We’re lucky. The evening before the start of our holiday, we get a text message that our sister (in law) set up her tent in the town where we’re going to arrive by train. She’s willing to bring us to Lescun, the start of our trip. This time we’re going to hike a stretch of the Pyrenees between Lescun and Bagnères-de-Luchon. We are going to hike on and near the HRP: Which route to take depends on the weather, the beauty of the wildlife and the desire to climb. The HRP serpentines through France and Spain, so we’re going to cross borders a few times the next days.
We say goodbye at the parking place Pont Masousa, the next three weeks will consist of walking, eating, sleeping but especially enjoying. Of course we will shoot a lot of photographs. While climbing through the valley of Lescun, our photographs suddenly turn blurry. What happened? We checked everything? Inspecting the lens reveals the UV-filter is broken in a hundred pieces. It is meant to protect the lens and did that job perfectly. Without filter the lens would be ruined and we wouldn’t have any photographs of this holiday.
The way up is a bit crowded. Several jeeps drive by and it is well accessible on foot because of the high parking place. We expected to find enough water, because a large part of the path is next to the Gave d’Ansabère creek. It turns out to be dried up. Dry riverbeds will be encountered a few more times this trip. We arrive at cabane Ansabère, a shepherd’s hut. A sign tells about Patou, the shepherd’s dog. Patou works on its own and protects the flock against wild animals. Walk around the flock of sheep and nothing will happen. If you fail to do so, they will attack. After a break, we continu to Lac d’Ansabère. About half an hour later, a flock of sheep crosses the path and we end up in the middle of the flock… three Patou’s arrive instantly, barking and growling furiously. Luckily they do not show their teeth yet. Time to hare away, slowly taking more distance between the flock and us and then walking around the flock. We’re being looked after by the dogs for a long time, but they approve of our little detour. Luckily.
We continu our way along Lac d’Ansabère. A little climb, walking over a ridge, going down again and we arrive at Ibón de l’Acherito. Looking around with the binoculars, we spot five tents. The wind is picking up, so we don’t want to put our tarp near the lake. A bit further is a beautiful flat spot, just behind a small hill, no wind. That’s our spot. The sun sets, it’s 12C and a herd of cows pass. Time to go to sleep. Which fails. The wind picks up again, even behind our small hill. Especially the gusts make the canvas flap powerfully. We open the rain beak, so the wind can pass freely. The flapping lessens immediately. When the wind finally sets, a herd of cows clangs by. Then, finally, quietness. At seven o’clock the next family of cows arrives. Two calves are interested in our cooking utensils and our tarp. They are kept off by their mother.
We proceed our trip and see loads of hikers climbing from the parking place near la Mina. Hopefully it will not become too crowded, perhaps they move in another direction then us. We climb to col de Pau and Pic de Burcq. The progress is fast as the path remains at the same altitude. We see another flock of sheep and its Patou in the distance. The Patou exerts every effort: when two griffon vultures approach, Patou scares them off. At the time we pass cabane de Lapassa, another flock of sheep crosses our path. We take a detour that costs us half an hour.
We enjoy a coke at refuge d’Arlet and ask if we might join for dinner. Our trip will take around 19 days and we have food for 10. We hope to re-supply in Gavarnie, but we will need to eat in a hut once in a while. This is the first one. We count two other tents in the neighbourhood of the hut and about 45 persons having dinner. Thus most people sleep in the hut. The food tastes great. When we pay, we ask for the weather: Next two days the weather will be good, then clouds will arrive. During the weekend it will rain, followed by a long period of beautiful weather.
From refuge d’Arlet we go to col d’Arlet. This is not the official HRP, the official trail runs over asphalt today. The valley Aguas Tuertas, located behind col d’Arlet, is indicated as particularly beautiful on our map. That valley looks like a much better choice than the asphalt. We follow animal tracks down into the valley. In the valley a river meanders beautifully, next to it runs the GR11.
At the end of the valley our path joins the GR11, that we follow the rest of the day. Outside of the GR10 and the GR11 we don’t meet many people, but both GR’s are crowded. After a path over rock we enjoy a view over Ibón d’Estanés. A large lake, with a lot of people on the beaches or diving in the lake. It’s nice and warm for diving. All day we were having problems finding water. Next to the lake we find a small source and decide to take five litres with us. Within a few hours we are going to bivouac and we’re unsure if we’ll find water there. Almost at the end of Val d’Aspe we find a nice place to camp with a creek passing along. Today we’re going to try one of the Norwegian meals made by DryTech. We took a few with us, next to the normal meals we have from Adventure Food. The DryTech meals taste very good, asthey should be considering how much they cost. We enjoy our game casserole in the sun. Next time we will boil the meal in our saucepan as it is not so easy to eat from a long bag with our short spoons.
We leave Val d’Aspe and col de Causiat behind us and head for Candanchú. Wintersports paradise with up to 39 km of piste! We find a supermercado that doesn’t do siësta. We buy sunscreen as ours is almost empty, a loaf of bread and luncheon meat. Finally something else for lunch than tour bread. After lunch we continue over asphalt to the next ski area: Astún. From there on we walk over footpaths again. We pass Ibón del Escalar and go to col des Moines. When we take a small break, a guy arrives and gets his map. He asks if we walk the HRP too. A piece of it, yes. He looks at his map, says that he wants to walk the entire HRP in 28 days and starts walking (running) again. We later hear that the record is 26 days. Incredible. We descend to Lac Bersau and head for refuge d’Ayous. The tail-end of our route today, at least that’s what we thought. It’s so busy at the refuge, it looks more like a campsite. We move a bit further to the next lake (Lac du Miey), which is entirely ours tonight. From here you also have the great view on Pic du Midi.
This night we upgrade our tarp: the rain-beak flaps easy in the wind. We lengthen the guy-line that runs along the rain-beak with 50 cm and the flapping becomes much less. We’re back in France and proceed on the GR10: Pont de Bious, Lac de Bious-Artigues, and then the quiet path to col Long de Magnabagt. Near the col we find a shepherd’s cabane. He sells goat cheese and sheep cheese. At first we thought of going to col de Lavigne via Crête Lavigne Chérue, the high path all along the valley. When we arrived at the col, we were already tired enough and needed to climb a lot more this day, so we decided to go via the direct path to the next col. Then decending 600 meters to the D934 and trying to find the GR10. The GR10 runs around reservoir Lac de Fabrèges, where the drought does not go un-noticed: the level of the reservoir is at least 10 meters under its usual level. We find the GR10 en start climbing throught a forest full of horseflies. The flies help to keep the pace up. We go further up through Val de Lurien and pitch our tarp next to the decayed cabane du Lurien.
Next to us a mountain marmot is eating and wagging its tail. Around us, rainclouds gather. In our valley it doesn’t start to rain, but at night we see thunderstorms passing in the valley we were yesterday. Each second a lightning bolt flashses.
The next day we walk to refuge d’Arrémoulit, via col du Lurien and Lac d’Artouste. Refuge d’Arrémoulit is a small and classic refuge. The innkeeper is a nice guy and a good cook. We share the table with a French family and two French ladies. We even have a conversation half French, half English and a bit of sign language. Especially the son of the family is talking all the time. Our tarp is pitched on flat ground near a house-high rock. During our dinner it starts to rain, hail and storm. We’re in the refuge, but will our belongings stay dry? At the end of the dinner the rain is over and it’s time to inspect the tarp. A bit of splash was the only water we found under the tarp. Everything inside is still dry. In the night the wind picked up again.
Now the route continues to col d’Arremoulit, Ibones del Arriel, high path through the valley to refugio de Respomuso and then to the valley to collado de la Faixa (col de la Fache). The refuge is big and new. It looks like the GR11 has been moved. According to our map the GR11 doesn’t run along the refuge, but today the red-and-white marks point to the refuge. Enroute to col de la Fache we pass an unfinished weir. The weir was already entitled “unfinished weir” in our guidebook from 2002 by Ton Joosten. Behind the weir two young mountain marmottes are playing. They are not scared of us and we stay a while and watch. We’ve climbed a bit further and found a nice place to pitch the tarp. We pile up stones along the tarp, because wind and rain has been predicted. We use a SPOT to regularly report our position. We did this also at this bivouac: we press the OK button, leave the beacon for half an hour and then want to turn it off. Though all lamps indicate the SPOT has finished sending the position report, it does not want to turn off. After a few attempts, we remove the batteries. And off it is. At around nine o’clock we hear a helicopter arriving at the valley. We take our camera, this one is coming close! We’re even more astonished when it flies over our tarp and turns back to us. It’s a helicopter of Guardia Civil and it lands about 10 meters of our tarp. Two man get out, they know our names and ask if everything is alright. They only speak Spanish, no English, so we’re having a rough time trying to communicate. We clarify that we are ok, they photograph our passports and they’re gone. They take off right over our tarp, our belongings fly through the air and they leave us wondering. What the hell happened? If this is because of our SPOT, our family and friends must have seen that a helicopter was sent for us. How will they find out everything is alright, that nothing happened? We don’t have any cell reception here.
We gather our belongings. Our saucepan lies 10 meters from its original spot, our windscreen 20 meters away, at the other side of a creek. Then we climb a bit, perhaps our mobile phones work from there. Unfortunately no reception. With less than half an hour of daylight remaining, it promises to become a rough night. We set the alarm for the next morning. After a fast breakfast we pack our gear and leave. We think we have the best chance of reception at Collada de los Musales, a half day walk from our current place. We swiftly walk on and arrive at the col at around ten. We call our parents: our SPOT has sent the “HELP” message instead of “OK”. That’s why the people at home became uneasy and worried and help was called. Luckily they had had a message back that everything was ok with us. After this adventure we returned to our bivouac spot and moved on to col de la Fache, in the direction of refuge Wallon. We pitch our tarp next to a small lake half-way the col and the refuge. We awake with grass-feeding sheep around our tarp. No Patou to be seen luckily. We descend to refuge Wallon and drink a coke. The hut is ran by youth who are busy peeling potatoes in the sun. We ask for the weather forecast and got this reply: Like now, sometimes the clouds move in, sometimes they move out. Despite the day started with rain clouds, it ends in a shiny blue sky.
A number of bridges are present near the refuge to cross the fast flowing Gave d’Arratille. We take the path to Lac d’Arraille. By following spots of paint one can climb fast to Puerto de Arratil. Then we move through rocky terrain to Puerto de Cauterets. Small snowfields might be present until late in the season, but we encounter none. After the col we descend almost to refuge des Oulettes de Gaube. We put our tarp up between the boulders with a view to the Vignemale and its brother Petit Vignemale. We prepare our dinner and hope for a cloudless night. Maybe we might make a beautiful night photograph, with the stars and the Vignemale on it. At the start of the night, the moon spoils it, too much light while she rises just behind the Vignemale. Time to set the alarm. At night 6 Spaniards pass our tarp on their way to the Vignemale. We see the light of their head-torches reflect on the glacier a little later.
If we leave the next day, we see two groups of people at one third of the Vignemale climbing. The two remaining guys are descending over the glacier. We walk on to Hourquette d’Ossoue, where the path to the Petit Vignemale starts. It looks like a traffic jam on that path. We walk past refuge Bayssellance, the highest manned refuge in the Pyrenees and start the long descend to Gavernie. We’re amazed when we’re being asked what summit the Petit Vignemale is and if one needs crampons to climb it. How well prepared are these people?
Gavarnie consists of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s possible to rent a donkey or a horse to ride to the best place to view the cirque. We are still stuck in another rhythm. Yesterday we looked at the map if a creek was flowing near the campsite, for drinking water and to wash… Only to find out half a minute later that a campsite would have flowing water from a tap. We have longed for the showers at the campsite, but they’re freezing cold. We have dinner in one of the restaurants, buy some food in the supermarket and head to the mountains again.
We take the path through the forest to refuge des Espuguettes. The sun shines brightly, so the coolness of the forest is very welcome. When we arrive at Hourquette d’Alans after the refuge, we’ve already climbed another 1100 meters. We find a nice spot for our tarp high in the valley of Gave d’Estaubé. Just after dinner we hear a strange, high and aggressive mooing. We take our binoculars and see a group of twenty griffon vultures attacking a small calf. The calf has the size of a dog and is alone in this part of the valley with two sisters and two cows. The other cows of the herd are at the other end of the valley. The vultures try to isolate the small calf by walking towards the cows with their wings flapping powerful. The two cows make sure the calves are always in between them, out-of-reach for the vultures. One cow runs to the vultures, mooing vigorously. The vultures are impressed, because a few moments later the small group of cows can return to the rest of the herd. This night the vultures will go to sleep with an empty stomach.
The next morning we see the sheperd looking after the little calf. We walk on and see a bridge near Lac des Gloriettes. That bridge is not on our map, but it is a shortcut of the route we want to take. We are very pleased with this shortcut as the path around Lac des Gloriettes is not the most interesting. The stretch after the bridge is very fast. We go to Montagne de Pouey Boucou, to cabane Groutte. This path keeps about the same height. The official HRP descends to the valley and climbs at the other side of the valley. We think it is more beautiful to walk along cirque de Troumouse. It will not be shorter in time, as we will walk a longer path, but at the same heigth. We pass auberge le Maillet and walk on to the cirque. From the valley clouds start to appear. When we arrive at Troumouse, the clouds start to ascend. With low visibility this site becomes a maze of footpaths, but we find the right way. The navigation is not easy, as we find out Lacs des Aires on the map is dry in reality. Half an hour later we arrive at the concrete cabane les Aires. We cook our dinner, but prefer to sleep under the tarp.
During cooking our dinner two people arrive at the cabane. They would like to sleep there, which is no problem of course. We were already planning of sleeping under our tarp. They arrived via Col de la Sède. On their map (IGN, scale 1:25000) a path is marked from that col. On our Spanish map, scale 1:50000, no path is drawn. We want to go to that direction too, but don’t know if there is a path on the other side of the col that goes in the good direction. And with dense fog it will not be easy to find such a path. Too bad it is not possible for us to take the more accurate maps with us. The choice we had to make was simple: Either take 3 maps with scale 1:50000 with us, or 12 maps scale 1:25000.
The next morning the clouds have been dissolved partly. First we’re helped with packing by sheep, after them the cows arrived. Were they trying to help or did they smell the loaf of bread we bought in Gavernie? Today we go from cabane les Aires along the high path to Ruisseau des Aiguilous, Hourquette de Héas, Hourquette de Chermentas and refuge Barroude. Especially Hourquette de Héas is very beautiful. The last part we walk over big granite rocks and you’ll have a beautiful view from the col. After Hourquette de Chermentas we descended and climbed a steep footpath that was not indicated on our map. This path is much more beautiful than the full descend to the valley and then all the way up again. The steep footpath evolves to a high mountain path over a rockband. Today we hear a few people talk about Pic de la Sède. We don’t get why this mountain is so popular. We pitch our tarp near the end of one of the Lacs de Barroude and see some Chamois for the first time this holiday. It will also be the only time this holiday. Later we talk to a guy who comes to the Pyrenees every year and he also saw only very few Chamois this year. He thinks this might be from a disease.
Tonight the wind picks up again. We open the rain-beak and the netting, but the gusts of wind let the canvas flap vigorously. A few times we fear the canvas might rip apart. Nothing happens. The tarp is much stronger than expected. Yesterday we were told at the hut that thunderstorms were forecasted this evening. Today we would like to end the day near a cabane, so we plan the longest leg of our trip: at the map we find a cabane near Las Collás, cabaña de Sallena. To get there, we need to climb 1200 m, descend 1700 m and also walk quite some distance. We leave early, walk a dull stretch over an unpaved road, asphalt road and then again 11 km over an unpaved road. At the end of this unpaved road we find a building of the electricity company and behind that a small cabane. We stop for today, we’re tired and hungry. We make soup, clean the cabane a bit and cook dinner. We see the rain clouds move through the valley, followed by thunderclouds.
The disadvantage of an unpaved road is that cars can drive there. In Spain quite some cars drive these roads. We count about eight that day. Especially the last car we do not trust. It stops a few times at places we do not expect. We don’t trust this and grab our backpacks and continu our trip. We have a few hours of daylight left and have rested a bit. Just before dark sets in, we pitch our tarp at a small rocky top above cabaña de Sallena. We nearly finished this giant stretch! From here we see that the cabaña doesn’t have a roof anymore. Beautiful view from the top. When we go to sleep, we see flashes of lightning everywhere. The thunderstorms came back. We don’t trust this rocky top bivouac, so
we grab our gear, put on our headtorches and descend to cabaña de Sallena. Unfortunately decayed and roofless. We pitch our tarp next to the cabaña and fall asleep. Not for long, because half an hour later the rain starts. And the hail. The lightning cannot only be seen anymore, but the thunder roars heavily. For one hour the lightning flashes 2 or 3 times per second, and then it finally is over. This kind of thunderstorms we do not have in The Netherlands. At half past four the storm returns, though not so violently as before. We’re happy with our tarp. It held very well in this weather. We didn’t put the side of the tarp all the way to the ground, so we had a bit of rain splattering. That it survived the hail is astonishing. Strong stuff, silnylon.
We proceed to Biadós. We try to get some foot at the refuge, but that is very difficult. A drink is not a problem, so after that we continu. Biadós is a small mountain village, but apart from the refuge no one seems to live there. The weed at most houses is at least a meter high. After Biadós we go through Valle de Añescruzes. We’re being followed by rain clouds, but they do not pass us. At the end of the valley is a cabane, our stop for the day. The weather is still unstable and the long walk of yesterday and the short night take its toll. Today we make a short day. Later we get some company of an old French man. He is in his early sixties and has a reprint of the original book HRP by Véron. He wants to walk the whole HRP in 45 days. Like written in the book. He is supported by friends and family. We talk and exchange ideas how to do such a tour. When we go to sleep the thunderstorms start again. It starts to rain and hail so hard that we feel drops fall even inside the refuge. Our tarp is happy to be dry and packed in the backpack. One night with bad weather like yesterday is enough.
In the morning the surroundings are even more beautiful: on the high mountains around us snow has fallen this night. We ascend through the wet grass to Puerto de Aguas Tuertas en descend again in France through Vallon d’Aygues-Tortes. Eventually we arrive at refuge de la Soula. The refuge is part of one of the buildings of the electricity company, we almost walked passed it without noticing it. We are starting to notice that most people who are touring the mountain huts arrive at a refuge between one and three o’clock. The rest of the day they hang around the hut. Nevertheless, we walk on to Lac de Caillauas. Everything around us is shrouded in clouds, we pitch our tarp at the only flat piece of ground near the lake. Yesterday we talked to Danes who told us to camp near Lac de Isclots. We thought that about four people would camp there this night. If we pass Lac de Isclots the next day, we find out that 13 man have camped there. Probably in such a dense fog as we had.
The only thing left for our trip is the part to refuge du Portillon. A beautiful part through rough terrain. First over rocky terrain to col des Gourgs Blancs. We pass some snowfields, but we don’t have to walk over snow yet. This year there is not much snow. In the rocky terrain cairns are built everywhere, which doesn’t make the navigation easier. From the col, the path continues with a steep descend between large boulders, then over a snowfield and then back up between the rocks. We arrive at col du Pluviomètre, that got its name from the large rain gauge nearby. We enjoy the beautiful view on Lac d’Oô and Val d’Astou. A view right into the low lands, what a difference with this mountainous terrain. From col du Pluviomètre we moved to the summit of Tusse de Montarqué and then to refuge du Portillon. The path over the summit has an equal length then the path around the mountain, so it sure pays off to go to the summit. This day was one of the most beautiful of this holiday. Technical terrain that will reward you with beautiful views.
From now one we come closer to home with each step we take. First we spend the night near Lac Saussat. We start walking a part of the GR10, the summit of Pic de Céciré and then Bagnères-de-Luchon. We would like to recommend Pic de Céciré. It is one of the higher summits in this area. Your view is higher than anything around you, with a view to the high mountains of the Pyrenees. At such a small distance from a city. We found a nice place to camp, somewhere near the ski pistes. Unfortunately here also, people drive around with jeeps. So we left again after dinner and put our tarp in the forest, just before sunset. Stealthy, a bit away from the path. In the meanwhile we saw some deers.
The last day we descend over the GR10 to Bagnères-de-Luchon and board the train.
Ton Joosten – De Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne
Uitgeverij Elmar, 2002
ISBN 90389 1252 8
IGN Carte de Randonnées, 1:50 000, No 3: Béarn
Mapa excursionista, carte de randonnées, 1:50 000, No 23: Aneto – Posets
Mapa excursionista, carta de randonnées, 1:50 000, No 24: Gavarnie – Ordesa