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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Nature’s Colosseum: Exploring the Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrenees

Our modest two starred Hotel des Cimes is a world away from the flea ridden Pyrenean hostelries described by Hilaire Belloc who travelled through the region at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s most certainly not the Ritz, but our first floor en suite room has five star views up the valley to the Cirque de Gavarnie, a vast glacial bowl gouged out of the Pyrenees Mountains. Probably the most famous cirque in the world, this 1,400 metres high and 890 metres wide wonder described by Victor Hugo as ‘nature’s Colosseum’, lies within the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site which straddles France and Spain.

The Cirque de Gavarnie as seen from our hotel
The scenery is a true salve for the soul. Woodland sweeps up to the yawning ice and snow frosted cirque with its wedding-veil waterfalls. In the distance I can hear the roar of a river carrying away the snowmelt. Flower-scented meadows that look as if they have been lifted from the pages of a fairy story are dotted with crème caramel coloured cows dining on a salade verte so green as to be unbelievable. The melodic clanking of their bells is carried on the wind drifting languidly across the landscape. A chattering alpine swift chasing insects darts across the sky like a tossed away scythe in a mesmerising dance of life and death. If it wasn't for the tacky souvenir shops, this place would be a paradise.

The Tourist Route to the Cirque
Gavarnie, a rural idyll apart from the tacky tourist shops
The sun slips down behind the nearby mountains plunging the Cirque into shadow, and the horses that ply the route up to it are being led away by their keeper for the night. In the distance the village church bell gently tolls for evening prayers. Tomorrow we plan to explore ‘nature’s Colosseum’, but thunderstorms are forecast for the area and with an abundance of caution, we have revised our plans for a four day wild camping trek across the mountains. 

A Trek Curtailed

The Brèche de Roland above Gavarnie marks the border between France and Spain; passing through this would have formed part of day one of our intended trek. Ascending to this point is undoubtedly one of the best climbs in the Pyrenees. From the car park at Col de Tentes we stroll along an ancient mountain track fringed with electric mauve thistles that meanders gently upwards to the Puerto de Bujaruelo . Here we feast our eyes on a dragon’s back of snow capped mountains sweeping up from the verdant Valle de Ordesa. This green and pleasant land is Spain and we fill our lungs with the warm air wafting upwards, scented with the unmistakable aroma of wild mountain thyme. Tiny butterflies float from one flower head to another and a chorus of insects drone the lazy song of summer. The percussive sound of fallen rock alerts us to the presence of a marmot busily foraging for tubers and roots amid a nearby slope misty blue with gentian flowers. It lets out a loud whistle when we approach too close and darts away into a chaotic tumble of rock.

The Ordesa Valley from the Puerto de Bujaruela
A cheeky Marmot
We thread our way up a steep rocky path on the shoulder of a mountain above the Vallée des Pouey D’Aspé opposite the Col de Tentes, towards the first of several patches of dirty snow which bear the scars of countless feet. The summer breeze carries the musical clank of sheep bells, the whisper of dried grass, the distant cry of a vulture and the sound of water cascading down over rock. 

Martin above the Vallée des Pouey D'Aspé
The route to the Brèche de Roland
A cairn along the way
We cross tumbling streams swollen with snow melt, cellophane clear water as cold as ice, and scramble up a rocky ridge which leads into another ravine with a noisy waterfall bouncing down the mountainside. The ground ahead is steep and snow choked for the time of year, and we stop to don our crampons.

Unusually deep snow for the time of year lay on the route
The snow slopes were steep and slippery and crampons became necessary
The route heading towards the waterfall
The track passes close to the waterfall and is treacherous; chains that would help upward traction lie buried under feet of snow and the hot sun gives it the consistency of caster sugar. In places verglas smears naked rock and the diamond dazzling treachery of snow on ice makes progress difficult. We can hear water gurgling beneath our boots and in places have to carefully negotiate rivulets fleeing through melted runnels in the compacted snow. We look on in horror as a man slips and slides 20 metres or so down a steep snow slope. His GoreTex jacket sliding quickly over the icy surface lets out a menacing hiss. He has the presence of mind to use his walking pole as a braking device, but his fall could have resulted in tragedy, and we wonder at the stupidity of the number of people on the route without crampons or ice axes, or even a pair of mountaineering or hiking boots.

Route climbing past the waterfall
The waterfall
The waterfall now behind us, we come to a large glacial bowl where the snow has drifted feet deep. Great layers of sedimentary rock have been upended in the sheer cliffs that erupt through the snow like the bones of the Earth picked bare. The sun is high and commanding a sky that bears no menace, but the heat is tremendous. A steep climb out of the bowl brings us to a rocky ridge where we finally catch sight of the Refuge des Sarradets (2,587 meters) which takes its name from the col of that name located below it. 

The ridge above the Refuge des Sarradets (2,587 m)
Currently undergoing renovation, a large crane hovers over the chalet style stone built building with a sloping roof which is perched on an outcrop of rock commanding jaw dropping views. Below we can see the top of the vast Cirque de Gavarnie, the layers of rock surrounding it squeezed and contorted into swirls and whorls as if modelled in plasticine. Waterfalls tumble over its side like curtains of white silk and snow covered scree slopes above it sweep up to a monumental wall of rock that soars into the sky, broken by the Brèche de Roland, a massive gap-toothed void in the cirque’s rocky smile.

The Refuge des Sarradets is currently undergoing renovation
Incredible rock formations above the Cirque de Gavarnie
The incredible Brèche de Roland
A steep and at times slippery climb down through compacted snow from the ridge brings us to the refuge. We find a shady spot on the balcony facing the Cirque and fire up our stove for lunch. Ample entertainment is provided by a couple of cheeky alpine choughs who await any chance to make off with our food, and several marmots who are busy foraging amid the rocks below the refuge. In the distance we watch a sole lammergeyer riding the thermals above the Pic de Sarradets. It’s a thrill to spot this bird with a wingspan of over two metres.  

A cheeky alpine chough looking to steal our lunch!
Lunch complete, we climb up the snow covered slope towards the Brèche de Roland, stopping to plunge a couple of artisanal beers deep into the snow to chill. The sun beats down relentlessly from an azure blue sky, broken by a few white clouds boiling up beyond the gap in the cliffs marking the gateway to Spain, which would have featured on our now abandoned trek. Yet the storm that is forecast seems an absurdity on a day such as this, and we wonder whether we should have thrown caution to the wind and done the trek after all. We sip our much awaited cool beers below the remnants of the Glacier de la Brèche, which, like many European glaciers, has all but vanished, after which we head back down to the Col de Tentes without incident.

The Brèche de Roland, gateway to Spain
Life's necessities, a cool craft beer!
Back in Gavarine, the moonless night sky is juniper-purple and the bejeweled arch of the Milky Way soars across the heavens as we leave Les Cascades restaurant. Despite the fact that a fine four course French meal is a far better deal than a packet of freeze dried food, we curse the fact that we are not sat in our tent high in the mountains on such a still and perfect night.

View looking back to the ridge above the refuge
Milky Way soaring above Gavarnie

Nature's Colosseum and a Storm to Remember

The next day dawns hot and sunny with not a cloud in the cerulean blue sky. But with the inclement weather forecast still lurking in the back of our minds, we decide to take the 'easy' tourist route up to the Cirque de Gavarnie. We join a throng of other walkers heading up the gravel path above the bank of the rushing chalky turquoise waters of the Gave de Gavarnie, our nostrils assaulted by the smell of horse dung! The route crosses an ancient stone bridge and past meadows starred with thousands of colourful flowers before it climbs gently, threading its way through mixed woodland which offers some reprieve from the relentless heat of the sun.

The ancient stone bridge across the Gave de Gavarnie
We emerge from the woodland, blinking in the fierce sunlight, to a wondrous view of a riparian scene fit to grace the lid of any chocolate box. The Gave de Gavarnie flows languidly through the broad gravel strewn bottom of the valley. In places it has braided, its turquoise channels meandering round small islands studded with trees. Ahead the view is dominated by the massive cirque that looms behind the interlocking spurs of the surrounding mountains which sweep down dramatically to the valley floor. Snow and ice gleam on the towering cliffs above the cirque and the enormity of the landscape makes me feel very small indeed.

A riparian scene fit to grace the lid of any box of chocolates!
The path now descends to meet the gravelly valley bottom before beginning to climb steeply towards the Cirque itself. The route is busy with walkers, many red faced and sweating profusely in the stifling humidity as they lean on their large wooden staffs, while a family of four clatters by on horses hired from Gavarnie. After walking for about an hour, we arrive at l'hôtellerie du Cirque, a large nineteenth century building seated below the entrance to the towering glacial bowl. This old hotel, somewhat faded in its majesty, now functions only as a restaurant in the high season, but it offers probably one of the finest glacial views in the world.

Weeping waterfalls topple from atop vertical cliffs fringed with show and ice below a neon-blue sky streaked with angel-white cloud. France’s highest waterfall plunges 422 metres in a display of misty majesty. A veritable honey trap, this site attracts about a million tourists each year. It’s not hard to see why; it’s a sight to send poets and artists into raptures. We delight in sitting on the shady terrace of the restaurant to refresh ourselves with some cool beers and to partake in an al fresco lunch of local meats and cheeses while admiring the view.

Nothing like a cool beer on a hot day, and what a view!
Too many beers later, we begin the climb up into the Cirque. Most people don’t walk much farther than the l'hôtellerie, and after half an hour we find ourselves alone to commune with the majesty of the glacial landscape. The rocky ground is misty with meadow flowers and the passage of our feet kicks up the heady aroma of wild thyme. The towering cliffs, their strata laid bare like a layer cake, appear to be bearing down on us, while soft white clouds sail above their snow streaked heights. The only sound is the constant roar of the waterfalls, the clanking of sheep bells and the periodic chirping of crickets. We might have been the only two people left in the world, so deep is our sense of solitude.

The Gave de Gavarnie above the Hotellerie de Cirque
Martin in the Cirque de Gavarnie
Waterfall cascading down into the entrance of the Cirque de Gavarnie
France's highest waterfall in the Cirque de Gavarnie
But the sky is changing. The flour-white pillows of cloud mutate into something dark and vengeful, boiling masses coiling and writhing in shades of battleship grey and tar black that swallow the sun. We quickly turn tail towards l'hôtellerie where the waiters are hurriedly packing away the terrace umbrellas. The faint chlorine whiff of ozone sends us fleeing past it in a tide of other walkers hoping to reach Gavarnie before the storm breaks. This turns out to be a forlorn hope. As we stop to don our waterproof jackets, the wind begins to gust, rising to a frenzy as a thunderclap rends the air and echoes round the valley. All at once the thrumming clouds begin to spit out hailstones and torrential rain. Large puddles appear almost instantaneously and connect rapidly to form a mass of swirling water which floods the track now dancing with spray.

The hailstones are huge, the size and shape of Trebor soft mints, and send people shrieking for cover under a canopy of pine trees close to the track. Tall and upright, they line up around us like silent sentinels as sheet lightning illuminates their blackened trunks and the earth seems to shudder with each clap of thunder. With no sign of the storm abating, and knowing it’s not safe to shelter under trees, we decide to push on. Through buckshot rain and hailstones that deliver a vicious sting as they strike, we brave the unending downpour past battered meadows reeking with petrichor, and eventually arrive back at our hotel absolutely soaked to the gussets.

These really hurt when they fell from the sky!
The next morning dawns still and damp. A watery sun is shining feebly through columns of slowly moving mist, casting weak lances of light across wind beaten meadows where steam is rising steadily from the grass. The vaporous tendrils drift upwards to join a bank of thickening grey cloud lying angrily atop the cirque. The atmosphere is pregnant with rain. A distant rumble of thunder confirms that the forecast was accurate after all; the weather has set in, the walking is over and reluctantly, we decide to move on to Asturias in Northern Spain

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