Day 44: Vicdessos to Siguer
Today was quite short and with not a significant amount of climbing so there was time to acquire a baguette and pastries before Dad drove me back to Vicdessos where I had come off the trail. I followed a local footpath through the woods up to Oublier, a very quiet hamlet, and then a gentle track up to Goulier to rejoin the GR10. Goulier was a pretty little village and unlike many that I’ve walked through it actually seemed inhabited with quite a few people around and chatting through windows.
An easy path up the hill saw the beech forest transform to pine forest at the top of the ridge. It smelled fantastic. A very large shadow swooped over me. How big were the vultures in the Ariège? But no, I looked up and saw a hanglider looping around.
A forestry track contoured around to an understated col where I stopped for lunch on a picnic table in the shade. A French couple joined me and upon learning I was British, said they were sorry about the Queen.
On the descent to Siguer I could see tomorrow’s first climb and it looked very big. I was contemplating going further today to even out the days a bit, but it would mean an extra 1000m climbing in the heat before a possible camping spot which would be exposed and I didn’t trust the weather.
Siguer doesn’t have much in the way of facilities but it does have a free room for walkers which is very nice of the community. It even had a hot shower! I followed the signs to a courtyard round the back of some houses and found Ro and Pete sitting at the table. With my rest day I thought they’d be way ahead but I had taken a shortcut and they had faithfully followed the two big loops of the GR10 around valleys so it had taken them two days to get here. It was nice to see them.
With respect to breaks on long distance cycling, my friend Karen always said “If you don’t need to stand, sit. If you don’t need to sit, lie down.” This applied to long distance walking too, so I lay down on the bench in the courtyard reading my book. Ro and Pete returned later with some beers when they discovered the gite Maison Cancela actually had an unadvertised little epiciere.
A while later a rather hot and flustered Jeanette arrived at the room. She had walked from Refuge des Étangs de Bassiès down to Auzat looking for food only to find the shop was shut, so had to go on to Vicdessos then up to Goulier and down to Siguer. She didn’t have a tent so needed to keep going to find some accommodation, and was understandably pretty tired.
Day 45: Siguer to Plateau de Beille
Today was going to be one of the biggest days of the trail, and with 2400m of climbing. Ro and Pete were going to Plateau de Beille as well so I felt a little better about my plan. We got up at 6am and started the long climb in the woods whilst it was still dark.
I honestly couldn’t tell you what I thought about for the rest of that climb. My legs were on autopilot and I emerged two hours later above the trees. Don’t get me wrong, I was still working, sweating and out of breath, but climbing was just something that happened now.
The sun was still low in the sky as I turned onto the broad grassy ridge and the steep gradient eased. I climbed above a flock of sheep that I kept a wary eye out for a patou but none announced itself. I sat for a while in the still morning air on the rocks at the top of Pla de Montcamp and made some coffee. It was terrible, but the view was good. I’d describe it as “shallow mountains” where each blue line ridge going into the horizon was not much higher than the previous.
I surprised a marmot as I descended from the rocks, and gave a sheep pen a wide berth but thankfully the shepherds called back their dogs. Contouring round to start the descent I squeezed forward just in time to avoid a pincer movement of two herds of cows. Ro and Pete caught up on the rough and loose dirt descent, all of us slipping at some point. Half way down, Cabane de Balledreyt housed a small honesty epicierie regularly restocked by a local scout group. I took a mars bar out of support.
The second climb of the day was smaller and the path switchbacked up in the beech tree forest. A big rooty, rocky, twisty descent followed and I would later learn that Caroline, who I’d met I’m Aulus-les-Bains, fell on this descent and broke two ribs. A reminder that things can go wrong very quickly in the mountains. I’d run out of water by the bottom so stopped to eat and filter some from the river whilst batting off aggravating clouds of flies.
“Right, one more climb then we’re done,” said Ro, trying to sound enthusiastic.
“800m, easy,” I agreed. I would regret those words 5 minutes later. An 800m climb may be fairly simple by now but it was the third climb of the day and I could feel the lack of energy in my legs as soon as I started. If you looked up ‘plodding’ in the dictionary you would find a picture of me climbing that hill. Sweat trickled new lines down through the dirt on my legs.
Finally reaching the plateau we could see smoke from a large fire back in the direction we’d come from, and another to the south. We’d later learn they were intentional by the farmers, and at least there was no wind to spread them. The small Cabane d’Artaran had large murals of a bear and mountains on the walls inside, with a plaintive note saying how it was just artistic expression and they weren’t supporting the bears, after it had been defaced once in protest.
A gentle gravel track led up to the Plateau de Beille where I gratefully sat down with a beer in hand at the Angaka Village Nordique. A retired sledding dog decided that I would pet her and I graciously acquiesced. The yurts were inhabited by a group on a horseback tour in the mountains, and we camped under the trees. Jeanette arrived later and slept in a tipi.
Day 46: Plateau de Beille to Refuge du Rulhe
Today was a high, exposed ridge walk and with afternoon thunderstorms forecast I started early. Out of the trees and onto the broad plain it soon became apparent that the forecast was not likely to have been entirely accurate. The south-west sky was filled with black clouds that were clearly moving in my direction. If it was just rain, fine. If it was a thunderstorm, less fine.
“Have you seen my sheep?” I was yanked out of my musings on the weather by a berger with a large walking staff and two embarrassed looking dogs. I pointed back up the track where I’d come from, having encountered a small runaway flock earlier.
By the time I’d walked over a few short climbs and descents to reach the Col de la Didorte, the black clouds had morphed into black sky and the wind lashed rain into my face. A French couple passed and headed up onto the main ridge. I was less sure, and ducked down behind some boulders to hide out of the wind and consider my options. Ro and Pete soon joined me.
After 15 minutes of sorting out waterproofs, looking at the map and feeling the weather, we decided to try the Crête des Isards and if the wind was too strong we would turn around. As we started the climb I saw the horseback tourers cross the col and descend to the valley on the low level route by the river to the refuge, Jeanette among them. If I hadn’t been with Ro and Pete I would have taken that option.
The wind was ferocious and it felt like the first round in Squid Game – stopping and bracing against the squalls and then striding ahead as solidly as possible in the “lulls”. The path stuck close to the top of the rocky ridge but Pete led us on a lower traverse, not wanting to be blown over the top. Ro and Pete were stereotypical trail runner builds, but Pete had height to his advantage. Ro provided less resistance to the wind – Pete would go back and support her when she got blown over.
It wasn’t actually raining that much, it was just that the wind was driving it into us with such force that it struck like bullets. The wind was also throwing dirt in the air like a sandstorm and I had to wipe grit out of my eyes. We slowly made forward progress and it was certainly one way to feel alive on a Monday. The sun was still making a solid effort in the east which treated us to a magnificent rainbow to the north spanning between two sides of the valley.
As the rain eased I was able to appreciate the terrain more and the stunning mountains around us. We made it off the ridge, over the Col de Terre Nègre, and down to Refuge de Rulhe. The ridge walk up on the Crête des Isards had only taken a couple of hours but it felt much longer, and I was very happy to be out of the wind and rain, and with a hot chocolate in my hands.
Half an hour later the rain hammered down with a vengeance and the horse-riders and Jeanette arrived very soggy. Ro and Pete had planned to camp next to the Refuge but this was tent-breaking wind and they gratefully took a free dormitory. It howled all through the night, rattling the sturdy refuge, and I felt sorry for the horses.
Day 47: Refuge du Rulhe to Mérens-les-Vals
I left with Ro and Pete whilst the riders were feeding their horses. There was still a cold wind but without the gale force of yesterday, and we were walking towards the cracks of sunlight.
The first col came quickly then it was slow progress down, around, and up the other side of a large boulder-filled basin. The route was well waymarked it just wasn’t particularly easy walking. We could see back to the Crête des Isards we’d been on yesterday and it looked much less menacing with a blue sky behind it. I walked beneath the huge shear cliff face of Pic Fourcade and once again felt very small.
We followed the Crête de la Lhasse for a short while then dropped down into the corrie and the next valley. It felt like bear country again and we kept glancing around with the feeling of being watched, double-checking shadows across the valley that turned out to be rocks.
It was Ro and Pete’s last day and we stopped for a break on a boulder taking in the magnificent granite, pine and heather scenery. A small herd of beautiful, sleek, black horses galloped around the Ruisseau de Morgouillou below.
Near the bottom of the long descent, on an easy, gentle path, my left ankle began to hurt. By the time we’d got to Mérens-les-Vals it was hurting with every step. Trying to ignore it, we hunted for a bar or a shop in the small village, ending up at the train station which houses both, but was shut today. We got the train to Ax-les-Thermes (16 minutes, €0.99) and found a beer there, which they insisted on paying for. I thanked them for their company on the last few days and they wished me good luck for the rest of the walk. I resupplied at the small supermarket and met my parents again for dinner.
Day 48: Mérens-les-Vals to Refuge des Bésines
Thankfully, somehow, my ankle felt much better in the morning, and I got the train back to Mérens-les-Vals to continue the trail. A rocky path in the woods led me to the ruins of a church in Le Soula, and soon afterwards a strong waft of sulphur percolated through the trees. The hot springs were right next to the path and I bid the bathers good morning. I dipped my hand in but had no inclination to smell of eggs for the rest of the day.
Out of the woods and into scrubland the climb continued as the peak at the top of the valley seemed to get bigger and bigger the closer I got. I sat under the shade of a large hawthorn bush and topped up my water from the river.
The path grew rockier as I walked further up the valley, and a beautiful black horse ambled over in a request for food. I apologised and turned south up a narrow, steep V-shaped valley. After some climbing up the rocky path the valley widened out to a glacial corrie, with a beautiful blue lake, l’Estagnas, surrounded by boulders and pine trees.
From there I could see the col and the path led me up to it avoiding most of the boulder fields. The forecast rain was yet to come and I sat at the Porteille des Bésines for a while. In the new valley the cartoon-ish triangle of Puig Pedros faced me opposite, with meadow leading to open forest and the refuge below.
At the refuge I enjoyed a coffee on the terrace next to five Catalonians. We were soon joined by a gaggle of elderly French who were walking a four day circular tour in the area. They each deposited some mushrooms on one of the picnic tables with a flourish until there was a sizeable mound of fungi. The guardian came out of the kitchen and raised his eyebrows, before agreeing to cook them for their meal.
Heavy rain set in from 5pm, and once again I was glad to be warm and dry in a refuge. There was even a little kitchen area in the salle commune where I could cook my own dinner. I shared a dormitory with two French girls.
“Sorry about Elizabeth,” one said, and it took me a moment to realise she meant the Queen. To be fair, she was also brandishing a sheep’s skull that she’d picked up on her walk, and I thought Elizabeth might have been the unlucky sheep.
Day 49: Refuge des Bésines to Lac des Bouillouses
Thick cloud hung to the mountain tops in the morning but promising holes of sun poked through whilst I was having breakfast. I started the gentle climb up the Coma d’Anyell valley in still silence, my shoes squelching in the mud from last night’s rain.
The gentle climb abruptly became a steep scramble, sustained enough that I put away my walking poles to have my hands free. The waymarks were usually helpful in bouldery terrain but here they were splashed everywhere, making it unclear where the best route was.
A teaser of sun speared through the cloud as I ascended to the col, but it was shortlived and a cold wind soon encouraged me down the other side. After a while I emerged below the cloud to a broad grassy valley with a large, but very depleted, Lac Lanoux in the middle. The path weaved its way down the hill and around a shallow, reedy Estany de Lanoset.
At a junction by a small hut that the five Catalonians appeared from, I veered north and started the climb to the next col. Not for the first time in my life, I was grateful that I was the size of an average man and that my stride length matched the footholds worn into the hillside.
The descent the other side of Portella de la Grava began on very slippy and wet sheet rock which I just about managed to navigate and stay standing. The gradient eased and the path turned east, opening up into a wide and very long valley. For the first time on the trail I had an extended period of time walking on flat ground. It was a weird feeling.
Clouds still shrouded the peaks behind me but the sun had come out in the valley and I was walking towards blue skies. This was proper Arwen-being-chased-by-ringwraiths-on-horseback territory as the trail weaved in and out of small clusters of pine trees in the sun-dried yellow grassy plain.
Eventually I reached the edge of a very big, blue, sparkling lake. The path turned to run alongside it on a rocky, rooty trail in the pine forest. I perched on a boulder in the sun and watched the birds skim down to the water and the cows come down to drink.
I walked to the end of Lac des Bouillouses and across the dam to the auberge for a drink and a snack. I say snack, the waitress brought out two sets of cutlery because she’d assumed my order was for two people. Just for one hiker.
It was mid-afternoon and I considered walking down a few more hours to a campsite, but the lake was very pretty and with the auberge being full I settled on camping in the forest. The forecast had potentially strong winds so I chose my spot carefully, away from the trail and sheltered in the trees without being under any dubious branches. It was even flat-ish, too.
I cooked my lavish two course meal of soup followed by noodles, then set up my tent. I was in my sleeping bag by 7:30. When wild camping by myself every twig snap and rustle of leaves is a potential axe murderer. To distract my imagination I used the Birdnet app to ID 14 bird species that were twittering around me. After all, that rustle was probably just that little owl.
Day 50: Lac des Bouillouses to Mont-Louis
The moon was no longer full but still packed a punch in lumens, and when I woke at 3am for a moment I thought it was dawn. When it was actually dawn I packed up my things. I did so with my waterproof trousers over my shorts, and with my down jacket on for the first time on this trip – the lake was at 2000m above sea level and it was about 2°C.
I walked down to the shore path and along to a rocky outcrop that was in the sun. I sat there watching the sun rise higher and ate breakfast until I had properly defrosted. Fishermen, runners and dog walkers started to pass nearby on the trail. I walked back around to the auberge in search of coffee and sat in the sun until I was warm enough to remove my over-trousers. This took about the same time as it took me to eat a gauffre.
Today was pretty much all downhill or flat, and it was easy walking below the dam in the meadows. The path led around a small green lake to a series of forestry tracks, some gravel and some grass. Horses roamed in the woods and deer jumped across the trail as I walked down into the Pyrenees-Orientales.
From Bolquère I turned east along a path between two farm fences. The open valley was filled with green crop fields and I could see the saddle between two large peaks where I would walk to next. It looked very high and far away.
The GR10 veered south and I stayed straight on to divert to the small fortified village of Mont-Louis for my last rest day of the walk.
Day 51: Mont-Louis
It would be difficult to do a full resupply here, with a small epiciere of basic goods, and a fromagerie/boucherie, but it was enough for what I needed. Mont-Louis boasts the world’s first solar furnace which was pretty interesting, but the citadel part is still an active military site so the public aren’t allowed in.