The HRP / GR11 blog series
Three cols and a wizard
Total miles walked: 19.4
HRP stage: 15
Location: the Grottos Bellevue beneath the East Face of Vignemale, on the GR10 towards Gavarnie
What a day it has been! According to the Joosten guide, this is a ‘surprisingly easy walk’, and on balance I’d agree – although I’ve done 1,400m of ascent today, many of the paths were fairly well graded, as I’ve been following the GR10 for much of the day. However, all those ups and down under the fierce Pyrenean sun were pretty knackering. I may have only walked nine miles, but it feels further. It’s definitely a walk in the same spirit as the Tour of Monte Rosa.
My reward for an early start was a spectacular colour show when I reached the Lac d’Aratille at 2,247m. The dawn terminator swept down from the crags above, the snowfields already blazing vivid yellows. Down by the shores of the lake, wild campers began to stir and shake the frost from their tents. The mountainside was a rich carpet of alpine flowers, yellows and blues and purples, and cinnabar moths fluttered everywhere like sparks caught in the dawn’s rays. If ever there was a paradise for thru-hikers, this place must surely be it.
Scale is deceptive in these mountains. When I looked up to the Col d’Aratille, I thought I still had a thousand metres left to climb, but in fact the col was only three hundred metres above me. I’m still thinking in terms of the Western Alps, but these mountains are not quite so colossal in scale.
There is still quite a lot of snow about. The snowfields beneath the Col d’Aratille were absolutely frozen solid, and required care to cross (the way was stepped out, though, of course). I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for climbing my first Pirenean col at 2,528m, but then I caught a glimpse of the view over into Spain and it staggered me.
The West Face of Vignemale jutted up out of the valley beneath – a wild chaos of towers and bastions rising up to the distant pinnacle of Vignemale itself, over 700m above me. It looked higher. As I was soon to discover, Vignemale is a mountain with enormous presence.
A long rising traverse around the brittle South Face of the Pics Chabarrou brought me to my second col of the day, the Col des Mulets. According to Joosten, an obvious path leads the way down, avoiding a large permanent snowfield, but I couldn’t find any alternative path. Maybe it was still buried under the snow. The snowfield was more like a mini glacier, to be honest, several hundred metres long and crevassed in places, so I tooled up with spikes and ice axe before making the descent.
The snowfield was exposed to the full force of the late morning sun, and was thawing rapidly, making the descent somewhat precarious on collapsing steps. Others attempted the descent without any ice gear at all, and I saw one man take a modest slide before he managed to arrest by jamming in his boots. Terrain like this, with a big run-out towards boulders, makes me glad I packed ice gear after all.
The rest of the descent to Vallee de Gaube was a steep trudge down scree – but it was worth it a thousand times over. This must be the finest hidden valley I’ve ever seen: a wide flat strath where glacial torrents run from the debris floes above, and a refuge perched on the moraine dam at the end. Above it all, the truly astonishing North Face of the Vignemale dominates the scenery. This glaciated mountain wall is over a thousand metres high and divided into several striking buttresses, each of which would be a world-famous crag if placed in Scotland. The wall would dwarf the North Face of Ben Nevis.
I spent a couple of hours there to avoid the hottest part of the day. I had now rejoined the GR10, so dozens of other hikers had a similar idea and the meadow was soon filled with relaxing hikers. To be honest, I’m a little surprised just how busy the GR10 is at the moment.
But I couldn’t put off the final col of the day forever, and I made a move at about 15.00. The Hourquette d’Ossoue was a tough grind in the hot afternoon sun, and I let plenty of people overtake me. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of water up here. These cols would be gruelling if I had to haul water as well.
There were many snow patches lurking in the fractured rock wilderness near the col – far more than I expected, actually. I chatted to an alpinist on his way down from Vignemale and he said there is still a lot of snow on the normal route, and that a solo walker fell into a crevasse recently and had to be rescued. This makes me nervous about attempting it alone; plenty of snow may cover the crevasses, but that’s bad news when the morning sun starts to soften the snow bridges.
I passed the Refuge de Baysellance, where I’d originally planned to camp. No chance – the place was literally crawling with hundreds of hikers and climbers, and every possible tent spot on the rocky knoll had already been claimed. So I kept descending.
Soon I passed the mysterious Vignemale Grottos: three caves chiselled out of the mountain, next to each other in a row. I consulted Joosten, which says they were constructed in the 19th century by an eccentric mountaineer who was obsessed with Vignemale, and made these caves to act as a base of operations.
The central cave was occupied by a man with a long white beard, wearing a simple cloth habit. First impression, no word of a lie: I thought he was Gandalf, sans hat (although he had a wooden alpenstock, like many of the hikers I have seen today). The man greeted me in French-accented English and said he was the ‘guardian of the grotto’.
‘What is your quest, pilgrim?’ the wizard said.
Completely taken aback, I mumbled something about climbing the Vignemale.
He glanced over my pack, tutted, and said, ‘It is not an auspicious week for it.’ With that he would no longer speak to me, and – slightly unnerved, I’ll admit – I kept descending.
A little way down the hill, I found at last a suitable pitch next to a waterfall. This makes a possible base for an ascent of Vignemale tomorrow, but I’m not sure – I have a healthy respect for glaciers when I’m on my own, and even though the East Face is only F+, this is a somewhat intimidating mountain. Gandalf’s warning has also put me off a bit, silly though it may seem. I may simply continue the trail to Gavarnie instead.