Day 22: Luz-Saint-Sauveur to Refuge des Oulètes de Gaube
My plan to loop back and walk the high level variant between Cauterets and Luz-Saint-Sauveur involved 3 buses, for which the tourist office was very helpful for deciphering the bus timetables. It cost a total of €2 for the 2 buses back to Cauterets, with a nice pitstop in Pierrefittes’ market. I decided to also get the tourist bus to Pont d’Espagne, which had great views of the waterfalls up the valley.
It was quite a strange feeling, starting walking in the early afternoon. I felt quite self conscious being alongside day walkers from the car park who were wearing clothes that had recently been washed properly rather than only in a sink for 3 weeks. But it was a nice wide and rocky path at an easy gradient straight up the valley, in the dappled shade of the pine trees and with fresh air beside the glacier river.
The topaz waters of Lac de Gaube was the draw for most of the tourists and I joined them at the restaurant for an afternoon snack. After all, I was a tourist. The trail continued rising along the western shore of the lake and the crowds tapered off as the pine trees gave way to mountain meadow in the narrowing valley. The impressive north face of Vignemale sat high at the top, slowly getting closer as I rounded each corner.
After a few plateaus I climbed to the Refuge des Oulètes de Gaube perched above a flat meadow plain between it and Vignemale. I pitched my tent in the aire de bivouac and cooked dinner staring at the massive mountain and the (diminished) glacier. It cracked and rumbled every now and then which took a bit of getting used to, I kept expecting something to break away. By evening I was wearing trousers, long sleeves and a jumper; it was finally cold. And at 2100m that was quite reassuring. In the night there was a stunning view of the Milky Way over Vignemale that a good photographer could have taken a very nice photo of.
Day 23: Refuge des Oulètes de Gaube to Luz-Saint-Sauveur
I woke as torches flickered past my tent in the dark; climbers setting off from the refuge heading to the glacier. I packed by the light of the moon (less poetic than it sounds) and cooked breakfast on the tables by the refuge. A friend of one of the climbers sat nearby with binoculars and gasped every time the glacier creaked. Vignemale is on the border with Spain and there was an equal number of Spanish voices as French in the refuge.
As I climbed up the rocky path to the Hourquette d’Ossue I watched the golden morning light fall down the mountains across the valley. The col was the highest pass on the GR10 at 2734m and I was very grateful to have good weather crossing it. The views were stunning and it’s not a place I’d want to be uninvited.
Refuge Baysselance was not too far down the other side and I stopped for a hot chocolate and the last of yesterday’s baguette as a second breakfast. I fully approve of serving hot chocolate in bowls, preferably with a mountain view.
I descended out of the cold wind and rocky basin down into the meadows with crickets and lizards as the Barrage d’Ossoue came into view in the valley. A small herd of cows ambled around on a carpet of purple ground lilies. Alpine choughs buzzed by overhead and as I continued along the valley I passed several groups of marmots.
The descent seemed to go on for a long time, in part because it actually started rising again as it contoured in and out of the river inlets. The pasture transformed into granite and pine trees as I walked on. I stopped to watch some marmots play who didn’t seem to care how close I was. Then the smell of death hit me and I turned to see a half decomposed cow on the trail ahead. Bye bye marmots.
I left the trail to go down to Gavarnie, which for a village that advertises itself as car free sure had a lot of cars in it. On the other hand, a bus load of elderly Irish ladies bought me some ice cream, so I think it’s a nice place. I bumped (literally) into Emma who I had last seen at Camping d’Iraty and was now taking a few days off trail to explore the Cirque de Gavarnie. As I was waiting for the bus to Luz-Saint-Sauveur Marc and Anastasia appeared, having camped at the barrage last night. We agreed that the last two days had been spectacular terrain. They were staying on the bus to Lourdes to get the sleeper train home to Paris, to be at work the next morning. I offered to phone in sick for them.
“It is very addictive this, isn’t it?” mused Ana with her faint Russian accent. “You climb one mountain then you need to climb another.”
I bid them farewell and good luck as I disembarked in Luz-Saint-Sauveur and checked in at the campsite in the centre of town with a riverside pitch.
Day 24: Luz-Saint-Sauveur to Lac de l’Oule
As I walked back to the bus stop in the morning I spotted a familiar figure coming towards me. Sand coloured trousers, white hiking shirt, big hat with wiry grey hair poking out and a big red backpack – Kathleen! She was getting a bus north to walk on a different GR for a few days and had also just walked the excellent Vigenmale loop.
I took the bus to Barèges with no qualms about skipping a stage, I felt like I’d been in this valley long enough. A farm track led me up to Tournaboup which, besides having a name which is very fun to say, contained a near continuous stream of cyclists grinding up and zooming down the Col du Tourmalet.
I peeled away from the road and turned south up the valley, after waiting for a helicopter to take off with supplies dangling beneath it. As I was walking along the meadow path the cows, which were spread across the whole area, decided there was something interesting behind me and started wandering past me. All was fine until the last one decided I was too close and gave me a half-hearted barge with the hook of its horn. My bad.
Picking up a gravel track I climbed higher into the valley of granite and pine trees. A small river ran down the middle with patches of meadow every so often inbetween the rocks. Half way up I heard new bells, my ears now well tuned, and there was a small trip of goats scrambling on the boulders.
As I kept climbing I still couldn’t see the col I was headed towards, just a basin of high mountain walls that looked impassable. Trusting that a path would materialise, I continued past a large cabane that was under construction, possibly to be a proper refuge in the future. Leaving the meadows behind, the rest of the climb was over large boulders where the path was unclear at times and I had to concentrate on my footing.
The view from the col was, once again, spectacular. Clouds had started to drift over the peaks but I stayed for a while, my eyes drawn to the eastern ridge descending from Pic de Néouvielle on the other far side of the valley with spines like a dragon’s back. Two large lakes sparkled below.
I descended from the Col de Madamète to Lac d’Aumar and filtered some water in the shade. I was now in the Réserve Naturelle de Néouvielle which had rules on wild camping. There was an aire de bivouac which required quite a large descent only to climb back up here tomorrow. I decided to carry on to the next one along the undulating trail.
The clouds had thickened and the views across the valley were becoming obscured. By the time I reached the Cap d’Estoudou I was in them, and carried straight on down the steep path to Lac d’Oule. There was evidence of ongoing path construction on the descent which I was grateful for – the sections which they hadn’t got to yet were steep and slippery despite it not having rained for a few days.
I joined a handful of tents at the bivouac area on the north shore of the lake, set up my tent and filtered water whilst I cooked my dinner.
Day 25: Lac de l’Oule to Boursip
By the time I started walking the sun was touching the peaks on the other side of the lake. Steep switchbacks in the trees brought me up to a small cabane and a gentle rising traverse along the western slopes of Pichalay with great views across the valley and clear blue skies.
A perky flouro-garbed group passed me coming the other way as they planted poles with orange ribbons at regular intervals. The Grand Raid du Pyrenees ultra races started tomorrow and they were marking one of the routes. Navigation clearly wasn’t part of the challenge.
As I climbed higher I could see over the immediate peaks and back to the dragon’s spine ridge of yesterday. I turned a corner and walked into the sun, contouring round to the Col de Portet and leaving the lakes behind. A few whispy clouds floated in the new valleys in front of me, hazy blue mountain ridges ahead. The sudden new vista each time I crossed a col always stopped me in my tracks.
An easterly descending traverse around Pic de Montarrouyes brought me towards a small herd of cows with some very small white calves. I gave them a wide berth. A broad grassy ridge was dotted with flat splodges of gorse bushes that from afar looked like lilipads.
The descent picked up in pace after crossing the Pla de Castillon and my knees started to protest slightly. I could see Vielle-Aure and Boursip through the trees but they didn’t seem to get any closer for a long time. I passed the remains of an old magnesium mine and down a final ridiculously steep road. The cars around here must get through a lot of clutches.
I walked under a big banner for the ultra races and stopped at a tabac for some ice cream. A woman sitting next to me started asking about what I was doing – my big green backpack makes it hard to be inconspicuous. After I told her where I was from she said one of her sons was living in Hull. I said I was sorry.
I crossed the valley to Boursip and waited for the campsite reception to open, hoping they had a space. She turned away the man in front of me but thankfully let me in, always trying to keep a spot reserved for hikers. I drew up a few different plans for the next few days depending on which of the different weather forecasts arrived and how bad the storms were.
Day 26: Boursip to Cabane d’Ourtiga
All but one of those plans was thrown out of the window as soon as I checked the forecasts in the morning. With hindsight it seems like I stressed a lot about the weather unnecessarily, but that’s probably only because everything turned out fine (spoiler). I cooked breakfast with a couple doing one of the ultra races and we wished each other good luck.
A steep immediate climb brought me above a thin layer of mist in the valley. I try not to keep checking my elevation on climbs because it’s not going to get me to the top any faster, and can be demoralising if I’ve not climbed as much as I felt I had. But that doesn’t stop me from doing so. It was another col that didn’t look outrageously big so I thought it shouldn’t take too much effort. But “small” mountains are still mountains.
On a tree-lined gently rising traverse I came upon a man who looked suspiciously like he was carrying a body bag from a shed to his car. I did my brightest “Bonjour monsieur”. Crossing the road it was a small climb round to Col d’Azet, with views back to yesterday’s col, and forward to the ridge above Loudenvielle.
Whilst the views were good the col was heavily laden with cowpats and flies so I didn’t linger too long. It was only a 700m descent to town, on switchbacks through heather under an increasing hot sun. Loudenvielle was pretty and popular with cyclists stopping for tiny coffees. I’d timed my arrival with the midday closure of most of the shops so I bought a baguette from a vending machine, had a tiny coffee, and headed up to Germ.
The path had a flagrant disregard for switchbacks or things such as “gradients”, barrelling straight up the steep hill. It did mean I arrived in record time though, climbing 400m in 40 minutes. I waited for myself to stop sweating so much then sat under a tree for some lunch, to a backdrop of a rather enthusiastic saxophone. I guess if someone plays an instrument in these small villages then there’s not much escaping them.
There was a gite and an auberge in Germ but I wanted to get closer to tomorrow’s col so I could cross it early in the morning. Under blue skies I followed an undulating traverse around to the Val d’Aube. A man stopped me as I neared Cabane d’Ourtiga to warn me about the cows ahead. Thankfully as the cabane came into view I could see the cows were further up the valley.
An estate agent would describe the cabane as a charming, well-equipped rustic retreat in a stunning location. A tiny window let in dim light downstairs onto the table and benches, and a sleeping platform upstairs apparently had room for 6 people. Unfortunately I’ve not grown out of my overactive imagination and found the isolated darkness I aired out my tent next to it which had been soaking wet from dew this morning, and ventured down to the river to collect water – the small stream next to the cabane was long since dry.
From 5pm thunder rolled around the peaks at the cirque of the valley, which continued with varying intensity until the early hours of the morning, accompanied by the most lightning I’ve ever seen. Who needs candles when you can read by lightning?
Day 27: Cabane d’Ourtiga to Refuge d’Espingo
I was just finishing breakfast in the gloom of the ground floor when the ground shook a few times and the light dimmed. Ah. Was that thunder already? That would change my plans. Instead, I saw the deep orange flank of a cow filling up the view from the window, and felt the heavy thud of hooves as more cows ambled past the cabane. Okay, how do you give cows a wide berth when you start from within the herd? I nearly resigned myself to my new life in the cabane forever but thought I should at least test the waters, so to speak.
I hugged my walking poles close to my chest to be as least interesting as possible and walked slowly out. I only realised I’d been holding my breath when I crossed the river and was out of the herd. A few minutes later I passed a sign telling me to give the cows room.
The ground had been so dry that all of last night’s rain had run off rather than soaked in so the steep climb to the col wasn’t as slippery as I feared. I plodded slowly up, looking back every now and then at my creepy little hut.
The sun came out by the time I reached the top at 8:30. I left the old valley behind and crossed the grassy Couret d’Esquierry into the new one with blue mountain ridges in the distance. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the only sounds were marmot calls and small birds flitting about among the rocks.
The GR10 could be a bit odd at times. I’d felt very isolated and wild yesterday but only had to climb this col and walk down a few hours to find a small car park and restaurant. It was a bit of a lurch but it meant that coffee and crêpes were available so I wasn’t complaining. Also flushing toilets. Flushing toilets are great.
I followed the track up the valley next to the cascades to reach Refuge du Lac d’Oô where I had a very average and very expensive croque monsieur. The view was good though.
On the climb up the east side of the lake I had to watch my step to avoid squashing any of the dozens of tiny dark brown frogs that hopped all over the path. The trail grew rockier and the rocks grew bigger as I left the GR to finish at Refuge d’Epsingo, which had an even better view in front of the lakes, pasture and granite of the Cirque d’Espingo.
Over the next few hours I watched the high clouds thicken, descend and darken. The refuge was quiet and I had a three-tier dormitory to myself. The storm had passed by the evening resulting in a beautiful sunset as the remaining clouds draped over the mountains.
Day 28: Refuge d’Espingo to Bagnères de Luchon
There were thick high clouds on the peaks but some glimpses of sun suggested that they weren’t impenetrable. Rejoining the GR10 I climbed up the side of Cap des Honts Secs. The mist in the lower valleys started to rise up and it seemed like cloud was spewing out of the Cascade d’Oô.
The path switchbacked through wet grass to reach the col which led to the rocky basin below Pic de Courne Nére. I followed the small trail traversing through the scree as the valley cloud rose and fell around me. At the last col I looked back to watch the low cloud rise up as the high clouds fell in blobs, resembling a lava lamp.
I descended through a mess of sheeptracks, sticking closely to the waymarks. Occasionally I’d get glimpses of peaks and ridges across the valley. I then regained quite a lot of height to reach the east ridge of Pic de Céciré. Along the way I stopped when I smelled something foul that wasn’t me. I looked down and about 20 metres away 7 vultures were having a standoff around a dead sheep, each bird getting pecked at by the others if it tried to take a bite.
A short ridge walk down brought me to the small ski resort of Superbagnères. Normally there is a cable car down to Bagnère de Luchon but it was in the process of being replaced. Instead a free shuttle bus was running between the two which I decided to take the rest of the way down. Without it the total descent would be over 2000m for the day and my knees told me they would rather that didn’t happen. Unfortunately another walker had decided to remove his boots before getting on the bus so I opened my window as much as it would go.
Days 29 – 31: Bagnères de Luchon
At approximately half way along the GR10, 500km walked and 3 times the height of Everest climbed, I took a few days off in town to recover. If you’re interested, the best pastries can be found at the Secrets de Pains Pâtisserie Artisanale at the north side of town.