Experiences from others
Trekking in the Pyrenees 2013 – 2008
“It’s six o’clock in the morning, for Christ’s sake,” he growled under the blanket, “let me sleep. I am on holiday!” On the previous evening he had growled to me, “I will walk with you but don’t think this trekking will change me.” He does not speak to me, he growls. That’s my son.
Nick, my only child, is an emotionally highly strung 28 year-old working in the world of IT. He drinks, smokes and parties hard as if there is no tomorrow. In his words he is living it up and just having fun. Just having fun with those blood-shot eyes and constant yawning? During the day he is as exciting as the vampire in the daylight.
So he sleeps for another couple of hours, then slowly arises, inspects his sluggish abdomen in the hotel room mirror, and then goes outside to have the first fag of the day.
10 June: Toulouse to Melles
We arrived in Toulouse-Matabiau at dawn with a plenty of time to connect with a provincial train to Luchon where I had planned to buy Nick a walking stick and some warm gear for the high altitude.
“I don’t need a walking stick!” was all I got from him when I told him few days ago. It was a total waste of time telling him in advance as he was neither listening nor had clues to the gizmos of trekking. During the train journey to Luchon, Nick would pop out of the carriage and have a quick puff on the platform while the train made a long stop. You’d better get used to not smoking, because you can’t smoke in the mountains – I warned him.
“Why not?” He asks. “Because,” I say, “No hiker smokes in the mountains and it is embarrassing to smoke at the gîte, you know.” “No one?” He challenges me. “Nope! No one.” I reply. “OK, we will make a bet. If I see anyone smokes then you give me ten Euros” “It’s a deal!” It was Sunday; nothing would be open – I feared. But much to my relief, all the shops were open and the streets of Bagnéres-de-Luchon, the ski and spa resort town, buzzed with people on the morning shopping stroll. Nick proactively went into a supermarket and bought some food, two large bottles of water and a dozen rolls of toilet paper. He then walked across the street into a sports shop and purchased a walking stick and a warm jumper (Banzai!) whilst I stood outside guarding our luggage.
Now we were ready to rendezvous with Roelof, our trekking manager from Bergtoppers who would deliver us to our first night accommodation, L’auberge du Crabére in Melles and then he’d transport our luggage to the Bergtoppers’ cabin in Seix where our trekking journey ends.
“What do I need?’ Nick asked Roalof as he re-organised his backpack at the auberge. “You may only need two t-shirts.” Roelof, a tall lanky Dutchman, replied. Nick did not protest. Out came his beloved tee-shirts, and pants which reduced his backpack to the respectable weight of around 12 kilograms. (Mine was about the same). Roelof then laid the map on an outdoor garden table and explained the trekking route and accommodation arrangements he had made. Nick lit up a cigarette. Roelof glanced at Nick incredulously. – I’d bet he had never seen a trekker smoke. “Oh well, only one more left and that’s it!” Nick said sensing our wary gaze. Now the snow-capped Pyrenees looming its mighty presence and being immersed in its spirit, perhaps Nick may take this journey in his stride. “It’s awesome,” he muttered under his breath looking at the white mountain peaks.
Do you want to read more?
Hotel de la Poste, Oust
The Hotel de la Poste is what we would call a real family hotel. It has been owned and run by four generations of the same family and the fifth generation (I estimate her to be about 6 years old at present) is clearly being trained to take over later on. We dined in style on grandmother’s plates, enjoyed the old world comfort of antique armchairs and were amused by the veteran oak cupboards with squeaking doors in the bedroom.
However there were enough up-to-date facilities for us to feel comfortable and pampered. The biggest surprise was the swimming pool, cool and clean, long enough to make swimming a few lengths worthwhile and particularly welcome after a long day in the car getting to what is in fact the far end of France.
The room service was fault-free (someone even thought of adding cake to our afternoon tea-tray) and the beds – most important – were large enough for two and, thank heaven, firm; so there was none of that awful sliding into the middle! Saving the best to the end: the food. It was superb.
My wife and I had taken half pension and not once in our eight days did we feel the need to alter the set menu. The food was varied, with lots of local dishes, always well presented and really tasty. After a day in the lovely hills of the Pyrenees I can’t think of a nicer place ‘to come home to’ than the family Hotel de la Poste.
Having previously heard of the debate whether to release brown bears back into the wild in the region and seen the oui/non aux ours painted on the roadside barriers we were well aware of the possibility of meeting them, however scarce. However it was day 3 before the first sighting of an imprint to the disbelief of the non-sighters which developed into a standing joke of the type ‘Was that the mark of a very small Jack Russell bear? or of the Jack Daniels type more commonly found in hotel mini-bears’.
The first short day was steep, sultry and sweaty with a sudden heavy shower. Generally the weather was kind to us, holding off any rain until we were sitting in a refuge or bar. Rounding a slope we were startled by a herd of two hundred cows all moving up across our path and clonking their individual bells in a cacophony – those animals must be deaf and certainly the noise is a feature of most days and some nights. A curious compound of netting with 3 foot high shelters left us wondering for what they were built – poults of some kind, but no croak of pheasant nor oink of guinea fowl helps us discover.
The second day was a lengthy 8 hours with climbs aggregating 6,000 feet and a magnificent range of mountains around. Although tough the remainder of the week was a comfort in knowing that the hardest day was passed. The splash of spring flowers was a delight the entire week – yellow broom, red azalea, purple heather and the occasional clumps of blue gentian justified the walk in themselves even without the spectacle of the best-designed hills and valleys since the Norwegian fjords won an award.
Day three started in mists up to the point we reached a glorious upland pasture spread with white and yellow flowers including, to our surprise wild daffodils. Having debated for some time we concluded they could only have arrived there in the stomachs of lowland cows or had been planted by herds of wandering Dutchmen with excess bulbs from their home nurseries.
A stiff walk along the ridge brought us to the Refuge de Ruhle, a heavy-duty lager and a view from the terrace which ran from a high left top down to a small lac in afold of the hills, a larger lake in centre position behind a natural barriere and a valley falling away to the right. As evening approached the mists rolled back to obscure all these features and part reveal them again before supper.
We were accompanied for three days by French Cecille who put us to shame by carrying twice as much as us and walking just as fast, disdaining also such as bed and breakfast, warm showers and even on one occasion a mouse-proof cabane. She had started out from the Atlantic on 9 May and being now 10 days from the Med became steadily more cheerful by the day. Isolde the German postmistress was also marching the same way.
Day 4 was a longish descent to Merens les Vals and stay at Ax where les Bains turned out to be no more than foot-deep pools of warm water but refreshing nonetheless in a town otherwise distinguished by its pretty place de mairie and an excellent dinner at the Hotel de France. Being on the main road to Andorra the town is a constant flow of shoppers making for the cut-tax shops a few miles up the road.
Day 5 headed us back up from Merens to the refuge at Besines via some fierce hillsides. The route is generally well-marked with a red bar over a white although there have been interesting occasions when the blazon has either been part-painted out or placed on the trunk of a deciduous tree before the leaf has obscured it. On rare occasions the man with the red paint (M le Rouge) did not add his mark to that of M le Blanc but routing was not any problem with the exception of some dodgy map-reading which left us scrambling down a steep slope rather than taking the gentle descent just metres to the left.
The sky that night at the Refuge de Besines was a spectacular red and blue in a black frame and the next day’s easy walk down the valley yielded another bear-print – but do they have four or five toes on each paw or different on front and back?
Day 7 moving out of Bouillouse, all four including Cecille. A bright still cool morning with no cloud but the constant clonking of Jersey type cattle after a Bergtoppers breakfast of bacon, eggs and tea followed by the auberge breakfast of bread, jam and coffee. No one reported a good night sleep due to short, lumpy or creaky beds except for he who had secured a double bed and consequently remained quiet for fear of being allocated the next most obvious discomfort, whenever that was to be.
A broad valley leads from the barriere clothed in yellow heather and low cypress at exactly the right height for scraping the knees. The area is well wooded and the walk takes us on a steady descent to Mont Louis, a fortified town still used by the army. The blazing sunshine is mixed with regret that the week is coming to an end. Long views from a forestry track beckon next year’s stage and later as we approach Bolquere the tinkle of waterfalling and clonking of cows is replaced by the rasp and growl of motors.
The year-section ended with a fascinating rattle down the valley in le Petit Train Jaune to Villefranche de Conflent and an excellent dinner at the Princess, Vernet les Bains including pintade with an orange and lemon sauce – were these the mystery birds reared in the hills?
A longish drive back to Toulouse past Fitou and Courbiere and a generous presentation of Bergtoppers wine left only the planning for the festival of the Med-beach next year – will the band of walkers from years past turn up or will it be the town band that marches Arthur into the sea?
I was lucky enough to join a small group who were completing one more section of the GR10 walk between the Atlantic (Hendaye) and the Mediterranean (Banyuls) over 8 years.
Accomplishing around 35 – 40 hours during the six days per year, we hiked in wonderful Pyrenean mountain scenery between 600 meters – 2300 meters, enjoying staggering views, snow fields, wild flowers strawberries, fresh mountain streams, glacial lakes and seeing wildlife including: eagle, chamois, ptarmigan, snakes, frogs, lizards and many birds species.
The leafy beach forest and pine groves were a stark companion to the upland rocky tundra and moors, crossed by glacial maturate cascades.
It was not all hard work, since Bergtoppers and Roelof ensured medicinally verifying cold beers at the end of the day, and a variety of gite, refuge, hotel or auberge accommodation including local delicious breakfast and dinner plus a very welcome and substantial packed lunch made by Ireen.
Baggage was always at the destination accommodation so only a day back pack needed to be carried.
What more can you ask!!
I began my journey on the GR10 trail from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast in June 2003 and I was still walking in June 2006 trying to reach Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast.
Yes, I was a very slow walker but then I had never been a healthy person or an athlete. I was so lazy that I would drive to the corner shop to buy bread and milk instead of walking.
The first year I walked to Borce, getting lost countless times on the trail between the Basque villages.
The following year in 2004 I walked to Fos losing both my toe nails as well as getting lost many more times up on the high peaks.
Then last year, somewhere between Refuge des Bésines and Refuge des Bouillouses while I was madly trying to find the GR10 waymarks in thick snow, I injured my left knee and limped into the fortified town of Mont-Louis. I could almost smell the sea and yet my goal remained elusive in 2005.
Well I am happy to say that I finally reached Banyuls-sur- Mer on the 19th of June 2006!
Each year I walked 20 days so I suppose it took me about 60 days to complete the 900 kilometre journey. It was not a bad effort for an escargot and a complete trek dummy, don’t you think?
The GR10 trail is just like life and will test you to the very end. But just like in life the most amazing thing happens when you are least expecting it…
Do you want to read more?
The story of the week when the Bergtoppers were founded
July 2003 the Bergtoppers where founded while having dinner in a typical mountain restaurant. We had just finished a wonderful hike week that existed of a two days hike, a restday and a three days hike. Although the three days hike where replaced by two days and 1 day hiking.
This hiking week took place in the French Pyrenees while we were sleeping in the neighborhood of Seix.
The first day we climbed 300 meters, via the GR10, and then we rested for some hours watching the Tour the France. After that we climbed another 200 meters and slept in an unwarded cabin.
The next day we descended via the GR10d to the river Salat where we also had lunch. After that we climbed another 600 meter and of course this wasn’t a problem for anyone………
The next day was a resting day. The gentlemen went to Lourdes to watch the holly city. You can see that they liked it.
Peter and Jan hand in hand (left to right).
We started the third hiking day with a transfer to the river Riberot. From there we hiked to the refuge Estagnous via the Transfrontalier. For some of us it was a bit difficult but after some hours we reached the refuge. Some wanted to go on to Mount Valier, but unfortunately the weather was not good enough.
With some beer the problems of this “little hike” disappeared soon.
Next day we decided te descend via the two lakes. We started to descent to the first lake (Etang Rond) and from there we climbed to the second lake (Etang Long). The tracks are very narrow and sometimes there are ropes to hold on to you. It was exciting…….
The view was also magnificent. We even hiked for some minutes above the rainbow!
Here is a photo of the rest of the Bergtoppers. Jan, Roelof, Sjaak, Nico en Bruin (from left to right).
This day ended very late in the afternoon but in time for the planned BBQ. And the planned BBQ was also a very big success! So big that we decided to change the last hiking day…..
We decided to do 2 little hikes in stead of one big one. Also very nice!
This week we ended with a nice dinner in a local restaurant. After dinner we were driven home by the hostess and her father.
During dinner we came up with the name of our organization: Bergtoppers (MountainPeaks).
If you are interested after reading this story and you also want to have a very nice hiking week click on the next button.
“It’s a beautiful day!” After a quick shower I went back to the room where Nick was still asleep. The mound under the blanket stirred and the body emerged.
“What time is it?” He asked trying to reach for his BlackBerry. It was just after seven. Standing outside the auberge, Nick inhaled the cocktail of fresh mountain air and nicotine smoke deeply into his lungs then discarded the cigarette butt with a quick flick of his fingers.
“That’s it! It was the last one,” he picked up his backpack and walking stick. At 8.30 am we left the auberge for the direction of refuge de l’Etang d’Araing. It was going to be one of the most strenuous days requiring a 1461 metre climb up to 2170 metres.
“Pace yourself!” I shouted from a few steps behind Nick who was striding up along the sealed road on the shady mountainside. “Don’t walk more than 200 metres without finding another red and white GR sign!” I shouted while falling further behind him. What a painful mother I could be! To his credit, Nick was silent and seemed to be listening to me. He occasionally stopped and turned back to me pointing to the sign with ‘his’ walking stick and continued on rambling at his pace. Soon we reached the base of the endless climb and hours of climbing followed. “I don’t mind the climb, but this is too relentless!” Nick made a surprise admission as he surveyed the area with the map and compass.
“We can have a lunch stop at the cabane d’Uls, if you want. It’s not far from here.” He was taking on the leadership – A small transformation in progress. After much struggling (by me) we finally reached the top of col d’Auréan and looked down on the tiny outline of a cabin next to the dark étang (lake).
“Oh good, we can off-load some of the rubbish at the refuge.” Nick said, trying to take in the view at the same time. “No, you can’t.” I gave him the bad news. “You must carry your own rubbish with you to the town where there is a rubbish bin.”
“Hum…” Nick pondered for a little then came up with a bright idea. “They should pay someone to carry the rubbish down. Someone will do it for the money.” “That’s not a point,” I said, “the point is when you make a mess, ‘you’ clean it” and that “not everything can be bought with money, you know.” Nick did not respond and that meant he was chewing on my comments. After dinner we discussed about the next day’s plan and I described Eylie where I had stayed a couple years back. “There is a shop in the village called Sentien six kilometres from Eylie” I told Nick. I fancied the packet of fruits biscuits that we ate during the day. It was delicious and a good energy source when you are on the move. But Nick had a different fancy.
“Only six Ks?” his eyes lit up like a couple of light bulbs. Oh! Rats. I should never have mentioned the shop. “I can easily walk 6 Ks. Sweet! I can buy a packet of cigarettes!” What was I thinking?
“Listen to your body,” I shouted as I huffed and puffed from behind. – It was my advice of the day. Once we cleared serre d’Araing it was a long strenuous hike downhill. The healthy colour returned to Nick’s previously dull complexion and his constant yawning was replaced by the constant sneezing and blowing of his nose. We were both suffering from an allergic reaction to the mountain air and nature. We sneezed all the way down the mountain and reached Eylie just after midday. Wasting no time Nick hurried on a 12 kilometre return journey to Sentien but returned without a packet of cigarettes.
“What happened?” I asked, amused. “I had a puff and it tasted awful, so I threw it away.”
13 June: Eylie-d’en-Haut to Cabane de Bassett
As I had been on this part of GR10 once before, I was not paying much attention. I just followed Nick who followed the red and white marks all the way up to 1900 metres. The view was magnificent with water cascading down from the mountain peaks on the opposite side making mighty white splashes in the sunlight.
“This is so beautiful, but can’t remember coming here before,” I said. “Let’s check the map.” I called out. But the map inside Nick’s backpack pocket was moving up the mountain path and quickly getting away from me. Nick had totally taken over the navigator’s role and would not hand me over the map. Our altimeter registered 2000 metres and it appeared certain the summit was near. But the mountain peaks still soared above our heads and the exposed rocky ridge sizzled under our feet.
“I will pay all the money in the world to be under that waterfall!” Nick exclaimed, – his tee-shirt turning into a salt mine. We eventually arrived at a sparking lake surrounded by yet higher mountains with large patches of snow on its pinnacles. It was like Shangri-la, hidden in the bowl of the mountains where the sheep grazed on the carpet of soft lime-green grass, and melting snow trailed down the side of the mountains into the lake. The red and white GR marks on the lofty rock wall seemed to vanish into the piercing blue sky.
There was a berger’s cabin by the lake and three shepherds having lunch inside. “Where are we?” I asked the shepherds showing them the map. Thank God, the oldest one spoke fluent English! “We are looking for GR10 trail – Is that it?” I pointed to the signs on the rock ridge.
“No, over that mountain is Spain”
The shepherds first took us to the water’s edge where the icy water springing out from the source beneath the lake and filled up our empty water bottles then showed us the way, the three hour walk on a narrow path that contoured ‘forever’ along the steep ridge of the mountains, that eventually took us somewhere between abri de Berger en Pierre and col de l’Arech. Once back on the right track, Nick powered on whilst I only just managed to stagger. We reached cabane pastorale de l’Arech just before the thick mist covered the mountain and its prairies. The cabin was run down but sitting by the warm growing fire that Nick made for me – I was the happiest mother in the whole world.
14 June: Cabane pastorale de l’Arech to Pla de la Lau
Once we had climbed up to Clot du Lac at 1821 metres it was all downhill, and by midday, we were at the grassy bank of a wide and deep flowing river that cut through the mountain valley. “Look over there!” I cried out, pointing to a mighty white splash looming across the river, “What a beautiful waterfall! And you do not have to pay all the money in the world to stand under it…” Nick’s wish was granted. After a nice splash and drying in the sun, we put up the tent that Ireen, Madame Roelof delivered that afternoon. Ireen also delivered whole lots of other goodies: a gas burner, pots and pans, dinner, breakfast, and picnic for the next day – the Bergtoppers are efficient people. Nick lay on the wooden bridge over the flowing river and watched the moving clouds in the fading light. He and the nature began to melt into one. “I will walk with you but don’t think this trekking will change me”… his ‘will’ had no chance under the magic spell of the Universe. I awoke with the torrential rain pounding on the tent and that awful wet feeling. Tup tup tup… the drops of rain fell onto my sleeping bag. The tent was leaking! I switched on the torch and saw Nick fast asleep cocooned in the thick warm sleeping bag. ‘It’s three o’clock in the morning, for Christ’s sake!’ Like mother like son, I swore. But the leak was not from the faulty tent; it was the rain dripping from the little windows near the roof! The only way to stop flooding inside was to go out in the rain and close the windows! Outside, in the dark hollow of the night, the storm raged. The shadows of the trees danced on the ground as the lightning lit up the sky. Looking like a drowning rat, I quickly closed the windows and scurried back into the tent where Nick slept peacefully.
15 June : Pla de la Lau to Refuge Estagnous
The morning came, as if the rain storm passed through the dream in my sleep. In the light of dawn, just before six o’clock, Nick was up, dressed, and standing by the wooden bench watching the water in the pan boiling.
“Mum, do you want a cup of tea?”
Yes please, I replied rubbing my eyes – am I still dreaming?
The sky was mostly in various shades of grey, and faint blue in the North, but no rain. It was the day we would climb Mont-Valier, the highlight of our journey. We were getting fitter and faster, aided by the chilly mountain air and the wet rocky ground which made it hard to sit down and rest, so we were up in the mist-veiled summit by midafternoon. The Refuge Estagnous perched on the mountain ridge overlooking the inky blue lake below. The refuge guarde, in his mid-thirties wearing a blindingly white chef’s apron came to greet us at the entrance. He quickly went back into the kitchen then out of the kitchen, like Jack in the Box, explained how the shower worked, showed us our dorm and made sure we make our bed before we leave the refuge, and then told us that there would be seven people staying the night and the dinner would be served at seven. Then he quickly went back into the kitchen again. We could see him pacing up and down the kitchen smoking a cigarette!
Huh! – Nick looked at me victoriously. There goes my ten Euros.
After a couple of hours nap, we went to the dining room. The room was filled with delicious aromas drifting from the kitchen and the fire crackled in the fireplace. The refuge guarde was extremely efficient, to the point of perfection. There were middle-aged and young French couples, Nick and I sat around the table and chatted while waiting for the seventh trekker to arrive. Suddenly the front door flung open. With the gust of chilly wind, a shadowy figure entered the room. He arranged his rucksack and boots neatly on the wall near the entrance and then came up to the table and sat between Nick and me; his chiselled profile almost hidden in the half fallen hood of his khaki jacket. … Something really familiar about this guy…
“So, tell us about your walk on GR10, Hiroko. Did you walk all the way to Banyuls?” The lady at the table asked me. I began the story of my epic journey condensed into five minutes. The mystery man popped his head out from the hood and said, “I met you in Bidarray.”
“Jean-Claude from Toulouse?” I asked, astonished.
“Oui” He replied.
“Wow! I can’t believe seeing you here.”
Jean-Claude began telling everyone about our first chance meeting at the Barberaena Hotel restaurant in Bidarray some five years ago. Nick looked at me suspiciously as if I had ‘pre-arranged’ the meeting with Jean-Claude, but who could blame him? It was totally bizarre! How often do you bump into a total stranger from the antipodes twice in your life time, especially on the mist-covered mountain top, some 2300 metres above sea level?
16 June : Refuge Estagnous to Bergtoppers’ cabin
Roeelof told us that it would be a quicker way to rejoin GR10 if we took a track leading from behind the refuge. We climbed Col de Pécouch, 2462 metres, and from there my beloved Mont-Valier shimmered in the orange hue of the rising sun. The descent was torturous and treacherous with walking on rock surface, and rock avalanches. The walking path snaked and contoured around the lakes and mountain side.
“I don’t know why we have to walk around the mountains, it would be so much faster on the straight line,” said Nick pointed to the direct path below.
“Yes, but the GR10 trail is like life,” I enlighten him like the Dalai Lama, “it is not how fast you get there, but how you get there without missing interesting things along the way.”
I did not expect Nick’s response. But he responded.
“Yeah, that makes the GR10 walk interesting.”
17 June : The final day
“Please pick us up in Couflens at six o’clock,” we asked Ireen when she dropped us off at Carriéres de d’Estours at 11.00 am. Nick was by then in top physical condition; there was no doubt in his mind that he could walk the distance in seven hours or even less. When we passed the cabane d’Aula, the weather turned ugly. The icy rain pelted down with the stormy wind. The wind was so frightful that at one stage I thought it would blow me away high up in the sky like a kite. At the rim of the emerald green étang on the grassy hill side, shielded from the wind, we decided to stop for lunch. The sun shone briefly. Nick opened his backpack and handed me a piece of baguette, Spanish salamis and assortment of cheeses that he had bought at the supermarket in Seix before we left for the last journey this morning. As we sat munching away our lunch, the rain started to fall again. We did not move, just covered our heads with the hood of our jackets and kept on eating in the pouring rain. Nick and I no longer needed to talk: we knew each other better than at any other time in our lives. So we lingered on, and savoured the moment for a little while longer. Down below, in the backdrop of the Pyrenees, we saw the black and white border collies sprinting up the sweeping green hill rounding up the sheep in the sunshine…
Sydney Australia, 2007