Day 7: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Gite d’étape Kaskoleta
I left town via the boulangerie and the best pain au raisin I’ve ever had. I know, it was pretty amazing. It was a fairly easy road walk for a while so I amused myself by ranking my favourite pastries. There was respite from the sun in the form of low cloud and light drizzle, never enough to need waterproofs, but it was still very humid.
I stopped for a break after a steep grassy climb and met Bernois and Elsa. They had walked in the Pyrenees a lot so were doing a section of the GR10 then would make their own quieter trail. Bernois complained about how many people there were and how he had to talk to so many people, whilst doing all the talking. Elsa was Swedish and had walked a lot in Norway, but they found it quite monotonous and samey, whereas with the Pyrenees there was a different view around ever corner.
After the understated col it was a switchbacks descent on the road which is always hard on the feet. I stopped to look at the bright orange and black beetles gathered on the heads of a white plant. We had lunch down in Estérençuby by a small river. They went for a swim, I did not. The villages so far had been cute white houses with red wood trimming; here they were drab and grey, to match the weather.
The climb up was mostly on roads as well, with views of the forested valleys that came and went in the cloud. I stopped at the entrance to the gite at the top of climb trying to decide whether to stop or carry on – it was only 2pm. I went inside anyway in search of a coffee, and decided to stay with a nice afternoon on the veranda admiring the views.
The owner was lovely and plied me with coffee and hot chocolate all afternoon, followed by her homemade sheep’s milk ice cream. The caramel and honey flavours were lovely. The “nature” flavour was a bit sheepy. The sheep in question, in the field below, were eating in a line formation sweeping around the farm, seemingly on a mission to not miss any blade of grass.
Also chilling on the veranda were Dutch Nathan and his mum who were walking sections of the GR10 over several years east to west, and hoped to complete the last section now, and Canadian Kathleen who was walking the whole GR10. Kathleen was the first person I’d met with English as a native language and it was surprisingly freeing to be able to talk so easily to someone.
Day 8: Gite d’étape Kaskoleta to Camping D’Iraty
I woke to the click-clacking of tent poles and pegs being disassembled and figured it was time to get up. The first thing I noticed when emerging from my tent was the beautiful sunrise with low cloud in the valley. The second thing I noticed was that my tent was not in the same shape as when I went to sleep.
On inspecting the problem I made it worse and ripped a little of the pole sleeve in the middle. I apologised to the tent then hurriedly packed my things and took them to the veranda. More carefully this time I disassembled my tent and found that an end of one of the central pole sections had cracked. Hmm. I decided to have breakfast.
I told my tale of woe to the others, and Kathleen casually asked whether I wanted to try her tent pole splint. Yes, yes I did. Remarkably it fit and with some gorilla tape I re-erected it whilst I finished breakfast to see whether it held. A pole splint wasn’t something I’d even thought about carrying, and I couldn’t quite believe my luck that Kathleen a) had, and b) was happy to give hers to me. It was 8am and the roller coaster of emotions was only just beginning.
A fairly easy climb to the col meant I ascended into the clouds then descended back below them on the otherside. A long gentle descent on a gravel track meant I could see a few people across the valley very slowly climbing a very steep hillside. It was indeed steep, and muddy. The valley views disappeared as I climbed back into the cloud, and my hair and eyelashes gathered drops of water from the air. As the gradient eased I still couldn’t see anything, but I could feel space open up beside me as the valley widened.
I passed Kathleen at the top of the climb, following a road then starting the next climb up a faint grassy track. Having previously thought that the waymarks were a bit over the top at times, in poor visibility I was very glad they were there.
Gradually the thick cloud got brighter, and I wondered if the peak would be above the cloud. I willed the trail to keep ascending. I felt teased for ages as the cloud got brighter and darker again, before I finally emerged out of it, and almost walked into a horse.
The path continued climbing along a broad grassy ridge, rising higher above the sea of clouds. A few mountains in the distance poked their summits through. Emma, who I’d met by a river yesterday, was lying down drawing the view – “I try and draw a picture each day”. I sat on the pile of rocks at the Sommet d’Occabé for a long time, a breeze making the temperature comfortable, and watching some more peaks gradually emerge from the cloud.
Eventually I remembered I had a way to go yet, and started descending through a very pretty forestry track. I passed Kathleen taking a nap in the shade whilst drying her tent out. At the bottom I pulled into Chalet Pedro for a Coke and an ice cream in the shade. I almost never have fizzy drinks unless I’ve been doing some strenuous activity. A few GR10 walkers drifted in and out whilst I was there.
On the map the short road walk ahead should have been alongside a river and a lake. There was a river, but a nearly dry lake bed. France was having its driest summer since records began. The last climb of the day was thankfully shaded by trees, switchbacking up to a series of small reservoirs. I deviated from the GR and went up the road to Camping D’Iraty. It was a rather odd system where the site is unstaffed and they wanted you to go 2km up the hill to pay before pitching. I would do so tomorrow when rejoining the trail.
It was a nice “natural” site where you could pitch anywhere that you found, and even had a little kitchen. I (tentatively) put up my tent in the sun to dry it out from the morning’s dew. Bernois and Elsa arrived later, followed by Emma and Emelie, who had also been at last night’s gite.
Day 9: Camping D’Iraty to Logibar
My tent had remained standing and I silently thanked Kathleen again. I decamped and walked up the quiet road to Chalets D’Iraty to pay for the camping and acquire some large pastries from the epicierie. I didn’t get much further as I stopped for a coffee at a café with a truly excellent view of blue mountain ridges. There was also a beautiful husky where I made the mistake of stroking her with a slightly sweaty hand. I was now covered in husky hair.
The GR10 didn’t actually go to the first summit but contoured around it, which I thought was a shame on a day like today. I followed a clear path up to Pic des Escaliers and ate a 9/10 chocolatine whilst I sat and stared at the distant mountains. I wanted to stay there for a lot longer but I also wanted to make more progress before it got really hot so I rejoined the trail and started down the side of the hill on a beautiful rocky path.
Across a road the trail contoured through colourful meadows filled with the most butterflies I’ve seen in one place. Lizards would scatter as I walked forwards, crickets chirping and hopping out of the way, butterflies swirling around. A few vultures soared above and a kestrel hovered in place before diving down for some lunch. It was all very Sound-Of-Music-esque (without the Nazis).
The meadows transformed to cattle scrubland and I had to pay attention to the trail as some of the cow tracks were larger than the path. I met Bernois, Emilie and Thomas having lunch under the shade of a large beech tree. Elsa had gone home today and Bernois was carrying on the GR10 for a few days before heading into Spain.
It was hot. Just reminding you. I stopped for a mini shade break whenever I could but there wasn’t much up on the ridge. It undulated along with just enough climbing to be annoying when I thought it was a straightforward descent. A last steep series of switchbacks led down to the valley road and Auberge Logibar where I swiftly acquired, from the surly owner, what had been filling my thoughts for the last 2 hours – a peach iced tea, a Coke and an ice cream.
Thomas and Emilie, and eventually Bernois, joined me and we gave Emilie a crash course in map reading whilst cooling down. I had initial intentions of carrying on and camping a bit further up the next climb, but this was quickly dissuaded by the group’s strong counter arguments that it was too hot to walk any more, and that there was beer here.
Thoughts were turning to where to camp when Kathleen wandered over in a cool shift dress, fresh from a river wash. She invited us to join her and a 10 minute walk down the road found an empty field next to the river that we discreetly set up our tents in at dusk. Well, Thomas’s tent was bright orange, so as discreetly as could be.
Day 10: Logibar to Sainte-Engrâce
Our starts were getting earlier to try and get as much climbing done before the heat dialled up, and I woke at 6:15 to the familiar sound of tent pegs. Bernois was already gone. It was still mostly dark but I packed up and headed back to the trail at the auberge, filling up with 3 heavy litres of water.
By now it was light enough to not need a headtorch and it was a nice temperature for the climb up the gorge. Obviously still sweating lots, it was a climb. A 70m long suspension bridge took me one from side of the gorge to the other, 150m above the Ruisseau de Olhadubi. I was glad there was no one else around as it wobbled enough with just me. About half away across I remembered I don’t like heights, and focused on putting one foot in front of the other and not looking down. The swaying motion continued a minute or so after I made it to the other side as if I’d just got off a boat.
The steep climb levelled off to a lovely flat wide path on the side of the forest. At the head of the valley I met Bernois having breakfast and joined him on a rocky perch. This was where I had in mind to camp last night and the field was a much nicer choice.
“Have you met the two English?” he asked through a mouthful of crackers (my French is clearly improving). From his description I thought I had, which would explain why they didn’t respond when I spoke French to them yesterday, and I got quite excited at the prospect of meeting them properly.
The path climbed gradually up the hillside then out onto the broad ridge, where the sun was still only a gentle heat. I caught up with the English at a high elevation pig farm. Heike and Fredereike, mother and son, turned out in fact to be German. They were walking together to Gourette, after which Fredereike would carry on and Heike would stop. I say together, 6ft Fred would speed off then wait at periodic intervals – “I have the money though” explained Heike with a smile.
On the long gravel track around the side of the next peak Bernois passed by as I was taking a break. “You are always eating!” I didn’t have much of a comeback to that. Except that I passed him a while later whilst he was eating and he burst out laughing. The heat had cranked up a notch for the final steep climb to Col d’Anhaou with views back to yesterday’s ridge, and forward to tomorrow’s.
A chalet on the descent had a sign for water, to which I gratefully refilled my bottles and filled my hat. Respite from the sun came eventually in the form of a damp, ancient rocky path in a tunnel of trees. At the bottom of the long descent I diverted to a café next to a bright blue river and the Gorges de Kakouéta.
Two hours later I realised the gite was still a bit of a walk and came back to the trail at the same time as Thomas and Emilie, and Alex who had started the GR10 this morning and was going until Luz-Saint-Sauveur. He looked very clean.
A new path had been built since the guidebook which saved a road walk, but meant I had to almost climb over a cow who sat in the middle of the narrow hillside track. Sainte-Engrâce was up the hill off route, a hamlet with a pretty church perched on the edge. The camping section was a one-tent-wide flat ledge of hard ground, but with a good view. Kathleen was already there having decided to walk on the road today around the hills. Sebastian, who I’d first met in Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry at our communal feast, arrived soon after. Thomas and Emilie were the last to arrive and the gite owner said they should camp in the church graveyard. I had a beer with Thomas and Alex and we compared the french guidebook to mine, all agreeing that mine was very useful.
Day 11: Sainte-Engrâce to Lescun
Kathleen left in the dark at 6am whilst I was cooking breakfast in the gite. As I was about to leave a loud rumble of thunder rolled down from the mountain with a flash of lightning. Hmm. I checked the weather forecast again which had changed from yesterday, with rain incoming but not meant to last. As long as it was just rain I didn’t mind being on the hills.
It started drizzling when I entered the forest but it didn’t make it through to the undergrowth. Still dark enough to need a headtorch I climbed gradually along a damp, mossy, limestone gorge that felt like the perfect place for an ambush in the Lord of the Rings. The easy gradient turned into steep switchbacks in the woods. By 8.30am I’d caught up with Kathleen and the Germans (new band name?) who gleefully told me that we’d already done half of the climbing to Arrete-la Pierre-St-Martin.
“I’m glad it’s not been raining much recently, that would have been quite hard in wet mud,” I said to Kathleen whilst fishing out some snacks.
“Yes this thing does turn you into an optimist doesn’t it? It could always be worse.”
The rain stopped as I emerged from the woods onto sweeping open pasture switchbacks and the sound of cow bells. With a few horse bells for balance. Dark clouds remained overhead but the rain had moved like a curtain across the valley, and it made for quite a nice temperature. On reaching the ridge and the border with Spain the mountains suddenly transformed into limestone crags and boulders with pine trees scattered about.
A farmer’s hut on the border had a cheese sign so I went over to ask about it. He ran off to give some feed to the pigs then ushered me through a bead curtain. There must have been at least a hundred wheels of cheese on the shelves in the storeroom and he pulled one out. With a twinkle in his eye (okay it was the sun through the window) he moved to put the whole wheel into my backpack as a joke. In my defence, I only seriously considered it for 2 seconds before accepting that it would probably be a bit heavy.
I’d made faster progress than expected and rounded the outcrop back into France to arrive at Refuge Jeandal and the ski resort of Arrete-la Pierre-St-Martin by 10:30. I caught Alex just as he was leaving who recommended me a decent café where I had a reverse lunch (dessert followed by main). It counts as lunch when it’s been over 4 hours since breakfast alright?
I had previously worried my initial plans of going to Lescun today were a bit ambitious but there was still most of the day left so after a leisurely lunch I carried on, thinking I might stop at one of the huts on the way if I was tired. The climb up had been pretty big but I was feeling good. Grabbing a baguette on the way out I started walking through the impressive limestone karst scenery.
The trail was less clear at times on the rock than on the grass so I paid close attention to the waymarks, sometimes navigating in reverse to check whether I could see the blazes going in the other direction. I was grateful to be walking through this in the dry as the rocks would be very slippery in the rain. I still managed a little fall crossing a scree slope, but with only a small graze on my elbow.
The flowers had changed with the terrain, and now the trail passed through swathes of blue thistles, purple ground lilies, and alpine sea holly. I stopped for a break after the first col and a large brown spotted butterfly rested on my shoes. It may have been attracted to my cheese.
It wasn’t much further to the next pass where WHAM I got hit in the face with the north side of Pic d’Anie. Or so it felt like; it took up nearly my whole field of vision from across the valley. I dragged myself away but the views continued on the descent – with the first proper sighting of Pic du Midi d’Ossau on the horizon, and Le Billare dominating to the south.
I dived into the epicerie when I finally reached Lescun to top up some supplies and acquire a peach iced tea (and a petit gateau basque, of course). The campsite was a little further on than the village, and I as headed out I heard a familiar voice.
I looked around and saw Thomas and Delphine on the road below waving. It was lovely to see them, and Gerard and Laurence joined soon after having stopped to check out the church. Sabrina had gone home after Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port due to feet issues but Thomas was carrying on to Arrens. We got an excellent spot at the campsite with views down the valley to the peaks.
Day 12: Lescun to Borce
I left before the others whilst the sun was just hitting the peaks at the head of the valley. A path in the forest led me up and around the side of the hill into the adjacent valley. Farmers were out harvesting in fields and cow bells jangled.
The climb to Col de Barrancq started far steeper than I thought it had any right to be, today was meant to be easy. It was at least in the shade in the forest and it eased off as the grassy track joined gravel switchbacks. A steep path back in the woods led to the rather understated col, and I carried on over the side for a couple of minutes before emerging from the forest into open meadow and gorgeous views across the valley.
I stopped for a break under the shade of a lone tree, a break which turned into a two hour repose. I got my pillow out. I’d wanted to start early to get the climbing done before the peak heat, but now it was only a couple of hours of descent to Borce where I had a room booked, so I was in no rush to lose 1000m elevation and the slightly cooler temperatures.
I enjoyed watching people on the trail come past. Alex, who had camped next to Cabane d’Ardinet on the descent to Lescun, then Heike and Fredereike, and then Gerard-Laurence-Thomas-Delphine (GLTD) eventually strolled by. A various assortment of walkers were heading in the other direction, some with big backpacks and sleeping bags dangling off them, some with small daysacks.
When I did get going again and stepped out of the shade it was unpleasantly warm. A gentle descent through the meadows wound past a cabane that had a waterpoint in my guidebook, but was fenced off. In the woods the path crossed several small streams which my hat got well acquainted with. There was a small breeze on the switchbacks in the bracken but it was as if someone was opening and shutting the oven door in front of me, rather than providing any cooling benefit.
I stopped for a drink in Borce before heading to my Chambres d’hôtes, GLTD were carrying on. The old building with 1.5m thick walls meant my room was deliciously cool, and I savoured having a real bed for the night.