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Chasing the first snow in the French Pyrenees

Ever since Alecsa Stewart moved to a valley at the foot of the French Pyrenees, the high-altitude peaks surrounding it have been an indicator of the weather patterns and the passing of seasons.

When we woke up one early October morning to find snowy peaks and crisp air, we were taken aback by the early arrival of winter.

We couldn’t resist the temptation to experience the mountains with their winter coats on, especially this year when we hardly had opportunities to travel in the mountains and get lost on the trails.

Given the travel restrictions during the pandemic, we hadn’t used our tent once. However, a quick check over cold-weather kit pleasantly surprised us: we also had full boil-in-the-bag dinners, desserts and breakfasts, full gas canisters and all we needed for an overnight adventure.

Not only could we walk into the first snow, we could camp at altitude and watch the spectacular full moon rise over the valley. A new walk-from-home adventure awaited – or at least one within a 10-minute drive from home.

snowy peaks
Descending from the snowy peaks before nightfall
773 FC

The GR10 Trail

Through the French Pyrenees: Le Sentier des Pyrenees

£15.26

Guidebook to walking the GR10, the Sentier des Pyrenees, a 955km trek across the French Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Atlantic Coast to the Mediterranean coast at Banyuls-sur-Mer. The book describes 55 stages, with information on planning, transport, accommodation and facilities. Walk the entire GR10 in around 45 days or in shorter trips.

More information

In our corner of the Pyrenees, we live on a dead-end road that finishes in a small village that is often snowed in, in a storybook setting beyond a high col from where we descended in zig-zags after a short drive.

The Col de Mantet (1761m) is normally our destination on gruelling bike rides, but this time we decided to drive to the village, at 1550m, and start off our walk on a well-marked GR (Grande Randonnée) hiking path, in order to avoid any potential navigation concerns. This was a route we are both very familiar with, and knew plenty of opportunities for good wild camping spots.

Snowy paths on the mountainside
Snowy paths on the mountainside

Although deliberately starting later in the day, we were welcomed with plenty of sunshine and amazing views in what had become a beautiful snow paradise.

More than ever, the hills looked romantic and inviting while the crisp cold air was an extreme contrast to the 20+ degrees we’d experienced while running on the same trails just the weekend before!

We started our hike through the village, past slate-roofed houses that were first built hundreds of years ago by shepherds. The village had been almost completely abandoned until recent years because of the harsh living conditions and the fact that they become completely cut off from the rest of the world in winter (with the exception of intrepid mountaineers or skiers who would attempt climbing over the Col de Mantet!).

The village now has 31 inhabitants and welcomes walkers on the GR10 in the summer. By October, it was settling in for winter hibernation.

Past the village, we entered the Mantet Nature Reserve, which covers 3028 hectares from the valleys to the high mountain tops, at over 2700m saltitude. It is home to over 70 types of protected birds, numerous mountain animals, and a very varied flora ranging from small bracken and juniper bushes to majestic pine trees.

We made our way through the juniper bushes at low altitude, with our eyes always on the snow-capped peaks around us. The Pic de la Dona (2702m) was shining in the afternoon sun, towering over the Spanish/French border like an ivory tusk.

Although it looked close to us, the scale is misleading and we’d have a few hours of walking to get to the summit.

clear views
Clear views around the valley from 1800m altitude

Not wasting any time, we made our way past sleepy cows grazing in the afternoon sun, boulder-strewn hillsides and fragrant juniper bushes, their purple berries a sharp contrast to their green needles.

Climbing steadily to around 1800m we were greeted with initially patches of snow in shaded spots before a full blanket of soft fresh snow lay ahead of us. As there had not been any frost yet, the snow sat over loose rocks, blanketing our ascent and making it easier than a regular Pyrenean walk.

A hike in the Mantet Reserve often allows quiet visitors to spot isards – a Pyrenean mountain goat – not dissimilar to a chamois. Swift and elegant, they move effortlessly through the rugged landscape and make their way on the steep slopes with ease.

We’ve encountered them a few times in our trips here, but there were no signs of their footprints in the snow this time, unfortunately. Instead, we could only hear the odd birds of prey floating lightly on the thermals, enjoying the sunshine.

sunny valley
Heading up from the sun-kissed valley into lower temperatures

A few hours into our walk we reached a high point at c. 2000m altitude and were rewarded with a resplendent view of the snow-capped mountain range all around us, from Spanish peaks watching over Catalonia, to the local sabre-toothed ridges towering over the Cerdagne and Conflent regions of France. It was time to take in the stillness and winter beauty before heading down to a more sheltered plateau and set up camp for the evening.

Weather patterns in our part of the Pyrenees tend to be quite predictable: it is often sunny, clear and pleasant up to mid-afternoon, when the wind starts to pick up and thunderstorm clouds gather from late summer into the autumn.

The snowfall had done away with any storm threat, but we could feel the temperatures dropping, and the sun was soon followed by the icy fingers of night wrapping around us.

Descending slightly just below the deepest snow, we put on our headtorches and looked for a relatively flat, sheltered spot to camp, wasting no time setting up the tent and getting dinner ready.

As my camera had succumbed to the cold, the only picture of the magnificent moonrise that followed as soon as it got dark doesn’t do justice to this corner of alpine paradise.

Watching the moon come up in real time was a unique experience, a beacon of light climbing up above the mountain ridges and shining its rays over our campsite. The eerie quiet night, punctured every now and then by a cowbell in the distance, was a perfect ending to our first winter’s day out.

The following morning, we were the first faces to be seen arriving in Mantet village, our feet crunching over the frosty snow and leaving an inspiring trail for others to venture into the winter wonderland.

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