One of the great advantages of being a pessimist is that you are often pleasantly surprised. I thought that compared to NZ the Pyrenees would be over crowded, difficult to navigate physically and linguistically, and scenically underwhelming. I was proven wrong on all counts.
The Pyrenees is heaving with alpine lakes. They come in all shapes and sizes, attention grabbers without exception especially when sporting reflections of snowy mountains and/or large icebergs. After a soggy night camped in the forest we weaved our way up to the snow-covered Col d’Arrious (2259m), and past the beautiful Lac d’Arrious (2285m) to the Passage d’Orteig. The latter is not for those susceptible to vertigo. Exposed rocky outcrops are secured with steel cables. You must scale the rocks then pass above a deep abyss before scrambling down boulders to Refuge d’Arremoulit (2305m). The reward is the sight of the largest Arremoulit lake, decorated by a fleet of glossy white ice bergs and reflections of Pic d’Arriel (2824m).
Up over Col d’Arremoulit (2448m) and we were into Spain where we balanced on snow coated rocks to pass between the twin dreamy blue and white surfaces of Lacs d’Arriel. I gave up counting lakes as we passed another pair of blue-green stunners bordered by rocks and tussock. The Spanish Pyrenees are dry, barren and brown with bonsai conifers perched precariously on steep stony slopes. Refugio de Respomuso (2200m) sits on a bare plateau overlooking a lake with a dam. We checked out the displays of old climbing gear and pictures of the Spanish climbing team who attempted K2 in the early 1990s before camping beside yet another lake.
The day we climbed Petit Vignemale was particularly memorable because it was our first full day of sunshine and our first 3,000m+ peak. From the town of Cauterets we taxied up to the road-end at Pont d’ Espange. We climbed the cobblestoned trail through conifer woods to Lac de Gaube where a few people were fly fishing. At the top of the rise beyond the lake we got our first views across the glacial plain to the peaks and glacier of Vignemale.
After dropping our packs at the camping spot near the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube (2151m) we headed for Petit Vignemale (3032m). PV is the lowest and easiest of the four main peaks on Vignemale, and one of the easiest 3,000m peaks in the Pyrenees. Apart from marmots and crows we shared the afternoon’s vistas with a pair of young French lads forced by their inadequate footwear and lack of alpine gear into a humiliating crawl down the slippery snow slope above us. Lucky for them there were some old steps to provide a bit of purchase. We summited just before the late afternoon clag that haunts mountains everywhere rolled over to join us.
The Spanish canyons of Odessa provide a visually dramatic and colourful landscape experience. Monte Perdido (3355m) is the third highest peak in the Pyrenees, a great limestone hulk that towers at the head of the Odessa Canyon while Breche de Roland presents a formidable natural looking glass separating Spain from France.
After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest above the Spanish town of Torla any memories of the cold and rain experienced on our first week in the Pyrenees were consigned to ancient history. We were sweltering in the 35 degree Celsius heat. We succumbed to the lure of the car park restaurant and a morning tea of espresso and donuts. These refreshments fuelled us for the climb up the main track past many impressive waterfalls (cascades) and many day trippers all of whom stared curiously at our enormous packs. For the first time we got a sense that we were not the only people in the Pyrenees.
Foot placement became a focus not because the terrain was difficult but so as to avoid squashing the swarms of lizards slithering across the rocky sections of trail. We emerged into trademark Pyrenees alpine meadows – vividly green and festooned with colourful flowers. We paused amongst the horse flies and cow pats for a late lunch looking across to the formidable walls of Circo de Soaso with Monte Perdido above.
From the top of the cirque, an interesting rock scramble itself, we had views across to the moonlike canyon landscapes coloured pink, ochre, and grey. Our day ended at our dusty but spectacular campsite above Refugio de Goriz (2170m). Like most of the shelters we camped near this Refugio can sleep 90 people but it was not busy despite it being only a day walk from a main road, the start of a weekend and the base for climbing Monte Perdido (3355m).
We woke to the sound of climbers ambling above our camp. We rushed to join them. After a couple of hours we reached a small tarn at 3,000m. This is where everyone surveys Cilindro de Marbore (3328m) on the left and the summit ridges that leads to Perdido on the right. We let another group plug steps up the first summit ridge then we led the way onto the summit. Relishing the perfect snow conditions and grand views we were nevertheless back at Goriz in time for an early lunch as we anticipated a big afternoon. Unlike their French counterparts the Spanish Refugio cooks don’t do omelettes so we were forced to eat huge plates of ham and eggs with an unordered side serving of flies.
Being pre-fatigued and unused to the heat meant we plodded slowly through the wonderful moonscapes between Goriz and the Breche De Roland (2807m). With most punters focused on summiting Perdido followed by cold beers at the Refugio we had the place to ourselves. Looking back down we spotted a herd of sheep painted blue. On other occasions we spotted green sheep and pink sheep. In the Pyrenees spray paint replaces fences.
The breche is a gap in the frontier ridge about 40m across with walls 100m high. Early evening we passed through back into France sunburnt but satisfied. Refuge de La Breche (2587m) was occupied by a group of 65 Spanish school kids so we set up camp about 80m below it in one of the designated campsites. The views from our camp were breath-taking – the top of the Cirque de Gavarnie and surrounding peaks including Pic duTaillon (344m). Back up in the Refugio we enjoyed dinner with the school kids who asked through their English-speaking teacher “why have you come here from so far away?” “The mountains” we replied. I think they got it. Back at our magic campsite we soaked up the evening vistas. On NZ summer alpine evenings the cold forces me into the tent early so it was a novel experience to be warm enough to stay outside absorbing the beauty and tranquillity of the mountains.
Our final Pyrenees adventure incorporated an ascent of the highest peak Aneto (3404m); the highest pass on the haute route – Col Inferieur de Literole (2983m); plus some great company. Faced with a few days of rain and low cloud in Gavarnie we opted to escape to Luchon. Waking to sunshine we immediately caught a taxi up to Station de Superbaneres, a skifield above the town and headed back into the lush green flowery meadows. We reached Refugio dEspingo (1967m) late afternoon.
By now we were Pyrenees fit so elected to continue on to Refuge du Portillon (2571m). There is a well- engineered path paved in the 1930s with stone slabs from when construction workers built the dam at Lac du Portillon. As usual we had the big hut to ourselves. Every hut supplies a plastic basket for carrying key items upstairs to the sleeping quarters while packs remain downstairs. You also help yourself to a pair of hut crocs. This surprised me, France having something of a reputation for being tres chic.
Next morning we crossed the dam and headed up the steep track littered with cairns. After negotiating loose scree and crossing a large snowfield we caught our breath on Col Inferieru de Literole (2983m) on the French Spanish border. We descended carefully on the steep snow-covered east side of the pass crossing fields of boulders and snow.
The route between Portillon and Renclusa is challenging by Pyrenees standards. We thoroughly enjoyed actually having to create a route rather than follow a path. It was also a pleasure to indulge in a spot of stream and gorge bashing Kiwi style. Our enthusiasm was probably not shared by other punters judging by the number of abandoned walking poles and sigg bottles we discovered wedged between and under various boulders.
The Valle de Remune eventually opens out and we dropped into the pine forest on down to the road and Hospital de Benasque (1760m), a Spanish ski resort where we convinced the Spanish chef to make us cheese omelettes. Stomachs full again we sweated our way along the road to the main car park so we could complete the slowest ever ascent to Refugio De La Renclusa (2140m). The camping looked dismal so we booked to stay the night in the hut and donned pink crocs. As with Monte Perdido we had managed to arrive on a Friday night. The hut can sleep 110 and was fully booked for Saturday night.
We enjoyed our second communal dinner with about 12 other weekend warriors all intent on climbing Aneto or neighbouring peaks. Despite some thunderous snoring we slept well. Summit day arrived with perfect conditions. Despite this we managed to get ahead of the pack and off the route, ending up a couple of hundred metres too high forcing a retreat from a knife-edge ridge. From a Col at 3196m there is a steep snow slope to climb to Puente de Mahoma where you must tackle the narrow exposed rock ridge to the summit. This is the crux of the climb and scares the living daylights out of weekend warriors. As we returned from the summit another party arrived and the leader immediately sat down and lit two cigarettes with trembling hands. “Best leave you’re walking poles here” I helpfully suggested while smiling my encouragement, glad we had already tagged the summit.
Back at the Refugio we decided we didn’t fancy the company of 110 people so we’d head over to France. Some chaps returned just as we had all our gear strewn over the courtyard. They gave us a good ribbing for carrying so much stuff. In the car park we enjoyed a picnic lunch while our new friends had a beer to celebrate the end of their trip, then we waved goodbye as they drove off.
Saddling our heavy packs again we followed the steep zig zag path north to a plateau that offered great views across to the Maladeta massif to which Aneto is attached. Pre-fatigued again the climb to Port de Venasque (2444m) was nevertheless enjoyable as we savoured the array of wildflowers, marmots and little tarns knowing our time in the Pyrenees was drawing to an end. As we got higher we could see that people had written their names on the grassy slopes below us with white stones.
From the Port the path descends steeply to the Refuge de Venasque situated next to a set of five small, deep lakes. The setting was picturesque and secluded confirming the strategic brilliance of our decision to flee Renclusa. This, our last, refuge was tiny by Pyrenean standards sleeping just 15 inside and the same number camping outdoors. The size surprised us given the superb setting and proximity to Luchon. The warden, like all the others we encountered, spoke good English and couldn’t understand a word of our appalling French when we tried to name the places we had been. Actually he reminded me a bit of Harry Smith except he seemed to enjoy cooking and other housework. We pitched our tent by one of the lakes and passed the time before dinner watching the valley mist rise and fall.
For our last Pyrenees dinner we enjoyed the company of four French climbers from Toulouse, two of whom planned to climb Aneto the following day. The roast duck, a Southern France speciality, and chocolate cake were delicious. The Harry Smith look-alike was not a fan of fishermen, something to do with their failure to book and to abide by the camping rules. Our final entertainment for the evening involved watching as several fishermen tried to pitch their tent on the side of a cliff they had been directed to by the warden. The tent, and then the fishermen rolled down the hill narrowly avoiding taking swims in the lake.