Day 13: Borce to Gabas
Today was a big day and as I approached the Chemin de la Mâture I was worried that I should have left earlier. The path was cut into the vertical limestone cliffs in the 17th century to transport timber for the French Navy, and whilst I didn’t really want to look over the edge it was a nice gradient and plenty wide enough.
The Col d’Ayous was 1600m above me. As a general rule of thumb I average 400m ascent an hour, so I settled in for at least a four hour climb. I passed Fredereike and Heike coming out of the forest – they’d left at 5.30am to climb before the heat.
At Cabane de la Baight St-Cours the water tap was broken and I met a rather disgruntled bearded man who was muttering about having to descend to the river, through quite a lot of livestock mess, to collect water. I had started with 3 litres and was still fine, so carried on with what I hoped was a sympathetic smile.
The rest of the climb was through open valley meadow and I came across GLTD having a very leisurely start to the day. They had camped up here and were only just finishing packing up, with a short day to the refuge. A young family with two donkeys came by as I was putting on sun cream.
“We lead the mother and then the baby just follows,” the man said. I think he was talking about the donkeys anyway.
The views from the col were stunning. I stayed up there for an hour taking it all in. The Pic du Midi d’Ossau dominated the skies eastward, which two days ago had been just a faint outline on the horizon.
I joined the others down at Refuge d’Ayous, which was in a beautiful location in front of the lake and the mountains. We grumbled over the price of a tiny dry chocolate cake square then went for a swim. It was hot and the water was warm. Ish. Delphine and Thomas swam across to the other side whilst Laurence and I stayed in the shallows as I explained thalassophobia.
“Ah yes, the Loch Ness monster could be in here,” she replied seriously.
I realised that I’d been at the lake for four hours and I should probably get going. I waved goodbye to the others and started on the long descent to Gabas. I heard rain coming across the lake and fat raindrops started to fall from the sky. It wasn’t heavy enough for a coat (it was also still 30°C) and much of the descent was in the forest. I waved at Alex who was camping by the third lake – Lac de Bious Artigues.
It was 19:30 by the time I got to the gite and there was no one around, but a number to call. I will generally try any other method of communication before picking up the phone, even when the conversation will be in English. But without other options I rang the owner and she explained the key system. I opened up the apartment to find Fredereike and Heike having dinner, and met Marc and Anastasia who were also walking the GR10. I quickly showered and cooked dinner before falling into bed whilst the cows were herded along the road below.
Day 14: Gabas to Gourette
The guidebook described today as one of the longest and toughest stages of the GR10. Because yesterday had been so short and easy. When Frederieke’s alarm went off at 5:15 I rolled over for a few minutes then accepted that actually it was a reasonable time to get up. Who have I become?
The walk started with one of those little climbs that you have to get up and over before beginning the “real” climb of the day, but those little climbs are never as little as I think they are. It was still mostly dark and in the forest it was still definitely dark. Headtorch on, I squelched through the mud from yesterday’s rain and up the rocky trail. Were those bear prints in the mud? I started singing to myself.
By the time I got to the Corniche des Alhas, another small ledge cut into limestone cliffs, it was light enough to see all the warning signs about how narrow and exposed it was. In actuality I thought it overhyped and I felt more exposed on the Chemin de la Mâture yesterday. If anything the “support” wire on the inside of the path nearly pushed me off.
As the real climb started I first had to negotiate a minefield of pine cones and slugs. The slugs on this walk have been the biggest I’ve ever seen and here they were camouflaged on the ground. With minimal squishing I plodded up the rocky miner’s track.
This felt harder than yesterday and my energy levels lower. I was dripping with sweat before I even left the shade of the woods. The gradient eased as the steep switchbacks in the trees transformed into a climbing balcony trail in open meadows, rising above the valley floor – a higher valley floor than that I’d left in Gabas.
I could hear the faint tinkling of sheep’s bells in the distance and see the farmer in the valley. I could also see that the tributary of the river that came from the mountain I was heading towards looked dry. Hmm. I’d started with 3 litres but that was not going to be enough to reach the summit with if I couldn’t collect any more, it was getting very hot.
Thankfully when I rounded the corner to start up the next valley I could hear the rushing of a river. I found the last of the shade beneath an overhang and filtered more water as I cooked some noodles. Wraps weren’t going to cut it for lunch today. I dunked my head in the water a few times and by the time I left the shade had disappeared.
Looking back west I could see Pic du Midi d’Ossau, which I was on the other side of yesterday. I was struck with how amazing the human body was, that I could cover that distance. I texted some friends “MY BODY IS AWESOME”. I never feel better about my body than when I’m valuing it for what it can do rather than how I look.
Near the top I passed some small snow fields and the fattest marmot I’ve ever seen. It waddled away at a rather leisurely pace; I’m not sure it could have moved faster. I found Frederieke at the col, he’d wanted to get the climb done and then wait for his mum in the shade of a small hut. I was relieved that he’d found it as tough as I had.
There was still not a breath of wind at the Horquette d’Arre and I savoured the spectacular 360° views. It was silent. A few vultures circled above and the lake below sparkled in the sun.
It was a rough descent down to Lac d’Anglas and therough the mine works. It eased through pasture, passing a skilled sheepdog herding his flock and another couple of beautiful lakes to drop down to Gourette.
Day 15: Gourette
Some ski resorts can still look quite nice without snow. Gourette is not one of them. However, I was here for a comfortable bed and a gluttony of food, and it did not dissappoint. The small Proxi shop was also surprisingly good for resupply. GLTD arrived in the afternoon having camped near a Cabane halfway up the climb yesterday. Heike was stopping her walk here so I knew I wouldn’t see Frederieke again with his now unbridled speed.
Day 16: Gourette to Arrens-Marsous
I left Gourette in the murk of clouds but there were a few glimpses of blue sky every now and then. As I climbed through a pretty pine forest the clouds rose and fell around me like waves on a beach. The col only took an hour of sweating to arrive and I found GLTD at the top. It was another beautiful cloud inversion.
We descended from Col de Tortes together into the cloud on a myriad of livestock tracks. On the loose dirt I slid a little and banged my elbow hard on a rock. We lost the waymarks in the valley but knew we had to climb again so continued up through the roaming horses. It turned out one of them was lying on the sign.
After climbing back up to a road the Col de Saucède was only another 150m ascent which came rather quickly. I rounded a small outcrop and came face to face with a dead horse. It was half decomposed so looked like it was grinning madly with the big teeth exposed. Walking past it meant I moved downwind from it and a small gust of wind made me almost vomit from the smell. The Dead Horse col was still in the cloud so I didn’t hang around long.
The descent brought me back below the cloud and I could see the large village/small town of Arrens Marsous. The market was just closing down as I arrived but I saw Gerard disappearing into a restaurant and dived in after them for a late lunch. Thomas was stopping his walk here and the others were carrying on further today, now on a schedule, so this was probably the last time I’d see them.
I walked up the road to a campsite with generously sized pitches that made my tent look tiny.
Day 17: Arrens-Marsous to Refuge d’Ilhéou
The temperature had cooled down with a max of 23°C today so I didn’t make a very early start and even stopped at a café in the village for breakfast. Coffee! It powered me up and over the forested climb to Estaing.
The sun came out along a pretty path next to the river which brought deliciously cold air down from the hills. I looked up at the mountains at the head of the valley trying to work out which one I was going to be climbing. They all looked very big.
From Lac d’Estaing the path climbed steeply through the woods, apparently having forgotten what switchbacks are. As I left the trees behind to emerge to open pasture a fresh (!) breeze (!) cooled me down.
A flock of twenty or so alpine choughs swirled around above me, identifiable by their yellow beaks and red legs. Also their pew pew laser gun calls. The trail rose up again becoming steeper the closer I got to the col. Several times I wondered if the col was just there or whether there would be another rise when I reached the ledge I could see. I should know by now that the col is never “just there”.
When I did climb to Col d’Ilhéou cloud was pouring up behind me so I descended a little into the sun of the next valley for a break. Cloud was also rising up from this valley but would ebb away before it reached me.
I descended into the cloud to Refuge d’Ilhéou, next to Lac d’Ilhéou. At 22 bed capacity this was one of the smallest refuges in the area, and the first refuge I was staying the night at. I “washed” myself in the lake but it was too cold for a full body wash.
For dinner they put the solo women on a table together along with two sisters who looked remarkably like Patty and Selma from the Simpsons. The food was good and I enjoyed how much I could follow and join in the conversation, even if it was rather tiring to do so in the noisy room.
The dorm beds were comfortable and I had no one on one side of me but the loudest snorer in the room on the other side. One of the negatives of staying in a refuge. I wondered for quite a while whether it was socially acceptable to accidentally kick him.
Day 18: Refuge d’Ilhéou
The weather forecast had been predicting storms in 2 days time almost continously for a week, but now they hadn’t moved ahead and were still forecast for today and tomorrow. For ages I couldn’t decide whether to continue or stay here and shelter from the storm, a storm that may or may not even come. In the end I decided to stay. I was here to be in the mountains not race through them, and at 1988m the refuge was a nice place to watch storms from. I had no great desire to do the next couple of hard sections, that were meant to be a highlight of the trail, if I couldn’t actually see anything in the rain and cloud. And the thunder and lightning.
I went for a little walk in the morning with a beautiful sunrise then settled into the cosy refuge with my book and lots of hot chocolate. It started raining from midday with intermittent thunder, lightning, and hail for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
A rather soggy Marc and Anastasia arrived, as did Sebastian a while later and we agreed it was a nice place to stay. In the evening I watched the most lightning that I’ve seen flash from within the thick cloud that had enveloped the refuge.
Day 19: Refuge d’Ilhéou to Cauterets
More rain and storms were forecast for the next 2 days still, and whilst the refuge was nice I didn’t fancy staying there that long. Reluctantly I decided to take the direct route to Luz Saint Sauveur rather than the highlight high-level variant, meaning a short walk down to Cauterets today.
I descended on a gravel track with another wonderful sunrise and beautiful light in the valley and on the mountains. Waymarks for the trail led me on shortcuts across the track but at the next one I decided to stay on the easy 4×4 road rather than on the slippery wet rocks of the GR10.
A flock of sheep were scattered across the valley and the path, and I was grateful as the shepherd called to his dogs to stop and lie down until I had walked through. As I descended further cloud rose up from the valley to meet me and I didn’t emerge below it until I nearly reached town via a nice gravel path in the woods. The campsite was a bit out f town so I stopped to get some pastries in case I got hungry on the way.
Day 20: Cauterets to Luz-Saint-Sauveur
Rather than walking into town to pick up the GR10 only to circle back above where the campsite was, I took a rather steep shortcut to meet the trail. There had been lots of rain in the night and more was forecast to come. I wanted to get as much climbing done as possible before the rain arrived.
It was a pretty trail in the woods with lots of assorted mushrooms around the pine trees. As I climbed to open pasture with the cows I could see the rain moving in a curtain across the valley towards me. Drizzle became rain and I put on my waterproof coat for the first time this trip. Thick cloud billowed up from the valley like something out of James and the Giant Peach.
I paused at the col for a couple of seconds to acknowledge it then carried on down the other side in the rain and cloud. I put on my waterproof trousers soon after as my legs were getting cold from the wet grass. I couldn’t see much through the cloud but the guidebook was rather disparaging about this stage anyway so I didn’t think I was missing much. The waymarks were hard to follow through the ski pistes but eventually I made it down into the woods below the clouds.
A pretty woodland trail led me to the hamlet of Grust. The road surface was large, smooth slabs of stone set into beige cement. Quite nice looking in the dry, slippery when wet. The road down was at least a 20% gradient so I wasn’t particularly surprised when I slid down and banged my left knee hard against a slab. Nothing broken or bleeding but I was losing enthusiasm for the day.
At the next hamlet for some reason the GR10 takes a high line 3km south, past Luz Sant Sauveur, before joining the variant trail and circling back. I took the perfectly good footpath straight down from Sazos to walk into town along a nicely landscaped riverside trail just as it stopped raining.
Day 21: Luz-Saint-Sauveur
I took a day off in town to support the local boulangeries and decide what to do next. The weather was looking good for the next couple of days and I debated whether to go back and do the high level variant between Cauterets and here that I missed due to the storms, or whether to just carry on. I returned to the same logic that I had a few days ago; I wasn’t in a rush and I was here for the mountains. I bumped into Alex and Sebastian in the evening and explained what I was doing. Alex was stopping his walk here and Sebastian was carrying on so I bid them both farewell and bon courage.