So today has been a long, challenging one and the rain from last night didn't let up and so depressingly when we got up it was a case of straight on with our waterproofs before we headed up to the hut to get our breakfast. The fact that it was still dark and we had to scrabble around for our head torches was the final icing on the cake. Still hot coffee helped to lighten the mood (although I'm still not sure about coffee bags, what is to be said for them is that they are easier to carry than jars though).
Happily daylight soon made its presence felt and so we could see the falling rain, providing the opportunity for the unforgettable (and slightly disturbing when used in another context) "it's dark enough to see but not be seen". In our situation this was a positive as mountain huts like this do not provide en-suite accommodation, with the outdoor facilities provided by open ground either side of the camp site (and with rocky stream beds to cross, the added visibility was always a bonus).
Finally at the ridiculously early hour of 6.30am it was time to depart for the longest day of the trip so far (according to Ann this day last year had taken one man 12 hours, but she expected 8-9 for us). Leaving the camp site with tents still erect (John and the other crew would take them down later) we headed slowly upwards into the clouds as our bags hadn't got any lighter despite the loss of the thermarest; indeed mine had seemingly got heavier with the extra moisture carried by the increasingly damp clothes. Our first goal for the day was the memorial to the Halifax bomber that crashed into the mountainside 70 years ago on a training flight having veered 80 miles off course.
On 19th July 1945, a Halifax bomber from 644 squadron departed from its RAF base in Dorset on a routine training flight over South France, and was due to return over the Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately due to poor weather conditions the plane turned south-west rather than west crashing into the heart of the Pyrenees, some 80 miles off course tragically killing all seven on board on impact. Amazingly most of the wreckage remains on the mountainside with small sections deposited further down the slope by the rain and melt water.
The philosopher Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise 'On the Sublime and Beautiful' noted that while nature can be beautiful, if you add the psychological element of fear and terror then these combine to make a landscape sublime. These mountains definitely fall into that category, and the fact that so many people have struggled through this environment adds the psychological element of fear and terror. This was the last exit route before the route gets tougher and we hopefully reach Spain at some time tomorrow afternoon. It was with some sadness that we said farewell to two of the group who were feeling the effects and they will meet us when we reach Ax-Les-Thermes.
In the continuing rain we left the memorial at 2,100m and headed up towards the first of our two cols today at 2,300m. We by-passed the first snowfield and then gathered together as a group because the final ascent to the Col de Craberous is steep and rocky and you can easily dislodge loose rocks onto people following below. At our briefing this morning we were warned about this section of the route and were told that if we dislodged anything then we were to bellow "Below" as a warning. Surprisingly quickly (and easily as my knees had started to feel the ascent up beyond the Halifax bomber) we safely reached the top and were descending just as steeply into the mist-filled valley beyond. At this moment the skies vaguely cleared and we could start to see the path bearing away round the valley below us with quite dramatic views of rocky spurs wreathed in cloud. Eventually we reached the valley floor and at the very moment that we were starting to discuss when lunch would be, we rounded a corner and there was a mountain refuge and our long awaited lunch spot (but looking at my watch it was merely 12.30).
After lunch in the very welcoming, but cramped, mountain refuge (or hut) we continued downhill to cross a mountain stream before starting the ascent to the Col de Pecouch at 2,495m (the highest point of the trail to date) with a steep scramble which personally has been the highlight so far, although not everyone felt that way! Thankfully the rain had stopped for this section and in several places there were metal steps to help people up, but mostly it was working out the relevant hand holds and having confidence in your own steps (obviously taking quite a few people well beyond their comfort zones). I used one hand to control myself and the other was carrying two people’s trekking poles, at times it felt like the old grainy pictures of the fearless walkers who used such poles for balance as they crossed Niagara Falls or some other ridiculous spot on a tight rope.
Unfortunately quickly we reached the top of the scramble and the path resumed a gentler, wider ascent as we crossed the granite slopes (it was nice as they gave lots of grip underfoot) to reach the Col. Looking down into the vast views that had suddenly appeared was the rather dizzying sight of the Refuge de Estagnous, our destination for the day, 250m directly below us.
As with mine & Mikey's adventure in Scotland two weeks ago, the end being in sight does not necessarily mean that it will come quickly. The steep nature of the descent and the damp conditions meant that it was a good hour or more before we even came close to the refuge, but reach it we finally did. As we walked, or squelched in some cases, towards the refuge we were told to leave all our wet gear by the door and take inside only what we would need for the night. We got inside and having set our beds up for the evening and delving into the depths of my bag I came across a verifiable treasure-trove, a change of dry clothes (and I'm sure that the finder of the Staffordshire Hoard wasn't more pleased!) We made our way into the social area where George was drying his t-shirt over the wood burning stove and several of the girls were placing orders for Vin Chaud. It seemed rude to refuse (not that we wanted to) so we joined them at the big wooden dining tables.
Right, check in again from Spain tomorrow :)