Walking to the top of the world
The Vignemale Massif section of the walk was incredibly beautiful but also incredibly steep!
We started in Cauterets, a tourist hotspot known for its spas and skiing. We joined the tourist crowd for an hour in the morning, whilst they looked at cheese shops and novelty stores, I was looking at sports shops for new boot insoles. I settled on the local Intersport and bought high quality SIDAS insoles. It turns out that the vast majority of foot pain in sport can be cured by high quality insoles that support the arch of the foot. It’s something that’s definitely worth looking into if you regularly go hiking, running or generally use your feet at all.
We then started the long walk up to Glacier du Vignemale. The first part of the morning was spent walking to Pont d’Espagne at 1500m. The series of waterfalls is named for the stone bridge that spans the river. Waterfalls are always a priority for me as I really enjoy the experience of climbing up, then rounding a corner and seeing a cascade of tumultuous water tumbling down. Pont d’Espagne was one of the best waterfalls I’ve seen, probably helped by the snow melting higher up the valley.
After too quick a stop at the waterfalls, we continued up to Lac de Gaube. I decided not to jump in for a swim, instead electing to try and get the best view possible of the lake and relax.
We walked further up the valley in the afternoon and camped on a plain lower down from the glacier. Camping lower also meant we would be slightly delayed getting to the glacier and so would traverse it when the snow was softer.
I awoke to an amazing sunrise setting the Vignemale mountain on fire with colour.
The next part of the walk was perhaps the most dramatic and precipitous walks I’ve done so far. To continue the GR10 we had to climb up the side of the glacier valley and over the snow. Many of the people we passed were mountaineers with crampons and carried ice picks, though we never saw anyone actually using the picks. I confess that I’m an inexperienced snow hiker and walking along with the glacier one side and steep snow the other was a daunting experience at first.
I think going up the glacier was easier than going down probably would be. As it’s hard to slip going up a slope compared to down one. If one of us had slipped I’m reasonably sure that the snow was soft enough to dig in and stop, which is why we left going over the glacier until early afternoon.
The other side of the mountain was relatively clear of snow and it was just a steep descent down to Refuge de Bayssellance, the highest of Pyrenean refuges. It’s mostly used by mountaineers and climbers attempting to summit Vignemale, and the GR10 walkers during the summer.
I (very) rarely sleepwalk so was more then happy to not camp at the stonecircle bivouk site by the refuge. I wouldn’t want to be in a tent during a storm at this altitude, or that close to a steep drop.
We dropped right down to the lower part of the valley and camped near a large reservoir. The local marmots were unusually friendly, normally they bolt at the first sign of people.