Day 32: Bagnères de Luchon to Fos
If I’m being honest, I almost didn’t start walking again from Bagnères. For a myriad of reasons, one of them being how comfy the bed was. However, start walking I did.
A path north along the river on the valley floor took me to a hamlet where the climbing began. A steep track cut across the snaking road and made my calves protest immediately. On a narrow path between hedges I turned a corner and almost bumped into a cow chewing on some long grass. I bid her good morning and squeezed past.
On the way out of the hamlet of Fos there were posters arguing both for and against the bears that had been reintroduced to the Ariège. The region has a long association with bears. According to one legend, Pyrène the Princess, traumatised after giving birth to a serpent, fled to the area where she was killed by a bear, and then Hercules buried her with large rocks, creating the mountain range called the Pyrenees. The more current issue is that bears also have a penchant for sheep. It’s not my place to have a strong opinion on the matter, and the risk of me coming across one was very small. That said, I had managed to meet a wolf in the Swiss alps so maybe I should pay more attention.
A winding farm track led me up a broad grassy ridge above the treeline. I took a break in the shade of a tiny cabane with views back south to Bagnères de Luchon, and north to the tapering edge of the Pyrenees and the flat lowland beyond. I could also see the col I crossed to reach Bagnères, which had been shrouded in cloud when I’d walked over it.
I climbed a raggedy ridge with pro-bear graffiti sprayed on some of the rocks. Ahead I could see two dogs careening across the hillside and the shepherd yelling instructions to them. Obviously, the trail led straight through the heather to them. I circled as far below as I could but thankfully her dogs were focused on the far side of the flock and I passed through with minimal bleating. From the sheep, not me.
I was now walking along the border with Spain and ticked off four more frontier stones. The zig-zag border ridge ran south from where I stood to the larger peaks and glaciers on the horizon. I had lunch 2 metres into Spain then veered back into France and off the border, crossing the Col d’Esclot d’Aou down into the new valley.
Switchbacks led me down through pasture and around more cows and sheep, with no dogs to be seen. The flies were the worst they’d been on the trail and they were slightly maddening, I was batting them off me as I walked. I hoped there’d be fewer as I descended into the trees away from the livestock but it didn’t change much. I passed a cabane that I’d had in mind to stay in/camp next to but carried on.
I caught up with a woman on the descent with a very tall and narrow backpack, and a musette dangling off the back. We had both been alone so surprised each other somewhat. We chatted for a while but split at some point, Karin taking the old route on her GPS whilst I followed the waymarks.
A final steep descent on a winding path through previous years’ leafall led me to the valley floor, where my knees breathed a sigh of relief. In the full glare of the sun I walked the last stretch along the canal to Fos and the aire de bivouac. It was on the site of a municipal campsite that had closed down due to flood risk but they kept the area open for people to use. It even had a fairly new shower and toilet.
There was an orange MSR tent that looked like Kathleen’s, but a man appeared from it whilst I was setting up. I tried not to let my disappointment show through my bonjour. He said there were other walkers at the bar in the village which I was surprised at and followed him over; I’d thought the village was empty. A fairly new hotel had a bar and small epicerie downstairs which seemed to be the focal point of the community, and was nice to have for walkers as well. I bid goodnight to Hervé to find a kitten playing in-between the inner and outer of my tent.
Day 33: Fos to Refuge de l’Étang d’Araing
I spent most of the morning stressed about lightning. Thunderstorms are hard to predict with any specificity but one forecast had a risk of storms from 9am, another from 3pm. I decided that I could start early and walk until the edge of the treeline and see what the weather was like then.
It was a long road walk slowly rising up the valley. I concluded I wouldn’t be adverse to hitching but no cars passed for two hours. The gentle road climb turned abruptly into a steep path in the woods, which didn’t really ease off until above the trees. I’d caught up with Karin, who was also worried about the storms. We were not put at ease when a man came down the other way and told us that his forecast said it was due to come at 11:00. It was 11am now.
It was decision time – we could shelter in Cabane Uls at the edge of the marshy plateau that we had climbed to, or we could carry on to the refuge. It was still blue skies and no echoes of thunder so I walked, quickly, on. I was glad of my timing for the next part as I crossed the plateau between a large berger cabane and the flock on the other side of the slope, with his dogs coralling them home. I looked back later and they were now sprawled across the path.
I reached the first saddle Pas du Bouc as cloud surged up from the valleys and obscured the peaks. By the time I crossed to Col d’Auéran visibility had dropped sharply. I kept hearing planes overhead which I initially thought were thunder. The short descent was on a ridge and, conscious that I was the tallest thing around, I was glad to see the refuge come into view.
Karin arrived 20 minutes later and the thunder started 20 minutes after that. By the time we’d settled in rain hammered down on the roof and lightning flashed in the clouds. We were very glad to be indoors. The guardians started up the large woodburner when the rain turned to hail.
Two hot chocolates later a very soggy Hervé appeared. He had got to Cabane Uls as the thunder started and sheltered there for a couple of hours, restarting once the lightning had passed. The rain carried on though and he laid out his clothes as close to the woodburner as he could without burning them.
Day 34: Refuge de l’Étang d’Araing to Sentein
Something didn’t feel right as soon as I got up. I ignored it and went to eat my porridge whilst watching the sun rise over a thick layer of cloud in the valley below. It was beautiful and made up for the lack of views yesterday. Unfortunately, I soon got a second viewing of my porridge.
I’ll skip the gory details, but suffice to say I was unwell. The stabbing pain in my stomach felt very similar to when I got a stomach bug in New Zealand from drinking bad water. It didn’t actually occur to me that I could stay at the refuge, and I started up the climb to Serre d’Araing with Kathleen and Hervé. Very slowly. Thankfully the refuge was at 2000m so it was only 300m to the col but I had no energy and every step felt like walking through treacle. I couldn’t have the waist belt of my backpack very tight so my shoulders soon started aching.
The views from the top almost distracted me. An array of hazy blue mountain lines ran into the sunrise. I threw up and felt a bit better. It was a very pretty descent into the sun and through disused mining equipment and shelters. Going down was easier.
I turned the corner of a ruined house to see a patou leading its flock towards us along a narrow cliff path. The cliff path that we wanted to go on.
“Well, I guess it’s break time then,” Hervé said as we slung our bags down. The flock was pretty big and spread over the hill, with a second patou leading the higher bunch down. It was quite a long wait and I emptied my stomach some more, again feeling a bit better.
With the sheep all herded into a bowl we carried on along the balcony trail with the second patou barking at us until we were out of sight. It was a long descent in the hot sun through old lead mining infrastructure and I had the choice between not drinking or drinking and throwing up. I was very thirsty.
I dunked my hat in a river when I got down to the forest, and then had to duck under a branch, the water pushing suncream and sweat down towards my eyes. Eyebrows are great. I was walking down on autopilot and trying to take small sips of water as often as my stomach would allow.
Down in Eylie-d’en-Haut I lay by the river with my hands in the cold water. I was in no fit state to climb the next mountain and had absolutely no desire to. Eylie was a hamlet at the end of tbe road that had come and mostly gone when the mines shut down. I looked at a map. Thankfully there was a smidgen of signal and I found a campsite in a village 6km along the road to the north. A gravel road gently descending down the valley next to a river felt manageable.
In Sentein I lay down in the nearly empty campsite in the shade and a border collie came trotting over and lay down next to me. I wasn’t going to argue. I discovered that the only bus out of the village tomorrow was the 6:55 school bus.
Days 35-37: Seix
Luckily I now woke up at 6am by default, and I got the bus to Saint Girons, a burgeoning metropolis by comparison. The woman at the campsite in Sentein thought I could hitchhike quite easily but I didn’t think throwing up in their car would be very polite. My plan was to find somewhere comfortable to feel sorry for myself in. I almost got a hotel there but checked with the tourist office about buses to Seix, and discovered that the only bus for the next 3 days was in 50 minutes. I had a room booked the next day in Seix as a rest from the trail. I had no desire to go back to Eylie and walk the long and very steep climbs between there and Seix, so went ahead to try and rest up. Eating is one of my favourite hobbies so I found it a bit odd having rest days with no appetite.
Day 38: Seix to Cabane d’Aula
On my 5th day of being ill I was bored and wanted to start walking again. Clearly this wasn’t going away by itself so I found a regional pharmacy a bit out of the village. She agreed that I most likely had giardia, and gave me the antiparasitic and pills for the stomach pain.
I hung around in the village for a while then set off, feeling better about heading off into the mountains now that I was being treated. A long gravel track up the long valley on a gentle incline felt very long. I reminded myself that I wasn’t going far and had all day, I could slow right down and take lots of breaks.
I followed the clear blue river up into a meadow with a big cascade coming off one of the peaks. Remnants of a glacier clung to the imposing north face of Mont Valier at the cirque of the valley. I plodded up the switchbacks in the trees to arrive at another plateau, and Cabane d’Aula, my home for the night. It was in a fantastic setting, sat beneath a mountain ridge wall and with views back down the valley, Mont Valier next door.
Cabane d’Aula had 3 bunk beds on the ground floor and a decent table and benches, and a much larger window than Cabane d’Ourtiga. I’d gathered some water just before it started raining, and was then treated to a rainbow in the valley beneath me.
Later in the afternoon a man crested the ridge and parted the horses to reach the cabane. Thierry was walking the GR10 in sections, finishing at Aulus-les-Bains this time. His company was welcome and the cabane felt much less creepy with someone else there.
Day 39: Cabane d’Aula to Saint Lizier d’Ustou
I felt significantly better than I had yesterday morning but the next issue was going to be that I hadn’t managed to eat more than 1,000 calories for the last 5 days and still had very little appetite. But compared to the climb from Refuge de l’Étang d’Araing I practically danced up to the col from the cabane.
It was a cloud-free sunrise and I climbed as the warm glow fell down the top of the peaks. After a month of climbing mountains my legs were almost on autopilot, I pointed them in the right direction (uphill) and let them get on with it.
Blue hazy hills greeted me from the col as I walked down into the new valley. The GR10 took a nearly straight line descent, I took the winding gentle gravel road on a few occasions. After some sneaky maneuvering around a sheep pen so the guard dog couldn’t see me, I followed the road down to the second col. A new valley and new peaks. The views and landscapes were always changing on this walk.
I had a decent break down in Couflens at a sheltered table and washed my feet under the public tap. I managed to eat quite a bit and felt better about continuing over the second climb. I topped up my suncream, once again forgetting to start with my face as I smeared the dirt and sweat together on my legs.
In the woods a poster had been attached to a fence giving the names of the patous in the area and that I should speak gently to them to let them know I’m not a bear. I’ve never been great with names but you can be sure I remembered Rufus and Pastor. At the top in a small clearing I could see back to Mont Valier and ahead to the forested hills with rocky peaks in the distance.
The descent was back in the trees where I was happy to hide from the sun as I tried to keep drinking as much as I could. No hiding from it in the valley though and I was glad to make it to the campsite in Saint Lizier which had an excellent stock of ice cream.
Day 40: Saint Lizier d’Ustou to Aulus-les-Bains
The campsite was one of the best municipal campsite I’d stayed at, but it was home to some very loud owls and jays which screeched in the night. Thierry had slept in the lounge upon realising his tent was broken.
Once up onto the ridge I could still see Mont Valier to the west, and thick clouds pouring over the smaller hills to the north. A narrow sidling path took me around a peak, traversing up and down to a col with a closed chalet. I took shelter from the wind and had lunch on the tables left outside.
I was soon joined by Eric who was walking the route in the other direction. He had retired on the 1st July and had just started walking a tour around the edge of France, beginning with the Pyrenees, which he expected to take him at least 18 months.
An undulating traverse down the other side of the col took me through some pretty scrub meadows of myrtille bushes and heather. Hey, bears like myrtille berries. Hey, look, a bear.
About 100m below me on the mountain a rather chunky brown bear was wandering through the bushes. At some of the refuges around there had been posters on what to do if you see a bear. Number one? Don’t panic. Okay, not panicking, check. Number two? Before I could recall number two the bear had ambled off into the woods. Which would have been fine, but those were the woods that I was about to go through. The bear would have seen me before I saw it and didn’t seem that fussed so I started singing loudly to myself just to let it know where I was. I didn’t want to surprise it.
A rocky path led me down to a bridge over a river below a corrie and an impressive cirque wall. I followed the small path by the river down which turned into a gentle, long descent on soft mulch in the trees. A skinny, dark red squirrel jumped between branches overhead. A hollow between old mossy walls led me down to Aulus-les-Bains.
After not having met any British people for 5 weeks, I met 5 at the campsite. Whilst my French had improved it was nice to be able to talk easily to others. We swapped stories about different sections and plans, and favourite areas so far. When talk came round to bears I told them that I’d seen one today.
“We’ve known you for four hours and it’s taken this long for you to mention that?”
Day 41: Aulus-les-Bains to Refuge de Bassiès
Today wasn’t meant to be that long or hot so I had a leisurely start. This also meant that the village shop was open when I left so I stocked up on pastries.
I wasn’t paying attention and missed a turning for the GR10, continuing on a normal footpath for a while before I realised. The map showed they met back up so I carried on, gathering spider webs on my body as I climbed through the trees. I crossed some quite big riverbeds that were bone dry, but some small streams were running.
A winding path through alpine meadow gave way to rocky switchbacks with some parts quite eroded. I could still look back and see Mont Valier. At the col the terrain transformed from pasture to granite and pine, with a classic glacial valley running east. My tent had been soaking when I packed it in the morning so I aired it out on the col whilst I had lunch.
After a while the wind picked up and I started climbing up the ridge before I got too cold. I whispered a thank you to my body at what it was capable of doing. A feint path swirved off the ridge to contour round on small boulders past a sparkling blue tarn.
The view from the next col was another one that really hit me in the face. Two blue lakes sat in the valley to my left amongst large granite boulders and scattered pine trees, and in front of me was the massive cirque of Pique Rouge de Bassiès. I sat up there for a while taking it all in before descending to the Refuge de Bassiès at the top of a small meadow.
I pitched my tent in the bivouac area next to Ro and Pete from last night’s campsite and went inside for a hot chocolate. And then the Queen died.
Day 42: Refuge de Bassiès to Vicdessos
It had been quite windy in the night – on the plus side my tent repair sleeve was still going strong, but my tent was still soaking from condensation regardless. The cloud had come down, the mountains disappeared and the wind had vanished again.
A gently undulating rocky trail wound its way through the marsh and lakes. My bubble of visibility was small but it was filled with heather myrtille bushes and pine amongst the rocks. It was silent.
I caught up with Ro and Pete, who were doing a “purists” walk of the GR10, on the rocky descent beyond the lake plateau. Gradually I walked down beneath the cloud in the trees and the sun splintered through. I froze at a low growl nearby. Nope, just my stomach. Approximately 1 million switchbacks later I reached the valley floor.
I turned off the GR10 and followed a footpath along the river to Auzat, which as far as I could tell was largely an electricity station for the hydropower plant I’d walked past earlier. It did have a bar-restaurant that did very good chips though. I walked along the river to the next village of Vicdessos where my dad picked me up in his campervan. My parents were touring around France and Spain and we’d found a rendezvous point.
Day 43: Tarascon-sur-Ariège
Rest day with my parents, eating lots to make sure I was truly over the stomach bug, and spending as much time lying down as possible. Put my clothes in an actual real washing machine.