Pyrenees High Level Route

Martin and I crossed the Pyrenees in 54 days this summer on the HRP (Haute Randonnée Pyrenéenne or High Level Route) from Monday 26 July to Friday 17 September 2004. We intend to produce some more detailed pages, based on daily postcards we sent home, but in the meanwhile we hope the description of two days on route will whet the appetite.

Martin’s ‘not-so-expert’ navigation

Tuesday 10 August (Day 16) dawned cloudy at our illegal pitch near Refuge Pombie, beneath the would-be imposing (if it wasn’t for the cloud) Pic du Midi d’Osseau. Got away at our usual 8am for a descent from 2032m to 1350m. The HRP (as Julie will vouch) is a continual switchback of valleys and cols, with the occasional summit, and is rarely level. Mid-way down, near a cabane or shepherd’s hut, sat the shepherd on a small stool, allowing his penned ewes to exit the pen through a metal gate one by one.

Milking sheep below Refuge Pombie

Intermittently he would stop a ewe, and squeeze milk in jets into a can. Many of the cabanes advertised fromage or ewe’s cheese, made from this milk, and in this area, it was often served as a dessert with cherry jam.

At the lowest altitude for the day, we were fortified by a new ‘mountain mix’, an adaptation of GORP, made with a variety of nuts from the tiny, but superbly stocked El Bozo supermarket in Candanchu, remarkable for the tastiness of the toasted sweetcorn it contained! A 900m ascent, started through woods below an open valley with a stream running through the middle. A fine spot at a false col enticed other walkers to stop, but the weather could not be described as warm and our shorts and T shirts necessitated continuing. I also suspect that Martin was keen to get part of today’s difficulties out of the way as soon as possible!
On then, to the Col d’Arrious (2259m), and the Lac d’Arrious beyond, where fleeces came out. Between us and the Refuge d’Arrémoulit lay the Passage d’Orteig. Now I understood the reason for our fast pace – Martin wanted to cross this airy scramble without crowds in front or behind. This was achieved narrowly, as others were waiting to come the other way. Wire provided reassurance as there was a steep drop and the rock was damp and somewhat slippery. The refuge nestled amongst huge boulders and small tarns. Finding a pitch here would have been quite a challenge. It was warmer inside the refuge, where we appreciated the accepted practice of eating one’s lunch inside. Bowls of hot chocolate supplemented our bread and tinned fish. The whitewashed walls were adorned with black painted birds and we decided the sleeping platform for four above the tables would be pretty cosy.

Outside it was chilly, despite the long trousers I had changed into under the table in the refuge! But, I was sure to warm up as the ascent continued over large boulders to the Col du Palas and there were only three hours more to do (or so we thought…).
It was a struggle to keep up with Martin who is like a goat on the boulders, but 200m higher, and we arrive at a col. Both guide books described going down a short way on the east side, then making a traverse NE on rocks towards the Port du Lavedan, a narrow gap in the frontier ridge.


This route doesn’t seem obvious and we descend steeply for maybe 100m over rocks and grass. Optimism rises when a couple of tiny cairns appear but they don’t seem to continue once we cross a ridiculously steep scree slope. The Port is nowhere to be seen. So, we decide to retrace to the col up the steep ground.

“I know this is silly question, Martin, but are we at the correct col?” I suggested, reluctantly. “Perhaps a back bearing from the refuge would be a good idea.”

The col was the wrong one. We had climbed to the Col d’Arrémoulit, further south on the ridge than we should have been. So, there was no alternative but to descend over the boulders (my favourite..) nearly back to the refuge before taking the correct route to the Col du Palas. It was by now 3.45pm, so we had wasted two hours and climbed/descended an extra 300m with our 40 pound packs! You may not be surprised to hear that the route to the correct col involved another boulder field, a snowfield, then more boulders. Our efforts were rewarded at the col with a view of Pic du Midi d’Osseau without the head of cloud we had become accustomed to seeing. The going continued to be tricky, first contouring on a narrow path on scree slopes, then scrambling up rock bands, followed by three more snowfields.

Crossing snowfields approaching Port du Lavedan

It was at the far side of one of these snowfields, just at the edge, that my foot went through the snow, followed by most of my leg. Extricating the leg from the bergschrund necessitated removing my pack, and an examination of the damage revealed only a bruised knee, cut shin and a pulled muscle. My thoughts wandered to a worse scenario – this was not a good place to sustain a fracture.

Gingerly at first, we continued, with some interesting scrambling, to reach the small Port du Lavedan, at 2615m, our highest point to date, at 5.15pm.

Port du Lavedan 2615m

Our intended destination was Refuge l’Arribet (2070m), but again, the descending terrain involved more boulder-hopping and scrambling, and it was slow-going. My mood was low and I was tired, so when Martin proposed pitching the tent on a small patch of grass near a stream, about a mile short of the refuge, at 6.30pm, it was a relief.

We installed ourselves in the tent with marmots in the rocks nearby as companions. Things were looking up, with the exception that the asparagus soup attached itself to the bottom of the pan and turned black. Perhaps it was trying to mimic an experimental main course of pasta with mushrooms and a tin of squid in ink. With the last of the hot chocolate sachets from home, we surveyed the scene at 9.15pm. The wind had dropped and a bright orange vapour trail cut across the now clear dusky blue sky. Nearly time for sleep.

Note: in 2011 David Lintern had an interesting time in this area - see here.

Thursday 26 August 2004

The day began in the small Refuge du Venasque, where Martin, Julie and I had slept head to tail with a French family of four, on a bunk for six! It was a similar situation on the bunk above. Outside the stable door, cloud swirled, occasionally revealing a glimpse of a mountainside. The guardian did not excel on the catering front, breakfast comprising hard bread and jam, served outside in a tent. An inauspicious start to a magnificent day.

It was only a 200m ascent to Port du Venasque (2444m), on a narrow path that snaked above a couple of tarns. The cloud was clearing and the reflections were beautiful.

Reflections above Refuge du Venasque

The port is on the French-Spanish border and, as is often the case, the skies above Spain were clear and the view that opened up was one of the Maladeta massif, with fingers of glacier clinging to the slopes of Pic d’Aneto, at 3404m the highest summit in the Pyrenees.

Maladeta massif from Port du Venasque

A long descent into the valley saw us peeling off layers as the sun warmed the morning air. Below, the narrow road along the valley floor was empty but for the occasional coach; the consequences of this would be obvious shortly. Across the valley, the Refugio de la Renclusa nestled in trees. Walkers climbing Pic d’Aneto would have left here in the early hours of the morning and would have fantastic views from the summit on this clear day. Our next landmark was a café, still devoid of people, where a wooden bridge led across the river. Shortly after, the path widened and started to climb. Here was the tail end of one or more coach parties who were visiting the Trou de Toro and despite carrying backpacks, we started to overtake the dozens ahead of us. It was like Dovedale on a bank holiday weekend. The attraction, the Trou de Toro or Toro’s Hole, was the melt water from the Aneto glacier disappearing below ground in this limestone area. Further on, fewer tourists were admiring the Aiguallut cascade and we knew it wouldn’t be long before we lost everyone else.

Aiguallut cascade & Pic d'Aneto

The tourists would miss the delightful green meadow a little further on through which a sparkling stream babbled. Our route climbed more obviously now, through a rocky valley where none of the coach party ventured. There were marmots around and we caught a glimpse of a stoat. Peace returned.

We ate lunch sheltered from the cool breeze behind a large rock, next to the stream. Energy would be needed for the climb to a summit at 3010m and descent to camp; this was to take longer than the distance suggested!

Picnic around 2300m
  Beyond a small lake, the landscape changed. The mountain was composed of huge slabs of white rock as far as the eye could see. It was easy, although calf-stretching, to ascend initially on gently sloping slabs, but more difficult higher up as huge boulders rested on the rock.

Slabs of rock approaching Col de Mulleres

Finally, we reached Col de Mulleres at 3.30pm, where rucksacks were dumped, for the 15-minute walk to the summit of Tuc de Mulleres.

The view was superb. From this gloriously sunny eyrie with its summit cross, we could see cloud over France, quite literally spilling over the border into Spain, the Maladeta massif and our onward route far below. The earth curved in the distance.

Summit of Tuc de Mulleres 3010m

It was 4.15pm by the time we returned to the col, and the day’s fun really began! The descent route was not obvious – it was all too precipitously steep. Martin disappeared to see if there was a route further round, whilst I tested scrambling down from the col, without my rucksack. This was possible, if risky. Serious injury would result if a hand or foothold came off. Martin seemed to be a very long time. I was reluctant for Julie and I to descend, to find that Martin had returned and I had to climb back up and repeat the descent. So, we waited until eventually he appeared below, declaring forcefully that his was not the route to adopt. Slowly, Julie and I scrambled down what turned out to be the correct, if unlikely, route. We were inhibited by Julie’s height which made reaching the holds I’d used difficult. An even scarier section followed: a steep snow slope with footprints down its crest. A slip here could not be contemplated. Assisted greatly by our poles, we both made it successfully, and the worst was over.

Regrouping, it became clear that Martin’s route had been even trickier. The seat of his trousers was ripped and he had various other scuffs. He had descended a gully full of loose rock, rather than return across a steep and very mobile scree slope. By now it was 5.30pm. Descending around 100m had taken over an hour!

Tuc de Mulleres & descent route

A further hour of easier descent brought us to the highest Mullere lake at 2450m and the first grass on which to the pitch the tents. The lake was already in shade, but we sat outside on this still evening to eat dinner, watching the sun set on the mountains opposite. It had been a fabulous day, despite the sting in its tail!


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