Sept. 19th, 2022
Gavarnie to Valle de Estaube
8 miles +3,400 ft / -2,200
Morning comes and it is wet. My tent is soaked with condensation, not that I’m surprised being in a valley and so close to a river. I am going to leave my tent up until the last minute, hoping it will dry out before I have to check out at 11:00. I don’t expect any of the cafe’s to open before 9:00am so I make myself a coffee in the vestibule of my tent and dream about getting a town breakfast. As much as I’m craving that veggie omelette with avocado, hash brown potatoes and buttered toast, I know better than to expect it. I still don’t know what that filling in my omelette was yesterday, but at least I did get a couple eggs. I’m pretty sure any breakfast I’m able to get here this morning will be bread, butter, jam and maybe fruit. I can handle that, especially if I can get some more real coffee.
At 9:00am I go to the campground office, the woman there is so very helpful and gives me my battery pack in exchange for charging my In Reach. I leave it with her and go in search of food. She said there aren’t many places offering breakfast in town but maybe the Hotel Le Taillon (not the snobby hotel that rejected me last night mind you). I walk right over there and see a few folks sitting inside. I think I am in luck! I order a petit dejuner and the man asks me if I want just coffee and a croissant or a “complete” which is like a full breakfast buffet. Of course I ask for the complete version, as I feel my hiker hunger has fully kicked in.
He directs me to a room where they have everything set up. There is some fresh fruit, yoghurt, several different types of bread, bisquits and cakes. There is another tray with butter, jam and even Nutella packets which I really want to snag a bunch of for the trail, but refrain from doing so. I do, however, pocket four butter pats, I am taking them with me on the trail this week instead of carrying an entire tube of mayo, what was I thinking with that one?
I am stoked they make a really good coffee, or espresso rather. There really isn’t any such thing as brewed coffee in France, it’s all espresso variations, so say an Americano, a Cappuccino, Latte, Cortado, Ristretto etc. I have learned to order “cafe creme” if you want milk or cream in your espresso but not as much as a latte. If you order a “cafe au lait” you get a very milky drink that tastes a little like coffee. I want the exact opposite. I want a coffee that packs a punch, with some dairy in it to cut the bitterness and acidity. He serves me the perfect thing: a little pitcher of espresso and another little pitcher of steamed milk. I can mix to my perfect ratio of milk and espresso. It is so good, I get two of them.
When it’s time to check out I have gotten my tent 90% dry, an that’s good enough. I tightly fold it up and today am carrying it on the side pocket of my pack. I am liking this strategy and got the idea from Christy who loves Gossamer Gear packs. Some of the GG packs have a slightly deeper side pocket compared to the ULA’s, so they can easilyl fit your tent. I’ve been trying this strategy out from time to time and I like it as it gives me a little extra room in the main compartment. I also like the way it balances with my water bottles.
I slept with my phone in my down puffy pocket next to my body last night and guess what? This morning it’s charging, whooo hooo! I can’t even express how grateful I am am for this, it really would have been impossible to do much without my phone, nevermind continue for another week on the trail. Back at the campground, I retrieve my In Reach from the office, it’s fully charged too, yay! I check out at the desk right at 11:00am. The same lovely woman is there and I thank her like three times for her help. I know it’s just her job, but I appreciate her kind nature. My bill comes out to a grand total of $12 Euros for my camping, shower and laundry. What a deal! Honestly this place really served me so well. I got everything taken care of.
Okay so now I have to walk back to the Tourist Office where I can purchase post card stamps and get on the Wifi again since now my phone is charged. I need to purchase a plane ticket to Geneva before I head out today, which means figuring out all those logistics of where to finish, catch a bus etc and I need to check the weather forecast one more time.
At the Office de Tourism the same lovely, helpful woman from yesterday greets me. She tells me the Postmaster woman was really mad about them giving me my package yesterday. With that knowledge I hesitantly let her know I need to purchase post card stamps. She sells them to me directly when the Postmaster lady leaves for her lunch break. I have avoided the wrath of the Postmaster! I have six post cards to write and while I would normally prefer to sit in a cafe drinking a cafe creme or two while I write, I can’t do that this time around in the interest of time. Still, I enjoy the process of writing and sharing my experience and thinking about loved ones back home. I think of the joy of them receiving a post card from France, cuz who does’t love getting a post card in the mail these days? It’s another one of those lost arts, kind of like writing a lengthy blog instead of making a video!
The Office de Tourism closes for lunch at 12:30 and all the staff are leaving. They won’t be open again until 2:00pm and I really hoped to be out of here by then. The nice woman lets me know I can sit outside the office and still use the Wifi which is so helpful. Thus, I sit on the ground ducked behind a bench so I can get some shade from the glaring sun so I can actually see my phone screen. People are probably wondering what I’m doing down here on the ground ducking under a bench, eating left over pizza, but hey, I am hiker trash, what can I say? I took a shower, promise!
Pouring over the guidbook again and looking at all my options, I decide to take the GR11 instead of the HRP and finish my hike in the town of Vielha, Spain. From there I can take a bus to Barcelona, then fly to Geneva. It seems to be the most straight forward route. The only thing now is that I forgot Sundays are not really great days to use public transportation, so that actually means I have to finish on a Friday and catch a bus on a Saturday. I will loose another day on the trail. Bummer. But, you know, that rain is coming so hopefully the timing will work itself out. Fingers crossed, I purchase a plane ticket that will take me from Barcelona to Geneva in a week’s time.
I leave the Office de Tourism before 2:00pm and hit up the gear shop to look for a rain jacket. If that rain comes early, I am not going to have the luxury of stopping in a refuge and waiting it out. So, I spend $200 Euros on a fuscia pink “Ra” rain jacket. It’s definitely an unexpected extra expense, but I clearly needed it anyway, as my two rain jackets that I own are both getting old, which is why I got so drenched last week. I decide to go ahead and make a solid purchase for a coat that will serve me well in the years to come. I go ahead and purchase a pack cover too as my pack waterproofing system right now is a measly trash bag that’s getting holes in it. They also have a small can of fuel that fits with “my” stove, I am so excited I get to use my own stove now. Yay!
It felt good to leave that old leaky rain jacket with the store clerk. He asked me what he should do with it and I said it’s poubelle. Trash. I leave town down the main drag and grab another ice cream along the walk to the trailhead. This one is an ice cream on a stick from a reach in freezer, it’s not a coffee ice cream but it is creamy, sweet, cold and delicious.
I feel quite content walking down the path along the river eating ice cream with sun in my face and a cool breeze. By the time I am licking the last bits of deliciousness off the stick I stand facing my trail junction. This is also where I would go had I decided to hike up into the Cirque. Instead, I am headed toward the Horquette d’Alans which will drop me into another sweet valley known as the Cirque de Estaube. Now that I am walking, I start feeling excited for the week ahead. It’s always such a freeing feeling when you begin a walk, knowing you have everything done. It’s strange to think I only arrived in Gavarnie 26 hours ago, this little stop over really did me a world of good. I feel I can relax and enjoy what lies ahead. My pack does not feel so crazy heavy either so that’s a nice surprise. I think I done good.
I am on the trail officially and it’s just after 3:00pm and guess what, yep, it’s time to climb! The trail shoots straight up through a lovely little section of forest (oh my gosh, trees!!) before transitioning to open pastures. Along the way I re-enter the National Park where there is a sign posted. It’s interesting how when you enter the park boundary that is also where the designated pastoral area is. More sheep, more poop! I feel much more light hearted about it today however.
In fact, I feel more than light hearted, I feel strong, like I found my hiker legs or something. Maybe it was the pizza, ice cream and coffee? I think it was all the things and as much as I wasn’t wanting to dip into civilization yesterday I recognize how much I needed it. I am also really glad I have all the food I need for the week ahead, so I am free to roam and free to camp whereever I please. Love that.
I settle into a really nice climbing rhythm in the shade of the forest and soon I am dripping with sweat. It feels good to sweat, it feels cleansing. I am so stoked when I find a water fountain along the climb. I wasn’t expecting this at all and given how often water sources seem to be tainted wth animal droppings, the purit of this one really makes me happy. It’s billowing out really fresh cold water and I fill up my bottle and guzzle. It’s as if this fresh water is replacing the water I just lost from all my cells. It’s like an infusion of cold molecules dancing through my body, it’s amazing.
As I climb higher I begin to see a little more of the Cirque and there is a beautiful thick forest between me and those craggy cliffs. I am so happy to see the trees, as it gives me hope that my week ahead may have more forests to walk through. Around another bend, I pop out of the trees into open pasture and the views of the Breche du Roland appear. The Breche is a large cut out in the rocks in the top ridge of the Cirque. It’s technically a pass, and I had really hoped to make the climb up to this famous spot. Now that I can see what it is, I am super impressed. I stand staring at it, trying to imagine the actual scale and what it would be like to stand there inside of it. I’m sure I would have really loved that feeling, I guess I’ll just have to come back!
The trail continues in the upward trajectory and eventually levels out on a broad plateau where I reach the Refuge des Espugettes. Wow, what a view! This is, again, one of those places you could easily spend a few hours gawking at the expanse laid out in front of you. Even though I’m in a good climbing groove, I decide to stop for a quick breather to take it all in. This place is absolutely stunning and as the plateau faces West, this time of day the afternoon light is billowing in at such an angle that everything is bathed in a soft glow. Several hikers are hanging around and I could definitely see how nice it would be to camp here.
An alluring woman dressed in colorful, flowing clothing stands near me sipping on a cold beer and strikes up a conversation with me. Turns out we recognize each other from the camping this morning, as she was in the office when I had checked out. I remember sensing her energy and she seemed like someone I could get to know. Now, here we are. Turns out she is from Austria and lives here in the area in her retirement years. We have a lovely exchange in which she sharew with me that this refuge is guarded by a woman. Well, whaddya know, I was wondering about that as I hadn’t seen any women working at the refuges I visited.
Alas the day is waning on and I have more climbing to do to reach the pass. I don’t want to loose my mojo too much so I part ways with the alluring woman as she sincerely wishes me a wonderful journey with a hearty French bon courage! Onward and upward I go!
The trail now zig-zags and meanders through pockets of grazing sheep along grassy slopes. It turns quite steep for a minute and then pops me right up next to a rock face as it reaches a narrow gap. Horquette d’Alans is situated at 7,972 ft (2430 m) with impressive views into the Valle de Estaube.
I glance at my watch, it’s 5:30pm and I am so sweaty I take off my shirt and lay it in the sun enjoying the light breeze which cools me right down. I sit there for a few minutes eating a snack and soon feel chilled. I put on a fresh long sleeve, my buff and and my wind jacket as I peer down the other side of the pass. The valley below is mostly in the shade. I still feel hungry so I move on to the potato chips. Favorite trail snack of all time!
I’m droppin’ in! The trail plunges 2,500 ft down to the Valley de Estaube and gives me that wonderful feeling like I can simply fly on down in a single swoop without any effort at all. I’m now thinking I can possibly make it all the way to Lac des Gloriettes, but we’ll see. I kept hearing from people it’s supposed to get “really cold” tonight, so I may not want to camp right by a large body of water, but the point is I feel like I have some good momentum. This whole valley is punctuated by an enormous cirque at the upper end and it’s vast space and relative emptiness soothes my soul. It’s peaceful and quiet back here, especially compared to Gavarnie. I see little evidence of animals or people and get the feeling like I have the whole place to myself. That is, except for the occasional cow.
As I dip further into the wide valley I note that the sun has gone below the horizon for the night. I may not have enough daylight to get all the way to the lake, so I start the process of looking for a place to camp. I meander off the trail into a rocky outcropping where I find the Earth isn’t all that flat. From up here I spy a little knoll further down the trail, perhaps I can camp on top! When I get there I peer over the edge into the lower end of the valley along the creek.
I see a group of four people just a couple hundred feet below with their camp set up next to the creek. I contemplate for a moment about walking down there, but I actually prefer to camp alone tonight since it’s been rare out here to do so. I do a 360 spin around, taking in the views in every direction. I feel so small in this enormous ladscape. It feels like I’ve stopped a little early so I take my time setting up my tent with views toward the Cirque. I am so happy I get to enjoy one of my home made dinners tonight and camp with the feeling of this vastness around me. This truly is a five star campsite tonight and I certainly won’t be eating my dinner staring at my tent walls. As I settle in for the night I feel grateful to be here. Having a campsite like this tonight makes me look forward to what lies ahead.