Pyrenees

Having a copy of a topomap of Luchon in the Pyrenees, and noting a few big mountains and alpine lakes, we decided over email that we would meet there for a few weeks wandering in the hills.

Nick, Alex, Aaron, and Bec at Lac d' Portillon in the Pyrenees

After much encouragement Alex produced this masterpiece account of the trip: 

I met Aaron at gatwick just after midnight, on the logic that a few hours sleep at the airport was probably better than trudging across london at 3am. Unfortunately jackhammers made sure sleep was intermittent at best. Shortly before boarding Nick (and, by association, Bec) announced via email that he’d be a few days late – something about Air China and spending 6hrs on the tarmac, delayed flights and incorrect cities. Which left us with a bit of problem, as between us we had one bivvy bag for shelter. We got our ryanair flight early on the 11th of June, and arrived dazed in Lourdes mid morning. As usual planning was practically non-existent; luckily we got some information from a helpful middle aged english couple about the parts of the Pyrenees around Lourdes – we’d been assuming we’d travel straight to Luchon and meet there. Apart from ourselves and the english couple, everyone else seemed to be there to visit jesus. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to locate some form of shelter for Aaron, we settled on a bottle of vodka and some garbage bags, with the intention of creating some form of vaguely waterproof bivvy with the garbage bags. The vodka was the fallback. We stocked up on a few days food as well, and headed off. It was a fine plan. As we climbed, the mist rolled in and we spent the majority of the afternoon wandering through cloud. We passed a ski resort and a refuge on a lake, electing to “camp” slightly higher next to a large boulder and across a freezing stream. Aaron set up his ridiculous shelter (several garbage bags taped together with elastoplast) and we settled in for the night.

Who really needs a $30 K-mart tent anyway?

It dropped close to zero during the night; Aaron had an uncomfortable sleep as the inside of the bags filled with condensation. On the plus side, the cloud had lifted and gave as stunning views down the valley towards the lake. We got moving and crossed a 2500m pass around lunchtime. Of course, it turned out to be the wrong pass, and we ended up in a completely different valley to the intended one. Checking maps with any degree of regularity is not our thing. Luckily our new route had a refuge with (a) 5 euro crepes (b) 5 euro wine (c) a very attractive lake and (d) cheap beds. It worked out for the best. We had a lazy afternoon and a good sleep before descending the following day back towards the village, and then Lourdes, via a pretty valley partially ruined by mountains of cowshit.

Alex may or may not know where this is...

We spent the afternoon back in Lourdes in the park, eating leftover cereal and testing Aaron’s solar charger. I braved a walk through the touristy streets and discovered such delights as 5L jugs of holy water (only 5 euro!) and the world’s most horrible postcards of which i bought two. We left on an afternoon train, thoroughly glad to see the back of the place.

Arriving in Luchon on dusk, we decided to find a place to “camp” in the surrounding hills for the night, which basically meant wandering up under the chairlift till we found a relatively flat spot to roll out our bags. Feeling fairly happy with our makeshift campsite, I started drifting off..only to hear a horrible, ungodly growling sound coming from the darkness nearby. We both sat bold upright – “what the @#$% was that??” More disturbingly, it was accompanied by a deep thudding sound in the surrounding bushes. We elected to move. Unfortunately the growling followed and we spent the remainder of the night wide awake with a bottle of vodka for comfort and ice axes within close proximity – as if they would have helped. For the rest of the trip Aaron seemed reluctant to finish the vodka; he said it tasted like fear. We decided it was a bear, despite there only being 30 or so in the Pyrenees and having no evidence whatsoever – it made for a much better story. As soon as the sun rose, we headed for the train station where we were to meet Nick and Bec and spent the next few hours dozing lightly; a homeless guy said hello (or, more likely, bonjour) while pissing next to Aaron. It had been a long 12 hours. Nick and Bec arrived around 9am with a tale of woe from their delayed flights. After picking up some supplies from the local casino (bread, cheese, salami. Repeat x5) and dumping some excess gear in the forest (spare paragliders, etc.) we headed up the track towards Superbagneres. Hitching was probably a better option given it was a 1400m vertical slog up through tick-ridden forest, but several hours later we emerged parched to find the top of the ski resort. After filling up on water, Nick and Bec did a quick afternoon flight, top landing to avoid a repeat of the morning’s exertions. We then headed along the GR10 till dusk and camped in a glorious spot under some HV power lines.

A rather short flight, after a rather long walk

Nick had been tasked with getting two $30 tents from kmart – similar purchases had previously survived a rough trip through the swiss alps and france, and so with great enthusiasm we extracted them from their bags to discover that you do in fact get what you pay for – in this case a single skin “tent” that could not, under any circumstance, fit a 6”2 man lengthways. I gave up complaining after realising my tshirt was in fact worth substantially more than the tent, and resigned myself to getting cold, damp feet. Day 2 dawned fine and aside from the buzzing overhead monstrosities it was a beautiful view to wake up to.

That snow goes to the same place as those wires (hydroelectric dam)

A lazy lunch at the pass. I tried to make my friends look intelligent by giving them newspapers. You be the judge.

We headed off along the GR10 towards Lac d’Oo, passing some tranquil lakes on the way. After a quick dip in one of them, we lunched on the pass and spent a lazy couple of hours in the sun before Aaron and I descended to Refuge dÉspingo, while Nick and Bec flew down. We had polished off a good litre or so of wine when they arrived, and to prevent depletion of our own food stocks (or so the excuse went..) we had an excellent feed at the refuge of pizza, omellete and a full 3 course meal to finish. Well and truly full, we waddled to our campsite by Lac Saussat on dusk and settled in for the night. Another reasonably clear morning greeted us and after breakfast we headed up the track with Refuge du Portillon as our destination. The clouds built up as we climbed and as we approached the hut the wind picked up. At 2500m it was quite cold and we gladly had a rest inside the refuge, with an absolutely superb bowl of fresh coffee, prepared by our friendly french host. We nibbled on some peanuts for lunch, ditched the packs and grabbed the iceaxes, and headed higher. After a scramble up some steep snow and rocks, we descended a bit to the col – which doubled as the french/spanish border – and celebrated with chocolate before heading back down to the hut to warm up again.

Taking a walk above the Lac d' Portillon

My not so suitable footwear (joggers effectively) had survived kicking a few steps but were absolutely soaked and I spent the remainder of the afternoon warming my toes in between games of 500. Being cheap bastards, we had elected to camp, and Nick and Aaron volunteered to set the tents up; they came back a half hour later looking very proud of themselves – it was a masterpiece of engineering, or so we were led to believe. An hour or so later we heard a ferocious gust of wind and stumbled outside to see the tents upside down and about to be thrown into the ice filled lake below. Undeterred, we weighed them down with more boulders and went back inside to enjoy an absolutely humongous meal prepared by the hut warden. Aaron, Nick and I all pride ourselves on being able to eat practically anything in any quantity, especially while hiking, but the scale of the meal presented to us was beyond the capabilities of us mere mortals. We retired to the wind blown tents defeated and subdued.

"Ugly mountain" from the comfort of Refuge d Portillon

Lodgings for the night (prior to wind gusts)

It was a sleepless night – the tent was buffeted by gale force winds and threatened to collapse every few minutes. It rained periodically, just to spite us. However, as we unenthusiastically packed the tents the next morning we were amazed to find they were still intact – only some tears in the floor from the boulders, nothing structural. Who needs $300 DAC featherlite poles when some bamboo sticks from Kmart will suffice? The weather was looking pretty average and we were running out of time so we decided not to cross the col from the previous day but to retrace our steps and head back to Luchon to drop Aaron off and resupply.

Descending from Portillon to Espingo

After a quick morning clamber up a small peak next to the refuge we descended back towards Espingo; the weather of course cleared immediately and we walked for the next few hours in beautiful sunshine. A 400m climb awaited us to get to the top of the col and we fueled up with a litre of wine at the refuge before ascending in the late afternoon light. A pleasant but uneventful night was had near a lake on the other side of the col. We arrived after lunch the next day following a misty, wet and somewhat miserable descent back into Luchon.

Just keep walking into the fog!

European engineering meets nature, descending into Luchon

After a pizza for lunch we stocked up on food, said goodbye to Aaron and got the chairlift back up to the top of Superbagneres. It was a cold walk back up to our stash of packs at the top of the col and after setting up we went straight to bed – Nick and Bec had the remaining tent and I used a bivvy bag. On this particular night, it turned out to be a poor choice. Still damp from the walk and with mist everywhere, the inside of bag filled with condensation (goretex doesn’t exactly work well in 100% humidity). A few hours later the cloud lifted to reveal a glorious star-filled sky, which I briefly admired until the temperature abruptly dropped below freezing and everything inside my bivvy bag froze solid. Even with Nick’s loan of down jacket I spent most of the night shivering violently and cursing the lack of a tent, the weather and anything else that I could think of.

Yesterday's fog blanket finally dropped below us, just the coldness of the stars until dawn

The one positive of this discomfort was I was wide awake when the sun peeked over the horizon and I was rewarded (or, perhaps, compensated) with a stunning sunrise – cloud filled the valleys below but it was perfect blue sky above with the surrounding peaks poking above the layers of white.

The third of four meetings with the shepherd

We spent the early morning drying our soaked gear before parting ways: Nick and Bec planned to glide across the valley to Refuge de Maupas which sat high on the opposing hillside, while I was to get there via a more sedate walk. In the end, we met a mere kilometer or so down the hill after a dismal glide for Nick and a pointless and dangerous attempt to circumvent some bluffs for myself. Subdued, we ate a quick lunch before continuing on foot towards Maupas. In what had become a common occurrence we almost immediately ran into an old shepherd; we had crossed paths several times of the last few days but this time we stopped for quite a long chat, involving a lot of hand gestures; it was being held together principally by Nick’s quite reasonable grasp of French.

Shepherds shortcut - a breathtaking traverse of the Val d'Lys

Aside from some vague directions, we got some information about a small unmanned hut used by shepherds which was about halfway to Maupas. Since it was getting on in the afternoon we headed there via a spectacular track cut into the bluffs and finished the day with a ice cold shower under a free flowing tap next to the hut. In stark contrast to the previous nights discomforts, I got an exceptional sleep in the hut and struggled immensely to drag myself out of bed. It was another beautiful, clear day. We headed off towards Maupas, for what was to be one of the most unexpected and spectacular days of the trip. As part of a hydro scheme, the French had carved a track and a aquaduct of sorts all the way around the walls of the valley, providing us with an interesting and very scenic trip to Maupas.

Scenic sidle along hydro water race, towards Refuge Maupas

We arrived late morning after a short climb to avoid a huge landslip on the steep terrain. After a brief stop to determine if we could get some crepes (alas no) we continued onwards and upwards with the intention of crossing the col above Lac du Port Vell and into Spain that afternoon. Stopping only briefly for lunch – and an ice cold swim – at one of the many lakes we made our way across some easy snow slopes to the col at around 2700m. Since we were in no particular rush we wandered up a nearby peak which gave outstanding views of Aneto and the surrounding peaks over in Spain. The contrast was amazing – low, green hills on the french side and just a few short kilometres away what seemed to be huge peaks and dry forests with exposed rock outcrops everywhere. I was sold on the spanish side; anything that dry looking had to mean less rain for us.

Descending into Spain - not as easy in joggers

Later in the afternoon we descended a steep snow chute off the col on the spanish side. It proved quite trying – self arresting with a large pack is a painful experience. We set up camp on some flattish ground a few hundred metres lower and got another perfect sunset, followed by a small avalanche along the wall of peaks behind us. The debris never came anywhere near us but it was a spectacular sight.

Aneto, highest in Pyrenees, from our campsite

The majority of the following day was spent lazing around and swimming in a lake only a few hundred metres from our previous night’s camp. I did wonder (not for the last time) how on earth I was going to manage to go back to full time work after this, but the thought was quickly cast aside. A problem for later. We paid for our sins by getting soaked and hailed on during a 2hr slog down the road towards Benasque. During this onslaught it was uniformly agreed that we’d get a hotel room for the night, which was one of our better decisions. We spent the evening wandering around the town and eating as much as we could before retiring to comfortable beds.

Dropping the packs for a wander up Valle de Estos

The next two days were largely spent blissfully pack free, as we wandered around the hills surrounding Benasque. The scenery reminded me of the photos I’d seen of Yosemite. We stayed the night in a refuge and came to the conclusion the French were streets ahead – friendlier, and much better food. With the morning came rain and a wet, muddy walk back down to the valley. We parted company briefly at this point; Nick and I headed up to grab the paraglider and some food we’d stashed a few days prior, while Bec went down into town, with the intention of meeting us that night near Refugio de Coronas which sat in a beautiful spot behind Aneto. After a quick climb back up towards the col we’d crossed a couple of days ago, we found the gear and waited for the clouds to part, before launching out over the valley and landing a short time later next to, quite conveniently, a hospital. No repairs were required but it was good to know if we’d stuffed the landing we would have got prompt attention. The remainder of the day was spent making our way towards Coronas, where we met Bec in the late afternoon. It had turned into a sunny day so we decided to walk a bit higher and camp out.

"Mt Curly", above Refugio Coronas

This turned out to be a great decision – the afternoon walk was probably the most scenic part of the trip and our campsite put us in a perfect position to climb one of the surrounding peaks the next morning. We had been talking about making an attempt on Aneto (the highest peak in the Pyrenees) but had run out of time – we had to meet Jordic the next day and Aneto was at least an 8hr climb. So we settled for Tempestada, which had a much more direct route up it.

Nick and I left around 5am while Bec elected to have a nice morning sleep in;

Bec’s report (I know she likes pink): After a long day of walking we arrived at Corona, a refuge below Aneto, to set our tents up a bit further away from the ‘no camping’ sign.  For some reason, before we collapsed into our warm sleeping bags, Alex and Nick has a fantastic idea to set their alarms for 0330.  They planned to climb to a peak slightly lower than Aneto.  I, however, did not feel the same way and woke up inside the portable sauna grabbing for the nearest available water bottle.  To make it even better they had left behind the entire stash of food.  So I had a huge bowl of dehydrated berry muesli, yum!  When they returned we quickly left following any red and white GR11 marker we could find to cross over the final burn for our 1400 deadline.  Unfortunately at the top, sorry to let it slip guys, but we found ourselves completely lost and wondering what was wrong with the map.  After a few private male discussions the problem was resolved and Nick flew down with an extra pack.  Avoiding a few spanish style toilets (piles of shit right in the middle of the track) and a mostly naked swim in the dam we arrived at the carpark.  

Alex: we reached the summit around 8:30am after some dicey (for me) excursions on ice and were greeted with the most spectacular views of the trip – 360 degree views of France and Spain with mountains in all directions, and the peak of Aneto about 50m higher and only a few hundred metres away. It was well worth the morning’s exertions.

After a few minutes to take in the views we descended quickly and got back to camp by 11am, a little behind schedule. We packed up and headed off towards the pass. After some minor navigational difficulties – it pays to check the map now and then – we descended to a large lake with a hydro dam, which marked the end of our journey and, with luck, Jordic waiting with a car.

Flying down from the final pass, freight run

Thanks to Nick, Aaron and Bec for an outstanding trip, and Jordic for his generous hospitality.

Theme of the trip - hydroelectric dams

Bec again: We were stoked when Jordic turned up with three kayaks piled on top of his car, a mountain bike strapped to the back and asked us “who’s is going to ride the mountain bike?”.   Alex ended up volunteering.  So we piled in and followed Alex to the bottom of the mountain, then continued to Millau via the pizzaria. Unfortunately we all fell asleep except for Jordic, thank god.  But that all came to an end when we were woken up by barking dogs, bushes brushing the sides of the car and then finally grinding to a halt in the middle of this very narrow dirt track right on the edge of a cliff. The guys had to get out and push us back up the hill a bit but we finally found a small clearing amongst the wild oregano and gorse to set up our tents.

Read more in the Millau report… 

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About sharemyjoys

Nick Neynens
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