HRP Chapter 6: Kelly Grows a Mustache and Is Allergic to Spain
Our impromptu rest day gives us time to bus down to Canfranc and visit the grocery stores there. We mean to go to an ATM while we’re there, having not seen one since Hendaye, but the only machine in town is out of order.
Rather than wait for the bus, we hitch back to the resort with a friendly Argentinian named Maximiliano, who is very excited that we’re from Philadelphia because of Rocky.
While in Candanchu, I come to the distressing conclusion that I am allergic to Spain. Every time we cross to this side of the border, I start tearing up and sneezing like a lunatic. Spending a whole day here in the foothills makes the problem kind of hard to ignore. I also have a stubborn, itchy rash on the backs of both hands.
In other news, the Pyrenees are making me grow a mustache. What is happening to me, and why? I have no answers. Whatever the reason, I am definitely sprouting a small, blond mustache for the first time in my life. I don’t feel good about this and spend a lot of time scrutinizing my new facial hair in the bathroom mirror.
Harv swears there’s no mustache, but he’ll see. It’s faint right now, but in a few weeks I’ll be styling it with pomade and a tiny little hairbrush, and by Christmas I’ll be stroking it thoughtfully while picking out stocking stuffers and I’ll have to introduce myself to strangers by saying, “Excuse me, I mustache you a question.”
Our food bag is pathetic. It features a gallon-size ziplock of peanuts, a gallon-size ziplock of couscous, and a gallon-size ziplock of a mushy baby food that resembles cream of wheat. I have a feeling we’re going to be very glad to see a restaurant when we hit Gavarnie.
I would probably be much better at Spanish by now if I weren’t so shy about practicing it with actual human beings. Harv all but forces my hand in Candanchu when we need to arrange an early-morning ride to the trailhead.
“No! Wait! I’m not ready,” I hiss as he dials the number for the taxi and presses the phone into my hands with an encouraging thumbs-up. I briefly consider flinging the phone out the window and running in the opposite direction. Restraining myself, I somehow arrange a 7 a.m. pickup with minimal confusion. Victory! I try not to seem too impressed with myself.
Miguel collects us at 7 en punto, and we’re on the trail just 15 minutes later. It’s a beautiful morning, clear and cold. I’m exhilarated by the perfect conditions and the promise of adventure in the coming days.
It doesn’t take us too long to reach a lovely tarn called Ibón de Escalar. We encounter a family of day hikers when they pause at the lake to enjoy the view. We catch their eye and nod in greeting.
“Bueno,” says Harv, gesturing vaguely at the breathtaking scenery. The boys all nod solemnly. “Bueno bueno,” agrees the oldest one. “Bueno bueno,” adds his brother.
The sun is just cresting Col de Moines, our next destination. It makes a brilliant reflection on the smooth surface of the water. It’s not far to the pass from the lake, and we make good time, setting out ahead of the Bueno boys. We all end up at the pass together and take each others’ pictures with Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the background.
Midi d’Ossau isn’t the highest peak in the region, but it’s very charismatic. We’ve been seeing it on the horizon for days, and I’m stunned to find it suddenly right in front of me. It’s one of those mountains that always catches you by surprise, even when you’re expecting it.
We spend the rest of the morning touring various gorgeous alpine lakes in the high country around the peak. Everything is perfect, absolutely perfect, but by the time we descend to the valley floor, a wet-looking cloud has blown over the sun. I start hearing thunder as we begin the grueling climb to Col de Peyreget, and a cold wind picks up.
Other hikers are pausing to don their rain jackets as the first chilly drops begin to fall, but I hate to get all sweaty for no reason. We press on without suiting up. And it pays off: the rain waits an hour, then another, and we make it over the talus-strewn pass while it’s still dry.
We squeeze into Refuge de Pombie just as the sky opens up, sliding gratefully into two seats in the warm common area. We don’t stay long, just enough to regroup and eat a bit.
The rain blows past quickly, and the sun is already peeking out again by the time we hit the trail. We plan to stay at an identified campsite near the bottom of the meadow.
But when we arrive, it’s occupied by a large crowd of griffon vultures, and it’s easy to see/smell why: there’s a sheep decomposing in the stream that flows just behind the campsite. We won’t be staying here tonight, not with the smell of decay so thick on the air.
Still, the vultures’ behavior makes for fascinating television. I enjoy watching their curious, hopping gait as we filter water from a spot well upstream of their gruesome feast. Then we head for treeline and locate a perfect spot for the Duplex within minutes.
Helicopters. Everywhere. They’re there in the morning as soon as we start. We can hear them above the trees, and later we see them zooming up and down the long valley we’re climbing. What is happening? I think search and rescue. Harv guesses tourists.
We’re both wrong, but we don’t learn the truth for several hours. And there’s plenty of excitement in the meantime, most notably the Passage d’Orteig.
The Passage is a narrow, exposed rock ledge with a big drop on one side. Hikers navigate the ledge with the help of a thick cable bolted into the cliff for safety. Opinions are divided in the HRP community about whether the infamous traverse is overhyped.
Vertigineux, warns a yellow national park sign indicating the way to the Passage. Vertiginous. And it certainly is that. We have to wait a long time to start the traverse because when we arrive, we see about 20 people and a dog coming through in the opposite direction. It looks wide enough for two people to pass, but I don’t want to have to do that 20 times. We hop on the cable as soon as they’re through.
It really isn’t that scary. The footing is good, and the ledge is wider than it looks. There’s only one awkward spot where I’m grateful for the sturdy cable. My verdict: the scenery is underhyped, the danger is overhyped.
The wind is fierce on the other side. We stagger downhill to the Refuge d’Arrémoulit. Here, we finally understand the helicopters: they were shuttling the construction workers to their job site for the morning. I’d completely forgotten, but the refuge is undergoing massive renovations right now.
We hike past all the construction and find a quiet place by the reservoir to eat lunch. But we’re only halfway through our sandwiches when some workers come by and tell us we have to follow them right away. They’re getting ready to use dynamite back at the construction site and everyone has to clear the area.
Not wanting to delay the process, we abandon our backpacks and follow the men further down the shore. We naively think the blast is imminent and that we’ll be free to return to our lunch within minutes, but it ends up taking almost an hour.
When it finally comes, the explosion is kind of anticlimactic, although I suppose the noise would have surprised me if I wasn’t expecting it.
Our first obstacle of the afternoon, the Col du Palas, is no big deal. There’s a lot of talus and it’s steep, but someone has marked it thoroughly with cairns. The true obstacle is still ahead: the Port du Lavédan, which is little more than a narrow slot approached via a long field of talus.
Harv is a better wayfinder than I am, so he takes the lead from Col du Palas, selecting a line that keeps us up as high as possible. The traverse gets awkward in places, and we have to adjust our course several times as we approach Lavédan. You really do have to thread the needle perfectly.
Crossing the Port is sketchy as hell, and the other side is even worse. We spend a few tense minutes getting down the steepest, most unstable part of the slope. After that is an interminable boulder-y descent to the Lacs du Batcrabere, and then to the Refuge de Larribet. I’m pretty beat by the time we get to the lakes, and my mood is going downhill faster than my feet.
Somewhere off in the talus, I hear a single lost, forlorn sheep wailing in despair, which sets the mood for the rest of the day. The refuge doesn’t reveal itself until the last possible moment, but I’m thrilled when it finally does appear.
I throw my pack down with relish and plop down next to it, cheerfully ignoring everyone and everything around me. All I want is to be horizontal for a few minutes. Of course, while I’m busy decompensating on the grass in front of the refuge, Harv is already off making friends.
Soon I’m called to join him where he sits with four Frenchmen – Nicolas, Frederic, Olivier, and Veronique – who are halfway through a five-day loop of the high Pyrenees. They’re very kind. I learn from them that they all love Springsteen and that there are marmots but no pikas in the Pyrenees.
We’re now in the national park, where you can’t set up your tent until after 7 p.m. and must take it down again by 9 a.m. the following morning.
Olivier warns us that he’s seen rangers give out hefty fines for violating this rule, so we hang out with them until 7. Then they go off to dinner and we go off to bivouac just as a cold drizzle settles in.
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