Climbing in the Pyrenees

A difficult day in the Pyrenees

An extract from A Walk in the Clouds by Kev Reynolds reveals that sometimes you can have 'Something of a doo-day'. This story takes place in the Pyrenees, near the valley d'Oô.

Even as far south as the Pyrenees it’s possible to experience a snowstorm in the middle of summer, although it’s pretty rare. A ‘normal’ summer in those mountains will give wall-to-wall blue skies and blazing sunshine day after day, broken now and then by a sudden violent storm which clears the air. My climbing trip in 1985 saw days of oppressive heat that doubled the effort of every upward movement, and I longed for a cloud with the promise of rain or even snow. But none came.

A couple of hours above Lac d’Oô and its famed waterfall, we left our overnight camp and laboured up the trail on yet another cloud-free morning. A hazy blue tarpaulin of sky stretched between peaks that towered on either side, trapping yesterday’s air. In an hour’s time the sun would heat the old paved slabs of the trail to egg-frying temperatures, so we were eager to make height in the hope of a breeze before that happened. But we were weary, and height was hard to gain and slow to win.

Deserting the paved way that leads to the Refuge du Portillon, a faint trail of cairns took us steeply up a series of rough slopes beside cliffs and slabs and over boggy patches in which we left two sets of black bootprints betraying our passage across. Then the sun shot over the mountains and poured both light and heat into our basin, leaving us with nowhere to hide. Off to our left the big morning-black walls of Pics Quayrat and Lézat teased us with shade, but sadly our route was not that way. There would be no shade where we were going. Above our right shoulders crags that linked Pic des Spijeoles with Pic Gourdon reflected the sun and taunted our frailties as we stumbled over a rock barrier to catch a first sighting of Lac Glacé. It looked tempting, but was too far below to even consider a dip.


In 1787 Ramond de Carbonnières discovered this deep green pool, which was then completely frozen below three glaciers. But on this morning of thrumming heat, Lac Glacé bore a tiny flotilla of icebergs, and only a shallow, pink-stained remnant of glacier lay draped across the upper wilderness of stone that supported the frontier ridge. Ramond thought it ‘the most beautiful desert of the kind [he] had seen in the Pyrenees’.

But knowing that our route led up that wilderness challenged my perception of beauty, and nothing on our way to the frontier ridge made me change my mind. In that heat it was grim, bare and forbidding.

A short descent was followed by a haul up a band of rocks, over scree and across a boulderland before another misery of steep, unstable scree that shifted with every step. It was a nightmare of a treadmill, aggravated by dust that rose with every slip and slither. Up a step, down a slide, then up again. One more step, then another; a stumble, a slide, a step and a grunt of effort. Suddenly Alan started an avalanche of stones and swept past me. The whole slope began to move; acres of scree gathered pace and slid towards the lake, and we with it. I lunged in desperation and grabbed a firm piece of Pic Jean Arlaud, which arrested my slide. Alan did likewise, and we clung on as the scree continued down without us.

Port d’Oô brought relief. Until we studied the route down, that is. Sitting astride the ridge at a little under three thousand metres, our descent to the south looked as bad as our ascent had been, but across the hidden depths of the Estós valley rose our old friend, Pico de Posets. Bold of outline, but broken and unstable close at hand, today it was daubed with less snow than I’d ever known it. Despite that it beckoned as of old, and in a day or two we’d renew our acquaintance. But first we had to descend into Spain, and the temperature was rising.

Terraces of scree-covered rock led down to a minefield of boulders, between which we were forced to thread our way, balancing over and between them; it was furnace-like, no air could circulate, and we baked, sweated and gasped. As I leaped from one to another, or stepped gingerly onto a slab that rocked, my legs turned to jelly. Then I missed my footing and dropped between a couple of granite blocks, hauled myself out, lost my balance and fell backwards, crashing against the rock and jarring every bone in my body.

The granite pyramid of Pic Qyayrat (3060m), seen from the southwest

For a moment the sky went black and a sound like low-flying aircraft zoomed through my befuddled brain. As I came to I felt sick, winded, and unsure if I’d be able to move again; lying there like an upturned turtle, held down by an overfull rucksack wedged among the rocks, my legs splayed out at strange angles. Far beneath me, as in the bowels of a glacier, I could hear water running.

Alan was ahead and out of sight, lost in his own personal misery of heat and weariness. Ignorant of my predicament he was unravelling the mysteries of this maze, and I had no voice with which to call for help.

Unbuckling the waist belt, I prayed that the sack would not plunge out of reach. Carefully wriggling out of the shoulder straps I managed to ease myself to a sitting position and check for broken bones. Nothing, thank God, but angry swellings on both legs, a raw elbow and aches in sundry places. And sweat that stung my eyes.

We continued down together – soon on grass, then through minor gullies and out to grass again and a stream that was followed among a forest of thistles. The unmistakable fragrance of Spain now wrapped us in its bubble. Suddenly the heat was okay. It was Spanish heat. It belonged.

Stumbling into the Estós refugio we lined up the drinks on a table, and when they were empty took a bottle of rough red wine with us and continued upvalley in search of a favourite pine glade on a terrace above the river. Later, with a meal inside our bellies, the mountains black against the night sky, stars overhead and the threat of another blue-sky day tomorrow, our day just gone slipped into perspective. Lumps, cuts and bruises covered legs and arms. I ached all over. But that was alright. This is where I wanted to be. We’d paid our dues and arrived in one piece. Tomorrow we’d go climbing.

As the wine bottle passed between us, I heard Alan mumble: ‘Well, that was something of a doo-day.’ And I said ‘Amen’ to that.

You can find out more about walking and climbing routes in this area in two books by Kev Reynolds; Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees and his larger resource book – The Pyrenees, giving comprehensive valley-by-valley descriptions.

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