In early September 2002 Jan and I went to the Pyrenees for the first time. Unusually for us, for a trip below the snow-line, we booked on a 6 day organised trek with a guide, Hilary Sharp (the wife of Jon de Montjoye, the mountain guide that I did most of my ski mountaineering with). The trek covered the area between gavarnie in France and Torla in Spain with the Ordesa Gorge (the Grand Canyon of Europe) in between.
Friday 30th August 2002
We drove down to Harpenden and stayed with relatives ready to go to the airport tomorrow.
Saturday 31st August 2002
We took the train from Harpenden to Gatwick and then flew at 1.45pm to Toulouse with British Airways. Then we caught the train to Tarbes and a taxi for the last bit to Lourdes Hotel du Petit Languedoc, one of the few hotels where, when laying on the bed my bottom touched the floor – the mattress was well and truly worn out!
Sunday 1st September 2002
We met the other couple and our guide Hilary in Lourdes and then made our way down to Gavarnie (1365 m), a small village right in the mountains. For our first day we had a gentle day walk to the Col de la Bernatoire (2336 m) and the near-circular lake just beyond, the Lac de la Bernatoire. The weather was hot and sunny, just right for the start of a trek – it makes such a difference when you see the grand views and the lie of the land. We retraced our steps from the Col to join the GR10 track that wound its way down to Gavarnie along a balcony path and then through alpine meadows (about 7 hours).
Monday 2nd September 2002
Another good day, we walked up the Vallee de Pouey d’Aspe to the Port de Bouchard (a col at 2270 m). The views from here were spectacular. From here the knees took a fair pounding as we descended down the track to Bujaruelo (1338 m). The well earned break by the Roman bridge over the river was much appreciated in the afternoon sun. From here we walked through the woods to the road and then followed this to the village of Torla (1030 m). My feet were telling me we had just finished quite a long day (9 hours)!
Tuesday 3rd September 2002
We had a disappointing start to the day when we discovered that one of Jan’s new trekking poles had been stolen from the hostel that we stayed in. Trekking poles were not allowed in the upstairs dormitory areas and had to be left at the foot of the stairs. We rushed to the local outdoors shop to buy a new pole.
It was dry all day but with clouds building it looked like the weather was changing. We caught the bus to the Ordesa Gorge car park (1310 m). From here we headed south up steeply to the Faja de Pelay. A spectacular balcony track part-way up the walls of the gorge. We were walking through trees and steep alpine slopes with continuous stunning views of the Ordesa Gorge. The path eventually weaved down to the Mares Tail Waterfall (Cascada Cola de Caballo) right at the end of the Cirque de Soaso. A good track then led us back along the north side of the river, past lots of small falls in the foot of the gorge, to the car park (7.5 hours).
Wednesday 4th September 2002
Today we were heading back to France via the Breche de Roland, a huge gash in a line of cliffs above Gavarnie. Once more we caught the bus (at 7 am) to the Ordesa Gorge car park, with blue skies and sunshine above. We made good time up the gorge reaching the Mares Tail falls in about 2 hours. Then a steep path led up through the walls of the Cirque de Soaso to the Cirque de Goriz above, to arrive at the Goriz Hut (2200 m) at 11.30 am (4 hours), which was shut! The views from above the Cirque de Soaso, down the length of the Ordesa Gorge, were fantastic and made for some good photos. It was turning colder now and clouding over as we headed along the Faja Luenga. At the Llano y Cuello de Millarts (2457 m) we opted for the higher route to the Breche de Roland. The last section of this was over some very unusual rock formations which looked like a glacier made of rock; a jumbled array of huge rock crevasses that needed great care to negotiate. Before we could reach the Breche we had to get down from this high area. Without resorting to climbing there appeared to be just the one place where the descent could be made; a steep scree run. From here it was a straightforward route to the Breche de Roland (2807 m), which we reached at 3 pm, just as it started to rain and thunder started rumbling above us. A very impressive place as you can see from the black and white photos above! In view of the change in the weather we didn’t hang around but descended the Glacier de la Breche on the north side using the well worn track. It looked as though it was just a permanent snow field rather than a glacier with crevasses all over the place. We didn’t need to rope up and trekking poles were enough for security. We arrived at the Refuge de la Breche de Roland (2587 m) about 3.50 pm and settled in for the night. The storm didn’t come to anything, thankfully.
Thursday 5th September 2002
The weather had closed in but we decided to continue with the plan to climb the peak Le Taillon. However, the other couple in our group decided that they would prefer not to go so it was just Jan, Hilary and me that left the hut at 8 am. We quickly crossed the glacier to reach the Breche at 8.40 am. From here we headed up westwards, weaving around the huge fin of rock next to the Breche. Then the climb up became more reminiscent of a day on Munro’s in Scotland. A narrow track on a rocky ridge covered in fresh snow, not too much exposure and next to no views because of low cloud. We reached the top of Le Taillon (3144 m) at 9.30 am, just 1.5 hours from the hut. From here we had a brief glimpse of the view before it closed in even more and started snowing again. It was very windy too. One to return to on a good day! We descended quickly, reaching the hut at 11 am. We had a bite to eat and left the hut an hour later, now back to full strength with all 5 of us. The track down headed northwest along a zigzag path to a waterfall. We then descended the waterfall aided by chains fixed to the rock face to one side, then waded across the river to reach the track on the other side. Not one to do after heavy rain! Fortunately, it was warm and we soon dried off. We were back in Gavarnie at 3pm.
Friday 6th September 2002
Our last day and the other couple decided to stay in the village all day so Jan Hilary and I went off on our own. We wanted to finish on a high so we decided to go up Pimene. A shapely peak that stands out from the main ridge to give good views of the higher mountains around. We started at 8 am and took the track to the Refuge des Espuguettes. From here it was along a good track across broad open slopes to a gap in the ridge running down to the south from Pimene. Then round to the east side and up a short scramble to reach the ridge and easier ground led to the top. Pimene (2801 m) reached at 12.15 pm. We stayed on the top in the hot sunshine for 45 minutes. For the descent we decided to stay on the ridge and came down at the gap in the ridge where we had crossed to the east on the way up. Then down to the hut and a leisurely break, more mountain photos; this is a great viewpoint too (see last black and white photo above). Then we retraced our tracks to reach Gavarnie a bit before 4 pm. After a drinks break it was back to the hostel to collect our gear and be driven back to Lourdes. This time we were in the Hotel des Pays-Bas.
Gavarnie is a great base for exploring this part of the Pyrenees. There are lots of tracks, a few roads to aid getting higher more quickly and lots of places to stay.
Saturday 7th September 2002
A taxi took us from Lourdes to Tarbes to catch a train to Toulouse. Then we flew from Toulouse at 12pm to Gatwick on British Airways and caught the train from Gatwick to Harpenden.
Sunday 8th September 2002
We drove home to Tunstead Milton.
Camera: Mamiya 6 MF + 50 mm lens (wide-angle)
Film: Ilford FP4 Plus 220
Maps: The French IGN series are good for the French side but you don’t see much of Spain on them. I just bought the IGN 1748OT 1:25,000 map before we left. Once we arrived in Gavarnie I discovered there was a series of local maps for the Pyrenees. They are called Rando maps and look like IGN maps in style but they are produced by the Institut Cartografic de Catalunya. They cover both sides of the border on the same map. There’s one for Gavarnie-Ordesa for example at 1:50,000.