Travel writer Laura Botia writes about Snowdonia National Park and the diverse range of activities and landscapes this corner of Wales has to offer.Written by Laura Botia on 16th March 2018
Walking the Pyrenees | Day 2
Travel writer Hal Keelin presents the second instalment of his 'Walking the Pyrenees' series
Day 2- Part 1
That next morning, we awoke early, planning to stock up on breakfast and lunch at the local mini market we had passed when we had first arrived. Although, perhaps in some sort of universal balancing act to our behaviour the night before, a grave setback rocked us. Dan’s camel water sack had exploded, all over his bag. Our train tickets, flight information, Pamplona accommodation details, were in tatters. Dan was furious, and it wasn’t until after we had supplied at the market that he cheered up. With chorizo and a baguette, each strapped to the backs of our packs we set off. The first leg of our trip was brutal. To reach the point of where the sun had set the previous evening, we faced an uphill struggle through the densely packed wood; valley floor to the ridge in a minimum of three to four hours to make a good time. It was a bright clear day, and, out of the woods, we allowed time to take on plenty of water and the view below. Vielle-Aure was nestled amongst several other hamlets beneath us on the valley floor. Church spires spiking out of small clearings, while cars from such height moved like absurdly slow Scalextric cars.
We were ascending and making good ground now. It was midday when we came across an Italian solo hiker, he had just descended from the refuge we had planned to stay at. Refuge de l’oule, I gathered was another 4 or 5 more hours along the ridge, he wished us safe travels and waved goodbye with a quiet “ciao”, and made his way down the hillside. He looked a lonely figure as I watched him make his way down and I was glad of Dan’s company. It was stunning up here. The wind had picked up and dark clouds now lay ahead ominously, obscuring those picturesque bright blue skies we had ascended with. The steep gradient had sapped my legs of the strength I had set out with and despite having experience of long hill walks before, there was the slow, daunting realisation that I had never endured walking for much longer than two to three days at a time. My childhood had trained me for this somewhat, having spent much of it desperately trying to keep pace with my dad on damp afternoons in the Lake District, Peak District and Snowdonia. While most recently we had accomplished parts of the Skye way. It was even a relief not to say spectacular in many respects to be walking in such comfortable conditions. Snowdonia, the Lake District, and particularly Skye, were wet, cold, and windy -not all the time- but for the most part. A fitting compromise to the Pyrenean bright sun which warmed our bare necks amid a light, pale blue sky.
“Look at those!” Dan exclaimed with delight as two great black shapes arched in the distance.
“...whoa! what are they... eagles or maybe vultures? I puzzled. I’d never seen a bird that size before.
“Yeah, I think they’re vultures,” Dan replied. We stopped walking and followed their arching flight patterns, lulling our necks around, as they gracefully hovered in the winds that buffeted our jackets below them. Later, these beasts became recognizably familiar, especially as they adorned almost every Pyrenean mountain refuge’s dining area.
We climbed and passed cattle pens, gates and numerous streams that caverned down, perpendicular to our trail, cutting the mountainside until ultimately swallowed by lengthy wild clumps of grass below. The soft clanking of Pyrenean cowbells like chimes in the distance. They were huge, thick-skinned, muscular beasts, and I stopped, having to catch Dan up later to photograph a herd of them. There they stood, standing, staring, watching me as I held up my phone and captured their stern image, neatly backdropped with a smoke-like, eerie mist that had descended from the high places around us.
After a little while later, we reached a lonely ski lift atop one of the many peaks we climbed that day. At the height of July, it was abandoned, and the chairs swung slowly in the wind. I asked Dan if he’d heard of a film I was reminded of as I watched that chairlift swing. Some years back I had befriended an older kid from Sheffield on a ski trip who told me about a film that involved some kids getting stuck on a chairlift and left for dead at the end of the ski season. Alone to the Canadian elements of bitter cold and howling, half-starved wolves below. The characters had met a grisly end. Dan, had, of course, heard of this film (his dad used to terrify us both with plots of horror films whenever I was around their house after school) and recorded in graphic detail the gory plot and grisly deaths Harry from Sheffield had scared me with years before. We descended quickly from this mysterious vantage point, keen, not only to escape the mist but to reach the refuge in time for the hot meal we knew awaited us. The path descended over what would have been grassy pasture had it not been, to quote our trusty guidebook ‘rather despoiled by ski slops’. It was, unfortunately quite ugly on this western face of Chairlift peak. Where grassy plains combed the mountainsides above and around us; our nearest vicinity was carved up by an assortment of rock, cobblestones, and hewn grass in distinctive wide sloping runs that ran down to another, abandoned, ski station.
Half a mile down the track, the sun glared in a vivid pale blue directly overhead, and Lac de L’oule emerged below us. The vast blueness and vivid mountain backdrop were strangely unnerving, reminding me of when Robert McFarlane in his book The Wild Places describes his experience of summiting Ben Hope. How he was hit by ‘a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest’. For one, there was no homely lush green now before us, instead a steep drop gave way beneath, where the lake lapped at a forest's edge that encompassed a long valley bowel. A steep descent took us through a trailing forest path. My legs, with each thudding step, felt less and less attached to my body and useless. We reached refuge de lac de L’oule in good time and with the hospitality of the owner received a dusty room round the back of the building for free. We crashed on our sleeping mats, burned out after walking some 23 kilometres and ascending for much of the day. Thankfully, we weren’t so tired as to miss waking in time for dinner. Half asleep, we muttered words to each other in the homely dining room about how delicious the lamb shank (complemented with a rich couscous sauce), was. Pleased at my efforts, and rewarded on that first day I tried as hard as I could from getting annoyed with the loud German tourist next to me, who had scoffed at my pronunciation of Oloron Saint Marie, the town I had told his group we were planning to reach. “It’s not Saint Mary!” he taunted, its Saint Marie HA HA! A cackle that would preoccupy my sleep for the next few nights, I was unable to shake him off.
Day 2- Part 2
We returned to our dusty, yet comforting room sometime after dinner around 8 o’clock. I had only just laid the map out on the table and was bearing a compass point for tomorrows day when three guys appeared in the doorway. “Dan!” I whispered. He was sprawled over his newly found five-star accommodation, and I wasn’t sure if he was asleep. The room had all kinds of rusted carpentry tools in one corner and the benches where I sat on the opposite side were matted with white paint flecks. I assumed these guys who had turned up were builders of some sort working on the construction site just outside the refuge, maybe returning for their tools. I nodded at them, and they came in. They were dressed in overhauls matted too with white flecks and dusted appearances like the bench I was sat on. I was routinely aware of my valuables that I had obliviously left all over the room. My wallet, phone, passport… between me and our new company.
“Oh, hey guys,” one of the dusted men said
“…oh, are you sleeping…sorry “His friend added awkwardly. He had seen Dan sprawled on the mattress as he entered. Dan, now definitely awake but groggy, sat up curious as I was about our new guests and greeted them with a “hi” back. They were friendly and told us their names, curious about our journey - they must have spotted our rucksacks and me with my map outstretched on the table. We told them we were from England and that we hoped to follow the GR10 west to our next stop at Bareges tomorrow, some 25 km away. A long way off, especially when you factored in the packs, unfamiliar terrain and climbing of some 1000 metres, for the second successive day in a row.
“Oh Bareges, yes! I am from near Bareges. One of the younger looking guys replied.
“Ah brilliant,” Dan said, pleased to gain some local insight into our next day’s walk.
“How far is it... is it possible in one day?
“With packs?” I added.
“Yes, yes of course! I run their most days. The younger guy said with a grin, apparently unaware of our startled expressions. “Yes, its fine, maybe five hours for me and seven for you with packs. “
“You run!” I remarked disbelieving him, and acutely aware that Mr Johnson, our trusty guide claimed to have done the same walk in some time over nine hours.
“Yes, it’s just over there.” His balder, older looking friend chipped in with a point, in the direction of the opposite shore, and further, beyond the intimidating face of mountains that enclaved the reservoir bowel on the lakes western shore. He was pointing to Neverland for all I knew. Surrounded as we were on all sides by such steep faces, and now, as dark descended, completely enthralled in mist at this point, it was still light but not one of us could see for ten metres outside the paint-spattered window.
“Do you want to come for a drink?” The older man asked suddenly, with a generous smile in broken English.
“Yes, come for a drink, we are buying!”. His friend added clapping the wall, with a similar welcoming grin. I and Dan looked at each other; unused to this straight-talking kindness from strangers. They seemed both incredibly charming and harmless and I felt guilty for the concern I had had for my valuables.
“Yeah, sure!” We both replied, keen to sample our first taste of Pyrenean hospitality. They were construction workers, but not for the bit I had seen. They were working on the huge dam that stretched from one side of the reservoir below us to the other, and they didn’t have very high opinions of the accommodation refurbishment workers.
“They’re Portuguese!” The bald one grinned in good humour (He would later urinate over their construction site, his reasons remain unclear). We followed the two guys around the back of the house to where a large group of similarly dusted, a weathered mix of young and older French workers were sat, laughing, a few of them stumbling already with beers and fag packets on the table. They invited us to sit down among them and, without time to politely refuse, sent one of their guys (he later turned out to be one of the site managers) off to get us two beers. They took a keen interest in us and we laughed and joked with them about Brexit, football, and the dam as the evening wore on and drinks continued to be ordered.
They were some of the most enthusiastic and happy people I had ever met and their amiable approach to their life in the mountains was infectious. I was especially interested in the work they were doing, and we both asked them questions about what they were doing and how long they were there for.
“Do you want to go and see it, man!” The bald one asked with his irresistible enthusiasm for anything and everything. Something that was met with raucous applause and a stir of excitement from the other guys around the table.
“Yes, we go to take you to see the dam, it’s amazing! “One of the guys who I had not yet spoken to, on the other side of our long table added. I looked at Dan, we grinned and nodded. Not quite sure what “going to see the dam” involved, but still curious and eager not to upset them (after all they had, for the most part, funded our night's entertainment). We followed them, down a small grassy verge and emerged at the foot of a huge smooth concrete wall. We were a party of at least twelve now, ten dam construction workers and us. I tried to put names to each face, but it proved impossible and I gave up. I looked at Dan and we gave each other a reassuring glance as we entered a brightly lit passageway, at the base of an enormous wall which stretched above us into the night sky. The guys in front of us skipped almost merrily with beers in hands as they entered, eager to get inside. Entering a sort of hobbit-doorway tunnel, cut out of the wall of cement surrounding us, we turned left while overhead naked bulbs lit up a claustrophobic alleyway that penetrated the heart of the dam itself. Water trickled down the sides, over bumps of what I imagined was decades, perhaps even century-old algae, plastered to the dripping walls.
“This was built in 1911!” One of the guys next to me proclaimed. “1911”! he repeated, smacking the wall with his palm for emphasis. Water gushed beside us as if on an old cobbled street on its way to be collected by a drain. Those of our party’s footsteps, now in single file in front of us, clanked metallic echoes off the walls and ceiling surrounding us.
“Wow!” Shouted the nearest guy in front of me, as he stuck his head into a small crevasse, cut uniformly into the slab of concrete on our right side. “Look at that!” He said as he invited me to do the same. I stuck my head in the crevasse and looked up as he had done, half expecting the wall of rushing water I heard to explode at any minute. My eyes followed a steep dark wall that continued for how far I couldn’t say, until I saw a small bright light on the periphery of my now limited vision. It was a star. The brightly lit dripping alleyway had, for every two metres or so, an identical crevasse that followed the heart of the dam wall, each now with a view of the night sky.
This is crazy! Dan said behind me.
“Ha-ha, I know!” I shouted back in agreement, straining to be heard over that wall of sound. I thought about the sheer strength of the wall that now encapsulated our little party. It was holding an unimaginable force of water behind it, and I suddenly felt very, very exposed. We were reliant on the sheer mass of this century old slab of concrete and therefore simultaneously, vulnerable to the elements. Not wind, rain, snow, or fog as I had expected when preparing for this journey: But to the sheer weight, force, and ultimate power of amassed water. And this, Dan agreed later, was unnerving. Half stunned by what we had experienced and half glad to be out, our party parted from the dam; The workers for only a night, us forever. We followed the guys back to their accommodation despite our best efforts to politely refuse their incredible generosity. They wanted us to at least share a sausage and some wine with them, and this we did gladly. Their accommodation was the very same building the original workers of the 1911 dam-build had stayed in. Sausages, chorizo, burgers, and onions sizzled on an open hearth on the opposite side of the doorway, the bald one singing happily, cooking away. It reminded me of a similar place I had stayed at once in wales, an old school accommodation block in the middle of basically nowhere which my aunt's school used for trips to Snowdonia. It was basic but homely; especially with the roaring fire and loud friendly company. We were tired however and aware that we shouldn’t stay long as there was another rewarding but tough long day ahead tomorrow to Bareges. Disappointed that we were not staying for longer, they understood we had to get a decent night’s sleep tonight, and we left slapping palms and shaking hands with every one of them. We set off back up the mound to our bed for the night, only with slightly more wine beer and sausage in our stomachs than we had expected when leaving the room that evening.