Sept. 12th, 2022
Ruisseau d’Espelunguere to Lac de Peyreget
16 miles, vert +5,866 ft/ –
I toss and turn throughout the night because my neck is really stiff and sore. Everytime I wake up I hear the sound of the creek which lulls me back to sleep. The sound of the water is so soothing, reminding me of where I am and what I’m doing. When I wake for good it’s 7:17am and the sky is just barely starting to get light. When I go out to pee I see the full moon hovering above this valley and thre is a thin cluster of clouds catching the light of sunrise.
I don’t feel great but once I walk around and take a few photos I start to feel excited for the day. I am curious to see what Candanchu is like and tonight I want to try and finish the day at Refuge Pombie since I know I can bivouac there. My food is so heavy I am going to eat my third (and last) camp dinner tonight to reduce some weight, then the next two nights I will eat dinner at refuges. I hope this plan works out, I’ve never relied on refuges for my meals before. I’ve heard they serve a lot of mutton which I’m not a fan, yet I’m open to the experience and if it’s lamb they serve it’s lamb I’ll eat.
Leaving camp at 8:23am I cross the stream and start climbing. Along the way I see a tent nearby on a little bluff that I hadn’t seen last night. There is a person packing up, I wonder if that’s Thomas? I’m not close enough to strike up a conversation, so I continue round the bend and start a super steep climb. Up ahead I see a gorgeous wall of granite glowing in the sunrise light and poised against the thick green of the forest beneath it.
It is 70F already, humid. I’m already sweating when I reach a forest so the shade is quite welcome. The morning feels very peaceful, it’s quiet with a slight wind that comes and goes in gusts. The sounds of various bird calls gives the tranquil forest a more palpable feel of aliveness. As I climb, the shushing of rushing water from the River fades away and I tune into the rhythm of my own breath. The rocks in this forest are covered in thick, fluffy moss and the sunlight begins to pour in across them. These moments are made of such Beauty.
The steepness continues and I am getting closer to the big granite rock. There is a section of trail where they built a metal ladder you have to climb. It’s that steep! At the top of the climb there is a cow standing right in the narrowpath blocking my way. It’s just eating, doing what cows do, but she is in my way and the slope does not leave much room for both of us. I wave my trekking pole at her as I push my way past. Fortunately she moves down and out of my way. At first I wondered what a cow was randomly doing all the way up on a steep slope like this, but when I reach the Pas de l’Echelle the views open up to the Lac de Estaens and I see now this entire area is zoned for animal grazing.
The lake below is called the Ibon de Astanes in Spanish, so I am now apparently in Spain. There is a sign by the lake indicating you can do catch and release here. The water does not look appetizing to me with all this livestock so not only am I not fishing, I’m skipping this water source all together. In retrospect, I could have camped down close to the lake, the views are quite spectacular, but I’m glad I didn’t. I would have had a lot of company.
The sound of the sheep with their clanking bells mesmerizes me and I feel like I am receiving a serenade of sorts. It’s quite interesting how there are different patterns to the sound waves depending on what the animals are doing and how they move. I cause a huge flock of sheep to scatter and their bells ring all at once as they lope down the hillside toward the water.
The trail follows the GR11 now for just a little while before making a hard right turn down a slope where it enters France again. Just before this turn, I walk by two older men who speak Spanish to me and I get the gist of what they are saying but out of context it would have been difficult to figure out. They are telling me to pay attention to the waymark where the trail makes that hard right, it’s apparently low down on a rock or there’s a cairn or something like that. I guess many people might miss it following another track. It’s so interesting how much you can ascertain just from context, understanding a few words here and there along with hand gestures. Turns out the man was exactly correct and I’m glad he said something, that was very kind of him.
Soon after this turn the trail drops steeply and partway down there is a lovely stream with fresh cold-flowing water. I decide to drink up and take a morning snack break. I know I am getting close to Candanchu and still hope that I can grab a coffee there, but I can’t quite tell how far away I am. It seems like everything is taking longer than I expected today.
From here the path continues through another lovely forest of Beech trees and I get the feeling like these trees have a special spiritual Earth energy. There must be a lot of faeries in this forest as it feels quite magical. If Iwere a faerie, I’d live here!
Shortly ahead, the trail thins out and I am faced with crossing a massive wash out of talus and boulders. There is a warning sign saying to follow the paint splashes. There are also a few cairns so I follow both markers and clamber over the boulders. I feel like I’m getting a preview to some upcoming sections of the HRP and feel thrilled to begetting my hands on some tacky granite.
The trail continues along a ridgeline for a bit, the forest starts to thin out and soon I am spat out onto an open grassy hillside leading me toward the ski slopes of Candanchu. The wind has picked up and little spits of rain come down but don’t amount to anything. I wonder what weather is in store for the afternoon? I see a hiker moving in the opposite direction from me and we pass like ships in the night with only a nod of our heads.
Candanchu is a disappointment. And I should have known as my book says everything is closed in late Summer, still I must have read somewhere that something would be open. There is one restaurant that looks possibly open but I don’t want to take the time to go in with sit down table service. Candanchu is a virtual ghost town, it has a bit of an eerie vibe. I take off my pack dropping it on a wooden bench and decide to make my own tepid coffee. I throw away my trash and that makes me happy. You know we thru-hikers love to get rid of our trash. I feel hungry for lunch but one of the unopened ski shops is blasting heavy metal music on their outdoor speaker and I can’t stand it so I decide to get out of here and eat later.
Leaving Candanchu there is a 5km road walk, yay. I am not in love with this, but fortunately there are very few cars and along the way there are some sheep grazing on the hillside right by the road so it can’t be that dangerous right? I approach another ski resort that seems to be under construction so divert around it to avoid the workers. The navigation thus proves a little tricky here, taking a little extra time. Eventually I make it to a dirt track above the ski resort and away from the construction noise and people. After a very steep little section I round a bend and behold there is a waterfall! I take my lunch break here on a perfect little grassy knoll with the waterfall in the backdrop. The sun is blazing on me now so I rig my umbrella as best I can to make some shade for lunch.
When I start walking again it’s after 3:30pm. I don’t know what that means, but I feel like I still have a long way to get to the Refuge Pombie if that’s still the plan. It’s hard to gauge this trail for sure but according to my Strava tracking I’ve walked 10 miles so far. This is a really steep, hot, exposed climb up to the Col de Moines. I don’t know what happened to those clouds from a few hours ago as I am roasting in the sun. So much so that I am tempted to dunk my feet in the water at a stream crossing but something tells me not to. Instead I get my buff wet and toss some water on my head and that suffices to keep me cooler for a spell.
There isn’t a single tree along the way, just overgrazed yellowing hillsides and it’s stupid steep except there is a brief reprieve to walk by a lake. I’m in my climbing groove now so I don’t bother to stop, I just push to the Col and cross over the border from Spain back into France at 7,113 ft (2,168m).
From this point one gets thier very first views of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, an impressive face of rock here in the Pyrenees sitting at 9,462 ft (2,884m) and very popular among the climbers. I am actually suprised at it’s stature as to read about it is one thing, but now to see it, I’m not disappointed. The views of the entire area are quite stunning too.
Ahhh, I finally feel like I am in the mountains! I get the sense like this is the gateway to the heart of the Pyrenees, like my interactions with civilization are going to be less and less from here and I am super excited about that. Time to truly unwind, disconnect from all the interference and immerse my self into the forces of nature. I am also quite happy to be going downhill for a little while.
Along the way to the valley below there are wild horses grazing and a lovely little stream where I stop to gather water and take a rest. I sit down and drink, look over my maps and try to get my plan for the rest of the day dialed in. I already feel like I will hike later today than yesterday. I have to drop 2,000 ft down to the valley now and that’s only to re-gain it straight away. It looks like I will have a 1,600 ft climb over a one mile distance, steeper than what I just did. Sheesh. Perhaps I won’t make it all the way to the refuge afterall?
Down in the valley the trail passes by a Cabane where there is a shepherd and cheese for sale. I bet you could almost live on cheese out here if you just bought all the cheese along the way. As I walk by the Cabane something stinks really bad. I was thinking earlier how in order to walk this path, one must really get used to the constant stink of animal manure. It is everywhere. You are either dodging cow pies or horse manure or you are walking on top of the pellets of sheep poop. It mostly doesn’t bother me except it makes me wonder if that has anything to do with why my appetite has been a little low?
As I begin this steep ass climb next to the Shepherd’s place I see some pigs running around. That must be the special new smell. Phewee, I’m going to really think twice before I decide to become a pig farmer. There is a man who waves and calls out to me. I glance his way seeing he is pointing towards the steepest hill. That’s my trail indeed. I wave back and gear up for another climb.
I kick into gear for the steep-ass climb and surprisingly it goes by rather quickly. Afternoons are my best time of day, always have been. Feeling motivated that maybe I want to push on to the refuge afterall which gives me a little burst of energy to make it to the Lac de Peyreget back at 7,000 ft. The lake sits directly under the Pic du Midi and the setting is quite dramatic and beautiful.
Now that I’m here I re-consider pushing on. This would definitely fall under the category of five star camping. Thus, I meadner over to the lake to check the quality of the water. There are two people bivouacing with a Heliburg tent. My first thought is how heavy those tents are, and then drift to how cozy it would be inside that tent, out of the increasing wind. Those tents are bombproof but weigh like six times as much as my Hexamid.
I stop to greet the couple in the Heliburg and learn they are Dutch and speak great Egnlish, how lovely! They apparently camped at the same area as me this morning but we somehow never crossed paths all day. Even funnier is that they also met Thomas and we all have a good laugh at his antics. So it wasn’t just me! Thier names are Erika and Bart (like Bart Simpson he says) and they started the HRP in Hendaye at the Atlantic. Bart mentions that it might rain tomorrow. Yes, I was aware of the weather taking a dramatic shift on Tuesday, but with how hot it was today it was not at the forefront of my mind. I glance at my watch, it’s 7:20pm, I don’t want to roll into a refuge at 9pm and while the camping here is very exposed and it’s getting quite windy, I decide to stay.
Setting up in the wind is a little bit of a game, not gonna lie, but thankfully someone built rock walls around a few bivouac sites. I figure I can get a good pitch behind one of of them and be okay. The ground turns out to be great for staking and there are several perfect rocks to re-inforce my pitch. I feel good about it and when I get out of the wind into my little abode, I feel really happy.
I’m really excited about my dinner tonight: red lentil pasta with spaghetti sauce, eggplant, kale and coconut oil. It’s one of my favorite dinners from home, and my last meal in my tent for the next few days.
When my meal is ready I tuck into my sleeping bag and enjoy watching the clouds accumulate overhead. It’s a soft mellow sunset with cool hues of blue yet the shape of the swooping clouds, they way they curve, makes me wonder what’s coming?
I send for a weather report from my InReach and am not happy with what it says. It reports a 34% chance of rain at 10:00pm tonight and tomorrow it says 98% chance at 6:00am, and 95% chance at 6pm. So I am in for it. Shit, should I have gone to the refuge afterall? Well, can’t change that now. Maybe it will just be a wet walk tomorrow. By 9:30pm I am sipping my tea, tucking into bed and it’s starting to rain just a little. There are soft flickers of lightening scattered throughout the blue clouds. I feel warm and protected in my tent and as I tuck into bed it starts raining in earnest.
10pm. I am laying in my tent literally shaking with adrenaline. I’d be lying if I said I’m not scared. I am trying to take some deep breaths to keep myself from shaking and I feel nauseous. Only 15 minutes after it started raining a raging storm materialized. This storm is one of the craziest I’ve been in to date. The Pyrenees takes their storms seriously apparently.
I thought nothing could top the storm I camped in last year in Titcomb Basin, nor the one I recently hiked in the heart of over Kearsarge Pass, that one was crazy pants, but this feels even more intense and I’m far more frightened. Remind me why I did not keep walking just another two miles to the refuge? Erika and Bart are over there in their Heliburg. I bet they’re not scared.
10:15pm. I have to say, my tent is holding up well. I made a solid pitch. Wow. I had no idea this was coming. My InReach forecast was not so accurate (not surprised) saying 34% chance, this is more like 1,000%. It figures too because I’m camped right under the Peak du Midi. It must have some serious weather vortex energy as it is an imposing chunk of rock alright and these geologic features tend to create their own weather. Weather that is really hard to predict. I’d been staring at the thing for miles all afternoon not knowing I’d wind up camping right under it. Yes, five star camping alright, but at a certain price.
10:30pm. Still raining but dare I say slowing down? The lightening and thunder seem less angry now. I don’t know how these mountains do their storms. Will it come in waves? Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pouring rain, and there is still lightening, wind and thunder but it seems like the heart of the storm might have passed by, wow, it lasted like 45 minutes at such an intensity. I am wide awake!
I really don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. I am now just hoping to make it to the refuge in the morning and wait there until the storm is over. I wonder how long that will take? A day, three days? I imagine what it might be like to get stuck for days in a refuge… I’m going to need to look at alternatives to the Haute Route when I get to the refuge. If the rain and wind continue it won’t be safe to tackle the coming section. I feel like everything just changed. I have no idea what is going to come of this. Ahhh, life in the mountains. Never a dull moment right?