Spanish Pyrenees Aug 2018.
The tyres droned unendingly on the pristine surface of the French motorway, the sky above crackled blue, the aircon wheezed and struggled to keep my black van at a bearable temperature.
A conscientious customs man had looked in the back at Dover, making sure I was smuggling no disillusioned refugees out of the UK for a life of milk and honey in France, thankfully he did not look under my front seat and find the 36 gas cannisters I was taking out for the forthcoming expedition.
My sat nav spitefully took me via the Peripherique, the Paris version of the M25, It was Chaos, 250000 vehicles a day, boy racers, lorries, suicidal motorbike couriers, four lanes of insanity with no hard shoulder, vehicles wove in and out of the traffic like a shuttle on a demented loom, there was scant regard for the laws of the road never mind courtesy.
Having survived, I stopped to sleep some 200K further south, in an aire with three big laconic windmills beating a soporific rhythm in the soft mauve of a Loire sunset, I needed no rocking.
Next day I traversed the 10000 sq Km’s of the Landes forest, my ipod set to shuffle was circling through my eclectic tastes, Joy Divison and OTT amongst others beating the monotony of almost 100k of tree lined motorway that passed by, the road almost empty of other travellers.
I arrived in Cauterets in the foothills of the Pyrenees early afternoon, it was hot and sultry as only mid August can be, the campsite was still quite busy with late season holiday makers. The tops were out of focus in the haze, people sat around quietly, no music, no rowdy behavior, a typical family French campsite. My head was numb after two days of driving, I am never very good at doing nothing but knew I had to take some time to put the journey behind me. I put a seat out in the sun and awoke hours later to the growl of a late afternoon thunderstorm, I retreated to the van as the first big raindrops splattered onto the van roof.
Next day I sat on my hands, poured over my maps, tried to make decisions on what I was going to do and how feasible it was.
For three years I had been bringing expeditions to this area of the French/Spanish Pyrenees, every time I came I vowed I was going to come back to explore the more adventurous areas, take paths that were only vague lines on the map, ones that crossed significant contours away from regular travellers on the GR’s, I also wanted too visit the Ordessa in Spain. I agonised over the possibilities, whether the route I was planning was feasible and if I had time, I had another group arriving in a weeks time.
As forecast the next day arrived wet and windy, all the hills were obscured by clouds that swirled around, got caught in the trees and clung to them despite the efforts of the wind to pull them free, another enforced rest day, another day of agonizing over maps. I put them away, the route would unfold as I went, I knew where I wanted to go, it would be a journey, I would stay where I ended up each night, I would get as far as I could each day, I had to be back to a deadline so there was a focus, bring it on.
I drove the van up to Pont D’Espagne, this was the traditional herding areas at the start of the drove road for taking cattle over the Pyrenees to Spain, now it’s a few acres of neatly lined tarmac optimising car parking for the hoards a visitor centre, coffee shop, toilets, a cable car to get the less physical visitors up to Lac de Gaube and a splattering of overpriced restaurants and refuges staffed by typical French “service” personnel, the majority of which require a personality transplant before I would even contemplate approaching them for anything.
The day was overcast but there was an optimism to the light, it hinted at sunshine on tops as yet unseen. I shouldered my pack the straps creaking in protest at the load, I pulled the waistband tight to get the weight off my shoulders, I adjusted my walking pole and took a few wobbly tentative steps. The other walkers in the car park looked at me with concern, not many people carry a pack like this, they go up to a refuge, stay in it overnight, eat a three course meal provided by the wardens, no need to hump tent and pegs, exploration made easy, maybe they had it right. My walking pole clicked, my rucksack creaked, morse code to my ears, I set an ear worm for rhythm, might have been the Pogues, might have been something totally obscure, maybe fish heads, but I was off.
View from the Walon towards the col de Marcadau ( centre between two peaks )
I made the Walon refuge in two hours, easy so far, a few kilometers with only a few hundred meters of height gain. The sun was lighting the hillsides around me as they came and went, in and out of the swirling cloud. I left the few tourists and more serious walkers behind as I passed the refuge and headed towards the Spanish border on the col at the Port de Marcadau some 700m above me. Marmots whistled in surprise, their calls breaking the silence of the choire, stonechats chatted and an eagle wheeled high above on the rising thermals. The path zigged and zagged upwards, my earworm drove me on, I had all day but I was in a steady rhythm, fish heads fish heads rolly polly fish heads, and loath to stop. I sweated as the temperature rose, the beads of sweat on my brow echoing the beads of moisture still lingering on the grass and flower meadows on each side of the path deposited by the moisture laden clouds that still swirled around me keeping the views a tantalizing uncertainty.
Just below the col I rose above the clouds, I stopped, put my phone on a rock and cursed that I still had my rucksack on as I tried to get a reasonable distance from the slowly ticking shutter delayed picture but the end result looked more authentic.
10 second poseur
At the col I stopped to eat and drink, sitting on the border, my feet in Spain to the south were basking in wall to wall sunshine, my head in France to the north contemplated the cloud covered tops, I was glad I was heading south.
I dropped steeply on a good path to the lake some 300m and a couple of K below the col, it was early afternoon and the temp was now in the 30’s on the south facing side of the mountains. At the lake I headed off east leaving the security of the GR path that headed down towards the tourist spot at Panticosa. My route took me along the side of the lake on lovely grassy banks strewn with wild flowers and then climbed up towards a small refuge at the higher of the two lakes, the Ibon Alto.
I passed an idyllic campsite at the east end of the lower lake, it had stunning views east, flat grassy ground, running water, it was perfect but it was just too early in the day, I steeled myself and kept going, it was only 1430, I decided to head to the higher lake where there was a small refuge and have a cold drink with something to eat courtesy of the warden and my small amount of emergency cash. It was an uncompromising climb in the heat on a rough and steep path that wove its way around the contours and by doing so trebled the linear distance shown on the map. I was seriously flagging by the time I arrived at the refuge, which was, very disappointingly, closed for refurbishment.
The area around the refuge was a building site, dirty and dusty, the sun had disappeared behind the late afternoon clouds and the wind had an edge to it, my sweat soaked clothes quickly chilled my tired body. I swallowed some chocolate and nuts and drank as much as I could force down my throat, I knew I was dehydrated but had to get moving again to warm myself up. The path had now disappeared, an occasional cairn picked a lesser of the two evils route around the south side of the lake. It was starting to look very ominous, thunder rumbled around the encircling and very black cloud covered mountaintops.
The uncompromising ground of my first campsite
I continued around looking for a spot to pitch my tent on, every time I found something suitable I passed it by certain in the knowledge that I would find a better spot, where this certainty came from I do not know, the ground was brutal, steep rounded granite slabs covered in boulders smashed up by their fall from above and the elemental conditions of the altitude.
I rounded a small spur and there it was, a small stream coming down from a late snow patch had year by year created an alluvial bank of short stubby flower covered grass, a little bit of stone picking and I had my bed for the night.
One peg was in the stream and one guy was weighted down by a boulder but it was perfect, it was all I needed.
I cooked a meal, relaxing in the knowledge that my rucksack was going to be lighter tomorrow and that I was about to be warm and comfortable. I washed up as the sun set, its light piercing the clouds and bringing one then another area of the surrounding mountains to life with a bit of warmth.
I spent time taking pictures, loath to miss any of the harsh splendor around me, then the last of the light died and I retreated for the night. A little pocket of warmth and comfort in the high rocky star lit Spanish mountains.
I awoke the next morning, my head buried in my downy bag to try and escape the cold, the little stream was ice glazed, the tent white and sparkling. A cerulean blue sky gave cold comfort, I decided to put some miles down before breaking my fast properly.
The early morning view west over the Ibon Alto
My route was marked on the map with a broken line, this in my experience can mean anything, scree, snow, death on a stick exposure and I was “keen” to understand how/if I was going to be able to make my way down into the Valle Alto del Ara. The cairns enticed me on, the ground was slippy with frost, I was glad I had stopped to camp where I had as there was nowhere else to put a tent down. I reached the collado del Letrero and looked down into the sunlit valley some 600m below, I was still in the shadow of the high peaks and cold, the sunshine below looked very pleasant but it also looked alarmingly steep and rocky to get there. I started down over a steep boulder slope, the boulders large, sharp, angular and loose lying irregularly on top of each other after having fallen from the heights above and shattering upon impact, it got steeper and steeper till at one point I was down climbing slabs, looking between my legs for footholds, a slip and an injury up here was a serious proposition, I had not seen anyone or any indication of human passage since leaving the GR at noon the day before.
Before long however the angle eased and I romped down into the sunshine streaming into the south facing valley.
Oh what a delight after the rough and rocky goings on of the last 24 hours, the valley was green, easy angled with a good path, warm and welcoming, a laughing river tumbled its way south, cows munched on succulent grass their bells ding donging as they swayed their heads in lawnmower movements.
There was no one about, I felt at real peace, I stopped at a spot where the GR11 curves off towards Banos de Panticosa, a thermal spa spot for those with money to spend. The ground was carpeted with crocuses, I spread my tent and sleeping bag out to dry and air and cooked my breakfast letting my bare feet burrow into the soft grass below and luxuriate in the sun from above, one of those moments when everything is just perfect.
I could have quite happily stayed there for the day, exalting in the peace and tranquility, mountain pastoral personified, but it was not to be, I had plans to be in Torla that night and that was still some 18K to the south. I packed my things and set off, down down down romping along on good paths through a beautiful tree clad valley the temperature and the number of touristy type walkers rising as I went.
Valle de Ara near San Nicolas
By three o’clock I had reached the tourist campsite of San Nicolas de Bujareulo at the beginning of the road, I was pretty tired after 9 hours of activity but the area was heaving with tourists and I could not stomach the thought of pitching my tent in a rowdy campsite after the peace and misanthropic pleasures of the last two days so down I went to the junction with the Velle de Ordesa, or Ordesa canyon as it is known. From there I could see the roof tops of Torla just down the valley, I could also see the start of the path up the Ordessa Canyon right next to my feet, again the thought of a night in a touristy campsite did just not appeal so despite the stern warning of what would happen to people who camped in the canyon I turned left. Walking up the path I met a few tourists coming down but the trickle eventually stopped and the time wore on. I found a lovely little campsite hidden in the trees away from any prying eyes.
Im not really into breaking the park rules, I’m not one for wild camping where you are not supposed to but.. if you have a tent up after 1900 where no-one can see you and it is away before 0700 in the morning, you leave no trace then what’s the problem, no one is any the wiser.
Next morning I was up and out early doors to avoid the heat deciding to eat breakfast after I had cracked out the 600m of uncompromising ascent that started right next to the tent. Steady away I was up onto the Faja Pelay in just under 90 mins, I felt really great, the early morning sun lit the gorge bringing all the textures and colours to life, vultures wheeled high above, smaller birds flitted around in the trees that surrounded me, life was good, early doors, no one else about, I had one Europe’s most scenic places to myself. The Faja is a path that traverses the gorge at half height, its a good path and fairly level for some 12K from where I was to the head of the canyon. I set off looking for some water with which to cook my breakfast, I had drunk all of my 1ltr on the ascent. I assumed that water would be in generally plentiful supply with small streams coming down from the plateau above, I was very wrong, some 8K later I found a small waterfall, I drank my fill of the cold water way to quickly, an ice cream head quickly followed, I still hadn’t eaten and couldn’t now I was so nauseous, I headed on to look for a breakfast spot and had to climb another 300m to get onto the high plateau just under the Goriz refuge. I was really struggling, out of energy, dehydrated and feeling really shit. I laid my tent and bag out to dry and cooked a monster plate of porridge and chocolate raisons, a big infusion of calories which I forced down my throat. I contemplated staying the night at the refuge but decided to push on for the Breche de Roland which marks the border back into France. It was still another 700m above me and at least three hours away, it was hot and windless but I felt some energy returning.
I made a navigational error, I was not paying attention, my head was not in the right place and I ended up on a very steep and difficult scramble approach to the col, by the time I got there I was almost unable to walk in a straight line, dehydrated, soaked in sweat and again out of energy.
The Spanish side of the Breche de Roland
The Breche is a magnificent feature, a break in a high wall of rocks at 2800m above sea that creates the only easy pass for miles around, the Spanish side dry and arid, rocky and steep, the north facing French side is permanently covered in snow, a permanent mini glacier, steep and slippery.
I took some time to sit and chill, drink what was left in my bottle and set off slipping and sliding down the snow slope on shaky legs. Gavernie was some 1500m below me, its a little tourist town at the end of the road but it had a splattering of restaurants and a campsite, I needed to eat and sleep.
It was a painful decent, it was steep, rocky and a trip and fall at some points would have been disastrous, I kept losing the path in the rocks and tripping up, not lifting my feet properly or focusing on my foot placements, I really just wanted to sit down, to rest, to switch off, eventually I stumbled through the Cirque of Gavernie, a major tourist draw, the light was lovely, I took a picture but my head was grey, my eyes struggling to focus, I had not planned and executed the day very well at all, I had seriously overstretched myself and now I was exhausted. It took me almost 4 hours to make the decent from the Breche. I wandered into Gavernie just as it was getting dark, I found a restaurant, forced down a pizza and a beer, found a campsite, it was now pitch dark, everything happened on automatic, I put up the tent sorted my kit and collapsed into my bag, knackered, too knackered to feel any sense of accomplishment just bone weary, empty, devoid.
The noises around me were of no consequence whatsoever but sleep did not come easily my mind was too keyed up, I had been running on adrenaline for hours and now although I was exhausted my mind would not accept the off switch, I lay and rolled and twisted and twitched until I eventually succumbed to the darkness and fatigue.
The next day I was up before the sun, feeling a bit brighter and determined to manage my day much more effectively, I left the campsite and put a good 8K down before I stopped in another lovely environment to breakfast. A lovely mountain stream flowed over worn granite creating the perfect accompaniment to my porridge and chocolate raisons, another huge plate full to give me energy for the day ahead. I watched a newt sitting still on the bed of the stream, almost invisible amongst the stones, I would not have seen it, I would have passed it by completely oblivious to its presence had I not stopped there and taken the time to sit at peace. How much do we miss because we simply do not take the time to stop and let ourselves become aware of the things around us, nature is so much more than an eagle or a leopard, its the moss, the flowers and the small life that you can only see if you stop and take the time to let it become obvious.
I packed up and made my way towards the lower slopes of the Vignemale stopping to eat a bit more before the 800m of uncompromising ascent ahead of me. It was hot, I was on the south side of the mountain, nowt for it I set a plod and off I went totally surprising myself by completing it in just under two hours. I stopped at the refuge at the top and indulged in a cold coke, the refuge marmot came and sat under the table awaiting scraps from my meal, he was disappointed, I finished my drink and set off down towards the Oulettes de Gaube 500m down the other side, my intention to stop there and camp with dinner in the refuge. It was not to be when I arrived again footsore and weary the refuge was besieged by the hordes. I was not for waiting, my van and all the comforts of home were another three hours below me, a journey that I could, and have done in the past in under two hours but not today.
I reached the van and drove down to Cauterets, over 100K and over 6000m of ascent and decent in four days. A good friend had told me that taking four days to do this journey was possible but that it would require a bit of a head down approach, he was right and I had added some arms and legs to the experience but I enjoyed the physicality of it even although it did seriously take its toll on me afterwards.
My advise to anyone else would be to take six days to do the “Tour of the Vignemale” as I christened it, maybe even seven taking an additional day to explore the Ordessa. Hindsight is the best manager of all of course, I must go back.