Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (part 2)

Warning: this post is no different from the previous one: the reference it contains to the Bible-of-mountaineering,-your-ticket-to-the-wilderness is nothing but a humble tribute of two enthusiastic Mountain lovers (and occasional Tree huggers, btw). We would consider ourselves truly satisfied, would you decide to buy it and dive in its amazing content just based on our warmest advice...

the back of the 2c15 in B.B.B (Breakfast-Buffet-Brunch) setting. 
For those who don't remember it, the first part of the adventure finished like this: "After that, we headed the 2c15 up north again, through Huesca and Sabiñanigo to the Pourtalet, where we spent a beautiful yet chilly night with the milky way and the Midi d'Ossau (2884m) straight in our bedroom window." Our idea was to wake up early and do a fast up-and-down hike to summit Jean-Pierre (the emblematic Bearnese peak's nickname) by its normal route: Refuge de Pombie and Col de Suzon, pif-paf, back to the car for lunch and let's roll... I can hear them laughing "the meek shall inherit the earth". Well, our early wake-up was early-ish and the car park (i.e. both sides of the narrow mountain road) was over-crowded with vans, cars, campers, motorcycles and motor-homes packed in a chaotic, yet optimized pattern two hundred meters before and after the beginning of the trail. The trail itself - wandering through the high altitude meadows, peacefully grazed by a bucolic crowd of sheep and cattle - was a continuous, never-ending and dense chain of hikers, who resembled, from a distance, some Catalan pro-independence demonstrators or some XIXieth century firemen passing along the buckets of water to control a fire...

Iconic view from Laruns downtown: "le Pic du Ger a mis son écharpe".
It's not that we don't like human beings, but we're not that much into massive gatherings and tend to find mountaineering enjoyable and rewarding precisely because one can (eventually) experience loneliness and solitude, while feeling lost in the seemingly infinite wilderness. Bull-poop! The Pic du Midi d'Ossau happens to be THE place to visit on a sunny August 10th morning. Call us anti-conformists, we passed along and parked the 2c15 a few kilometers lower down the road for breakfast. The little road to Bious-Artigues was closed due to a heavy traffic jam and the tiny village of Gabas was totally collapsed. Les Eaux-chaudes was desert and looking like a ghost town (this shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who's ever been there), so before we could even realize it, we were in Laruns, taking pictures of weird electric sheep and weeding the grave of Futuna's grandmother (not shown). All right. We had an appointment we couldn't miss with our dear A., his girlfriend M. and her family (two sistas and motha), somewhere over the rainbow: "let's meet at the Refuge de Baysselance, he told us, on the evening of the 12th. We'll have climbed all the way from Pont d'Espagne to the North Face (the "Gaube" side) and hopefully summited the Petit Vignemale along the way! We'll have dinner together and then we'll sleep at the cosy shelter while you guys set your bivy somewhere around: it's gonna be legen... etc.". When A. sets up a meeting, you don't doubt about it nor negociate: you do and you make sure to be on time.

Wallis looking for her route at Arudy ;end of the day on the way to Ossoue ; two wild Iris and still waters right after dawn.
So, with an extra day in the pocket, we drove to Arudy, found a nice spot and did a little bit of sport climbing at a nice crag whose name we don't remember*. Pleasant and quiet spot, nice routes in our grade (5+ to 6a+, we left the couple of 6b and 6c for the next go, "when we're stronger", if that day comes, inshallah!), smiling friendly locals and a middle-aged couple of french traveling hippies playing pétanque with a glass of rosé before dinner. The perfect retreat? Almost... Unfortunately in less than one hour, some forgotten (but still pretty fresh) canine mines exploded under our feet and not even the left one(s). The next day, we did just a tiny little bit of early climbing then we drove to Pau, Lourdes and Gavarnie. Once there, we finally took the dirt road up to Ossoue's dam for an early dinner and 4-star night in our 2.0 bivy: a minimal 1,1kg McKinley tunnel shelter we (compulsively) purchased in Pau after the 1.0 experience: the sleepless slap-in-the-face cold and windy night. Truth is, we were inspired to get it and take it with us on this hike and you'll soon discover how much! No fee for us, no family working there, no special interest in selling the gear, but: we are generally very satisfied with McKinley products and the Arium1 shelter is just fantastic! End of the commercial... back to the hike: from Ossoue, the trail goes up a narrow valley, on the right side of the creek, all the way to a couple of caves dug in the rock (probably by Russell). From there, a trail takes you to the Refuge de Baysselance, while another one goes straight to the foot of the glacier d'Ossoue.

the lower part of the glacier d'Ossoue, with the thick lips of some impressive crevices...
After hiding the bigger backpack under some flat stones, we headed to the glacier, disturbed some young fellow Pyrenean chamois**, took out the ice axes and put on the crampons... The glacier was impressive, steep and deeply cracked but fortunately, some clear and quite young traces gave us the confidence we may have lacked... Ha ha! Ice terrain is no joke... Approximately half way to the top of the glacier, we met two friendly guys from Madrid and finished the ascent with them, while a rope-party of seven, most probably led by a guide, was taking the tourist route across the crevices. I reckon when you pay for the services of a mountain guide, you want to see some real stuff and go where you wouldn't on your own! Anyway, at some point and after passing at the foot of the Pointe Chausenque, the Piton Carré and seen from above the perspective of the most famous corridor of the Pyrenees, the Couloir de Gaube, we reached the foot of the Pique Longue du Vignemale. On a neat and flat area, sharing the available room with the other two parties, we removed the crampons and soon began to "climb" the final section, wisely following - as the guidebook advised - the lines of red rock better than those of grey, more slippery and loose.

All the way up on the glacier d'Ossoue: with an old pair of vintage crampons and many unreal shades of blue!
A professional rope party, the glacier from la Pique Longue and the last 100 meters of natural rock stairs.
Breathtaking views from the top of Pique Longue (3298m), with the Midi d'Ossau in the background and... rush hour to the top!
The summit of the Pique longue (3298m) was easy to reach and the weather clear enough to enjoy 360º of breath-taking, jaw-dropping views: with Gavarnie on one side and the crowded Midi d'Ossau on the other, plus an endless sea of unknown mountains and valleys on the Spanish side... After some quiet sandwiches and still water, the loud guided crowd started to make it to the top and chased us right away. The way down along the (red) rock stairs was easy and quick, so we soon were back and down on the glacier. The refuge de Baysselance we saw from the top at about 600 vertical meters lower to the East right at the foot of the Petit Vignemale and the Hourquette d'Ossoue, was still a long way around the glacier, back to where we dropped the main backpack and back up to its green saddle facing Gavarnie. Just took the average 5-minute pause for a photoshoot by the exit of the Couloir de Gaube, and down we went, following our own previous traces through the rare cracks of the north side of the glacier. As morning advanced and the sun got higher, we feared the snow may become weaker and switched to the rock earlier. Lower on, the backpack was so artistically covered with stones and hidden, we hardly could find it, and the rest of the way to Baysselance was about 40 minutes with no particular problem.

hourquette d'Ossoue and refuge de Baysselance ; beautiful way down ; impressive Couloir de Gaube ; photoshoot in B(lue) flat ; Vignemale family, from left to right: Small, Chausenque ; Carré and Pique Longue!
At about 14:00 we were sunbathing in fornt of the refuge de Baysselance, sipping an instant coffee with milk prepared on the wonderful Trangia stove U&L gave us and giving a bite to the special homemade "mountaineers' cake" they cook up there: absolutely delicious! We met a very nice Belgian couple from Charleroi, hiking part of the GR10, and chatted with them part of the afternoon and evening, while they made plans for the next days... we showered in the wind, stared at the views of a storm approaching from Gavarnie and waited for A. and his angels to show up... but they didn't. At some point, the Belgian couple decided to summit the Petit Vignemale in the evening, just in case the weather became bad for longer than just the night and we went to built the bivy 2.0 on a nice flat area sheltered from the wind with a great round sonte wall. Perfect spot? Looked like... A. and his angels were still nowhere to be found by the time dinner was served, which we enjoyed even more after the guy from the refuge told us they had arrived safe at the refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, at the foot of the north face, and decided to stay there for the night... One eats much better with no worries!

the bivy 2.0, the whole Vignemale family again and the refuge de Baysselance... the calm before the storm. 
We went to bed early and slept like two logs, until the roaring storm reached us, pouring lightning, thunder, rain and thin crushed ice around our 1-person ultralight, waterproof, tiny, shiny lime-green, nylon fortress! It held all night and did the job remarkably, even though the neat stone-walled flat area we had settled onto eventually became a cozy jacuzzi, whose 10 cm high tide started to move our mattresses across the perfectly dry floor. When the water finally found its way through the door's zip, it was about 06:30. We called it a night, packed everything, jumped out just on time to see our hiking boots drifting away with the flow, put them on and run to the refuge for a warm breakfast. Some weren't as lucky and others pitied us after a comfortable and warm night in a comfy bed and under a solid roof. Call it classes if you want, but as for the way down, we were all equal! Fortunately, the rain stopped shortly after 09:00 and we even saw a little bit of sun and blue skies before reaching Ossoue's dam and the 2c15.

Ossoue's waterfalls backed by the night's rainfalls and the unreal greenness with its icelandic je-ne-sais-quoi
After a short second breakfast of bread, cheese and red wine, we gave the Belgian couple a lift down to Gavarnie, exchanged emails, bought some postcards and arranged a meeting with A. and his angels, who happened to be doing some sightseeing and miracle-hunting in Lourdes. The rest of the adventure is not worth telling in details (the road, drying the gear, washing the clothes, showering with warm water, cooking real food...), except for an important one: we didn't summit the Petit Vignemale on day 2 as we hoped, but we made it back home alive and safe, which is - according to Mountaineering: the Freedom of the Hills and without a doubt, the one and only goal when going into the wilderness!


* help us retrieve this information and win an exclusive Un(t)raveling postcard and envelope, all the way from us to you, straight in your mailbox!

** here they are: a bunch of young Rupicapra pyrenaica fellahs, on quite an exotic "Holiday on ice" ballet:

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