HRP Day 4: a vertiginous passage

Sept. 14th, 2022

Refuge de Pombie to Refuge d’Arremoulit w/Passage d’Orteig

7.75 miles +3,301 ft / -2,300 ft

I sleep surprisingly well. Maybe it was the wine. Haha, though I could hear snoring sounds through the night, it didn’t bother me and I covered my eyes with my buff, so it was like I was in my own little cacoon of my self. I ended up counting 15 people in the room on the three levels of bunk beds, five on each. I tell ya, I have never experienced sharing a mattress with strangers like this and it was better than I expected. Even though the guardians told us breakfast was at 7:00am I sleep until 7:22am and Anna and Daniel are also cuddled up next to me asleep when I get up. Can’t miss breakfast, gotta go!

As soon as I am walking out the door the guardian comes to check on us, we are on our way! We three hustle into the dining room and beeline it to the coffee pot. I see they are serving the coffee in bowls so I dash to grab my mug. The coffee is hot and hits the spot. They hand us each a wooden bowl with slices of different kinds of bread, one is sweet, one is a rice cracker and the others regular bread. It comes with two pats of butter and there is orange marmalade and some cereal. I skip the cereal but do take the marmalade and make my way to join Anna and Daniel at the table.

Breakfast!!

Soon I hear we need to exit the dormitory by 8:00am and that’s in five minutes, so I interrupt my petit dejuner to pack up my belongings hastily. When I return to the dining table I sit and enjoy my meal for about 10 minutes when I learn we need to exit this room now too. The guardians have a lot of work to do. I pack up my marmalade into a plastic baggie in true hiker trash fashion, butter the rest of my bread and grab everything and go sit on the front porch, trying to stay out of the frigid wind. As people pass by me with their packs loaded they smile at me awkwardly. I guess people don’t normally eat their breakfast this way. 

There is a busy energy here this morning. It seems that everyone is packing up to leave. Such is the norm, but I am in no hurry with more weather coming in. It’s not raining right now though, but it looks as if it could start up at any second. I project I will hike on at least to the next refuge, Arremoulit.

While I am trying to finish my breakfast I am told we have to take all of our belongings out of the common room too, so I dash in there and collect my back pack, food and remaining gear and take it all outside with me. The bathrooms close at 8:30am as well so in the midst of bites of bread and sips of coffee I do a quick change of clothes. I guess that makes me ready for the day!

It’s hard to say what the weather is going to do but I’m ready for rain. The guardians told me the rain may return and there might be more tomorrow with perhaps a window of good weather somewhere in there. I am now standing outside re-packing all my gear to keep it dry and I feel eyes upon me. Anna and Daniel and I are the last three to leave. The guradians told them the “Americans” (Canadians included) are always the last to leave. I wonder what that means? I don’t care and have to laugh. With only a 4-5 hour walk today, I am in to rush.

Pic du Midi enshrouded in clouds
Leaving Refuge de Pombie

I part ways with Anna and Daniel having made some friends. They are on their way in the opposite direction, where I just came from, though I learned that the French Guidebooks don’t have the route going through Candanchu at all. I told them they are not missing anything. It’s around 9:00am when I finally start my descent into the valley. Right as I’m about to leave, the guardian signals me to wait, he runs inside briefly and returns with a piece of something edible wrapped in plastic. He says it will give me “energy for the mountains”. Very touching indeed.

10:00am. The whole morning has been beautiful and the walk quite memorable with the way the sun is breaking through the clouds and then hiding again. Also, it’s not raining, hooray! There are great clouds and mist swirling around the high peaks and when the sun breaks through it feels amazing. When the sunlight glistens on the trickling creek I feel so refreshed. The Pic du Midi is still enshrouded in mist and I think about Olivier every time I look back. I hope he has a safe and successful day of climbing up there.

The clouds come & go…

The trail meanders down into a valley along a nicely flowing creek, this is still pastoral land so there is cow shit everywhere which makes me not want to drink the water. If this were the AZT or CDT I would be more likely to embrace it, but here, I don’t know, I guess I expect there to be better water sources ahead so I guess I can afford to be more picky?

Very refreshing cow shit water

Soon I enter a magical Beech forest again where I find “The Mother Tree” and pause to admire her with reverence. I am reading a great book right now titled Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard PhD. It’s a wonderful book that describes a scientist’s process to prove that forests are like sentient beings. She talks about how trees, animals and even fungi perceive, relate and communicate with one another. In the book she shows through scientific research how forests cooperate, make decisions and remember, beautifully demonstrating their wisdom and intelligence. Here is the link on Google books.

I’ve found The Mother Tree
Loving these Beech Forests

Along the way down and out of the forest, I pass by a sign with a comic strip cartoon drawing of the Shepherd Dogs (would that be a good band name?). It’s pretty funny yet I appreciate that it exists since I may be confronted by one of these Pyrenean Dogs at some point and I’ve heard they can be really aggressive. I guess you are supposed to keep calm, let them sniff you, don’t make eye contact and don’t run. Makes sense. My luck with the one’s I’ve seen so far has been favorable. Before long I see a herd of sheep crossing a bridge below so I stop and wait for them to pass. One strategy to avoid being attacked by a Shepherd Dog is to avoid them all together!

How to deal w/ Pyrenean dogs

Shortly I drop to a road that has a trailhead for the National Park area trails. What I’m learning is that the National Parks are also used as pastoral lands for grazing animals. So different than back home. At the roadside, there is also a vendor who sells cheese. I am tempted but I don’t need the extra weight so I decide to pass on it. I bet it’s good though. I throw away my trash and dodge a very large horse standing in the middle of the road I’m crossing. It’s a brief little encounter with people, animals and cars and then I am in the forest again.

Cheese for sale on the roadside
None of these are on my route…

Now it’s time for me to to climb. A lot. From here the trail re-enters a forest and generally follows along a creek. It’s an easy trail, very clear to follow and the tread is also super lovely. It’s just steep, and I find I get warm quickly from the effort. Soon, I am down to my t-shirt, how nice!

At a level spot next to a creek I see two women who have just stopped for a rest break. I join them and introduce myself. They are from Germany. I pitch my tent in the sun on top of cow poop to get it dry, it’s been sitting in a wet bag for over 24 hours and it’s heavy with all the extra water. This is a perfect spot for this and a great excuse for a longer break in a beautiful spot. I filter some water and mix electrolytes while chatting with the girls. They are traveling to Gavarnie as well along the HRP but it sounds like they will take the variant tomorrow. Today is their first day. To think I could have started here.

Getting real pretty up here…

There is more climing to do and I find my pack feeling so much better today. It’s much lighter and my legs feel stronger. I’ve learned in the past few days that the term zig-zags means switchacks, and there are definitely always ways to cut the switchbacks. So many that I think the French invented cutting switchbacks, I mean zig-zags. It’s so different than back home, since it is like a sacriledge to cut a switchack because one would be tramping on fragile plants or causing erosion. Here the cows, horses and sheep tramp on it, crap on it and eat it all day so it just doesn’t seem to matter. The trail is not pristine in that way. I will admit, I have been taking advantage of cutting the zig-zags all week.

Notice the steepness of this hillside?
Pic du Midi in the background

Soon, I am at the Col d’Arrious at 7,442ft (2259m). The girls are taking a snack break here and this is where one must choose between the infamous Passage d’Orteig or the Variant around Lac d’ Arrious. The Orteig is considered “vertigineux” and only to be taken on in good weather and when one is not afraid of heights or precipitous cliffs. It has a cable for safety and from the looks of the photos in my guideook it’s cool. I want to do it, and so decicde to go take a look. If it’s too much exposure or unsafe, I can simply turn back and take the Variant.

“Vertigineux” = dizzying

Throughout the planning for this hike, I’ve had a good feeling about this passage despite the description warning hikers to steer away from it in bad weather and describing it as “a steep climb above a deep abyss”. When I can finally see the cables and the sketchy route I feel very clearly that I can do it, but Ihope the rocks are dry. I am going to try it and now my adrenaline is pumping as there is pretty serious exposure, like a 2,000 ft drop off that you don’t want to be falling down. Hence the cables.

I hope these rocks aren’t wet…
Looking down from Passage d’Orteig…the Variant goes around that lake

When I recently did my first Via Ferata and first outdoor rock climing I learned to use my feet and legs so I take the same strategy and hold onto the cable for safety but don’t use my hands or arms to hoist myself. There is some slack in the cable that makes me feel off balance anyway, so using my feet is still best. I quickly discover that having a hand on the rock feels so much better than relying on the cable, especially since the rock doesn’t move. This whole thing is actually super cool and there is a spot in the middle to take a little break. The views and scale are absolutely stunning. All together it takes me only 11 minutes to get across and then I am done. I’m glad I did it and glad it’s over because my adrenaline is pumping.

Looking back
Made it!!

Onward and upward the trail now enters a beautiful stone cathedral of high peaks, lakes and mostly rock with a little grass here and there. It starts to remind me of the Sierra and I am loving it. I follow several rock cairns on the path now and stop at a viewpoint to have a snack of granola and take in the sweeping views. I am so close now to Refuge d’ Arremoulit that I simply don’t have to rush but the wind is picking up again and soon I’m chilled so I press on with curiousity and awe into the “wild rocky landscape” that my guidebok describes.

Snack spot with a fine view

From high up above I spy the Refuge situated on a precipitous waterfall at the outflow of the Lake d’Arremoulit. In the backdrop are the two Col’s, one of which I will travel over tomorrow. I am hoping to continue to the Refuge Larribet, which means I take the Col du Palas and the Port du Lavedan. This area sounds like some good cross country travel through steep talus with sweeping views and no route markings whatsoever, so good map and compass is necessary. The guidebook describes this route as a “more serious challenge” and says “in poor visibility the best thing to do is stay at the Refuge d’Arremoulit. Good visibility is vital for the final section to Larribet”.

Liking the high country here

If there were good visibility today and no chance of rain, I would conitinue on this afternoon, but such is not the case. The Variant goes over Col d’ Arremoulit and takes a more circuitous, safer, route. If the weather and visibility are poor tomorrow morning, I will have to take it. This Variant also steers the hiker away from another really cool area I want to see which is accessed via the Col du Cambales, so I really don’t want to have to take the Variant and miss that. Praying for good weather tomorrow, if all goes well my stoke level will indeed be high!

Can you see the Refuge by the lake on the right?
Getting closer…
Voila!Refuge d’Arremoulit

When I arrive at the refuge I spend time walking around taking photos. It is really a special place here, the surroundings are stunning truly. I wish the weather were better, it is super windy and chilly. My feet are still wet, so I pop inside and help myself to a pair of crocs and put on dry socks. I boil water for tea and have another snack. There is a sign that the guardian will return at 4:00pm. I am planning on staying here tonight since I can’t guarantee the weather or visibility between here and Refuge Larribet. I wish I could continue, as I am not tired and I am chomping at the bit to hike more in this type of rocky, formidable landscape. This is what I envisioned the majority of the HRP to be like and thus far it hasn’t been.

Outdoor “WC”
The toilet
How to use the toilet
So that’s what I look like…

As I sip my tea and eat my snack a group of about 15 retirees wearing day packs shows up out of nowhere. Where did they come from? They make use of the picnic tables, mill about taking photos and within about 30 minutes, they vanish like apparitions. What just happened? Eventually the German girls, Sabina and Corina, show up and now I have some friends to chat with. Their English is really good even though they say it’s not. Nobody else here speaks English. When the guardian arrives I order myself a demi-pension which is a bed, dinner and breakfast. I am told I’ve got the last bed. I feel lucky since it is so windy and quite cold out there.

Inside the Refuge

The guardian speaks almost no English and I do my best to speak with him in French and it works! He has wild hair and you can see the mountains in his eyes. I peg him for a climber. He says we are to sleep in “Le Grand Tent” which is a canvas tent with beds outside. It’s not the most inviting, but I am okay with it as you get individual beds and it’s sheltered from the wind. The girls did not luck out and they will have to find a place to bivouac. They are sharing a tent and it’s a double wall MSR so more sheltered than mine on a windy night.

Le Grand Tent
beds inside Le Grand Tent

It’s crazy how slowly the time goes when you have nothing to do. When I’m hiking it flys by and now I am looking at 5pm with two hours before dinner. I do some writing and look over my maps and route, getting an idea of what options I have. I am totally behind my original schedule now and wish I could have hiked on today. I am struggling with this and struggling with the fact that I have to rely on refuges for my dinner meals until I get to Gavarnie. I am learning to let go, trust, and be patient with this. I know these skills yet this is a perfect opportunity to put them into practice. I am deeply confident that I will be exactly where I am supposed to be and that will be fulfilling.

The weather tomorrow will determine which pass I take, I’m hoping for Col du Palas
My two choices mapped on Cal Topo…I’m hoping for the Red Line

I decide to take a walk around the area as I learned there are several other places one could bivouac. I want to also take a look at my routes for tomorrow so I have an idea of where they each go. I spend the better part of an hour meandering in my crocks and sleep socks, walking very gently on the Earth, scrambling over sticky granite rocks and jumping over water courses. The sun comes and goes from behind the clouds and the wind dies down for a long time. This is super dreamy and it makes me want to spend the night out here. But I know this perfect feeling is temporary, so instead of changing my plan, I sit down and soak up the sun, listen to the waterfalls and enjoy the peace and serenity. These moments are part of what I came here for.

Peaceful evening light
Very Sierra Nevada -esque

I’ve enjoyed myself so much I lost track of time. I head back to the Refuge as they are just about to start serving dinner. My name is on a list at a table with five others, and I take my place. We are served soup that is a combination of chicken noodle and split pea broth. It’s yellow, light, thin, has just a few vegetables and to my delight there are a few chunks of ginger. Yes! My stomach has not been feeling well this afternoon so that really hit home. The main course is penne pasta with a ragout of pork (I think) and mushrooms, like a gravy. It’s okay, not my favorite, not as good as last night. However, this Refuge is super small and in a very remote location, everything gets flown in by helicopter and there is just one guardian. He actually talks for several minutes about he ecological impact of the Refuges here in the Pyrenees, I wish I understood more of what he says.

Soup first
Main Course

I ask my dinner companions if any of them speak English, and they hardly do. So with my hardly speaking any French, we eat fairly silently. They are not even a chatty bunch among themselves with a shared language. Some are backpacking and some not. It’s a very different vibe compared to last night but I am fine with that and enjoy my meal. We are served a piece of cheese after dinner and finally a custard filled pastry that I save for tomorrow as I am really full. I didn’t burn that many calories today!

Folks at the other table

After diner I ask if we are sleeping in Le Grand Tent and the guardian tells me that the large group of 13 he was expecting did not show up so we get the dormitory which is indoors. I choose a bed that is shared with only one person and luck out and have it completely to myself! I drop my sleeping bad and beanie on the bed, put on my PJ’s and brush my teeth, then return to the dining room to drink my tea and write. I am the only person in this quiet cave-like room. The guardian is in the kitchen cleaning up and when he leaves he asks that I switch off all the lights when I’m done. When I am ready to retire, I head outside one last time to the outdoor toilet. There are cool solar powered lights to guide the way and there is a mix of clouds overhead with a few glittering stars peeking through. It’s still very windy, the dusky evening light is turning gray now. Night time is here, it’s the end of another day in these crazy mountains.

a couple tents in the bivouac area

13 thoughts on “HRP Day 4: a vertiginous passage

  1. Hey M

    Sounds like such better day and so glad the weather cooperated with your choice to walk the Passage d’Orteig. That looked really cool and totally worth it. It’s such a different vibe to overnight with a group of strangers rather than to be on your own. Are you missing the solitude, or is this part of the experience a positive?

    Great images as always, and I agree, there is definitely some Sierra in places. 🙂

    1. Hi Tom! Thanks for your commentary 🙂 Definitely a different vibe sleeping in a dormitory bed with people! I prefer to sleep in my tent alone, but I new going into this hike that Refuges were going to enevitably be part of the experience, and since my rain jacket was leaking it proved to be a huge help to keep me dry and safe!

  2. You sure are an adventurous soul! Love how you go with the flow with these new experiences at the refuge’s and manage to communicate despite limited French skills.

    Sleeping in the same bed with cord’s is the strangest of all. I guess it’s like that in the huts along the AT, but that would be a hard one for me.

    Love the sights you get to see a long the way.

    1. Hi Kay! Thanks for your comments! You know that hut thing that is one of the reasons (among several others) why I dont quite feel ready to embrace the AT yet..it would be really hard for me too!

  3. Dear Melissa,
    it was a great surprise for me, to see those familiar pictures from the Wallis in your post, right after returning myself form the Smokey mountains. Your pictures form the HRP are awsome as always. Great story around the Mother Tree and a high class book recommendation. Youre right: The sheep-dogs are risky in and Ive already been chased from a tuscanian sheep dog in Italy. The refuges are operated different to the hostels in the US and I guess, they might appear to you strange, because of the rough manners. I had a lot of weird experiences there, so I no longer expect much. I´m really exited of your hike in the Pyrenees and will try to propose a hike there to a friend. Thank You for sharing, I’m still remembering those great pictures from x-mas 2017 with the decorated tent on the PCT. Best regards Peter
    >

    1. Hi Peter! Great hearing from you, very interesting experiences you’ve had too it sounds! I think everything in Europe is always going to be more communal than what we are used to in the US, and that’s fun, but I did find myself wishing I spoke better French & Spanish, so if/shen I return to the Pyrenees I vow to brush up on language beforehand. If you ever want to talk logistics for a HRP hike (for you or your friend) let me know, as it was a LOT and I could possibly assist in planning. Thank you for the fun reminder of the X-Mas lights on the 2017 PCT hike! That was the best 🙂

      1. Thank you for a pleasant conversation. I will leave a new comment on the report of day 5. 😉

  4. Hello Mary Poppins. That mother tree you found looks like a large oak. Since I was a kid I have hiked a lot in the Palo Alto hills. There are old oak trees that were changed by the 1906 quake. Many of them are growing horizontal. Very odd. I am glad you loved the Ionian basin. Excited to hear details.

    1. Hey there Ed! I do know those beautiful sprawling oaks of California too, love them! This one is in fact a Beech tree, according to my guidebook, did not see any Oaks in the Pyrenees, actually didn’t see many trees at all so the forests were very prescious to me while I was there!

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