Pining for Sunscreen: A recent trip to the Pyrenees
You would think that someone hailing from Australia, as I do, would have a healthy respect for the sun and always remember to cover up and avoid getting burnt. But I always forget something when packing for a hike or climb (normally it is a spoon for some reason- as a result of which I have a large collection of wooden ones at home from all the times I have had to carve one whilst camping). And this time that something appeared to be sunscreen.
Anyway down to practicalities. After catching night trains and connecting with buses I finally arrived in Cauterets (1050m) on the French side of the Pyrenees on a Tuesday morning- looking forward to a week of hiking and maybe climbing a few peaks in this beautiful mountain range. The weather for the first day and a half was such that I did not even notice the missing sunscreen: it was pissing down with rain.
As I walked up the trail to Pont de‘Espagne I passed many stunning waterfalls, at their best with the rivers so bloated (would have posted some photos but fear they’d be a tad irrelevant on a site dedicated to mountains). The trail continued steadily upwards all day varying from a wide 4WD track in a lush pine forest to a narrow rocky path between boulders above the treeline, but always climbing. The high point of the day was Lac de Pourtet at 2400m which was reached in the late afternoon.
Not long after this I began scouting around the boulders looking for a suitable place to bivouac for the night. I had decided against bringing a tent for the trip, preferring to keep weight down by limiting myself to a bivy sack and a tent fly from a small tent- which I would use as a tarp. Ofcourse I would have preferred not to even bother with the fly so searched for somewhere with an overhang or perhaps two boulders leaning against each other, affording a little shelter from the spitting rain, but my search was to no avail. I found what I thought was a half decent spot and rigged up a fly between a boulder and the ground with just enough room for me to squeeze in. It was now that I discovered why people don’t normally use tent flys as tarps: the irregular shape of it makes is bloody difficult to get taught, it sags in the middle drooping over your head as water pools in it. So that night I lay on one side, staring at a boulder 5 inches from my face when ever my eyes were open, if I tried to turn over my face was pressed against the wet fly, so I soon learned to be content with the boulder. By morning however geology was ruled off the potential list of future jobs: staring at a single piece of rock for so long was sort of dull. It was at this stage that I made the first ‘Resolution’ of the trip: don’t try to use a tent fly as a tarp’.
Thankfully the weather started clearing early in the morning, so after a quick breakfast of “Pain de Epices” I packed up and started the hike towards the trip’s first pass: Col de Cambales (2706). Passed a few more lakes on the way up and got my first glimpse of some peaks through the thining clouds and suddenly I was getting excited. These vast rocky faces and sharp ridges are distinctly lacking in Australia’s mountains and I considered myself very lucky to be here amongst such awesome mountains. I had paused to appreciate the view at the col, when I heard one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard: a group of three fellows scrambling down the ridge above me were singing an old fashioned French song. In perfect unision and all with lovely voices, but what made it sound especially cool was the natural acoustics of the surrounding mountains: a slight echo and something which made them sound both near and very far away at the same time.
Continuing in perfect weather I made my way down the slope and into Spain, and thereby changing the token greeting to other hikers from ‘bonjour’ to ‘hola’ and it struck me as strange that after only a day of walking I had entered a different country with a whole new language and culture. Passing the Respomusso Refuge (a large, sophisticated affair with televisions and beds to sleep over 100) I made use of their bathroom facilities but looked forward to settling down that night at a site which provided a little more solitude. I got the isolation that I asked for a few hours later when I arrived at the shores of Helado lake, to top this off were a brilliant vista of Pic de’Arriel and the knowledge that I was in a prime location for my climb of Balaitus (3146m) by the ‘Grand Diagonal’ route the following morning.
Without an alarm clock I’d been unable to wake up as early as I would have liked, meaning that it was around 7.00 before I was on the trail by which stage the sun was well and truly risen, though I remained in shadows for the main portion of the climb. The trail was quite easy to follow at the start, although pretty soon it fanned out into several trails which became more indistinct, easily solved though by keeping an eye out for the cairns. I was listening to a band called Deerhoof on my mp3 player as I followed the cairns through the scree fields, it was the first time I had ever listened to music whilst hiking, but having recently started using it for runs (and really enjoying it) I decided to give it a go for the first steep part of the hike, before it turned into scrambling. At this stage I should point out that when music is playing I really listen to it, it’s not just background noise, but rather something that gets my attention- about the same level as reading a book might. So it should come as no surprise (doubly so for anyone who knows how cool Deerhoof are!) that the music proved a bit distracting and I found myself at the base of a steep couloir leading up to a tiny col, which I thought would be the start of the route proper. A ‘semi-obvious’ trail, marked with cairns had led me here and according to me map it was in about the right position, so I assumed it to be the right couloir to take. There was just one problem, apart from it’s steepness it appeared as though no one else had climbed it recently- moss was growing all over the rocks and the few tufts of grass looked completely untrodden on. Surely such a popular route should have a more defined, obvious trail I thought to myself, switching off the music at the same time.
Traversing back down the slope to get a better view before tackling the couloir I noticed another trail which appeared to lead further up the valley. I decided to follow it for a little while and see if it offered a better possibility and sure enough I soon found myself at the cosy, albeit dark, little cave of Abri Michaud With a clear view of a simple route up a couloir: this was the real route. Leading to ‘Resolution #2’: only listen to music on simple paths which don’t require route finding attention.
The scrambling was sensational with just the right balance between exposure to provide a sense of drama and blocky rock with plenty of holds, so that the climbing was interesting but also rapid. When sustained for a few hundred metres this sort of climbing is probably the most enjoyable activity in the whole world that doesn‘t require two people. On hikes your mind is allowed to wander because the trail usually won‘t be technically difficult enough to require mental attention, and with rock climbing the pace is so much slower. Easy climbing/ difficult hiking, call it what you will, but decent scrambling like on this route combines the two brilliantly.
After a few more false leads, on account of the numerous cairns (which seem willing to lead you in any sort of direction except the right one) I poked my head into the sunlight on the final ridge and made the short walk to the summit. I wasn’t alone for long before a group of 4 Spaniards met me who’d come up the Brecha Latour route. We chatted briefly about the surrounding mountains, and weird local weather pattern which meant that the French valleys were blanketed in cloud while the Spanish ones were perfectly clear. I followed the same route down that I’d climbed up and then collected my pack from the previous nights bivy site.
The rest of this third day was spent retracing my route around to Respomuso and then heading up a valley on the other side of the lake. The bright sun was starting to burn me I realised, yesterday it had simply been nice but today, on my already reddening skin, it was a recipe for a peeling nose in one weeks time. Lacking sunscreen I did what I could: turning collars up on shirts, smearing blistex over my lips and nose but it still wasn’t quite enough. It was then that I had the idea of fixing a makeshift nose patch onto my sunglasses, as I had seen in old photos of mountaineer’s glacier glasses, I did this by cutting some fabric from an old shirt and sewing it around the bridge between the two lenses. It worked a treat, and I left it on for the remainder of the trip, the only problems were gusts of wind which made it flap up over my eyes and looking like a complete knob.
Waking to another perfect day beside Cantal lake I was quick to pack up and then hiked up the dusty, loose scree to the col near Teberray (2916m) where I left my pack for a short side trip up this peak. Then it was only a short walk over to Collado del Infierno where I would leave my pack again for a climb of Pico del’Infierno (3082m) by the usual route. Like on Balaitus the many cairns were rather misleading, and there were a few occasions where I found the trails led to airy 5th class moves, which made me start thinking about how apt the peak’s name might be. However with a little look around there were plenty of alternate paths to take. I reached the top, celebrated with a butterscotch and then continued over the awesome ridge which connects this peak with Infierno Occidental (3006m).
It was only 10.30 by the time that I was back down at the col where I had left my pack, but I was hungry enough to sit down for a quick bite to eat. It was at this stage that I discovered my new favourite meal: sweetened, concentrated milk paste on a rye cracker topped with a slice of dried apple. Call me a high-brow food snob if you will, but this tasty combination will be coming with me on every backcountry trip from now on.
Being day four of the trip, I was ready to restock on a few food provisions and so walked down the crowded trail to the spa resort of Baños de Panticosa. Unfortunately there was no supermarket in the town, but as soon as I stuck my thumb out the first car puller over: awesome when hitchhiking is so easy! I got a ride down to Panticosa (1000m) and sat around waiting for the Super Mercado to open after siesta (at 17.00!?- struck me as being pretty late). When they finally opened I decided on buying some sunscreen as well as the food supplies (namely milk paste, rye crackers and dried apple!) and settled on a tube of “Dermo Protector”, thinking that it was funny that this sunscreen didn’t have an SPF rating, but having checked with the checkout girl (through a series of uninhibited sign language gestures) that it was definitely for skin and not a hair product, I bought it and quickly smeared some on my burned face.
I walked for a few hours into the evening, out of Panticosa and back into the hills, where I sat on top of a boulder having dinner and re-applying the “Dermo Protector” more often than was probably necessary. This stuff had a funny smell, almost like diesel or atleast like that spirit smell that some cleaning products have- I inspected the tube to see whether it listed the ingredients. Printed in small font down the bottom was “Gel de Ducha”, now I don’t speak Spanish but understand enough to realise my mistake: I had bought a container of shower gel !!! Resolution 3#: learn Spanish so that I don’t make this mistake again.
The following day involved relatively little travel, I crossed Collado de Espelunz (2450m) early in the morning and then followed a stream down this beautiful, empty valley with views of the impressive south face of Vignemale (3298m). Arriving at a small but solidly built hut at the base of this mountain in the early afternoon. I spent the rest of the day reading and going for short walks around the boulder field which lay nearby.
The last full day of the trip saw me walking downhill to a camping ground at Bujaruelo, where I joined a different track and climbed back up the slopes towards Puerto de Bujaruelo which forms the border between France and Spain. This pass provided some windy updrafts which attracted the eagles in huge numbers: circling around aimlessly and lazily drifting over the mountain tops. I left my pack hidden behind some rocks and went for a short side trip traversing around the northern slopes of Tallon (3144m), finding some good boulders on the way which I had some fun climbing around for a while.
That afternoon saw me descend down towards Gavarnie, a giant cirque which is a popular holiday town in France. I heard many of what my brother calls ’Magic Mountain Monkeys’- what the rest of you probably know as Marmots, they were everywhere. I stayed the last night in the shelter of Pouey Aspé, a small hut, which I was thankful for as the weather had taken a turn for the worse during the afternoon. I heard hail banging on the tin roof as I cooked up the evening meal. Looking through my pack later that night, I discovered much to my amazement that after 6 days of walking, being burned by the sun, sewing nose patches onto sunglasses and smearing shower gel over my face, it turned out that all along, there had been a small tube of sunscreen in the bottom of my pack, hidden beneath a knee brace that I hadn’t had need to use. Leading to the final Resolution #4: know what is in my bloody pack!