Haute Pyrenees

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September 14th 2010
Published: September 14th 2010
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Straddling the border between Iberian peninsula and France, the Pyrenees is the lesser known of the two main European mountain chains, the other obviously being the Alps; however, it offers equally awe inspiring terrain without the crowds. Much of this unique mountain chain is far from the usual travel hubs (Paris, Zurich, Geneva, Munich) but is still easy to access from Toulouse, which sits less than an hour from foot of the chain. The Pyrenees are known for their spectacularly deep cut valleys, cascading waterfalls, spellbinding mountain faces, high alpine meadows, crystal clear glacial lakes and jaw dropping views delicately blended with unusual French hospitality (on the French side - the Spanish on the...you guessed it...Spanish side), delicious Pyrenean cuisine and a distinct appreciation for the surrounding mountains.

Our trip would begin outside a small spa / ski town called Cauterets, which is a two hour drive from Toulouse. Our plan was to start from a place called Port d'Espagne, and from there, begin our ascent into the Haute Pyrenees via the Marcadau Valley. After crossing 3 passes, we'd then descend below the Vignemale (depending on what we found, try and summit), head north along the Valle du Gaube, climb up to another alpine lake and either link back up at the bottom of the Marcadau Valley or hike to Gavernie and hitchhike back to Port d'Espagne. Since neither Will, Kaley or I had visited this area before, we did not know what to expect, but the "unknown" element makes any trip all that more entertaining. So off we go.

Day / Night 1 - Arrival

The first night, when we all would arrive, presented several logistical challenges. The three of us were arriving from three different locations via three different modes of transportation. In this case, one by plane (me), one by bus (Will) and one by train (Kaley). I was optimistic that, even with some delays, we'd make it to the trailhead by 2 a.m. that Friday night. But, alas, it didn't happen.

My flight miraculously arrived early, bag successfully transferred and rental car retrieved in an unusually efficient manner. The next task was to meet Kaley at the Toulouse train station and drive to meet Will at the Cauterets bus station, which we did not know the location of and simply figured it'd be obvious since Cauterets is relatively small. As I neared the station, I was in a a great mood given the smoothness of my arrival and, what was sure to be - because trains are rarely late - an imminent pick-up. After arriving at the station, my phone vibrated with the notification of an incoming text, which read "my train is running late and should arrive at 11:20." It was 10:30 at this point. Dammit. But I was hungry, so I figured I could grab a bit to eat and have a beer, so I ended up eating at some sketchy cafe in central Toulouse watching / listening to these toothless Arabic men harass high heeled, scantily clad girls heading to a nearby club. It was actually pretty damn funny, so at least, I wasn't without entertainment. 50 minutes turned into an hour, an hour into an hour and half, and finally by midnight, I received the text from Kaley saying the train was pulling into the station. So much for everything running according the plan.

Out of Toulouse we went toward Tarbes, then onto Lourdes (pronounced Lord with a French umpf to it), the gateway to one of the most scenic parts of the Pyrenees. After passing through Lourdes, the roads narrowed, the gradient increased, the air cooled and the silhouette of the mountains could be seen against the blanket of stars overhead. We snaked our way through several small villages following the signs towards Cauterets, and by 2 a.m. we reached the outskirts of the ski village with eyes peeled for the bus station. What we soon found out was that (1) it was wasn't obvious where the bus station was (2) Cauterets was slightly bigger than we expected and (3) we didn't even know what to be looking for (i.e. what the French word for bus station was). After aimlessly driving around for 5 minutes, we spotted an isolated wooden building in the middle of a large parking lot and decided to see what was on the other side. To our chagrin, we rounded the corner of the building to see a bus and Will, unfazed by our tardiness (about 2 hours late) and bundled up in his jacket and beanie reading.

After a brief introduction, we hopped in the car and continued on to the trailhead, which was located right by Port d'Espagne. After climbing up the zigzagging mountain roads for 10 minutes, we arrived at the gate to what looked like a typical entrance to a national park with the large brown, metal gates, one of which was open. So in we went. To preface our upcoming decision making, the end of the road, according to google maps, continued on past our current location, so we figured we could proceed further up valley to the trailhead. So when we pulled into a massive parking lot, we were a bit perplexed since we weren't able to easily find a road which continued past the parking lot especially given how dark it was. But, eventually - after several laps around the parking lot, we spotted a small road with another open gate along the left side of what appeared to be a visitors centre, which we also accidentally drove up the ramp into the open air building while looking for this "road" - ooops. Anyway, the gate to this small road didn't have any signs, in English, stating no entry, so we decided to press onwards. Up we went passing several closed cafes but the further up the road we went the more it felt like we weren't supposed to driving up it. When the road changed to gravel / cobbled stone it felt even more odd, and when we could clearly tell we were in the middle of a giant field it felt a bit more bizarre. But...we decided to carry on - after all, if there is a road, it's for driving on, right? As we approached what looked to be the end of the road on google maps, we spotted several cars' reflectors in the distance and relief set in. We weren't the only ones who had driven up the road.

Ecstatic that we hadn't gone down the wrong road, we emerged from the car to the sound of cascading water and a brilliant, star lit sky. Being that it was 3:30 in the morning, we quickly set up camp and went to bed as we wanted to start early to begin our little expedition. Out!

Day 2 - Into the Haute Pyrenees

At 8:30 the next morning, we awoke to the sound of a car, clearly marked in the French National Park Service logos, pulling into the small parking lot. I sat up in my sleeping bag, and to no surprise at all, the man that emerged from the car immediately headed towards us directing what were surely angry French questions in our direction. I quickly responded with "English?" to which he very quickly responded with "yes." This wasn't going to be good. As Will and I had discussed the previous night, we thought camping wasn't permitted in much of the National Park unless you're over an hour from the nearest road, so most people stay in the numerous refugios spread throughout the Pyrenees. Knowing this, I was pretty sure we were about to be the recipient's of somem French anger.

As the conversation progressed, it was quickly apparent that we were not to be camping where we were, but the aggravated park ranger said he would not fine us (on the basis of our English stupidity - rather than American - worked for us) if we were gone in 15 minutes. Hearing this, we shot out of our sleeping bags and began packing up our gear. Thinking that he was done with us, the ranger then alarmingly walked up to the nearest car, our car, circled once then ran around it again clearly looking for some permit or identification. Shit. When he turned around, his face was full of complete and utter bewilderment / shock. "Did you drive here?!?!?" Yep. He went on to tell us, very politely given the grave error we'd made, that there were large signs displayed at the bottom of the road (i.e. by the visitors centre) stating no cars, and the fine for parking where we were was 1000 euros. We explained that it was dark, we didn't see any signs, didn't speak French, it was late...and the conversation basically ended with him demanding us to get in the car and drive back down to the parking lot immediately. So, needless to say, all the gear was thrown into the car, as opposed to being packed, and down we went.

After making the decent down the valley, we realised the mistake we'd made...there were no cars coming up - only hikers, which had started from the parking lot we'd explored the night before. Now we know.

So, at this point, the trip really began. The Marcadau Valley is simply spectacular and one of the most scenic in all of the Pyrenees. It's known for the bizarre, twisted trees, ubiquitous rivers and waterfalls and stunning views into the high mountains above. The hike began with a steep climb up from the visitor centre to the valley floor where the gradient in relatively gentle until you reach the head of the valley, which is the point in which the real ascent starts. After winding through beautiful pastures littered with wildflowers, grazing cattle, and immense boulders dotting the fields, we reached our previous night's camp after about an hour and a half. At this point, we split left at the fork towards Lac d'Arrantille, which sits at 2200m above sea level at the base of a large cirque. Although we didn't know exactly where we were going to camp, we knew it was going to be somewhere around this lake.

From the fork, the remainder of the day was generally on an upward slope, but the scenery was simply stunning. Rushing water and waterfalls everywhere, endless alpine meadows and overhead, towering mountains - a hard to beat combination. After a brief lunch of chorizo, cheese, avocado and chocolate, we turned to the southeast up an adjacent valley at the head of which was Lac d'Arrantille. The ascent here was significantly steeper than earlier on, and as we climbed, the trees slowing started to thin, and by noon, we had passed through the tree line and the full grandeur of the Haute Pyrenees was upon us. Not a cloud in the sky with the only sound being the water tumbling down the steep mountain slopes - and the occasional cow bell clunking around (during the summer months, cows and horses, wearing bells around their necks, can be seen grazing up to 2400m). The views from this point on were spellbinding as we were not to descend below tree line until we were on our way out of the Marcadau Valley.

Lac d'Arrantille sits on top of a small plateau and catches the run-off and overflow from several other glacial lakes above, so the clarity of the water is remarkable. Standing at the water's edge, one can see the contours of the lake floor, which is covered in a blanket of rocks and the occasional gargantuan boulder. The visibility must have been 30m, and the water could unquestionably (at least we did the entire trip) be drank straight from the lake with no purification. And the taste was about as pure as you can ask for. We ended up deciding to camp at one of the higher lakes, so we made our way up to Lac de la Badète, which actually had a glacier, albeit a very small one, feeding into the lake. This was obviously the place to be....surrounded by massive rock walls, a crystal clear lake, great views of the valley below and virtually alone.

While at camp, we played a card game called "Oh Hell,"....so entertaining, jumped in the lake (freezing - probably not much more than 45 degrees) and went for a short walk up to the ridge to get a better glimpse of the valley. The panorama from the ridge and from the top of a small buttress was magnificent - view of Lac d'Arrantille, Vignemale, Lac de la Badète, the Marcadau Valley and mountain after mountain after mountain. That night we had a blend of several French pastaronis, cheese and sausages as the sun set behind the ridge at which point the temperature dropped quickly along with our motivation to stay up. So, shortly thereafter we decided to call it a night...

Day 3 - Vignemale and Unnamed Lac

Day 3 promised to be a memorable one as we were to cover two passes, see one of the emblematic mountains in the Pyrenees (Vignemale) and camp at another alpine lake.

We awoke relatively early - along with the sun, had a light breakfast and by 10 a.m. we were on our way. The climb up to the first pass, which straddled the border with Spain, was surprisingly quick and easy, and the views of Vignemale were completely unobstructed. While at the top of the pass, Will had the idea to snap a few avant guard photos of the three of us surveying the Spanish side of the pass, so we discreetly went down the slopes, as there were other hikers at the top of the pass, and covertly took some photos. Pretty sure the spectators were on the receiving end of two full moons and a girl clad in only here bra and panties...

I digress....the trail continued along the below a sharp ridge, which eventually connected with northwestern flank of the Vignemale, and it was immediately evident that we were not going to be able to summit. Almost every side of the mountain is very steep, so without proper climbing equipment, which we didn't bring, it wouldn't be possible. That'll be for next time. We spent a few moments surveying the deep valley below, and then began the long decent down into the Gaube valley. It took us about an hour to reach the bottom, which is a flat meadow of glacial streams and silt created from the retreating Vignemale glacier, and just before the valley drops down again, there is the Outlettes de Gaube Hut. We decided to break for lunch here, so we grabbed some food from the rustic kitchen and took a 45 minute break before continuing up to our next campsite.

Once past the refugio, the level plateau falls away quickly into the Gaube valley, and the already monstrous walls become even more impressive. This night's camp was by an unnamed lake (according to Google maps) off an unmarked trail, so we nearly missed the turn off. But after some collective reasoning, we figured out the route up to the lake and began our accent. After another 45 minute climb and taking in some epic views of Vignemale, we reached the cirque and the beautiful lake being fed by numerous waterfalls from the steep slopes above. Perfecto.

Here we were undoubtedly alone, and the site could not have been more picturesque. Of course, we had to jump in the lake (it really was invigorating but you couldn't stay in for longer than a minute), played close to a hundred hands of Oh Hell, drank some scotch and by 10 p.m. we were out.

Day 4 - Final Climb and Exit

Sadly, this was our final day in the Pyrenees.

The last climb was the first order of business, and after a breakfast entailing a blend of all the remaining food, we set off up towards the ridge. The ascent was very, very steep and the seemingly soft grass (where you'd want to place to hands for support) had sharp barbs and would puncture the skin on your hands, so the climb was a bit tricky given you didn't want to use your hands. We snapped some shots on the way up, and all in all, the climb took around an hour and a half for the one mile we covered. At the top of pass, we could see, obviously, the subsequent decent, which was a never ending field of talus = not fun. It was a menacing, rock-laden valley, which surely would take a while to get down, so the next several hours weren't the most fun.

Needless to say, the remainder of the day was spent hopping boulder to boulder eventually arriving at our first night's camping spot / head of the Marcadau valley. By the time we reached the bottom our legs were beginning to tire as the day ended up being comprised of a 5 hour drop down to the car park, but our timing proved to be perfect as clouds were rolling up the valley as we passed one of the final refugios on the way out.

What a trip! I'll definitely be coming back...


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