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Canigou baby, yeah!

Mon 02 Aug 2010 19:50 » Jon

When I left Estany Bleu, my home on Friday night, I climbed back onto the ridge I’d been following from the top of the Vallée d’Eyne, and carried on heading east. The guidebook suggested dropping down to Refuge Ull de Terr but I’d been advised to stick to the ridge, so I bagged a few more summits, including Bastiments at 2881m, with some magnificent views.

I began feeling a bit low as I came along the ridge – partly because I wasn’t following the book and so had no way of guaging progress, and partly because I was worried about where to get water and where to camp that night.

Walking on a ridge gives fantastic views but there are no streams – I had the remains of the two litres I’d left the lake with, but if I’d ended up camping somewhere without water then that wouldn’t have got me far. In the end I dropped about 100m off the ridge and found a nice clean stream where I filled up, leaving with over three litres, which I figured would get me through the night.

The destination for the evening was a more tricky question – I really wanted to press on so I could attack Canigou the next day, but didn’t want to be tired from going too far. There were two places on the map I’d selected, about an hour apart, but when I reached the first there was a jeep parked there and signs banning camping, so I headed on to the second possibility.

As I approached Pla Guillem it looked much more promissing, and I found a nice stream just below the plateau. As I began looking for some flat ground though, a dog arrived and started barking and growling. There was a tense stand off for ten minutes or so, but eventually I decided the ground was too slopey and I didn’t fancy having my tent shredded by a territorial dog, so I moved up the hill a bit and the dog seemed happier with my second choice of bivouac spot.

Yesterday was all about Canigou. From Pla Guillem I dropped down to Refuge de Marialles, then began the long approach to the famous mountain. On the way I passed loads of people heading down – there’d been a race to the summit earlier in the day, and there was a constant stream of competitors and organisors descending.

Eventually the stream died away, and I approached the final climb up a chimney. Looking from a distance (1st photo) it’s hard to believe that the route is possible without climbing gear, but when you get close you realise it’s possible to scramble up the enormous natural staircase. It’s one of the most exhilerating climbs I’ve done on the HRP – just at the right level to be doable but scary at the same time – and the top of the chimney is right next to the big cross with the Catalan flag on the summit (2nd photo). I couldn’t stop grinning when I got there – an awesome climb!

On the way down the other side to Refuge des Cortalets I met four teenagers heading up. It was about 16:30 and I was the last person I knew of on the mountain – I’d seen a family on the summit, but they were descending ahead of me. That, combined with the fact that the weather was beginning to look a bit stormy and the kids didn’t look very well prepared made me wonder whether should talk to them, but in the end I left them to it.

Over dinner in the refuge it became apparent that these four were missing. Their mother asked when I’d seen them and I began wishing I’d advised them against the climb, especially as it was raining by this time. Luckily the guardian of the refuge was also a mountain guide and knew the place inside out, so when the kids called he described an escape route and had them met lower down. I asked him later on if he thought I should have said anything and he said “no – they’ve learnt a valuable lesson!” They looked cold and scared when they got back later in the evening though – I don’t like to think what would have happened if they’d had no phone reception.

When the guidebook said this fifth section was “one final test”, it wasn’t kidding. I think today I’ve failed on several counts – after a day of storms, and with the skies still grey and menacing, I decided to camp, rather than find a hotel in Arles-sur-tech. As I arrived, the rain stopped and I actually saw blue sky briefly, but since I pitched my tent it’s been non-stop thunder, lightening and rain – at times so heavy that it was flowing under the tent. Unfortunately my rucksack is already wet from the storms today so I can’t bring it inside the inner-tent – instead it’s standing on my flip-flops in an attempt to keep it from getting completely soaked.

The day itself was fairly uneventful apart from the rain. I’m now about 2500m lower than I was yesterday afternoon on the summit of Canigou, and about 1900m lower than last night’s refuge – enough that my soap bottle has changed shape due to the pressure difference. It’s been a day of descent, with a 300m climb in the middle to break up the monotony and, for entertainment, a camp full of gypos proclaiming (in English) that they were living “without violence, pollution, business and electrical”.

Warning sign about livestock guardian dogs, seen in the French AlpsThe only other notable event from today was meeting a guy doing the HRP backwards. His plan is to go west as far as Roncevalles (day 4 of my walk), then find the GR11 and go back east to Banyuls. He reckons it will take him about three months…

The other day someone told me they’d imagined the HRP was a bit of a production line, where I would easily meet someone to do the final section with, now I’ve left Klaas behind. In reality things are a bit different: today’s chap was only the eighth person I’ve met who’s doing the HRP, in the seven weeks since I started, and since he was going backwards he was no use as company!

UPDATE: I was recently (Aug 2012) walking in the French Alps, and came across the sign in the fourth photo, warning walkers about livestock guardian dogs that live with the sheep and protect them. The dogs are introduced to the sheep as puppies, growing up protecting them as family members, and are then put out on the hills with the sheep to ward off any wild animals. One of the most commonly used varieties is called the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, which is the kind I met near Pla Guillem. At the time, I’d been surprised when a huge flock of sheep arrived shortly after the dog, and had wondered why the dog was keener on attacking me than the sheep, but now it all makes sense…


  1. Jon, you’re almost done hiking!
    I wish you all the luck these last couple of days.
    Klaas crossed the Canigou at around 12 o’clock today.

    All the luck and maybe we’ll see you again someday.


    Comment by hedwig — August 3, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

  2. Thanks Hedwig!

    Now one day away from the sea… Can’t quite believe it!

    Comment by Jon — August 4, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  3. Yeah, baby, yeah! Good luck for the final push mate, looking forward to seeing you :-)

    Comment by Chief Otter — August 5, 2010 @ 7:57 am

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