Hiking the Pyrenees

Day Seventy Seven– Saturday 27th August – Lourdes/Barèges

Caught the 2:50pm bus to Barèges, changing at Pierrette. Another passenger on the bus also heading to Mountainbug – turned out to be an Aussie Corrynne, from Perth and doing the same walks as us.

We checked in – met our hosts Helen and Gary and were shown our room – very nice, Scandinavian style with en suite. At dinner we met the other guests including a family from St Helena, a British protectorate (?) a thousand kms off the south west coast of Africa. Extremely remote, goods come by boat – a new billion dollar airport had been constructed to take large aircraft but windshear a major problem!! Costs $1500 just to get by plane to Africa!

Met Mountainbug owner and our guide for the walks, Rob Mason. He gave us a rundown on the walks we’d be doing – two one-day walks around Barèges and the three-day trek into the Haute Pyrenées. Met our co-walkers, Corrynne and Gabby from the UK. So just the four of us. Also met Chris and Christine Absolon, a couple from Bath who were doing their own walks.

Day Seventy Eight– Sunday 28th August –Barèges

Our first walk in the area took us straight out of the village and up the mountain on one side of the valley. Rob lead us at a calm but steady pace – as we discovered later, this was to check out our fitness for the “big one” later in the week. It was a beautiful day – blue skies, perfect for walking.

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It was steady going uphill for a good 2-3 hours, Rob stopping at intervals to tell us about local culture, farming and history as well as wildlife.

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Avalanches are a major problem so farms and barns all have immensely thick walls – up to 30 feet, shaped like the prow of a ship facing uphill to shield the building and break the force of the avalanche.

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Beautiful range of wild flowers including sun thistles which close at night and open when hit by the sun’s rays. Also some exquisite, brightly coloured moths called ‘seven spots’.

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There were also wild raspberries and strawberries and bilberries – a diminutive form of blueberries, called local myrtleberries.

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All very tasty. Corrynne proved to be an avid forager – searching our berry bushes and sharing her harvest.

We stopped for our packed lunch at the great vantage point overlooking the valley below.

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interesting conversation about education – Rob’s parents had been teachers. Heading down took another hour or so, we opted to go via a café/crêperie overlooking the village where we ordered crepes and coffee. Kerrie had a slight misunderstanding with the café owner (also the local mayor) partly due to her lack of French and also to his strong regional Occitane accent. But all ended with smiles and kisses. The late afternoon clouds were rolling in and as the temperature dropped, we headed back to Baréges, about 40 minutes away, meeting up with an American couple from Dallas, Texas here for three weeks of hiking en route. After dinner – caught up with blog.

Day Seventy Nine– Monday 29th August –Barèges

Today’s walk involved a short drive to a valley which leads to a famous geological feature – a vast glacially carved bowl in the limestone with France’s highest waterfall. Sadly we weren’t destined to see much as the weather was overcast and misty, low cloud hugging the mountains. But in the Haute Pyrenees, you have to expect that some days. And of course it doesn’t stop the hiking.  We parked in another local mayor’s carpark (Rob knows them all) and headed up hill on the left hand side of the valley. Murky and misty, it was cooler and quite atmospheric, passing small herds of cows and their calves on the upper pastures.

As we circled around we started walking along rocky cliffs, the pathway carved out of the walls, passing under overhangs/caves. In winter the water flows over and freezes, there were hooks on the rocky roofs for ice climbers to reach the frozen walls of ice.

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After a while it looked like the weather might clear, the sun broke through and the clouds lifted enough for us to see the massive limestone cliffs that formed the vast bowl – La Gavarnie. Rob ( a geologist by training) explained how the structure was formed over millions of years as the pressure from continental drift forced the Spanish plate north into the French plate – producing the Pyrenees. As softer limestone met harder rock to the north it was gouged out by giant glaciers producing this massive ice cauldron.

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Unfortunately the clouds rolled back in, we decided to stop for a coffee at a hotel at the top of the valley – unusually it’s privately owned, thanks to royal patronage – a French dauphin was injured and rescued by a local who was then granted ownership of a plot of land – and the family still owns it some centuries later.

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The clouds stayed down, concealing the famous waterfall, so we started our return journey along the other side of the valley – through pretty water meadows.

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This was where Victor Hugo walked, a sign with a quote from the famous French writer extolling the grandeur of La Gavarnie. Rob told us about the history of the region, including how the Cathars were persecuted and killed, and how the Knights Templar set themselves up as bankers to the rich who were making the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the route runs through this valley. They also met their fate at the hands of the then French king who felt threatened by them and wanted their money. Apparently a lot of Templar treasure as well as household caches of money and valuables were buried in the area up to and including the time of WW 1. Recently excavations in a building in the nearby town of Luz St Saveur uncovered Euros 300,000 worth of treasure!

We detoured to walk briefly along the pilgrimage trail…

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before visiting the local church which has a cemetery with an area dedicated specially for mountain guides and inside a small wooden cupboard perched inconspicuously on a wall were 3-4 skulls, supposedly belonging to Knights Templars.

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Drove back to our lodge after a good hike – another good five hours of walking. Returned via the village where Rob and his family live to see Victor Hugo’s holiday house and adjacent, an ancient fortified church with thick stone walls surrounding the church. Check about pagan origins.

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Day Eighty– Tuesday 30th August –Barèges

Unsure what the weather was going to do we delayed making a decision about how to spend the day. But it brightened up and we decided to try Rob’s suggestion of hiring electrically assisted bicycles from the local shop. Unfortunately they were all taken – but the guy kindly offered to see if there bikes available in Luz, the town seven kms further down the valley. We were in luck – so we chanced our luck at hitching down the valley ( no buses soon enough). And we were in luck – a retired Frenchman who’d been employed in the Public Works dept in Lourdes gave us a lift. Best quote on retirement – ‘le mieux metier’ (the best occupation).

Got our bikes – and headed back up the valley. Our plan was to travel the route followed by the Tour de France – to the Col du Tourmalet. The disadvantage was that we now had an extra 7/8 kms to cycle. In France you’re not allowed to have non-assisted electric bikes – which means you always have to pedal – with a greater or lesser amount of battery powered support. But if you use too much energy, it could run out before you get to the top!  It took us about forty minutes to get back up to Barèges, not bad we thought. Kerrie battled a bit as her bike was a shade too big, with a higher crossbar and a panier at the back. Picked up some fruit and water from the lodge and continued – all uphill needless to say.

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It became tougher as we reached the bottom of the big climb to the col. The real cyclists were overtaking us – but we still felt we were doing well. We saw a number of vultures – Griffons it later transpired – and a marmot right beside the road, which then scampered downhill. Quite large with dark tail and paws.  By now the altitude was kicking in and we slowed down. We decided to walk the bikes up the last 4-5 hundred metres, but considering we’d covered a total of 20 kms and that the altitude at the col is 2115 metres – we felt we’d done very well.

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Lunch up top, took photos, cycled back down to Luz (bit of a problem with the chain on Kerrie’s bike which we got fixed in Barèges – cost us a bottle of wine. Got to Luz, handed back bikes, all well. But found we’d missed the last bus back! Decided to hitch again and luck was with us – two rides got us back. That night we played games including blocks – like pickasticks – and charades with Chris and Christine and Corrynne – very amusing.

Packed up for the big three day hike starting tomorrow!

 Day Eighty One – Wednesday 31st August –Barèges/ Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle

We set off at 9am – Rob driving the minivan to our start point at Pont de la Gaubie, elevation 1538 metres.

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Headed up a valley along a 4 wheel track for a few kms, then the real uphill climb began. Classic zigzag up the mountain – finally reaching the Col Hourquette dÁubert at 2488 metres.  Looking back to where we’d come from gave us a great sense of achievement!

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As we headed further up and into the wilderness we passed several beautiful mountain lakes fed by springs.

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The rugged rocky mountains looked precipitous and almost impassable.

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Yet it was through these mountains that resistance fighters and refugees made their desperate way to Spain some 20 kms south to escape the Nazis in WWII. Finally, we came to a downward section – aiming for a trail between two lakes – Aubert and Aumar.

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When we reached them, we took time to refresh and soothe our feet in the cool waters.

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We had another 1-2 hours to go, mostly across rocks and boulders to finally reach our first night’s stop the Refuge d’ Orédon, altitude 1856 metres.

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We were shown to our dormitory – but when Kerrie and I heard there were “married quarters” available – ie a room to ourselves, we grabbed it. Just as well as apparently the men in the dorm formed a trio of snoring tenors! A hearty meal of bean and vegetable soup, and chicken a la tomatoes and pasta  – then to bed, feeling exhausted, pleased we’d made it through the day – hiking some 17 kms, but apprehensive about the two days to come! Kerrie woke up in the middle of the night and took the opportunity to go and look at the night sky – one of the clearest here in Europe – stunning views of the milky way and shooting stars – hopefully auguring well for the rest of the walk!

Day Eighty Two– Thursday 1st September – Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle

Woken at 5:30 by an enthusiastic cyclist packing up for the day! Those guys really are committed! After a modest ‘refuge style’ breakfast (bread and jam and coffee), we hit the trail. Straight up for a grinding stretch of climbing over rocks and tree roots, muscles, joints and sinews complaining vigorously!

The 400 metre ascent took us to Col d’Estoudou at 2260 metres.

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Rob had presented us with three route choices; we chose the longest but most interesting as it traversed the mountain, contouring around Soum de Monelat through pine filled meadows and woodland, strewn with giant boulders.

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Stunningly beautiful and a real sense of being in true wilderness.

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We didn’t see another soul – except for a flock of mountain sheep, bells a-jangling. Used to humans they mostly took a curious but passing interest and moved on….

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But one seemed to take a special interest in Kerrie, something about the smell perhaps??

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After a chocolate and biccie we pressed on to reach the Estibere Valley.

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We stopped for lunch on a rocky knoll overlooking the valley – wolfing down paté, salami, locally made cheese and tinned tuna salad. Food never tasted so good!

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Then descended to a series of lakes – the first was Lac de L’Ile – heading towards the imposing Pic de Bastan – called by Rob the “Paramount Movie” mountain as it closely resembles the movie studio’s classic icon. And to set it off beautifully – the gorgeous Lac du Gourguet in the valley below.

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On our way down we saw a large flock of sheep – even though this a nature reserve, traditional farmers retain grazing rights. A couple of shepherds were relaxing by the lake – while their three Pyrenean Mountain Dogs kept watch. These are massive – well able to protect their woolly charges against predators – and came over to check us out and make sure we weren’t sheep rustlers!

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We’d done about five hours hiking – but still had three to go, our next night’s refuge sneakily hiding behind ridges and down valleys!

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We had a final ascent and descent around 5pm, going past the intensely blue tinted Lac de Bastanet

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and finally made it to Refuge Bastan, altitude 2215 metres. This refuge was very basic compared to the previous one which had hot showers, toilets, cappuccinos and a terrace overlooking the lake. Bastan consisted of an A frame lodge with dining room and kitchen below and sleeping quarters above, via a vertical stepladder, separate fixed tent sleeping quarters with bunks…and lastly a miniature steel container mounted on two metal beams with four bunks, seemingly precariously perched on a ledge over looking a lake below! The team kindly allocated this to Kerrie and I.

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There were no showers and one toilet ( long drop) shared between however many were staying – up to 30 hard core hikers. The refuge was run by a couple with children who live up here all summer and descend for winter – as snow is up to 5 metres deep! Supplies are choppered in twice in the season, anything else is backpacked in – rubbish is backbacked out. Rob suggested a swim in the lake – supposedly 20 degrees. Andrew dived in and swam 50-100 metres out and actually it wasn’t too bad – certainly refreshing after a long day’s mountain hike (around 13 kms).  Kerrie ducked in for a quick paddle but too cold for her! Dinner was surprisingly good – pea soup and pork stew. Hearty fare.

Day Eighty Three – Friday 2nd September – Haute Pyrenees/Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle

Sunrise over the mountains across the lake from our “mountain hut” was gorgeous. But not much time to linger and admire the scene; after breakfast, we packed up and off on the last day of our hike. Another steady climb – to Col de Bastan, 2507 metres, below the mighty mountain peak.

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There was an option to make a detoured ascent, but we opted to leave that to the hard core team of French hikers coming up behind us. Luckily we got to see a lammergeier vulture – one the largest in the world with a 3 metre wingspan, strong enough to lift a cow’s thigh bone and take it aloft, so it can drop it onto rocks and break it open to access the marrow.

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We had a long day ahead of us and admiring the views behind and ahead – descended into a rock and boulder strewn valley, echoing to the high-pitched calls of the marmots.

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We pressed on to Hourquette de Caderolles. We passed Lac du Bastan and then up again to Hourquette de Nere at 2465 metres. We could look back at the string of lakes down the valley below, the same ones we’d seen the day before but from another perspective – as we circled around the Neouvielle park.

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Stunning and awe-inspiring! Looking down the valley stretching ahead of us, the scenery was wild, jagged and gave us a real sense of being in one of Europe’s last remaining wild refuges.

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Amazing! Further down, the harsher rocky surrounds gave way to grassy meadows and picturesque lakes and streams.

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It felt like we were on the home straight – but we still had a good two hours to go!

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Finally, we rejoined the four wheel drive track we’d set out on the Grand Randonée 10, one of France’s national hiking routes – and covered the last few kilometres back to our van – and the welcome trip back to our lodge in Barèges. A roast lamb dinner awaited us (and hot showers and clean clothes). This was our last night at Mountainbug’s lodge – tomorrow we would collect our hire car and set off on the journey through France. But first we had to book a place to stay! That achieved – it was time for bed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Hiking the Pyrenees

    1. More photos to come – but VERY slow to upload. A real pain!! Having  a lovely time in France. Staying just outside Collonges la Rouge – tomorrow heading up to the Loire. How are you ? Thanks for having Jess – seems she landed safely and all is well. Love Andrew xxx

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