Travel writer Hal Keelin’s final instalment of his Walking the Pyrenees series
Descending pic de Madamete, we soon found that trekking downhill was no less easy than a steady ascent. It was harder on the knees, and Dan taught me to lean back slightly into the mountain which alleviated some of the strain of each thudding step. It was fairly isolated this side of the mountain. The screw slopes fell away from the path on our left while streams trickled down on our right; feeding into not too distant pools at the base of a new range of peaks in front of us. It was early afternoon now. The suns glare dipping in and out of faint swirls of cloud above. We continued the descent, dropping some hundreds of metres below our previous high point of 2509 metres. With time, we came across two lakes which shared their namesake with the mountain now to our backs. Now rising high behind us. A craggy crest to the south. Dan suggested we try swimming as the guide indicated it was a good spot, cautious of the time however we agreed we should head on.
We were still only halfway in terms of distance. By late afternoon we came across a bothy, Cabane d’aygues Cluses according to the guide-book, originally a shepherd’s mountain shack. On top of a small verge and overlooking another shallow lake. It was a pretty setting, but other hikers’ clothes were already hung on a line on the outside; hikers like us, using it as a humble shelter. It was nevertheless a good spot to check the map and we sat down beside it, sipping from our two-litre bottles. We were 13 kilometres into our day’s trek and the sun was dipping lower and lower in the sky ahead.
“Shit! I thought we were nearly there mate!”. Dan exclaimed as he looked at the handy time/ distance graph Mr Johnson had kindly added to his guide. I grimaced, I too had thought we were closer to our destination than we were, but I felt a pang of guilt however when realising I had done little to inform Dan – who had been without the guide for some time- that we still had a long way to go. “It’s a long way!” I replied, my grin shadowed by slight concern at the distance still to cover with fading daylight. We had had a great walk so far, up and over hills, mountains, valleys, woods, and lakes, but still 10 km short! The pleasure we had taken in walking was gradually being eaten away by our growing concern at the distance still to cover and the time in which we had to do it. Fail to get to Bareges today and our costly refuge reservations for the higher ground ahead would be uncoordinated with our progress.
“We need to press on mate, up for a run?” Dan grinned and I couldn’t tell if he was joking at first, but he was deadly serious, just as concerned if not more so than I was at the lateness of the day. I nodded, grinned back, and replied with a “sure!” The trail from the bothy passed over a grassy meadow where wildflowers sprouted, interspersed with shrubs and bracken, before it entered a deep wood, to where I presumed Bareges lay some distance behind.
We hurtled swiftly passed startled late ascendants coming up the opposite way, through the woods, beside a now gushing river to our left. I was thankful for my sturdy, yet flexible boots as I placed relentless amounts of trust in their grip; hurdling rocks and sidestepping fallen woodland debris. Dan had clearly run down mountains before and I struggled at first to keep up with his fast-moving feet. It reminded me of a similar time when we were much younger, running down the scree of Cader Idris in Wales. Running was easier than walking. Gone was the strain on my knees, no longer having to do my utmost to relieve the jarring on the joints with each step. Running, we were graceful, and the rush of wind on my face as we accelerated reminded me of playing on the wing in football matches, head down, dribbling over the rocks: At least in my head anyway.
We made great progress, and after half an hour or so we had covered almost five kilometres, half the time we would have spent covering the same distance walking. We reached a clearing and the glinting yellow light that had shimmered off the green leaves and rushing water in the woods were gone, replaced by a hazy grey mist that had encased the valley. The land’s air, warmed all day as it was by the sun, had risen now, and, meeting the mountain air that was conversely cooled by high winds, had had the effect of creating a whitewash all around us. It was nearing 6 pm as we left the woods and stepped into the mist that surrounded us. Our run had slowed to a jog, our jog then slowed into an amble and our amble slowed until we stopped. Knackered. We sat down beside huge rocks adjacent to the stream we had followed for the best part of 3 hours. The water beside us had had the same journey as us this afternoon. Flowing down the mountainside to our backs, passing the same lakes and the shepherds’ refuge hut above, and now trickling beside us. We were tired now and our feet were sore. Dan had the walking guide, I looked up at him and as soon as I did so my half hope that Bareges lay just around the corner was dashed.
“Another 5 K mate, c’mon” We couldn’t help but grin to each other, both knowing that despondency would get us nowhere.
The ground was soft underfoot as the hard mud track we had pounded in the wood behind gave way to the soft marshy ground; fed as it was by the trickling waterways that meandered from the nearby river we had followed. We were hungry too, for the chorizo and bread had only lasted so long, despite our attempts at rationing. The high spirits on top of Madamete, flushed as we were back then with the success of having conquered our highest point; now gave way to a sullen mood, as we trenched along, sore, tired, and hungry. Surrounded by a relenting mist, fitting for a Scandinavian-noir.
We had dropped down some distance now and were glad to finally reach a valley floor running perpendicular to the one we had just descended. This was the Valley of the Bastan. I made out a smooth coiled shape on the hillside opposite and struggled for a few seconds to work out what it was. I realised It was a road, making its own contours as it climbed up and over a ridge now to our right. The valley floor was the lush green colour that had surprised me so much as we looked upon the French Pyrenean foothills for the first time. Our packs heavy now at the end of the day and we were relieved to find the paths gradient lessened as the mud and stone underfoot found tarmac and we followed a road to Bareges for the last three miles. We arrived in Bareges worn sullen and tired two hours later and checked into a cheap hotel. We would not camp tonight and found a deserted bar. As evening turned to night, we rounded the day off with a full meal and a couple of rounds of beers. It felt like I was sleepwalking when we got up to return to our room and without so much as a word we slumped onto our beds, knocked out by the day’s efforts.