What follows is an account of my summer 2009 walking in the High Pyrenees. Its a fabulous mountain range extending from the Atlantic to the Mediterrenean, straddling the border between France and Spain.
I flew from Manchester to Toulouse with a full eighteen days to enjoy. While I had been to the Pyrenees before, I had barely sampled what the mountains had to offer because of bad autumnal weather. This time it was different.
My route was based around mountain huts, using them to eat dinner in the evening: this is expensive, but not as expensive as sleeping in them and it means you carry much less in your rucksack. I also had refuge breakfasts for the first few days, but then stopped this: all you get is a few slices of dry insubstantial bread and jam, and nasty watery coffee. Little more than a sugary snack, inaedquate for the hills, but expensive.
My first night was on a campsite at Oloron Sainte Marie, because my travelling unfortunately meant missing the last bus into the mountains. I hitched out to its location, about 45 minutes walk form town. Somewhat bizarrely, it was mostly full of French families having a suburban camping holiday with McDonalds meals in the evening, the latter about ten minutes away. I woke early, and walked back into town for the midday bus getting lost in confusing streets.
Though I knew broadly what my long walk was to be, I wasn’t sure of a few details including that of the first day. I had to decide on the bus whether to stop at Lescun or go further into the valley. I thought perhaps I’d avoid Lescun this time, that revisiting a small town where two years ago I’d been trapped for over a week in bad autumnal weather, could only be depressing. I decided to go to to Borce and Etsaut and begin walking there, up to Refuge D’Arlet. However after several nights’ lack of sleep prior to leaving Manchester, travel fatigue and waking early at about 6.30, I was in no state for doing very much and the day was extremely hot. I think even feeling fit, I would have struggled. Additionally, I felt Borce and Etsaut were pleasant, but not exciting, on the perimeter of where I really wanted to be with panoramas and dramatic mountains. They’ve very much valley towns, and don’t have big views. Thus after exploring them a little (I’m glad I visited them), watching locals meet, greet and chat together in the square, I hitched a lift back to Pont de Lescun and from there up to the town. The first wait was about ten minutes, the second of just a few: two years previously, I’d hitched from Pont de Lescun back to Oloron Saint Marie with similar ease, and thus my experience so far is hitching is quite easy in this part of the Pyrenees. My first ride was in an old van with a converted sleeping area, with a couple who looked like hippy travellers but in fact lived nearby. My second ride was with a jolly, happy family starting their vacances and returning to Lescun for the seventh time. The teenage daughters smiled and conversed with me a little, the father began to sing. To my embarrassment and shame I split a tub of yoghurt on his floor, but he wasn’t concerned and went almost running off to where they were staying with a big smile on his face, saying it didn’t matter.
Lescun was a good decision. With grey skies it would have been depressing to see it again but they were not; quite the contrary. Lescun is a notably beautiful place, and I was glad to be there again. Jagged peaks rise up from a lush green valley with the promise of good walking, and my eye wandered across it all recalling when I was here before. The campsite is in the scenic middle of it, and the next day I’d be setting off to explore in the manner denied to me before. I would have liked to rest at the campsite and enjoy the valley, but it felt good to start my adventure.
The walk begins quite gently, starting on a road and passing farming areas and an easily accessible valley. I was pleased to find a couple doing the same as me, because there were two points where I was not sure about the route. You have to attune yourself to the instructions provided by Ton Joosten, consisting as they do of pertinent locations and nothing more. If you pass a junction and it’s not described in the book, ignore it. Similarly if you reach another that makes a pronounced difference to your direction, do not ignore it: Joosten said the track took a sharp right, but you have to carry on. His instructions were actually clear, but I was not in regard to how to understand his style, which took some time. Shortly after this though there was a notably confusing point where he said cross a bridge, and the one ahead led in a different direction into a forest: none of this described. Fortunately, the couple knew the way.
Some time later I reached the high hills, and was able to discern the Borce/Etsaut area from which I might have walked; this chosen plan was much better. The path led to a plateau from where I got my first evocative view of Pic Du Midi D’Osseau, not realising how much more I would see of it nor what a pleasing mountain it was.
I arrived at D’Arlet late and unannounced, and asked for dinner. The guardian responded with remonstratative non vocal sounds, but I could tell he was a good-natured fellow quite likely to accede if I just stayed quiet for a few seconds. It was a good meal, one of the best I had; unsophisticated but reasonably tasty, and plentiful. I sat with a pleasant Spanish couple who had walked from Candanchu. They were getting visiting stamps at each refuge of their tour, which entitled them to some form of prize. The idea is to encourage people to use the refuges; the implication being their future is not entirely secure though from what I’ve seen they tend to be very busy. I told them Lescun is an exceptionally beautiful place, and a good place for them to finish.
Fifteen minutes after setting off in the morning, I had another serious navigation problem. The paths were gentle, but I reached a junction and it was difficult to judge if I should carry on ahead or turn right. It took me another fifteen minutes to reflect on the situation and calculate as best I could with map and compass: that the path I needed traversed the base of a large mountain. But navigation is an art, rather than a precise science; I think the mountain in question was obvious but I felt anxious until I met and asked some other walkers for their advice. I subsequently did this fairly often, sometimes just to make me feel better. I knew with a tent and supplies I wasn’t likely to be in any danger, but if I did get the route wrong it would have a serious effect on my plans and general enjoyment. The Spanish couple told me they’d got lost reaching the refuge, taking the same route as me in reverse.
In hindsight D’Arlet to Candanchu is actually quite straightforward; part of my anxiety was getting used to the scale of the Pyrenees, and using a map and compass: I rarely do this in Wales or the Lakes, because I don’t need to. In the Pyrenees, I found myself checking the compass if the instructions said ‘take the path east’; even if the way was obvious it confirmed, in this big area, I was travelling correctly according to the compass.
Crossing a long hillside arc, I encountered a white dog that rather startled me, and I thought immediately of my walking poles. I’d never seen anything like it; large like a rescue dog, but lean and strong, I read about them a few days later. They’re a breed of sheep dog and can be dangerous if they feel threatened, or feel the sheep are getting upset. He stood on the track panting in the heat, I looked at him for a few seconds, then walked carefully out of his way. After crossing over a col, I got my first sight of Spain and was then walking along a lovely ridge feeling as if the Pyrenees were really starting to unfold. Thus far, I knew they hadn’t really done so.
The path goes down into a valley where I stopped for food and water from a river; it was a place where families were enjoying day trips and picnics. Again the route finding was not wholly straightforward, finding the designated scenic way. Little paths, no obvious landmarks, in a gentle valley. Asking for help again (fortunate they were there), I was told my planned route was closed off and I had to take a detour through a forest. Shortly after I saw the sign but decided, if challenged, I’d say I couldn’t understand the French – which indeed I didn’t, though the red and white barrier tape made it obvious. In Britain, paths get closed off for silly annoying reasons; this happened to me a few months previously because of minor path repair. And I wasn’t comfortable going on a diversion relying solely on a map, and not the guidebook. However at this place in France, the work was serious. I sneaked up the hillside, tried to dodge the workers but realised it was impossible, and thus prepared a je ne sais crois response. They weren’t bothered I was there, but informed me the work ahead made for a dangerous path. It wasn’t especially dangerous, but the work was substantial and unpleasant digging up a hydroelectric pipe along its length and blasting it with high pressure water. This was twenty-five minutes of walking, up the hillside. It was a lovely area, badly spoilt with the digging and the noise. However, I was glad I’d gone this way because it led up to the beautiful lake Ibon de Astanes which I’d otherwise have missed.
I asked directions from a family, and then walked with them a little. I thought I knew the way, but wanted confirmation. They were pleasant company and when I told them I needed to be at the refuge before seven, offered to give me lift from a nearer point down in the valley, than that which I was aiming for. This seemed a good idea, they told me I could buy cheese from a hut to which we took a quick detour, and then offered me some fruit and drink when we reached their car.
I didn’t realise the refuge at Candanchu had no provision for camping, and was taken aback at the idea of sleeping in a dormitory which I find an extremely uncomfortable experience. What transpired was I had a four-berth room, warm and stuffy and with buzzing electrics, but all to myself. Dinner was quite pleasant with a group of Spaniards (Candanchu is in Spain) one of whom spoke English, but I felt linguistically overloaded; after struggling with basic French, now I was in Spain the language of which I understood even less.
I realised this days walk began with a long climb up a road, to the ski resort of Astun. When asking the direction for it, a party of middle-aged women said they were going there and would give me a lift, if I could wait a little. They were searching for some old ruins on the outskirts of Candanchu, apparently a small Christian hospital that used to assist pilgrim walkers. I wanted to hitch to Astun, so this was a good offer: the book said it was about an hour’s walk, but in the heat and with a heavy pack it’s more like two, and along a tedious uphill road. Fifteen minutes after setting off we were there, and I was excited to be setting off for some big, remote walking with no provision for supplies for several days. I’d bought bread and noodles in Candanchu which, together with cheese from the hut and food I’d brought from home, had to last me.
The first part of the walk is quite a hard climb up a hillside, and I realised I’d not had enough breakfast for it – just a little yoghurt, and a few pieces of lightweight white bread was all the refuge provided. I forced myself on deciding to eat a decent lunch at the lake, which took me a pleasant thirty minutes. The baguettes were fresh, and the cheese was good. When I set off from there I quickly reached what I think is the most scenically spectacular part of my entire walk, from Col De Moines down to Refuge Ayous. Slightly scary to encounter, for the first time in my life, such a vast mountainous area entirely on my own not knowing what to expect. But also exhilarating! I’d never seen mountains like this, which put British hills into inferior perspective.
I did get slightly lost at one point, where I headed to Refuge Pombie instead of following the book. Scary again: all alone in these foreign mountains and the unknown they represented in various ways, and a storm seemed to be approaching. My mouth became very dry, and my breathing quite tight. Fortunately all that passed was a little rain, and after retracing my steps I worked out where to go. Refuge Ayous is a wonderful place to spend a night with a flat camping area, a beautiful lake, and beyond that probably the best possible view of Pic du Midi d’Osseau.
I was still gauging the scale of the Pyrenees and the time I had to allow to walk in them; I’d found the book’s estimated times too optimistic. In British hills I’d probably agree with the time/distance factor but the altitude, heat, a more than usually heavy rucksack and occasionally not eating enough, meant my passage was quite slow. Twice, later on, strangers stopped me and asked “ca va?” and I explained I was just tired. Taking photographs, if you’re thinking about it, also needs some time.
I was therefore undecided which route to take to reach Refuge Pombie; there was the option of a more extended day that some Italians at dinner said was superior. It involved going down to the valley and up again around the back of the mountain, rather than a more direct path with the added benefit of being described in Ton Joosten’s guidebook. I decided I’d go down to the valley and choose when I was there, with the option of a short path back to the more direct ascent. I set off leisurely, one of the last to leave the camping area, and got down to the valley at about midday. There was, I realised, plenty of time to reach Pombie before the evening and my fears were unfounded. The longer route goes up through a forest and a quiet valley, to a col where I still had time for further exploration before descending to the refuge: I estimated it would take an hour to climb up to Pic Saoubiste, which was about right, and it provided an excellent panorama, my first from a distinct high viewpoint. I was hungry for this; although the High Level Route is a wonderful walking path, by itself it doesn’t take you to any peaks.
Pombie is another excellent place to spend the night; the camping area overlooks a vast valley which is the trajectory for the next day. I felt slightly apprehensive pitching my tent in such a vastly exposed spot but everyone else was doing it, and I reasoned the peaceful still air was not likely to change into the winds and rain characteristic of Britain.
Pombie to Arremoulit involves a big valley descent, and a big ascent the other side. You begin to see, when you connect the huts in this way, walking across the Pyrenees is quite simple navigation in good visibility. But I found this an arduous trek, and at one point was almost staggering to get up to a col. I had to reconcile my pace with the times suggested by Joosten, reasoning that what mattered was what was right for me. Two French men enquired if I was OK, and I explained I was just tired. They suggested I might need some food or drink, which I probably did.
When I finally reached the col (Col d’Arrious) I had to decide whether to attempt the Passage d’Orteig, an exposed rock traverse using a steel cable to hold onto. I thought I’d avoid it, but talking to a passing walker he said it wasn’t technically difficult just very exposed. So what was the path like, I asked, and he said about a metre wide. That’s quite comfortable, so I decided to at least go and see it, and also Lac d’Arrious which I’d been told was beautiful. The lake certainly was, though even the approach to Passage d’Orteig frightened me. When I reached a point in the path about eighteen inches wide with an overhang you had to rub past with your legs, where a slight error meant tumbling down hundreds of vertical feet to certain death, I felt I’d rather like to see the rest of my walk with some certainty. Perhaps if I approached this again I’d feel more secure, but with a big and heavy pack and on this occasion, it was beyond my capability – and that was just the approach. I therefore retreated back to the col and went down the alternative route which was pleasantly scenic, the only disadvantage being you then have to climb up again to the refuge. Somehow though, despite my earlier struggles, I braced myself for this and attacked it with resolve and sugary sweets and was pleasantly surprised – almost disappointed – to find Arremoulit was not as far as I’d thought and it was not a significant diversion.
I have a strong dislike of not washing and crawling into a sleeping bag sticky and dirty, and had taken to bathing in lakes and streams if they were convenient, regardless of how cold they were. I started this at Lac Gentau in front of Pombie, and did it again at Arremoulit. Then, to hell with it, messing about in underpants, I stripped off completely and didn’t care if anyone saw and I’m sure they didn’t either. Damn, they may even have enjoyed it. The trick, if the water is very cold, is not to submerge yourself but pour it over yourself from a mug, like a shower.
I’d planned to walk to Refuge Wallon, but changed my ideas for several reasons. First, I had eighteen days to negotiate which was a long time, allowing for some flexibility. Second, I was tired and walking quite slowly. Third, I met and walked a little with a hiking group from Chartres, and it was pleasant and relaxing to adopt their pace – even slower than mine, accommodating the most elderly of their party. They had a long lunch beside a lake, something I don’t generally do, and I realised a gentle amble was just as enjoyable as more concerted walking. And third, Wallon was further than I’d realised.
It was a nice day, through more gentle terrain: beautiful lakes, and traversing paths high above wooded valleys to arrive at Respomuso, my first Spanish refuge. I didn’t understand how it works with the latter; the book said the Spanish don’t allow nearby camping like the French do. That’s probably true, and there are No Camping signs near Respomuso but that doesn’t mean they stop, or attempt to stop, camping a little further from the huts. And it would be impossible to do so. I had dinner there, sitting and conversing with two Brits, then set off to find a pitch for the night before it got too dark. There are a series of pretty lakes up the hill from Respomuso, excellent for camping, and that’s where I went. It was slightly alarming when a man appeared from the silent darkness saying hello and asking where I was from, but he was just being friendly and we spent a little time together: walking the next day, and talking at breakfast the day after that.
Andras, from Hungary, was walking with his girlfriend Reka and they invited me to join them since we were going the same way. I like solitary walking, but they seemed a nice couple and it’s also nice to talk a little and share experiences so I agreed – though right from the start I was behind them, taking photographs and moving more slowly. I caught up with them at Col de Fache, where they were setting off to climb Le Grande Fache towering above it. I hadn’t planned on this, but realised that even at my slow pace there was time to do it, and descend in a comfortable time back down to Refuge Wallon. It was my first significant peak at 3005 metres and very worthwhile, with the most extensive views so far. Towards France you saw cloud covering the valleys, whereas Spain was cloud free. I noticed this again some days later in the Gavarnie area, and reflected on how a national and cultural boundary corresponds to a geographic and meteorological demarcation. France is noticeably wetter and greener; Spain tends to be dry and arid.
I enjoyed descending down to Wallon; though tired, I recalled to mind some British walking where despite fatigue I got inspiration, and thus energy, from beautiful scenery. Wallon is a lovely valley. I ate at the refuge, then retired immediately to my tent for a cold but refreshing wash, and sleep.
This is perhaps one part of my route I’d reconsider if I did it again. The plan was, I had to go down to Cauterets to get food. I thus envisaged a rest day of only moderate walking, but it didn’t work out like that and wasn’t much fun. I left my tent and much of my rucksack contents at Wallon, and walked down to Pont d’Espagne seeking either a bus down to town, or a lift in a car. Lower down, the beautiful valley was filled with Sunday day-trippers with occasional naked children playing in the river, which you never see in Britain. I vaguely recall that I’d done this myself as a young boy and reflected on the notion that Britain is sick, either with hysterical concern about paedophilia or with its more pronounced existence: I’m not sure which it is but either way, I felt France might perhaps be the kind of place Britain was, more balanced and uncorrupted, about thirty years ago. And how wonderful, these families have easy Sunday access to such a superb area.
Many cars went past me from the huge parking area and I was quickly despondent, but eventually someone stopped and it wasn’t actually a significant wait. In Cauterets the shops were closed until 4 pm so I looked around the town and considered buying lunch at a restaurant and duly sat at a table, but decided I didn’t want the ordering, waiting, paying ritual in the lazy heat. A fresh baguette, fruit, cheese and an avocado pear was cheaper and more pleasant back in the mountains, so that’s what I bought and intended. I hitched back up to Pont d’Espagne quite easily (waiting about ten minutes), then walked back to Wallon and had a good evening meal that included fruit, tomatoes, and a lovely pastry dessert.
While the Marcadau Valley is beautiful, it’s tame and tedious compared to high level mountain walking. It takes about two and a half hours to get down to Pont d’Espagana and the same to returning to Wallon, which is not really a rest day even though there’s no significant climbing. I didn’t appreciate the importance of rest – no walking at all except perhaps a fifteen minute stroll to a supermarket – until a few days later.
This, like the last day, was unsatisfactory but for different reasons. The skies were cloudy with patches of rain, and approaching Oulettes de Gaube and camping below Le Vignemale was rather sombre. It felt desolate with grey skies above, a harsh towering rock face, and barren stony ground. At one point I compared this walk to a day in the Lakes, giving me some psychological control over the experience. I reasoned that such a day was still enjoyable, that in the absence of light, colour and blue skies you found more subtle features to enjoy: the curve of the distant valley for example, but I was only half convinced by this.
The evening meal was some consolation; a good vegetarian option and the girl asking me sweetly if it was OK. Vegetarian food, and caring about it, was not satisfactory anywhere else. I conversed with two Brits over dinner, whose trip coincided closely with mine. I was suffering from the sun – not so much sunburn, as a substantial swelling of the upper part of my face so I could barely see out of one eye. It was uncomfortable being in company, because people looked at me and it was as though I was deformed. One of the Brits said she had some after-sun gel I could have, and would bring it to my tent in about thirty minutes. Sweet. Unfortunately, I missed she and her partner to say goodbye to, the next morning.
The skies were still cloudy, the destination for the day was not too far, I was feeling tired, and I therefore didn’t move on until midday. I had soup in the refuge, started to write a diary, and scrutinised my maps. This was the first time on my trip, I realised, I’d had a significant rest: doing nothing at all for the entire morning, and enjoying the comforts of a food service while sitting at a table.
Eventually the cloud cleared a little and I set off, but an hour later I encountered my first Pyrenean storm. Thunder crashed in the distance and reverberated through the valleys, at one point following a lightning flash in about one second. If I remembered correctly, this meant the storm was close and that was not good; I collapsed my walking poles and covered them with a plastic bag. The rain started to fall and for the first (and last) time I wore my Goretex. I only had sandals and my feet were wet, but I reasoned the air temperature was mild and the storm would pass.
Baysellance is the highest staffed hut in the Pyrenees and conveniently situated for the glacier route to Le Vignemale, the highest peak on the French-Spanish border. I was a little cold in the evening; apparently the temperature was a moderate 9° but it felt colder. They lent me a blanket; heavy, odorous and cleaned no doubt some years ago, but welcome.
I enjoyed this trek moving down from Baysellance, for several reasons. Firstly, the morning was grey and grim and I’d had enough of this from the previous day. Secondly, there’s no convenient lake at Baysellance to have a cold wash. Thirdly I could see in the distance, down below, it was sunny and bright. That’s where I wanted to be, and that’s where I went. I did however spend a few hours climbing up Le Petit Vignemale from Baysellance, the sister to its higher and more severe peak, before I descended. It’s quite an easy trek, but very rewarding.
Baysellance down to Gavarnie is a constant and significant descent; Joosten suggests it doesn’t take too long. It may be downhill, but it’s a long path and not to be under-estimated. Once I reached the relatively level part in the valley, it reminded me of gentle parts of the Lake District: grassy, pretty, and relaxing. It was sunny and warm and I kept looking back to Baysellance, covered in cloud, glad to be away from it. Descending to a valley after high-level exertion is soothing and relaxing; I do it frequently in the British hills and it’s something I was missing. Mountain activity, though exhilarating, has a tinge of insecurity and a shadow of discomfort.
After many days of walking, making quite a strenuous regime, I hadn’t realised how much I needed to rest and how pleasant that was. The day started with grey and gloomy skies which was depressing, but I still enjoyed lying in my tent doing nothing. My body needed it. After a few hours the sun burnt through, and I sunbathed on my sleeping mat after buying provisions from town and asking some travel advice at the information office.
After a day’s rest, I really wanted to get moving again. The Cirque de Gavarnie had tantalised me for two days, and finally I was going to explore it. The path is initially a busy tourist route but when you reach the end of it you find another wonderful wilderness where the day-trippers go no further. It took me thirty minutes to work out where you’re supposed to go from there, aiming for Refuge Sarradets, but after that it’s simple. You climb a “natural staircase” up the Cirque de Gavarnie, as Joosten describes it, which involves steep but straightforward scrambling. Beyond that you walk up a grassy hillside path, then reach a boulder and stone area, at the top of which sits Refuge Sarradets. The refuge is just below the famous Breche de Roland, which is an impressive sight when you walk up from Gavarnie on this route.
Le Taillon is one of the high Pyrennean peaks, reached quite easily from Refuge Sarradets by going through the famous Breche de Roland. There’s a small glacier just below the latter that presents no problems in summer, and when you reach the Breche de Roland the Ordesa plains of Spain open up before you. It’s a dramatic moment, but after the initial awe I didn’t find the Ordesa area very interesting. It’s dry and brown canyon country, and doesn’t compare to the more lush and pretty French side of the Pyrenees. I saw a party of Brits at Le Taillon that I’d met a few days previously, whose plan was to go down to Ordesa before returning on the same flight as myself. I wondered if I should have done the same, though they were using refuge dormitories which meant their rucksacks were much lighter, and at this part of my trip I didn’t want any more significant exertion.
I had lunch back down at the refuge, then set off down a different path back to Gavarnie. Mist had been rolling in and it was now consolidated and thick below the peaks; navigation was tricky with limited visibility and I teamed up with an Italian couple going the same way as me. Do you have a tent, he said, and can it take three? Yes, I said, I’m sure it could if it starts to get cold; fortunately this was unnecessary.
My planning for the last few days was not entirely satisfactory; when I’d consulted the books at home I thought I’d wait and see how I felt at Gavarnie and make adjustments if I’d had some delays; Le Taillon and Pimene seemed good options if I had the energy and time for it. I’d had no delays, I did have the time for doing both, but I was tired and were I not tired it was not enough, anyway, to satisfy and occupy me at the end of my trip. The walk up to Pimene is worthwhile, but it can be done in an easy morning or afternoon. I set off around midday, going up first to Refuge Espuguettes where I had a late lunch. It would be a good place to stay the night with a terrific view across to the Cirque de Gavarnie, and a stunning skyline with the distant Le Vignemale prominent. One factor detracts from Espuguettes though: a slight but noticeable sewage smell as you ascend from just below it, and the same in the nearby surrounding area.
A man and a boy had walked up at the same time as me carrying a telescope with a tripod. They erected it outside the refuge and asked if I wanted to take a look and we conversed a little; I was pleased I could remember the necessary words for “pour les oisseau?” to which he nodded. He told me he knew England because his brother-in-law lived in Bolton. This was bizarre and unpleasant, referring to geographic parts I didn’t want to think about but were nonetheless regretably familiar to me. Apparently, there were some unusually interesting birds to see, arriving pour l’autumne.
I struggled with the climb up from Espuguettes, so much that a kindly elderly couple walked back to me after we passed and asked if I was lost. They said I was looking around as if confused and almost staggering; I explained I was just very tired. I did go slightly astray shortly after, partly no doubt because of fatigue: nothing serious, I just had to retrace my path having enjoyed a scenic viewpoint down into the neighbouring Cirque d’Estaube valley.
The route to Pimene takes you across a scree slope area then onto an exposed ridge I initially thought too difficult. Then I reasoned that fatigue, and the psychological disorientation of these new mountains, was undermining my ability. It was, I could see, technically about the same as Crib Goch in Wales and I resolved to approach it thus and ignore my foreboding – though I wasn’t comfortable taking my heavy rucksack along the ridge and nor was it necessary, so I left it just before it properly began.
I’d planned to camp the night somewhere up near Pimene but the area was in shadow while it was still bright down near Espuguettes, and I reasoned even at sunrise it was not an attractive proposition: it was more scenic lower down. Returning from this adventure I found what appeared to be a shortcut route across slightly wilder terrain, the kind of alternative I elect for if short for time in the Lake District. As it transpired it needed about the same walking time, but unfortunately the light was disappearing fast which meant stumbling around carefully, cursing, so it took perhaps two hours longer. I finally found a flat area not too far from the refuge, where I was aiming for, and quite enjoyed the experience of some wild camping instead of being right next to a hut.
I was woken with the screeching of a nearby marmot, at about six thirty. There’s nothing like waking up in a tent, somewhere wild and alone. I reflected on the fact that this was the last such moment; that in a few days I’d be snuggled in a duvet on a soft bed, unlikely to awaken at 6.30. I love the freshness of outdoor mornings. I recall my first adult experience of camping, in Wales, not so long ago. I felt the difference of the air as I awoke: an energy, a vitality, subtly but noticeably different from my bedroom.
I decided I needed to move on: the prospect of returning again to the Gavarnie campsite, my original plan, was too depressing. Not because the campsite was grim, but because I needed the stimulation of change and activity instead of spending more time where I’d already been. I walked downhill quite rapidly – my fatigue and slow pace was problematic only going uphill and along the flat – and managed to catch a midday bus to Luz, arriving in time to enjoy the town a little which I rather liked. The campsite was bizarre but convenient, like a municipal park right next to the shops and bus station, and full of mobile homes. I had a pleasant camp meal, and watched the first substantial Pyrenean storm I’d seen: it flashed and crashed in the mountains I’d just descended from, then ten minutes later heavy rain reached the valley. I was tired, glad to be in a town with convenient shops and not unduly exposed to the storm, but sad the journey was over and vaguely discontented at the oddly suburban ending – rather as it had begun, in the campsite at Oloron Sainte Marie before getting transport into the mountains.
Irrespective of other factors, it seemed good timing to finish: the day was grey, overcast and raining slightly, as if the summer was over. My return meant a bus from Luz to Lourdes, and then a train back to Toulouse. I didn’t have any accommodation booked and spent an hour wandering near the station, eventually deciding on a basic but comfortable place, more expensive than I’d wanted but cheaper hotels were rough looking and unpleasant.