clouded over and there was now a cooling breeze, we could see no reason not to take the main route so that's exactly what we did.
As nice as it was (particularly the hillside-hugging descent path) I'm not convinced it was worth the extra effort. Moreover, if I had known that the cloud and wind would clear to leave us with another scorching afternoon (although 35 degrees was the highest I recorded today) then I likely would have voted for an easier option.
The final descent of the day was a very long time coming and, as the narrow path went on and on, up and down*, we started to conclude that we had completely misjudged our water requirements upon leaving Chalets D'Iraty. A spring-fed cattle trough, the spout of which was trickling with gorgeous cold water saved us from a very thirsty descent.
The final descent, when it did eventually come, was (once again) the hardest part of the day, being another of the steep and eroded sort. It did finally deposit us at Logibar where we thought the chances of one of their two double rooms being free at such short notice on a Friday night would be slim-to-none. Our expectations were proved false and thus we are now ensconced in lodgings. I wonder how many other people will turn up tonight - we've only seen two others all day.
(*I called Mick back at one point to show him a thistle that looked like it had been sprayed with blue paint. Little did I know when i did so that the next few miles would be lined with them.)
(Post blog note: 9pm and it has been lashing it down for the last hour, complete with flashes and rumbles. Seems we chose a good night to kip indoors! This posting will now be delayed as I'm not going out in this to find a signal.)
Thursday, 16 July 2015
St Jean is a lovely old walled town that deserves more time being spent in looking around than we gave it. Our higher priorities yesterday afternoon were resting in a cool room, and resupply. But if we should find ourselves passing by any time I'd happily go back for a better look.
After a night of sleep so sound that one of my phone batteries nearly didn't get charged (I needed to do a middle-of-the-night swap of which one was charging and only managed it because Mick woke me and reminded me), we stepped out into a sauna at 0730. It really was like we'd dragged a Stairmaster into the steam room at the gym and decided to exercise there.
Accordingly our first climb of the day was accompanied by me oft repeating "this is ridiculous weather in which to be doing this!". I can't say I enjoyed that climb, during which not a single breath of wind was felt.
The descent down the other side into Esterençuby was no better. We may no longer have been expending so much energy but it was even hotter by now and the sweat was still positively streaming off us.
I didn't relish the thought of the climb out of Esterençuby, so we put it off for a wee while by means of a refreshment break at the gite. Then it was up some more, but (to my relief) this one was not a brutal gradient. It was mainly also on tarmac, which has been a great feature of the last couple of days. I wouldn't mind quite so much (even with my well known aversion to tarmac) if the surface wasn't so hot. It doesn't take long to feel the heat coming through the shoes.
We had earmarked the next gite as our lunch stop, as recommended by one of our guidebooks. Perhaps it's a symptom of that book being 10 years old and out of print, but there was no-one around at the gite and no indication that food is served at lunchtime. We continued on, glad we at least had one lunch with us.
Another bit of up (we totalled about 1650m today) saw us onto a very nice meandering descent, where my thermometer hit 38 degrees. Declaring that to be too hot for the next ascent, which we could see climbing violently across the valley, an hour long pause was had on a pebbly beach by a stream, whose water was deliciously cold (I went and stood knee-deep a few times).
By the time we moved on, the cloud, which for hours had been approaching from the west, had reached us and the temperature had plummeted to just 29 degrees. It made that steep haul more bearable, although Luc (who we leapfrogged a few times today) was struggling as we passed him near the top.
Not knowing where we were going to end our day, we left the Col with 3.5 litres of water each, courtesy of a tap on a the side of a cottage ... which, of course guaranteed that where we ended up is next to running water!
Our heavy packs were then heaved up the final climb of the day (watching rain clouds bubble up as we went), which would have seen us all the way to 1450m except that we decided to temporarily abandon the GR10 at 1340m to drop off the side of the hill instead. Being gone 1730 it seemed the most expedient way to get ourselves to somewhere campable (a high camp being out of the question tonight due to the risk of thunder).
Without the small cairn marking its start point I'm not sure we would have located our not-waymarked path down the hill, and without continuing cairns through the forest we would likely have struggled to maintain its line. As it was it was all straightforward (except the 'plates of ball bearings' terrain) and we descended into the cloud and down to the road at the col (there had been a cloud inversion for a while - quite spectacular from up high - that cloud has cleared again now).
The spot where we are camped (about 5 yards from a babbling stream, having carried all that water) is not perfect but I shunned the better options for being too close to the road. Any thoughts of moving were obliterated when it started to rain as we pushed the last peg into the ground. It's only been a few spots so far, but I'm pretty sure that's thunder that I can now hear.
Tomorrow a mile walk down stream will see us back onto the GR10.
(Re: the photo of last night's sizeable meal - we cleared those plates and managed to follow them up with a sizeable pudding each too. Then we waddled back to our hotel.)
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Horses: I've usually no issue with horses. It's been a lot of years since I last felt threatened by one and they're a common occurrence on our walks. So, I can assure everyone that we didn't opt to night hike just because there were a few horses grazing nearby. On this occasion I'm with Conrad's view, in that we had no idea what was in the minds of those horses, but they clearly weren't happy.
Vulture Rock: I did say to Mick as we passed by that if I was to drop down dead just there, then there probably wouldn't be much of me left by the time a recovery team arrived. Mick responded that if you're going to die on a mountain then you may as well benefit the food chain!
Bananas: it was a little shop with very neat bunches of bananas (no odds and sods) where it seemed to me that it would be rude to break some off - so I bought the whole bunch of 6 and we ate them. I do like bananas!
Beer: those who want there to be beer drinking will be disappointed when I remind them that I don't drink and as it's me who writes this, there won't be many mentions of the substance. I did have a very nice lemonade with my meal the other night, but lemonade-o'clock doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? Even if I don't mention it, be assured that Mick is enjoying the odd beer (as he is as I type this).
Eating out: Martin, what would we do without your handy tips? Who ever would have thought there was good food and wine to be had in restaurants in France?!
Unfortunately, we couldn't eat at the place you recommended in St Jean - 'Ferme ce soir', said the sign on the door when we went past this evening.
The Ridge to St Etienne: shame you didn't have good visibility for that bit Conrad - the views were excellent. I'm sure we'll miss views from other lovely bits later on though - this weather can't last.
A couple of other random observations:
1) there's lots of bracken. Sometimes with only the slimmest of paths through and with the greenery at head height. I imagine it would be a different walk a month earlier.
2) if we'd forgotten the mint teabags on this trip it wouldn't have been a problem. So much mint growing along the way. We were particularly amused at a flock of sheep grazing a field of mint. Ready minted mutton?
It was a public holiday yesterday (Bastille Day said the depths of Mick's memory) and many places were closed including the large supermarket in St Etienne. Rather than hanging around until it opened at 9 this morning, to then have to walk in the heat of the day, we put our hopes on the bakery keeping bakery-esque hours and being open as we passed by this morning. If it wasn't then our food for today would have been an odd selection of left-overs.
It was open. The croissant didn't make it more than 3 feet from the door. The chocolatine made it as far as second breakfast. They were all delicious.
Looking like a D of E-er with many things strapped to the outside of my pack (drying laundry, drying j-cloth, baguette, that sort of thing) off we set expecting about 7 miles of gentle ascent up to the high point of our day.
That expectation was based on having looked at the elevation profile shown in the Cicerone guide book. As it turns out it wasn't so much an elevation profile as a plotting of the high point of the day with a straight line between our starting height and it. The reality was a much steeper start than expected.
At least it was the cool of the morning, before the morning cloud burnt off (cloud that developed after 5am and was largely gone by 9.30). My thermometer said it was only 20 degrees out (compared with 32 this afternoon). Yet, by 10 minutes into the day we both looked (and felt) as if we were exercising in a sauna. I suppose 95% humidity does that!
Once we had levelled off a bit (and put ourselves right after a bit of a detour where we accidentally followed, for about 250m, the way markers of an alternative route heading back to St Etienne) the cloud was gone and the views back to yesterday's ridge were superb.
Our day topped out at 1020m where we sat and enjoyed the breeze for a while before making tracks to St Jean, which we could clearly see below us.
The breeze mysteriously disappeared the very moment we stepped off the summit, so by the time we made it along the road to Lasse a beeline was made for refreshments at the auberge (not at the aubergine as my autocorrect thinks it should be!).
St Jean was closer than we thought: just half an hour along the road from Lasse, so by 1.30pm we were looking for a room, having decided a room would be preferable to an afternoon roasting on a campsite.
The first place we tried didn't just have a vacancy, but they showed us straight up in spite of the early hour. Our room may be small, but it's big enough for our needs and has impressive amenities for its €57 price tag - including the blessing of air con.
Tuesday, 14 July 2015
Today was approx 13 miles. That was about 1.5 miles too far. With hindsight, when we came to an unexpected water source about that distance from St Etienne, we should have made use of the nice shaded flat spot opposite it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; we hadn't descended into the heat of the valley at that point.
Back to yesterday night, we enjoyed a pitch with a view, in the shade of a substantial stone-built animal shelter, which sits on the ridge right by where the GR10 starts its descent to Bidarray.
That steep down was, I think (ignoring the last 1.5 miles when I just wanted to lie in a cold stream) the hardest part of the day. It would have been easier in ascent.
Arriving in Bidarray the long way round (completely missed the turn for the proper route and didn't notice for far too long), we were pleased not to have been there last night. With the dregs of a festival still in town, I don't think it would have been a peaceful place to catch up on sleep.
A longer-than-intended stop was had in its bar/restaurant as we enjoyed coffee, juice and croissant. Supplemented by a bunch of bananas eaten outside of the shop, we went onwards to start the biggest climb of a day involving 1300m of up and 1700m of down.
The climb, whilst a sweaty affair wasn't as hard as I had expected and the rewards from the next few miles along the ridge were great.
Our first proper (not stilted) third party conversation of the trip took place on that ridge, when we met an English couple heading in the other direction.
At the halfway point of the ridge, in a lovely beech woodland, where the breeze blew nicely, we passed the only advertised water point of the day and considered staying there the night. But it was only 1415, so instead of stopping or picking up water to carry to a dry camp we opted to commit to the long day, down to St Etienne.
The highlight following that lovely woodland (festooned with waymarks and gloriously cool) was walking close to a rock on which not fewer than 24 vultures were perched.
The lowlight of the day, as you may have gathered, was the hot final 1.5 miles down the road to town, where the campsite was a further walk in the wrong direction (although the number of horse fly bites is also a contender).
At €6 for the two of us, it's excellent value, particularly as showers are included and my first priority on arrival was to stand under some cold water.
And now, I think it's time to blow up my bed and collapse into it (having typed this sitting on the hard ground outside).
(Incidentally, if the above comes over as doom and gloom, then I've misconveyed. Apart from the last couple of miles it was a great day.)
(Also incidentally, three other of the seven backpackers met at second breakfast yesterday are also at the campsite tonight; I suspect they'll go ahead of us tomorrow as we have a shorter day.)
Monday, 13 July 2015
If only I had unlimited battery (and maybe a proper keyboard) I could tell quite a tale about last night. As it goes, you can have the condensed version.
All was fine until gone 10pm, just as darkness was winning over light. Then a pack of horses decided that it wanted to be where we were and they seemed rather agitated by our presence. Cow bells jangled, hoof noises got louder and the neighing didn't sound friendly. For a while they ran back and forth around us at a bit of a distance until finally one got brave enough to run at us.
Never mind the threat of being trampled, we were never going to sleep with those bells jangling all around, thus we decided a night-hike was in order.
At 23.14 I was lying in bed. At 23.30 we had our packs on and started walking. I think that must be some kind of a speed record, made all the more impressive by the total darkness.
That darkness and lack of a moon didn't help our descent on an eroded path. It didn't help our efforts at spotting an alternative pitch either. Many spots were considered at length and rejected for one reason or another until we arrived in the town of Sare - at just gone 1am.
A motorhome aire with a grass verge was our saviour. We had the tent up within minutes but, after all that excitement, sleep was a long time coming.
With no leisure for a lie in this morning (a grass verge behind a hedge in a car park didn't lend itself to a late start) we were off at first light. I doubt that any of the motor homers or inhabitants of the village knew we'd even been there.
Compared to all that excitement, this morning was tame. With the sun beating down, soon burning off the mist hanging in the valleys, the often-wooded nature of the morning was pleasing.
Ainhoa provided a cafe where we rolled second breakfast and elevenses together, clearing them out of their coissant supply.
Eventually we had to conclude that we ought to move before we hit the hottest part of the day, as the next section was a climb.
A long lunch was had beyond Col des Trois Crois but before the next pass where we surprised that none of the other 7 backpackers we had met in Ainhoa came by.
As I sit and type this (under a Holly tree, rejoicing in the shade) we have about an hour to go to where we hope to camp, but I shall send this early as I suspect there may not be a good phone signal once we cross the next pass.
(Thanks for the comments and keep them coming, it does wonders for our morale; I apologise that I'm not going to be able to reply individually.)
Sunday, 12 July 2015
A warm night was had. I wasn't quite moved to look at a thermometer at 4am when I awoke but I don't reckon it got below the low twenties. No bed clothes were required. Thankfully the day started with the same weather as yesterday, heavily overcast and it wasn't until elevenses that the sun first broke through.
Bright and early we strode out of the campsite and down the hill towards the beach. About half way I recalled the plan hatched last night. We'd already walked out to the coast from Hendaye and had walked the Hendaye Plage seafront 3 times last night, hence we'd decided to take a shortcut back to Hendaye this morning. So, back up the hill we went, back through the campsite and out the other side.
Ten minutes later Mick couldn't help but notice that he had wet cheeks ... and not on his face. With great speed he flung off his pack and dug out the offending water bottle, finding the problem was simply an not-tight lid. It took another while for his pack to fully drain and his clothes to dry.
Half an hour into the route we found we could have wild camped. Indeed, a couple was camped there. The much better location would have been 2 hours in, beyond Biriatou, but to have got there yesterday would have required different transport timings.
Instead we second breakfasted in that spot and contemplated the map deciding which of 2 options to take. We opted for the GR10 only then to find it has been rerouted such that it now follows the alternative line we had considered.
Lots and lots of runners were bonjoured to through that section then it was down to Col D'Ibardin where we ventured into Spain in this heaving shopping area (a heaving shopping area on a mountain road - a bit odd really). Mick's coffee was followed up with a second one, as we saw no reason to rush onwards. People were watched, the world seen to pass by, before finally we went on.
A small diversion was made shortly afterwards to recce whether a more direct route would go. Not much time or distance had been expended before we gave it up as a bad job and looped round to join the GR further along. It turned out, when viewed from the other end later that there had been a feasible route, if only we could have seen it.
Lunch at Insola caused our first priper encounter with another GR'er. It was a limited conversation, given the rustiness of my French and the near non-existence of Mick's, but we did establish that he's going further than us today.
Soon afterwards we veered off route again, this time onto paths in which I had confidence. We had no reason to go to Olhette, so opted instead to head up towards La Rhune, a hugely commercial hilltop. Had there been a path up to its summit from our direction we would have gone and mingled with the hoards (most of whom would have arrived by train) but as the summit path took such a long route we skirted the top (and saw some interesting rock carvings en-route) to drop back to the GR10.
We didn't go much further. A lovely grassy area convinced us not to risk a lack of good pitches at our intended location, about another mile on.
So, a good first day has been had (except for the sodding horse flies). Pleasant surroundings, lots of bird life (notably vultures and kites), lots of animal life and lots of peple enjoying their weekend.
Saturday, 11 July 2015
Both Martin (www. Phreerunner.blogspot.com) and Conrad (conradwalks.blogspot.com) will be pleased to know that, contrary to their experiences in journeying to this location, we had a throughly uneventful journey to Hendaye. Leaving Birmingham airport a few minutes late, the time was made up during the flight such that we arrived in Biarritz as good as on time. With relief both bags appeared promptly on the carousel and after a few minutes spent unpacking our holdalls into our backpacks, we were ready to go ...and for our first navigational challenge.
The big supermarket between the airport and the station was found with only one minor backtrack and there we found gas and lunchables. Next stop the train station where I wished that I'd faffed two minutes less over sauccison choice, or that the woman in the ticket office had spent a few minutes less chatting to her colleagues before serving, as we arrived on the platform just as the Hendaye train pulled away. Never mind, it was less than an hour till the next one giving us time for a picnic on the platform.
Had I realised that there was a train station much nearer to our night - stop than Hendaye station then we would have alighted there but I realised just a moment too late. So, a good leg stretch was had as we walked out to Hendaye Plage, thence to our campsite.
Tomorrow we will retrace our steps (as we have done this evening for tea) as we set off into the lumpy bits lying to the east of here.
Thursday, 9 July 2015
Our bags are packed:
They both come in at 7.2kg without food, water or gas. With the food bags shown in the photo they come in at 9.5kg (six evening meals each; 3 days other food – taking it with us will save having to faff around in a supermarket on arrival).
The ‘to do’ list has been whittled down over the last couple of busy weeks. Just four items remain undone. They are items for which the timing is quite important, as follows:
- go to my sister’s wedding (tomorrow);
- haircuts (thought I’d delay that till after the wedding, so I don’t attend as quite such a skinhead);
- change Fitbit battery (may as well leave that until the last minute); and
- catch plane to Biarritz (there’s only one a week from Birmingham, which dictates a Saturday-morning departure).
We will then set out for our first ever foray into the Pyrenees, making our way east over the next few weeks. The GR10 is the plan, although being not slaves to a line marked on the map, we will no doubt stray from it every now and again; the aim is to walk coast-to-coast across the Pyrenees, not to be purists about the GR10 itself. I will probably post some blogs as I go, but probably not on a daily basis.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Who is aware of the National Forest? If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a bit of a spiel taken from the National Forest website:
“Over twenty years ago, visionary leaders made the decision to create a new, large, forested area in England, to show all the many benefits that come from woodland near where people live and work. The area in the Midlands which came to be known as The National Forest was chosen in part because the woodland cover was very low (about 6%). There was also a great need for regeneration after the end of mining and, importantly, incredible public support for the idea.
Since then, the 200 square miles of The National Forest have been transformed through the planting of millions of trees (8m by October 2012) and the creation of many other valuable habitats.“
Mick and I live within the National Forest. When we first moved here, thirteen years ago, the ‘forest’ comprised some fenced off areas full of what looked awfully like dead twigs and information signs about ‘National Forest Tender Scheme Winners’. Of course, those twigs weren’t dead and over the last decade we’ve seen them grow into recognisable trees (including crab apples, apples, pears and cherries, if you know where to look).
Theoretically, it’s a fantastic resource to have so close to hand as through many (maybe even most; possibly all) of the plantations, permissive paths have been created. The problem is a lack of information about where these plantations are and where those paths lie.
I knew that there were routes through one local lump of trees purely because I’d seen the marker posts from public footpaths and had gone to explore, but it wasn’t until I devised a lengthy ‘quiet lanes’ route during mud season in 2013 that I came to appreciate quite how many little plantations are dotted around and that there’s far more access than I appreciated. So, I contacted the National Forest organisation and asked whether there was any information available as to where the plantations and permissive routes lay. “No” they said*.
So, I’m still on a journey of discovery. In 2013 I discovered a handful of routes and a lovely pond on the land directly opposite our old house. We lived in that house for 6 years and I walked the same local RoWs over and over again with no idea that there was any access, never mind a whole network of permissive paths, through the infant trees across the road (the two access points to that area are not helpful; I often get in by jumping over a fence at a gap in a hedge, right by the old house). I now walk that area regularly and a couple of months ago I discovered another path over there; I’m sure there are more I’m yet to tread.
Yesterday, in a different area (using another permissive path I only found last year), I found the path I had intended to take cut off but brambles and nettles, and noticed that I was stood next to a stile into a plantation, so I took it and went on another little adventure, resisting all temptation to look at a map and try and work out where it was taking me. And that was when it hit me that those infant trees are now really looking like proper woodland, and how nice it is that an area of fields has been transformed into something really quite pleasant to walk through:
I hope that snap conveys how pleasant a walk this is!
(*I can’t help thinking that the first sentence of the quotation I’ve included from the National Forest website would be better fulfilled if people actually knew where these forests were and what access was available…)