Monday, 6 October 2014

A short story from the Pyrenees, the short version....

I started writing this, 8 weeks ago, toned, fit and bouncy having just finished two months in the mountains. My enthusiasm was, perhaps, slightly sickening and I wrote a 3000word account. For the sake of the readers, I’ve shortened it up, to just give you a flavor of my experiences in the 3 mountain ranges I explored this summer. I now sit, fat and reminiscing and I’ll start at the end, in the Pyrenees.

Happy campers - sunny afternoons setting up camp and
swimming in lakes
If I were to brainstorm the Pyrenees. The first word would been GREEN, very very green. The second word, which ironically precedes green in the normal order of things, would be RAIN, lots and lots of rain. My friend and I started on what was supposed to be a 3 week hike, touching on the 800km Pyrenean Haut route, one of the toughest in Europe. It is apparently more of an “idea” than a way marked path, the idea being to traverse the length of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Naturally, we started at the longest unsupported part; “a walk without compromise…in remote and inaccessible areas” (Joosten 2009) with the next supply of food 9 days away. It was 8.30pm, jumping off the bus at the end of the line in the low mountains that I had my first and only doubt “was this a good idea?” There wasn’t much going back, the bus driver settled in the lay by to sleep before returning to Perpignan the next day and we set off up out of the village to discover the isolated wonderland of green valleys and steep rocky cols.
Very green! Misleading low grassy valleys

It has to be said the first couple of days were perhaps a little misleading. We strolled happily in the sunshine up and down rolling green valleys capped in low rocky tops. Crossing over the back of valleys normally took an hour of scrambling on steep, loose rock for 2 - 300m (assent). The days were long and sunny, we covered just under 20k a day and normally finished around 4pm for a slouchy afternoon complete with paddling in the nearest lake/river and an early dinner. I was pleasantly surprised at my ability to carry a 15kg + pack, (10days of food, fuel and camping gear isn’t light), but the sunshine and friendly gradients didn’t last for long.

Getting steeper...
We passed into the higher mountains which consisted of steep, craggy valleys, marked with obstacles like glaciated slabs, large rivers or waterfalls. Ascending the valleys was followed by a 6-700m climb over a col/summit often taking 2 hours to painfully pace steep scree or thick forest. The weather shifted to match the scenery; thunderstorms are common in the mountains, favorably, they are often limited to short periods in the afternoons.

....and wetter!
Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, drizzle threatened every morning and often broke early in uncomfortably close thunderstorms which lent persistent rain to the rest of the day. Ever-cheerful I ignored my squelching feet and admired the great variety of slugs that seem to dwell in the Pyrenees. However there is little ignoring wet shoes at 7am in the morning and it took a great deal of persistence to compete the lengthening days to the next town and supermarket, Saladuru. 

Picture taken late afternoon, we had come from over the far
col that morning
Nothing however, not drizzle or rain or snow or wind takes away from the great satisfaction of reaching a summit or col as you pass over the dramatic scenery. A precipitous atmosphere gives a deep blue hue to the endless mountain tops that cover the world around you. That is your world: col after col and valley after valley, marked only by feint old paths and the square of flat grass left by our tent. Lakes are haunted by the occasional skipping fox or ibex and the woodland by snorting hogs. The overwhelming sensation of humility in the world is immensely freeing and the final decent through a flowery wet meadow to the town was surprisingly disappointing.

Snowy gullies, icy lakes
The advice from books and people for the next section was not to attempt it in bad conditions since it was characterized by steeper, higher cols, impassable in snow without crampons. Some of the cols we has passed before has been challenging, often we had avoided gullies of snow and had scrambled on rocks instead, the temptation was to go ahead, but checking the forecast (at least 6 different ones, several times each) there was no question, there was no way to go ahead on the next high section. I mention this with reflection, I am not a seasoned mountaineer, I am learning like many, but one of the most important lessons I can gain from other’s experiences, friends and famous book-writing mountaineers, is that is ok to say no.

Route climbs up the waterfall on the left
Timing and economics meant this was the end of our trip, we didn’t have the time or money to wait or move to a different part of the route. So bitterly disappointed my friend and I drank away our sorrows over pizza in Saladuru and made a tipsy Skype call to family saying we were coming home. We made our way home the next day, an adventure in itself, as we walked, hitched, bussed and trained to the airport. I can’t regret our early return and I remember the trip extremely fondly; there is no doubt I will return to the Pyrenees, for their isolated beauty, the secret villages and dazzling number of slug species.
I tried to keep it short, congrats if you made it to here, I wish I could write more as it was such a great trip. Feel free to get in touch for a more detailed itinerary/logistics in the Pyrenees which I won’t bother every reader with.

 Reference: Tom Joosten (2009) “The Pyrenean Haut Route” Cicerone Press

ps. We never managed to take a picture of the wildlife as it was normally very small and running away - but I did a quick sketch to give a rough idea what they looked like