Thursday, August 30, 2007

Pyrenees Day 7: Refugio de Goriz -> Gavarnie

Another late start: 8:45. We just aren't good at starting early.
We head off under cloudless (except for the clouds blowing in from France) skies behind a couple of other groups who we switch back and forth with the for first hour as people de-onion themselves in the heat. On the approach to the Collado de Millaris (2498m) the wind starts to get insane. We both discover what great sails backpacks are; wow! Atop the collado we take a quick break to add some clothing to handle the wind and then continue up and up. The wind makes the walking more thoughtful than normal: changing the pack's orientation with respect to the wind is something that requires some forethought. Plus the wind is blowing down the mountain face so on some turns it tries really hard to blow us off the path. whoo hoo!

At some unnamed stone point (unnamed on our map at least), probably below the Gruta Castaret we manage to forget the suggestion in TiP to head downhill and follow some stonemen across a very steep fine-scree slope and up the hill. After following the stonemen for a few minutes we realize that we have walked into a stoneman civil war with various factions each proclaiming to know the True Way. Somehow Andrea picks a faction and leads us along. The clouds blowing over from France have removed all visibility upwards, so we kind of have to guess which way is right. For a while the presence of a couple people with a dog behind us is reassuring ("we can't have gone the wrong way if someone else is coming this way too"), but then it becomes clear that they are actually following us up the mountain. Nice...

After some climbing we spot a chain attached to the wall above and realize that we have made a wrong turn from the TiP path and are now on the "mountaineering route". It's not the recommended way, but at least now we know where we are. This is the moment the two Spanish women (with the dog) behind us choose to ask us where we're going. If they don't know where we're going, why on the hell are they following us? Who knows? We make the steep climb up scree to the path with the chain, admire the ease with which the dog makes the climb, and let the two women pass. We cross the chain (the ledge is narrow enough and the drop far enough to make this scary for Greg), meet a big group coming the other way who confirm that we're not on the wrong path, and then finally reach the Breche de Roland (2807m, 1:00).

Unfortunately, the visibility is only about 10m in the cloud, so we can hardly even tell we're in the Breche, much less see the spectacular views that are supposedly possible from here.

We continue down the very steep path and across ice and snow to the Refuge des Sarradets (2587m, 1:30). We have lunch and a hot drink, admire the views of the Cirque de Gavarnie, and get a surprise gift of a view of the Breche when the clouds briefly clear.

After lunch we start down towards Gavarnie (2:30), taking the more scenic HRP route down through the Echelle des Sarradets and the Cirque. This route is describe as "steep and exposed" (Zu Fuss), requiring "some light scrambling" (TiP), or "dangerous and not recommended" (the warden at Sarradets, but we didn't find that out until later). Initially the path is moderately steep, with good footing, but that changes to very steep and then very steep with scrambling. There are fantastic views of the Cirque, its waterfalls, and its swirly rock walls throughout (well, at least until the clouds come back in).
After an arduous and somewhat scary last section, we reach the bottom of the Cirque (1627m, 5:15). Greg's highlight for this hike was reaching the last bit, assessing how tired his legs are (very tired), looking down to find a decent route to scramble/climb the next few meters, and noticing a memorial cross for someone who had died there. hahahah. hooo boy.

We finish with a walk past the Hotellerie du Cirque (1530m) and down the road to town (1370m) , which takes about an hour. After checking into the the Hotel Marbore we enjoy well-deserved showers, a halfway decent meal, and then a good sleep. It was another long day.

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