Refuge Larribet to Refuge Wallon
12.5 miles +3,737 ft / -2,759 ft
Sept. 16th, 2022
As wonderful, private and dark as my little corner of the dortoir was I seemed to not sleep quite as great. I think I can blame it on my period and maybe there was some garlic in the dinner, garlic interrupts my sleep. Even still when I wake I am so comfortable and happy. I could roll over and keep sleeping except I really have to pee and I have signed up for peit dejuner at 7:30am so I better get down there.
As I enjoy my hot coffee, I notice out the window that the clouds are turning a soft pink. I dash outside to take a look and there is stunning alpenglow on some of the rock faces above. The group of climbers is all geared up and heading out too, so after snapping a few photos I wish them well. I can only imagine what an adventure they will have today in this spectacular terrain.
Feelings of excitement for the day well up inside me, thus I do a pretty good job of efficiently packing up my gear, shoving it neatly into my pack and saying goodbye to Baptiste. It’s 8:40am when I walk away from Refuge Larribet. I had a very good experience here, it’s truly a memorable setting and I am happy it worked out the way it did even if I am behind on miles.
Just a couple minutes down the trail I see Emma and Julian at their tent site making coffee. I stop to chat for a little while and it occurs to me to ask them if they have any extra dinners since it’s their final day on trail. They generously offer me a freeze dried pasta meal and I am so thankful for it. I offer them some money and of course they decline. Having this dinner gives me freedom, I don’t have to rely on a Refuge tonight, I can camp wherever I want, whoo hoo!! After a bit more trail chat, we say our farewells and soon I am heading down along the creek that carves through this long, peaceful valley.
There is a lot of water rushing everywhere from all the rain and the waterfalls are coursing all around me. I cross the creek which empies out from Lac Batcrabere several times and enjoy the serenity that the sound of rushing water brings me. The fresh morning air, the sound of the shooshing water and actual flowing movement of my body make for a really nice start to the day. The weather forecast for today looks pretty favorable too, so I am excited to finally make some miles and get to see more of this beautiful area. I feel like I’m finally getting to explore the type of terrain and scenery that I came here for.
I eventually enter a lovely forested section of the valley and cross paths with another solo female hiker, the first I’ve seen on this trip. She is Canadian and her name is Sara. She tells me she ended up sleeping in an unmanned hut last night during all that rain and she had the place all to herself. If I had hiked on yesterday I wonder if we’d have met somewhere and camped together? What a completely different experience that would have been, it’s wild how one small decicion can make all the difference who you meet and when.
Sara and I chat for like 30 minutes and it’s really fun talking with another North American. It’s surprising how I haven’t met another person from the same region of the world as me this whole time. I have yet to meet another American. She makes me laugh and has interesting stories to share about hiking in the Austrian Alps and now that country is on my list. Apparently you can hike for weeks on end out there. She says the hut sytem is way better than it is here too, and way cheaper if you are a member of the Alpine Club. Sounds worth adding to the list! Sara gives me a packaged pre-cooked macaroni dinner to boot because she, too, is finishing her hike in a day and has food to spare. I now have two dinners. Apparently the trail provides no matter what country you’re in!
I am filled with goodness from having connected with some people who I can relate to more then just exchanging broken phrases in a foreign language. Also, to meet other hikers like me. That’s probably the most important point of connection. It makes me miss my friends back home, people whom I have befriended on the trails in the US and whom I stay connected with. I think about this as I walk this morning and it’s not that I’m lonely out here but it makes me realize how important connection is and how connecting with people who share similar experiences gives us energy. We all need it. Even those of us who are really good at being alone, like me.
The trail bottoms out at the intersection with the Valle de Arens where I now turn South. Here I start a 3,750 ft climb over about 5.5 miles toward the Col du Cambales where I will top out for today at 8,878 ft. I’m excited for it and set my headspace into climbing mode. But first, I have to walk across a flat pasture with about a hundred sheep grazing.
The sheep bells clank and echo through the little valley against a backdrop of the flowing creek. The area where they graze has a little wire fence strewn around them, which forces me to navigate closer to the creek. It’s a good thing too, because this makes me think about water sources ahead. I check my maps and see this is the last water source until well after the Col. I’m not thrilled at collecting water that is so close to all the sheep shit, but I have no choice. Alas, it could be worse right? I guzzle what I’ve got left from this morning and filter a liter for the climb.
Having done so little hiking over the past few days, I decide to push myself on this climb. It helps too that the trail is fairly well graded at first and is more like a dirt track. It has a lot of stones but there are also sections that have nice grassy tread so it gives me a chance to stretch out my legs. I can’t help but get a little irritated at all the sheep poop on it though. Seriously, I am walking on piles of sheep shit. It’s sort of getting to me, I hate to complain but I was already feeling a little nauseous this morning so this just doesn’t help. Yeah, I honestly don’t feel amazing today, everything just feels a bit off, I wish I felt better and I think somewhere in my mind I think pushing my self to crank out this climb will make me feel better.
As I make my way up several sets of zig-zags the views of the valley below with the steep shooting ridges surrounding me is stunning. There is a wave of mist and fog making it’s way up the valley I’m climbing away from, it’s like I’m being chased by the fog. It swirls and billows, making the scenery even more dramatic. There is also a beautiful lake below me, Lac de Remoulis, but it’s not easily accessible from the trail, otherwise I would consider stopping there for lunch.
At the top of the second set of steep zig-zags there is a little knoll that is flat enough to stop for a lunch break. It’s 1:15pm now and my stomach is growling. I plop myself down near a rock, there is a lot of long, thick grass here so I lay my sleeping pad out like a beach blanket. The sun suddenly feels super intense and surprisingly I find I need to use my umbrella to make some shade. I cut a slice of my now stale bread and make my usual cheese and salami half sandwiches with the mayo-mustard combo which I realize now says to refridgerate after opening. Oops, I wonder if I should stop eating it?
Despite the questionable spread, my lunch is very enjoyable and settles whatever was going on in my stomach. I eat chips and make a small coffee and eat the dessert from last night which is a small piece of bread pudding and boy that tastes amazing. I am very satiated and feeling a lot better now. I brush my teeth and mix some electrolytes and sit there relaxing under my umbrella watching as the mist and fog roll over the ridges. A group of four hikers walks by just below me on the trail and I say bonjour. I probably look like a total wierdo sitting here with my shoes off with my umbrella and my inflatable bed under me. Oh well, I’m American, I’m wierd.
By 2:15pm I am ready to press on just a little further to the Port de la Peyre Saint Martin, now that’s a mouthful. It’s right on the French-Spanish border and I walk over to dip my toes into Spain for a brief moment. From here the HRP turns sharply East to tackle the final big climb up to the Col du Cambales. The sign at the junction for the Col says it takes 1 hr 45 min to get there and in my guidebook it says 1 hr 15 min, so I wonder how long it will take me?
There is less of a trail now and more cairns to watch out for, but generally the talus is stable and occasionally there is a faint footpath to follow. I’m happy my legs feel strong and as I make my way up steep and rocky terrain I’m aware that I’m working but I am rather enjoying the physicality of it. I’m sure all the sitting over the past three days has me well rested. This feels good.
I am not totally sure what to expect after the Col. The guidebook says it presents a “serious obstacle with rough terrain and possible snow fields”. I am pretty sure there won’t be any snow fields, but the photograph in the book is reminiscent of when I hiked the Sierras on the PCT in May of 2016. In the photo, most of the mountain is covered in snow with jagged chunks of rock sticking out and frozen blue lakes in the basin. Because of this photo and the description, I am carrying microspikes. But this late in the season in a drought year, I doubt I will ever need them. I chose to follow the adage “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” even if it’s more weight to carry.
Over the next section there are several tricky spots that require some talus hopping and a little effort with navigation but for the most part it is easy. Unexpectedly, the challenge that I am thinking about now is the fog more than anything else. It seems to be growing thicker the higher I climb and while it’s not presenting as an obstacle to me, the views I’ve been looking forward to are non-existent right now.
With all this fog and being away from the watershed it is really silent up here and I get that distinct feeling of solitude as I climb. Occasionally I stop to listen to that silence, to soak it up. It’s just me and the mountain gods here, no humans, no sheep, no cows. What a delight! I really have this place all to myself and that makes me quite happy. It is so serene as I hike over the talus with the mist swirling around me, the only sounds I hear are the occasional clanking of stones under my feet and my own rhythmic breath. It’s like time doesn’t exist and I’m walking into another dimension.
When I reach the Col du Cambales I peek at my watch, it says 3:25pm. It took me just under an hour, how strange. I have been pretty on par with what my guiebook says but this time I was a bit faster, and it took me half the time of what the sign below said, go figure. I climb on top of the ridge and take in some truly magnificent views as the fog parts momentarily.
I wish I could sit up here for a while and just look out, but after a few minutes of examning the route below I realize I have a fair bit of talus ahead of me. The guidebook describes this drop from the pass as “very steep” and that description combined with the possibility of snow or ice had me a little leary on the way up, but I’m relieved to see there’s zero snow. Yes it is rocky, yet it is steep and yes there is some scree and loose shit but I can handle that. Besides, the beauty of the area is filling me with good energy so I am ready to dive in.
At first, I don’t see any path that will get me down, so I carefully read the description in the guidebook which says “descend very steeply S for a few meters and then turn left to descend NE on rocks and (probably) snowfields”.
I follow the direction of travel which has me scrambling through a large field of chunky talus and about mid way through this I take a look at my surroundings. This is when I start to feel like this is going to take a lot longer than I anticipated. The book says to descend E toward the Lac de Cambales, then ESE and cross several streams and then finally N and cross another stream and then SE down into some trees. That is all in once sentence but the time to travel through all of that will be around three hours. I take a peek at my GPX track and it’s not helpful either because I believe the people who made it (Doing Miles) hiked down this section in snow. Snow would actualy make this much easier!
I’m standing here thinking there has to be a more efficient way to get through this, I am certain of it, as nothing I’ve hiked on thus far on the HRP took me over quite so much talus. It’s not the Sierra High Route. Thus I stop and study the terrain closely. I scan around imaginging all the possible routes and finally I look across a little gully and I see what looks like a faint use trail and it is nowhere close to where I am, ha! But, I know I can get myself there so I start to slowly make my way over the tedious rocks and across the gully.
When I reach the little patch of gravel I am indeed on a use trail which I am so thankful for because it will be so much easier to follow down, especially in this low visibility. The mist and fog have steadily slinked into this lake basin obscuring not only the views but also making it hard to navigate. I feel like now I understand what the guidebook was talking about when it says you need good visibility for certain places, like where I was yesterday. That would have been rough in these conditions. That said, I really wish I could see more of my surroundings because I think this is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have walked through all week, darn it!
I meander along the path with the moving mist coming and going on the breeze. Occasionally the sun pokes a few soft rays through the clouds making for quite an ethereal feel. It’s magical actually and as the miles unfold, I’m starting to feel like this is a completely unique experience. I’m all alone walking through the mists in this lake filled basin. I have the whole place to myself and I feel it, I feel more connected to the land when I am truly alone in a place. It feels like an enchanted world with green grasses lining the mysterious lakes and rocks draped in glowing ochre and coral lichens. The fog swirls around me like it’s alive, like it has it’s own intelligence. The surrounding mountains don’t show their faces much, yet I am very aware of their imposing presence. I feel them. I feel it all.
Earlier I was thinking how nice it’s been to be high and remote enough that there’s no more grazing animals. As I drop further into the basin however, I start to see a few straggling sheep and then sheep and cow poop along the path again. It makes me realize how truly prescious and fleeting those sections of the high country are here.
I think today this really sank in, how there aren’t any domesticated animals nor their poop when you get high enough up and into the big rocks and passes. Seeing the animals along the trail has been a novelty for sure but what I’ve come to realize is they definitely give you the sense that you are not in the “wild”. What I experienced only an hour ago felt “wild” and that’s the experience I crave. Thinking back to the week I’ve spent out here so far, the only wild animals I’ve seen are marmots and this morning I saw a deer in the forest.
The further I drop in elevation the more fog and mist there is. I eventually stop to put on two jackets and am starting to feel a little chilled every time I stop moving. My thermometer reads 50F and there are water droplets attached to the hair on my legs and even on my eyelashes. I walk on through the wet air and shortly I stop at a beautiful rushing creek to collect water.
As I filter, I gaze toward a tarn surrounded by a rocky outcropping and wonder if I shouldn’t just camp here? I have a dinner now, so I could. My watch only reads 5pm however and I could definitely keep going. I wonder if this mist is going to turn to rain? The thought of waking up out here in thicker fog and rain, having to hike in potentially worse visibility or being stuck in my tent, convinces me to just keep going and get closer to Refuge Wallon. My guidebook says you can bivouac there and I do remember reading that they serve a pretty awesome three-course dinner. Hmmmmm….
I eventually drop into a forest of conifers and that feels amazing to me. I can smell their pine-vanilla phytochemicals and it makes me smile. I feel embraced and welcomed by these trees and start dreaming about camping among them. Yes, that’s what I want to do. Suddenly, I turn a corner and there is a sign pointing to Refuge Wallon that indicates 45 minutes. What? That still seems too far, it is 5:55pm now by my watch, I should be much closer than that. My rain jacket is now pretty wet from all the mist, I’m wondering how much longer it will keep me dry? At this point in the day, nightfall will come too soon, I am starting to feel like I just want to be done.
Only 20 minutes later the hulking Refuge Wallon appears from through the mist, I made it! The timing on the signs today have been off for sure. According to my guidebook, Refuge Wallon was recently renovated and just re-opend this season. Holy shit it is huge! This place is like a Pyreneean space station. It’s very modern looking and there is still some construction debris and freshly graded dirt around it. And, of course, there are cows grazing nearby, so there is cow poop everywhere. I scout around and don’t really see any appealing places to camp so I go inside to ask.
The entry room has several halls with shelves for your shoes where, as is customary, you exchange your muddy shoes for some indoor crocs and there are literally a hundred of them. There is a room for hanging backpacks and a gear drying room too. That’s the first one I’ve seen. I exchange my shoes for crocs and go inside to the main area. There is a giant, brand new kitchen that looks amazing. I bet some good food comes out of that kitchen! This place is so enormous though, it’s like a hotel, it’s honestly overwhelmingly large so it has this empty feeling to it that sort of creeps me out. I have no desire to sleep inside again either, but I will stay and enjoy a hot meal. I ask the desk staff where I can pitch my tent and they just sort of wave in a general direction. I suppose anywhere is fair game. Dinner is in 30 minutes so I have to boogie.
It’s quite foggy out so I can’t see much in the way of choosing a bivouac site. I crawl under a little fence, cross a trickling creek and find a cozy place under a big Cedar tree. It’s not perfectly flat and there is cow poop laying around, but the tree and the creek are so inviting. It will do. I can see the building from here too, but at least I will be in my tent and the soud of the rushing water makes good white noise. I am really wanting to be in my own space tonight and realize that is what my tent provides for me. I love my tent, love getting all my things in order and snuggling into my sleeping bag and just being in my own energy. I also love breathing the fresh air and hearing the sounds of night, so I’m very happy with this decision and how it all worked out.
I pitch my tent in a flash and throw all my gear inside to be organized later then change into my sleep clothes and dash over to the refuge. It is really warm inside, almost too warm like when you walk into a ski lodge from being out on the mountain and they are blasting the heat. In the dining area, there are two long tables with around 14 people at each table and I am the last one to arrive. They are just serving the soup when I take my seat next to a group of six women. Yay!
The soup is much like the other places I’ve been, a light texture that tastes like perhaps black bean with just the right amount of salt. My table-mates this evening are a group of four Brits who are are on their last night of a 10 day holiday in the mountains. They are chatty and funny and I quite enjoy listening to their accents and banter. The other two women don’t seem quite as jovial and are speaking French with one another so we don’t exchange many words but we smile. I have once again inserted myself into a group of strangers, but the vibe in the room is lively and fun making it easy to jump right in.
The main course is a curry-type stewed meat with a fluffy grain like a farro that has some crunchy seeds in it that I can’t quite pinpoint but produce a burst of flavor when they pop in your mouth. I ordered some wine as well, cuz why not? I love that you can order wine at the refuges, it’s only 3 Euros and while it’s average in quality, it sure hits the spot after a full day of hiking. After dinner they serve each person a slice of cheese and then brownies. Paying for a meal here sure beat sitting alone in my tent in the dark eating pre-cooked macaroni, which is probably what I will be doing tomorrow, so don’t worry.
After dinner, I sit with the British girls looking over a really great map they have. I wish I had a map like theirs, it’s very informative of the big picture of all that surrounds me here in these mountains, there is SO much! We compare notes and stories about where we’ve been and share a few photos of some of the more memorable places. I guess they also got caught in that storm a few nights ago but were close enough to a village they stayed in a hotel for two nights, ha! Soon I am feeling quite sleepy and want to make my tea and retreat to my little tent abode, so I bid the Brits farewell and head out into the night. On my way back to the forest, I use the outdoor bathroom which is actually a modern composting toilet and very clean and new, another bonus for camping next to a refuge. Good to know this is here for the morning!
All tucked in now, I am really loving my spot here under this great Cedar tree, my guardian for the night. There is a trickle of flowing water nearby and the fresh night air feels really wonderful as opposed to being in the stuffy indoors again. I haven’t slept in my tent since the night of that big storm under the Pic du Midi and I’ve missed this. I’m glad I chose to sleep out here, it’s what I came here for. I feel happy about my day too, I finally made some progress in miles and really enjoyed the beauty of the whole day, especially the Col du Cambales and the walk down through that magical mystical basin, even if I coudn’t see much, I could feel it. The air is getting quite chilly now and I am ready to tuck in and settle into slumber with the backdrop of the little rushing creek.