They go low, so we go high.
We drove south past Laruns into the mountains up to the Lac de Bious-Artigues at 1400m altitude. We were shocked, shocked I tell you, to find the car park by the lake full, with well-equipped and, worse – fit-looking – hikers setting forth. We were most aggrieved, having had the forests and mountains to ourselves the previous two days – well, except for the cattle and horses, but they didn’t clog up the paths, they weren’t smugly thin and they didn’t have hiking poles and expensive walking gear.
It was another sunny day (yawn) but cold in the shadow of the mountain at such altitude. A road ascended from the lake into the plateau where an unlikely helicopter was airlifting concrete from three trucks to what looked like a Cabane high above. It was somewhat mesmerising to watch.
Into a high forest, mostly pines and a narrow winding climbing path which challenged our poor old legs after three days of straining. But the shade was most welcome and where else you be except amidst trees?
The peaks and valleys around us were breathtaking (almost as much as the climb, haha) and we could see other higher peaks beyond to the east as we rose. But it was all uphill now and the sun was taking its toll too. We stopped by another lake (Lac Roumassot) for some food and to rest. The water was perfectly calm and cool. There was a beast of a ramp just above us that we tried not to look at while we ate, to bring us up over 1965m – we’d gone up 565m in what seemed a very short time. We weren’t finished, though. Out into another plateau and another pristine lake – Lac Gentau. Up above that, too, looking down and over the huge capped peak of Pic du Midi D’Ossau – a monster, topped with a couple of hundred metres squared of limestone.
The Refuge (d’Ayous) by the lake was tempting but we took the ramp to the right, on the GR (Grand Route) 10, which takes you across France, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, if you’re ever interested in a month’s walking. Up again. Fucking steep now. Up to the Col d’Ayous at 2180m. Almost 800m of a climb – the legs were coming along nicely for sure. We ate in a sheltered spot, it was exposed up there on the ridge, with views to the West to Spain. In fact, at the Col we were only about a kilometre from the border. The descent in a clockwise loop was hair-raising at times as we wound down into a moraine valley, soft underfoot, huge gouges of earth having been dug up by wild boars during the summer.
We saw choughs and vultures. Little black and white birds chirped and chirruped around us, hopping from rock to rock, some of which were a distinctive sandstone.
What is it about being high up in mountains? Why do we want to go to them, to go up? What does the sight of monumental and colossal peaks rising high above us do to our sense of self? The views of peak after peak in the hazy distance, set solid in all their glory? Is it a religious thing, is it about gods or God? Is it the sheer scale of things? I don’t have much experience of mountains but when I looked far down into the valley I’d just climbed up from, I did feel a sense of wonder. Your legs are empty and your mind is empty from the scale of the landscape – you can’t assimilate it, so you don’t even try – and you sit down at the end of your walk; then that emptiness fills you and you sigh and take a breath and your heart calms down to a slow steady healing beat.
I find the descents less interesting, without the pain of each step, the invigorating idea of rising, going up, going higher going away from where I began.
Now the stove is lit and we’re having a Leffe around it, an aperitif, listening to Ali Farka Touré. We’re tired. We found a book in the house on raptors to see if we can identify today’s vultures.
We head out to the village restaurant for dinner. It’s rustic and plain, I like it immediately. We’d heard a great hubbub coming out of it on Saturday night as we passed but now it’s quiet. We are the second group – a French couple are at a table by the window. The owner/waiter is natural and charming. John does almost all the talking. There is a choice for each course – two options. Which is fine. All are good. Four courses for €16 for god’s sake. Where would you get it?
A single French man reading a Michael Connolly book takes a seat. He’s the real deal. An English couple sit behind him. When we speak to the owner about Brexit they join in apologising and expressing their appal. So many English people love France and are so sad about that debacle and, like Americans abroad now end up apologising for what their country has done, though they probably voted ‘stay’ and perhaps even campaigned.
We stroll back to the house contentedly. It’s a balmy night. We’re still thinking of the visibility of the mountains, the forever of it. The blue sky, a light breeze from the west, twenty degrees. The grass, the soft soil underneath. Dry paths, sandstone peaks, limestone peaks, brown earth, silver shining lakes, a pale blue sky. Soaring great birds, ‘bonjour’ from passing hikers, chirping songbirds. A helicopter lifting concrete up to a crest. Tired lungs, tired legs, the walk back to the car along the tall dam. The sense of satisfaction from another great walk in the Pyrenees.
Distance covered: 13km; Altitude gained: 1052m; Highest point: 2213m