We start in on the narrow part before the ropes and I start talking. Distraction is the better part of valour. If you fall, fall to the right. Don't forget to breathe, or you'll die. And so on.
The Haute Route Pyrenees is a high level 900km coast to coast trail on the waistline between France and Spain. It begins as it ends - in humid, sleepy seaside resorts, but between these two points the only constant is change. Hugging the border ridge as closely as possible, our route moves through the lush heart of the Basque country along tracks used by Hannibal and Roland, past icy lakes and through valleys of wild flowers, salamanders, snakes and frogs, carpenter bees and jersey moths. To the bleached white peaks of the central range where buzzards, eagles, kites and vultures fly patrol above marmots, deer and wild horses. The water is plentiful, mostly, and clean, nearly always. The weather is wild and changeable. There is peace and there is quiet, and there is adventure and humility.
This is a confession, a catalogue of errors. I'm not proud of my part in it, though it taught me much. My friends and I gave each other these trail names at the time.
The tale of the night begins with the day, and continues through to the end of the next. It starts wet, drying out. We had camped in a wide sided valley down from Pombie after soup and a half sleep in a thunderstorm and waking up in two inches of water on the backside of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. Thank heavens for bivy bags when the heavens open. An ascent of the Pic is impossible - water is still crashing down the sides, and with visibility no more than twenty metres at the Col de Suzon, there is no chance and no views - what for anyway? And so we're still sluggish and waterlogged as we pull up through woodland then a mist shrouded valley towards Arremoulit. The Fish isn't coping, his gears are grinding, until I take his tent and mat, a whopping four kilos. I move ahead, lugging the dead weight, sweating and furious. This has become a familiar pattern over the last week. It may not be his fault, but he is out of his depth, despite all that was said back home. I stopped feeling bad for him a day or so ago, now I just feel bad.
Two hours later, I sit just off the col in thick cloud and wait for the others. After a little bread and cheese, I realise I don't have the map and case, normally clipped into the caribiner at my shoulder. Providence. I'm ready to snap, and its got right in the way of the walk, concentrating on pride and anger instead of the safety of an inexperienced party I find myself leading by default. I must now be ready to eat my words, bite my tongue and, most importantly, find the map. But, I am lucky. A Basque couple have seen it lying on the path and passed it to the others. Little is said as my co walkers return it; we all know what’s afoot.
We are heading for the Passage d'Orteig, a vertiginous but chained short section of the route that I have done before, but is new to my friends. We hang right at the sign for the 'delicate passage' and line up for it, the Dog at the front and me behind. I have hyped this a lot as the Fish gets vertigo, and to his credit he wants to deal with this head on and doesn't flinch when he sees the drop. The Dog will do just fine. We start in on the narrow part before the ropes and I start talking. Distraction is the better part of valour. If you fall, fall to the right. Don't forget to breathe, or you'll die. And so on.
It's fine in the end, it was all a storm in a teacup right? All smiles. There's one part I still don't like, where the rock juts out and the Basque couple, looking concerned for both us and them, tie in, but we don't carry climbing gear (only because we don't know how to use it). Up and over past a line of beautifully constructed cairns made to guide us in to one of the best refuges on the HRP. Loitering at the refuge with soup and a catnap, tarp out to dry a little. Sadly, Pierre Jean, something of a legend in these parts, is no longer the guardian, but the painted eagles on the domed ceiling of the hut make it a much favoured and romantic place.
We leave for the Col de Palas. I have reservations which I share, but limply, not wanting to say we are moving too slowly, letting the others growing confidence after the Passage override. It is too early to stop. It’s not too far on the map, n'est pas? The cloud may clear further up. We move easier and refreshed up to the lakes above the refuge and onto the team's first snowfield. The approach to the Col is as good a first time experience of snow in high mountains as I could wish for my friends. Firm but not rock solid, crags atmospherically shrouded but not overtly threatening. Spooky but not scary - the mysteries of rocky strata beckon us on. I love this world above the brush and the tundra, it has become my reason for walking in the Pyrenees but it’s fickle up here. And it is too late to go up, in this weather and with this team. Judgment calls. I fail to answer.
A Spanish team passes us on their way down and seems in good spirits, we continue on, in denser cloud, on fields of boulders growing larger, until the chilly col is reached. We head east at the top cairn and contour around steeply on slippery red shale and scree, treachery draped in soggy mist, our movements slowing, grinding to a halt. Pace is required but not forthcoming, I should've called it then but there is no way the Fish is backtracking on this eroded mess, he's unnerved, the path has fallen away to nothing and its only our handholds that are holding his footholds in place.
Because of the mist and the slow progress and the wanting it to be so, we reach two cairns and assume it’s the Port de Lavedan. At first, then no joy. It looks like a col in five metres visibility and the map tells us nothing at all at 1.50K. Not happy. We get busy with map and compass, Goat on forays out and the Dog calling in for safety. This is The System, but there may as well be none. We are lost on granite nothingness, now here, no where, a vector labyrinth of snowfields, giant boulders and vast rock faces that loom out of the mist. We can reset the map all we want but if we don't know our position..? The backup GPS on my phone is not playing ball today, so a cheat is out. A little rain now and then, its getting cold and we're moving in ever decreasing circles.
With hindsight, I can tell you that the Port is set obliquely at an angle on the border ridge south of Palas. I would have at some point early on been only a few metres from the final approach, but it was concealed completely from me then by dense clag and its obscure angle. 7pm passes, forays down, then up to no avail. We retreat to the two cairns again, 8pm comes and goes. Shortly after, the cloud clears for a few seconds and the Dog correctly ID's two lakes far below us. I confirm them as the lakes on the Spanish side I walked last year, down from the Col de Arremoulit - the Ibones del Arriel. I know they are beautiful down there, but from up here they seem remote, removed.
We don't go down to the lakes. It would mean losing many hundreds of metres in exchange for a safe pitch. Why the hell wasn't I calling this in? I remember thinking that. The ID was good, my decision making not so. Instead, we head NE as instructed by our dutch guidebook, on a vague bearing, steeply around a large snowfield with more loose scree underfoot in ever thickening cloud and drizzle. North, then East to compensate, but we're too high. We reach a tiny climbers' bivy chiselled out on a crumbling bluff just off a windswept ridge down from Palas itself. Again, we see what we want to see. This is the port?! No. There is no way down the other side, it's not a col or a saddle, let alone a gash in the rock. Darkness descending, weather deteriorating. I wrestle with loosely formed options but it's synapse soup, any thoughts I have are pickled in the clinging cloud.
I take my pack off and start to climb straight up the side of the Port. After a few feet, I stop and realise my stupidity. I have both shelters, the single working lighter and alot of insulation - If I am separated from that, it means we all have to come this way. What for? And if we can't find it again? Dangerous. A few moments, a few serious words with myself.
This counts now,
this is how people get hurt.
David Lintern has travelled in Europe, India and the USA, often by foot. He completed the HRP from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in summer 2011. It was his first long distance walk, which raised funds for a conservation organisation, and an arts charity for refugee orphans he set up in 2006.
He has since relocated to Scotland to be nearer the mountains, to pursue work in conservation and a growing interest in writing and photography.
I decide to descend on the French side of the ridge, pack on. A small foray. The Dog is nervous, understandably: potentially fatal errors are made in increments and he's wise enough to know this. It’s awful going - straight down on wet, loose rock. The next morning we see climbers going up this section, dry, roped up and with protection. About half way down I realise I can't go up again, so it’s down or nothing. I really, really don't like the feel of nothing. The Dog is asking me what to do, but I don't have the words, I can't think, I am concentrating too hard on controlling hands, feet and fast rising fear. They can't do this, stupid, you barely can. They call it, thankfully, and stay put. I feel panic rising in my stomach, my legs beginning to lose strength, my breathing becoming erratic. We barely have comms - the mountain takes all the treble from our voices, we only hear muffled bass. This is now, officially, out of our control.
I go down another twenty or thirty metres. I don't know how but I don't fall. I see a kind of walkway of scree and rubble below at a horrible angle below, and a terrifying V in the ridge on the left, black fangs in the mist. I reach the sloping floor and make my way towards the V. This is definitely it: the Port de Lavedan, its what we've been aiming for. NE was right but out by a degree or two at most - enough in the clag to ruin us. The Dog and I bellow instructions at each other, barely audible. They can't move, they are crag fast. I'm breathing hard and starting to shake. Body is not doing as instructed. Breathe deep, talk it down, its fine, nobody is hurt, you know where you are, you know where they are, you just don't know how to join them or what to do next. Bizarrely, I take my pack off and start to climb straight up the side of the Port. After a few feet, I stop and realise my stupidity. I have both shelters, the single working lighter and alot of insulation - If I am separated from that, it means we all have to come this way. What for? And if we can't find it again? Dangerous. A few moments, a few serious words with myself. This counts now, this is how people get hurt.
We have to stay up here tonight. Think. OK, there's no choice. I can't go back the way I came. I can probably go up, but they can't follow me back down again. I have to go round, it must be doable, and it’s the way we were supposed to come. I know this but I'm resisting, there's something really intimidating about those fangs I don't want to be anywhere near on my own. But it has to be. Shout: ''I. COME. TO. YOU''. Wait. Again. Then the answer. ''O. KAY." Up and over the Port. There's a car sized boulder in the crevasse ten metres off the top which almost gets the better of me again. Breathing hard, I can taste the panic rising, sour bile. Control it, fear is the mind killer. Make like a slithering reptile, stay glued to the rock as much as possible, still slipping and falling. Hard with a backpack, harder still with half of someone else's kit attached. Then down, and around a snowfield rotting at its edge. Rock disappears high and hard into foul mist ahead. Vague voice directions from the Dog. A request from me for him to move a little west away from the ridge and show light, so I can see him beyond the overhang. I see it and start to climb. Treacherous, bag dragging shoulders heavily, granite rounded, soaking wet. No. Grip.
About ten minutes later I'm back and we're together. I'm still at the edge of shock, but get warm and I'm good again, my breathing slowly calms. They have had time to work out a plan, and now rig a fly over the crumbling granite wall of the bivy and make food, lots of it. I don't want to stay up here, there's a better spot to pitch a few metres back I know, but I'm in no position to make requests. Eat. If the weather holds we'll be OK, if not, who knows.
Then, something shifts. After food, suddenly and unexpectedly, the dense cloud lifts, swept away to the French side in seconds.
A sea of boulders was lit under cold blue-white moonlight, exposing the granite underworld where we came unstuck. And mountains forever, above, beyond and around us. Scale and proportion are completely unreadable, it is as if a painting has been engraved on my retina now, for good. I've been up high before on a clear night, but not like this, not this high on guilt and adrenaline. I couldn't concentrate then - I felt too bad for my friends, but I'm glad they got the payoff in the end. I've come to appreciate it afterward. The Dog said it was 'a humbling that resets you to your core', but there are no words, really.
Why did the weather clear after we, I, had neglected to make all the proper decisions? No reason. We were lucky.
Clear means cold. We bivy, the Fish lying down shivering under a space blanket, the Dog and I sitting up in our bivybags, all layers on, the most uncomfortable night I have ever spent bar none, hard rock in soft places, cramp. At dawn we break camp and make coffee. The cloud clings to the French side, but all of Spain is exposed in the first orange rays of a new day, burning off fast. Are we glad to see it? That would be a yes.
Down the way I had come up the previous night, the Fish is mostly silent, brooding. He confesses later to cursing my name, it's no surprise. We limp over the Port past climbers tooling up for Palas and down on a steep mess of rubble, downwards for an eternity, limbs sluggish with fatigue, post adrenaline. It’s a wide-eyed world, and I am happily counting my blessings, but an achingly long, tough descent for three tired and hapless hikers.
Then, once again, the guidebook text steers us wrong, and we descend too far to the lake. The map shows little but a path we should have joined by now. By 10am we are dog tired of boulders and loose scree sapping every calorie, liable for more mistakes if not wary. The Dog warns me off a particularly steep option. He's right, no more risks. I call a stop for breakfast.
A little stronger and thinking more clearly we climb again. I pick a line over a vast granite knuckle but lose sight of the others. Slow down over the crest, wait, blow whistle to signal. Our path is ahead, we are clear, safe! Then the Dog catches up, wide eyed. He's heard two blasts on the whistle and panicked, not knowing that the universal signal for distress in the mountains is six in one minute. Ok, we are all still wired. Again, I curse my own preparations - assume nothing, not knowing is not a crime, not explaining is. I apologise, we confer and swap positions, his turn to take point now.
After another hour we reach the Lac de Micoulaou, strip off, and jump in. Freezing but needed. A little kit washed, some more food. As we stumble the short distance to Larribet, there is little faith in my directions, my companions nerves still too raw and exposed. Head down, I take us over the last pass. It doesn't matter, we are safe, together.
We'll stop near here tonight. Coffee and cake outside the Refuge. Camp, drink some beer. Laugh, watch the cloud drift in, feel numb, and sleep.
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