In spring 2018, while doing research for the new guidebook on the Pyrenean Haute Route, Tom Martens discovered that the Vignemale, France’s highest Pyrenean peak at 3298m, held a cave he’d never heard of. He decided to find it.
In the late 19th century, Henry Russell, a wealthy Irish-French pioneer of Pyrenean exploration, had several caves hollowed out in the Vignemale. I assumed I had found them all, but it turned out there was one left, very close to the peak. Surprised at how much there is to discover in the Pyrenean range and even though I’ve climbed the Vignemale twice before, I decided to go there again.
Catching up in Gavarnie
Early summer 2018: I’ve arranged to meet my good friend Jordi in the hotspot of the French Pyrenees: Gavarnie. While I was comfortably travelling there by bus, Jordi was hiking over the Pyrenees from the Spanish side to meet me. This time, we are not interested in the magnificent glacial cirque south of the village, but in a mountain to the northeast. After catching up and having lunch, we hike northeast until Lac du Barrage d’Ossoue, where the melting water from the Vignemale gathers in a mountain plain. The Vignemale (3298m) itself is our goal, but it’s already evening so we set up our tents, have dinner and get some sleep before an early start.
Hiking up France’s highest Pyrenean mountain
It’s 5.30am and we hardly need our headlamps when we start hiking in the direction of the first midsummer morning light. Our aim is to find all Russell caves. There are seven altogether: three of them I’ve entered, three I’ve only seen and one, the highest, I haven’t even set eyes on yet. They were all built for Henry Russell, who had an extreme fascination with the Vignemale. He had such a strong wish to spend time there, that eventually he had those seven small caves built, in three different places on the mountain.
From 2000m we are crossing snowfields in the easy start of the ascent. Higher up there is also a lot of snow, but the steep paths are almost snow-free so we can make a quick move to 2400m. We know that at that point, somewhere hidden under the snow next to the path, are the three Bellevue caves. The Pyrenees had seen a lot of snow in winter, but it’s still a surprise to find the entrances to the lowest Russell caves covered with snow at the end of June.
On a previous visit I went inside these three caves, so I’m not that disappointed we can’t find them. Despite the early hour, we already see a good number of hikers on the way to the top. We continue climbing, partly on rocks, partly on snow and, a little below 3000m, our hiking poles are finally exchanged for ice-axes and crampons. We continue over the Ossoue glacier and soon catch sight of the three higher Russell caves, which are all situated at around 3200m. Over 100 years ago, these caves were situated at the upper edge of the glacier but now, sadly, the glacier is a lot lower than it used to be.
Building caves in the Pyrenees in the 19th century
Spring 1881: Henry Russell (1834-1909) decided to have a cave constructed at the upper end of the Ossoue glacier.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that anyone got permission for such a project but mountaineering as a sport only gained popularity around the 1850s. For quite a while, it remained a pastime for the lucky few. Most people didn’t have the time or the means to practice mountaineering, or they simply thought it was pointless to go and risk your life in such extreme circumstances. Russell was one of those people who did have time, money and motivation enough to spend his days exploring the world, and something kept pulling him back to the Pyrenees.
After an impressive record of explorations and first climbs in the Pyrenees, Henry Russell fell in love with the Vignemale and wanted to spend time on the mountain without having to build a mountain hut.
A manmade structure amid mountains would be his worst nightmare or, in his own words: ‘There is nothing uglier, more hideous, more repulsive than a house in the eternal and sublime chaos of the mountains.’ (From Souvenirs d’un montagnard – Édition du Centenaire 1909-2009. Translated from French.)
Hollowing out a cave in the granite rocks proved difficult, and it was only by the end of July 1882 that the workers got it done, after installing an improvised smithy in the spring of that year, where they could maintain their tools. On 1 August 1882 the cave was inaugurated in the presence of Henry Russell, a friend of his and three porters. It was named Villa Russell.
Russell regularly spent time in the cave with invited friends, and gradually he improved the level of comfort. The entrance got a metal door and eventually the cave was even equipped with a woodstove! He even organised a mass to have the cave and the whole mountain blessed.
Quite soon Russell realised that one cave was not enough to host his guests and porters, and in 1885 a second cave, the Grotte des Guides was hollowed out close to Villa Russell. It was constructed a little higher because the entrance to Villa Russell was often blocked by snow. A year later, the Grotte des Dames was built to provide accommodation for any ladies in the company.
Because the level of the glacier changes from year to year, it was sometimes impossible to reach the three caves and therefore, in 1888, Russell had two more caves built at the lower end of the glacier. In 1890, a third was added. These caves are known as Les grottes Bellevue.
Henry Russell still wasn’t satisfied, so in 1893 he got his ultimate wish: a cave all for himself, Paradis. Because of the hardness of the rocks near the summit, this cave had to be hollowed out using dynamite. No less then 16 cubic meters of rock were taken out.
To the roof of the French Pyrenees
Before reaching Villa Russell and the two neighbouring caves, we turn north, get off the glacier and start climbing steeply to a ridge leading to the Vignemale peak. On my previous visits I was scrambling my way up at this stage, but this year there’s so much snow that we are still on our crampons when climbing the steepest bits of the route. We’re trying to make the most of the good snow conditions in the morning, but even this early the remaining snow is disappearing fast underneath the feet of the many hikers. We are slightly worried about the way back, but first we have a mission: to find the highest Russell cave.
At 10.30, we reach the peak in gorgeous weather. We’re in the sun and there are only some lower clouds, so we have an amazing view over the Ossoue glacier and most of the peaks in the wider area. We can see the Soum d’Aspe, all peaks of the Cirque de Gavarnie in the distance, to the east we overlook the whole Ossoue valley (including the Barrage d’Ossoue where we camped) and to the north we stare down more than 1.5km into the Vallée de Gaube. Many people know the Vignemale’s north face from photos taken from the refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, but we’re looking down exactly towards the place those photos have been taken. The refuge is a tiny dot and even further down we can clearly see Lac de Gaube. The north face is an almost vertical wall, so we can only stand looking down from that point for a couple of minutes. Then a mix of l’appel du vide and fear kicks in and we move back to a more comfortable place where we have lunch.
Searching for a small cave on a large mountain
I know that the highest Russell cave is close. In fact, it is only 18m below the summit. The tricky part is finding it on those relatively steep walls. I inform with a mountain guide and he tells me he has seen it a couple of times when he climbed up over the rocks. He remembers it was in an area with red rocks, so I take that as an important clue when I set out to search for it. Jordi and I look over the southern and eastern slopes, but from close to the peak, we can’t find it. There’s still a relatively large area to search for it and I climb down in several places to get a better view on the slopes. I intensely search all areas with red rocks and to my disappointment I can’t find anything. In the end, Jordi and I decide we’ve tried all we can and start going back. We know the snow conditions aren’t getting any better in the intense sun.
Something pulls me back to the peak
We’re among the last ones to leave the peak and when we get going there are only five people who still stay a little longer. About five minutes into our descent, we reach the snow and put down our backpacks to take out the crampons. I see my backpack and immediately realise there’s something missing: I have left my solar panel somewhere close to the peak! It was charging my power bank while we were having lunch and then I was so focussed on finding the cave that I forgot to reattach it. We decide that I am going back alone to fetch it, and to make it quick, I leave my backpack and camera with Jordi. Jordi asks if I’m sure I don’t want to take my camera, but I say I want to make it quick. When I get to the peak, my solar panel is no longer there, and the very last hikers are leaving. One of them asks if I’m looking for something… it turns out he picked up my solar panel and was going to carry it down. I thank him heartfully and as we get talking it turns out he knows exactly where the highest Russell cave is.
The way to paradise
I almost can’t believe this twist of luck, but soon the excitement takes over and we climb down almost in the same direction as I had gone before, only now we’re staying on the grey rocks. And indeed, it’s on the grey rocks that we find the half snowed-in entrance to Le Paradis, as Russell named this highest cave. It was impossible to spot it from higher up and from below it wasn’t visible because of the snow. It took a totally unexpected twist to find it. I crawl inside and feel the greatest fulfilment of the day. The cave is just 3 by 3 metres, but that is still larger than I was expecting, and it feels quite outer-worldly to be inside the Vignemale at 3280m. But there isn’t much time, so we take a few photos with my mobile phone, scramble back to the ridge and start descending. Jordi is happy for me that I’ve discovered the cave and I feel sorry that we couldn’t find it together. But that’s how things are and soon the three of us are descending carefully on our crampons, our ice-axes firmly in one hand. In one place, the snow has already melted so much that we’re descending on the rocks, but without real difficulties we reach the glacier. We say goodbye to the fellow who helped me find Le paradis. He is descending while we go the other way, to Villa Russell.
We soon reach the upper end of the glacier where the three caves in the rock face are well above where we are standing. It’s a sad reminder of how fast the Ossoue glacier, the second largest of the Pyrenees, is losing its mass. The caves are now at least 5m above the snow level and in previous years the glacier was at an even lower level.
We grab hold of the climbing rope that is hanging from Villa Russell and after a short but exciting climb we are inside Russell’s first cave. I immediately notice that this cave is smaller than Le paradis and I find it is no wonder that Russell had more caves built to accommodate his companions on excursions to the Vignemale. We can only imagine how once this now moist cave had carpets, a door and a woodstove. The view over the Ossoue glacier, with the blue sky above, is amazing and, for a brief moment, we feel how it might have been for Henry Russell to be the ruler of this mountain kingdom.
Descending with the glacier’s melting water
The cave is no longer an inviting place to spend the night. And since we have other plans, we start descending. On the way down we see the effects of the sunny day we’re enjoying when we pass a place where a lot of melting water is flowing down rapidly from the glacier. When we get back to Lac du Barrage d’Ossoue, we notice the lake is over a metre higher than it was in the morning. We go for a swim and the cold water refreshes us so well that we don’t even reflect on the fact that we’re bathing in the water coming from a disappearing glacier.
We are happy and are already thinking about our plans for the next few days, when we’re going to explore the Cirque de Troumouse and an old Pyrenean Haute Route variant that is rarely practised.
We live in a different time than Henry Russell, but just like him we feel the need to explore the most amazing places out there.