When I arrived at the Lourdes station – weird and unpleasant though the town is – I felt I could breathe again. The Pyrenees can be seen in the distance, it’s a simple southern France town (underneath the tourist nonsense)) and it was warm. I felt the same thing two years ago though on that occasion as I made the journey to the mountains, the skies clouded over and remained that way for most of my visit.
There’s now a BMI flight direct from Manchester to Lourdes and it’s very convenient. It takes about two hours and the French airport is a small affair where you only wait five minutes to collect your baggage. Bus connections are then quite good with options to Cauterets, Pau, and with one change to Gavarnie – where I finished my walk last year. This year, I was starting at Gavarnie resuming the High Level walking route described in the book by Ton Joosten. However, it didn’t work as I’d planned it.
Firstly, when I got to Gavarnie my heart sank when I saw it was cloudy, cold and raining. In the morning I couldn’t face setting out into it, more so in my summer oriented clothing. This is the problem, or one of them, when you have a long path to walk: you are compelled, more or less, to suffer such days and you don’t know if they will change. The previous evening I’d spoken with a German man on the camp site, saw him again and discovered he also disliked the weather and was driving over to the Spanish valley of Pineta where he’d been told the sun was shining. This is often the case; the Spanish sierras will often be sun baked while the French side will be rainy. I asked if I could have a ride with him, and the answer was yes. From a quick survey of the map, it would allow me to explore a corner of the Spanish side I’d otherwise miss and then resume, more or less, my original route.
Our drive – of several hours – took us through the Tour de France cycling route which I must try to watch in future. We stopped briefly at Bareges, a town I’d also been interested in as a possible base. And after the Vielha tunnel, the sun was indeed shining. At the Pineta camp site, Herbert and his parents were such pleasant company part of me felt inclined to stay with them a little. I decided however to set off in the evening for the Refuge Larri, only about an hour away, to camp for the night and from which to set off walking the next day. I had a vague plan of going up to a mountain called La Munia from which I could get to the Barroude Lakes and then resume the High Level Route.
I was exhausted, making the relatively modest ascent of the day. Twenty steps and I’d have to stop and pause, getting used to the weight of my rucksack. At the top of my climb I met a group of Spanish walkers, one of whom lived nearby and was able to give me good advice: the route I had in mind was tricky, dangerous in wet weather, and at one part had a rope installed. Furthermore they’d been up at the Barroude area that day and the cloud was such that you could see nothing, and he said a storm was forecast possibly for the night or if not for tomorrow. None of this was good. I decided not to camp in the mountains again but make my way down to Parzan from which I would resume the High Level Route after missing the first part of this section of it.
The first part of this walk is a long trek up a boring dust road. It’s not much fun – even Joosten says this in his book – so I decided to try and hitch a ride to the top. I met the very pleasant Jose and his wife, the former surprised and pleased to find an English person who knew about and enjoyed the Pyrenees. When we stopped he shared his knowledge of the mountains with me for about an hour giving me walking recommendations and general advice. The good stuff, he said, was concentrated in the area between Lescun and Vielha and there were several peaks I should try and climb: Aneto, Posets, Perdiguere and Ballibierna. I began to think I wouldn’t, after all, adhere to the High Level Route. As we talked at the lake underneath Punta Suelza I felt this was an entry area of the Pyrenees: the really good stuff was visible far away in the distance, and I was moving towards it. Last year I felt the walk from Candanchu onwards was a similar entry area, partly because it entailed carrying food for a few days and was thus more remote.
I enjoyed the descent down to Refuge Viados, at the foot of which I met Graham with whom I subsequently spent a little time. A Brit from London, he was taking six weeks to walk the entire High Level Route from Atlantic to Mediterranean. I ordered a meal at Viados with the intention of walking a little further and then camping for the night, but they offered me a bed in a little annexe building. It was dark and a little cold, and finding a pitch and erecting the tent was going to be a nuisance: I said yes. I had the building to myself, basic but satisfactory and luxurious for a refuge night with no snoring or other disturbances.
Setting off in the morning, I noticed a signpost pointing to a walk to Posets taking just five hours. I considered changing my plans again and spending another night at Viados which was a pleasant place (and I might get the luxury bed again), with a day trip to Posets. I decided otherwise partly because I wanted to get moving going somewhere, and I could climb Posets from another area. Jose’s advice was “get to Benasque as fast as you can” and the high mountain could be tackled from over there possibly with better scenery.
This day starts gently and pleasantly along a GR11 path through a valley. It then climbs a high col, descends down a scree slope, passes through another beautiful valley and down through a wooded area to the Refuge. I met Graham again at the col, and later again at the Refuge. Viados is a bizarre and unpleasant place right next to a noisy power station. If you want a shower you descend into a bleak concrete basement to use what appears to be the works facilities which they access through a tunnel. I camped high up the hill away from the noise, glad to get away in the morning.
There are several days in Joosten’s book he designates as ‘E’ for ‘extreme’. This is one of them: rough, navigation possibly difficult, and dangerous in bad weather. I reasoned that I didn’t mind a bit of rough stuff, if the walk was worthwhile. I don’t like scree, boulders and scrambling, though I can do it if necessary; even a little basic climbing if really necessary. What I didn’t appreciate was the extent of this in Pyrenean ‘extreme’ days. I didn’t enjoy this walk too much. It starts pleasantly enough going past some attractive lakes (Lac De Caillauas and Lac Des Isclots), but then the atmosphere changes when you reach the glacier below Pic Des Gourgs Blancs, more so if the weather changes for the worse which was the case on this day. I’d set off early to avoid this, but the skies still darkened after lunch. Fortunately it didn’t rain, because the last part of this walk would be lethal in slippery conditions.
When I reached to col at Pic Des Gourgs Blancs I encountered the next obstacle: snow. The steep slope down was covered, and had to be negotiated quite carefully. I went down too far and got slightly lost, and hat to retrace my steps slipping and cursing up scree, boulders and the snow. The views of the day were magnificent but you couldn’t really appreciate this under the grey skies. The final descent down to Refuge Portillon was over an area of steep and massive boulders, relying on the grip of your soles to walk down forty five degree inclines.
Portillon itself was vaguely unpleasant: bleak and slightly industrial, located next to a dam with a constant rush of water from the hillside through what I guessed was a hydro electric outflow. It was cold, dark, and I wanted the comfort of being inside so elected – contrary to my habit – for a refuge bed. I’d scouted the dormitories beforehand and requested a smaller room with just a few occupants. As it transpired, the night was perfectly peaceful with only a little sighing/shuffling to disturb me. But, as is usually the case, just being in close intimate proximity to strangers puts me on edge. I slept passably, but it could have been better.
At breakfast, Graham and I (he was there) discussed our plans. The weather forecast was not good, and this was another ‘E’ day not to be attempted in adverse conditions. We were stuck, because the alternatives were enduring an incredibly boring day at the refuge or a path taking us down drastically off route. We reasoned that at least on this day, the potentially dangerous part was at the beginning and we could, if necessary, retreat if the conditions made it dangerous.
As it transpired, this day was less potentially hazardous than the previous trek. You climb to a high and exposed col (the highest pass in the Pyrenees) which would be a serious proposition in wind, rain or a storm, descend down a large snowfield and then negotiate some tricky navigation. That, essentially, is the issue of the day and I felt pleased and mildly jubilant when I reached the col and knew this was comfortably within my ability – albeit, that if the weather deteriorated substantially that could change.
Graham, I later discovered, was a little unnerved by the large snowfield and the prospect of sliding down it. It didn’t bother me, in fact I found it quite enjoyable to make the smooth and rapid passage you can’t equal on sliding rocks. He had big Scarpa boots, I had my lightweight walking sandals though at this point with the addition of my Goretex socks. It was fine, following the clear footsteps impressed in the snow. This was a day, I felt, I’d really enjoy under blue skies but unfortunately the clouds were thickening and gathering. At the bottom of the snow valley visibility was greatly reduced and I was on high alert: I know from experience visibility can cut down to ten feet in a matter of minutes, and this area would then be extremely difficult to navigate. I took sight lines to my valley destination which was quickly invisible – over there and bearing east – and focussed unremittingly on locating the next cairn, and the next, in the cloudy gloom. Then it started raining – hard – and claps of Pyrenean thunder threatened to make it worse. Fortunately there was no storm, at least in this area, though the rest of the day was rainy and cloudy.
The High Level Route takes you to Refuge Renclusa for this day, but it had always been my plan to go down to Benasque for supplies and rest. I met Graham again at a camp site high in the valley (Campng Banos) where I subsequently spent several nights. I hitched down to Camping Aneto but didn’t like it, then hitched back to Camping Banos. I’d said in the morning “I just wanted to get down” because I don’t like being trapped in the mountains in bad weather, even when the walking is not especially hazardous. I felt this last year at Refuge Baysellance on a chilly evening, and when the skies were cloudy the next morning. I could see, far below, the Gavarnie area was in bright sunshine and I wanted to get down to it – looking back and rejoicing, repeatedly, at the gloom I’d left behind.
Overall, it was not a good start to my walking. Firstly the weather had a very demoralising effect, because I didn’t know how long it would last – in fact, after the first few days the weather was beautiful. Secondly, though related to the first point, I found I didn’t like the ‘extreme’ days thus described by Joosten; this meant I had to change my plans again.
Graham and I went down to the town (got a lift from one of the camp site staff), he to send home a few items he didn’t need any more and I to buy fruit, yoghurt, bread, olives, pasta and cheese. He then set off at about five o’clock to continue his coast to coast itinerary, while I settled down to another peaceful valley night.
This trip was the idea of Jose, and it was a very good one. I hitched down to Benasque, then to a village called Eriste (with just two exceptions average hitching time was about five minutes), from which I walked, then hitched, then walked up to Refugio Angel Orus. I was very fatigued and correspondingly not in good spirits; even after several days walking I still found my heavy rucksack a tremendous burden. This didn’t change much for the entire trip and inclined me towards rest days which, while pleasant, felt like a waste when the principle reason for getting to the Pyrenees was to walk in the mountains.
There was no place in the near vicinity to pitch a tent and I didn’t feel like walking any further, so I decided again on a dormitory bed. I was told at the desk there was only one left in the entire refuge which made me nervous about snorers from hell and assorted other disturbances, though was pleasantly surprised to find in the large room only a few people were sleeping. There were maybe thirty or forty beds, and four or five occupants: I enjoyed another peaceful indoors night.
The day began slightly overcast which meant photography was not very inspiring, but also the initial climb was more comfortable. After about midday I enjoyed clear blue skies and what became the highlight day of my trip. The walk skirts around the upper valley above the refuge, meanders through an attractive area above it, then goes up through a gully onto the Posets ridge. The latter was steep and snow covered, and most other walkers had heavy boots and crampons. My comfortable lightweight sandals were perfectly adequate if I had foot holes to follow, though after I’d gone up this I didn’t like the prospect of going down it.
According to walking writer Kev Reynolds, Posets “has the reputation” of being the most interesting and attractive Pyrenean mountain. This suited me very well; it’s only the second highest peak at 3,375 metres compared to Aneto which is 3,404. Like most people I feel the allure of the greatest possible height, but I understand that Aneto (according to Reynolds again) is actually not that scenic. The same applies in the English Lake District: Scafell Pike is the highest, but the lower neighbouring Scafell is actually more attractive. Who cares about a few hundred metres if Posets is aesthetically more rewarding? And it’s certainly a very beautiful mountain with extensive views. I was still tired and fed up as I started walking up the steep ridge feeling, in fact, all this effort wasn’t worth it. Then in the course of about ten minutes the magnitude and spectacular nature of Posets suddenly became evident, and my spirits lifted irresistibly. It’s a great mountain, in both senses of the word.
I spoke with two lovely Barcelona girls at the top, who told me they’d camped at a lake the night before and there was an alternative way down avoiding the snow slope. However, it required about another two hours walking and I decided to tackle the snow. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared going down but it was steep, in places there were no foot holes, and I did slip ten or fifteen feet before some evasive foot action braked my rapid descent – the culmination of which was potentially a crashing finale into the rocks at the bottom of the slope. I’d left my camping gear, food supplies etc in a locker at the refuge and my rucksack was thus much lighter; with another five kilos I wouldn’t have liked being on that snow. One of the Barcelona girls also slipped; she didn’t take any action to stop her slide and crashed into one of stationary friends; she had a rucksack full of camping gear.
It was about six o’clock when I got back to the refuge and I decided it was much better to get back down to Benasque rather than spend a pointless night in a dormitory – better to get the descent over with, which was not very interesting, than undertake it the next day. With a heavy rucksack I can passably manage level ground and downhill slopes; it’s only going uphill when I really struggle. It took me about an hour and a half to return to the parking area below (going up was two and a half hours), where I hitched a ride back down to the valley within about ten minutes, then on the road I hitched another ride into Benasque after just a few minutes, from a couple who extended their journey to take me all the way up to Camping Banos – this happened about three times.
It was dark when I got there and not especially pleasant erecting the tent, cooking and eating, but I was pleased to be back down in the valleys for more rest.
This time I had a real rest – and it makes all the difference. I woke, had breakfast and coffee, and then lay in the sun doing absolutely nothing for the entire morning. After lunch I walked down the Benasque valley to another camp site (Camping Sonata) which had three objectives. Firstly, I was curious about the site as potentially a better place to stay (t wasn’t). Secondly, it was a pleasant walk exploring the valley. And thirdly, it was partly reconnaissance for a path I would be taking when I left the area, the GR11 which you pick up at Camping Sonata. When I got to the latter I then walked up to the road and hitched down to Benasque (waiting about ten minutes for the ride), then hitched back again to camping Banos (it took about five minutes, I think, for a ride).
In Bensaque, I found an English copy of a Kev Reynolds Pyrenean guide book in which I read that the peak of Maladeta was an easier, shorter, and more scenic excursion than undertaking neighbouring Aneto. Maladeta is 3,308 metres – who cares that Aneto is a superior 3,404 if in fact it’s not as rewarding? I decided to climb Maladeta – though it didn’t work out that way.
I spent the morning resting again, laying in the sun on my sleeping mat, then went up to the road to hitch my way towards Refuge Renclusa. This was one of two occasions when I had to wait a little longer for a ride – about thirty minutes – and then I took the bus from the large parking area up to Besurta which is a short distance below the refuge.
I liked Renclusa, and asked for a quiet or if possible a solitary room in which to sleep. The receptionist got annoyed at this, explaining that if I were in a room on my own it would have to be cleaned with just my single occupancy. But I could see there were a large number of vacancies and when I persisted, asking then how many people were in various rooms, she made an impatient noise and made a place for me in an empty room. The culture, the assumption, is everyone fits in and accepts what’s going; you’re in the mountains, not a city hotel, and sharing with strangers is part of that. But you’re also paying for a service and I was a little annoyed at her churlish attitude, so different from the offer I received at Viados where the receptionist actually said to me “do you want to sleep alone?” to which I replied “yes” and then enjoyed the little annexe room.
The previous evening, I established that my plan to walk up to Maladeta was not feasible. Apparently the front face was “closed” and “not possible” and the only option was to take the Aneto route and go round the back of Maladeta. But this wasn’t possible either; the reason I hadn’t even considered Aneto was because you have to traverse a large glacier for which crampons are essential. I didn’t even crampon suitable boots, heavy and rigid enough to kick out foot holes and deal with rough stuff. I didn’t regret this, because that means a great deal of weight I wasn’t prepared to suffer when for most of my walking my comfortable sandals were very suitable.
One of the Spanish staff suggested I walk to a peak called Pico D’Alba, from which I could go back down to Benasque avoiding the need to hitch or get a bus as required the previous day. I was disappointed in regard to Maladeta and didn’t ascertain why exactly the usual route was impassable, but it could only have been heavy ice and snow.
This day was distinctly unpleasant. When the Spanish chap suggested ‘Pico D’Alba’ I thought he really meant ‘Pico D’Alba’ i.e. go up to or near the peak ((3,107 metres). In fact that’s not what he meant at all; the path skirts far below the peak and I only discovered this on my return. Going up, I went directly towards the summit and found some cairns pointing towards it which I subsequently realised were to aid the passage for climbers. I tried one way, then another, then another, eventually traversing some snow quite precariously and climbing up a narrow gully to reach the climbers bouldery plateau where there were attachment places for ropes – and no cairns.
Eventually I found a cairn indicated path leading back to the walking route far below; it was then six o’clock and I’d spent hours wasting my time clambering around rocky slopes. Back down at Besurta I waited for the bus but a man came past in a rickety old truck so I stuck my thumb out and he gave me a ride right to the doorstep of Camping Banos. A frustrating and irritating day, firstly for not doing Maladeta and secondly for wasting it clambering, climbing, and sliding around the climbing area below Pico D’Alba.
Joosten describes this part of the GR11 path as undoubtedly one of its finest sections. My original plan was to take the High Level Route from Renclusa to Vielha, on the northern part of the Aneto-Maladeta massif, but I’d had enough of his ‘extreme’ days even when the weather, now, was settled and beautiful.
This first part of the walk is actually not very interesting, going up the Vallibierna valley on a dirt road over the course of about three hours. But when you reach the Coronas refuge, you’re once again in a lovely part of the mountains. I went further to an area called Pleta Llosas to enjoy a solitary but rather lonely camp.
Great to wake in the morning and get going, on a path I was looking forward to. It goes up a wooded hillside, then up a steep rocky track to a rewarding col (Collada De Ballibierna, 2,720 metres), down the other side through an interesting lake studded area, all very enjoyable. The final few hours is the only problem with this trek, when you have to descend down a steep wooded hillside to the valley. I don’t mind some variation on a walk – a little scrambling, a taste of some rough stuff – but what I don’t like is unremitting hours of it, which is how this day ends. It’s tedious and tiring coming down a steep forested hillside for several hours.
When I reached the road at the bottom I was apprehensive about my plan to hitch up to Vielha. This was a fast carriageway with roaring lorries and speeding cars, lacking the intimacy of a mountain road where people feel a camaraderie towards hitch hikers. I needn’t have worried; within minutes of sticking my thumb out I got a ride with a chap from Barcelona who phoned his sister in law to enquire about camp sites in Vielha. As it turned out, once through the Vielha tunnel again the weather deteriorated significantly. One side, blue skies and sunshine; the other, grey skies, low clouds and possible rain – no sunshine. Very depressing, and I didn’t want to camp in it, so I found a basic, inexpensive, but satisfactory room in the centre of the town.
As a vegetarian, food is an issue in both France and Spain. Both countries like their dead animals; the latter, it seems, in particular. Unlike my trip last year, this time I was spending most of my days in the Spanish part of the Pyrenees. I found, however, a tapas bar where I had some nice battered vegetables and a rice/spinach/cheese dish which was my first bought meal. Explored Vielha a little, rested.
I sunbathed for a few hours; fortunately the depressing initial weather was typical of the evenings when I was here, not the daytime. Bought reasonable food from the supermarkets, cooked it naughtily in my little room on my camping stove. I considered if I should have planned otherwise, allowing for one more day’s walking. But, although it seemed a great waste and wasn’t very ‘interesting’, I wanted to have these rest days and another walk didn’t fit the itinerary.
I hitched up to Bossost (it took longer – about thirty minutes – this being Sunday when everywhere was quiet) then hitched up through the Tour De France area to Luchon (this took the longest of all to get a ride, an hour and half, because of very little traffic. This made me quite worried, because I had to get back to Luchon/France for connections back to Lourdes airport – I’d have been in trouble without a ride). I found another basic, fairly inexpensive but satisfactory room in Lourdes, near the station, and then the following day got the bus to the airport.
Not quite as satisfactory an excursion as last year, when I walked the High Level Route from Lescun to Gavarnie. That trip has more resonance for me, more packed as it was with daily memories and a start to finish narrative in a part of the Pyrenees I think is probably more rewarding. I did less this year, saw less, and had to change and improvise on my initial plans. Interestingly though, savouring my photographs and recalling what I actually did is a process that enhances my appreciation of being there, now I’m back home. It was tiring – again – and this time I didn’t feel like pushing myself as I did last year. But there were great moments, notably climbing up to Posets and the last walk of the trip, albeit before I hit the final hillside descent.