Pyrenees Mountains: The Pleasure of the Wash Monday October 11, 2010

I want to describe the pleasures of the wash. Not the comfort of a hot bath, fluffy mats, warm pyjamas and then bed, but something more bracing. Nor even the rush and tingle of a shower, to awaken and refresh you before work. This wash is different.

It starts with a strip down to underpants, maintaining modesty for who knows might see you? Carefully you step and slide into the water, feeling your way over the precarious surface. It’s cold but so far refreshing; even in sandals your feet get warm and tired on a hot walking day. Soap the feet, lingering over ground-in dirt not all of which will be removed. Move up the legs, vaguely enjoying the light massage over muscles that have been working hard for hours. It’s quite difficult to massage your own body and even if you could mechanically do it, it’s not as satisfying as the touch of another. But, nonetheless, the sensory attention feels good, and at least some surface stiffness is relieved.

Scoop up water in my aluminium mug, and pour it down from the top. The cold wave flushes away dirt, sweat, soap and heat. So far, so good. Then the arms. That’s nice too, refreshing, like morning ablutions. But, it leads to the shoulders and that’s where it get challenging. The shoulders, and their connection to the neck and back, are yike! areas prone to the shock of cold. But still, the water’s not too bad and it’s only on the skin for seconds. To hell with it, off with the underpants because no one’s around and actually – now I don’t care. This is wildness. I’m in the mountains. So what exactly am I thinking?

Then the chest and stomach area, and the discomfort increases. Actually this is cold. There’s no avoiding it. Followed by the back, even worse. Then having soaped and sluiced the back I decide I may as well douse the head and wash my hair It’s another degree of overall cold and wasn’t the plan, but now it won’t make much difference. Sharp intake of breath and maybe some gasping, and then something changes. It’s not so bad. Time for the big one, the on the head run-down over the entire body. Now the cold’s exhilarating!

I’ve done this several memorable times. Once, beside the waterfall called Cam Spout cascading down into Great Moss in the Lake District. Pleasurably refreshed, I sat on the rocks for a few minutes gazing across to Harter Fell and down to Eskdale: what was all the fuss about being seen? There, actually, you do see a few walkers but they’re not likely to surprise you. About two years later I was on the other side of the Scafells, enjoying a walk across Illgill Head on a very hot day. You’re even less likely to be surprised there, along the long rolling plateau. I sunbathed naked for thirty minutes after my dip in the tarn, although a chap did saunter past prompting an underpant flurry and worry about what he’d think. I didn’t want him to think anything. I wanted him to leave me in private peace. It was a good day, after camping at Black Sail Tarn below Pillar and then Whin Rigg the night before, walking a circuit around Wasdale.

I did the same in Scotland earlier this year, walking the Ring of Steall. The tarn was in a quiet sheltered hollow I’d fancied for a place to pitch the tent, but after a few minutes I realised it was going to be midge hell. So my bedroom was slightly downhill with the benefit of a midge vanquishing breeze, and I had to walk uphill for the bathroom. Last year in 2009, I washed frequently in Pyrenean lakes and streams. Refuge Arlet, Ayous, Arremoulit and Wallon all have convenient lakes or streams. I showered at Lescun, Candanchu, Pombie, Respomuso, Gavarnie, and washed at Oulettes de Gaube in a sink.

Before I started wild camping, the idea of washing was a psychological hurdle: where do you do it, and I didn’t like the idea of not doing it, even for one day. In reality, it’s a different and less worrying issue when you’re in the hills. It’s just not as important when you’re in the open air for twenty four hours; it’s more like interrupting your walk than a comfortable end to the day such as you enjoy at home. The end of the day is the best time for it, benefiting from residual evening warmth quickly followed by a scramble into night wear and then your sleeping bag. Cosy. Outside of winter when it’s too cold you will commonly find somewhere to do it, but not always.

I still don’t like long periods without washing. In fact I’ve never done it. Up at the Baysellance refuge last year in the Pyrenees, the evening and then the morning were gloomy and slightly chilly and that – in addition to the fact that there was nowhere to wash – made me yearn for the valley. There is a small lake about thirty minutes walk from the refuge coming from Oulettes de Gabue and I’d recommend this facility for those unfamiliar with the area. Once you’re at the refuge, you won’t feel like walking back to get a wash.

You never see this advice in the guide books but for me it’s an important consideration. It doesn’t matter when you’re walking but when you snuggle into your expensive down sleeping bag, it feels yuck if you’re sticky and unclean.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book