Special Feature: walking through a living geography lesson.
Challenge: Rock scrambling aka “puzzle walking”.
You know we said that if there was one day that you might do, the one where Midi d’Ossau looms into view after 6 odd hours of ascent?
Well, this one trumped that. An incredible ascent up towards Col de la Madamete, following a stream that at times you walk atop as it disappears, gurgling beneath you. A number of mini river systems appear to have been created here, and clear lakes; tarns, punctuated our climb to the Col. Boulder scrambling added to the climb which was never dull as Arretes to the West and pine forests shouldered the route. At the Col, the view of Pic de Neouvielle (3091m) left us emotional again. The descent through even larger morraine fields and next to three other enormous tarns was as good as it gets. Enough words!
An easy day after an initial steep climb. The interesting leg was coming into Bareges, though Viella and Sers were also both picture perfect. The last 4km into Bareges included an art trail where walkers are encouraged to pause and guided through artistic techniques to capture particular scenes en route. A splendid idea which would surely work in many other environments. A lovely farmer’s market met us in Bareges, where we procured some local sheep’s cheese, saucicon (there was donkey saucicon available, but somehow we weren’t tempted), and honey bread/cake which is laced with armagnac. Great fuel.
The patisserie also tempted with a vanilla slice which we carried to our supposed centrally located ‘hotel’…30 minutes up a hill.
We came across the Amytaville ski lodge of horror. Our host’s look of embarrassment was only mirrored by our WTF did we book look. When eventually in the room, it transpired that there was not even a cold beer to be had. Vending machines, functional as they are, do not make for appetising meal choices after a day on the trail. So back down the hill we went to stock up on better choices from the supermarket (after an obligatory stop for cold beverage). We lugged it all back to our lodge and had a fantastic picnic, before crashing out early to the sound of thunder.
Breakfast gave us our aha moment as we gathered that this establishment is probably used in season for school field trips (making sense out of why Will didn’t fit in the bed properly, and why only single beds were available). Christmas decorations were still up – no doubt convenient for December, but adding to the sense that we’d entered some kind of zombie apocalypse as the mist rolled in the evening before..and we roamed about the empty establishment looking for suitable glassware for wine (there were none…we crafted some from beer cans).
Temperature 35°C average
Yesterday’s rest day made today a little tricky. Too many libations made for a day of sweat and thunder. The climb zigzagged which helped a little but overall it was too hot to enjoy with the usual fervour. Still, we did get to be geek hikers today as we used for the first time HIKING POLES. They are like super cool zimmer frames for hikers. Two elaborate carbon fibre poles; telescopic and everything. As we embarked this morning we probably looked the part, but there was a halting rhythm in our stride as we now had 4 points to negotiate with the ground beneath our feet. Arse over t*t score stands at me 1, Renee 3. Oh we scrumped some cherries from a tree. They were lush.
We lost track of how many days we have been walking. That’s cathartic isn’t it? According to the calendar it must be day 16. We have calculated that we have summited Everest and a half. Up and down. The oxygen is somewhat more plentiful here.
These last 5 days have been quite splendid. Full of sun, dry feet, amazing villages. LESCUN wow. Situated perfectly and with a lovely hotel timewarped to the 50’s. As we departed and climbed to the plateau de lhers pastoral life was in full effect. A fuscia clad runner added sparkle to the farmers making hay as the sun shined.
Up we went through another magical forest up and over to Borce and Estaut. Two more picturesque villages. The gite for the night was quiet, 4 souls. There was one fella who snored the roof off. Me? Non.
Etsaut to Gabbas.
My oh my. If there is one day of walking you might do then this is our choice. 6 hours of uphill, first through a rock face with a crescent carved to contain the lumber for more French naval masts. Then through iris clad meadows and papillons galore which leaves you unprepared for the view over the final creast. Mount Ossau just appears like the surprise end to an already amazing book/film/very long days walk and left us in an emotional huddle. Tears were had. Pictures speak some words but go there for justice.
The descent was no less spectacular through the tarns but it was a motorway of hikers coming our way from carparks below. Beyond them, our walk was an awful road descent into Gabbas. No lodgings were to be had here, thankfully, as it seemed the set of Deliverance repleat with local character actors were still in situ.
Height gain: 340m
Height Loss: 1090m
Special challenge: Icy wind up the Khyber Pass at Pas de l’Osque.
A day of contrasts. We set out from the Refuge early enough to see, albeit briefly, the range we had climbed yesterday. 4 pigs peed in parallel to salute our departure. Soon enough the mist and rain returned with aplomb. Climbing through the empty ski resort was quite odd, and finally we were back on the natural mountain, although the only beauty we could see was close up in the incredible array of mountain flora that somehow clings to life here. The wind chill and temperature drop as we climbed to our highest spot today made our hands burn on the rocks. Baltic. The pass over the Pas was quite the thrill as it buffeted us up a narrow ridge with a cable screwed into the rock face to guide us. Over the top and on the other side and after a quick traverse of a ridge+, we descended into Vallee d’Ossau where finally the sun gave us enough hope to get the wet socks out of the rucsacs to dry. That of course was a sign for more rain. Ho hum. Nevermind: another spellbinding forest awaited us. We got to Lescun and once more were just knocked over by the beauty of this place. We did our ‘laundry’ and took a quick look at the 15th Century church. A very quiet and reflective sanctuary far from the rain outside. It was incredible walking once again. The contrasts are intense.
We woke to the news that Les Blues had lost the Euro Final. At the exact time when Portugal scored their decisive winner, the bar below our room and full of French tourists, exhaled a collective “merde”. A pity.
Our new companions had last night warned us of the route we wished to take today. It climbed through towering Beech trees which grew straight as an arrow on the steep gorge. Across the gorge was an Indiana Jones suspension bridge and far far below scattered tree trunks, stuck amidst the rocks, tiny as match sticks. The trees here were felled and used by the French navy in the 17th century. The path up the gorge was therefore wide enough to drag the enormous proto-masts of the French Fleet down the side of the gorge. I imagined a 17th century foreman willing on the exhausted woodsmen “these trees will make the great masts of our Navy vessels…think of our boys at sea fighting the scum Anglais!”.
Imaginings aside, it was an amazing forest and we were so glad that we had made the diversion as the rest of the day was just walking through cloud with limited visibility. When we finally closed in on the Roman church of Ste-Engrace which alluded us at the final turn and added another Km to the end of a long walk, we were quite tired. The gite we stayed at laid on an amazing three course meal for 18€. Soup, pork chops, haricot beans with bacon, the wateryest (trademark on that) broccoli, and fantastic flans for desert. Washed down with plenty of plonk, naturallemente. The bunk bed sleeping arrangements allowed for a frog’s chorus of snoring. No pun intended.
Today, Tuesday 12th saw no change in the weather and all of our gear left out to dry still damp. Debate over breakfast was to:
- Take the road to the Refuge Jeandel Arette-la Pierre-st-martin, or
- Take the GR10 over the mountain.
We chose 2. Our companions (see above) could be seen tut-tutting our choice as they took 1.
2.5 hours later after another climb through very damp forests, with 4 other hikers on tge trail behind us, we found ourselves lost for the first time (tut-tut).
It took all our map reading skills, a bit of luck, google maps, a talking cow ( i wish) to get us back on track. The four behind us were part of this- the lost saving the lost. We were absolutely soaked to the skin as we rediscovered the route and climbed for 2 more hours to get where we are now, sitting in a ski refuge and waiting for dinner. It was the coldest and wettest of days so far, and we are trusting that the mountains will reward our efforts by giving us more than the view of the inside of a cloud.
Sunday, 10 July
Distance: 16.7km (plus a diversion of about 2km)
Height gain: 424m
Height loss: 1376m
Special challenge: MUD
The day began as spectacularly as yesterday ended, with a giant ocean of clouds filling the crevices between mountains. Soon, however, we startedstarted our descent – including about a km down a steep road and back up again because we’d been too busy chatting to notice there were no longer any markers! The detour wasn’t without gain though, as we came across a juvenile bird learning to fly who kept nose diving into the path after running and spreading its wings. It was hillarious..& happily he made it in the end (though a crash landing would have been in stall, if his lack of prowess at taking off was any indication).
Back on the right path, the hilarity continued with mud – and plenty of it. Each step threatened to set us on our rears, or knee (or at least shoe) deep in the slop. There’s nothing like mud to teach one humility 😉
Following the mud, we left the tree cover, and after a short climb began a seemingly interminable descent over loose rocks beneath blaring sun. Adding to the fun, our ‘friends’ the horse flies joined us. Quite a few choice words were uttered.. until we sighted the beer garden of our hotel in Logibar, when our postures miraculously straightened and feeble steps were transformed into confident strides. Beer never tasted so good!
Yesterday was easy (walking-wise) but bleak. Grim. Wet. A “stay on the paths, don’t linger” kind of day. Testament to this was a very large bird of prey swooping out of the mist in an attempt to decapitate me. We could not see much more ahead than 20 to 30 metres. We pushed to midway up the next day’s first climb at Gite Kaskoleta. Lovely host and a calorific meal shared with co walkers who were generous in their willingness to converse in English with us on broad topics such as Brexit (aghast at how bizarre the people voted) and the English football team (mercenaries!). Our sleeping sheets and travel towels got their first use (reflection – we do like hotels and look forward to our next), as did our wet weather gear. Horribly exciting stuff to read, i’m sure..there’s nothing like a good anorak to keep everyone happy.
Day 7 was, however, a treat: the antpathy of day 6. It began in the same bedraggled damp misty tramp. We climbed through towards Col d’Ithurramburu where the sun burned through the clouds and everything was well (*again). B’ gorrah! The world is beautiful. The pictures, we hope, convey somehow what a spectacular walk we are living.
The greatest thing right now is not being followed by horse flies. We have just breathed in two pizzas, a green salad and 2.25 beers. It was hot today, and the temperature is still about 28 °c and it is eight thirty. We await the fate of France v Germany with a lot of excited folk.
Today began as usual with a massive climb. 3 hours of walking up. When we were in doubt of the route markers? UP. When we weren’t? UP. The biggest problem was the horse flies. These buggers will follow you for hours just to serrate your skin with their nasty teeth and push fecal horse bits into your blood. Deet was the new favourite. Unfortunately on top of rivers of sweat, sun lotion and more slick stuff it lasts for about an hour. Horse flies 4, Renee 0. Horse flies 2, Will 1.
The climb finished at about one thirty and I was knackered as of course Renee had spoiled me rotton for dinner and i was sweating out my Lagavulin digestif. All morning. We had two lunches of our baguettes and found extra water supplies at 3 troughs. There we conversed with 3 chaps who offered us coffee. We described to them the underpants we had walked over en route ( 6 km back) which amazingly belonged to one of them. As we left and descended towards where we are now, the pantless one scampered to retrieve his grundies. It’s never dull.
Yesterday’s drawing room, don’t you know.
Leaving Hotel Arce in St Etienne.
The crest on the horizon is what we walked through yesterday in the mist
Yes that is a vulture.
First view of snow, East.
Oh yes. A mushroom.
It’s difficult to remember how the day started – it seems so long ago; the day was that epic. The cicero guide warned that it would be ‘the first really hard day’, and it wasn’t joking. For me (R), it was the first time I’ve really (really) thought about the magnitude of what we’re attempting to do. Previously, despite our hikes – me mostly packless- in the picos de europa, I’ve kind of thought of hiking as walking, albeit with hills. This is not walking over hills. It is not just walking while hauling a bag. Of course, everyone else knew that -it is the Pyrenees- but for me there was either naivity or denial, both frequently necessary ingredients of a good challenge!
So.. the challenge has started. Today was hard: good (great), satisfying, but hard.It was steep uphill from the beginning. There was scrambling over rocky peaks & tors.. & visibility ranged between 5 & 50 feet for most of the day. Yet still it was beautiful – walking through the heathland the green of the ferns seemed to practically encase us; we were swathed – or swaddled – in green. Similarly the forests wrapped us in beautiful, dippled light. And occasionally, the cloud cover broke to reveal spectacular drops, dramatic cliff faces .. and stunning villages below.
Another great day: happy birthday William Hann!
Height gain: 1260 m
Height loss: 1248 m
‘Special’ challenge: horse fly swarm – think King Kong atop the Empire State building, bewildered by the biplanes circling and doing harm: Why do you exist foul creatures?