"In the mountains, there you feel free."
In 2019, during the last week of August and the first week of the September, I walked the first 2 week section of Pyrenean Haute Route (or just PHR for the rest of the blog). This was the most difficult walking trip I had done for a few reasons. I hiked alone and carried a big backpack (~25 kg with food and water until the last few days) on this physically demanding walk. And trail-finding was so challenging to me that I lost my ways, or I felt lost, almost everyday on the walk.
There are three long distance walks follow the whole length of Pyrenees, connecting the Atlantic ocean with the Mediterranean. They are GR10, GR11 and HPR. GR10 stays mostly in the French side of the Pyrenees while GR11 meanders along in Spain. The PHR isn't an officially waymarked trail. It traverses the Pyrenees between GR10 and GR11 while it tries to stay as closely to the actual boarder as possible. I was drawn to PHR because it is more remote and less frequented by travellers than the other two trans-Pyrenes routes. Because the trail is more remote, there are days when there isn't any accommodation. Hence one must carry a tent and cooking gears. However, as I learned on my own trip, if one tries hard in planning and is also willing to hike longer days, one can find hotels, refuges or unstuffed huts for every stage.
Looking back, I wasn't fully prepared for the challenge. Although I accomplished the two week sections as I set out to do, it was a struggle at times. The biggest mistake was the weight of the pack. I bought an expensive Hilleberg single person tent (<1.5kg) but I should have gone for a even lighter tarp tent. My backpack and sleeping bag were all too heavy. Given my physical size (<60 kg and 1.79 m), my "comfortable" pack weight is less than 15 kg. My camera gear also added about 2 kg. Oh well, the important thing is to learn from our experiences, isn't it? I do intent to complete the rest hike in one shot when I have a four weeks vacation. I have gather information about ultra light hiking equipment. Or maybe I should just put on some muscles.
The other challenge for me is trail finding as I mentioned earlier. The HRP isn't a waymarked trail. You just pick a guide book and follow its direction. The book I used was
the Cicerone's "Pyrenean Haute Route" by Ton Josten. This book seems to be popular in the English speaking countries, Germany, etc. Frenchs generally uses their own guide books. Outside the national parks, the routes are patch works of GR10/11, local hiking trails, shepherds tracks or just make-you-own-ways. There were a few times I had to crawl over barbwire fences, stumped through knee high grass fields while avoiding animal poos. I probably wasn't on the right paths at those times but I didn't know where the "right paths" were (and I still don't know). Even though I have a GPS, I still got lost or was uncertain of the trail many times.
Most of people in the region speak either French or Spanish or both. I wish that I could speak either languages. However I found that people were friendly in general. In a few occasions, I got helps when I really needed them. At the end of the trip, I made a resolution to be helpful to others as much as I can. Just as many new year resolutions, this one worn off very quickly and I fell back to my old self-centred ways. However, the memories came back to me now and then. And it reminded me of the unfulfilled promises.
Most of the English guide books walk from west (Atlantic) to the east (Mediterranean) but the French through hikers whom I met all went the other direction. My starting point is Hendaye in France. The closest airport is in Biarritz which is a popular tourist destination in the summer for British. Because of this, there wasn't available plane tickets to Biarritz from London on the week I planned to start my walk. As the result of this, I flew to Pau, France, about 150 kilometers east of Hendaye.
Pau has a long history going back to the Roman time (just like hundreds of other cities in Southern Europe). In 16 century, it was an important commercial centre in the region. Fernand Braudel mentioned it a few times in his Mediterranean book. The city sits on a "cliff" and it has a castle. When I arrived at Pau in the last week of August, the temperature was 34 degree Celsius in the afternoon. The city centre felt quiet with a few people relaxing in the shades around the central squares and kids playing at the public fountains. I wasn't able to find the propane fuel for my camping stove. I was a bit worried but I still enjoyed an excellent dinner of Chateaubriand at a local restaurant. Overall, Pau seems to be a pleasant place. I didn't realize at that time that on a good day you could see Pic du Midi d'Ossau from Pau.
I arrived at Hendaye on the next day around midday by train. It was an August Sunday in French. Almost every shop was closed.
Hendaye is a popular beach resort in the south of France. On that Sunday afternoon, walking around the bay, I didn't see many tourists. Now and then, I saw a couple or a family relaxing on the bench or on the lawn. Warm summer sun made time slow and lazy. I headed towards the ocean front because there was Decathlon store. However, it was a water sports store without any camping equipment. The closest possibility was located 15 mins drive away in Spain. I wanted to kick myself for not making better preparation.
Dejected, sitting on a bench, I googled on my phone. I noticed a camp ground nearby. Since I had plenty of time, I decided to try my luck there. Not only did I find the fuel for my camp stove, I also had a refreshing beer and felt a lot more relaxed. On the way back to the hotel, the long sandy beach popped in front me at the end of a small lane. There were plenty of holiday makers sun-bathing on the beach or surfing in the ocean. Where I stayed was more residential. In order to find dinner, I walked crossed the boarder into Spain but 7pm was too early for Spaniards' dinner time. Oh well, I wondered back to France in the sunset and had a sandwich at the café in front of the Hendaye train station.
I was almost ready to start my journey but I still needed to get some food and utensils. So, the next morning I couldn't start as early I would have liked to, instead I waited until supermarkets opened at 9 am. Even in France, supermarket only sold things in bulk. Because I had no use of 12 forks or spoons, I wondered in the store until I found a long handle (30 cm) wooden spoon which cooks used to stir their stew or soup. It was an odd item for a hiker but it fitted in the side pocket of my backpack.
When I set out from the Carrefour I had a spoon in the side pocket, a plastic drinking cup hanging by a S-biner, and the camera clipped on the shoulder strap of my Osprey 70L backpack. The total weight was over 25 kilos. I was already sweeting in the car park of the supermarket.
The HPR followed the same route of GR10 leaving Hendaye. The trail quickly climbed up of the low hills outside the city. After half hour or so I looked back (where I took the boring photo as a souvenir) and had the final glimpse of my starting point. Although the hills weren't so high, the trail was a series of non-stopping ups and downs. The pack was heavy. I felt a bit like the characters in the "A Walk In The Woods" instead of someone who had done thousands kilometers of hiking over all the world. Around the noon time, I reached Col d'Ibardin on the French-Spanish border where I left GR10. Along the way, there were farm animals likes these horses.
After a couple hours of relative flat terrains, the trail started going up. I saw this peak in the distance on top of which sat some buildings and an telecommunication tower. It didn't cross my mind that I was supposed to climb the summit until I saw signs indicating the summit being La Rhune (900 m). I checked my guide book. It was mentioned in the first day of walk. However, the book wasn't very clear if I needed climb the mountain or not. I certainly hoped that I wouldn't need to. By now, the pack already rubbed my shoulders and hip so badly that I had broken skins which would torture me for the rest of trip. Finally it became clear that the top of mountain was where I had to go. I cursed, and continued. The last 2 kilometers to the peak was on a steep jeep road. I had to zigzag in order to keep moving. Finally I was there. I sat for a little while and read the guide book again.
The rest of way for the day started by descending La Rhune along border stones into Spain. There was no trail for the first half hour from the peak. I wondered if I was still on the trail almost every 10 minutes. By 18:30 I finally reached the destination of the first day. It was a hotel-restaurant by the road at Col de Lizuniaga in Spain. I was the only one customer when I arrived. However, at the dinner I saw a German couple sitting at the next table. They were camping in the lawn in front of hotel, just as the book suggested. I took the easy way out by getting a room in the hotel. According to the GPS, I walked 30 Kilometers in day 1 and the elevation gain was 1500 Meters. That was a brutal first day.
Now I was on the trail, I could start early. After breakfast, I got on my way around 07:30. As I started walking, the famous Basque country fog also began to come up. Sometimes I barely could see 10 meters ahead. But, the first part of the day's walk was on a dirt road so that there was little danger of getting lost.
After while I reached Col de Lizarrieta. There were tall wooden structures like treehouses for hunting use. Around there I lost my way because I followed a sign of GR11 (which was supposed to be coincide with PHR at that point) instead the dirt road mentioned in the book. I wondered in the woods for half hour and became more and more suspicious. Finally I consulted the map and decided that I was on the wrong track. I had to walked back up to the Col. There I was able to retrace my way and find the right trail to continue on. It was a very frustrating experience but unfortunately this would become an almost daily occurrence until I reached Lescun. That was due to the fact that the section after Lescun was in a national park with better marked trails.
I was still trying to get used to the heavy pack weight, which I never did. Finally around 15:30 in the afternoon, I saw the Basque village of Arizkun on the top of a hill. I cursed, dragged myself up, found a hotel (a cheap auberge run by the tavern owner in the centre of the village). The GPS indicates some 30 kilometers distance and 1200 meter elevation gain.
I walked around the village before the dinner. It was small but quaint and clean. I found one character a bit strange or unusual. Many of the buildings in the village seemed to too grand for such rural setting. Some looked like administrative halls while others were multi-family residential building. Normally I would expect small cottages or farm houses in the villages. I randomly walked into an artist's studio and bought a landscape painting which I thought captured the essence of the Basque country at that time.
Dinner at the tavern. The only other customer was a Spanish lady who was walking a pilgrimage walk (not the Camino de Santiago) to Pamplona.
I set out before the day break to avoid the heat. It was a relatively short day of 5 hours walking time. Although I was able to follow the book's direction most of time with the aid of GPS, I did lose the way around the half way point. When I reached a barbwire fenced pasture (with cows inside), I was instructed to cross over the fence. In deed, there were steps to go over the fence but inside the fenced area, the grass was about knee high and there wasn't any noticeable trails. I improvised over a couple of fences, got a few scratches on myself and my pack. Finally I reached a beautiful beach tree woods described in the guide book.
The woods was pretty and atmospheric. The sun light flickered on the shining leaves and tree branches. The ground was softly covered by falling leaves. And there was even a white horse unhurriedly eating grass. Then I got lost again. As I approached the top of the hill, I saw a rocky outcrop. The book told me to avoid the rocks but clearly I had to go to top of hill. So I went towards the rocks. There wasn't any trail. So I scrambled and got more scratches. Finally I had to give up and to get back down. The real trail was towards the left ("to avoid the rocks"). And the actual summit was another 150 meter behind the rocky outcrop.
How could it be an adventure if you always know where to go?
Even with all the mishaps, I reached Les Aldudes in France just past 1 o'clock. The sun was high in the sky and the village by a small river looked completely closed. My plan was to find the auberge suggested in the book first, then go to post office to mail some extra clothing and my book on Riemann Surface back to London. However the auberge was closed for the season and the postal office was closed for that day. I was so disappointed because I really looked forward to the opportunity of reducing my load. While contemplating camping on the side of the river and fighting against the mosquitoes, I walked to the street behind the church and saw a sign for chambers. It looked like someone's home. Surely it was but the owner lady also had a room or two for rent. I found my place to stay for the night in a nice old house. And the owner also kindly agreed to mail my excess weight when to postal office was open. I thanked her profusely and felt great appreciation for the stranger's kindness.
Even one year later in the lockdown of 2020, I can still felt a general pleasantness about this day. At the day break, I left the house and walked up the side of hills from the village. It was sunny but not overly hot. The trail took me to the higher mountains.
Today the trail passed 1000 meters for the first time. The air felt crispier. Probably it was the psychological effect of dropping one and half kilo from my pack back. There was long stretch of road walking on a ridge but there wasn't any traffics except for a few cyclists. I saw more hunting huts on the ridges. I hadn't known that hunting was still popular in some parts of western Europe.
About 1 hour before reaching Roncesvalles, there was the ruin of a hilltop Roman fort. What's left was just the earth work. It was a perfect spot to take a lunch break. After enjoying my baguette and Basque cheese, I lied under the sun for half hour. There was no reason to rush to the stopping point for the night, although Roncesvalles was a place historical interest. It was the first stop of "The" Camino de Santiago. Charlemagne was defeated in a battle there. Many pilgrimage walkers stayed at the dormitory in the monastery (and only the pilgrims can stay there). There were also a couple hotels. I stayed in the one connected to the monastery.
The Camino de Santiago was popular these days. I could tell that there were Americans, Australians, British, Germans and of course Spaniards and Frenches. It even became popular in South Korea in the recent years. The evening was cool and I walked around in my down jacket. Four days on the trail, I started enjoying it.
Reading my diary for this day, it actually started at the end when I was sitting at my camp site by a creek and small road. A cow family were really interested in the spot which I occupied. The bull came very close to my tent and mooed loudly for most of the evening until late in the night. I wondered that if he would tramp my tent at some point, and decided to take my chance. I survived.
Despite of the annoyance of the cows, the day was actually a very good day of walking which was full of interests. From Roncesvalles, the road climbed up steeply to reach the ridge of the mountains. I left before most of pilgrims although they should be going the opposite direction from mine anyway. Because Roncesvalles was in a valley, the trail immediately started climbing. As I reached the top of the mountain, a blanket of clouds came up halfway in the valley of Roncesvalles. The rising sun tinted the clouds with a rosy hue. There was one local walker ahead of me by 50 meters. We enjoyed the view in the silence.
I shared the trail with the Camino walkers for about 1 hour. Then I walked along the border for a while until I reached the bottom of a old fort. My pack was still heavy so that I didn't bother to climb the 50 meter hill to explore the fort ruin. After going down to a wooded valley, I climbed up the the road sides again. In the guide book, the roads were described as dirt road but it was nicely paved road in 2019.
By the road side, I noticed some rocks looked like a stone circle. At first, I thought that was just a coincidence but soon I saw a second circle which was quite obviously a man made structure. My guide book confirmed that these were ancient cromlechs (a Celtic word for stone circle). A long straight road passed through a limestone plateau led me to a large cromlech. I had a break there while enjoying the view of the stone circle and watching eagles soring in the sky. There were other tourists visiting these cromlechs. I turned on a quiet road from there for about 20 minutes and reached a farm house on the left hand of the road. The guide book directed me through what looked like the private property. A dog in the yard barked and I was nervous. I managed to get pass the house and the yard to reach a bridge on a little stream. It was a good place to enjoy my lunch of bread and cheese. There was no danger of blocking other hikers while sat in the middle of the bridge.
However the trail turned a bit more confusing after the bridge. I stared at a steep mountain side of overgrown grass. There wasn't obvious trails but for some faint impressions of trails. I followed the GPS climbing upwards but grass got deeper and deeper until I couldn't really continue. In fact, in most of the situations like this, one could keep going if one was certain that's the correct ways. However, if doubts slipped into your head, the trail seems impossible. I came back down, defeated and read the book and checked the GPS and again. Eventually I went the horizontally for 200 meters until I finally found the right zigzag trails. The anxiety and extra work exhausted me even before the steep part of the climb.
Anyhow, I managed climbing up to the top. From there the trail meandered along a dry stream bed. I wished that there were water in the stream because I had drank up all my water and was thirsty. Since I knew that eventually I will reached a confluence of two small rivers, I wasn't really worried about the water situation.
Finally I arrived at the camp site mentioned in the book. To be honest, it didn't look very appealing. It was a area of flat grass right by the stream and road. There was a unmanned shelter 100 meters down the road but it was closed. The area was occupied by a herd of cows and sheep. I picked my camp site and set up my tent for the first time. In stead of enjoying my peace and quiet, the noisy cow family came over for a visit. The bull was very vocal about either his liking of the spot or his disliking of me. They sometimes wondered down the road for a while but they always came back. The bull was "shouting" loudly 2-3 meters from my tent. I didn't know how I fell asleep but I did. He became quiet probably around 10 - 11 pm.
I woke before dawn. The cow family weren't too far away but the bull seemed peaceful with no intention to bother me. I had breakfast, tea and granola bars, then broke down my tent, packed, set out to the hill on the other side of the road. Yet again, I had to find my ways in the grassy slope until I could reach marked trails. As I made my way up, I saw hundreds sheep's being gathered by a sheep dog. A shepherd was a little ways behind. As I drew close to the sheep, the dog started barking loudly and running towards me. I was aware that the dog must see me as a threat to the herd but I had nowhere to go. I decided to stay put until I the shepherdess in a black and white wool jumper saw me. She shouted out to me in French. I couldn't understand. Eventually she came down to me. I pointed out on map where I needed to go. She instructed me to head further left instead of straight up. That's where I went and I found GR10.
After walking in a woods for a while, I arrived at a grassy plateau. Looking down the slope, the valley was covered with a sea of clouds. And there were two of those cromlech among the dried brown grass. From there it was straight forward following GR10 to a mountain resort at Col Bagargui. In the hut, I chatted with a French hiker who was 30 days into his cross Pyrenes trip and a Japanese walker who came over for one week walk starting from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Japanese walker was a fast walker who had walked 35 Kilometers in the first day. It maybe a stereotype but I noticed the he was also very organized, even carried a foldable cloth hanger and some cloth pins in his backpack. However, his pack still weighted much less than mine. There was store and restaurant in the complex. I got more bread and cheese for lunch. The steak and fries at the dinner was very decent too.
Today I was going to reach 2000 meters for the first time. The peak was Pic d'Orhy on the French-Spanish boarder. The trail started right outside the huts. I saw sign post for Pic d'Orhy the day before and felt confident that there shouldn't be problem with trail finding. However, when I woke up in the morning (6am), dark clouds/fogs covered the mountains. The visibility was around 10 meters. I followed the sign post heading up the mountain but I couldn't reconcile the guide book with trail markers. Soon I was lost. After half hour wondering in the back yards of residential buildings, I came back to my starting point.
It was still early, and I wasn't panicking. So I started out again. And I did better this time. I got much higher until I was confused again. The fogs still covered everything. I reached a road, there were signs of various hiking trails but non mentioned the Pic d'Orhy. GPS wasn't helpful. I managed stop a car and asked about the trail to the summit. I didn't know if he really understood me but he pointed to a direction. When I compared his direction with the map, it seemed very doubtful. I was contemplating going back to the hut and try to catch GR10 which I assumed to be better marked. Before I headed back, I decided to make one final attempt. I couldn't remember how I made the choice but after 15 minutes, I reached a house which looked like belonging to a park service. Unfortunately there wasn't anyone home. There was a barn 100 meters away, and I saw someone in it. Before I could asked the person, he had driven off in a pickup truck. I only saw dark fogs around me. It was raining. My pack was heavy and my shoulder hurt. Although I was 15 minutes from the road and 1.5 hours from the huts, I felt that I was alone in the middle of nowhere. I was feeling cold too.
I dropped my backpack outside the house and walked uphill away from the house. After 200 meters, I saw a ruinous structure that looked like a hunting shelter. Further uphill, I saw a few more of those shelters leading upwards on the slope. This was what I was looking for. The book mentioned the line of hunting huts on the slope near the boarder. I believed that I had found my trail. I went back, picked up my pack, headed up again. It was still hard-going but I could finally match the "trail" with the descriptions in the book. Just before the final climb, one had to walk cross a narrow rocky ridge about half meter wide with sharp drop offs. Looking back it was quiet dangerous in the high wind with a large pack. For some reason I wasn't worried at all but I just wanted to get to the summit quickly. I was alone when I reached the summit around 12pm. It was cold, windy and misty, not a enticing place to have lunch.
After a short break, I started the remaining march for the day. On the way down, I did see four hikers coming up from the other direction. The remaining walk to today's destination, a unstuffed shelter, was mostly flat or downward. What I remembered wasn't enjoyable. It was cold, windy and I was fighting with my pack. Finally I reached the hut. It was a stone house with a table and a platform to sleep 4-5 people. There was no electricity. At least I didn't need to set up tents. For that night, my companies were a older French man who spoke no English and was hiking in the opposite direction, a polish young hiker (20 something) who was going in the same direction as I was but at a faster pace. I had a good night sleep.
All three of us woke before the sunrise. After a simple breakfast of tea and cereal bar, I set out. It was still raining and foggy but not a whiteout day like the previous day. The Polish hiker wanted to find good water so that he was behind me. There was a stream right near the hut but there were farm animals around. Both the French hiker and I was content to use water treatment pills but the Polish was quite obsessed to find the "good water" mentioned in the book.
For the first 2 hours, the trail mostly followed the ridge between Spain and France. Because it was exposed, it was quite cold in the driving rain. The backpack still felt like a rock on my my pack. The Polish walker passed me after a hour. Although I tried to stay alert, I still missed the turn when I should cross into Spain and stayed on the French side for another 15 minutes and had to turn back after suspicions creeped up. I just wasn't born with a good navigation system. However, the other side was more protected from the wind and sky started getting clear. The trail was very muddy and slippery. I fell on my behind a couple of times. Finally I reached the Refugio de Belagua. The refugio was closed for renovation. It was too early to stop for the day anyway . I had my lunch break there.
Then the PHR went into an interesting terrain. The trail was headed to Col d'Anaye (2011m) before descending into Lescun. The area was a giant limestone maze. The book warned the walker not to take the route if the visibility was low. By noon, the sun had broken out and sky was blue with a bit of white clouds. I decided to brave the trail. The landscape was full of interesting limestone formations. For two hours, the trail meandered in the narrow fin canyons of light grey rocks. It must have been spooky if it had been foggy. Since the writing of the book, the trail marking was improved. Most of the potential confusing spots had the red/white trailmarks showing the direction. I didn't even get lost in the maze and reached the Col d'Anaye in the late afternoon. I saw no one else after the Refugio de Belagua. From Col d'Anaye, I walked down to an area of flat grassy land at the bottom of rock walls. There were streams nearby which made it a perfect camp site. I was alone in the amphitheatre for the night. The wall of the rocks blocked the wind, it was quiet. I enjoyed my last pack of freeze dry food and went to bed. What a place for night in the mountain!
The next morning I woke up to the rosy glow on the mountains. The breakfast tea tasted better than usual.
Day 9 (Lescun)
I was really keen to get to Lescun. The main reason was to lighten the load on my back even more. From the information in the guide book, I knew that (1) I would reach Lescun in the morning, (2) I could stay in refuges or hotels every night for the rest of trip. So my plan was to get to Lescun early, find a hotel, repack, then send my tent, cooking gears and a few other unnecessary items home.
It took about two and half hours to descend from my camp site (2000 m) to the village (900 m). The sceneries were great and it was pleasant to walk in the early morning breeze. I passed a couple sheep farms along the way. There were signs warning hikers not bother the sheep nor the famous Pyrenes mountain dogs. I was a bit worried about these giant dogs when I got close to the sheep pen. Fortunately, there was no incident between me and any sheep dogs. I arrived at the village center around 10 am. Just outside the village shop, I saw the Polish hiker getting ready to leave. We greeted each other and he told me where he had stayed the night before.
But my plan didn't go as smoothly as I hoped. First, the only hotel in the village was fully booked. Second, I arrived at the village again on the off day of the Le Postal. There was an auberge in the village for hikers. I went over to try my luck. The owner was away but I chatted with a French couple in the yard (who were debating about the itinerary for the day). They gave me a piece of crucial information that the lady cook of the auberge had a couple room to rent. I showed them where I camped and recommended the spot to them. This conversation turned out to be a "life saver". A cat seemed to be interested in our conversation.
Just as the night before the auberge was fully booked. So I inquired about the cook's home. She asked her cook and it was settled. I got a quite large room in her house for 30 EURO. She spoke a little bit of English and was very friendly and relaxed. She gave me the house key and told me not to let the dog run out. After shower, I put my camping and cooking gears in a big bin bag and asked her if I could leave them to her so that I could pick them up in 5 days. From where I finished my hike, I could come to Lescun in 2 hours by car. She gladly agreed. This was the second time on the trip a stranger helped me when I really needed. It saved me 5 kilos. For the rest of trip, my pack weighted around 15 kilo and I was so much happier.
The view from my room:
It's now early afternoon. I took a leisurely walk around the village. Lescun was a pretty little village surrounded by beautiful mountains. There were many hiking trails. It would be a nice place to have a summer home. The cafe at the village center served simple but delicious food. I bought a bottle of wine as a "thank you" gift for my host.
The night I had my dinner at the auberge. My host was an excellent cook. The dishes were hearty and rustic but all of them had wonderful flavours. I really liked Lescun.
I left my host's home early in the morning and went on the road after having breakfast at the auberge at 7am. It was a clear day but the sun hadn't risen yet. The air was cool and fresh. After leaving the camping equipment in Lescun, I was bouncing up and down on the trail. The appropriate pack weight made so much difference in the overall experience of walking. Although for the rest of trip, the daily elevation gain was more than one thousand meters, it never felt particularly strenuous. The upward exertions actually felt invigorating.
After leaving Lescun for about one hour, I entered the Parc National des Pyreness Occidentales. For the next few days, the HPR continued in or around this national park. The national parks in Europe or UK aren't like US ones in that most of parks in Europe have pasture land, and cattle and sheep graze in the parks. The only exceptions are the sparsely populated Nordic countries or Iceland where some of the national parks are completely wilderness. Inside the park, the path climbed now gently and now steeply up for about two hours until I reached the Col d'Pau over 2000 meters. I enjoyed my lunch under the sun. There wasn't any reason to hurry because it would only take about 1 hour to reach the hut, Refuge de'Arlet. The refuge located near a small lake. When I arrived, three shepherds were having lunch at the hut while their herd enjoyed the alfresco dinning. I lied down the grass. While taking pictures of the sheep, I thought that these shepherds' life did look attractive from this view point.
The refuge was nearly full that night because a group of middle school students arrived in the afternoon who filled the small hut with buzzing noises. I was able to get a bunk bed. The food was simple but it was warm and filling. I had no complaints. It became cold after sun down and either a mist or light rain had started. I didn't think too much about it and went to sleep before the kids turned in.
When I woke up, it still was dark and cold outside. And it was also raining although not hard. After the breakfast, we got a hint of day light but it was a total whiteout. I couldn't see any trails. After a few minutes of hesitations, I put on my waterproofs and set out in the fog and rain.
Fortunately it wasn't as bad as Day 7. First of all, there weren't many alternative trails at this height. Whenever I reached a fork, I checked the GPS and guidebook carefully. More importantly, after one hour, the clouds started lifting up. The ever shifting clouds created much more interesting landscapes than completely sunny blue sky would.
As the sky clearing up, the trail took me down about 1000 meters into a valley. I crossed a stream and a road in the valley then climbed up the mountains on the other side. The was to be the pattern in this part of Pyrenees. Everyday one climbed onto top of mountains, then walked down and crossed a valley to climb the other side. The first part of the climb was in a beach woods. After I went above the treeline, a fantastic panoramic view awaited me. Turning a corner, I reached one end of a beautiful blue lake. The mountains in this area had reddish soil which enriched the colour palette of the blue skies and green trees.
Lunch by the lake under the sun.
Then I headed towards Candanchu, the final destination for today. It was early afternoon. When the clouds blocked the sun, the air felt chilly. I wondered if it could snow at this height in a couple of weeks. Candanchu is a ski resort in Spain. It was completely deserted when I hiked into the town. With the window blowing in the empty street, it was a bit like the scenes in the westerns. Many of the spaghetti westerns were actually shot in Spain but the locations must be further south in the deserts.
Only one hotel in town got mentioned in the guide book for the summer season. I found the hotel but the door were locked. I was little worried because I no longer had a tent. When I tried to knock on the door, a dog ran out from the back of building and barking very hard. I decided to retreat and waited somewhere for a while. While I was waiting I met three Dutch hikers who looked like university students. They also stayed at the Refuge d'Arlet last night but they camped near the hut. Their plan was the same as mine for today. When I went back to the hotel half hour later, to my relief, the owner was back. The Dutch students and I were the only people staying that night. Since I had plenty of time, I enjoyed a beer, read and wrote my diary.
Today I was going to the heart of national park to stay at the Refuge de Pombie. When I started at 7:30 am, the sky was over casted and there was a dust of white snow on the top of the surrounding mountains. The outside temperature must have been in the low single digit. After walking down the road for half hour, I passed some big ugly concrete hotels in another yet-to-open ski resorts.
That's where the trail left the road to climb up. In about one hour, I reached the top of a pass. Suddenly a dramatic landscape opened in front of me but the wind was strong and cold. I stopped to put my down jacket on and took in the magnificent sight. From this point onwards, Pic du Midi d'Ossau dominated a valley of jagged peaks and lakes. It was one of the finest views on the trip. Unfortunately Midi d'Ossau was covered by the clouds when I took the photo, although the mountain broke free of the cloud cover a little bit later.
The trail meandered down in to the valley towards the peak. There were many trails coming from and to different directions. As I was in a national park on a Saturday, there were certainly more people than any of the other days on this trip. There were at least dozens of hikers. As the day progressed, it also became warmer. The forked peak of Midi d'Ossau was clearly visible but the sun was on the wrong side of the mountain for good clear shots.
After crossing a stream in the valley, I climbed on to the hillside with no clear trail (the norm for PHR). The end point of the day was Refuge de Pombie which situated on the other side of Midi d'Ossau. On this side of the hill, I was again by myself. The final obstacle was Col de Peyreget. The short way took me to a boulder fields. Although it wasn't technical, the rocks could be unstable and one might need to scramble every now and then. Anyway I reached the Refuge just after 3pm. I saw the three Dutch hikers again. They had a break at the refuge and was about to leave for a unmanned hut a couple hours ahead. The refuge was a popular spot because it served as the base to climb Midi d'Ossau. Quite a few people, both Spaniard and Frenches, were planning to scale the mountain next day in the small dinning room. I went for a coffee instead of beer because it had become very cold. Because the clouds were up again, there wasn't any sunset on the mountain.
Here is another shot of Midi d'Ossau from early in the day.
My plan was to get to Refuge d'Arremoulit around 1 pm to rendezvous with a friend. From there, we would walked down to Lac d'Artouste to catch a scenic train ride down the mountains and drive to Laurun.
I got up at 5:30 am. Quite of few climbers were also awake and preparing for the early accent of the Midi d'Ossau. It was below freezing and there was only cold water for washing. Just as I mentioned early, most of refugees were very basic. When I set out after the breakfast, it was still dark and I had to wear my headlamp. However the eastern skies were lit up by the fiery red clouds.
The walk down the mountain was peaceful and quiet. As I got close to the valley floor, I saw a couple of walker going up towards Pombie. It took about one and half hour to get to the road. The unmanned hut was close to the road.
After crossing the road, the trail climbed steadily up to gain back the elevation I just lost. The scenery was excellent and temperature was nice and warm. The final Kilometers before the refugee included about 100 meter of "via ferrata". The pass was one foot wide on the rock wall with straight drop off. There were fixed rope or chain on the rock face to provide some safety. As long as one wasn't afraid of heights, it shouldn't be challenging. For those who were afraid of heights, there was a detour that took half hour longer.
At the refuge, I met the 3 Dutch students for the last time. They were headed to Refuge Wallon. When I sit at the table waiting for my friend under the sun, I truly regretted that the hike was over. The mountains from Lescun onwards were breathtakingly beautiful and with my backpack at more suitable weight, I completely enjoyed the physical aspect of the walking as well. I just had to wait to complete the rest of trip. At least I will be better prepared.
The Closing Thoughts
The train ride was gorgeous. Laurun was a nice small city. Tour de France had been there before and visited there again in 2020. It would serve as nice base for Pyrenees exploration. It had a lot more places to stay and to eat then Lescun but I will always prefer Lescun for all the good memories of the helping hands.
Talking about nice people, I went back to Lescun the next day to pick up the equipment I left there. And I thanked the good lady again and enjoyed another lunch at the small coffee.
One last picture from Lescun.