What happens when you take a 14-year-old (sometimes grumpy) teenage boy, a writer, and an experienced hiker and put them in the Pyrenees for a weekend?
Magic. That’s what happens.
My name is Cat. I’m a writer from Ireland who grew up 6m above sea level and except for one hike in the Comeraghs in the summer, I’ve never been on a mountain in my life. The 14-year-old is my son and Mike is the French experienced hiker who has spent his life hiking in the Alps and the Pyrenees. He’s also my other half so when he suggested we spend a weekend in the French mountains, I agreed, not really knowing what I was getting myself in for.
Any of you who know me, know that I’m the creative, not the outdoorsy type and although I’ve often wondered about the appeal of the great outdoors and the love people have to push themselves in the most challenging ways, it was never on my radar to actually do anything of the sort. Until that weekend. When I did.
I’ve read a number of blogs advising new hikers on what to expect, what to wear and what not to do, but I’ve yet to read an account written by a complete novice been thrown right in at the deep end; like Joey and I were by Mike. Now, not for a second would I advise any newbie to just jump on a plane and go climb a mountain in France. You need a Mike. We wouldn’t have done it without him. The driving alone is hair-raising (more about that in a minute) and you absolutely need someone with the knowledge and experience to do it with you. He’s also a great photographer as you can see from all the amazing shots he took during the escapade.
Anyway, we left Wexford in the early hours of Saturday morning and our destination was Garanou, a small village outside Ax-Les-Thermes. I could tell you loads about this little place, especially about the sulphurous hot springs giving the town its name but you’re just going to have to look it up. http://www.mairie-ax.fr/
We flew to Carcassonne, took a quick detour to Toulouse to see family and then made the drive down. The first time my breath left my body was when we came through the Tunnel de Foix and into the mountains. I’d never seen anything like the skyline before and I felt like I had been swallowed by the earth. Mountain peaks and forests as far as the eye could see. A 35-minute drive took us to Garanou and if you have never been in a car in a little mountain village in your life, then I will be hard pushed to describe the driving. Mike was fine of course, it’s second nature to him but I’m not sure I would have the confidence to do it. Extremely narrow streets on steep inclines with no barriers!
My first experience of driving up a mountain was on Sunday morning. We’re tourists after all and to pacify the teen because of a glorious absence of WIFI in the mountain, a short shopping trip to El Pas de la Casa was promised. I’m happy to report there was not yet any snow, and again, it’s not a drive I’d like to be doing if there was. Irish people can’t cope with the snow, it’s not in our psyche to do so. Snow tyres and talk of snow chains is an alien concept. It’s at an elevation of 2080m which meant from Ax-Les-Thermes, a steady climb of 1687m … a busy road and lots of hairpins to slow everyone down but I was glad when we got to the top. To give it its proper name, Port d’Envalira is the highest mountain pass in the Pyrenees. Coming down is a lot more pleasant than going up, I can tell you that. I think I would have preferred to walk up it, but it was NOTHING in comparison to the next ‘road’ we took.
The plan had always been to do a hike that day with the goal of getting forest pictures, but we had planned to start earlier. The new destination was Étang du Comte. I’ve since tried to find the exact route from the N20 to the start of the trail but all google maps is telling us is that it’s an unnamed route of about 25 minutes duration (driving) and although my maths may be a bit off here, I think we climbed about 500m in a ( not a four-wheel drive) jeep. The track was in bits and it was barely the width of the car on an impossibly steep incline. For a while, I thought I was going to die. After that episode, being in a car anywhere in the mountain didn’t seem so bad. I won’t lie, there was more than one moment where I was going to ask him to stop but that would have been pointless as there was nowhere to go but up. We made it and it was worth it.
The beginning of the hike was tough on the legs. We were climbing up into forest en route to Estagnol pond.
Once the ground levelled out, it was a beautiful walk through la foret and up the mountain where we had the pleasure of coming across a herd of wild horses.
Docile and beautiful they were , the bread is native of the region. It wasn’t a long walk to the first lake and the scenery was surreal.
Autumn hadn’t quite cast its spell over the forest at that stage but some of the leaves had started to turn. The thing that struck me most was the peace and quiet. The sky was within touching distance and we were surrounded by wilderness. No mod cons, no people, no distractions. I felt like I had stepped into a painting. We were dressed for the weather (thanks to Mike’s advice). It’s all about the layers. Layers, insulation, waterproofs and good boots. We saw a couple of other hikers in the distance but at that moment, we were the only humans there.
By then the teenager had got over the lack of WIFI and his head was free to take in where he was and how connecting with nature was good for the soul.
Reluctantly, as the sun set, we made our way back down. I was nervous as hell about going down the crazy trail we had driven up, so I just closed my eyes and didn’t open them until we were back on the main road. I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever get used to and, in the future, I’ll go the easy access route rather than the shortcuts the locals know about.
Day 2- Monday
This was the big one and the one we had talked about at length. When I committed to the idea of hiking in an actual mountain, Étang D’Appy was the spot I most wanted to see – a beautiful lake at the top of a mountain, what’s not to love about that idea? It’s roughly a 10k hike, 764m uphill, over ‘undefined’ terrain and with a moderate difficulty rating for the trail. It would be a challenge, but the payoff was sunset at the lake, lots of landscape photography, and a Toulouse long sausage cooked on a fire. Although Mike knew the area, it was one he hadn’t done either, making it all the more enjoyable. We were set, we were ready, and I felt like a proper woman of the mountain (laughs uncontrollably at her own naivety).
While all the planning was going on, Mike had told me many stories about his uncle, Jose– who was, in fact, a ‘proper’ mountain man. He grew up in the house we were staying in and from the time Mike was a child, it was he who had been his guide to all things outdoorsy. With glee, he regaled to me tales about bears and snakes and mountain dogs and wolves as my jaw got ever closer to the floor. In all the years Mike had been hiking, he had seen all sort of wild animals but never a Patou and never wanted to, as his uncle maintained mountain dogs are the most dangerous of them all- bred to protect the sheep and they will defend them to the death against bears, wolves and humans. So, all in all, you don’t want to see those bad boys. But of course, as Sod’s Law would have it, we did.
A short drive from Garanou got us to the beginning of the Étang D’Appy trail. The trail entrance is marked by a metal gate and a small wire fence. As we got out of the car, I spotted a few sheep grazing just up the track. ‘Oh, sheep!’, says I and it never crossed my mind that where there’s sheep, there’s a Patou.
We gathered our gear and entered through the gate onto the trail. The teenager was dragging his feet at the thoughts of a 10k hike. Mike was behind me and I hadn’t taken ten steps forward when we spotted him. A PATOU. Right there, sitting down with his body sprawled across the path we had intended to take. And, he was HUGE. He looked at us for a little while, I guess trying to figure out how stupid humans can be sometimes, while I stood transfixed by his sheer size and his beauty. He was glorious. Snow white and looked like he had been groomed. A giant teddy bear if you like. Teddy bear he was not, and we were about to find out exactly why the Patou is so greatly feared.
I was all for giving him a wide berth and continuing up the trail (idiot), Mike was very reluctant (somewhat sensible), Joey went back to the car and REFUSED point-blank to go near him (proper sensible). The conversation went a little bit like this;
CAT – sure look at him, he’s lovely and he’s nearly asleep. We’ll just go around him the long way through the ferns there and we’ll be grand. Come on… (as she takes more steps towards her demise)
MIKE – I don’t think that’s wise, Cat. (takes a step towards Cat, perhaps to restrain her)
JOEY- Are you two CRAZY? It’s a Patou. I’m going back to the car before he kills all of us. (marches swiftly back to the car without a second glance).
Meanwhile, the sheep were oblivious to us and grazed happily with bells around their necks as the drama unfolded. At this stage, I was stuck. I couldn’t leave my firstborn at the car while we went off hiking, so I turned around and made my way past Mike and over to the gate. And that’s when all hell broke loose.
I was looking at Mike as he turned around to follow me. I have never seen an animal move as fast as that damn dog did, in our direction while snarling, snapping, drooling and barking and generally causing the fear of imminent death to be struck in our hearts. In a blur, Mike got through the gate, locked it and dragged me in the direction of the car, while our nemesis stood at the fence and howled at us. Never have three people got into a car so fast. The Patou stood at the fence and communicated a look that said, ‘Yep. On you go, you bumbling idiots. I’m the boss around here and YOU SHALL NOT PASS.’ It was only afterwards I realised how easily he could have jumped that (tiny) fence and really inflicted some damage. Our other issue came in the guise of another car in the carpark, meaning another hiker on the trail who would have to come back that way. We stopped with a local, outlined the situation and drove away from near death. We laughed about it for the evening but considering we all had bad dreams in the subsequent days, we were shaken by it. Just goes to show how easily something can go wrong. (I’m not exaggerating! https://uk.news.yahoo.com/great-pyrenees-dogs-bred-protect-170652024.html?guccounter)
Anyway, we got over it and Mike is always a man with a plan. We missed out on our chance for sunset pictures and dinner atop the mountain but instead found ourselves en route to the viewpoint of Chioula Signal. It was an easy one to get to… we drove right up to the La Chioula Ski station and after that, we walked up to the viewing point. Up there, guided by the orientation table, we got to admire the high chain of the Pyrenees, the majestic Pic Saint Barthélémy and the quarry Talc Trimouns, all from 1800m. There’s a story in that Talc quarry and the industry in Ax Le Thermes but it will keep for another day.
It was cold at that altitude and I was glad of the layers; including the hat and the gloves. I’m not even going to try and describe the scenery up there, Mike’s photos can do that a lot better than I can but to me, (remember, the one who hadn’t been on a mountain in her life before this?) I felt like I was really on the top of the world, looking at the sun going down and kissing the peaks as she set.
We spent a couple of hours up there among the cows before heading back home to pack for the flight the following morning. The time went too fast but every moment was spent well. I’ll tell you about the food, the speeding tickets, the puncture and the Ryanair nightmare on our return trip another time.
Chioula Signal viewing point was my favourite moment of the trip. We’re all so busy in our every day lives running around doing the everyday stuff. It’s very rare we get the time to really get away from it all. Now, I understand what that means. I understand the appeal of getting away from people and modern-day living and my own busy life, just to stand and witness the greatness of nature. The thing we should all be fighting to protect. There’s a magic in standing still and having the luxury of breathing clean air and I feel very privileged to have been able to take that trip with Joey and Mike. Mike was at home, that is his playground and with his camera in his hand, he was in his element- but Joey was too. He was away from school, away from technology and he had a moment to breathe. I’m sure the more seasoned hikers are laughing at the idea of me getting all philosophical at an altitude of 1800m but we all have to start somewhere and, in my experience, that was a damn good place. And, trust me, if I can do it, anyone can!!
I’m very happy here at home in the sticks down by the sea in beautiful Wexford but I fell in love with the mountains and I suppose I’ve been bitten by the bug now. We’re going back for sure. It won’t be this year but early next year and my challenge this time is to get to the top of Dent d’Orlu. May the force be with us all.
In other news, our next destination in February is Valmeinier Ski Resort in the Alps. We’re driving. Ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard. Drive to somewhere near Dover then tunnel to Calais. Stop off in St. Omer then drive down to Valmeinier. With four children and Mike’s whole family who were born with skis on their feet.
I’ll never make it out alive.