Blog activity has now been fully restored. When we last all together in the blogosphere a couple of months back I was taking you through our grand walking tour of the Pyrenees. We’d enjoyed a fabulous day crossing the Col de la Fache and marvelled at just how much snow there was. After a night at the Wallon refuge we were ready for another big day. It proved to be a big day in every regard. It turned out nothing like we expected. I’ve referred to this day since as “The Brute”
The day started as wonderfully as the last. A deep clear blue sky and snow flecked mountains
The first mile or so was an absolute joy, following the river down to the bridge. Majestic views of tumbling water and pine trees. Everything that makes the Pyrenees so special
From there we entered the shade and remained there for a good hour of climbing that was welcome considering the power of the sun. We eventually emerged into bright sunlight again and celebrated the views with a piece of cake. Who says you can’t eat lemon sponge cake for breakfast
We continued the climb till we reached the wonderful deep blue-green Lac de Aratille. Crystal clear, it just ached for a swim but the early hour and the likely snowmelt temperatures made me think better of it. I satisfied myself with the stunning views and planning a wild camp by its shores. One of my favourite spots of the trip
Onwards and upwards, the terrain became rockier with patches of snow. After yesterday’s adventures we were somewhat relieved that the snow was intermittent and the route to the Col de Aratille was simple and enjoyable
Such was the quality of the climb I decided to do the middle few hundred feet again (to collect my camera which I’d left sitting on a rock!)
As we reached the col we were treated to a sensational view of the Vignemale, one of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees
The col was also home to another completely iced/snowed Lake – the Lac du Col d’Aratille. We’d done most of the hard work for the day and celebrated with chocolate and nuts – as you do!
And then things started to go awry.
Our plan was to traverse on what we thought was a good path to the nearby Col de Mulets and then down for a night at the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube beneath the Vigmemale’s impressive North face. The path was a loose scree affair and not much fun. However the real issue was the fact that the “path” traversed steeply upwards across a very steep looking and exposed snow slope to the next col. It looked very unwelcoming and our route the following day would see us having to descend it again.
We discussed and decided to change plan. We would walk to our hut for the following night, call the hut from there to let them know we were ok and spend an extra night in Spain. Sounded like a much better plan and we headed down into Spain for a lunch stope beneath the Vignemale.
From there we had to pick up a path through what looked on the map (and from photos online) terrain studded with beautiful wild tarns. I decided we could save on some ascent by cutting a huge corner off with some off piste walking and we were quickly at the first of tarns with almost no re-ascent. Result!
Trouble was, the path on the map was pretty well non existent and walking was very rough and very steep. The views were magnificent though and all we had to do was walk around the second lake and climb a few hundred feet to the Col de Letrero. From there it was all downhill to the hut. Simples
The second lake (sorry, handed my borrowed maps back to their owner so I don’t recall the names) was wild and untamed. A tangle of huge boulders and snow slopes. Yes, snow. And lots of it. All we’d done was trade one steep snow slope for another. The setting of the lake was at least magnificent by way of compensation
We were committed now and had little choice but to press on. The lower snow slopes were fairly easy but the scree above it was loose and hard work. Then the crux. We had to traverse a very short section of snow to reach the easier ground to reach the col. It was perhaps 30 feet but it was very exposed and while a fall would not have resulted in anything serious (there was long runoff), you’d have gone a long way. I made extremely light comment how much easier this would be than I’d thought so as not to spook my partners. The ultimate spin doctor. In reality I was pretty nervous, stomping out each and every step to make sure it was solid. I never looked down once. I was mighty relieved when we all reached the other side without incident.
The col was still another twenty minutes away but it would be easy from there. Wrong! My expectations had been of a decent to the hut via a rocky path through these wonderful high tarns. What we got was close to 100% snow cover and highly complex and confusing terrain
The going was tough. Deep snow and endless ups and downs through the complex terrain made for a tiring descent. In addition the clock was ticking and I was concerned about reaching the hut in time for food and contacting the hut we should have been at to let them know we weren’t coming but were ok.
On a whim I decided to try and cut off a major corner and save us some time and extra distance. All was going well until we reached a 1000 foot wall of rock below us – not marked on the maps. Never, ever underestimate how good our UK O/S map are. I thought we’d have to reverse the previous hours walk but spied a possible steep snow slope leading down to the lower lake. Descending steep snow is much easier than climbing and traversing it – with a bit of technique that I managed to pass on to TJS. I was bit concerned there might be a major rock band halfway down but it turned out to be an inspired decision and were swiftly down at the lower lake. When I looked back up to the route the “path” took it looked no easier so a small victory on what was turing into an epic of a day
Our next obstacle was the outflow from the dam (and a whole load more tiring re-ascents and false routes). Hard to say from the pi55 poor maps but it looked like the path went across the dam itself which I wasn’t keen on. There may have been a bridge near the dam but we didn’t have time to check. The outflow looked fordable lower down so we headed for it
The river was only about knee deep so easy to cross. At this late stage I was running on empty and had no will to take boots on and off so just stomped through with them on and advised the others to do the same. We had one final extra stream to cross (what happened to the Spanish bridge budget I’ll never know) followed by a walk/slosh along the lake shore to the hut in wet boots.
For the first time in several hours I was able to look up and enjoy the scenery and it was majestic. The amount of sheer rock bore no resemblance to what the map showed.
We managed the final mile or so the hut without further incident. TBF was a total star and handled the whole “We’re not supposed to be here until tomorrow night, but can we stay tonight as well. And can you ring the other hut for us and tell them what’s happened. Oh and can you cook us a meal even though we are nearly an hour late for meal time” conversation with the guardian in French and a little Spanish.
My part of all this. I hit the wall on the last few metres and could barely move. Kicking all the steps in the snow and doing all the route finding and morale keeping-up, not to mention what I’m guessing is around 5000 feet of ascent and 15 miles of walking had taken its toll both physically and mentally. By the time I staggered to the hut TBF had everything sorted.
The hut staff were kindness itself. They were welcoming, friendly and fed us an amazing meal of soup, bread, salad, roast chicken, rice and fruit. We’d been walking non-stop over some pretty tough terrain and through some very testing conditions for pretty much 12 straight hours. As we crawled into bed it occurred to me that we’d seen absolutely no-one between both huts! The fact that the second half of the post is mostly words and no pictures is testament to the fact that taking photos was of very much secondary concern
A day to be filed under the “experience” category and several lessons to be learned for me. Many obstacles and challenges put in our way (most avoidable with better planning!). Still we overcame them together, succeeding and battling our way through “The Brute” :)