Saturday 4th June
I broke camp and it wasn’t long before I was pursued up the path by a herd of cows off to their summer pastures. It was to be a day of hurrying and feeling that I couldn’t stop. There were more stunning views when I eventually got to the top, passing a cabana (mountain hut) on the way by a divergence of the GR10, which in hindsight I should have returned to. I continued along the contour again passing many gorgeous flowers of every colour and shape and another field of marmots.
The snow started to thicken here shortly and I foolishly climbed around it. Not easy with a full 15kg rucksack on. I then had to take my boots off to ford a fast flowing stream but still I pressed on. I headed up through the snow field conscious of the large nimbus clouds coming over the mountain range behind me. I kept going and with sun fully out I started to see pink as didn’t have sun glasses on. Too late I realised that with my shadow in front of me at midday, I was headed up a south face and the north face was likely to be worse. It was. Much, much worse.
As I crested the top at 2700 m I realised my mistake as thick snow lay everywhere. Then the clouds and fog descended and for the second time I was in a white out. This was to prove far worse than the last time. I followed the GPS and headed from dark shape in the mist to the next dark shape that would loom out as I slowly and painfully descended. I was zig-zagging and changing my single walking pole from hand to hand trying to remember to keep it on the upper most side of the slope.
Suddenly my feet gave way and down I went tobogganing on my backside and rucksack. thundering downwards, I managed to roll onto my front and dig my hands into the snow but that did nothing to reduce my speed. I didn’t have an ice axe. I rolled over onto to my back and lay there, plummeting down, thinking my last words in this world are going to be SHIIIIIT. Finally I did manage to dig my feet in and came to stop shortly before the Lac d’Angles – otherwise they may have changed the name to Lac d’Anglais.
Luckily nothing was broken or lost and by some amazing coincidence I was still on the right path albeit I had descended 700 metres in a matter of minutes. In my shorts I was freezing, wet through and my hands were burning with the cold. My mouth was cracked and sore.
I decided to press on and look for somewhere warm to get changed. Bizarrely out of the fog I heard dogs barking and met three young French army cadets and their young Alsatian puppies camped on an island of grass in the snow. We exchanged snow news (which wasn’t good news in this case) and I pressed on down, anxious to get out of the cloud and my cold, damp clothes. Following a welcome, brief sunny period, to add insult to injury it began to rain. I passed a shepherd’s hut but decided to not go in as it looked damp. An hour later I arrived at dreary, deserted Gabas. I pressed on for Eaux-Bonnes but camped half way at the base of the funicular.
Tomorrow I will have to make some tough decisions about the next steps to the coast.
Wednesday 1 June
There wasn’t much open in Lescun except for a hotel, a bar and the épicerie which Maud and David were proud to announce was opening tomorrow. The Herbergements du Pic d’Anie was hunting lodge themed and oddly quaint. I enjoyed the comfy bed and homely food; vegetable soup, a sort of duck shepherd’s pie, crème brûlée and wine. I spent the afternoon chatting to a retired English couple in the bar in town. We talked about our children and our divorces and essentially put the world to rights over a beer. They hadn’t had the best holiday with the fuel strikes.
My own holiday plans also seem to be somewhat thwarted by snow. I thought perhaps heading to the warmer side of the Pyrenees and the GR11 might have a higher snow line. I was later proved to be disastrously wrong.
Lescun is the site of a famous battle on 7th September 1794. The 5th battalion of Bearnais and Luscon volunteers of 950 men women and children held out against 9000 Spanish, including the famous Gardes Wallonnes. Despite surprise attacks, killed 900 soldiers, captured 450 and lost only 100 soldiers themselves.
After breakfast on the terrace and gathering supplies from the épiscerie, I headed south for the GR11 across a mountain pass. Again it was incredibly beautiful and as usual I ate lunch at the top where not only had a refugio been constructed out of stone but so had a table and chairs. I met a French couple at the ridge and then descended to the other side where I saw some huge marmots.
Descended slowly and stayed at the refuge at the start of the GR11.
Thursday 2nd June
Having managed to fill the refuge with smoke from the fire and cut my scalp on the bunk bed I set off again. It’s surprising how much a scalp laceration will bleed.
The Gr11 climbed slowly into the mountains along a long straight track from the valley floor to another refuge at the head of a hidden valley marked by Neolithic burial mounds, wild flowers and marmots. One less timid marmot just sat on the path and we watched each other for a while before he ducked back into his burrow.
After crossing the lost valley I had lunch above a beautiful lake with eagles soaring overhead and lizards playing around my rucksack. However a wrong turn down brought me into Candanchu late. Candanchu was an eerily deserted ski resort but the auberge on the Spanish border was open, comfortable and did hearty and wholesome meals. I shared a dormitory with an American couple who were doing a circle of the lakes and met a South African couple also on the GR11. They had decided to bypass the next few days by taking the train.
I however decided to head back to GR10 “Chris” crossing the Pyrenees to try and avoid the highest peaks and snow. It was disappointing to not cover much ground eastward but things seen in the crisscrossing have more than made up for it.
I saw a few dead dung beetles on the path today. I guess they don’t live long because their diet is shit.
Friday 3rd June
Another long but excellent day. A plentiful auberge breakfast of bread, cheese, muffin, hot chocolate, coffee, yoghurt, bread and jam meant heading off at pace past the ski lifts and deserted ski hotel complex. I ascended along a river and up to lake which mirrored the mountains perfectly.
I crossed the snowfield confidently as the sun was shining and felt exhilarated when I reached the top. I was rewarded with spectacular panoramic views and with my crampons on made good time down the snow to another lake with good views all around. Descended to another beautiful valley which had noticeably more people than I was used to seeing. After a good solid lunch by the river of sausage and cake, I experimented with bathing my feet in the river and changing my socks. I think it helped as my feet were less sore and blister free that night.
It clearly was a popular valley as shortly after rejoining GR10 I came across a car park being built…Big Yellow Taxi!
Along the next Tarmac section an adder was sleeping by the side of the road. I met a fisherman briefly in the valley who asked what the speed of the rivers were like for trout. He passed me later on having changed and despite carrying all his gear, he had decided to head up into the next valley. The path builders had thoughtfully put a hand rail up for the next precipitous section. This seemed to heighten my own acrophobia and I trod very gingerly until I crossed the gorge which was in full flood down the canyon. I decided to camp in the woods.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Well, I am not surprised, especially if like my new found foes they wear bells and try to trample your tent in the middle of the night. I wasn’t sure what was causing the racket at first; the distant clanging like wind chimes soon became louder and louder accompanied by sounds of munching grass. Loud shouts, banging, wolf noises (yes I know) did nothing. Luckily, a half naked Englishman waving a torch around like a demented lighthouse did scare them away.
Water was in short supply on this leg, to the extent that I mopped the moisture from the tent with a neck scarf and squeezed it into my mouth. I wished I remembered to tie a bag around a tree branch. Luckily there was water at next village so I filled up here and also bought a spare plastic bottle. I was grateful for bringing the walking pole when I was chased by three angry dogs in the village.
Most people in this area seem to be speaking Basque and prefer Spanish or English to French (which I speak competently). It’s not only the panoramas that make the view beautiful. I am passing more and more wild flowers growing in abundance including purple orchids. I imagined the Victorian botanists collecting these specimens of alpine plants that we all take for granted now in garden centres. Here they grow in abundance – it’s magnificent.
Sadly there was no accommodation in Larun as one hotel was shut for repairs and the owner of the other was in hospital, so I spent another night in the wild on the ridge above town.
My route today was a long section of walking on Tarmac but also through some beautiful misty woods. The days often start with mist in the morning and then blazing sun by elevenses, and the clouds come back in the afternoon.
I had to remove a tick from my leg after pushing through bracken but I was relieved there were no signs it had started to bite or of infection.Neolithic stone circles and burial mounds added interest to yet more hills.
I have happened across Neolithic stone circles and burial mounds which added interest to yet more hills today.
The HRP in places uses roads, tracks and small footpaths but is often just a vague concept route which is impossible to follow without a map or GPS. Today it crossed the very well marked French section of the pilgrim’s Camino, although I was heading in the opposite direction. As a result I passed many clean and fresh smelling pilgrims (well, much fresher than me). It was a little like the Canterbury Tales with pilgrims of all ages, sizes and groupings all heading in the same direction. I tried to imagine each of their stories and reasons for Camino as I passed them all. There is even a plaque to one Francis Barthe who sadly died on the Camino.
At the top of the hill was a solar and wind-powered SOS phone, although in my current state water would have been more useful. I pressed on.
After passing a Spanish family who stopped their car to chat and advise me to visit the nearby caves, I soon came to a shepherd’s hut which made a pleasant lavender scented spot to spend the night.