The HRP / GR11 blog series
Cauterets to Gave d’Arratille
Miles walked: 10.3
Location: a flat alp beneath the climb up to Col d’Aratille, my first pass
It’s been a fantastic first day on the HRP! The weather could hardly have been better: around 14 Celsius with a patchwork of sunshine and clouds, but no rain. The Pyrenees are easing me in gradually.
I left town late this morning, aware that my first day would not be a long one, and that pitching tarps before 19.00 is frowned upon in the National Park. So I took a wander through town (where everything was closed, as it’s Bastille Day) before joining the GR10 and taking my first steps along the switchback trail climbing out of the village.
Cauterets perches in the bottom of an extremely deep (and steep) valley system. Mountain walls rise precipitously on all sides, forested right to their crests. It’s a huge culture shock compared to the denuded Scottish hills, or even the Alps. These are rich forests alive with dozens of species, too, and colourful with alpine flowers. Due to the dense tree cover, views were rather restricted for the first few miles, although I did get some impressive glimpses through the trees.
The GR10 is a busy trail! I passed dozens of hikers in both directions, although many were clearly just out for the day (and why not – it’s a spectacular walk). The sunshine and pine forests tricked my brain into thinking I was back on the Tour of Monte Rosa, and for a while I had to stop myself from mechanically greeting everyone with a ‘ciao’ or ‘guten Tag’. I know very little French but I started to manage a passable ‘bonjour’ after a couple of hours.
The GR10 follows a torrent for much of its length in this stage, and I passed many spectacular waterfalls, many of them thundering and almost unbelievably massive. Near one of the falls, I looked across the river to see a mysterious ancient ruin, Roman perhaps, rising out of the spray. I started to feel a bit like a traveller in Middle Earth or Skyrim.
Eventually, my path and the GR10 diverged. The trail instantly became a good deal quieter, but there were still many hikers about – and an increasing number of alpinists descending from the high peaks, ironwork clanking as they bounded down the rocks. Ahead, through the thinning tree cover, I started to glimpse views of distant snowfields against the sky.
My original plan had been to camp at the Refuge Wallon, but I got there two hours early despite taking a leisurely pace, so I decided to keep going. I only saw a couple of other walkers after passing Wallon. The ascent of the Col d’Aratille begins up a broad, gentle alp with thin tree cover and many exposed granite slabs. It didn’t take long before I ran out of likely camping spots and the map showed a steepening path ahead; looking up, I saw improbable and extremely rugged terrain. Eagles circled in the cooling evening. I decided to make my camp near the torrent at an altitude of 2,028m, just 500m beneath my first col, which I’ll tackle in the morning.
Altogether I’ve done about 1,200m of ascent today, most of it fairly gentle. It’s been a good introduction to walking in the Pyrenees. I can’t wait to get up into the high mountains tomorrow.
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