Tough Luck in the Pyrenees - September 2013

On the first day of September Claudia and I started walking into the Pyrenees, the great mountain range that forms a natural border between France and Spain. Our plan was to trek along the Pyrenean Haute Route as far eastward through the range as we could in the next three weeks, staying in mountain huts and occasional small towns along the way. Unfortunately, due to a sudden stroke of bad luck our trip came to an abrupt end on the sixth day; I’ll explain more below.

Pyrenees, Lescun, town, photo


The town of Lescun sits amongst green meadows at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.

Our first day and night was spent lounging around in Lescun, a small isolated village surrounded by green meadows with jagged limestone peaks towering behind. The village is immediately charming with its narrow streets and traditional stone buildings; it would be difficult to imagine a more idyllic mountain setting.

Lescun, Pyrenees, France, photo

House in Lescun

Lescun, France, Pyrenees, sunrise, town, photo

Sunrise Over Lescun

Sunrise over the town of Lescun.

Pyrenees, horses, photo

Pyrenees Horses

Horses graze in the meadows below Pic d'Anasabere (2377m).

As we walked directly out of Lescun and up a deep valley towards the base of the jagged peaks, I was positively high on life. For many years I’ve longed to see the Pyrenees, and on this morning I had the unique and palpable feeling of experiencing my dreams coming true in the present. Even better still, I was there sharing the experience with the woman I love – my wife. I was so full of these great feelings I kept babbling about it to her… and now to you!

Anyhow, I had chosen a longer route than the guidebook suggested for this day in order to take us right through the most impressive scenery which I did not want to miss. Well, it ended up being a grueling 10 hour hike, the second half along a high ridgeline trail obscured by blowing fog. We finally arrived exhausted at the Refuge d’Arlet hut at 7:30; we were the only guests there and despite our late arrival the hut people still cooked us a delicious, filling meal.

Pyrenees, France, sunrise, Refuge d'Arlet, photo

Arlet Sunrise

Sunrise above the clouds as seen from the Refuge d'Arlet.

Pyrenees, Astun, pool, hiking, photo

Hiking past some lovely pools above the little ski area of Astun.

Day 3 took us briefly into Spain where we found a room at an aging 60’s-modern-style restaurant/lodge at Col du Somport, located at the border on a high pass road where busses take sightseeing tourists for a brief stop to see the view. In this random, lonely, semi-abandoned place we ended up enjoying ice cream, a delicious bottle of wine, and a terrific dinner! High on life again…

Pyrenees, Pic du Midi d'Ossau, hiking, photo

Hiking with Pic du Midi d'Ossau towering across the valley.

On day 4 we hiked over a pass back into France to Refuge d’Ayous, which I knew would be a highlight of the trek. Positioned right above Lac Gentau, one of four lakes in this attractive alpine valley, the hut has a postcard view of the awesome pyramid of Pic du Midi d’Ossau which dominates the skyline on the opposite side of the valley. I was satisfied to be able to photograph the sunset and dusk light here on a perfectly crystal clear evening, since every previous afternoon so far we’d been socked in with fog and clouds.

Pic du Midi d'Ossau. Lac Gentau, Refuge d'Ayous, Pyrenees, France, photo

Lac Gentau Reflection

Dusk reflection of Pic du Midi d'Ossau in Lac Gentau near the Refuge d'Ayous in the Pyrenees - September.

From the Refuge d’Ayous, we crossed a valley and hiked around to Refuge de Pombie on the other side of Pic du Midi d’Ossau. This hut is located at the base of the huge sheer eastern rock face of the mountain and is therefore popular with climbers, who we could hear shouting to each other from high up on the face throughout the afternoon (and who made sure to arrive back at the hut with all their harnesses and helmets still on, to show off their achievements, as is the norm in Europe! Hehe..)

Pyrenees, refuge, pompie, photo

Refuge Pombie and Pic du Midi d'Ossau.

By about this time, we really started to get a bit jealous of the campers who had brought tents. If you’re willing to carry the extra weight, this is really the way to trek in the Pyrenees, since you’ll have a lot more flexibility with where you can spend the night (and you save some money too!). But we didn’t have a tent or sleeping bags, so the huts were our destinations for every night. 

I’d also made up my mind by now that huts are a great novelty for an American backpacker like me, but in the long run I’m glad I live in Colorado near the wilderness. In other words, I’m glad that for me wilderness camping is the norm and alpine huts are a novelty, not the other way around. But maybe I’ll change my mind again the next time I load up my heavy camping backpack! (Or get injured in the mountains…)

Pic d' Arriel, Pyrenees, hiking, photo

Hiking with Pic d' Arriel (2824m) behind.

On day 6 we knew we had a big day ahead of us, with two big passes and a tough 9 hour hike between the Refuge de Pombie and the Refuge de Larribet. But by now we were really hitting our stride, firing all cylinders so to speak. Then disaster struck.

While crossing the second pass, on a short scrambly section that is normally routine business for us, Claudia’s hand or foot somehow slipped and she suddenly tumbled down the rocks about 3 meters straight down. I was shocked and appalled and no doubt she was too. Fearing the worst, I was greatly relieved that she had not apparently broken any bones nor hit her head; however, she was scraped up and her chest hurt badly – we thought she might have bruised her chest or ribs.

Despite her acute pain, she was able to re-climb the pass she just fell off (no other choice), and hobble down the remaining 600 vertical meters of rough terrain to the next hut, while I carried her backpack. Once there we spoke with the hut warden and he urged us to call for a helicopter rescue. Claudia thought that was ridiculous, but on the other hand we didn’t really know what her injury was, plus a multi-day storm was forecasted to arrive that evening. Our window of opportunity was NOW or never. We took some time to calm down and assess our options, and finally we decided to go ahead and call the helicopter. Better safe than sorry. She spoke with a doctor over the radio who also confirmed our decision. A half hour later the chopper was there, we were loaded up, and off we went to the hospital in the nearby city of Tarbes.

Turns out, that was absolutely the right call. X-rays revealed a cracked sternum (breastbone), an injury that can often signal much more serious heart and/or lung injuries. Fortunately further tests showed that not to be the case – the sternum was cracked but that’s it. Hiking down the next day in the rain and hitchhiking and riding busses all day could have badly aggravated her injury.

So… having been plucked out of the Pyrenees and stuck in a hospital for two nights, we now we sit in the small French town of Oloron, where we started our trek from a week ago… not so high on life anymore. We will try to relax a few days here while Claudia recuperates and endures her pain with her characteristic toughness, and will eventually make the long train ride back up to Germany to visit her friends and do some follow up tests with a German doctor (who she can speak with!). Our big trip plans are all up in the air now, but all I really care about is that Claudia heals well. Accidents happen… shit happens… but we persevere!