HRP Chapter 7: Mush

Some sociopath has taken a shit on a rock behind our campsite and then, apparently, tried to hide the evidence by lighting it on fire. At least, this is what I glean from the large, slightly singed turd I discover while searching for a sheltered place to set up our stove in the morning.

It’s time for a nourishing breakfast of hot mush! While I cook, Harv makes friends with another hiker. They’re talking about gear or something. I hear my name mentioned, and I’d love to go chat, but I’m far too busy incinerating our breakfast to be off making friends. Hopefully, all that black stuff at the bottom of the pot gives our terrible baby food a complex smoky flavor, but I’m not optimistic.

By the time Harv returns, I’ve taken down the tent and packed up the sleeping bag and pads. We choke down our burnt gruel savor our toasted multigrain cereal, shoulder our packs, and head off into the cold mist.

Day 12

The hike this morning is supposedly quite lovely. Through the swirling fog, we sometimes glimpse tumbling waterfalls and clear pools. But for the most part, we just keep our heads down and hike. The sky clears little by little throughout the morning, and after a couple hours, large patches of sunshine are brightening our moods.

I have an intense need to poop by now, but there’s no good place to dig a cathole. Finally, I can’t wait any more, so I tell Harv to go ahead while I stagger around in the brush, looking for a more sheltered spot in which to start absolutely shitting my brains out.

By the time I catch Harv again, he’s nearly finished collecting water from the stream in the valley. The climb up Vallée d’Arrens is just right for us: long, gentle, and steady. It feels good to stretch our legs and hike fast for a change.

Vallée d’Arrens

We bump into Olivier’s group along the way. We hike with them a little bit, but then we pick up speed on the climb and they drop back.  That ends up being the last time we see any of the four of them.

They’re going straight over Port de la Peyre-Saint-Martin, while we’re hanging a sharp left on a faint trail just before that pass and making our way up Col de Cambalès.

The weather has been lovely in Vallée d’Arrens, but as we near the top, a big grey cloud comes trucking over the ridge and socks us in completely, and everything is abruptly freezing and terrible.

We shiver while we collect water and eat lunch, praying that the clouds will blow off as quickly as they blew in. And for once, they do just that. By the time lunch is over, it’s so clear and sunny you’d swear the fog never happened.

Col de Cambalès is not as tricky as I had feared. Still, we must be careful to get off the trail at the right moment, as the route is easy to miss. The way to the pass is just an indistinct talus jumble marked only with occasional cairns.

Unreasonably excited for someone who’s still almost two hours from the pass.

Although it’s scarcely marked and talus-strewn, our route for the afternoon seems exceptionally popular. A few minutes after we start the traverse, a group of 20-30 Spanish day hikers surprises me by following us onto the talus. Another large group starts across shortly after that. We have no trouble finding our way up to the pass since there are dozens of other hikers in front of and behind us to indicate the way.

The ascent is easy enough. We don’t linger when we reach the col but immediately start downhill. We pick our way carefully through the rocks and plunge down a small snowfield, which is lovely until I stupidly lose control and slide to the bottom, as one does. But it’s kind of fun and I don’t get hurt, so no harm done, I suppose.

Chapel adjacent to Refuge Wallon

The rest of the descent to Refuge Wallon is mild and uncomplicated. We decide not to stay near the building, instead pushing a bit farther to a grassy floodplain near a stream, where we can camp in peace.

Before falling asleep, I get a weather forecast on the Garmin. It indicates that it’s going to rain tonight and all day tomorrow. Sure enough, it starts raining about an hour later.

Day 13

You’d think an occasional rainy morning would be no big deal for two tough and strong thru-hikers like us, but we lay around in the tent for hours moaning about the weather and how cold it was last night and how we wish we had something to eat for breakfast other than mush.

We finally drag ourselves out of bed around 9 a.m. and pack up without much enthusiasm. The morning opens with a long climb, first through a sparse evergreen forest and then through an open meadow past some lakes. It would be lovely here under other circumstances, but today everything is wet and cold and the wind is picking up as we gain elevation.

It’s frigid enough that I start to question the wisdom of continuing. Starting cold and wet and climbing to someplace even wetter, more exposed, and possibly below freezing is generally not a great idea. Already the wind is enough to take my breath away, and we still have to climb another thousand feet.

Shivering, we duck behind some big rocks in an (unsuccessful) attempt to escape the wind while we tug on wool shirts and wind shells and wiggle stiff, uncooperative fingers into mittens. While changing, we debate the merits of continuing onward vs. stopping.

Look! Snow!

I’m for pitching the tent right here and spending the rest of the day mainlining hot tea and mush. Harv shares my concerns, but we’re already in such an exposed area that we decide to push on.

The sky toys with us as we ascend. Every 10 minutes or so, the wind stops and the clouds part a little, revealing tantalizing patches of blue. But invariably, the fog rolls over us again and the wind and rain grow even more bitter than before. Once, the sky clears just enough to reveal tall peaks capped with fresh snowfall all around us. Great. Just great.

My internal monologue grows very melodramatic the higher we climb. When we reach Col d’Arratille, we discover that it’s even colder on the other side and the wind has grown strong enough to send us staggering.

We stumble around the pass for several minutes, trying to determine which direction we’re supposed to go next. Left, we both think. Definitely left. But to get off course here would be disastrous, so we brave the wind long enough to confirm our route with GPS before proceeding. I use my nose to operate the touchscreen, unwilling to pull off my mitten. My fingers are so numb that I’m not sure I’d ever get it back on again.

We’re starting the traverse when we hear a cheer from the pass behind us. Two more hikers have just crested the rise, and they are very excited about it. I feel a childish stab of irritation. What gall these men have, acting so happy on such an objectively terrible day. All must share in my misery!

The hikers catch us. One is a Californian named Evan, and the other is Arne, Harv’s Belgian friend from Refuge de Larribet. Arne greets Harv like an old friend and gives us each a fist bump. Oh dear, he seems very nice. I really shouldn’t be so petty.

We don’t chitchat long because of the whole frozen wasteland/hypothermia thing. Evan goes motoring off first, and pretty soon, he’s just a purple dot receding in the distance. I assume he’s an experienced hiker based on the pace he’s keeping and the way he treats the current dire conditions like a complete nonevent.

We stumble across the rocky traverse as quickly as humanly possible, squinting as the wind blows rain and hail in our faces. We pause on the leeward side of the mountain to eat a quick snack. It’s very cold, but we figure we may not get another chance to rest out of the wind.

In an interesting role reversal, my hands have grown relatively warm, while Harv’s are so numb they barely function. I have to help him unbuckle his backpack and adjust his zippers. We make the mistake of taking off his mittens, and getting them back over his frozen fingers is a nightmare.

Arne comes up again in the midst of this shitshow. “Do you guys need anything?” he asks with a dubious frown. He clearly saw the whole song and dance with the buckles.

I’m about to brush him off because of who I am as a person, but Harv is more willing to admit that we’re not doing that well. Later, I reflect that I really need to get over my lifelong complex about accepting help, especially when my stubbornness affects other people.

After we convince him that we’re fit to keep hiking, Arne pops a peach jelly out of his side pocket and hands it to Harv for a quick sugar boost. He gives us a look of earnest concern before striding off toward the pass. All at once, I’m astonished by his kindness.

Little patches of snow pepper the barren earth at the pass. We trundle over the top, feeling thoroughly miserable, and hasten down the other side.

There is a ray of hope on the horizon: Oulettes de Gaube, a manned refuge in the valley below. I completely forgot it existed. Maybe we can spend a few hours inside and have a hot meal! The thought cheers us, and the struggle bus starts picking up speed.

The mudroom is packed with damp hikers when we arrive. Compared to the frigid conditions outside, it feels like a sauna in here. We drop our packs, pull on dry clothes, and swap our muddy hiking shoes for loaner crocs from the refuge before entering the common area. Bless this place, it’s even warmer in here.

Look! It’s Arne!

I wave to Evan, who is already ensconced in a corner with a steaming Jetboil in front of him. Harv is talking to a tall man with a lot of curly dark hair, whom I don’t recognize without midlayers but assume must be Arne.

We order hot chocolate, split pea soup, and a vegetable galette. We would pay in a heartbeat to stay inside the refuge tonight, but the beds are all full, so it’s the tent for us. Sadness. At least we can spend the afternoon inside. I make a pilgrimage to the mudroom to grab some stuff from our packs, and by now the space feels cold and drafty compared to the refuge’s cozy interior.

We sit at a table and stare out at the wind and rain lashing the windows. Vignemale is out there somewhere, but a featureless gray cloud is hiding the tallest peak in the French Pyrenees at the moment. The milky stream dividing the valley bottom is currently the only sign of the active glaciers lurking above the mist.

Arne wants to summit Vignemale tomorrow, so he’s debating whether to sleep here or at Refuge de Bayssellance tonight. Eventually he decides to stay here and go to Bayssellance first thing tomorrow. This decision will backfire spectacularly, but none of us knows that yet.

A big group of hikers that came to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube after us

I pass the entire afternoon zoning out and reading She Who Became the Sun. A big group of Spaniards files in and boxes us in at the back corner of our table. They grow steadily rowdier as they rewarm; in contrast, my energy level is rapidly crashing to zero. I sit in a daze while Spaniards laugh and sing and stomp their feet around me.

When the refuge staff start laying the tables for dinner, we know it’s time to go. This is difficult since we have to climb over about eight people to escape our corner, but everyone is very understanding. They rub our backs and wish us good luck as we head out into the cold. Bless them.

We’re sufficiently recovered by now that going outside is not as awful as I expected, thank God. We find a spot and set up quickly.

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