towering over its lesser neighbours as seen from the summit of Taillon some 12 Km to the south-east.
Vignemale, also known as Pique Longue is the highest of the mountains on the French side of the Pyrenees.
The cirque of peaks around Vignemale form an eastward facing basin for the Glacier d'Ossuoue which similarly to many other glaciers in Europe has reteated significantly due to global warming.
Gavarnie and the Holle hut
Based at the town of Gavarnie in the Midi-Pyrenees close to the pilgimage town of Lourdes we stayed at the excellent La Grange de Holle refuge
(alt. 1495m.), owned by the French Alpine Club (CAF). From there, we choose to walk up to the Baysellance Hut (alt.2651m) also CAF, the highest guardianed hut in the Pyrenees on June 5th for an overnight stay before we tackled Vignemale the next day.
La Grange de Holle refuge
Ken explains some finer points to his brother Peter
There were three of us in the party, Ken, his younger brother Peter and myself. It was the first time for all of us in the French Pyrenees except for a few high level border crosings from Spain. Ken can be seen explaining the benefits of the Alpine start to Peter at our favourite Gavarnie bar.
Gavarnie is a tourist town with souvenier shops, horses for hire and lots of restaurants, cafes and bars. As we were early in the season we saw few crowds, but as we spent most of our time on the mountains we weren't too concerned with a lack of people. We also noticed that Gavarnie was a station on El Camino
the Pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. (The way of St James)
We noticed that an early explorer was celebrated in the town. This was HENRY RUSSELL
who was infatuated with Vignemale and even lived there in a grotto over one hundred years ago. A statue at the edge of the road into town commemorates him. Luckily for us, the
Bayssellance hut was slightly better than a grotto (more of this later).
June 5th - Going up to the Bayssellance hut
on the trail
We set off along the GR10 trail at a civilised hour and with a liesurely pace, passing the Barrage d'Ossoue and crossing the river feeding it by a sturdy stone bridge.
The bridge was at an altitude of 1900m and the hut was at 2651m.
Up to that crossing point the walking was quite enjoyable but after the bridge the path started to zig-zag up the hill towards the hut and our normal heavy sacs stared to exert a tiring downward force.
The whole distance between huts was about 11Km.
Outside the refugio
relaxing at the hut
Sunshine before snow
Sudden snow appears
Put another twig on the stove Cratchit
Three brass monkeys - waiting for food
We arrived at the hut around 5:30pm and after a cold beer, found out from the guardians about where our domitory was and what time dinner would be. It was really warm when we arrived in bright sunshine but about an hour later the sky turned black and snow began to fall.
The temperature in the hut then rapidly fell to zero and we amused the guardians by shivering under blankets until dinner time. At one point the guardian came out of the steaming kitchen in a duvet jacket and asked us if we were warm enough. (Gallic humour I suppose).Peter tried to get a glow from the stove without much success.
There was a wood burning stove but with a lack of wood and a poor radiation capability it didn't even give a psychological warming effect.
However, bearing in mind that all supplies to the hut have to be flown up by helicopter I guess we shouldn't complain about a lack of firewood.
June 6th - Ascending Vignemale
Early light as Ken starts the ascent
Johnnie and Peter warming up
We were up early but found the ablutions locked, the guardians told us that all the water had frozen overnight, so no washing or toilet use was possible. Still, dawn came with a crystal clear sky, bright sunshine and no wind, cool but ideal for the ascent. So we set off, slightly smellier than planned. At about 7:30am, we dropped back down the hill from the hut to the 2500m contour to skirt around the "Crete de Petit Vignemale" and then climbed back up towards the glacier. The ascent was on scree, morain and frozen snow, following a rising trail toward the snowfields and the glacier.
On the morain
Loose slabs near summit
Peter & Ken on top
Peter & Johnnie on top
No handholds were necessary until we got to the foot of the Vignemale rocks above the three thousand metre level, here progress required more care as the rocks were quite loose and the snow cover was thin in places.
The route was not obvious but when we pulled over the crest of the summit ridge at around 10:30am, we were within 50 metres of the summit post.
descending the ridge
Once on the summit we saw a sad memorial to a Spanish girl who had died aged 30 and this gave us all some cause for silent reflection on how lucky we were to have been alive for so long.
We spent about a half hour on the summit, having a snack, taking fotos and discussing the descent.
Ken suggested avoiding the loose rock and thin snow cover of our ascent route by descending the ridge to an obvious cornice and then down the nearest snow gulley.
Ken finds a snow gulley
Another party ascending
Both Peter and I thought this was a good plan, so off we went, arriving near the cornice with little difficulty although taking care to keep off the crest of the ridge to avoid potential accidents.
Strangely enough we spotted the tracks of a fox that crossed the cornice near our descent gulley.
We found a steep snow gully and descended this quickly, as we went down we saw the two Spaniards who were also staying at the hut crossing the glacier to follow the same route as we had.
Then off we went across the glacier in semi white-out conditions as the rising sun drew mist from the frozen snow.
Back to Gavarnie
After descending we had to climb back up to the hut to get our gear and make our way back the the Holle hut for a well earned dinner and a good nights sleep.
We stayed at the Holle hut for 4 nights in total and we really appreciated the nourishing food provided by the guardians. We 3 were the only english visitors at that time but we got on famously with the other guests who were mainly French, swapping wine and lifetime stories and even cracking some multi-lingual jokes.
One of our fellow French guests mightily impressed us with her recounting of having walked 5000Km whilst doing "El Camino" by various routes.
A good outing involving a long walk, an overnight stay in the highest Pyrenean hut, interesting route finding and some exciting scrambling over mountain rock and frozen snow.
Photographs by : Ken, Peter & DrJonnie
Map: Editorial Alpina - Vignemale Bujaruelo Valle de Ara
Guide: Kev Reynolds - Cicerone - Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees
Huts: Club Alpin Francais
Walks: La FFRandonnée