Well, we have finally done it and are back in civilisation, enjoying the benefits of free WiFi and a proper continental breakfast.
We woke up in the refuge to find that the weather forecast was incorrect and that the forecast sunny weather had passed through during the night and we were greeted with the now familiar rain and thunder claps, with the prospect of a further thunderstorm heading our way from Spain. After an additional cup of tea and an hours delay to give the weather a chance to pass we descended to Lac Rond (which imaginatively translates as 'Round Lake' and even more imaginatively Lac Long lies just above it) below and then would be the moment of certainty when Anne, Tel & Ruth would make the decision as to whether we would be continuing up into Spain or heading down out of the mountains (as happened on the last trip last year when lightning was striking the mountain we would be ascending).
After a slow descent, we reached the lake and Tel, Anne and Ruth huddled together to decide our fate. With the novel experience of sunshine we were vaguely hopeful, but we all knew that the decision was touch and go. After a couple of minutes we were on the move and heading upwards. Seemingly quickly we reached the first challenge of the ascent with wire ropes guarding the path with steep drops to the lake below. Taking these with my customary confidence and bravado we soon gathered at a small col above and Anne was on the satellite phone with the cheering news "We're going to Spain" but then the less cheering "...we'll be there in about 6 hours". Heading upwards we rounded grassy knolls to find ourselves below a snowfield which we would have to cross before heading up to the Col and the high point of our trip at 2,500m. Having taken my first few steps across the snow without using my walking poles I decided that they were called for as the snow was very hard and grip very uncertain. At this moment Anne told me that I must use them and was pleased when I said that I'd just made that same decision.
As we reached the top of the snowfield the weather started to close in and (again) our thoughts turned to happier times. After our evening meal last night we were sat around drinking (there was very much an end of term feeling) when Claire came running in and said 'Dave, come outside and bring your camera'. With curiosity ready to kill the cat I headed outside to find the most spectacular views of a phenomenon called a temperature inversion. Here cool air flows down the mountainside from the summits before being trapped by a block of warm air above. The moisture in the cool air then condenses into clouds meaning that the valley below us was filled with cloud while we had crystal clear skies. Very quickly everyone was outside and trying to outdo each other with our photos and selfies.
Back to the matter in hand and we eventually reached the Col de la Clauere marking the border into Spain. The weather was close and the wind cold, so after a quick snack it was head down and take on the initially tricky descent through the clouds into Spain. We were finding the going tough so to imagine what it must have been like 70 years previously put our efforts into perspective. Just after the descent eased the rain and hail came in a generous attempt to further test the waterproof qualities of our kit (you get what you pay for and mine met with a borderline pass which would have been higher if my hydration sack hadn't leaked the day before or I hadn’t kept opening my jacket to get at my camera thus defeating the point of a waterproof jacket). Having got the opening bars of 'Singing in the Rain' in my head all I could imagine was Gene Kelly getting his umbrella, taking one look out of the front door at this weather with Debbie Reynolds and think 'Nah, I'll give this one a miss and get the bus'!
As our descent continued we came down to a small sheltered mountain lake, and as the weather had eased this was a lovely spot for us to have a belated lunch. It continued the theme of the French not getting vegetarian food (not exactly unexpectedly though) when the chick pea salad that came with my packed lunch had the same flaked fish as the non-vegetarian option.
Finally it was time to leave and continue our descent heading down into the alpine meadow regions before we discovered the Pyrenean CCTV system (Chewing Cow TeleVision) as walking across a meadow we had a distinct sense of being watched and looking round we saw a couple of cud chewing cattle staring across the hillside at us. Finally heading back down below the treeline the heavens decided to welcome us into Spain with a downpour of biblical proportions and then the forecast storm hit with spectacular flashes of lightning and deafening rumbles of thunder. The young man sat next to me & Vicky on the plane into Toulouse on Monday said that the Pyrenees have the most spectacular storms, and this definitely proved his theory. The storm was still going strong when 60 minutes later we found ourselves walking alongside a wide, rushing river on a woodland track fording a shallow, fast flowing stream and mere minutes later we could see a bridge and there were John & Richard with the minibuses waiting to offer us shelter and take us on the slow journey back over the border into France (and a few of us were grateful for the Schengen agreement as we hadn't thought about needing any ID to get back into France). First things first though and John gave us a celebratory beer and we had group pictures taken while trying not to look too bedraggled.