Sept. 15th, 2022
Refuge d’Arremoulit to Refuge de Larribet
4.3 miles +1,474 ft/ -1,804 ft
I got really lucky as when I went into the dormitory to sleep last night. I found I had the entire bed to myself. Yes! It felt so luxurious. I linger in bed, so incredibly comfortable, but have to pee so bad that my low back feels achy. I make my way outdoors and beeline it to the WC where I find I’ve started my period. Ha! Maybe that’s why I felt dizzy when I sat up in bed this morning. But it could have been the earplugs throwing off my vestibular balance too. Hard to say. As the moring progresses I still feel dizzy as I walk around, it’s such an odd feeling, like gravity is pulling my head over or tilting me sideways. Not a good way to start the day when you are planning on tackling technical and exposed terrain.
The big question of the day is the weather. The weather dictates my route as mentioned before. I feel pulled with curiousity and determination to make it to Refuge de Larribet and really hope to get to tramp over the wild rocks today. Even if I’m not feeling that great, I’m certain the joy of discovery and the beauty will override all that. At first light I survey the surrounding skies in every direction, I see just a few clouds, the half moon hanging above the peaks and a bright sparkling planet. Venus? I think my plan to hike the Col du Palas and Port du Lavedan might be a go!
There are a lot of logistics spinning around in my brain this morning as I glance ahead on my itinerary. I sent myself a re-supply box in Gavarnie at the Office de Tourisme that I am really hoping to receive. I originally planned to arrive there on Thursday. That’s today. Now, it looks like I will arrive maybe Saturday if all goes well with the weather. The office most likely will not open on Sunday, hard to say. Could lend to a forced zero I suppose? Or maybe that’s the day I can climb Le Taillon, the highest peak in the Gavarnie Cirque.
If I hike out from Gavarnie on Monday, I will be three days behind schedule. That would give me six days to finish this trek and most likely only make it to Vielha not to Salardu, so I am wrapping my brain around that. Finishing in Vielha would still set me up for my return to Geneva but I have very little information about any other “outs” if the weather turns for the worse again. I need to know my bail out options as transportation logistics aren’t that easy out here.
Breakfast is at 7:30am and I arrive ten minutes early, look at me! The food is com si come sa. The bread is on the dry side and a little sour, but with some butter and confiture it’s edible. I decide to try some oats and add hot water, milk powder and cocoa powder. It’s also com si com sa. Nevertheless, it’s food and the coffee is hot and nobody is kicking me out today!
I pack up my gear and upon thanking the guardian I ask him one last time about the weather and the route over Col du Palas and Port du Laveadan. He talks for a couple minutes and I pick up a bit of what he says. I think he either thinks I speak and understand French or he does not care! In context, however, I can ascertain he is describing what the Port is like. Sounds like a cut out box in the rocks, like a narrow gap that you have to scramble or crawl through. My guidebook says “aim for a narrow opening in the frontier ridge” so what he’s saying matches that. Sounds cool. I hope I can do it!
It’s 9:00 when I start walking, the air temperature is very comfortable at 55F and there isn’t any wind. Some clouds and mist are already forming and passing by the higher peaks. It’s my understanding that mid-day there will be a storm and then it will clear up again. I need to make it to Refuge de Larribet before it rains. That should work out perfectly.
As I start my climb and look back I see Sabina and Corina way down below packing up. They had told me they were taking the Variant, so I wonder if I will see them again? I look up to where I’m headed, the Col du Palas and it is indeed a wild arena of rock. This is my jam right now, this is the “high country” that I came here for. As I begin to climb and rock hop I feel excited for the day despite not feeling all that great physically, my anticipation outweighs any discomforts. It is only four miles to the Refuge de Larribet, so I endulge in taking my time and being present with the rocks, the crisp morning air and the silence.
Soon I am sinking into a peaceful rhythm of talus hopping with the lovely and haunting sound of water flowing underneath the granite and the occasional hollow clank of rock coming loose under my feet. I walk for around 40 minutes and soon I am at the approach to the Col. Since I am honing my navigation skills I pull out my map and compass and take a bearing. I also cross reference this with my Cal Topo app and it matches. Sweet, I know where to go!
When I reach the Col du Palas on the French-Spanish border, the sun is popping out on the other side of the ridge and feels wonderful. I am glad for it too as I’m hoping it will have dried out the rocks on the other side. I was having a little angst about them being slippery yesterday with all that rain and fog, but so far the rock on this climb has been dry and quite stable so I feel encouraged.
The views of the lake filled valley below is breathtaking and I am all alone up here. I pop into the sun to warm my face and pause for a few moments to take it all in. As I gaze across the rock filled slope to my next objective my focus narrows. I get all my tools out for navigation once again. My guideook description reads “go down a short way on the E side of the pass”. Okay, that’s step one. As per usual there are always a couple different ways one can go to get across. There is a small cliff band to avoid ahead, so one either needs to go up or down to get around it. Looking at it from here, I think I want to descend a little and hit a grassy ramp below it.
It should take me about 45 minutes to get through this section over to the Port du Lavedan. From here I survey what I think is the Port and imagine my contour line across. I make the first drop and look again to re-calibrate. As I begin the traverse, I find there are natural footfalls I’m flowing with and I end up staying higher than I thought I would. Shortly, I realize I’m heading straight for the cliff band which now I can see has a little cut in the upper rock to potentially climb or scramble over and that now seems to make the most sense. But first, I have to traverse a very steep and loose scree slope to get there. It seems there was a lot of water here just recently and the footing is super unstable here so I just go real slow.
When I get to the edge of the cliff band I see the route above me very clearly, taking a deep breath, I forge on. As I am working my way over this, I am aware of the exposure, so I am talking out loud to myself, talking my way through each move to help me concentrate. Suddenly there is a person standing directly above me and I wonder if he heard me talking to myself? A little embarassed, I say hello and we exchange a few words. He points me in the direction of the Port, which is a little higher yet, so I am thankful for his guidance and glad I aimed higher rather than lower. The route from here is marked with cairns and the guidbeook says to follow the red and white markers to the Port. The red and white markers are very faint and not obvious but I know where I need to go. Not gonna lie, it’s just a little intimidating but also kind of cool. Or super cool actually.
The crux of the climb through the Port is the face of a large boulder in which I really have to use my upper body to pull myself up because the hand holds are way high. It’s a hoist for sure as it’s pretty much vertical, and I’m still a little dizzy, so I am relieved when it’s over and hope to God that there is nothing that crazy on the other side going down. Not sure what I’d do with that.
I pop through the opening back into the sunlight and with great anticipation take a gander over the other side. To my great relief it looks easy peasy and there is a little use trail and cairns to guide me down. The views are quite stunning up here and as soon as I drop a few meters I stop in the sun to eat a protein bar. I feel like my adrenaline needs to settle down. The coolness of the rock along with the warmth of the sun, the clear path ahead and the calories all make for a calming of the nerves.
It’s 11:00am now, it took me two hours to get here from the Refuge, just a tad slower than the guidebook suggests, but I am on course. The clouds are starting to build so I feel like I can’t get too comfortable up here, I need to keep moving. Thus, I shove the rest of my Rx bar into my mouth and chew as I pull out my trekking poles. I am to continue following cairns and red and white paint markers though they are again not easily visible in this rocky, sun bleached paradise. There is a hefty drop from here and my GPS shows two different routes down. One of them is where the guideook says not to go, but apparently someone did go that way and I’m guessing it would be quite tedious. I stick with the instructions of the guidebook and that seems to be just fine. It’s a lot of scrambling mixed with a little dirt, grass and scree, but fun and flowing like a class two hikers dream.
The terrain and scenery are very reminiscent of the Sierra’s, particularly akin to places I’ve seen on the Sierra High Route, so I am in paradise. That said, I can’t ignore how much thicker the clouds are getting and I feel the impending rain. I keep myself moving along but stop often to take so many photos of the spectacular scenery. It always seems so ironic that the most beautiful places are ones you also have to keep moving through. I would love to stop by a stream and eat a lesirely lunch, make a coffee and take it all in, but I know that’s not a good idea for when it rains here, it pours. Fortunately there is still a decent trail marked with cairns all the way down, albeit incredibly steep in some sections, but I am making progress toward the Refuge. Eventually I see some yellow markers with arrows that look official. I’m getting closer and I’m eager to check it out, as my guideook mentioned “it has a nice atmosphere”.
When I arrive at Refuge de Larribet there are several climbers out on the deck, their gear and food splayed across the picnic tables. They are nibbling on snacks and looking over maps. There are cute little menus placed on the picnic tables and the kitchen is open.
I order a coffee from the guardian whose name is Baptiste and try asking if he has any food that I can purchase “to go” for my dinner tonight. Weather permitting, I would like to get more miles in this afternoon and find a good camp spot rather than eat at a refuge again. He is super friendly and produces a packaged loaf of sliced sandwich bread with about 10 slices, and a few cans of various stuff, one of them is pate, the other is a tuna pasta with vegetables, another is a vegetable curry sauce and another is a tomato sauce. That’s what he’s got. I tell him in very broken messy French that I am not sure what I will decicde and will think about it and let him know. Meanwhile I am ready for my lunch and that hot coffee he made for me is steaming.
The baguette I purchased in Lescun five days ago is getting quite hard and I need to finish it. I slice it up with my Opinel knife, add the mayo-mustard combo and slices of salami and cheese, which I am also almost finished with. I re-heat the coffee as it quickly became tepid and just as I start eating it starts to rain. I am so glad for this timing! I quickly collect my belongings and move indoors making a little spot for myself on the bench in the entry hall. I sit there eating my lunch so contently because I am able to stay dry. Oh, and for desert guess what? I have the custard filled pastry leftover from last night and it is SO good with my coffee. I take advantage of the down time and do a quick food inventory, laying everything I have out on the bench. On this particular trek, I have too many snacks and bars and not enough dinners, total opposite of my last jaunt in the Sierras.
It rains solidly for an hour an then the sun comes out. I start packing up and am thinking I want to get that appetizing can of vegetarian curry sauce for my dinner and head out, but first I want to be sure the rain is over since my rain jacket is of no use to me. Out of pure curiousity I decide to take a peek through a door with a sign labeled “dormitory” on it. When I open the door I discover a large common room that is absolutely charming. This must be the “nice atmosphere” place! Aha! Oh my goodness, I could have been sitting in here the whole time. That’s so funny. All along I’d assumed this room was for the bunk beds and only for guests so I stayed in the entryway freezing my butt off.
I poke around for a few minutes taking in the wonderful ambiance. There are tons of great mountaineering books, maps, information on plants and other educational materials. There are plenty of picnic tables which they use for communal dining and even a couch! There is a small side room with a sink and dish area where people can cook their own meals and wash up. Wow!
I’ve been needing to charge my phone so when I see an outlet, I plug my power bank into it, take a seat and start looking over some maps I found. May as well get some research done while I’m here. I find a map of the Pyrenees that outlines several of the refuges and major roads and with this information I am able to make a back up plan for bailing out if I can’t make my itinerary all the way to Salardu or even Vielha. This is the first map I’ve seen that has such a large scale and it is exactly what I needed! It helps me a lot to alleviate all that logistical stress spinning in my brain!
4:00pm. I’m still here. It is pouring rain again and has been for quite a while. I am so glad I didn’t hike on as I’d be holed up somewhere in my tent with a can of curry sauce for dinner. My stomach is growling now and I’m starting to get cold just sitting here. Baptiste walks by and I inquire if there is a bed available for tonight as I’ve decided I’m not hiking on in this weather with my crappy rain coat. He replies with a friendly “oui oui” so it looks like I am home for the night. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I only hiked four miles today, but this is the best place I could have wound up.
There is a general convivial feel in the room with seven others here now including the climbers. Everyone is gazing out the windows at the cirque that surrounds this refuge. With all the water coming down, there are now six cascades streaming down the cliffs and it is absolutely magical both in sight and sound. I settle into this moment and feel appreciation swelling up inside me. I am surrounded with friendly folks and a very congenial guardian, I will have a hot dinner, a comfortable bed and guess what? There is a hot shower here for 3 Euros and I might just treat myself to that!
6:00pm. Once again I am confronted with a contorted sense of time really slowing down. Hours have gone by that I would have normally been hiking. My blood circulation has slowed and I feel chilled and I’m sure being on my period doesn’t help. That shower is sounding more and more appealing. The dortoir where we sleep is giagantic, there’s a whole other world upstairs and it is beautiful. The construction is all natural wood and there are several rooms with triple level bunk beds and they are all sectioned off into small compartments with six beds in each. Baptiste told me one section for the French, one for the Spaniards and one for me! Tonight, not only do I get my own bed but I have my own little section in the dortoir all to myself. It’s so perfect. I even have a giant wooden cubby to keep all my belongings in. This just keeps getting better!
There is a sign on the door for the shower that has a lot of instructions in French and Spanish which makes it intimidating. It looks like you get 15L of hot water and there are special instructions and diagrams about how to turn the shower handle. I ask Baptiste about it and he says the water lasts about 4 minutes and tells me to just look at the diagrams to get the water hot. I’m feeling a little skeptical and I wonder how hot the water really is. You know there’s nothing worse than a tepid shower when you are really craving that hot water. I was almost decided on skipping it when I noticed steam billowing out from the shower room from someone else. When the guy emerged he looked so refreshed and warm! Okay, I’m doing it. I pay for the shower and Baptiste tells me the house rule is you have to shower before dinner, not after, I have 12 minutes before dinner, it’s perfect timing.
I don’t have a towel so I ask Baptiste for one. He pulls out a good sized salmon-orange pack-towel and says if I want to keep it I can. What? “It’s clean” he says with a smile. I am guessing it was left behind from a former guest. I thank him for yet again his extended kindness and head for the shower room. The shower is amazing and worth every Euro spent for the four minutes of heaven. The water is so hot and there is an open window that allows the fresh outside air to filter in and mix with the mist and steam of the room. I feel really refreshed, nice and warm and my shoulders and back have finally relaxed. This was an excellent decision.
At 7:00pm dinner is served. It is amazing how this group of seven men, some French, some Spanish, collectively set the dinner table in minutes. Every night at the refuges we are served communal dinners and there are unspoken rules about how people serve one another. It’s like the way I learned to do in Asian cultures as well, you serve everyone else first and serve yourself last. It’s so not American. Tonight I decide to join in this unspoken ritual. Since I am the only woman in the group, I feel like diving in and making it more inclusive for myself as for a moment there I was feeling a little like an outcast, but that probably had more to do with the language barrier than my gender.
There’s nothing like getting right into it with everyone, pushing myself into the discomfort of a bunch of men I don’t know. I am like an ethnographer, and inside observer of a foreigh culture, learing by being a part of them rather than separate. I’ve been thinking about “otherness” on this hike often. It pops up on so many occasions, in particular when I see shepherds out in the countryside herding their sheep or working at their cabanes. Their lives are so different than mine, I want to watch and photograph them as to my American mind their lives seem romantic and beautiful in an “other-wordly” sort of way. But I don’t want to “other” them because I am the one who is the foreigner, walking across their homeland. I have my own idealistic dream of literally living in the mountains and it is not to raise sheep and pigs and make cheese. Their lives out here are really hard, yet so beautifully raw and wild.
I jump in and serve the pasta to everyone and another gentleman serves up a ragout of meat with a lovely vegetable broth. Yet another hands everyone a piece of bread and another pours water for each person. We eat and chat together and laugh and nobody really understands each other that well because come to find out several are French and others are Spanish, and then there’s me, but at least we are all trying to communicate. The atmosphere for the dinner with strangers is warm and at one point I even feel special as the singular woman in a group of men in the middle of the high mountains in France.
After dinner I move up to the smaller communal room where there are two hikers who came in late, soaking wet from the rain. They showed up around dinnertime and set up their tent outside. To think they were hiking in all that rain sounds miserable, hopefully they have good gear! Turns out they speak perfect English and we wind up chatting for about an hour as they cook their meals on their camp stove. They are hiking the HRP and started in Hendaye and today is their last day. It took them 15 days to get here from the Atlantic. Tomorrow they go home to Bordeaux. It is really nice to chat with other HRP hikers, as noody in the refuge tonight is a hiker like me. Their names are Emma and Jaime and they are lovely. They actually met Anna and Daniel at the Col du Portalet two days ago and they hiked with Thomas for three days, such a small world!
I can definitely say if I lived in France I would be coming to the Pyrenees as often as I can. They shared some intel on different areas that are very “savage” parts of the Pyrenees. Savage is the word for “wild” in French, and I love that! Sounds like the region around Andorra is quite Savage, Jaime said he loves the high country and rocky terrain like me while Emma is newer to backpacking and still getting used to it. She says this was her first “long” hike. It sure sounds like she had a great time. They survived the Port du Lavedan today in a massive downpour and said that it even got icy. Emma seems a little traumatized from that experience and I can’t blame her, but they did it! I really enjoyed hearing how Emma shared her perspective on her first long hike as I can relate to a lot of the feelings and situations she shared. I have a feeling she will come back for more.
Everyone is saying “tomorrow”. Tomorrow the weather will be better. I am chomping at the bit again to actually hike and get some miles in. While today was a perfectly good day to take it easy and spend time in a really cool place, I feel like I have just been eating, sitting a lot and spending money at refuges and not really hiking as much as I normally would. Don’t get me wrong, I am having so many wonderful experiences so far, it’s just that I do also want to see these mountains and do what I came all the way across the globe to do. Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the day.
If the weather holds, I am planning to get to Refuge Wallon tomorrow. I can bivouac there and eat a meal. The distance tomorrow is around 11 miles but the guidebook says it will take 8 hr 20 min. There will be a fair bit of climbing and even more downhill after the Col du Cambales. The Col sounds like it might be a little challenging, but the whole day is graded as a level “3” whereas today was an “E” for “exceptional”. At least now I know what to expect from the “E” days, as that had remained a mystery until now.
It’s after 10pm and I’ve been sipping on a hot chamomile tea that is very sedating so I’m ready for bed soon. I am, as per usual, the last one up, and right at the moment I am sitting in the common room in the dark with my red headlamp light glowing. I can hear the sound of the rushing creek outside even with the thick stone walls between me and the water. It must sound amazing outside for Emma and Jaime in their tent. I guess I could have pitched my tent but given teh way my day unfolded, why? And, it is raining again right now as I write this. It is totally worth paying a little money to sleep in a warm, comfortable bed for one more night. This is, afterall, part of the experience I came here for. I am crossing my fingers that tomorrow I will sleep out in the “savage” mountains and it will be a clear, starry night.