Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Pyrenean Adventure June 2013

Well, I'm home again after another wee adventure. Having whetted my appetite for the Pyrenees in December 2011 I decided to take the opportunity to further explore the area. I decided to return to where I finished the last trip and continue in a westward direction from there. So on June 1st I found myself on a plane from Cork to Carcassonne.

Saturday June 1st ;
The flight over was fine. I found myself surrounded by youngsters whom for many this was their first flight and their excitement and awe at the take off was infectious and I was really enjoying the excitement of it all. For a change the flight passed quickly and we landed at 15.00 local time. A quick trip into town on the shuttle bus and I had plenty of time to get my train ticket to Perpignan which left at 16.25 and I arrived at 17.45 which was perfect to catch the bus to Vernet les Bains which left at 18.15. Everything just slotted easily into place and I was able to relax and enjoy the whole experience. The sun was shining and as we went inland the scenery just got better and better. I soon was able to see my first big objective of this trip Mt Canigou 2784 mtrs. It looked big and alpine and it was obvious that there was still a lot of snow on the mountains right down to about 2000 mtrs. It was a fairly long bus trip and it was almost eight pm when I alighted in the pretty little town of Vernet Les Bains which sits at an altitude of 600 mtrs and is surrounded by the forested foothills of the Pyrenees.
Home above Vernet les Bains

I hadn't booked any accommodation and I had arrived with the notion of finding a Gite and crashing there for the night and starting my hike the following morning but now, as the evening was so nice and fine I opted to start my hike straight away and I spotted the famous red and white markers of the route and off I set out of town. I reasoned that I would walk for half an hour and pitch my tent at the first available wildcamp spot. All went great until I lost the trail and a bit of backtracking was required to re-find it and it was almost nine pm when I came to a grassy patch amidst the trees where I quickly erected my home and set about getting a brew going. I was well happy. The light was starting to fade and after a quick bite to eat I settled myself down for the night. Tomorrow the adventure would really begin. I was surrounded by crickets who were in full voice and calling noisily. In the glen below there was a cacophony of sound coming from either frogs or toads and added to this was the competition between several dogs to answer each others barks. Suffice to say the night was alive with sound. At about eleven pm there was a crashing through the undergrowth beside the tent. I froze and held my breath and waited for more. What was it ??, could I have attracted some wild boar or was I going to have a face to face with a bear?. Alone in the dark everything goes through the mind and I was acutely aware of the flimsy shield that was between me and the outside. So I waited but there wasn't another sound and I again settled down and relaxed and listened to the sounds of the forest.

Sunday June 2nd;

I got up at 6am and poked my head out of the tent to see what the new day had brought. It was dry and mild but I was a little disappointed to see that there was a layer of cloud down to about 2000 mtrs. Still it might clear up later and at least it was dry. I busied myself breaking camp and having breakfast and I was on the move again for seven. I had been pretty good this time in restricting what I brought but despite this the bag was still about 18 kilos and pretty darn heavy. Still I was fresh and feeling strong and as is usual the paths are engineered to make upward progress as easy as possible. My first objective was the Refuge de Bonne Ague which was at an altitude of 1741 mtrs so it was about 1100 mtrs above me and I reckoned that that would be a reasonable effort for the first day. I was moving well and I was able to keep up a steady pace. I paused whenever a clearing in the woods came and enjoyed the ever expanding views. Rock outcrops broke through the canopy and ravines carried cascades which thundered down towards the valley below. Birdsong abounded and every so often the air was punctuated by the echoing rat a tat tat of woodpeckers marking their territory. I was loving it. Progress was surprising rapid and I actually arrived at the refuge at 09.15. Wow I was pleased and it was great to take off the bag and relax and explore.
Refuge Bonne Ague

Plush interior

The refuge is situated on a little plateau that faces west and affords stunning views down to the valley below and is a lovely place to relax enjoy the day. The refuge itself is a fine spacious dry building split into two rooms with five sleeping platforms, a couple of  tables and some chairs and a stove in the corner of one room and another sleeping platform and a table and a couple of box benches in the other. It was pretty clean and it was also obvious that it had been busy the night before as there were sleeping bags and mats etc on every platform in the place. I relaxed for a while and after a bit decided to leave some of my own stuff there and as it was still early make an effort at climbing Canigou that day. So I set off at 10.15 with my lighter bag and resumed my upward progress. Up through another band of forest and then I reached the first of the snow banks of the day. Gradually the snow became more prevalent and by the time I arrived at the point where the trail splits and you can continue to the CAF refuge of Chalets des Cortalets or turn and head up the normal route to the summit of Canigou there was almost a complete blanket of snow on the landscape. I was now at 2200 mtrs and the wind was quite strong and the cloud was literally scudding just above my head. It felt more like a winter experience at home that June in the south of France. There was a trail through the snow leading upward so  off I set.
Not like summer in the south of France


Back under the clouds looking towards Prades

I was regretting not leaving more behind me in the refuge as I was finding the going pretty tough in the deep soft snow. I passed above le Pic Joffre at 2362 mtrs and I could see the outline of a trail contour up the mountainside below the ridge crest. I was now entering the cloud so visibility was at times very poor and I must confess to having something of a crisis of confidence and contemplated turning back down. Still I kept going and after a while I could feel the altitude take its toll as well. It was exhausting and the urge to turn back became more frequent. Just about when I was reaching the limit of my energy and courage the summit cross suddenly appeared just ahead. I was delighted and surprised to see that it was just 13.30 and I had actually matched the time that was suggested on the directional post near the refuge. There wasn't much point in dallying as it was darned chilly and felt more like a Scottish winter summit. Ice was forming on my eyebrows and there was no view to be had so after a couple of quick pics of the cross I turned about and retraced my steps back down. I was delighted to have reached the summit and while I was tired I was also very happy when I arrived back at the refuge just over two hours later. Everyone who had been there earlier had returned and removed all their stuff and I had the place to myself. A lovely quite evening passed in a flash and passed a peaceful restful night in this glorious spot.

Monday June 3rd;
The ridge of Canigou next morn

I slept really well and I had a late start and didn't get underway until 9 am. The plan today was to first follow the Gr 10 as far as Refuge Marialles and there either continue with the Gr 10 as far as the village of Py or if there didn't appear to be too much snow join the HRP and climb up to the unmanned Refuge de Pla Guillem which is situated near the Spanish border at an altitude of 2278 mtrs. The GR followed initially a forest road and contoured around the mountain side. The weather was again glorious and I was constantly looking up at the summit ridge of Canigou 1000 mtrs above, a gnarly white crest outlined against a crisp blue sky. Soon I left the forest road and the route climbed steadily as it continued to contour around. I arrived at a wide snowfield that descended all the way from the summit ridge that hid the trail and when I reached the far side try as I might I couldn't find the trail again. I went up and down the slope yet no markings could I see so I decided to just set off up into the rocky forested slopes and hope for the best. It was tough going and with sometimes dense woodland and rocky spurs all coupled with the big bag progress was slow and difficult and I lost I would reckon a half an hour before I rejoined the trail at a col by Roc des Bassouses. Back on track literally, I was once again able to relax and enjoy myself. It was all downhill from here to Reguge Marialles but I was feeling the effects of the big day the day before and the bag felt heavy on my shoulders. I was getting hungry but I was determined to hang on until the refuge and treat myself to a cheese omlette. It seemed to take forever but eventually I arrived at 13.30. There was some construction work going on there and the somewhat harried looking guardian took a while to get around to seeing to me. He even agreed to give my mobile phone a charge while I was eating. I could hear all the whipping/ beating and cooking going on and I was salivating at the prospect of the feast so it was something a feeling of disappointment to see the small offering that was placed in front of me that didn't even cover half the modest sized plate. Lets just say I devoured every crumb of bread that accompanied it but it was nevertheless very tasty and my hunger was sated.
Typical scenery

Towards Canigou from Refuge Marialles


Refuge de Pla Guillem
Now I had a decision to make, whether to head to the village or climb up to the ridge above. I was pleased to see that there wasn't too much snow to be seen so the decision was easy to make, up it was. I was now faced with almost 600 mtrs of climbing and the day was hot. Thankfully the way followed a forestry track most of the way so despite numerous switchbacks the gradient was never difficult and I was able to make steady progress and I arrived at the broad ridge only two hours after leaving the refuge. This was a fine building which is owned by the CAF. It was a little surreal to have to shovel snow away from the entrance to ease access. Inside it wasn't as pleasant as Refuge Bonne Ague but it was divided into two rooms, one of which had a large sleeping platform and the main room had a bench and large table. All I needed was here and I was looking forward to the evening ahead. I busied myself my melting snow and getting a brew on and setting about re-hydrating myself. I was once again in splendid isolation where the only sound was lovely trill of the numerous skylarks that were about. Time again just flew by. Its difficult to explain to people just what occupies the mind in a place where there are no phones, internet or TV but by the time I had melted snow for my brew, had eaten and readied my bed for the night, explored my immediate surroundings and basically chillaxed the sun was getting low in the sky and then of course I had to watch it go down. Alas some wispy cloud rolled in at the wrong time but sunset was lovely none the less. Another peaceful night followed.

Some of the local flora

Where I am heading to

Dying sun from the refuge.

Tuesday June 4th ;

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy....well you know the rest. Today was to be a big day so I set the alarm for 5 am as I wanted to be off by 6 am. I emerged to a beautiful morning where all the clouds had disappeared from the sky and a frost had frozen the snow to a crisp neve. Conditions couldn't have been better for what I had hoped to achieve today. The plan was to traverse along the broad ridge, all the way past Les Esquerdes de Rotja, past Roc Colom as far as Porteille de Mantet. From here I would be better able to assess what further progress I could make. I hoped to climb Pic du Geant 2881 mtrs and make my way down to Refuge du Ras de la Caranca. If this was to be achieved it would mean travelling nearly thirty kilometers and would have a considerable amount of ascent as well, hence the early start. Progress for the first eight or so K was easy as the route followed a good wide track. Once I used my axe to cut steps across a banked out section that dropped quite steeply away. Other than that there were no problems and it was lovely to trundle along such easy ground with almost all of it above 2200 mtrs and all I had for company were occasional groups of Pyrenean Chamois or Izard. The first slightly awkward section came when I had to traverse under some rocky outcrops before Portielle de Rodja. Fairly steep snow slopes necessitated having the ice axe out for security but it soon passed and at the col I saw my first people since the refuge the day before as a group were getting ready for the off from a small tin shelter where they had obviously stayed the night. Then a traverse on the south side of Roc de la Mort de l'Escola saw me arrive once again at the wide gentle northern slopes of Roc Colom.
Before Porteille de Rodja

Down into Spain

Heading for Pic de Geant

Summit of Pic de la Dona

There followed almost five kilometers of a traverse from Roc Colom to Portielle de Mantet when the snow slanted from left to right. Here my right ankle started to give me some real problems. It felt like there was a pebble pressing right on the bone and it seemed that no matter how I re-laced the boot I couldn't find a solution to ease the pain. My progress had slowed considerably and it wasn't helped by the fact that I had lost one of my water bottles and I had finished the other one so I was now reduced to eating snow for some refreshment from the mounting heat of the day. This same heat was causing other problems and the rising thermals were rapidly forming clouds that I was only too aware could lead to some lightning storms if they got big enough. From Portielle de Mantet I could see that there was a mostly snow free route to the summit of Pic de la Dona 2702 mtrs from which a ridge led to the base of Pic Du Geant. The clouds were now starting to obscure the views but one peak that really drew the eye was Gra de Fajol which rose to a beautiful shapely peak across the valley from the ski resort which lay silent and empty below. By now I was quite tired so the slope up Pic de la Dona felt tough but it passed slowly but surely and eventually I reached the broad rather featureless summit. A momentary clearing allowed me to easily navigate my way on to the two kilometer ridge that led towards Pic du Geant but they quickly closed in again and I found myself once again in ghostly surroundings in a strange land. Things did occasionally clear and allow me to see the looming peak ahead. As I got nearer I was delighted to see that a largely snow free spur led directly to the summit cross. Once I reached the base of this I left my bag and donned my hard shell coat and took gloves and hat and camera with me. Even unencumbered I found the going tough and indeed the anticipated drop in temperature didn't materialise, indeed quite the opposite was the case and the sun reappeared and I got quite hot as I got higher. Eventually I reached the cross and I was disappointed to see that the true summit was a few hundred meters further on and a little higher. I reached the top at exactly 1 pm, a full seven hours after I started but the clouds were once again closing in and I retraced my steps without delay and soon reached my bag. Now it was a long descent on soft snow-slopes where I made rapid progress. It was great not to have to worry about crevasses but as I got lower I would occasionally worry when crossing obvious stream lines in case I broke through to the watercourse below. Still the descent proved uneventful except for the continuing problems with my ankle.
Towards the summit of Pic de Geant

Summit


Back down and heading for the refuge


A well earned rest where I left the water bottle
Eventually I reached the extremity of the snowline and I continued down the rough trail that hugged the edge of the river that trundled down the valley. I took a good rest by the river and enjoyed a good drink. My ankle was now quite painful and its fair to say I didn't enjoy the remainder of the descent to the refuge. Rain was also starting to threaten and it was with some relief I saw the refuge eventually appear. I was pretty tired by now which was not surprising as I had been on the go for nine and a half hours but I was very pleased to have achieved my goals for the day. I sat in the porch of the small rustic refuge just as the rain got quite heavy and some thunder resounded overhead. I looked for my water bottle to have a drink and was dismayed to realize that I had left it behind when I stopped for a drink earlier. There was half a dozen others staying at the refuge and none of the people working there had any English and they couldn't understand my frankly awful French. Eventually I managed to communicate that I needed some water and I was presented with a tiny glass of water, oh dear. I went up to the dormitory and rested awhile and then decided to have a bit of a wash. I was told that the river was the the washroom. I began to wonder what I was doing there as I might as well stay in my tent and I would probably have a better sleep and hell I could wash in the river anyway. So that is exactly what I decided to do  and I packed up again and went back a short bit to a perfect wild-camping spot I had passed earlier. The rain stopped about six thirty and I set off back up the trail to try and retrieve my water bottle. It was a fair old way up and I was a full forty minutes reaching the area where I stopped. I had taken a picture of myself relaxing at the spot and I took my camera with me and I was able to pinpoint the exact spot and find my bottle straight away. I went back down in the gathering gloom and reached my tent and retired for the night for a well deserved and much needed rest.

Wednesday June 5th ;

The view up the valley from by the tent
Any trace of the previous evenings bad weather had well and truly disappeared and I emerged to another glorious weather morning. The sky was cloudless and there was no wind and it already promised to be a hot one. Before I went on the trip I bought an Alpkit Delta one man tent which at 1.2 kilos would allow me the security of a mobile shelter without adding too much to the pack weight. I was well aware that there were some problems with it as the inner is not well designed and hangs quite loose and is liable to stick to the flysheet and all the damp problems that this incurs. Sure enough the rain of the previous evening had caused some problems and in the morning the foot end of my sleeping bag was quite damp. Anyway I packed up the whole damp inner and fly and set off on today's journey. The plan today was to follow the Gr10 up over Coll Mitja and head back to civilization in the large wide plain that separates the Pic Geant massif from the Puig Carlit massif and beyond. On paper it looked like a fairly easy day and after the exertions of the previous day it was just what was required.
Towards Puig Carlit from the col

Refuge l'Orri

Looking up the valley from the refuge

The climb up to Coll Mitja 2367 mtrs is long and steep and it got the heart pumping right from the off. It is a full 550 meters above the refuge and the expanding views back to where I had come from gave ample excuse to take the occasional rest on the way. Despite my residual fatigue I still reached the col in the time suggested on the directional post by the refuge. From the col I got my first look down to the valley beyond and saw that it was still a long way off. The weather was great and I lingered and savored the fact that most of the way ahead was downhill. The col itself was mostly free of snow but the way down was heavily banked out but this made for rapid easy progress down to Collets d'Aval 1996mtr. There followed a very pleasant stroll down and around into the beautiful valley that descends northwards from Pic de Neufonts. I arrived at a nice alpine pasture with a pastoral refuge and turned northward toward the refuge at L'Orri. Here the path rises gently and after a couple of K the fine unmanned refuge came into view. It is a lovely spot and I rested here awhile. From here it was another bit further up the valley to reach the crossing point of the river and I turned back toward the north. I was now feeling the effects of the heat of the day and my efforts to date and it was with considerable disappointment I discovered the the way ahead was anything but downhill. Initially the undoubtedly pretty trail followed the river and would rise ten meters and drop down again. I wonder do the guide books add in all these small little climbs that I have no doubt add up to quite a lot as the kilometers pass. Eventually the trail left the river and turned uphill in earnest and passed over Pla de Cedelles before descending at last towards the village of Planes. Here there were two Gites and they offered a rest and end to the days exertions.
Feeling like I look

View from La Cabanasse

As always seems to be the case it takes longer than you think to reach the end of the descent but eventually I found myself strolling through the sleepy lanes of Planes. To be honest there wasn't a lot of charm about the place and there was little to tempt me to stay there. I decided to continue on to the next village which looked more substantial and as well of having a better chance of having a shop it also had a campsite where I could hopefully dry out my tent. So I continued onwards, initially on the road but soon I was going along a trail that wound its way through small pastures and woodland glades. I was delighted to get a great look at an eagle that was in one of the little pastures. It was enormous and seeing it boosted my spirits immensely. I was pretty dam tired by now and the two kilometer distance on the map was already after taking me nearly forty minutes. The trail dipped down into a glade and there was a steady rise up at last to the village of Cabanasse. I was grateful to finally arrive as there were a few drops of rain starting to fall and there was the evident approach of thundery weather to put a renewed spring in my step. As I walked through the village I asked a teenage girl where was the campsite and much to my dismay she looked at me like I had two heads and assured me there was no campsite in Cabanasse. I produced the map and pointed to the camping symbol and she immediately recognised the spot and said it was in St Pierre a full 500 meters away, minx!. So I hurried along in the gathering gloom which was accompanied by more frequent rumbles of thunder and I was greatly relieved to enter the deserted but thankfully open campsite just as the rain started in earnest, but I didn't care as there was a campers rest and dining area that offered shelter and toilets and SHOWERS were here as well. I was able to charge my phone which had died the previous day and remove the strengthening odour that was beginning follow me like a fog. The weather even cleared up and I was able to get my damp tent dry and replenish my food supplies in the village shop. Happy days.

Thursday June 6th ;

Once again the weather was stellar this morning. There was an obvious pattern of beautiful sunny mornings before the heat of the day tended to create thunderheads so early starts are to be advised if the worst of the weather is to be avoided. Anyway today the objective was to cross the area( I hesitate to call it a valley at it is really an upland plain between two mountain massifs)  known as Cerdagne with its liberal sprinkling of villages and ski resorts and reach the mountains once again by Puig Carlit. My ankle was still giving me trouble but at least I finally realized that with a Really loosely laced boot it was bearable most of the time. It was I confess disappointing to have to endure the distraction of the pain and it did diminish my enjoyment of the experience considerably. There must be a military  base in the area as the morning peace was punctuated frequently by artillery range practice, at least I hope that is what it was otherwise I was glad to get out of such a violent area. Anyway today was the least impressive or enjoyable of the days as the terrain I had to cross wasn't particularly beautiful but needs must if I was to reach the other side. If I was in the area again I would actually recommend looking at the possibility of getting a bus to cross it and so not waste a precious day in the mountains. That said however it still offered the views back to the Geant massif and the end of the route and the arrival at Lac Bollosa with its dam and herd of horses (with bells on) grazing nearby was perfectly delightful. I decided that a short day was just the ticket (5 hours) so I decided to stay at the well appointed Gite du Carlit. In the afternoon as usual rain arrived and I checked the weather for the following day and it was none too promising. I decided that the following day I would attempt to climb Puig Carlit which at 2921 mtrs is the highest peak in the Pyrenees Orientalis. I also reasoned that that would be sufficient for that days exercise. I had a room in the Gite all to myself and I just hung out and relaxed for the whole afternoon. Twas lovely.

Looking across the plain

Herds of horses

Nearing the Gite

Is this the biggest park bench in the world?

Friday June 7th ;

As the forecast wasn't great and the normal route to the summit of Puig Carlit was covered in deep snow I opted for an early start as my best chance of good weather and firm snow, so when I emerged at six am I was delighted to see a cloudless sky and when I reached the snow that banked across the trail from the start I was pleased to find it frozen solid. I had almost nothing in my bag except the absolute minimum and it was a delight to be so unencumbered. I made rapid progress and I soon reached the open plains where the famous lakes of Carlit are to be found. I passed a green shelter and headed across the easy ground towards the base slopes of the delightfully named Tossal Colomer, a 2673 mtr outlyer of Carlit itself. I passed between Estany Llong and Estany Llat and headed straight for the snow free spur that descended straight towards me. I had to climb up some snowslopes to reach the rocks and the number of times I broke through the outer crust meant I was delighted that I had opted to forgo the normal route and try an ascent via this mountain instead. There were great views to be had back to the east and in the distance Canigou looked splendid. Still I was focused on the way ahead and once I reached the rock I was able to enjoy a nice scramble and make good progress. When I reached the summit dome I was delighted to see that it was an easy traverse across to another snow free arret which seemed to rise directly to the summit. There wasn't another soul to be seen and the weather also seemed well settled for the moment so I set off for the top in great spirits.
Towards Pic deGeant

Canigou

One of the Abri

The way ahead

Upon reaching the arret I was able to opt in or out of the succession of easy rock steps that rose upwards. Lets just say I opted in. The rock was delightful and easy and I hardly felt any effort as I gained height. Suddenly I came to a short snow slope and within a short few meters I was at the delightfully airy summit. What an eerie. I was in an Alpine wonderland. Everywhere all about snow capped peaks stretched out to the distance. The sky was crystal clear and there was not a puff of breeze. It was still only 09.15 so I had made great time and I relaxed and enjoyed and savored one of the most lovely summit days I had ever had. I had hoped to reach this high-point of my trip and I must confess to gazing off toward Canigou in the distance and feeling a certain feeling of achievement in coming so far and attaining my goals. I lingered a while longer and regretfully had to turn myself back down the way I came up and head for the slopes lower down. I went back down the arret  and from the col before Tossal I turned and joined the snowslopes of the normal route. This worked well initially but by now the sun was quite hot and once I had lost about 500 meters of height progress became more difficult and I was often sinking down to the knees in the softening snow. Once I reached the lakes I followed the route that seemed to visit most of the beautiful lakes that make this area what many consider to be one of the most beautiful in the whole Pyrenees. Finally after six hours in total I was back at the Gite and I enjoyed a celebratory beer in the adjacent restaurant. The rest of the day I spent in a mixture of relaxation and short explorations of my surroundings. I enjoyed a nice meal in the restaurant that evening and I readied myself for my departure the following morning and my last three days of hiking.
Nice rock to the summit of Tossal Colomer

Easy traverse to Carlit

Summit at last

Alpine wonderland

And there's more

Happy chappie

View back from one of the lakes

Beautiful landscape

Saturday June 8th ;

The weather forecast for today hadn't been too bad so it was with some disappointment that I emerged at 7 am to an overcast sky and a chill breeze blowing. It must have been the opening of the fishing season or something because practically the entire shoreline of Lac Bollosa was surrounded by fishermen, many of whom had camped overnight. Today the plan was to follow the GR 10 along to the north of the lake, into Coma De La Grava and up over Portella de la Grava at 2426 mtrs, down apast the northern shores of Estany de Lanos, up over Coll de Coma d'Anyell at 2470 mtrs and then down to the Refuge des Besines and then I would see how I felt and if I was going strong perhaps continue from the refuge up over Porteille des Besines and down to the village of Merens les Vals. I hadn't gone more than 500 mtrs when the rain arrived and all my vurnerable bits, camera, phone etc were stored away in a dry bag in my rucksac. It was all in all a pretty miserable morning weather wise but I didn't mind as I was still on a high from the day before and I guess I am generally fairly stoic if not phylosophical about these things and I reckoned that up to today I had been pretty lucky with the weather.

Initially the trail winds its way through the woods that edge the lake until finally the lake is left behind and you enter the long wide valley called Coma De La Grava. The cloud level was now down to about 2400 mtrs and as I gradually gained height towards the end of the valley the rain turned to snow. Briefly at the Coll de Coma I was in the mist and visibility reduced considerably but I was quickly below it again as I decended the other side and I made my way easily down towards the lake below. I should say that the route so far was almost entirely on soft snow and fatigue was once again emerging as a result. Despite the conditions I was still enjoying myself and being the only living soul in this alpine winter landscape made for an intimidating yet exhilerating experience. At the bottom I had to pass between a small lake and Estany de Lanos in order to progress. The small lake was almost entirely covered in snow so I made especially sure that where I crossed there was no chance that I could break through into the waters underneath. It was at this point that the thunderstorm started. Now I'm not a great fan of lightning at the best of times but when I was carrying an ice axe and crampons I was feeling particularly anxious. Still there was nothing for it but to press on.
Looking back up to the col after the clearing

Excellent refuge

Puig Pedros

View down from the refuge

Now the cloudbase came right down and I had to resort to using map and compass to make headway. The landscape was quickly becoming a featureless white blur but eventually I came to a long pole that semed to mark the route ahead and this gave me some reassurance. A stiff climb on soft snow, fueled by adrenelin from the tension from the storm overhead meant that by the time I reached what I felt sure was the col I was mentally and physically drained. Thankfully though there seemed to be a lightening of the sky and the thunderstorm seemed spent and I descended easy snow down towards the refuge. The weather began to clear dramatically quickly  and soon I could see blue sky ahead of me and I was greeted by another majestic eagle soaring just ahead. I stopped at a rather pretty unmanned refuge and rested awhile before continuing downward into the beautiful beckoning valley. Eventually I reached the refuge in what was now warm sunshine six hours after I started my day. I had hardly stopped for any rests and this was evidenced by the pathetic few sips that I had taken from my water-bottle. I didn't stop now either but started up the slopes behind the refuge with the intention of making Merens that evening. Thankfully some sense prevailed and I realised that in the warm sun progress in the snow would only get more difficult and the efforts so far had taken their toll anyway so I about turned and made my way back to the refuge where the guardian was really surprised that I had managed to come from Bollosa without snowshoes. I had the whole refuge to myself and indeed I was only the second person to stay there so far this year. I enjoyed a lovely if chilly evening, enjoying the stunning views across to Puig Pedros and to the lake below  but I was warmed by the kindness of the Guardiennes who were very nice and even gave me a second half liter of wine for free after my dinner. I slept Very well.

Sunday June 9th ;

I had originally intended to go to Merens les Vals via the Porteille des Besines but I emerged once again to slightly overcast skies and therefore the snow had remained unfrozen. So I left the lovely well appointed refuge and opted instead to follow the GR 107 down along the valley as far as l'Hospitalet pres l'Andorra and then down to Merens. This was a much longer route but would involve almost no height gain and saw me go all the way from 2100 mtrs to just 1000 mtrs. I was now in more of a relax mode and I guess you could say that I was literally winding down towards the end of my trip. I went along at a nice leisurely pace and made sure I took the time to enjoy the many lovely sights along the way. It was a little strange to have to hear the noise of a busy road again from the constant stream of traffic that made its was into Andorra. Eventually I could see l'Hospitallet a fair way below me and it seemed to take an age to get nearer. When I arrived I took the opportunity to wander around the sleepy hamlet and enjoyed a nice coffee and a couple of croissants in the local shop. The trail down to Merens went along by the river but was also near the road so I put on the headphones and enjoyed some music all the way to the village. I stayed in a lovely Gite in Vives about a kilometer above the village. After I was settled I went for a wander down to the village and was astonished to see a young lad take a nasty tumble off his motorbike at a junction just below me. I ran down to help him but he was up and hopping about by the time I arrived. I stood up his bike and fussed over him a bit and it was evident his right shin would be pretty sore for some time to come if the rising red welts were any thing to go by but when he started to be more worried about to the scratches to the exhaust system I decided to let him be. Rain settled in again that evening so I relaxed indoors for the remainder of the evening.
Back from the lake

Merens les Vals

l'Hospitalett pres de l'Andorra

A rather unfortunate native

Well named Merens Les Vals as there are five valleys leading to it.

Excellent Gite

Monday June 10th ;

Today was my last day hiking so I had decided to go to Ax les Thermes via the Cap Du Camp and descend into the Vallee d'Orgeix, pass by the villages of Orlu and Orgeix and into Ax. The bad weather of the previous evening hadn't cleared and it was raining and the clouds were low right from the start. I wasn't too bothered though as I was well refreshed from the previous day and I actually like walking in gentle rain. It is especially nice in woodland, which much of today's route went through. Right from the start the climbing begins until eventually after gaining seven hundred meters you start of long long descent through the wood. It was peaceful and uneventful and in many way a fitting climax to the trip. It felt right to gently leave the high mountains behind but in some ways it epitomizes more what the Pyrenees are about. Thousands upon thousands of hectares of forest that teems with life and offers the promise of shelter and intrigue. After what seemed an endless descent I eventually entered the charming village of Orgeix where I was somewhat surprised to see a highland calf grazing in a meadow by the river. By now the sun had burned off the cloud and the day was glorious. The trail followed the left bank of the river for a while before rising again into the woods before dropping down into the bustling tourist and spa town of Ax les Thermes. I walked to the far side of town to where there was a campsite near the train station and I settled down and rested before the journey home tomorrow.
A grand soft day


Orlu

Orgeix


A long way from home ?


Tuesday June  12th ;

I arose to another stellar day. Clear blue skies promised a scorcher to come. Here at the lower altitudes the rise in temperature was obvious. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and packed up what was left of my bits and pieces and made my way to the train station. I was to get a train to Toulouse and after a wait of 90 minutes another to Carcasonne where I would get my flight home. All went swimmingly at first. A pleasant journey to Toulouse followed by a short exploration of the area around the train station and then another train to Carcassonne all went to plan. I went for a walk around the compact center of the town and even went to have a distant look at the world famous Cite. I made my way back to the train station and boarded the shuttle bus for the airport and was almost taken in by the bus driver when he said that there was a strike and there would be no flights today, what a kidder. I sat down and began to get a sinking feeling when he told the same "joke " to all the others who boarded the bus. Oh dear.
Impressive modern Toulouse




The Cite in Carcassonne

We set off for the tiny airport and joined the other angry bewildered people in the little building and started queuing for the Ryanair ticket desk. The best they seemed to be able to offer anybody was a flight out on Friday at the earliest. I was stunned and it was taking a while to sink in. When it came to my turn I inquired about the possibility of flying from Girona or Barcelona and they seemed doubtful that flights would leave from there but they booked me on a flight from Girona the following day. I returned to Carcassonne and I had no sooner arrived there when I was informed by Ryanair that the flight the following day had also been cancelled so I went to the train ticket desk and booked a train to London. Now I had to get a train to Montpellier and wait 90 minutes for my connection on the TGV to Paris. The day had indeed turned out hot and I was still in my mountain clothes so it was pretty uncomfortable. There was no air conditioning on the packed train to Montpellier and even the natives looked hot. I went for a stroll about Montpellier while I waited and I must say it looks a gorgeous place, definitely one to visit in the future.
Montpellier looks lovely


Despite all it is hard not to enjoy the glory that is the TGV in full flight and it was quite the experience on the trip to Paris. I eventually got into Gare de Lyon at 22.45 and I then had to figure out my way on the metro to the Gare de Nord near which I was booked into a hotel. This I found the most stressful section of the whole trip and it was with some assistance of a local man that I found my way and I eventually checked into my hotel at 23.45 exhausted and ready for a rest. I got up at seven am and went for a short stroll towards the station so that I could at least say I had seen something of Paris. It was obvious that I was in a big big city with its wide streets bordered by six and seven story buildings. I hopped on the metro and a couple of stops later I emerged at the station at 8 am in lots of time for my 8.43 Eurostar to London. I went across the road to McDonalds for a bite of breakfast and re-entered the Gare de Nord at 08.25 in plenty of time to hop on my train. It was then I saw the crowds in the departure area for London and it was then I further realized that this was an international departure and so the usual passport and security checks applied. There followed a very tense period when I was anything but sure of making the train and eventually I planted my bum on my seat at 08.41. Sure I had loads to spare.

A brief glimpse of Paris




The Eurostar is excellent and I arrived in London at 10.00 on the dot. Now at least I was on more familiar ground with no language barrier and I could relax a bit. A train connects directly from St Pancras to Gatwick airport and I arrived there in good time. Ryanair had been very good and had agreed to book me on a flight to Dublin which departed at 13.50. So it all meant that it was 19.30 by the time I arrived finally at home. Somewhat of an epic journey home but hey it all adds to the experience. Now I wonder where I will go next?.
St Pancras London