Writing a guidebook in a mountain hut on the Pyrenean Haute Route
14 minute read
I wasn’t even planning to stop at the Larribet mountain hut, but on an early July morning in 2014, mist came in and reduced my view. Eventually, I got into trouble and needed help. This is the story of how I got to know one specific mountain hut and its wardens very well. Until then, I hardly ever stayed at mountain huts and I didn’t realise that the events that unfolded would change my connection to mountain huts from then on.
A two-week trip on the Pyrenean Haute Route
Until that early July morning, my trip in the Pyrenees had been a mix of foul weather and glorious, sunny days. I was on a two-week hike from the Atlantic Ocean to Gavarnie, and the Atlantic Pyrenees had welcomed me with relentless mist and rain. The region is notorious for such conditions, so I had come well prepared. I was having a good time despite the continuous rain: a good friend joined me for five days and we never got lost in the mist, finding shelter in an old barn before the night with the heaviest rain. After three gloomy days, we got a splendid, sunny day and we enjoyed the change greatly. Then followed a few more days of rain. My friend had to go home, and I hiked on solo or in the company of other hikers. When I approached the High Pyrenees, everything changed for the better.
I left the wet and muddy Basque Country behind, hiked into the Béarn region and gazed in awe at the impressive Pic du Midi d’Ossau. The weather also turned much nicer and my hopes grew for some carefree hiking days. I intended to get up early and have long days to make up for the relatively slow progress I had been making. I enjoyed a wonderful, sunny day contouring the west and south side of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau. I hiked down its eastern slopes, climbed up another valley and pitched my tent in the border area of the Atlantic Pyrenees and the High Pyrenees. Back in 2014, I rarely stayed at refuges. Unless the circumstances were very extreme, I enjoyed sleeping in my tent and cooking my own meal. I like to stay connected with my surroundings at all times. Relatively soon I would arrive in Gavarnie. Three days of exciting hiking over magnificent mountain landscapes with impressive views separated me from reaching one of the most famous mountain villages in the French Pyrenees.
An unexpected misty morning
But the events unfolded in a totally different way. After packing my gear and starting to hike the next morning, I was looking forward to a sunny day. The sun shone through the holes in the morning clouds, which seemed to be lifting. It was about 7am and the morning temperatures at 2300m were very low for the time of the year. I hiked solo, at a good pace to get warm, and crossed a first pass, the Col du Palas (2517m). The Pyrenean Haute Route, the long-distance route that I was following, ventures into Spain at that point, and leads back into France at the Port du Lavedan (2615m) 500m further on. However, most of that 500m was a relatively steep, snow-covered slope, which I crossed carefully. I then scrambled over the Port du Lavedan and once back in France I was surprised to find a lot of low clouds. It was about 9am and on the Spanish side it had been sunny. In France, however, the clouds were rising up from the valley and soon my view was reduced to a few metres. To make things worse, the unusual amount of snow that had fallen in springtime covered the markings I was supposed to follow. I carefully studied the description in my guidebook and, aided by my map and compass, I estimated the direction I had to go.
The mist lifted a little every now and again, giving me a glimpse of the landscape ahead. I carefully traversed a steep snow-covered slope, crossed a ridge and started to descend.
If I had been able to see how steep that particular slope was, I would have realised that it couldn’t be the route, but the mist was reducing my view to the 5 metres ahead of me.
The inevitable happened; I slipped and started sliding down.
The reflexes I had attained in my alpine training immediately kicked into action, but on the hard, frozen snow, my braking position had little effect. I gained speed and kept sliding down until a place where some rocks stopped me. My training probably saved my life at that point because, somehow, I managed to land on my feet and I seemed to have only a few bruises and minor cuts from landing on the rocks. Despite being in a bit of shock, I told myself I was ok and I was relieved to be alive and relatively well. But I also realised my troubles were far from over: I was in a place without waymarks, in the mist, on a cold morning, on a steep snow-covered slope.
Luckily, the mist lifted soon after and the sun broke through. I could see two lakes and a few other landscape elements that helped me figure out where I was and how I would get back on track. I was extremely focused and I made sure that every step on the steep, hard snow was secure. It took me a long time but eventually I made it to safe ground again and found the track. On the way, however, I realised that my right hand was swelling and that I must have broken a bone in my right palm. Until then, my survival mode had kept me concentrating on other things. I decided to go to the nearby refuge and ask for help.
Refuge de Larribet
Laetitia, the guardienne of the Larribet mountain hut, was clearly experienced with such situations: the first thing she asked was if I had been alone, and when she realised there was nobody else still up there, she was relieved. She asked a series of questions and, since I had suffered a fracture, she phoned the mountain emergency services. After that, she served me tea and cake and we chatted.
Getting that tea and cake made me realise that I was safe and I could finally switch off survival mode and relax. The relief nearly made me cry.
An hour later I was in a helicopter and a few hours after that I was in a hospital where my fracture was repaired. In my hospital bed, I was slowly accepting that my hike was ending prematurely. In the evening, I phoned Laetitia to thank her for her help and to tell her I would be back to continue the Pyrenean Haute Route. The next day, I took a plane home. I reflected a lot on the events and one of the strongest lasting impressions was the professionalism with which Laetitia and the mountain rescue services had handled the situation. It changed the way I looked at the mountain huts and their wardens. Many people nowadays see mountain huts as their hiking destination, but the huts haven’t fully lost their function of being a safe haven in extreme circumstances. I used to (and still do) avoid huts because of the busy atmosphere, but over time I’ve come to admire the wardens who must master a wide range of competences and deal with a variety of situations.
Fast forward to 2018
I have hiked 2500km in the Pyrenees since 2014 and have never got into such an awkward situation again. On one hand, it was an exceptional mix of circumstances that got me into serious trouble and on the other hand, I didn’t go fully prepared. I should, of course, have been carrying crampons and an ice-axe, even if my hike included only three days in the High Pyrenees. In 2016 and 2017 I went back to the Port du Lavedan. I was better prepared, but there was hardly any snow in those years, so I didn’t need my alpine gear. But even in easier circumstances, the Port du Lavedan is still is one of the most challenging passes in the Pyrenees. The conditions also vary greatly from year to year. Extreme snowfall occurred again this year and most probably the Pyrenees will see more of these extreme weather conditions in the future.
A deeper connection to the Pyrenean Haute Route
My fascination with the Pyrenees has only grown since that accident. In 2017, I thought I had enough experience to write to Cicerone Press with a suggestion to update their existing guidebook for the Pyrenean Haute Route. That summer, I hiked the whole Route. I enjoyed a heat-wave in the Basque Country, I didn’t have a single day of mist and apart from the usual thunderstorms, the weather was generally good. I crossed the Port du Lavedan on a sunny day and enjoyed the bits of scrambling that are involved. Arriving at Refuge de Larribet felt great and meeting Laetitia again is always special because I still appreciate how she supported me in 2014.
It was that year that I felt that I wanted to experience the Pyrenees from inside a mountain hut. I had hiked so much in the Pyrenees and I was curious to get to know that aspect of the mountains.
A week in Refuge de Larribet
During the 2017-2018 winter months I spent quite some time re-writing the Pyrenean Haute Route guidebook and in early summer I travelled to the Pyrenees to check a couple of routes and explore a few exciting variants. Most of the routes were in the High Pyrenees and I agreed with Laetitia that, after my hikes, I could finish my writing work in her refuge. I would stay for one week.
After three weeks of very satisfying hiking I arrived at Refuge de Larribet. It was late afternoon and there was a great deal of excitement: everyone was talking about a rescue operation. A woman had broken her leg a few kilometres away from the refuge. Her family was with her, but the rescue helicopter couldn’t come because it was involved in a more urgent situation. My tiredness immediately disappeared and when the rescue officers arrived on foot, I asked if I could be of any help. They gladly accepted and said I could come along to carry gear up and back down.
An old school rescue operation
It was about an hour before sunset when we reached the tent that the woman’s children and husband had put up. She was doing well despite the circumstances. The doctor secured her leg in a splint and the two other rescue officers started carrying her down, taking turns in carrying her on their backs. Meanwhile, we took down the tent and packed everything into our bags, before catching up with the others. I admired the rescue officers for their strength and perseverance, as we progressed very slowly on the unforgiving terrain. It was well after dark when we finally saw the lights of the refuge. Everyone was hugely relieved. A bed for the woman and her husband was improvised in the dining room. I admired them, too, for staying so positive. Breaking your leg is one thing, but not being able to be evacuated is another.
A helicopter was meant to come the next day but in the morning there was thick mist. For hours we waited for it to lift, and at around 10.30am it seemed to do so. The rescue workers made a call and immediately the helicopter left its base in Gavarnie. Unfortunately, by the time it arrived more mist had come in, and there wasn’t enough visibility for the helicopter to land. The mist seemed to be there to stay and it was decided that other rescue workers would walk up to the refuge with a specialised stretcher. In the afternoon, they arrived and finally the family were on their way to the hospital.
Good weather for writing
The next few days were also misty and cold, and very few people arrived at the refuge. Several groups cancelled their reservations and there were no hikers crossing the Port du Lavedan. For me, however, it was good weather to concentrate on my writing. I got a good amount of text done but drawing maps appeared to be practically impossible because of the slow internet connection. I worked inside, at a small desk, and when I took a break I chatted with Laetitia and Stéphane, who was also working there, or some of the hikers who had had the courage to come up. Then the weather turned nicer and a lot of day tourists and hikers poured into the refuge. I met several people who were on the Pyrenean Haute Route and enjoyed exchanging experiences with them. I went out for short hikes around the refuge and in the second half of my week there, an interesting man arrived.
Collecting rare mountain plants
Laetitia had already told me that Bernard was on his way. Bernard is a local who passes the refuge every year before he goes collecting génépi, a rare mountain plant that is the essential ingredient for making a traditional herbal liqueur with the same name.
He has reached the ripe age of 86, but that doesn’t stop him from going into the mountains.
This was the first year he had decided to stay overnight in the refuge, instead of going up and down in one day. I met him in the evening and while I was listening with interest to his mountaineering stories, he invited me along to collect génépi the next day.
When I woke up at 7am, it turned out Bernard had left a little after 6am. I knew where he was heading, so I quickly had breakfast and started to hike to the Brèche de Ciseaux (2650m). In France, collecting génépi is prohibited, so we needed to go to this border pass and find the rare plant on the other side. I hiked up the same route as where the rescue operation had taken place, crossed snowfields and as I was approaching the final scree slope underneath the pass, I noticed Bernard, who was halfway up already. When I got to the pass, Bernard had already caught his breath and showed me which plant was génépi and which one looked like it. For the liqueur, it was important that the plant was already flowering, otherwise it wouldn’t add taste. We both searched in different places on the Spanish side and after a couple of hours, we compared the amount we had gathered. I had found way less plants than Bernard had, and he even gave me some so I could give Laetitia enough to make at least one bottle of génépi.
Good weather for hiking
The next few days in the refuge were very busy because of the good weather. From lunchtime on, many groups of day tourists came by to have a drink or something to eat, and even though I had my private workspace, it wasn’t always easy concentrating on my work with so much happening around me. I wasn’t bothered by the lively atmosphere, but it was difficult not to take part. I occasionally helped a bit in the kitchen, gave advice to hikers and had a beer in the sun while chatting with Laetitia and Stéphane while they were having a break, too.
I definitely didn’t get as much work for the guide book done as I would have liked to, but on the other hand, I had definitely succeeded in experiencing many aspects of life in and around a mountain hut.
Once more over the Port du Lavedan
The time had come for me to head back home. I packed my backpack, said goodbye to Laetitia and climbed up once more to the Port du Lavedan. It was near the end of July, but there was still a considerable amount of snow near the pass. I strapped on my crampons, took my ice-axe and traversed the snow, which reached the rocky pass. I crossed into Spain and was traversing more snow when I saw a couple approaching from the other direction. It was easy to guess their route, so I asked them if they had crampons and ice-axes with them. They didn’t. They had been inspired by a three-day trip report in a magazine from 2017. That year, crossing the pass was easy, I told them. I also said that this year it was a completely different story. I didn’t mention that once I was helicoptered off after an accident there, I just explained to them that I knew the area well and I strongly recommended that they choose another route. Unfortunately, at that point, their only option was going back the same way they had come. I saw that they were still in doubt when I decided to continue on my way. A few hundred metres further I turned around and saw that they were still at the same place. Mostly hiking is fun and decisions are made depending on how much energy and motivation we have and what the weather is like. Occasionally, other circumstances force us to stop and think things over. The couple started hiking back to where they came from. Obviously, they were smarter than I had been.