Archive for July 2016
We woke to a stunner. The previous gloom and clouds had been replaced by a deep and clear blue sky. The early morning views across the lake were magnificent
Our usual routine of breakfast and packing but this time outside in glorious sunshine
Our route took us back along the high path above the lake towards Campoplano. Today it was even better than the day before and a pleasure to walk it again under such stunning conditions
Our plan was to traverse the high pass of the Col de La Fache and possibly climb the Grand Fache itself at over 3000m. The pass is the one just right of centre in the photo below with the Grand Fache to the right
We needed to cross the major stream that issues from the col and we were preparing to wade it (bridges on the Spanish side seemed to be in short supply) . On a whim I climbed up to the top of a small ridge and spied a dam below that we could cross. Result!
We stopped to fill water bottles, once again admiring the glorious scenery in the environs of Embalse de Campoplano
As we began to climb to we saw lots of marmots on the surrounding rocks
We’d not been climbing long before we started to reach the snow. The hut itself is pretty high at 2200m so it was hardly that surprising. It mainly filled the bottom of the valley with the roaring meltwater stream often hidden underneath. The going was easy until we had to cross a boulder. The footsteps went down and round it and so did I only to collapse into a large hole and then pitch forward and slide headfirst towards the torrent that was disappearing under another patch of snow. I stopped myself after a couple of metres but the thought did cross my mind as I plunged that if I fell in the river I’d be washed under the snow. Sobering thought.
I emptied the snow out of my pockets and boots and we pressed on. As we climbed the snow became more extensive. I took a line above and to the right following some footsteps and thinking staying away from the chance of falling through a hole into the river was a good idea
In the event the footsteps turned to crampon marks and the snow became a little harder and I had to kick steps for quite a while. No real danger but it felt a little precarious. TJS gave me another “you never told me about this sort of thing” look
We headed up finding the snow hard work. We thought we’d reached the col but it was a cruel deception. It was still well above us as we walked into a perched corrie with a lake, completely frozen over. All the photos I’d seen when researching the route was of a rocky hollow with two deep blue lakes. Seeing it in pretty much full winter conditions was something of a surprise!
To reach the col we had a long rising traverse around the lake followed by a short steep section. TBF managed to fall off the trail and slide down a few feet (you can see here making her way back up in the photo below). Again it felt a little precarious but a slip would only have ended in a wet slosh into the snow at the bottom. The steeper section was hard work but after what seemed like a long and tiresome toil we were at the col at 2664m. Only a climb of some 450m but with heavy packs its seemed much harder
The views were immense and we settled in for a long leisurely soak in the sun
The climb up to the Grand Fache sounded easy enough but we were quickly realising that we were walking with heavy packs in winter conditions and finding it much harder than we thought. We agreed that climbing cols was more than enough and abandoned the idea of the summit (and the extra descent it would entail) in favour of more time lazing about
The way down, back into France, was over more snow but at a perfect angle for descending, at least for me. TJS was still nervous on snow despite my assertions that at this easy angle it makes for a rapid and easy descent. He seemed to hate the snow despite the fact he’s been down much steeper snow slopes in the Brecons near to home. Perhaps a little intimidated by the high mountains around us rather than just dealing with conditions underfoot
We passed another beautiful frozen lake and then another snow filled gully before finally leaving the white stuff behind
We descended into the Marcadau valley and the Refuge Wallon (just visible in the centre of the photo below)
The surrounding scenery was majestic and the valley below green and verdant. A long descent as the refuge was much lower at 1800m
One of the best features of the Pyrenees are the valley meadows and clear mountains streams. We added the Marcadau to the list of marvellous places.
As we approached the hut there were several people sunning themselves and swimming although the water was likely to be icily cold being primarily snowmelt. I’d planned to take a dip at some point but we never really had time and the water was far too cold even for me
The refuge was a much older traditional building. We drank a cold coke on the terrace before booking in and making ourselves at home (a dedicated and rather shabby 4 bed bunk-room with paper thin walls). We sat outside and watched the local cows, donkey and horse as the mingled with crowds, the hut was clearly very popular and busy. Our evening meal was hearty as always and after a long day we turned in relatively early as we had another long day ahead with two more passes to cross
Weatherise the best day of the trip and a tough one. There was more hard work to follow, much more than we anticipated!
After a leisurely break in an overnight hotel (and a dodgy beer and bout of sickness for me) we were up and off again the next day. The weather was still overcast but a little brighter so we were hopeful of clearer conditions. Alas as we approached the car park at Plan D’Aste we entered the ping pong ball again!
This was day one of a six day hut tour around the French and Spanish Pyrenees that I’d concocted over many nights poring over maps and guidebooks. Each day would take us over a high col or two and down to a hut with the possibility of some summits. Things didn’t quite work out as planned, as you’ll discover over the next few posts, but it turned out to be a superb trip
This day started as the previous one had ended. In thick gloomy fog for the long walk up the Val D’Arrens. I got the impression that it was a fine valley, rocky at first mixed with wide grassy pastures before a steep climb took us into the very heart of the Balaitous range. Just as we we began to lose hope that this dense fog would ever clear we caught a glimpse of blue and some faint outlines of craggy peaks
After almost 12 hours walking in fog it was a relief just to see a few hundred metres and our spirits were raised
As we climbed the weather cleared all the more and the skies became bluer and expansive views started to open up. We could see our path to the col on the border with Spain stretching in front of us. We also came across the first of what proved to be the tricky obstacle of snow patches across the path that had to be traversed. You can see it in the photo below.
The paths tend to run across the valley sides rather than the bottom (where all the scree collects) so traversing across them feels quite airy and exposed. We should have been carrying axes and crampons but I really hadn’t thought there would be much snow at this time of year so I’d left them behind. The snow was deep and firm and I found it easy enough to kick steps across but this was the first time TJS had come across this sort of terrain and he naturally found it a bit edgy. He coped ok though and we were soon moving quickly again with tremendous views back down the valley partially above the cloud by the Lacs de Remoulis
One steep snow section needed to be climbed as the path disappeared under a snow bank. I don’t think TJS fully appreciated my request to “smile” as he climbed (its nothing like as steep as it looks in the photo)
We crossed more snow, quite extensive, and filled water bottles with cold clear snowmelt for lunch. Up to col the snow was pretty much continuous and were planning to go over much higher cols than this one.
We reached the Col de St Martin in watery sunshine and stopped for a long late lunch at 2,295m, highest point of the trip so far
The descent down the other side took us into Spain for the first time with the views clearing by the minute. An easy descent took us down to the the magnificent grassland and lake of the Embalse de Campoplano
Take a look at these photos and tell me you don’t ache to throw a tent up here for a wild camp!
It was a truly magnificent spot. Acres of close-cropped grass bisected by numerous clear streams, surrounded by dramatic craggy snow streaked mountains. My favourite spot of the trip and one of my all time favourite places now. Part of me regretted we weren’t camping but my pack with 6 days lunches and no tent/stove/mat/sleeping bag was heavy enough
We forded a small stream and walked the short distance around the lake and crags to the hut
It was a breathtaking section, high above the main Respumuso Reservoir with rocky outcrops and smaller tarns in the foreground. All the while Musales and Infiernos ranges cleared from the cloud
We rounded a corner and found the hut, one of the more modern and larger variety with the added luxury of a hot shower (unheard of in Alpine Huts when I used them many years ago)
We booked and settled in to our overnight home and spent the rest of the evening watching the views unfold and wandering about. Just enjoying being high in the mountains, watching the marmots at play before our evening meal of soup and chicken & chips. As with all the huts the food was excellent and the staff friendly and welcoming
As the sun went down everything turned a deep golden brown and we marvelled at the dramatic change from gloomy murk to evening sunshine. The hut was very quiet and there was a sense of peace and solitude that was intoxicating. One of those evenings when you are reluctant to go to bed (even though your body is telling you its tired!)
We went to bed happy and content and ready for the next leg of the journey
TJS has been working hard for his GCSE’s. As he effectively gets a month off after finishing we decided on a special post-exam treat of a walking holiday (minus TJF who still has schooling to complete). After much deliberation we decided on the Pyrenees as they have a real big mountain feel with none of the objective dangers of the high Alps. They are also great for long distance walking/touring so I planned a couple of expeditions into their majestic heart. Within 30 minutes or so of him finishing his last exam we were on the road. A channel crossing to St Malo which I have to say is by far the best way to reach France. 12 hours overnight giving time for a pretty good meal, a decent night’s sleep and a leisurely breakfast before hitting the road. Its a long way to the Pyrenees but midweek is an easy drive, including a stop for a cuppa in the forests just south of Bordeaux where it was brutally hot (around 34C).
As we pulled into the Hotel L’Ayguelade (very nice it was too) for an overnight before hitting the trail we got our first glimpse of the Pyrenees proper and the dramatic Pic Du Midi D’Ossau. Anticipation was growing!
The morning however was dark and gloomy both weatherwise and politically. We woke to news that the UK had voted to leave the EU and we were stunned and dismayed. I was almost embarrassed to sit with the the rest of the guests having breakfast. With grey skies and a grey mood it was a quiet drive up into the mountains. We hoped that perhaps we could break through the cloud and as we climbed up towards the car park at Lac de Bious Artigues the cloud thinned and suddenly cleared and we were treated to some sensational views
The dark mood that had overcome us in the morning evaporated as quickly as the clouds and we finished packing for our first trip
The plan was a tour of the majestic Pic Du Midi D’Ossau. Its one of the most iconic of all the Pyrenean peaks. Not the highest or even over 3000m it has a profile that’s not dissimilar to the Matterhorn, standing alone rather than as a point on an extended ridge.
Its a relatively easy summit to attain but prone to stone-fall. We therefore settled on a circuit that encircles it with a night in a hut to make a two day taster before a longer trip the following week
We set off in glorious warm sunshine with tantalising glimpses of the towering Pic du Midi through the trees.
After a steep pull through the trees we opened out into the Bious pastures. It looked wonderful with its clear mountain stream but our route was further upwards with another steep section through the forest
We emerged into another open pasture and stopped for a break. It was a wonderful spot but we were plagued by flies but luckily for the only time on the trip
A short climb led us up to the first of the the Lacs d’Ayous, Lac Roumassot. With the majestic Pic in full view it was a perfect lunch stop by the stream
Winter has not long receded from the Pyrenees (as we found out later) so the wild flowers were in abundance and a delight for our whole stay
After a lengthy feast another short climb past the waterfalls led us past the second small lake of Lac du Miey and then on to Lac Gentau above which sat our destination for the night, the Refuge D’Ayous
The hut has been perfectly placed, above the lake with the classic view across to the Pic du Midi. On warm summer afternoon it was perfect
We debated long and hard about whether to use huts or wild camp. I was in favour of the latter but the others were reluctant to carry the heavy packs in high mountain country. We decided on huts and they were very convivial and enjoyable. They fed us superbly with each hut delivering a four course meal and it does mean you can relax a little more at the end of the day and enjoy the surroundings. None of that cooking, washing up and lavatorial visits behind rocks and such like. In fact c couple of the hut even had a shower!
We enjoyed our surroundings for a lazy couple of hours just lounging on the grass in the warm sunshine
As we sat the clouds and mist from the valley’s below began to creep up creating some fine images of the Pic du Midi
We were planning on a lazy stroll around the lake but left it a little too late. By the time we set off the mist was swirling around the lake and hut and we spent of most of the walk in the damp cloud
The wild flowers were still absolutely stunning though
Added attraction of these lakes are its resident toads and there were loads of them swimming in the shallows and several frogs hopping about in the grass
This one was rearing up out of the muddy grass like some kind of monster!
I also nearly trod on a snake! It was black and possibly had a diamond pattern on its back so I thought it might be an Adder but looking online the only variety is rare and not black. Not sure what variety it was but it was thrilling to see it anyway.
The hut was completely enveloped in cloud when we got back so we sat inside and chilled waiting for tea (a hearty soup, chilli and rice with cheese and apple to follow). While we were eating a massive thunderstorm raged outside with hail thrown in. We seemed to right in the middle of it with lightning flashing all around. When it finished the skies cleared a little and me and TBF went out for a walk. The views were completely different, all stormy clouds and shafts of sunlight
We thought we’d missed the promised sunset on Pic du Midi but we lucked in as the sun came out just enough to turn its grey slopes a deep brown and the wind dropped to reveal at least some of its reflection in the lake
A fantastic end to a superb first day in the Pyrenees
Now I said this was a two day expedition and normally I’d write a post for each day. The next day we woke in swirling mist and stayed in it for the entire day. Every footstep from the hut back to the car which was still in the cloud. It was a long day and we were all pretty chuffed to complete it but we saw nothing all day. It was like walking inside a ping-pong ball. This was the only photo I managed to take so I didn’t think I could stretch this out to a whole post.
The day wasn’t without incident. Were saw numerous Fire Salamander and we managed to to go over the wrong col. We saw some glimpses of blue sky way above us but it never cleared and ironically that was enough for both sherpas to get sunburnt! It didn’t spoil what had been a superb couple of days out and we warmed up for the more serious route I’d planned for the rest of the trip. A total of 20km and 1400m of ascent over the two days