Monday, August 30, 2010

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 15

Our last day (or 2).
Today we leave on the 6pm bus, and there's idle talk of an early start to rush the Breche, but no way is there time to do that safely, after a more realistic surfacing at 9am.  The weather clears and we pack up in first gear, leave our bags and treat ourselves to the long promised crepe and coffee - its midday by the time we take the leisurely path on the opposite side of the valley.

It leads gently to the fantastic Plateau de Bellevue and we stop for lunch there.

This way offers a much more certain start to a route for the Breche, to be remembered for next time, and affords majestic views of the cirque - it's name is well earned.

We take a cicular path down to a bridge at la Prade, pick up our bags, get some gifts, and jump on the bus.

Its takes about 2 hours to Lourdes, a bizarre and somber place, almost empty in the moody evening light.  The train is filled with pilgrims from India, Africa, Italy and closer to home, some carrying gallon cans of water.

In the morning, we eat breakfast, go for coffee twice, and wonder in Paris for a couple of hours.

Then we make our way to the Albert Kahn museum.  A banker who commissioned 15 amateur photographers to travel the world making images of ordinary lives being lived, in order to promote world peace before, during and after WW1, Auntie Beeb made a great series in conjunction with the museum and I've been dying to go see.  If you are interested in history, sociology or anthropology - forget that, if you like people and photography, go here, now.

Its two euros to get in, the museum is small but has great presentations for all ages, lots of films and slides and a vast but accessible archive, and Kahn's garden is the most lovely piece of groomed land I ever stumbled around in.  Our way doesn't end with bang or a whimper, but just quietly and in calm, in the same spirit as the walk.

There was a message in the text on a display case, which chimed for me.

'Inland, the photographers from the Archives of the planet discovered a countryside marked by what Jean Bruhnes called 'the subordination of the plant world to human will'.

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 14

Up and out by 8.15am under heavy cloud, with the hope of the Breche, we'll push our luck and see how far it will stretch.

A little way beyond the hotel, the path ahead is obscured by fresh earthworks from the previous nights storm, so we opt for the cascade first.  A guide ahead is unsure enough to reach for his map, so we don't feel too inadequate, just a little.  Water on both sides and ahead of us sounds about right, we'll go this way.

Incredible how much the landscape changes when framed by a little weather - even here, every step is a step of faith, imagination fills in the gaps. 

The grande cascade looms out of the mist after about 10minutes.  Then the cloud suddenly opens out a little and we see more of the cirque, with many more petit cascades still falling off the rock from the storm.

Its amazing to see it in the dreik like this, its prehistoric, muscular.

We um and arr for about an hour, trying to decipher the way up through new rockfall, what the weather will do next (predicted bad, we're still hoping!) and whether we have the stomach for 1300m up and the same again down in whats left of the day.

We haven't - we're tired and sore from our little trek, and need a rest.  Having seen the cirque in full thunder and lightning last night, we don't want to get caught out.  So we have an early lunch, and amble on a great little path to Refuge du Pailla along cutaway cliffs, with the town under us.  Its a lovely relaxed and quiet saunter, well worth it.

We get back to the tent just before the storm sets in again, and a two hour siesta makes us realise we were right not to go up - the Breche and Odessa will have to wait until next time, and next time we will build in proper rest days to our schedule, which we failed to do this time.

We go and get a pizza in town and feel a bit deflated.  Its ended with a whimper, not a bang.  Ce ca, so be it.  We'll take it easy tomorrow and go home satisfied, its been a truly awesome two weeks in the mountains.

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 13

I lay awake with the tent open and mp3s playing well into the night, a bit overcome with it all.  The Barrage d'Ossoue to Gavarnie is the end of the road for us, but the morning light greeted our last morning away from civilisation well.

We had a late-ish start, reluctant to leave.  It takes a little longer than expected, hot and humid again up, around and finally down into Gavarnie.

Its alpine grazing country, reminds me alot of the Picos de Europa - pasture, lowland, yet more flowers and new varieties, always.

We get in and go to the supermarket, then to a cafe for yellow food (omelette and chips, beer) to celebrate the completion of our walk.  I am shocked by the hot water that comes from the bathroom tap - it seems absurdly luxurious.  Within half an hour of sitting down the clouds come in and the rain starts.

Some French criticise Gavarnie for its tackiness, but its nothing by comparison to a British sea side resort, or even some of the lake district's fleshpots.  We wonder aimlessly in the tat-shops for a little while.  Marmot toys bleeping at us as we enter and leave remind us that the economy is entirely dependent on tourism, leaving little else.

The campsite 'La Bergerie' was described by the Swiss couple (who we saw again here) as 'simple', but they have obviously never camped in the UK!  Its very well appointed, but staffed by a hugely stressed and unfriendly woman.  Struck me as a 'great escape' gone wrong, as she plainly wasn't able to deal with the amount of work involved, and was rude for our entire visit.  A fellow french camper described her as 'un corpse' which may have gained something in the translation - harsh but true.  The rules and regulations of a campsite rankle with us after a week or more of free-camping, and we'll have to try and avoid using it again if we go back, which will be tricky because its the perfect situation for accessing the cirque and the walking beyond.

We socialise a little over dinner with 2 girls from Holland, cooking under the shelter as the rain turns persistent and then into a full blown storm, lasting about 3 hours - we are down from the tops just in time!  Plans for Tallion and the Breche de Roland tomorrow may be canned by the weather.  We make a run for the tent and hope it doesn't leak too much in the night.

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 12

A better nights sleep, but still awake with backache between 2 and 3am - foam mats are getting to be a drag.  We strike camp fairly efficiently in the morning, then wash and brush up at the refuge Oulette des Gaubes.

Then what feels like a fairly long stint up to the col for the petit Vignemale.  Its hard work and warm.

Maybe we don't see it in the best light, but this mountain is a shadow of the Grande Fache.  Its Saturday, and very busy, as there is a car park down from the glacier.  The ascent is also largely scree and rubble, and full of weekend walkers expelling air noisily - today, its overwalked.  Its still fairly impressive at the top, despite the racket there's pretty incredible views of the Vignemale glacier from above, and out to the south west and the cirque.

I realise suddenly I've lost some vertigo - I'm happily jumping from rock to rock on the summit without any thought of the air below - confident in my footing, enjoying a feeling of weightlessness - we've left our bags at the col.  A solitary woman brews up and takes the odd photo request.  We meet her later on the path down, it turns out to be Anna, who I have written about before - indeed, a woman that knows!

We hide from the midday sun at the Refuge de Baysellance, and eat our slightly stale rations from Wallon.  Then a last look at the very top

and a long haul down to the Barrage d'Ossoue, which we only start to enjoy about half way down.  At Henry Russell's grotto Bellevue I take my hat off and ping myself in the eye with the elastic - much cursing ensues, blinded by the light!  The glacier and waterfalls are increasingly stunning as we go down, the path increasingly lovely, as we mosey around overhangs and are granted another amazing vista, a snowfield to cross, and a distant view of the tops at Gavarnie.

I take a shower at one of the waterfalls near the Dam, trying to ignore the calor gas canister and tins bought down from above by the falling water, and rinse out some clothes.  Despite the nearby road-head it really is an incredible place to wild camp for the last time this trip.  We drink wine and think about how lucky we are.  The light bounces off the snow as sun sets.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 11

Wallon to Oulette des Gaubes, another incredible day's walk.

We start late but eat early, making up for the paltry offering at dinner with multiple visits to the buffet table at breakfast, stashing lots of stale bread and spice cake.  We don't feel too bad about this to be honest, just fortunate.  After a chat with a lovely family from Holland (satsuma donation most welcome!) we head off up the valley to Lac Arriolet.

This valley is gently beautiful and a very civilised incline up after our more strenuous day yesterday, it winds though trees in shade, over footbridges and onto flat slabs.  Perfect, accessible alpine country, Wallon is popular and this is why.

We stop for a paddle at the lake, then a steeper walk through boulders to a second lake, lunch and the col.  It's a hot rock desert.  Here we meet Vignemale for the first time.

Up to the Col de Mulets was pure zen drama.  So, it said, did you get it yet?  Your dreams and desires count for nothing, your fears and petit wishes for health, wealth and comfort are but a drop in the ocean.  La Montane isn't listening, it's indefatigable, it has its own story, a constant decay and metamorphosis.
This short section - a wilderness wave in the hill - is brutal and intimidating, and I loved walking in the rippling heat around the sickle shaped curve with all my stupid heart.

Up, then down and then some.  A fairly horrible decent off the north shoulder of the Vignemale, all 4 knees hurting now on a mess of rock.  A wash and a beer at the refuge, then to dunk our pins in the freezing river run off from the glacier - its not possible to hold them under for more than a few seconds at a time.  Pitch up on the sandy plain under the big one.

Its a great place, relaxed, friendly walkers.  We buy a litre of wine, decanted straight into our plastic bottle, eat our rice and watch the cloud move up in a solid wall to touch us before moving down again.  Mesmerising.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 10

This morning we climb Grande Fache.  We're up to the col early, but there's still one or two in front of us.

This mountain has real character - there are a few ways up, but the holds are fairly firm and its not an overwalked pile of shingle.  One might assess it (or parts of it) as a grade 1 scramble in the UK, though the rock is very different to anything I've climbed here.  I'm a little concerned about the getting down, and feeling the altitude as well - its breathtaking all right.  The last few metres offer a little exposure but nothing too serious.

We summit about 11am, and to think of it now, sitting in a small office with a brick wall for a view, my whole body tingles and blood rushes to my head.  The cloud has not come in yet, so we have a full 360 degree view.  At 3005ms this is the highest piece of land we have walked to unassisted.  We share the top with 2 others for a little while, then 3 more join us - then have it to ourselves for 10 minutes or so.

What can be said, that Murray hasn't already?

"The mind fails one how miserably and painfully before great beauty.  It cannot understand.  Yet it would contain more.  Mercifully, it is by this very process of not understanding that one is allowed to understand much: for each one has within him 'the divine reason which sits at the helm of the soul', of which the head knows nothing.  Find beauty: be still: and that faculty grows more surely than grain sown in season."

Its also a simple question of scale I think, especially now.  There is still much beauty in the world despite our worst collective efforts.  But there is nothing like a massive spike of rock to make you feel small - not belittled, far from it, but tiny nonetheless.  We are at once child and humbled adult.  We can relax, we are not in charge of this.  We are but guests, but we are charged with gentle custody.  How well will we discharge ourselves?

It takes an hour to go up, but an hour and half for us to come down.  Its alot easier coming down than I had thought, the path is much clearer than expected.  As we reach the col again, the cloud is gathering fast on the top, clearly demarking the French and Spanish sides of the mountain.   Climbers gather for other faces, but we know we have had the best of it for today. 

The way down to Wallon is a gradual but unrelenting drop, quite hard on the knees.  T's leg is quite strained after the summit climb and we could both use a rest.  After lunch, the way opens out into a picture perfect glacial valley, dotted with trees and streams.

We book for dinner and wash ourselves and some clothes in the lavabo.  The refuge is huge but friendly.  Dinner is unfortunately not - the non meat option is a tiny omelette for which we pay the same 16.50 euros.  This sticks in the throat a little because we are quite low on food, they won't sell us bread, but we want to avoid going down to Cauterets to resupply.  We make up for it with red wine and some after dinner chatter with a Swiss couple, and Chris, a Danish tour guide.  Lucky, hungry, tired, inspired.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 9

After another great feed at the refuge in the morning, we're off again by 8.45.  We decide on the Spanish variante in order to save time over to Respumoso, and to make a morning climb of Grande Fache the following day a possibility.

Up and over the Col and steeply down, to a series of lakes the colour of bleached teal, with fish of all sizes, leading to a path cut into the mountainside under Frondella.

Then another astonishing change in landscape - a Mediterranean mountain wilderness, cedar and fir trees, and sun baked stone paths.  We take a high path above the GR11 onwards to the dammed Embalse de Respumoso.  Hayfever, or a cold? My nose is streaming, possibly from the flowers of fir trees.

The refuge here looks good to stay, almost a hotel, but we buy bread (!unusual to get fresh bread in the refuges, mostly they need to keep it for overnighters), lemonade, beer, chocolate and nuts, and eat under cover of a cedar tree above the lake.  Find wild chives growing near a stream and take some for the pot.

We move on to rejoin the route, a touch confusing for a few minutes, but we follow our noses and locate the dam (Joosten's book says its unfinished, but its complete now) at Ibon de Campoplano - a stunning flat plain, the clouds dancing on the summits above.

We wondered whether we could camp here, and indeed its possible though a little exposed.  But we still have a few hours light and so instead we decide to narrow the distance between us and the summit tomorrow.

Up, and up some more to a spot a little way under the col.

Our highest wild camp, rocky at 2600m, even here we find litter.  Our dinner a mix of cous-cous and noodles, tuna and those chives, hot and soupy.  Then weak shandy and chocolate, should've bought another beer.  We walk up to a ridge overlooking today's walk and watch the sun set over a collapsed caldera. Yep, just 'a bit' better than the TV.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pyrenees Trip Report - day 8

We're both really tired today, and the sun is in the valley early, as we walk into it up to the Col  d'Arrious.  There's a change in the character of the landscape as we come up too - the water is colder, there is more of it running off the hillsides, the ground underfoot is rockier, and the bugs are hardier.  There is so much diversity here, such a variety of life, a crucible of fragile, savage humming activity.  Heavy bags for us both in punishing heat, at least until the Col, but we're going up, I'm excited.  This is what we came for.

We turn right, into the mouth of the lake, and then make the classic mistake of following a small group in front, instead of looking at the map.  The way to the Passage d' Orteig is up directly on the crest of the hill that lies perfectly east of the lake, and not across the rust coloured boulder field underneath it - that way lies madness!  We turn back and steer up and over having checked our bearings - foolish, actually the route is fairly obvious, at least from this angle.  And from the map contours.  Live and learn.

Once you get up there its great - it is fairly exposed on your left going up, and a few years ago I would have found it a bit drafty, but that's the mountains for you, they're high up!  Admittedly it would be different in winter weather, but naught to worry about in summer really - its short, there's a small descent and then a few metres of easy scramble, all of which is roped.  After the Anoch Eagach earlier this year, this seems fine to both of us.

Up through rocks bleached pale, following an ever more elaborate series of cairns, almost land art, miniature rituals, that after a short while lead down to Refuge d' Arremoulit.  The approach really is beautiful, an enchanted wilderness of rock.

This tiny refuge is run by the amazing Pierre-Jean and his family, and sits beside a lake of absolutely still, perfect azure blue.  He's very accommodating and makes us huge bowls of cafe au lait to accompany our lunch, as we hide from the midday sun under a curved ceiling painted with birds of prey.  Its quite a place.

After a lengthy bout of indecision, we ask to stay for dinner, find a pitch and wash some clothes. I take my life in my hands and submerge quickly in the Lake - come up coughing, and don't stay in - its snowmelt, and very refreshing indeed.

We don't manage much else that afternoon save a little wander around, its nice to sit by the lake, and potter for an hour or two without the packs.  The refuge gets very busy later on, and there are evidently pressures of the plumbing variety as numbers swell.  We feel a bit out of it over dinner, the only English, the only veggies, they seat us separately with a little 'reserved' sign on our table.  We are so reserved!  But the staff and the food are wonderful - mushroom soup with garlic croutons, a stomach straining volume of pine nut laden pasta, cheese and chocolate tarts to finish.  Real luxury dining, more food than we've seen in the last few days, all in one go and none of it dried!

We eat too much, finishing as the sun sets and the cloud rushes up.  Almost immediately after dinner, we crash out.  6 hours later I get up to answer the call and the cloud has lifted.

 I point the camera south to Pic d'Arriel, then north west to Pic Arrious.  Magic at 3am, 2300m.

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