Does it get any better than this? Sitting beside a still clear lake, which perfectly reflects the rugged peaks of the French Pyrenees. Not a breath of wind in the late afternoon. Complete silence. We’re 2300m above sea level. There are no cars, because there are no roads. To get here, we’ve had to walk.
And yes, it does get better, because that little stone building behind us is the Refuge d’Arremoulit, where we’ll be staying the night, and the warden calls through the window that our dinner is ready and will we be drinking wine with that or would we like another beer?
We’re following the HRP, the High Route in the Pyrenees. There are twelve of us; nine Netherlanders, two Frenchmen and a lone Australian. Each of the last four days we’ve covered over twenty kilometres horizontally and more significantly, over 1000 metres vertically. Some of us are blistered and all of us are tired. We’ve scrambled over scree and been drenched by thunderstorms. This lovely mountain lake and a sunny evening are our reward.
Our guidebook says the HRP is ‘the most spectacular and challenging route in the Pyrenees…one of the classic walks of Europe’. We haven’t seen the less classic ones, but we’re more than happy with this. It passes 800 km along the high ridges from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, roughly following the French-Spanish border. We’re tackling a one-week walk eastwards to the town of Gavarnie. It’s rated ‘tough’, though not the most difficult section of the HRP. That suits us fine, because most of us are the wrong side of fifty, active rather than athletic.
The High Route certainly is spectacular. We pass along rivers gushing over rapids, climb through dark forests, tramp through snow to cross high cols and traverse ridges with brilliant views over cloud-filled valleys.
We sometimes spot groups of ‘isards’, wild Pyrenean ibex, and numerous marmots, rodents like small, flat beavers that perch on strategic rocks and whistle warnings as we pass.
It’s challenging enough for us, though the route skirts round the highest peaks and avoids terrain that needs ice axes and crampons. This is walking, not mountaineering, and anyone in reasonable shape can manage it. Our packs are light, because we don’t need to carry tents, sleeping bags, stoves or food, except for snacks to eat along the track.
We’ve organised this trip ourselves. Well, I’ll come clean, our Dutch walking companion Kees planned the route and booked the refuge accommodation on-line, but any of us could have done it if we hadn’t been too busy.
There are refuges run by the Club Alpin Francais liberally scattered through the French Alps and the Pyrenees. To an Aussie hiker like me, a ‘refuge’ suggests an iron hut with a snakebite kit and an emergency can of baked beans ‘Best before 1968’. The French do their refuges differently.
These are comfortable staffed mountain huts, open to anyone. Bunk beds, pillows and blankets are provided, though hikers are expected to bring a sheet. There are no private rooms, though we do our best to segregate the snorers of the party.
Refuges serve breakfast and a hot meal at night, with beer and wine available – not good for those of us who were hoping to lose weight on this trip. Dinner is usually a thick soup followed by hearty pasta or rice with stew – ‘roast marmot’ says the witty Arremoulit cook. To follow there are slabs of cheese and on a good night a crème brulee. It’s just the sort of food you feel like after a day’s hard walking.
Refuges are open during the hiking season, from mid-June to late September. Some are quite elaborate buildings, almost ski lodges. Others are more basic, with outside toilets and no showers. All are spectacularly situated by lakes and rivers, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
For a larger group like ours, booking is essential, especially in the busy July-August period, though we meet individuals who are just turning up, and nobody is left out in the cold. The average cost is about 35 euros per person per night including dinner.
The atmosphere is always what my Dutch companions call ‘gezellig’ – cosy and friendly. The French wardens often speak English too, though essential phrases like ‘Encore un litre du vin rouge, Monsieur’ aren’t hard to master.
Most walkers on the HRP are sprightly middle-aged people like us. The youth are off bungee-jumping, while we’re getting this hiking stuff out of our systems before our knees decide they’ve had enough. Lots of people park the car in a village and walk up to the refuge, stay overnight and walk back down again. Others stay a few days in a refuge and use it as a base to do day walks.
In the morning we drink our huge cups of coffee and smear slabs of bread with jam, then set off again for another day on the track.
The HRP track is well marked with signposts and little red and white symbols painted on rocks and trees, so navigation is no problem, but the Pyrenees are rougher and less populated than I expected. The route varies from gentle strolls across wildflower meadows with a soundtrack of bells from grazing cows, to steep scrambles over boulders and my least favourite substance in the world; rocky scree, which slips treacherously under our feet. We’re often walking above 2000m. There are few other ‘through walkers’ on the HRP in late June, though we’re told it gets busier from mid-July to September.
Our fitness level improves daily, and some of us have energy on Day 7 to make a side trip to climb over 3000m to Petit Vignemale, and look out on the spectacular Glacier d’Ossoue. But we’re tired when we finally reach Gavarnie. It’s a pretty tourist town, towered over by a World Heritage-listed glacial cirque, but to us it’s the place with hot showers and cold beer and football on TV.
Next morning we catch a bus which takes us back towards Pau, along the way making a short pilgrimage to Lourdes, where the believers among us pour holy water on their aching limbs, with no miraculous cures.
Direct flights to Pau leave from (among other places) London, Amsterdam and Paris.
Guidebook: Pyrenean Haute Route by Ton Joosten, pub.Cicerone Press (English version available) www.cicerone.co.uk
Accommodation in refuges: www.clubalpin.com
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney