What comes down must go up: An attempt at the Pyrenean Haute Route Traverse
At the end of June 2006, I set out to walk the length of the Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast of France to Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean, by means of the HRP (Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne) – the Pyrenean Haute Route. The HRP is more than 800 kilometres long and walking it involves over 40,000 metres of ascent and descent, on frequently difficult terrain, often in poor weather conditions and more than likely weighed down with a 20-odd kilo rucksack – if one elects to carry camping kit and food rather than eating and sleeping in refuges. Nonetheless, this is an enterprise that should take a fit individual between six and seven weeks of walking; I knew it would be tough, but I felt sure that I could manage it.
The previous summer, I’d had a practice run accompanied by my friend Paul Robinson; we spent ten days walking the most popular section of the HRP between Lescun and Gavarnie, finishing with an ascent of Le Taillon (3,144m) on the outlandishly proportioned Cirque de Gavarnie. A typical day on the HRP involves an ascent of 1,000-1,500 metres followed by a similar descent and initially, laden with heavy packs, we’d found the going hard work, but once we’d got into a rhythm we fairly charged along.1
Having acquainted myself with the physical demands of the route along with the various problems that present themselves to the HRP walker, such as infrequent re-provisioning opportunities, occasional dearth of water supply, inclement weather and navigational difficulties – amongst others, I felt well equipped to make my attempt at what French walkers know as la grande traversée.
I had recruited several friends to accompany me for various sections of the route and had only the section between Lescun and Gavarnie – which I already knew – and a few days at the end of the walk where I would be alone. For me this was important for safety reasons, for the pleasure of company and the shared experience and also because, in theory at least, the weight of a tent, cooker, fuel etcetera is shared between two. Weight becomes something of an obsession for Haute Route walkers for good reason. I would advise anyone considering taking on the HRP to carry only what is absolutely essential. It’s a common practice for people to send spare clothing, books, tents, spare footwear and various other items home after the first few days; John Pearson, who we will meet later on, even tore the pages from his guide book at the end of each day’s walk.
I arrived at Hendaye on the evening of June 30th in the company of Matthew, an experienced walker whom I had accompanied on seven or eight legs of his own round-the-world-walk, which had departed Finsbury Park some 15 years previously and, over the course of 30-odd stages, had thus far reached Alba Iulia in Romania, a few days hike from the foothills of the Carpathians. Matt has an idiosyncratic approach to long distance walks, which has its own special charm and always makes for a hugely entertaining experience. His path across Europe has been less than direct, preferring to use the most interesting or scenic routes rather than the most straightforward. Matt is something of a polymath and as well as being able to keep you informed about the geology, flora, fauna, avia, botany and history of the landscape you’re moving through, he’ll invariably speak the language and have probably brushed up on any local dialects to boot. Furthermore, he is an excellent navigator and I knew that his company would prove invaluable on the first section of the walk, through the Pays Basque to Lescun, where the High Pyrenees begin.
In places, the HRP is more of a concept than an actual, distinct way-marked route; throughout its length it borrows sections of the GR10 and GR112 as well as other paths and in some places there is little or no path at all. At times, all that distinguishes the route from its environment are paint splashes of assorted colours on rocks and trees or often confusing collections of cairns. Sometimes there is nothing at all, save the route marked on the map or described in one of the two guide books; the original version française by Georges Véron (unsurprisingly preferred by French walkers) or the version anglaise (preferred by everyone else), which was actually written by a Dutchman named Ton Joosten.
According to Mr Joosten, the first section through the Pays Basque is the most challenging navigationally, for two main reasons: first, the dearth of way-markers or even distinct paths in some places and, second, the region’s predisposition to dense mist, low cloud and fine rain, which can reduce visibility to a few yards and can settle in for days at a time. As it happens, we experienced just about every form of weather conceivable in the space of the first week.
That first morning, as we stood for our obligatory photo – camera on timer – with our backs to the Atlantic, the sky was overcast and we wondered if we might be in for a wet day. However, as we navigated our way up and out of Hendaye (as tricky a bit of route-finding as you might experience in the high mountains), the cloud-cover lifted and with it went the temperature. We diligently drank lots of water and refilled wherever we could. Our route picked up a variety of tracks, paths and rough roads and wound away from the sea, gradually climbing, losing some height here, gaining a little more there, until we were out among rolling hills and woodland. By the middle of the day we had reached a road crossing the Franco-Spanish border at the Col d’Ibardin (317m), its agglomeration of restaurants and souvenir shops busily servicing numerous coach parties and family carloads. We gave this bustling scene of commerce a wide berth and picked up our path with directions from a sweaty, middle-aged French jogger who, with not untypical chauvinism, warned us off the ‘Spanish bandits’ waiting to rip us off south of the border.
By the early afternoon the day had become very hot. After a brief refuelling stop, we headed toward La Rhune, which, at 900 metres, was by far the biggest hill we would encounter on our first day. The heat intensified and at about three in the afternoon, Matthew’s thermostat broke down. The temperature had crept towards 35ºC and hauling our heavy packs uphill in plein soleil had caused Matt, who is of fair complexion, to overheat. We sheltered under some trees while Matt panted like a greyhound in a hot car with the windows up and glugged litres of water. I was worried, but a rest out of the sun cooled him down and so we continued along a wooded path beneath the humpbacked bulk of La Rhune until we reached the spine of the ridge where it dropped away to the south. We followed the ridge and at length arrived at the Col de Lizuniaga (230m), our destination for the day.
The col is crossed by a road and is occupied by a small hotel-restaurant. A large, flat, grassy area in front of the hotel provides a natural camping site for Haute Route walkers and we were eventually joined here by three French chaps and a Scottish lad who were also candidates for la grande traversée. We ate a large meal in the restaurant, watched England exit the World Cup after Wayne Rooney stamped on Ricardo Carvalho’s bollocks and then lay awake in our tent, kept from our sleep by the clang and clatter of alpine cowbells.
The next day dawned cloaked in mist. This was a good result after the previous day’s intense heat and sunshine. We were up, packed, breakfasted and running before the various members of the ‘auld alliance’ had exited their tents, which was hugely gratifying and we strode out following the ridge south-east. The misty conditions and abundance of intersecting paths meant that we had to keep our collective eye on the ball, but Mr Joosten’s book and the compass kept us on course.
The morning passed relatively uneventfully in an eerie mist-dampened hush. We saw no one. In the early afternoon, the sun broke through, helping us to locate our unmarked route southeast off the ridge at the Col de Bagacheta (793m). In a little less than an hour we passed through the Basque hamlet of Azpilkueta, feeling dwarfed by its big-boned, stone-built mediaeval houses. From here we followed roads to the village of Arizkun where we sat awhile outside a tree-shaded café, gathered some supplies and watched a few locals playing Pelota – a bit like an amalgam of hurling, racquetball and fives – on a huge municipal court.
Late in the afternoon, we climbed steeply up out of Arizkun and found ourselves a camping spot in a sheep-field atop our newly gained ridge. In the middle of the field a bathtub with a cistern served as a trough. Matt was all for filling it up by holding the ballcock down in the cistern, so he could enjoy a bath; however, I frowned on this as a deeply wasteful notion, arguing that the farmer would be hard-pressed to water his sheep in the dry summer months. Matt reluctantly acquiesced and made-do with a wash-down. That night it rained torrentially.
After packing-up and porridge the next morning, we navigated our way along the misty, wooded ridge. Weak sunlight lit the mist-canopied trees from above; it was a scene of bewitching beauty and it was an effort not to be distracted from our route-finding focus. However, we held our course and the mist stayed on the higher ground as we descended towards the village of Les Aldudes. We parked ourselves outside a bar-restaurant opposite the Mairie in the tiny square and ordered and devoured three sublime omelettes aux cèpes between the two of us. While we were digesting, we were joined by Didier, a diminutive though entirely robust randonneur who was embarking on his third traverse of the HRP. We would encounter Didier several times over the next five days, by which point his self-confident, not entirely justified know-it-all-ism would begin to piss us off. For the moment, however, his experienced perspective on the HRP was worth listening to.
We departed the village equipped with two very large tins of top-quality cassoulet, which weighed us down as we sweated our way up on to the ridge forming the eastern boundary of the Vallée des Aldudes. Atop the ridge was a realm of misty dampness. In this condition, there was no real view and little else of charm to detain us, so we battered on along the ridge gaining a little height here, losing some there, until, at length, we arrived at the Col d’Hauzay (965m). Here there is a crossroads and Mr Joosten erroneously suggests following the road SE to the Col de Burdincurutch. There is in fact a path through the woods above the road and just below the ridge. This path takes you through some enchanting forest studded with rocky outcrops. We were making for Roncevalles, a couple of hours away, but we would have been better served to pitch our tent somewhere along this beautiful wooded crest. Instead, we strode on, believing Mr Joosten’s stories about idyllic riverside camping spots by Roncevalles.
From the col we turned sharply east with the ridge and made the short steep climb to the Redoute de Lindux (1,220m) a Napoleonic fortification, which, had it not been for the mist, would have given us commanding views over Roncevalles and the Spanish Basque hinterland. I demonstrated the pronounced strategic advantage held by the fort’s occupants by lying in wait for Matt then charging down hill at him screaming my head off and skewering him with my imaginary bayonet. I do love hysterical re-enactments.
It had been a long day and we trudged down along the ridge looking forward to dinner and our idyllic camping spot. The reality, when we arrived there, was an insect-infested, tussocky bog. We camped a few hundred yards short of the monastery at Roncevalles, which is a staging post for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the French side of the Pyrenees (often pilgrims travel from much further afield) to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain. By the time we arrived, there were no further pilgrims on the path that day, but we certainly encountered a few the next morning.
The morning was clear and bright and we made an early start, regaining the ridge at the Col de Roncevaux. From this vantage point we enjoyed a spectacular cloud inversion – except for the highest hilltops, the land beneath us to the north was submerged under a sea of cotton wool cloud. We soon caught up with Didier, who had camped on the Redoute de Lindux the previous night, and kept his company until we reached a confluence of paths where he headed southeast on a variant that would take him through the Fôret d’Iraty. In the distance we could make out the pointy summit of the Pic d’Orhy (2,017m), which we hoped to cross in a couple of days time. We continued on our way, on a section of path shared by the HRP, the GR11 and the GR65 – the Camino de Santiago.
The trickle of pilgrims heading in the opposite direction became a stream. For the most part pilgrims on the Camino are easily distinguishable from other walkers; they’re all walking the same way of course, but they also tend to dress differently. We passed a young priest in a full-length cassock, which must have been uncomfortable in the heat, and numerous young women wearing ankle-length skirts; pastel shades seemed popular with all age groups and many people were sporting a coquille Saint-Jacques or scallop shell – the emblem of the Santiago pilgrim – on their rucksacks or wooden walking staffs. We also passed families walking with pack-mules carrying their supplies.
Eventually, our path diverged from the Camino and we were, albeit briefly, on our own again. Continuing along the ridge as the heat intensified, with the striking horseshoe summit of Urculu ahead of us, we were surprised as several companies of Spanish paratroopers yomped into view and thundered up-hill past us, dripping sweat, laden with packs and automatic rifles – altogether an impressive display of martial discipline. However, they all responded very politely to our greetings with a gasped ‘ola’ or ‘buenos’. It was turning into a busy day on the HRP.
An hour or so later, we stopped in the shade of some trees for lunch and decided that we would try a variant to the established route, using a path that followed the south side of our ridge rather than the road that traversed the north side. This initially went well, but then the path ran out and the mist closed in again; so, unsure of our route, we backtracked to the road. This offered a mundane though straightforward trudge until we dropped steeply off the ridge on a small path and crossed a river by a footbridge. It started to rain and visibility was much reduced as we began the steep, 300-metre climb to the Col d’Errozaté (1,076m). Half way up the climb, which traverses the incline diagonally, was a small plaque commemorating a group of several walkers killed by an avalanche some years before; on such a steep, exposed slope they wouldn’t have had a chance.
Crossing the col, we picked up our path and descended a small valley, which at length led us to Egurgui, situated on a confluence of streams at the valley bottom. This was our destination for the day. The rain had settled in and we sheltered at the rear of the recently abandoned refuge, which is the only building here. How we wished that it was open and selling lots of good things to eat and drink. Instead, we cooked and ate our rice and tuna special, then pitched the tent next to one of the streams. The rain, it seemed, was here to stay.
It was still there in the morning, or the lightening of the sky that passed for morning in this murky world of wetness. Visibility wasn’t great and we had to start the day climbing up out of Egurgui without a path. It was tricky, but thanks to Matt’s navigational acumen we stayed on course and were eventually rewarded with a path, which seemed more or less to do what we hoped it would. The rain continued. Our path took us through some woods and we picked several fat ceps, which we stowed away for lunch. After swarming up a steep grassy hillside to the Col d’Oraaté (1,303m), we again faced the challenge of navigating without a path in dense mist. Here, as on many subsequent occasions, my altimeter proved invaluable; knowing what elevation you are at is a real aid to staying on course in poor visibility or when you might otherwise be seduced into crossing the wrong col for example.
We soon picked up the red and white painted flashes of the GR10, which the HRP would follow as far as our day’s objective – the Col Bagargui. The rain continued to fall steadily and we trudged along on a well-trodden track, gaining a little height, before descending a few hundred metres through forest to a road. We took shelter under a huge pine tree with an impressively weatherproof canopy and Matt cooked up the ceps we’d gathered earlier for lunch. We had just finished our extremely tasty snack when Didier himself appeared and dispensed more wisdom much as if he was a hologram operated by the regional tourist board.
The afternoon involved traipsing along a tarmac road in the rain, followed by an athletic surge up and along a ridge to the Col Bagargui and the Iraty ‘tourist complex’, which isn’t nearly so bad as it sounds. By now it was teeming down with rain and this fact combined with the lack of camping opportunities readily persuaded us to take a room in a walkers’ gîte. It was inexpensive and allowed us to indulge in a riot of showering, shaving, laundering, kit drying and rucksack disgorging.
In the evening, we had a splendid dinner in the nearby bar-restaurant and met several other walkers. I shared a roll-up (an occasional vice) with one of two chain-smoking French brothers in their mid-fifties who were attempting la grande traversée via the GR10; they didn’t seem the fittest individuals, but I encountered them again a couple of times en route and they certainly made good progress. We also got talking to a lovely lad called Laurent who radiated good health and bonhomie and who, he announced, was attempting to complete the HRP in 20 days! This is half the time a fit walker would expect to take. Laurent was basically knocking out two stages every day; he was travelling extremely light, carrying a mere seven kilos and wearing running shoes. Every fourth day, he would rendezvous with his wife or a friend and collect new clothes and trainers. Laurent was tall and very fit looking – a triathlete and mountain-runner – and we were surprised to learn that he was 40, the same age as me. The lovely thing about Laurent was that he was completely un-egotistical about his enterprise; in fact, he asked us if he might join us on the following day’s walk, which promised to be an epic hike in poor conditions. After dinner we watched Les Bleus dispatch the perfidious Portuguese, and then headed for bed having agreed a rendezvous with Laurent at 5.30 a.m.
Before dawn the next day, we trudged out along the Crète d’Orgambidesca, our headlamps casting about like searchlights in the mist. As the morning sky lightened, it was obvious that we would have to navigate through another day of poor visibility. Furthermore, our route would take us along the exposed Zazpigagn ridge, over the 2,017-metre summit of the Pic d’Orhy, then up and down along the border ridge for several hours – and the wind was picking up already. However, before we had even got that far, navigation was proving enough of a challenge and we had had to backtrack and re-calibrate our bearings several times – it also became apparent that Laurent’s orienteering skills weren’t as well developed as his formidable physique. Nonetheless, we found our somewhat airy route up to the summit of Pic d’Orhy in wet, windy and misty conditions and rapidly descended the 400 metres to the relative shelter of the Port de Larrau.
After refuelling, we struck out along the border ridge and a cold crosswind instantly bit into us. We quickly took shelter in a hunter’s hide and donned every item of clothing we possessed, before continuing. Both Matt and Laurent had opted to equip themselves with rain capes rather than waterproof jackets and they certainly have their practical advantages, but they also provided me with a lot of entertainment in the strong wind. Visibility was still minimal and navigation stops had to be made frequently; on several occasions, Laurent had to be prevented from lurching off in entirely the wrong direction.
Eventually the mist began to lift in the strong wind and we stopped to fill-up with water; at this point Laurent struck off on his own as he still had much further to walk than us – his two-stage day would take him to the village of la Pierre St-Martin via the Véron route. We saw him in the distance a little later, heading in the wrong direction; there was nothing we could do, so we just hoped that he’d get back on course. We also managed to overshoot our path and had to climb steeply to rejoin it. Crossing the Port de Belhay (1,732m) we were back into the mist and navigation became fraught once again; by this point we’d been walking for around ten hours and had ascended some twelve hundred metres with only a couple of short breaks. We were both dog-tired and trying to stay on course without a path in poor conditions had become mildly stressful. We were both relieved when we eventually found border stone no. 254, which reassured us that we’d arrived at the Col de Bimbalette (1,677m). From here we descended on the Spanish side, following a series of clear paths and then a road to the Refugio Belagua, arriving around 13 hours after leaving the Col Bagargui.
Several people had warned us that the Refugio Belagua had been closed for the past couple of years, so we just hoped to find a decent camping pitch in pleasant surroundings and a water supply. No such luck: the Refugio loomed out of the mist like a hulking shipwreck; an ugly, vandalised and dilapidated brute with a large empty car park next to it. It had started to rain and the wind had picked up. We were shattered and the thought of crawling into our tent amid this world of wet and windy bleakness was not a good one. I scouted around the building and discovered that a reinforced glass panel in a first floor door had been broken in to.
We clambered in and discovered that the Refugio had been abandoned in something of a Marie Célèste condition; tables, chairs and bunks had been left as they were. As we were wandering around exploring the cavernous building we heard hammering on one of the external doors; peering out of a window we saw a car with an occupant in the car park; had we been spotted? What if we had and someone reported us to the Guardia Civil? We chose to carry on regardless, hung up our wet stuff to dry and cooked up what remained of our dinner rations. Exhausted, we installed ourselves in one of the dormitories and settled down to sleep, haunted by the anxious thought that we might receive all too tangible visitors in the night.
The morning was cold, but clear; we’d both benefited from an excellent and uninterrupted night’s sleep and felt fit for the day ahead. Once we were under way, we initially had some difficulty in unpicking our path from animal tracks; we had only occasional, weathered, yellow way-markers to follow, which bore an uncanny resemblance to a lichen that abounds in the area. Unsurprisingly, we made an unscheduled detour early on and had to backtrack for half an hour. Our route took us through some splendid mountain beech forest and up over a small col into a remarkable landscape of weather-fluted karst limestone. The early morning chill had given way to intensifying heat and, leaving the shelter of the beech wood behind us, we sweated our way up to a pass at 1,800 metres. Here, we took advantage of the shelter offered by a few pine trees to eat our lunch and admire the magnificent view across the Arres d’Anies and our first glimpse of the Hautes Pyrénées.
Continuing on our way, we were bereft of way-markers and not entirely confident of the path we were following; very occasional sightings of weathered yellow splotches were cause for some celebration. We were trying to work our way along, up and over a landscape of gently-gradiented gullies chiselled into the limestone plateau as we climbed toward what we hoped was the Col d’Anaye (2,011m). We lost each other a couple of times when seeking out markers and would have to climb out of the gullies and yell at each other so as not to become separated. It was hot, hard work and we were soon out of water. Scanning the landscape, I eventually spotted what might either be a path or perhaps just another random striation in the limestone, some 30 metres distant. Happily, it was in fact the former and this path led, without equivocation, to the col. From the Col d’Anaye we enjoyed fine views of the cliff-walled southeastern aspect of the Pic d’Anie to the north, the Table des Trois Rois to the south and the pinnacle of le Billare to the east.
We began our descent into the Vallon d’Anaye, which was rocky at first, but then opened out into a beautiful grassy valley dotted with purple mountain irises, through which quite the loveliest stream trickled. The tinkling of cool, clear, fresh water was a soothing sound to our parched throats and we made for its source. Sat by the stream, his just-washed socks and undies hanging from a shrub, was Didier, the first person we’d seen since the previous day. We swapped notes between taking long draughts of sweet, pure water and Didier gave us a tiresome, finger-wagging telling-off for ‘burgling’ Refugio Belagua. We gave the man some supplies we didn’t need and continued our descent to Lescun, passing a number of robust-looking older people who’d climbed up the valley for a day’s walk. The path entered woodland and began descending steeply down one side of a gorge; however, the path was good and we soon bottomed-out at the Plateau de Sanchèse. After an hour of gentle descending on a tarmac road, we arrived at Lescun and installed ourselves at the excellent municipal campsite.
Matthew would be making the journey down to Pau the next afternoon, then flying back to London the day after. We had chipped a day off the schedule so I planned to take the next day off and hang out in Lescun. In the morning, Matt packed his stuff then we strolled into Lescun and sat writing postcards outside a café. We learned that the weather was forecast to be good over the next few days and I was suddenly seized by an urgent desire to pack up my kit and be on my way. I think this was in part down to a slight anxiety I felt about spending a week walking on my own. I took my leave of Matt and hastened back to the campsite. I packed up and was on my way within 15 minutes.
As I strode purposefully up and away from Lescun, rather than the trepidation I had imagined I might feel, I experienced an unanticipated spike of elation. I took the strain of the extra weight of supplies, cooker and fuel and launched myself into the 1,000 metre ascent to the Col de Pau, pausing only to refill my water-reservoir at the Cabane de Bonaris. It was a truly beautiful afternoon: sunny, but with a breeze and high, fast-moving clouds. From the col, the views south over Spanish sierras and east across the increasingly formidable Hautes Pyrénées were wonderful. The previous summer, when Paul and I walked this stage, we’d done so in intermittent cloud; this afternoon, I cantered along the ridge taking in the expansive vistas with my view unhindered.
Mr Joosten reckons on six and three-quarter hours to complete the stage between Lescun and the Refuge d’Arlet, I was there in four and a half. The refuge is situated a little above a beautiful lake and, having pitched my tent, I took the waters. The water was cold, but very invigorating and this only served to exacerbate my almost evangelical sense of euphoria. It was a Saturday and there were a fair few folk around the refuge and several others camped around the lake. The refuge is at a confluence of paths and can be reached in a few hours from several directions. I wandered over to the refuge to see if there was a phone signal and was delighted to run into Laurent, who had strode up here from la Pierre St-Martin that day. He’d managed to sort himself out after we’d seen him go astray and had had a rest day while awaiting a supply rendezvous. He would be off at 5.30 a.m. again, but I wouldn’t be joining him this time.
After a good night’s sleep, alone in my two-man tent, I awoke to find the feeling of power in my limbs that I’d experienced the previous day was still there. I packed-up, ate porridge and set off like a greyhound out of the traps. The previous year Paul and I had walked the stage to Candanchu, but I felt sure that my legs were good to take me further today. After an hour or so the path descended, initially in deep zigzags, some 500 metres to the Pla d’Espélunguère. Shortly after crossing a stream, I climbed up through beech forest then up out in to the open once more before crossing the Pas de l’Échelle (1,775m) into Spain. Passing around the eastern shore of the Ibon de Astanes, around which there were many tents pitched or people in the process of striking camp, I picked up the way-markers of the GR11, which the HRP follows as far as Candanchu. I descended against a steady stream of day-trippers heading up to the lake from the valley below.
Where the GR11 forks away from the main drag up to Ibon de Astanes, I perched on a rock for a bite to eat. A little later, as I made ready to continue on my way, I was greeted by the surreal site of around fifty young Spaniards completely dressed in white processing uphill in a hundred-yard snake. I took this as my cue to depart and set off around the path contouring beneath the Pas d’Aspe, before crossing the Collado de Causiat then descending down to Candanchu. It was hot; I was sweaty and decided to stop at a café for a couple of espressos before marching up the road to gather some supplies at the Col du Somport.
Loaded up, I trotted the couple of kilometres up the Valle del Astún road to the eponymous ski resort. I find ski resorts bleak at the best of times, but out of season they give me the willies; I passed through Astún without touching the sides. Onwards and upwards, I dug into the 450-odd-metre climb to the Col des Moines (2,168m), passing the lovely Ibon del Escalar en route. In clear conditions, the Col des Moines provides an ideal viewing platform from which to appreciate the magnificent western aspect of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau (2,884), one of the Pyrenees’ best-known mountains with its distinctive, cleft-spired peak. I had set my sights on bivouacking by a shepherd’s hut – the Cabane de Peyreget – on that mountain’s western flank for the night and so began my third descent of the day in the knowledge that, when walking the HRP, what goes down, must come up. Almost every day of walking the Haute Route involves at least one major climb; the stages set out in Mr Joosten’s guide usually contrive to deposit you at the foot of the following day’s climb so that it can be dispensed with before the early-afternoon heat sets in. Furthermore, climbing west to east early in the morning usually keeps you in the shade for a good couple of hours.
With the Pic du Midi d’Ossau dominating my actual and metaphorical horizons, I gleefully tumbled my way the 500-odd metres down to the valley below. I came to a halt at the Gave de Bious and re-filled my reservoir. I was hot, sweaty and beginning to feel knackered. The climb up to the Cabane de Peyreget was a very steep 300 metres and I was thoroughly relieved to arrive and remove my 25-plus kilo pack. There is a narrow winter room for walkers to shelter in at the cabane, but it didn’t make for an appealing dormitory, so I pitched my tent in front of the building.
Later in the evening I watched a file of around thirty teenagers with full packs, labouring up towards the Lac de Peyreget. Even at a distance they looked distinctly British and I thought I recognised them as a school group from Dorset that we’d encountered at Lescun a couple of nights before. I got into my sleeping bag and settled down to read my book: The Accidental by Ali Smith – a beautifully written and luminously imaginative work of fiction. As the sun was setting I looked out of the tent door to see the spire of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau lit-up with such an intense golden-orange glow that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Colorado. A little later, I turned off my headlamp and wondered, as I drifted off, who had won the World Cup Final?
The Italians? On penalties? Outrageous. I’d gleaned this unfortunate news from the school group who were camped, as I’d supposed, up at the Lac de Peyreget – a very fine spot for a bivouac. It was another beautifully clear, chilly morning and on completing the rocky ascent to the Col de Peyreget (2,300m) I emerged into bright light as the sun rose above Balaïtous and the wall of peaks rising to the east of the Vallée d’Ossau, which was still submerged in shadow almost 1,000 metres below me. By the time I’d scampered down to the beautifully situated Refuge de Pombie (2,032m), most of the previous night’s randonneurs had already flown the coop. I continued rapidly on my way, stalking along as if I was in pursuit of something, which in a way I suppose I was.
After 1,000 metres of descending, I hit the valley floor, crossed the Gave de Brousset on a footbridge and made the short, sharp climb to the D294 – the road that climbs to the Col de Pourtalet before descending into Spain. There exists a law of equivalence when walking in the mountains; that is, the longer one descends the more it hurts when you start climbing again. I crossed the road to re-join the path and saw a bloke in his late-fifties with a large Karrimor rucksack sitting disconsolately by the side of the road. He seemed to be waiting for a lift, so I continued on my way.
From the bottom of the valley I’d seen a number of walkers making their way up the first steep stretch of path on the long climb to the Col d’Arrious (2,259m). They’d disappeared, along with the path, into woods a hundred metres above the road; so I made it my mission to see if I couldn’t reel them all in. I’d climbed this path twice before and loved its steady and unrelenting steepness because you can really dig into the climb. After a couple of hundred metres, a stream is crossed as you exit the forest and here I filled up with water. On and on up the valley I climbed, loving every minute of the long pull up to the col. By a huge, glacier-deposited boulder, I paused to take in the scenery; on a clear day such as this, the view back across the valley to the Pic du Midi d’Ossau is sublime.
Before it reaches the Col d’Arrious, the path crosses a false col. Here I caught up with a couple of fifty-something English blokes from Gloucestershire – Barry and Roger; it transpired that the chap I’d seen on the road was their mate Marcus who’d lacerated his big toe on a rock outside the Refuge de Pombie the previous evening. Unable to continue, he’d opted to hitch down the valley to civilisation, let his toe heal for a few days then meet up with his mates again in Gavarnie. As we approached the col, Barry asked me somewhat tremulously whether I’d be walking to the next staging post – the Refuge d’Arrémoulit – via the Passage d’Orteig or by means of the alternative route. The Passage is a narrow path chiselled out of a steep rock face and secured with steel cables; I’d crossed it with Paul in poor visibility the previous summer and it is mildly vertiginous though not so fearsome as Mr Joosten would have readers of his guide – such as Barry – believe. I imparted this view to Barry and headed for the Passage while Roger and he paused at the col. As it turned out, on this clear, sunny day the Passage was actually less intimidating than when we hadn’t been able to see the drop below us.
Having nimbly traversed the Passage, I hopped, skipped and jumped my way down through the bouldery landscape to the charmingly situated Refuge d’Arrémoulit. The refuge looks out over the largest of the Lacs d’Arrémoulit to the amphitheatre-like northern flank of the Pic d’Arriel. It’s a wonderful spot to rest and contemplate the uncomplicated beauty of the Pyrenees, but the day’s tranquillity was rather excitingly interrupted by the buffeting squall and sonorous throbbing of rotor-blades as the refuge supply helicopter thud-thudded to-and-fro with its charged cargo net dangling like prey from a raptor’s talons. Each time the net was landed and unhooked, a militia composed of refuge staff and communally spirited randonneurs swarmed over the pile of crates and swiftly dispatched them to the refuge’s interior. Meanwhile, I basked lizard-like in the sun on a broad, smooth rock near the lake’s edge purposefully working my way through a lunch of bread, cheese, chorizo and chocolate, pausing only to lie flat and hang on to my hat each time the helicopter swept up behind the refuge.
After collecting water, I set off in the immoderate early-afternoon heat. For the next section, I had decided to take a variant from the main HRP route, which climbs to the Col du Palas, traverses to the Porte du Lavadan then descends nearly 600 metres to the Refuge de Larribet. I’d taken this route with Paul the previous summer and although it’s a truly spectacular section of the walk, the long, rocky descent to the refuge is an absolute ball-breaker and I felt at liberty to give it a miss this time around. Instead, following the variante sud, I headed for the Col d’Arrémoulit and the Spanish frontier. The heat was intense and the sunlight dazzled as I climbed up through a boulder field of giant white rocks. I followed cairn-markers up through the rocky tumult, but soon realised that there were at least two competing routes as I found myself zigzagging back and forth. Cursing the pesky cairn-builders and struggling with chorizo-related indigestion, I sweated my way up to the col.
The pass offered a splendid prospect to the east and south; beneath me shimmered the lovely Lacs d’Arriel – though I had reason to be a bit taken aback by the size of them. A few years previously, together with my mates Steve, Andy, Dan and Rich, we’d crossed these lakes when they’d still been snow-covered in late May. Now, from my vantage point, it was apparent that we’d taken a huge risk crossing what at that time of year would have been a fragile snow-bridge across the lakes. We could easily have caused a collapse, with inevitably dire consequences.
The 200 metre descent to the lakes was rocky and precipitous, but once down I spent a relatively relaxing couple of hours contouring around the southern flank of Balaïtous to the Refugio de Respomuso, perched a few hundred metres above the dammed Embalse de Respomuso, for which it is named. I was hot, knackered and very thirsty when I dumped my pack in front of the refuge; I knew I’d made the right decision not to aim for Larribet.
There were a number of walkers relaxing under the refuge’s shaded porch, some Brits and a charming Canadian family, so I hung around with these folk for a bit swapping walkers’ tales. After a while, I felt much recovered; I shouldered my pack and walked the half kilometre east to a small and perfectly formed lake and pitched my tent. The Canadians soon arrived and we all had a cold but hugely refreshing dip in the lake. That night, I slept very well indeed.
Up at first light, I breakfasted, struck camp and was soon making my way in the sharp morning air. Past the Embalse de Campoplano, the path began the climb to the Col de la Fache (2,664m). I passed a couple of young Spanish men walking separately on the way up and fell in to conversation with each of them. The path crossed a false col and climbed above a small lake with a miniature iceberg in it before gaining the col and with it the morning sun from the east. Another beautiful day. One of the Spanish lads headed for the peak of the Grande Fache (3,005), while Davide and I began a rapid though scenic 800 metre descent to the Refuge Wallon. Davide had been walking the HRP since Roncevalles and aimed to continue as far as time and a dodgy knee would allow. I virtually ran most of the way to Wallon and had a snack while Davide caught up; the refuge is a fine building in a very beautiful situation though it somehow manages to be utterly uninviting. Perhaps it has bad Feng Shui.
A short distance from the refuge, we crossed the Gave de Marcadau by means of a footbridge and began the 700 metre climb up the valley through which the Gave d’Arratille descends. After a while, Davide began to drop back so I waved my acknowledgement that I’d see him later on. The path crosses expanses of weather-smoothed rock and climbs on up and over large boulders before arriving at the entirely picturesque Lac d’Arratille. Having seen no one on the way up, I was rather surprised to see around a dozen people, some of whom were fishing, dotted around the lake in pairs or alone. Past the lake, the path began to climb steeply in its final push towards the col.
Crossing the col, I exited into the Valle de Ara and followed the path that contours north-east around the head of the valley. The path crossed a couple of small snowfield remnants and halfway across the first I lost my feet from under me and thumped on to the wet snow, though happily without slipping too far. I was a little more cautious on the second. Eventually the path climbs steeply up to the Col des Mulets (2,591m) and from here I turned to see Davide in the distance, his red jacket giving him away as he crossed the first snowfield. There was a stiffening breeze so I decided to descend the steep 400-odd metres to the Vallée de la Gaube. The valley sits beneath the imposing, glaciated north face of Vignemale (3,298m). It’s a beautiful and much frequented spot; the GR10 comes up the valley and, along with the HRP, crosses the Hourquette de Ossau (2,734m) before descending to Gavarnie. At this time of year, the nearby Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube is busy with day-trippers, GR10 walkers, climbers and even the occasional HRP candidate. There were already a few people camped on the valley floor, so I followed suit, having decided that I’d had enough for one day; besides, the weather was beginning to look a bit unpredictable.
Having sorted my camping spot out, I wandered over to the refuge and met up with Davide. We chatted and had a couple of small beers; he revealed to me that back home in Madrid he was a policeman – in a manner that suggested he was used to negative responses. I wondered why that should be the case when he was obviously such a decent bloke. He went on to tell me that he had been on duty on the morning of March 11th 2004, when 191 people had been murdered by terrorist bombers at Madrid’s Atocha railway station. It was obvious that he’d had a terrible time of it. We talked for a while and Davide said that he would aim to depart at first light the next day. I headed back to my tent and cooked my dinner under the scrutiny of a not-characteristically-shy marmot lounging on some rocks a dozen yards away. It began to rain for the first time in days; I zipped up my tent and shut out HRP-world for another night.
I was up early next morning, though not early enough to catch Davide who I wouldn’t encounter again. The morning was cool in the shade and, once I’d saddled-up, I dug into the deeply zigzagging 500 metre climb to the Hourquette d’Ossoue (2,734m), warming myself with the exertion. With each switchback to the south, I was confronted with Vignemale’s north face – its upper reaches suffused with morning sunshine. The clarity of the light subverted perspective, bringing the mountain startlingly close. In good conditions, the climb up to the Hourquette (steep mountain pass) offers one of the finest mountain-views going. The view from the Hourquette also offers fine views of Vignemale as well as the first glimpse of the towering Cirque de Gavarnie to the east.
At the splendid Refuge de Bayssellance, around 100 metres below and west of the Hourquette, I filled up with water and had a pause to enjoy the beautiful view and the warm sunlight on my face. The refuge had already disgorged the previous night’s complement of walkers and climbers, some of whom I could see making their way up to the Petit Vignemale (3032m) – a subsidiary peak of the main attraction. From the refuge, the path descends 800 metres rather precipitously to a plateau, winding above the Gave d’Ossoue on its way down. I passed a number of climbers on their way up, who would most likely have camped on the plateau the previous night. Reaching the plateau, I walked to its eastern end and here crossed the Barrage d’Ossoue dam. The walk from here to Gavarnie takes around three hours and is straightforward with 500 metres descent and little height gain. However, because my thoughts were on completing the second section of the HRP, having a rest for a couple of days and meeting up with Fiona – as well as the more immediate prospect of fresh food and a shower – I wanted to get it over with; for this reason the walking felt quite tiring, especially because the heat mounted oppressively as I descended.
I was glad to arrive in Gavarnie and make my way along the main street, which was a-bustle with summer visitors – tourists and catholic pilgrims on a day trip from nearby Lourdes as well as the occasional sun-dried walker like myself; down from the hills and wearing an expression like a flamingo caught in the penguin enclosure at the zoo. I was knackered, but in an extremely good mood when I arrived at Camping de l’Auberge at the southern end of the village. I love this campsite, it’s friendly, cheap, well-facilitied in a ramshackle way and the view of the Cirque de Gavarnie has to be one of the best campsite prospects in the world. I pitched-up, showered, shaved and laundered and then sauntered in to ‘town’ for provisions. In the evening, I cooked and consumed a huge and very tasty ratatouille and washed it down with a few plastic mugfuls of Bordeaux. Happy, stuffed, content, I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept the sleep of the dead.
The next few days were holiday. The following morning, I hitched down to the spa town of Luz Saint-Sauveur to watch the Tour de France pass through (two hours of support and merchandise vehicles – La Caravane – followed by a 20 second, Technicolor blur of bicycles and lycra) and to buy some new boots as my old pair had recently become the opposite of waterproof. I tried the new boots out the next day by striding 1,400 metres up and down Piméné (2,801m) – a peak with spectacular views of the Cirque de Gavarnie – and, happily, I developed no blisters.
The day after that, I hitched down to Luz again to meet Fiona. We stayed the night at the formerly-grand-looking Hotel Panoramic et des Bains and enjoyed a good dinner sat on the hotel’s terrace. In the morning, we shopped for supplies for the days ahead before hitching back to Gavarnie where we would be staying for the next couple of nights at the Hotel L’Astazou (named for one of the Cirque’s 3,000 metre peaks). Like many French hotels, L’Astazou is a symphony in chintz, but the proprietor, Mme Gaby – a chain-smoking femme d’un certain age, with a wit as dry as the Sirocco – is a wonderful cook and we took advantage of her culinary skills in an attempt to stock up on calories for our imminent exertions. In view of our impending seven-day walk to Salardu, we thought it prudent to have a practice-run for Fiona to limber-up and on our last day off we scuttled up and down Piméné again. Fiona managed this no problem at all and so we spent our last evening enjoying dinner chez Mme Gaby and looking forward to the epic walk that lay ahead of us.
From Gavarnie, the HRP climbs south-east for three hours, in steep zigzags at first, past the Refuge des Espuguettes (2,027m) and on up to the Hourquette d’Alans at 2,430 metres. The route from Gavarnie shares the same path as the climb to Piméné, until a fork in the path 200 metres below the Hourquette, so it was all beginning to be very familiar, although no less enjoyable for that. As we climbed to the Hourquette, I fell into conversation with an indigenous teacher who had brought his class out to the mountains for a couple of days; his charges puffing their way determinedly up the steep incline. Griffon vultures, common to this region of the Pyrenees, wheeled above us, perhaps hopeful that one of the children might expire, undetected, behind a rock.
It was really hot as we descended the Vallée d’Estaubé and we were getting through a lot of water. Happily, the path follows the course of a stream that feeds into the Gave de Estaubé, so we were able to keep stocked up. The path continued north-east down the valley until it passed the dammed Lac des Gloriettes. From here we continued descending on a small road until it intersected with the D922, where we turned south-east and traipsed several kilometres up the tarmac on a slight incline to the hamlet of Héas (1,500m).
Just the other side of Héas is the Auberge Le Refuge, which has rooms, a camping barn and camping area. We opted for the latter, but took shelter in the barn as a sudden deluge struck. We were soon driven out though, when a party of French walkers and their über-jolly guide (‘ronfleurs la-bas!’) arrived. We were knackered and it was wet, however, we ran into the Gloucestershire Three – Barry and Roger, now happily reunited with Marcus – who were also camping at Le Refuge and on their recommendation we went to eat at the auberge back in the village. The food, including a superlative beef casserole, was great and significantly restored us; so, as we tottered our way back to the tent for the night, our esprit de corps was good.
We woke up to clear skies in the morning, struck camp and made our way up and away from Héas on the first section of the morning’s 1,100 metre climb. I was fully recovered from the previous day, though Fiona was uncharacteristically lagging behind. I took some of the weight from her pack and we continued on up in the gathering heat. After a slight navigational blip – re-descending for 100 metres – before ascertaining that we were on the right path after all – we arrived at the Cabane d’Aguillous (2,320m) where we ate and rested for a short while before striking out for the Hourquette de Héas (2,608m) on the impressive Crête des Aguillous. We made our way across the rocky landscape and on up to the Hourquette with the sun beating down on us. The views from the pass were magnificent and we stood and admired the prospect before zigzagging our way 300 metres down the steep east side of the col. Fiona was lagging again on the way down and I noticed that she was looking weary and a little unhappy, however, I wasn’t too concerned as I thought we would be less than two hours from our destination at the Lacs de Barroude, without too much climbing ahead.
As it transpired, the next couple of hours involved a slog up to one pass on a gradual but energy-sapping incline followed by a second after a short descent. I was tired when the Refuge de Barroude eventually came into view, but by the time Fiona took her pack off she was exhausted. I pitched the tent above one of the lakes, against the impressive backdrop of the Barroude wall rock face and Fiona went to recover with a hot drink and some chocolate in the refuge. When I went to join her, she was literally speechless with fatigue; I was now worried about her and wondered if the HRP might be proving to be all a bit too much for her. In the morning we would have to see how she was feeling and make a decision as to what to do then.
Shortly after dawn it became apparent that Fiona was much recovered as she refused to countenance yet more porridge for breakfast, insisting instead that we would go to the refuge and seek something more protein-based. Although they’d already made breakfast for the few walkers who’d stayed the night, the very lovely couple running the refuge made us a marvellous bacon omelette, which was a vastly superior option to yet more porridge. No contest.
The weather was quite blowy and a little unsettled and seemed that it could go either way as we set off on the gradual 160 metre climb to the Port de Barroude (2,535m) where we would cross into Spain. Although Fiona seemed fully recovered, we felt it prudent to have an easier day and take advantage of the facilities on offer in Parzan situated some 1,400 metres below the pass in the Valle de Barrosa and around three and a half hour’s walk away. The descent to the valley floor was steep at first then eased somewhat before reaching and then crossing the Rio Barrosa at around 1,700 metres. We passed a couple of Dutch lads whom we’d met at the Refuge the previous evening and chatted with them a short while before continuing on down the valley through a mixture of deciduous and coniferous forest. Eventually the path became a metalled track, which soon delivered us on to the A 138 road linking the Valle de Bielsa with the Vallée d’Aure to the north via the Bielsa tunnel.
We turned south and began the gentle 5km tarmac descent to Parzan; rain threatened, but we weren’t too concerned as we’d phoned ahead to book ourselves a habitación for the night in a family home in the village. Just as we arrived at Parzan, the rain came hissing and splattering down in a sudden downpour. We skipped frantically about trying to find the right habitácion and were more than a little damp before we located the house of Maria Lueros Ferrer. The house was immaculate and we constituted a slightly worrying prospect for the house-proud owner; however, we were shown to our room without too much fuss and we set about luxuriating in our clean, dry environment.
The rain stopped and, after a bath, we headed down to the road where there was a service station, hotel, café and shop to gather supplies and have a coffee. We encountered the drenched Dutch boys and told them that we were staying in the village, but with an air of determined desperation they insisted that they would be continuing on up and out of Parzan on the HRP later in the afternoon even though it looked extremely likely that more heavy rain was on the way. We admired their stoicism and had another coffee.
That evening we went to the hotel restaurant and were subjected to the sorriest excuse for a meal that either of us had experienced in a long time, served with an offhandedness verging on the hostile. After registering our disgust, we returned to our lovely habitación. A little later, we were hanging out of the window enjoying the cool night air when a sudden, sharp crack and flash of forked lightning rent the sepulchral sky, closely followed by the tumbling rumble of thunder. Then, as thunder and lightning sparked and echoed around the valley, it began to rain with an intensity I’ve never before experienced, not even during the monsoon season in Nepal. Stinging, fat droplets hissed and slapped against roof tiles, walls and cobble stones and sluiced into gurgling gutters and drains. It was wonderful to watch this display of elemental energy from the shelter of our room – we really had chosen the right night to eschew the tent – but we were a bit concerned for the welfare of the Dutch boys under canvas on the mountainside.
We were up before first light and the morning dawned cold and clear in the rain-washed sky as we quit our habitación. The morning’s walk involved a protracted 1,200 metre climb to the Paso de los Caballos (2,326m), including 11 kilometres on a dirt road, so we hoped to get as much of this done as we could before the sun rose over the pass and the heat of the day mounted. We kept an eye out for the Dutch boys, but they had probably walked on for a few hours the previous afternoon. The dirt road climbed steadily alongside the Barranco de Urdiceto and it was very agreeable walking in the cool morning air. Eventually, the track delivered us to the Urdiceto hydro-power station and we continued on a smaller track, eventually zigzagging up to the pass. The path contoured above the gully of the Barranco de Solana for a while and just before it started to descend into the valley through which the Barranco to Montarrugeos runs, we caught up with the Dutch boys who were resting and drying out. Their tent had protected them from the worst of the rain, but pervasive dampness had worked its way into their clothes and sleeping bags. However, they seemed in good spirits and the fact that it was a beautiful sunny day must have helped.
We carried on our way down the valley, the path upping and downing, crossing streams swollen with the previous night’s rain and winding its way through copses of mountain beech. We passed a large, lost group of Spanish teenagers who asked for directions and we rather misanthropically hoped that the campsite we aimed to arrive at in a couple of hours wasn’t occupied by similarly large groups of teenagers as this would hold serious implications for our night’s sleep. It was a beautiful afternoon and we continued on down the valley, pausing to pick and eat large quantities of sweet wild raspberries.
Eventually the path delivered us into the Valle de Gistain and we turned north following a track that ran parallel to the Rio Cinqueta. After a short distance a campsite was evident through the trees between us and the river, but horror of horrors: there were a number of marquees and large tents and many teenagers running around. As we neared the site entrance, our disappointment was compounded by the sight and sound of several hundred teenagers sat around trestle tables on which they banged metal plates in time to their chanting of some anthem or other. The whole spectacle put us in mind of a young fascist summer camp. It was obvious that staying here would not be a good idea, so we carried on disconsolately on our way, imagining that we would wild camp higher up the valley. However, a few hundred yards further on Camping Forcallo came into view; the site we had just passed was in fact a youth summer camp. Camping Forcallo has a lovely situation, with a fine view of the buckled strata forming the west face of Pico de Posets (3,375), the second highest peak in the Pyrenees. We pitched the tent, showered, then sat enjoying the afternoon sun in the shade of a few small trees.
We had had a thoroughly relaxing evening, so much so that we were a little tardy leaving in the morning. Fiona spent rather a while enjoying a shower while I struck camp and as a result I was miffed that we were leaving late. I am aware of my tendency to be a bit of a bossy-boots on walking trips; in fact sergeant-major Edwards is one of the politer nicknames I’ve been awarded by my good friends Andy and Steve. Coincidentally, my father was actually a regimental sergeant-major for part of his army career, so perhaps it’s genetic. Anyway, I failed to hide my displeasure from Fiona and we were in a sulk with each other as we headed up the valley past the beautifully situated Refugio de Viados surrounded by meadows sparkling with dew in the soft morning sunlight.
We had decided that from Viados we would take a three-day variant route, which co-opted the GR11 as far as Hospital de Viehla. This would avoid the most difficult section of the HRP, which involves difficult terrain, several high passes with steep scree and rock slopes as well as snowfields. I didn’t want to attempt this section with Fiona as I felt it might be too tough and scary for her and I felt a keen sense of responsibility for her welfare. Furthermore, in essence, the reason we were here was to enjoy a walk not to undergo an ordeal. As we headed northeast up the valley of the Rio d’Añes Cruses, I thought it best that we resolve our sulk. I suggested this to Fiona and apologised for being testy about our late departure, she responded to this with a pout and the declaration that she wasn’t ‘a boy scout’. I agreed with her acute observation and pointed out that leaving early meant that we avoided too much climbing in the heat and that there was greater risk of storms later in the day.
Having defused our mutual sulk, we crossed the confluence of the three streams forming the Rio Cinqueta d’Añes Cruses (2,080m) and began the steep 500m haul up to the Puerto de Gistain (2,572m). When we had gained the pass, we paused to enjoy the view of the Valle de Estos opening out beneath us and of the mountains to our east, including the monolithic Maladeta massif. The first section of the descent to the floor of the valley was formed by an impressive scree slope which we rapidly skittered down before our path led us into a meadow festooned with purple mountain irises and blue gentians. A small stream, which would feed into the Rio de Estos, emerged tinkling and sparkling from its subterranean lair, so we sat down beside it and brewed some tea on the trangia. It had become exceptionally hot, so we didn’t linger too long, but continued on down the valley past the Refugio de Estos – which was pullulating with Spanish families – and on until, at length, we emerged into the Valle de Benasque and descended to Camping Aneto, a very large, but perfectly agreeable venue for every conceivable form of non-static accommodation.
Once we had the tent up, I hitched the few kilometres down the valley to Benasque for supplies. I bought lots of fresh everything, but the one thing I couldn’t find was gas, which we were running short of. Back at the campsite, we had leisurely showers followed by a splendid ratatouille and a table spoon too much wine.
The morning followed the established pattern of clear skies and coolness in the shade. We set off in good time and walked around a reservoir through some woods, before picking up the track road which climbed very gradually for a couple of hours, mostly in the welcome shade of trees. We cantered happily along, playing numerous games of Botticelli – where you each think of someone famous or infamous and then have to deduce their identity through asking questions that can be answered with a yes or a no. The only other person we encountered was a tall, studious-looking German chap who was photographing flowers and who scampered off each time we caught up with him as if he feared we might force him into some form of social interaction.
The track continued as far as the Refugio de Coronas, a basic, unstaffed hut. Here, we sat in a beautiful wooded glade by the Barranco de Vallibierna and had some lunch. We then continued on up through a rocky, wooded landscape and arrived at a beautiful plateau – the Pleta de Llosas – surrounded by old pine trees and looking on to the southern aspect of the Maladeta massif. The Barranco de Llosas cascaded down the rocky channel of its own making, filling several plunge pools on its way. The Pleta presented an enchanting prospect for pitching the tent, but it was still relatively early and we had our sights set on some lakes an hour or so and 200 metres climb to the east.
It was a sweltering afternoon and after steering our way around the first of the Lagos de Vallibierna, we found ourselves having to negotiate a field of huge boulders, which made for tiring work in the heat. Eventually we emerged by the second of the lakes and we knew right away that it had been worth the extra effort. It is a beautiful spot and we quickly pitched our tent in the shelter of a rocky outcrop before stripping off and plunging into the breathtakingly cold lake. After swimming, we dried off in the sun and cooked some food, wary that our gas might run out very soon. A while later, after digesting our staple rice and tuna special, we went for another swim and noticed that some other people had pitched their tent on the other side of the lake. Once we’d dried off and dressed, we sauntered around to their side of the lake for a chat. They were a young German couple who had spent a few days walking on the HRP, but unusually they were walking from east to west. They planned to finish at Benasque the following day; however, they couldn’t be persuaded to sell their remaining gas to us even though they would have no further use for it.
After an excellent night’s sleep, we struck camp and, having used the last of our gas brewing tea and making porridge, we battered our way a few hundred metres up the rocky slope to the Collado de Vallibierna (2,710m). At the top we encountered another German couple who seemed to have bivouacked on the col overnight. They were also heading west. Fiona observed that perhaps this was because deep in the German subconscious lies the impulse to flee the advancing Russians. Or perhaps they don’t want anyone to think they’re going to invade. Anyway, whatever the reasons for this contrariness, these particular Germans didn’t want to sell us their gas either.
We descended a couple of hundred metres, crossed a stream and climbed a little to the Lago de Cap de Llauset, which we passed around before climbing a little more to the Coll de Rio Bueno (2,520m), from where we looked down on the four sunlit Lagos de Rio Bueno glittering beneath us. The path down the eastern slope of the col was steep, rocky and a little precarious; the ‘path’ around the lakes existed only as a concept marked out across the rocky terrain by a series of red and white GR11 waymarkers. Beyond the fourth lake we descended to a large open area containing three more lakes: the Lagos de Anglios; we really were in the lake district of the Pyrenees. We perched next to the most easterly of the lakes for a bite to eat, but our notions of going for a refreshing swim had disappeared with the sun behind the clouds.
After a rest, we began the 800 metre descent through the Valle de Salenques to join the N230 road which we would follow north to the Hospital de Vielha, our objective for the day. The descent was fairly gentle at first, following the Barranco de Anglios down through pine trees and alpenrose, but the path then tipped away steeply down a scree slope and entered a forest where it slalomed precipitously through the trees. Both stream and path eventually reached the floor of the valley where the former merged with the Rio de Salenques and the latter followed its right bank. The path, now broader and easier underfoot, continued descending interminably and I was becoming very weary.
We paused for a rest next to the river where the coruscations of water, sand and shingle had carved a broad, shallow plunge pool from the rock. Fiona was in the water in no time and persuaded me that this would be the best remedy for my weariness. With reservations I followed her advice, but once I’d submerged myself I felt considerably restored. On reflection, I was probably suffering from the cumulative effects of the heat and hauling a heavy pack up and over high passes every day. Still, I was feeling a lot better after my hydro-therapy, so we shouldered our packs, descended to the road and strode the final six kilometres or so through woodland on paths running parallel to the road.
Arrival at Hospital de Viehla marks the halfway point in the HRP traverse; it provides a neat equation: to finish the walk you have to do again roughly what you’ve done so far and that really does provide some perspective. Weighing such percentages was an ambulatory preoccupation for this HRP walker at least.
The refuge at Hospital de Vielha3 is situated near the Vielha road tunnel where (in 2006) there is also a huge construction site for a new tunnel. When we arrived, hot, dusty and thirsty, the refuge was closed and there were a large number of walkers basking in the shade outside, including several large French and Spanish groups. We fell into conversation with four sympatico Belgians who had just finished the ‘difficult’ four-day section of the HRP between Viados and here. Tough, but not too difficult, was their collective opinion. Next time, next time. On mentioning that we were out of gas, they produced a full canister and gave it to us. The refuge eventually opened and we had a shower, bought the Belgians a beer and then sat down for a decent dinner with 40 other walkers. The dormitory was packed, had low ceilings and no windows, so there was no question: we would wander up the path and find a camping spot for the night.
We found a good spot near the river, next to an abandoned concrete mill building and in the morning we ‘enjoyed’ an invigorating wash in the icy water. The morning was fine again and we set off early. The GR11 path crossed a few streams and climbed gradually up through a mixed forest of oak, beech and pine trees before crossing a clearing and climbing north in steep zigzags. The path then bent to the north-east and led us up to the Port de Rius (2,320m); from here we downed and upped a little before contouring above the large and impressive Estany Rius. We crossed the lake’s eastern outflow, abandoning the GR11, and climbed a little, following cairns over an otherworldly landscape of pools and large smooth-polished rocks. The elongated body of water that is the Estany Tort de Rius soon came into view and we continued following cairns south-east around the lake. Half way along, we caught up with the Belgians, who had left the refuge very early after a not very good night’s sleep.
After catching frogs with our Flemish friends awhile, we continued on our way, climbing above the lake’s southeastern end to the Collado d’Estany de Mar (2,468m), Here, we clambered on to a large boulder and looked down at the magnificent Estany de Mar shimmering miraculously in its rock-walled caldera beneath us. Surrounded by jagged mountain ridges, the lake is a ragged-edged ellipse around one and a half kilometres in length and a third as wide with a sizeable island sitting plumb in its middle; from above, the water is an impassive, deep night-sky blue This really is one of the finest views in all the Pyrenees – or anywhere at all – and it was worth every bit of the twenty day walk it took to get here and marvel at it. Along with the Belgians, we made the very precipitous and occasionally alarming descent to the lake. When we reached the western-most tip of the lake, our companions continued on their way, but we stopped for a brief, thrilling swim followed by a lunch of bread, cheese and saucisson washed down with tea. Cloud had been gradually bubbling over the ridge to the west and as we made a second brew – going wild with our new gas canister – there was a guttural rumble of thunder followed by a whip-crack flash of lightning. A few fat drops of rain splattered down and we needed no further prompting to pull on our waterproofs and make ourselves scarce.
The boulder-scattered shelf of ground above the south-eastern edge of the Estany de Mar made for difficult walking terrain; however, we were more preoccupied with the Wagnerian son et lumière show being performed amid the lake’s crown of peaks. It was raining, but not enough to spoil our enjoyment of the elemental spectacle. At the lake’s north-eastern end, we could see down to the dammed Estany de la Restanca and the eponymous refuge sitting at its eastern edge. The path zigzagged steeply down to a small grassy plateau, crossing several small streams in spate. We descended again to the edge of the lake and walked around to the refuge.
There were quite a few people about; Restanca is a large and very popular refuge a short distance from a road connecting it with the Val d’Aran. We bought a cup of coffee and rested for a while, before donning our packs and carrying on up the GR11, which climbed steeply, initially in zigzags, next to a stream. After 200 metres or so we reached the top of the climb at the source of the stream – the outflow of the very lovely Estany deth Cap deth Port. We worked our way around to the eastern end of the lake and pitched the tent a few feet from the water with splendid views back across the lake to the saw-toothed Serra de Rius ridge. It really is an idyllic spot, marred only by our having to share it with aggressively hungry mosquitoes. After yet another bracing swim, followed by dinner, we enjoyed the spectacle of a flame-hued sunset, which was reflected to spectacular effect by the lake.
By the time we struck camp in the morning, which yet again was cold and clear, we had watched the unusual spectacle of a stream of walkers filing past the lake on their way up to the col from Refugio Restanca. We joined the queue. It’s an excellent thing that so many people make the effort to come and enjoy the mountain environment, I just wish they wouldn’t all do it when I’m there. Having enjoyed the relative solitude of Haute Route walking over the previous weeks, joining a loud and shouty queue of people bustling their way up the path was not an agreeable experience. One young Spanish man we passed was obviously mortified at being overtaken by Fiona, on account of her gender, and huffed, puffed and snorted with effort to reassert his rightful position in the climbing order. Watching him struggle to overtake a pair of older French women, who were gaily chatting away as they tackled the ascent, was most amusing.
At the Coll de Crestada (2,475m), most of the large number of walkers ahead of us had gathered to admire the splendid view south-east over the Estany des Monges. Some would undoubtedly make the climb north from the col to reach the summit of Montardo (2,826m). We decided to extricate ourselves from the crowded hubbub and continued on our way; passing the lakes and crossing one pass after a slight incline, descending steeply, passing between yet more lakes and then climbing more steeply to the Porte de Caldes (2,560m). This was the last climb of this section of the walk and it was quite a relief to reach the Porte. We rested awhile and enjoyed the view down to the Colomèrs lakes, before starting the 550 metre descent to the eponymous refuge situated next to the dammed Estany Major de Colomèrs.
The area around the small refuge was teeming with day-trippers who had walked up from the nearby road. We perched above the lake and ate the last of our saucisson, bread and cheese as a helicopter buzzed back and forth, ferrying building materials to the site of a new refuge being built further around the lake. After eating we hoisted our packs on and set off on the final furlong to Salardu. Much of this three hour stretch was on the road and again the anticipation of finishing another section had the effect of making both of us feel very weary. The temperature had climbed as we descended and by the time we arrived at Refugi Rosta – a charming and idiosyncratic pension in the Placa Major, the old village centre of Salardu – we were hot, sweaty, dusty and completely knackered. A shower and clean clothes did a lot to revive us, but I was amazed by the reflection of myself in the shower room mirror – I’d lost a fair bit of weight and I was slightly alarmed by the blue threading of veins which stood out over my ribs and along my limbs. I would happily take advantage of the following days to put some weight back on before starting the next section.
It was now July 25th and I would be staying in Salardu until the 30th. Fiona would depart on the 28th and my friend Paul – a maths teacher and veteran of the previous year’s Lescun-Gavarnie walk – would be arriving fresh from the chalk face on the 29th, the day after the end of term. Salardu makes for an obvious start/end to a stage of the HRP because it is in the high mountains, it has all the requisite facilities and it is accessible by road from both France and Spain. The only problem is that neither myself, Fiona nor Paul had been able to find any information in advance on how to get to and from Salardu and Toulouse – where they were flying from and to respectively. My enquiries at French tourist information centres at Gavarnie and Luz Saint Sauveur had been met with Gallic shrugs ranging in intensity from the indifferent to the hostile. Obviously it was a ridiculous thing for me to ask at a French tourist office how I might get to and from somewhere in the Spanish Pyrenees.
We discovered that there was a tourist information hut in Salardu, so we made this our first port of call in order to clarify travel arrangements. As we entered the hut, a young woman who had been sitting over the road smoking stood up and followed us in. She adopted a defensive posture in front of the desk, scowled at us in an inquisitorial manner and folded her arms with such ill-concealed disdain that it made the average Gallic shrug seem like a gesture of heartfelt concern and solicitude. Our attempts to explain our needs were hampered by a combination of her manifest impatience and her inability to speak a little French, English, German or even much Spanish. True, the Val d’Aran has its own dialect, but we couldn’t help feeling that speaking a little French might be a useful skill for someone working in tourist information in a town where the overwhelming majority of visitors are French. Our inability to speak the Aran dialect had clearly upset the young woman and she curled her lip at Fiona’s strategic attempt to communicate in Spanish. Eventually, we managed to get the message across employing a mixture of Esperanto and pictograms and when she finally grasped what it was that we wanted to know the corners of her mouth curled-up and her eyes lit with an expression of triumphant glee. ‘No buses to France’ she said. Taxis then? ‘No taxis, not possible’.
We left the hut utterly discouraged. However, as we walked down the street, several buses passed in either direction and we noticed that every second house displayed a sign declaring: ‘Taxi’. Our suspicions were aroused. As it transpires, it’s not easy, but far from impossible to get from Salardu to Toulouse, though it’s more difficult the other way around. From Salardu you can take a bus down the Val d’Aran as far as the village of Les; from here you can take a taxi or try hitching over the border to the railway station at Montréjeau, which connects with Toulouse. Getting a taxi from Montréjeau to Les, it seems, is not possible.
We spent the next few days relaxing, taking gentle walks, foraging for supplies in the nearby ski-resort town of Viehla and eating at every opportunity. 50 yards from Refugi Rosta is a splendid old rustic barn of a restaurant unpromisingly named Deth Bot, but the food is excellent and plentiful. Two nights running we ate generously proportioned starters followed by perfectly cooked steaks the size of cushions. On the third evening Deth Bot was closed so we tried another restaurant, which disappointingly turned out to be a triumph of style over content. The most memorable part of the meal was the menu translations: What we took to be ‘Val d’Aran style steak in pepper sauce’, became ‘beefsteak in sauce and pepper seeds brings to the former one in the valley of they plough’.
On the morning of the 28th, Fiona left for Toulouse. Her taxi was fantastically late and apparently drove at hair-whitening speed all the way to Montréjeau. The following day, Paul arrived in the afternoon having hitched all the way from Montréjeau with all manner of conceivable convolutions en route. He arrived carrying the heaviest rucksack I’ve ever tried to lift, which was jammed to bursting point with food supplies for the next leg of the walk. We would need to carry provisions for eight days to get us to l’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre.
I was very happy to see Paul, he had been excellent company on our ten-day walk in the Pyrenees the previous summer and, furthermore, he is a fit, strong walker. Despite the fact that he’d been a bit unwell the previous week and had had almost no sleep the night before due to end of term celebrations, I felt sure that we’d make good progress during the days ahead. We split the supplies and repacked our rucksacks; eight days’ food weighs a lot and after sharing the weight of the tent, trangia, fuel and maps etcetera, our fully-laden packs weighed in the region of 30 kilos apiece.
That evening we had our dinner and a few drinks at Deth Bot and talked excitedly about the walk ahead of us. The first day’s walk from Salardu to Alos de Isil is the longest single stage of the HRP and it involves 1,500 metres ascent and the same descent, rough terrain in places and a steep climb to the Tuc de Marimanya (2,662m). Hauling 30 kilos over this little lot would be very challenging, but we felt equal to the task, especially after a couple of beers sat in our comfortable chairs. Shortly before we left, three English chaps arrived for a drink and we had a brief chat with them. They were also walking the HRP and, like us, were making for Alos de Isil the following day. The youngest of the three, Richard, was around my age and Ian and John looked to be in their early sixties. They were staying at a hostel up the road and had come for a drink after dinner, which they’d eaten in the company of 60 Spaniards who were on a coach-supported walking holiday. We agreed that we’d likely encounter each other tomorrow, wished them goodnight and went in search of a decent amount of sleep.
Up before dawn, we left Refugi Rosta as the sky began to lighten, filling our water reservoirs at the fountain in the Placa Major. My pack felt really bloody heavy as we trudged up the road towards the village of Bagergue. En route we passed the hostel where the Spanish walkers were boarding their coaches, thence to be whisked uphill to their point of embarkation for the day. After Bagergue, we took a path that climbed several hundred metres in steep zigzags; on top of the previous evening’s beers, the weight of the pack and the effort of the climb made me feel nauseous. Paul also looked how I felt. The path eventually joined a gently-gradiented track road at which point we both began to feel a little better and could enjoy the wonderful views of the Maladeta massif to the south-west.
The Spanish coach party passed above us on the road, cheating bastards, and we continued on up to the Plan de Beret (1,890m) where we joined the road for the Baqueira-Beret ski resort. A short distance along, Paul said that he felt he might be getting a blister. Understatement. In fact he had deep blisters the size of 50 pence pieces on each heel; we dressed them with moleskin patches as best we could and continued on our way. Paul was a bit put out as he’d never got blisters with his well worn in Scarpas before, but perhaps the combination of the weight and the steep climb from a standing start had taken his feet by surprise.
We left the road by the ski station and climbed up to the Estany Baciver (2,120m) on a bouldery route marked with red and white flashes. It was obvious that Paul was in some discomfort with his feet, though he was trying to keep it to himself. We stopped at the lake for a rest and to tend to Paul’s feet again. Approximately one coach load of very excitable Spanish walkers had arrived just before us, having disembarked at the ski resort below. We continued on our way up to the Estanys Rosari Baciver and as the path levelled out, the horseshoe ridge of the Tuc de Marimanya came into view. We knew that our path crossed the peak, but from here it didn’t look too daunting; indeed as we headed towards it, we caught sight of an impressively long file of people making their way along the ridge. We decided that this must be the other coach load of Spanish walkers.
We passed to the south of the lakes and began the last steep, bouldery 350 metres of the climb up to the ridge just to the south of the Tuc de Marimanya. From the ridge, we followed a faint track which led us around the eastern side of the ridge and then climbed toward the Tuc. The path became quite tricky to negotiate in places, not least because of the weight and bulk of our packs. We were soon in a steep, exposed position and feeling a bit uncomfortable with our situation. I was just behind Paul when he took hold of a rock the size of a microwave oven with both hands as he tried to swing himself around to another foothold; the rock pulled loose throwing him off balance and I instinctively grabbed hold of him as it leapt outward and bounced down the mountainside in great juddering, rock-cracking arcs. We watched it go and looked at each other, knowing that the rock could easily have taken Paul with it; as it happened, the rock had grazed his knee as it came away. I’m sure the pain from his blisters abated for a short while.
We made it to the top without further incident and perched among large rocks for some lunch, watching the Indian file of Spanish walkers snaking east along the Marimanya ridge. The sky was clear and the 360º views of the mountains in every direction were extraordinaryly good. However, the temperature was rising under the midday sun and we still had a long way to go. As were preparing to leave, Richard, who we’d met the night before, appeared in front of us carrying a large and heavy-looking camera tripod in one hand. He admitted to having carried it all the way from Hendaye, but pointed out that he, Ian and John – whom he had met on the third day of the walk and stayed with since – had sent home their tents, stoves and other camping kit after a few days and had adopted a refuge to refuge approach to tackling the HRP. Ian and John were making their way up the mountain a little way behind Richard, presumably employing the right track, which – we ascertained from Richard – we hadn’t: hence the scary and dangerous aspect to our route.
We took our leave of Richard and continued on our way east, descending a little down the ridge before climbing to the summit of a peak northeast of the Tuc de Marimanya (2,660m). From here we continued east along the ridge which, excepting the occasional cairn, was devoid of waymarkers. We were on the lookout for our route down off the ridge to the east and we found a slaloming path descending steeply through rock and scree, which seemed to correspond with what we were searching for. We skittered down the path and after a while realised that we’d come off the ridge too soon, the HRP descends to the south-east of the Estany d’Airoto and we had come down to the south-west. We studied the map and saw that it wasn’t too much of an issue and that we should be able to pick up a path which would take us to the southern end of the lake and we could rejoin the HRP again near there.
The path we found above the lake was very overgrown and bouldery in sections, but we put our heads down and battered our way along and then steeply down to the end of the lake. We made a beeline for Refugio d’Airoto – a small, unmanned mountain hut nearby. It has a beautiful setting, just above a smaller lake, sheltered by a few trees with a long table, benches and a tap outside. The hut itself has space for around four people. When we arrived, there were a few items of clothing drying in the sun and the sound of male and female laughter made its way up to us from the lake below.
It was very hot and bright in this rocky basin and I was a bit concerned that Paul’s nape wasn’t protected as he was wearing a baseball cap – although he insisted that he was fine – apart from the blisters that is. We filled up with water, glugged a load down and got a brew going on the trangia. We were both a bit knackered and the hut would make an agreeable billet for the night. If it was full, then there was plenty of space to pitch the tent. However, we were both reluctant to stop short on the first day and a rest and cup of tea were doing much to revive us. The owners of the laundry – a German couple – returned from the lake and we had a chat with them; they were staying in the hut and seemed quietly pleased when we said we were carrying on and understandably so – who’d want to share paradise with their lover and two sweaty Englishmen?
Soon, Ian and John rolled up followed a while later by Richard who had been taking pictures. They had seen us descend off the ridge and – big mistake – assumed that we knew where we were going and followed suit. A Spanish Basque couple turned up next so it was becoming a regular social event. As we were chatting away, a rescue helicopter clattered over to the Marimanya ridge, where the large group of Spanish walkers were, and after a couple of minutes clattered off again. Five minutes later it was back to repeat the process. We thought the most likely scenario was that several of the group had suffered from a combination of the heat and exhaustion.
Time to get moving again; Richard, Ian and John had elected to descend straight to the village of Isil rather than heading up over another pass and then down to its sister-settlement, Alos d’Isil; this would add three or four easy kilometres on tarmac the following day. Paul and I decided to stick to the ‘official’ route and headed for the pass. Except that we took the wrong path for the third time that day and ended up following the others down the path to Isil. We had 800 metres to descend and Paul’s blisters were giving him some serious grief; Richard gave him some Compede gel dressings which seemed to help, but I could see that at all was not well with Paul. Uncharacteristically, he was beginning to lag behind and then he stopped to throw-up. I wondered if he’d got too much sun on his neck, compounded by exhaustion from the strenuous walk with an extremely heavy pack. I’d spent the previous month doing this kind of walking and though I was fairly inured to it I still felt exhausted by the day’s demands; Paul, on the other hand, had launched straight into one of the hardest days of the entire HRP from a standing start.
We continued on down the valley; the others had forged ahead and were planning to find accommodation in Isil for the night. It was difficult carrying on descending knowing that Paul was feeling rough, but we had to find a viable spot to pitch the tent near running water. Eventually we made it all the way down the valley and found a camping spot near the river just a few hundred yards from Isil. I fetched water and cooked, but Paul only managed to eat a little before throwing-up again; the prognosis wasn’t good. All we could do was sleep on it and see how he felt in the morning, but I really doubted that he’d be able to continue.
Sure enough, Paul was feeling no better the next morning so we decided that he would hitch down the Vall d’Àneu from Isil in search of medication and that with rest he might feel well enough to hitch back up the Vall de Cardós the following afternoon to meet me at Refugio Certascan back on the HRP. This was a good plan; on one level I felt relieved because the prospect of continuing with Paul while he was sick and afflicted with large blisters was not good; it’s not a responsibility I would enjoy. However, I would miss having Paul’s company and, furthermore, I would have to carry all the camping kit on my own as well as a week’s provisions. After the series of navigational errors we’d made the previous day, I was also a bit worried about how I’d manage on my own in an unfamiliar region of the Pyrenees.
We set off down to Isil where Paul and I parted company. I strode the seven or so kilometres up the narrow, winding mountain road through Alos de Isil and on until the HRP parts company with the road, crosses the Palanca de la Peña by a footbridge and swarms uphill in a series of steep zigzags. On my way up the road, the hope that I might catch up with Richard, Ian and John had given purpose to my stride; I guessed that they would have got an earlier start than me, having stayed in a pension or hotel. After zigzagging for a short while, I caught sight of Ian and John above me disappearing into the coniferous forest cloaking the hillside. They were setting a good pace and my pack felt ridiculously heavy, so it cost me an effort to catch up with them. There was no sign of Richard – Ian and John told me that he had been suffering from what he thought was a cold for a few days and it had become much worse overnight; like Paul, he was hoping to get some medication, rest for a while and then catch up in a couple of days.4
We chatted a bit as we sweated our way up the path; I was glad to have their company and enjoyed the timbre and cadence of their Huddersfield accents, which put me in mind of Alan Bennett. Occasionally I’d walk ahead a little, but we kept together as the path left the forest, crossing a few streams, before zigzagging steeply up to a lovely little tarn. From here, we headed east crossing two false cols and negotiating some difficult, rocky terrain before climbing steeply to the Coll de la Cornella (2,485m). It was here that Ian mentioned that he and John – who had known each other since childhood and had married sisters – were both 68 years old. For a long time I’d thought that one couldn’t expect to take on this order of demanding physical challenge much beyond 50, but here were two living, breathing contradictions to that assumption. However, Ian and John are both exceptionally fit men who have put in years of serious hill-walking. Both were committed Munroists, Ian having climbed all 277 of Scotland’s 3,000 foot mountains as well as all the subsidiary ‘tops’. Ian had also been a fell-runner in younger days. It occurred to me that being out on the hills with the pair of them when they were my age would have made for a challenging experience.
We descended the steep scree slope on the eastern side of the ridge and headed for the Estany de Tartera where we stopped for a bite to eat – except for Ian who, it subsequently transpired, had a remarkable capacity for walking all day on breakfast alone. Ian and John soon continued on the route heading for the Coll de Curios, a relatively short climb to our east, while I faffed around with the contents of my pack. Faffing complete, I made a mess of finding the path up to the col under the sceptical gaze of the cows grazing the hillside, who paused in their activity to watch me beetling inefficiently up and down. Eventually, I caught up with Ian and John and, after admiring the views from the Coll de Curios, we continued climbing east until we reached the Coll de Calberante (2,610m) half an hour later.
From the col, we looked down on the midnight-blue Estany Major de la Gallina, which lay impassively amid an unusual landscape of rounded, smooth-polished rock. We descended steeply to the lake’s edge and followed a path around its northern shore to the outflow. From here we could see the three smaller lakes below and to our north and, just above the northernmost lake, the Refugi Enric Pujol (2,290m)5 – our destination. Rather than descending to the lakes as Mr Joosten suggests, we kept our height following an assortment of cairns along a spur. I was ahead of the others when I arrived at the point where the spur started to descend, offering a good view of the refuge, which has the appearance of a large Romany caravan without wheels, lashed to a large rock with steel cables. As I began the descent toward the refuge, a man appeared on the narrow balcony at the top of the stairs leading to the door. I raised my arm in greeting and he waved back. Strange that I often feel disappointed if I arrive at a refuge or hut only to discover that it’s already occupied. I don’t think its misanthropy exactly, rather it’s knowing that you have to delay relaxing entirely until you’ve ascertained whether the company is entirely benign or otherwise. Also, there’s the issue of whether there’ll be enough space for you to cook, eat and sleep in comfort.
In fact, Juan – who had also walked from Alos de Isil and was spending two weeks on the HRP – was on his own, or so I gathered as I speak no Spanish and he spoke no English. The refuge had space for nine people and now that Ian and John had joined us it seemed most unlikely that anyone else would arrive, as it was already past five and we’d seen no other walkers all day. After brewing a cup of tea, I went for an extremely cold and extremely refreshing swim in the lake; it had been another big walk and I was glad to wash away the sweat and dirt of the last couple of days. I’d realised that I had more than enough food for the following days – having taken more than half of mine and Paul’s supplies – so I took advantage of Ian and John’s lack of a stove to make them eat some of my rice, tuna and sun-dried tomato stockpile.
Somewhat surprisingly, eight young Polish people appeared, having approached from the east, and they proceeded to mill around seeking billets. I had my tent and didn’t really fancy trying to sleep in an overcrowded refuge, so I gave my place to one of the Poles and pitched my tent on a small parcel of grass just outside. A little later, various members of our transient community watched from the balcony or the area in front of the refuge as the setting sun lit the mountains to the east with an orange glow. Soon after, I turned in.
Shortly after dawn, I emerged from my tent at the same time as Ian and John tip-toed out of the refuge. I foisted some porridge on them then set about striking camp. By the time I’d packed, my new walking companions had already set off on the 600 metre descent that began the day’s walk. Shafts of light illuminated the refuge as the sun rose behind the saw-toothed mountain ridge to the east. I started the descent, plunging into the cold morning air pooled beneath the tentative reach of the early morning sunlight. I followed the stream flowing out from the lake and where it changed course, cascading precipitously toward the head of a valley, I slithered downhill after it on slippery, polished rocks. The path delivered me to the floor of the valley and continued following the course of the stream – the elaborately named Torrent de la Reia de Mullàs – through a beautiful sylvan landscape dotted with pine and birch trees. I quickly built up a head of steam and was sure that I’d catch up with Ian and John in no time; in fact I was most of the way down the valley before I even caught sight of them.
We emerged from the woods into a clearing then crossed the Riu del Port and entered a birch forest; our path turned south and contoured along through the forest before dropping a little to the east and delivering us to the beautiful and remarkable hamlet of Noarre. It is remarkable because it has no road access. While I’d acknowledge the importance and utility of the motorcar in the modern world, I’m not a fan and I enjoy being away from them, their noise, pollution and the mentality they sometimes foster. So, Noarre was a joy to behold; as well as being car and road free it is also a very beautiful collection of solid, rustic, stone-built houses and barns gathered in an open field just above the Riu de Noarre.
I checked my mobile phone for a signal (I hadn’t had one since Salardu) and was surprised to find there was one. Several text messages had arrived, including a few from Paul; the gist of which was that his condition had worsened and, having visited a doctor, he felt he wouldn’t be able to entertain HRP walking in the immediate future, making it unviable for him to catch up with me in the time remaining. In short, he was going home. I wasn’t surprised about his condition and although I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be walking together again on this trip, I was glad that he’d made the only sensible decision available. He would be no use to either of us on the HRP while he was ill. I felt a certain sense of liberation from the concern I’d had about Paul, but having the company of Ian and John probably made that an easier position to assume.
We continued on our way, north-east up the valley of the Riu de Noarre; the path climbed among birch trees and arrived at a small cascade where it ascended in steep zigzags through pine forest, crossing beneath another cascade and climbing a steep grassy slope before eventually arriving at a beautiful marshy plain. Ian and John were some way behind me, but I continued across the plain and on up a steep rocky slope studded with dead trees. The path then made for the Riu dels Guerosso, which it followed upstream past a number of cascades to the Estany Inferior de Guerosso, where I crossed the outflow and climbed steeply east then north to the Estany Mitja de Guerosso and a little higher to Estany Blau de Guerosso. I perched on a rock and tucked into some bread, cheese and saucisson.
There was no sign of Ian and John when I finished my lunch break, so I continued east-south-east up the final pull to the Coll de Certascan (2,605m) following a series of small cairns. The col is described by Mr Joosten as ‘a small gap in the ridge south of the Pic de Certascan’, however, there were two such gaps above me, either side of a subsidiary peak, and the cairns had disappeared. I could make out a vague path winding up the steeper of the two scree and rock slopes, so I elected to go with that one. It made for a calf-jarring climb and I was relieved to get to the top, that is, until I took a look down the other side. Mr Joosten says that the east side of the col is ‘steep’, but that seemed to me to be a wild understatement. I gazed down the alarmingly precipitous and very long scree slope beyond which a large body of water – the Estany de Certascan – was momentarily visible before the clouds below me engulfed it once more. However, I was still fairly sure that I’d made the right choice, so I gingerly began the descent keeping my weight back so as not to pitch forward down the very steep, very long scree slope – I was far from sure that I’d be able to arrest my momentum if I slipped.
Standing sideways on to the slope and leaning back, I ‘skied’ right to left, diagonally across and down the slope; it was very exciting and more than a little scary. I ‘skied’ into the lee of the rock cliff bounding the scree slope at its northern edge; from here I was able to descend for some distance on the solid rock at the foot of the cliff. Eventually it became clear that the slope at the foot of the cliffs would soon drop vertically, so, keeping a good distance between myself and the drop, I ‘skied’ diagonally across and down the scree once more. Beyond a rocky outcrop, the slope gradually eased and I was no longer in fear for my life as I ‘skied’ faster and more directly down the slope.
At the foot of the scree run, I noticed a series of red and white waymarkers painted on the rocks running from north-west to south-east and it was immediately clear that here I had intersected with the real path running down from the Coll de Certascan. What had I come down then? Looking back up the scree slope was even scarier than coming down it, because perspective made it look even steeper from below. I congratulated myself for my cool descent and scolded myself for losing the path yet again, this time with potentially hazardous consequences.
I followed the (waymarked) path down toward the Estany de Certascan crossing and recrossing a stream on the way down. Just before reaching the lake, the path turned south-east and plied a route above its southern shore, eventually dropping off to the Refugi de Certascan, below the lake’s southern end. The wind had picked up and I was glad to arrive at the very charming and well-maintained refuge. Juan had arrived a while earlier and we sat inside together as I tried to explain my (mis)adventure to him employing a combination of English, French and sign-language. Though clearly bemused, he nodded along in an encouraging fashion as my story reached its scree-slaloming climax, but apparently he felt no need to add any insights of his own.
I went and sat outside for a while and had to fight off the attentions of a large and persistent burro hanging around outside. I assumed that he was used for ferrying supplies up from the road and he assumed that if he applied enough physical and psychological intimidation, I would give him all the food in my rucksack. Ian and John arrived a while later having descended by the proper route and sometime after them a large group of friendly and voluble Spanish Catalans rolled up having spent the day climbing the Pic de Certascan.
I had planned to pitch my tent near the refuge, but the wind had become stronger and it had started to rain for the first time in days. Eventually I decided to stay in the refuge as it was so lovely and later that evening I sat with Ian, John and Juan for an extensive and enjoyable meal washed down with several carafes of wine. I would have slept very well that night if it hadn’t been for the people in the bunks opposite using their headlamps to send text messages in the small hours. This was the first night I’d legally spent in a refuge since the start of the walk and now I was reminded of the inherent advantages of a tent.
I must have got back to sleep, because I was woken at the crack of dawn by the rapid-fire rattle of Catalan clattering around the refuge at a volume more appropriate to the stands of the Camp Nou when F.C. Barcelona are hosting Real Madrid. After breakfast, we loaded up and prepared for the off. Juan was first out of the gates as usual and I departed the refuge shortly after in the company of Ian and John. The gaggle of Catalans loitering outside puffed and gesticulated in astonishment at the size of my rucksack and one man was even moved to heft the pack while it was attached to me, in order to confirm his suspicion that it was far, far too heavy. Still holding my pack, he turned to his comrades and imparted the news that it weighed more than was strictly advisable, but that’s just an informed guess.
Rather than feeling embarrassed by this public scrutiny, I felt a certain pride. Many long distance path walkers, myself included, are obsessive about the weight they carry – my mate Andy once removed the shaft of a plastic disposable razor before allowing it near his pack. Watching him attempt to shave with the remainder was most entertaining. Travelling light is a secular cult and you often hear middle-aged kit-fetishists, such as myself, boasting about how light their new tent, boots, waterproofs, sleeping bag, etcetera are. Apparently, buying the right kit demonstrates one’s outdoor pursuits acumen. However, just now, I felt that the Catalans were regarding me with respect rather than mocking my over laden condition. I was someone to be reckoned with – the man with the heaviest pack on the HRP!
We set off down the path, descending a short way before committing our first navigational error of the day. We were looking for a path that climbed in zigzags to our left and we found one except it didn’t quite do what we were expecting it to, so we continued descending to a dirt road. Once we got to the road we could see our error. However, checking the map, we saw that if we followed the dirt road as it contoured southeast then north we would arrive back on the HRP after three kilometres; this seemed infinitely preferable to climbing 300 metres back up to the pass we should have taken.
After a half-hour yomp we arrived at Estany Romedo de Baix and faffed around a good bit before eventually reuniting ourselves with the HRP. We crossed the outflow of the lake and descended the valley by the east bank of the Riu de Romedo. At first, the path was vague in places and difficult going underfoot. After descending for half an hour or so we had to cross the river at a point just below a small, beautiful cascade and pick up the path on the opposite bank. The water was knee-deep, very cold and very clear. The river wasn’t fast moving here and Ian elected to wade straight across in his boots. John and I were a little more circumspect; we took our boots off, tied the laces together and hung them round our necks then shod our feet in flip-flops and trainers respectively. We forded the river using our walking poles for balance and once across we perched on some boulders to dry our feet.
It was a lovely spot, but we had another big day’s walk, so we couldn’t afford to hang around. Once re-booted, we followed the path as it bent away from the river and began a steep zigzagging descent through woods. After losing a couple of hundred metres altitude in this fashion, the path delivered us to the Pla de Boavi – a large flat area with immense pine trees dotted around its perimeter. There were a few people wandering about who had presumably taken the road up to the plateau’s western end. I was a little ahead of Ian and John, so I sat on a rock in the shade of a pine tree and had a snack.
My companions soon joined me and I shared some food with John, though Ian was abstemious as usual. We were soon shouldering our packs again and we made for the footbridge over the nearby river. Mr Joosten counsels that care is needed when crossing the bridge; however, in the three years since he’d written his account all but its supporting piers had disappeared, perhaps washed away when the river was in spate. So, off came the boots again.
Having crossed the river, the path began to climb in deep zigzags – we had 1,000 metres of ascending between us and the Coll de Sellente. After a while, I left Ian and John behind and continued to dig in to the climb at my own pace. Soon the path reached the Riu de Sellente, which it crosses then bends away from before swinging back again. From here, the path climbs alongside the river until it crosses a large plateau in the upper section of the valley. It was very hot and I was sweating freely as I pulled myself and my bloody rucksack up the path.
Eventually the path climbed away from the river in large zigzags and as I looked up, trying to trace the course of the path from below, I saw a lone walker ahead of me; I was fairly sure it was Juan. Spotting him put renewed purpose in my stride, I upped my pace and made my way up the zigzagging path. Juan soon disappeared from view at the point where the path led on to a small flat area; by the time I arrived at this plateau he was already out of sight further up the path ahead.
Mouldering on the small plateau were the crumbling remnants of what, some years before, had been the Refugi de Sellente; its broken piles of stone and timber giving the appearance of devastation wrought by a mighty storm. I continued the climb up beyond the old refuge and, at length, the col came into view with Juan silhouetted against the skyline. When I reached the Coll de Sellente (2,485m), Juan was long gone; looking east into the amphitheatre enclosed on three sides by the Circ de Baborte, I could see him working his way down towards the Baborte lakes. Perched above the lakes on a bluff is the unmanned Refugi de Cinquantenari (also known as Refugi de Baborte). The refuge is almost identical to the Refugi Enric Pujol – except that it has been painted lifeboat-orange.
I made my way down the rocky slope and across the floor of the amphitheatre, crossing a couple of streams, before climbing the bluff and arriving at the rear of the refuge. I was hot, drenched in sweat and bone-tired; I would quite happily have called it a day at this point, but I thought I’d wait and see what Ian and John wanted to do as I was enjoying the camaraderie of their company. However, I was fairly sure that they too would have had enough for one day by the time they arrived here. I opened the airlock-like door to the refuge and was dismayed to see that there was a large sack full of rubbish in the vestibule that some selfish tossers had felt above taking down the mountain with them. Apart from this minor monument to small-mindedness, the interior of the refuge was in reasonable order and somewhat cooler than outside. I dug the trangia out of my pack and got a brew on.
Back outside, I draped my sweat-soaked t-shirt over a rock, took my boots off and took up position – sat with my back against the refuge, cup of tea in hand – watching the Coll de Sellente for signs of the indomitable duo. Sure enough, within ten minutes two figures appeared on the col, dithered for a minute and then struck off on an idiosyncratic course towards the refuge.
I had some tea ready when Ian and John arrived, fully expecting that they would exclaim their relief at reaching journey’s end for the day. However, I was soon disabused of this notion. Though happy to pause in the shade of the refuge for a few minutes with a cup of tea – or an ascetic mug of hot water in John’s case – the boys had evidently decided that they would continue on to the Refugi de Vall Ferrera, two or so hours’ walk on from the Cinquantenari. I was knackered and ready for a good rest, but I decided to keep Ian and John’s company and, furthermore, it would be another two hours’ walk nearer to Banyuls.
The boys set off while I was packing up and I followed them around the eastern shore of the largest Baborte lake to its outflow where the path dropped precipitously, slaloming a course through scree and scrub. Where the path briefly levelled out on a small plateau, we encountered two young men in scouting apparel hefting large cooking pots and wearing concerned expressions. It transpired that they were looking for a stray group of thirty children whose dinner they were lugging up the mountainside. We promised vigilance and continued on our path. Happily, a few minutes later, we caught sight of the stray waifs and sent them off in the direction of their ambulant dinner.
Our path tumbled down through woodland and eventually carried us along the north bank of the Noguera de Vall Ferrera. We crossed the river by means of an ancient-looking stone bridge and climbed a little to a dirt road, along which we encountered our first motor vehicles for a few days. After ten minutes pounding up the road I parted ways with Ian and John for the night as they headed for the refuge and I carried on a short way to the Pla de Boet, a very pretty flat-bottomed valley traversed by a meandering stream and framed to the north, east and south by a horseshoe of mountain ridges. Fairly exhausted, I found a pleasing spot, pitched the tent, washed, cooked, ate and turned in for the night.
I managed an excellent night’s sleep and woke to the first serious rain I’d encountered since the Pays Basque – certainly the first to provoke spontaneous donning of waterproof trousers. While striking camp, first Juan and then Ian and John came past heading for the 600 metre climb to the Port de Boet (2,509m). Loading up with my still-too-heavy pack, I picked up the path and began the climb. The rain had a certain novelty value and the resultant coolness was very welcome after the punishing heat of recent days. I caught up with the rain-caped figures of Ian and John a little before the saddle and we swapped notes on our previous evening’s experience. There had been no beds left at the refuge and they had had to play the part of weary old men struggling along the HRP in order to secure accommodation for the night in the form of mattresses on the dining room floor. Dinner had apparently been served very late, almost provoking a randonneurs’ revolt.
Crossing the saddle, we passed into France for a brief visit and descended past the Étang de la Soucarrane, attempting to hold a course by decoding a variety of often-unrelated way markers. I arrived at the floor of the Vallée de Soulcem somewhat in advance of Ian and John and as the wind and rain had become heavier I made for the shelter of a hut a few hundred yards away across the Ruisseau de Soulcem on the eastern side of the valley floor. The hut was locked, but there was some protection from the elements to be had by standing in its lee. I waited for about twenty minutes without Ian and John appearing; I was getting cold and wondered whether they’d stopped further back so I decided to carry on, sure that they’d catch me up when I stopped for some food. I began the climb to the charmingly named Port de Rat and the Franco-Andorran border (2,540m). I’d already gained a hundred metres or so before I spotted Ian and John heading up the road from lower down the valley, which suggested that they’d headed further down-valley before crossing the stream. They’d also spotted me and I waved to let them know that I’d see them up ahead. In fact I’ve not seen either of them since.
I continued on up through the rain; the shoulder straps of my rucksack had been biting into my shoulders since myself and Paul had departed Salardu laden with supplies, but today the discomfort seemed worse. The effort required to pull myself the few hundred metres up to the Port de Rat seemed disproportionate and once I’d crossed the col I climbed down a few metres to get some shelter and eat something. My first view of Andorra was of a rather uninspiring out of season ski resort. While I remained in this bloated little principality, I would encounter little to improve on this impression.
The rain eased off as I began my descent – both real and metaphorical – into Andorra. The sun emerged and the heat rose. I arrived at the road which climbed in deep curves up to the ski resort that I’d looked down on from the Port de Rat. Rather than walking along the tarmac, I hacked across country until I arrived at a large, ugly, restaurant and car park area. I plonked myself down at an outside table and removed various layers, conscious of the curious looks of people sat in the restaurant or milling around the car park area. I was feeling a little misanthropic and decided to get on my way as soon as possible. I followed the path to the rear of the complex and climbed to the popular Tristaina lakes, continuing on my way without lingering to enjoy their evident natural beauty.
At the eastern end of the largest lake – Estany Primer – the path descended steeply, following the course of the Riu de Tristaina then crossing a new dam before descending once more on a large ski piste. After about 300 metres of descending, the path arrived at an old track road which made for easy going. Unfortunately this only lasted for a few hundred metres before the HRP chose to deposit me on the main mountain road. It wasn’t busy, but I still felt less than happy trudging down the winding road in the heat. I was feeling quite weary – probably the cumulative effect of the last few days – and this was also influencing my mood. I plodded down the tarmac and eventually came to a junction where the HRP left the main road and gradually climbed for a couple of kilometres to a small car park and visitor centre at the road’s end. From here I followed a dirt track towards the Refuge de Sorteny and on Mr Joosten’s advice I took a ‘short-cut’, which ended up being a scramble through tangled undergrowth – not what I needed at this juncture. Extricating myself from the malign foliage, I arrived at the dirt track once more and climbed gently for a couple of hundred metres to the refuge.
The Refuge de Sorteny is one of a number of municipal refuges in Andorra, which are functional – all iron bunk-bed frames and concrete floors – and rather soulless, but a welcome provision for the weary randonneur. They’re also free, so not to be sniffed-at. There were a few folk around when I arrived; some obvious day-trippers and others who’d come up to stay at the refuge from the car park below as well as a couple of other HRP pilgrims. The latter were easy to spot on account of their lack of any spare flesh whatsoever in the slightest. Among these was a chap I’d seen at the camping ground on the Col de Lizuniaga that very first evening in the Pays Basque. I introduced myself to Patrick and he said that he’d also recognised me: ‘You were there that first evening, camping on the col with your father, no?’ I’ve not yet told Matthew about this exchange; given that he is in fact only six years older than me, it might ruffle his feathers a little.
Myself and Patrick spent a while swapping metaphorical notes on the HRP experience and a little later he pointed out two other obvious HRPers to me. Thomas and Amélie, who’d walked the route together, proved to be a pair of very agreeable young people. Amélie had had the idea to walk the HRP and Thomas had responded to her advertisement for a walking partner. They were both very enthusiastic about their HRP experience and Amélie declared that it was great being only eight days or so from Banyuls because you just couldn’t give up at this point, could you? We all concurred. A little later, another Frenchman named Jacques joined the clique; it seemed that there would be quite a party of us continuing on the path tomorrow. In the meantime, I’d been periodically casting anxious glances down the path, hoping that the indomitable duo would stride into view, but it wasn’t to be – I wouldn’t see them again.6
The morning promised rain and my first concern was to head back down the path to try and find my map and mapcase, which I’d evidently lost while rootling around in the undergrowth the previous afternoon. There was no sign of these items, so I headed back to the refuge to pick up my still-too-heavy back pack. The rest of the HRP posse had already left and I set off at a determined pace, intending to reel them in. First up was a 750 metre climb up to the Collada dels Meners (2,713m) as the cloud descended. I passed a foursome of young French walkers who were enjoying a few days’ walk in the region, but there was no sign of my fellow Grand Randonnistes. The weather descended as I ascended, battering my way uphill against the gathering wind and rain. I felt an urgency to find the others because I was a bit chary of being caught on my own in bad weather, at altitude and with potential navigational difficulties. By the time I reached the col I was virtually running, despite the incline and the weight of my pack. I erupted over the pass into the midst of Thomas, Amélie, Patrick and Jacques, who were all mightily surprised by the steaming vision, clad only in shorts and t-shirt, that was suddenly manifest before them. The weather had become quite foul and there was a hectic donning of waterproofs before we lunged off the pass in a surge of common purpose. A sociable morning’s walk followed and the weather improved along with my mood.
After a brief stop at a cabana to brew some coffee and share a few of our meagre supplies, we climbed steeply over a ridge and looked down on the Val d’Incles and the small town of Soldeu to the south-east. I left the others to a picnic lunch and carried on down to the valley; first descending north to the large Estany de Cabana Sorda and its eponymous refuge, before swinging east then south to the valley floor. Past the lake, the path was very well trodden and there were numerous people walking up from the valley below, all wearing the aura of slightly too much civilisation. I hit the road and headed north for a kilometre to Camping d’Incles where I intended to pitch my tent, have a celebratory beer and a shower before hitching the few kilometres back down the road to Soldeu to replenish my supplies.
However, on arrival the Auberge d’Incles looked forlorn and long-closed. The camping ground was fenced off. Bugger, I thought. I briefly pondered my options before dumping my pack and heading back down the road to Soldeu. I stuck my thumb out as I walked, but no-one stopped to pick me up though several motorists nearly ran me down. By the time I had walked to the bleak agglomeration of hotels, roads and garages that was Soldeu, my good mood had evaporated. There was no sign of any shops; I asked at a garage and was told that there was one a further two kilometres down the road: that would make a round trip of 10 kilometres. I couldn’t face it; instead I stomped irritably back up the road to Camping d’Incles.
A few hundred yards from the defunct campsite I espied my fellow walkers lounging by the roadside. Amélie was harvesting several large bushes for their crop of wild raspberries. I joined her, enjoying the sharp-sweet explosions of flavour as I popped the tiny fruits into my mouth. Thomas, Amélie and Jacques planned to follow the Véron route from here to the Andorran retail-hellhole of El Pas de la Casa via the Refuge de Siscaro, where they would spend the night. Patrick had opted to take the same route as me: to l’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre via the Refuge de Juclar. Thomas volunteered to buy me a canister of gas in El Pas – it was very unlikely that I’d find any of this precious commodity in l’Hospitalet – and we arranged to meet at the Refuge des Bouillouses, to the east of Pic Carlit, in two days’ time.
We set off together in high spirits under the afternoon sun and after about twenty minutes we reached the junction where our paths diverged. It quickly became evident that Patrick had decided to continue with his compatriots rather than keep the company of an hysterical Englishman. I wasn’t unreservedly keen on him either, but it felt a bit like a rebuff, so as I went my solitary way I felt a certain heaviness in my heart.
The walk up to the Refuge de Juclar was a pleasant 400 metre climb beside a lively stream and I passed a small group with fishing rods and a pair of spaniels, who were obviously intent on fishing in the Estany de Juclar. After an hour or so I reached the lake and soon found the refuge – another of the unstaffed municipal variety – and gratefully unburdened myself of my rucksack. There were a few people around so I thought I’d bag myself a bed for the night. I opened the refuge door and stepped inside; there was a small fire going in the hearth and around a dozen adults and children were spread around the two tables occupying the main area between the rows of bunk beds. I said hello, but didn’t really elicit a response other than a few suspicious glances. I felt unwelcome. These people had most likely walked up from the car park by the defunct Auberge d’Incles with their groceries and I’d walked from Hendaye with my home on my back and they didn’t want me there. I turned around and left. One’s mood can significantly colour one’s response to and interpretation of situations and exchanges and I would acknowledge that since crossing the Port de Rat the previous day, my generally cheery disposition had been somewhat compromised.
Once outside, I noticed a metal door on a side addition to the main body of the refuge. It was open and turned out to be a little winter room with two bunk bed frames and a table. I installed myself forthwith. A little later, as I sat outside enjoying the early evening sun I was approached by a middle-aged French couple. They were very friendly and we chatted a while about our respective walking pursuits – they were in the middle of a week’s holiday in the region – and when I mentioned that I was low on gas, a canister was fetched from their packs and they insisted that I take it. This cheered me up considerably – their generosity more than literally having enough gas to burn.
My supplies were absolutely minimal since I’d failed to restock in Soldeu, so that evening my dinner comprised porridge with a few raisins and a cup of tea. I turned in early and listened to the hubbub from the main part of the refuge percolating through to my austere little cell.
I woke before dawn the next morning, ate the last of my porridge and left before anyone else was up. The path followed the southern shore of the larger of the two Juclar lakes and then crossed the narrow isthmus between them. There were a couple of tents perched by the western shore of the smaller lake and as I approached, the spaniels I’d seen the day before started up a barking barrage and flew from the tents in pursuit of potential assailants. I impolitely suggested that they desist, but they continued – evidently not familiar with the lexicon of English expletives.
The climb of several hundred metres to the Port de l’Albe was agreeable in the cool morning air. I sat a short while on the pass looking down into France and unpicking my route from the terrain below as the sun rose from behind the Carlit massif to the east. I then exited Andorra, entirely devoid of fond feelings of regret; the immediate descent from the pass was a steep scree slope and I skittered my way down, happy to be putting distance between myself and the principality.
After losing a couple of hundred metres, I arrived at the Étang de l’Albe and steered a course around the western shore of the lake. The route was marked with red and white paint flashes and led me through a field of large boulders which made for hard going in some places; of all the terrain I encountered in the Pyrenees, I liked fields of large boulders the least: I find stepping or hopping from rock to rock with a large pack very tiring for some reason – perhaps it’s the combination of physical effort combined with the need for close concentration.
The path then descended past a couple of smaller tarns to the Étang de Couart where the boulder-hopping scenario became significantly worse. At one point I nearly lost my balance, spinning 360° as I landed on a rock. If I’d fallen I wouldn’t have been walking anywhere for a while. I continued, feeling more and more drained, descending next to the outflow at the lake’s eastern end. It was here that I went wrong: consulting map and guide book, but not compass, I started descending the wrong valley. I was a little unsure from the outset, but I was concentrating on keeping on my feet in the interminably rocky landscape. I’d been off-course for about 15 minutes and lost 300 metres altitude when I realised what I’d done. At the same time, I encountered a man walking up from the valley below and he confirmed my suspicion. He asked where I’d come from, ‘Hendaye’ I replied, ‘Well you only have three hundred metres to climb to regain your path’, he suggested encouragingly, but I realised I couldn’t face the climb back up through boulder world; so I thanked the man and carried on down the valley. That’s it. I’d given up. I was no longer enjoying myself: I was fed up with rocks, porridge, Andorrans and walking on my own.
After 45 minutes my path joined the GR10 and after another hour and a half I was in the village of Mérens-les-Vals eating large pains-aux-raisins and sipping excellent coffee. I phoned Fiona and she booked me a flight home for the wee hours of the following morning. Just like that, I gave up and went home. I’ve not regretted doing so since, but it’s just that I’m going to have to do the whole bloody walk again at some point. Aren’t I?
1 See ‘Pyrenean Pathology’ in issue 2 of Ken 360
2 GR=Grande Randonnée. The GR10 and GR11 are the two other long distance paths that traverse the Pyrenees, the former on the French side, the latter on the Spanish side.
3 The various ‘hospitals’ encountered when walking in the Pyrenees – Vielha, Benasque etc. – refer to the ‘hospices’ or staging posts for travellers and pilgrims – including those journeying to the holy lands– that were often established and maintained during the Middle Ages by charitable foundations such as the Knights Templar, the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and the Knights Hospitaller.
4 Richard did in fact catch up with Ian and John a week later and walked with them for a few days before he had to give up through feeling unwell again. His ‘cold’ it transpired was a serious liver infection that subsequently hospitallised him for some time.
5 Also known as the Refugi Mont Roig
6 We have, however, exchanged a number of emails. It transpires that Ian and John repaired to a hotel in nearby El Serrat that evening as John was feeling unwell. They rested up there for a further day before continuing on their way and arriving in Banyuls-sur-Mer on August 16th.