HRP 2023 east-to-west: stage 4 - Gavarnie to Lescun

A toast to Sir Henry Russell and his most excellent accommodation.

HRP 2023 east-to-west: stage 4 - Gavarnie to Lescun
Vignemale north face as seen from near Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube.

Day 27: Gavarnie to "Grottes Bellevue"

It was about eleven o'clock before I got out of town, after faffing around posting crampons and done-with paper maps into the post-Brexit nightmare of France-UK customs forms and shipping, finding the Gavarnie cash-machine (Google maps is completely wrong about where it is) and buying some bread and cheese. But then I made swift progress up to and then along the undulating path running along the side of the Ossoue valley. Stopped for lunch at the Barrage d'Ossoue as it started to cloud over.

Then the waterproofs went on for only the third time this trip as intermittent light drizzle started up. I had no real plan for where I was likely to end up today... worst case scenario might have been heading all the way over to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube and its approved bivouac zones, but I was hopeful "something will turn up!" before then... and indeed started wondering if the "Grottes Bellevue" might be a possibility! As it turned out, there is little to appeal in the way of tent pitches for much of the climb (unless you like slopes, rocks and thistles) but around 50m below the Russell caves there was some promising looking flat grassy ground with bivouac stone circles (I didn't investigate whether the ground was peg-friendly though).

Possible bivouac site a little below the Russell caves.
Possible bivouac site a little below the Russell caves.

However the left-hand (facing them) Bellevue cave - next to the "sundial" - was so appealing with its little single-mat sized platform and dry interior that just had to be the place, and a very comfortable night was spent there (sleeping bag was used in its warmest "-5C" mode though!)

Any fears I had that the caves would turn out to have been used as toilets seemed to be unfounded... there's an information plaque and enough plastic sheeting on the floor, some old sleeping bags and even a broom to make it clear this is more "emergency shelter" territory than somewhere to have a covert dump. It's the little platform which really makes it work though (and it's only big enough for one); I think I'd have preferred to be outside in my tent than on the lumpy rocky stony floors of any of the caves.

Day 28: "Grottes Bellevue" to Grand Lac de Cambales

I startled a few early morning ascenders with a "Bonjour!" from the cave entrance. The Refuge de Bayssellance wasn't very far above so I didn't stop there and got to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube about eleven. No omelettes were on offer until after midday, so I made do with coffee and cake.

Vignemale north face viewed from near Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube.

Then over the next couple of cols (Col des Mulets - reached via the zigzag path in the above gallery - and then Col d'Arratile).

The path from Col des Mulets to Col d'Arratile.
The path from Col des Mulets to Col d'Arratille.
Descending towards Lac du col d'Arratile.
Descending towards Lac d'Arratille.

Stopped for lunch near the outflow of Lac d'Arratille (at the same spot where I'd camped on 2018's west-to-east) and then continued on down through all the nice granite slabs and water and pines country to the enormous Refuge Wallon... where I found (around four-ish) I was too late for omelettes! Made do with a beer and scored 0.5l of vin rouge in a Platypus bottle for later.

Looking back across Lac d'Arratille to Col d'Arratile.

Then it was onwards and upwards towards Col de Cambales. I had a vague memory there are some nice pitches besides the river... and there were, but they were under firm control of the cows so I kept going up to Grand Lac de Cambales and found a bit of flat ground near its outflow. There were a few other campers around.

Day 29: Grand Lac de Cambales to Lacs de Batcrabere

Sunrise at Grand Lac de Cambales.

Broke camp and headed up to Col de Cambales. On the approach, a chap a little way behind me had to turn tail and run as a salvo of rocks rattled down towards him. There was the sound of sheep bells above.

From the Col, it was a long descent to the Pla de Doumblas and then up to Refuge de Larribet.

Passing the Lacs de Remoulis.
Passing above the Lacs de Remoulis.
The worst weather of my 2018 west-to-east crossing was around here... I ended up holing up in the Refuge Ledormeur for half a day because it was too horrible to contemplate going over the Col de Cambales; fortunately it had all cleared up the next day.

Arrived at Refuge de Larribet about 15:45. Unsurprisingly it was too late for an omelette, only cold "assiettes" were available but I reckoned I was carrying more than enough supplies so just had a second lunch from those instead.

Climbing away from Refuge de Larribet.
Climbing away from Refuge de Larribet.

Carried on up to the Lacs de Batcrabere to camp. Decent pitches were in short supply amongst all the bouldery moraines so I had little choice but to plonk myself next to a French couple occupying the prime real estate who were clearly pretty miffed that someone had dared to intrude on their romantic idyll. They gathered up all their stuff and fled behind some rocks. Or maybe I just looked and smelled like such a scary vagabond. It was all moot as within minutes of me getting the tent up a massive thunderstorm broke and and thunder, wind and rain (and occasionally chunky hailstones) continued for the next 4 hours or so. Water levels of some little nearby streams started to rise alarmingly; the nearest one grew into a puddle lapping up against the back of the tent, but got no higher fortunately. But by the morning the wind had dried everything out and you wouldn't have known anything had happened.

Day 30: Lacs de Batcrabere to Lac de Pombie

Over Port du Lavedan (not as easy in this direction) and Col du Palas.

There was some fun and games around here back on my 2018 west-to-east trip. Both cols were very snowy. Joosten's edition of the guide suggested (from Lavedan) the gully leading straight down to the lakes as an alternative to traversing some steep snow slopes. Martens' says "don't be tempted" by it! Having taken the gully then in 2018 I agree with Tom! That trip I also camped by the Lacs de Batcrabere, then I went into the Refuge de Larribet the next day to be told the Cols (Palas and Lavedan) were still considered closed!

As expected the Refuge d'Arremoulit was a fenced-off building site. Which was a shame... I passed by just after midday and it would have been prime omelette time if it had been open! I was pleasantly surprised to bump into another east-to-west HRPer I'd met way back near Canigou. I'd thought they were going a lot faster and lighter than me, but my satisfaction at having kept up with them was somewhat deflated when they listed all the extra peaks they'd done along the way! A quick traverse of the over-hyped Passage d'Orteig followed.

From there it was a long descent to the D934 (hot, but with some cooling beech forest sections) and a climb to Refuge de Pombie. I'd originally intended to camp somewhere below the refuge, but the valley is in such a mess from animals (cows, sheep and horses all here in number) I just let the idea of a cold beer carry me on up. There were quite a few folks camped around Lac de Pombie.

Camped beside Lac de Pombie as the sun sets on Pic du Midi d'Ossau.
Camped beside Lac de Pombie as the sun sets on Pic du Midi d'Ossau.

Day 31: Lac de Pombie to Ibon de Astanes

From the Lac de Pombie it was up over Col de Peyreget and down past Lac de Peyreget. I'd camped by Lac de Peyreget in 2018 - great views of Pic du Midi d'Ossau's best side in the sunset light - but this time the lake looked so shrunken I didn't actually realize that was it... I thought it must be further on and didn't stop to take a photo. Stopped for lunch beside Lac Casterau (mobbed, as was Ibon del Escalar).

The view of Pic du Midi d'Ossau across Lac Casterau.
The view of Pic du Midi d'Ossau across Lac Casterau.

Then it was down to the weird grounded alien mothership of Astun. Had a quick ice-cream and coke, then marched down the tarmac to Candanchu.

Descending towards Astun.

The Candanchu "El Bozo" supermarket is small but very good! I stopped for a burger at the nearby "Bar Nevada" and had just sent a comment to someone that out of season ski resorts feel a bit like UK out of season seaside resorts, but with better weather... when thick fog rolled in. I headed on with no real idea when or where I was going to stop, but unsurprisingly ended up besides the Ibon de Astanes. This was all in very thick fog, which was a shame as I remember it having an impressive backdrop. I also remember this lake being full when I camped beside it in 2018, but now its level seemed much reduced.

Day 32: Ibon de Astanes to Punta O Risté

The fog persisted, but occasional hints of blue sky and sun. There was one brief clearance on the way to Refuge d'Arlet, revealing the great sweep from Pic du Midi d'Ossau to whatever all the stuff behind Candanchu is. I bumped into another member of Tom Martens' HRP Facebook group, eastbound, and finally got the second hut omelette of the trip at Refuge d'Arlet.

Unfortunately a Refuge d'Arlet omelette is nowhere near as good as a Refuge du Portillon omelette.
Unfortunately a Refuge d'Arlet omelette is nowhere near as good as a Refuge du Portillon omelette.

Visibility finally improved in the afternoon - along the "Le Chemin de la Liberté" section - with the French side of the ridge being a sea of cloud and the Spanish side clear.

There was no way I was missing a chance to camp high above that, so approaching Pic de Burcq some water was filtered from a pretty manky looking pool and a reasonably flat and un-thistly pitch was located... on top of Punta O Risté adjacent to (and slightly higher than) Pic de Burcq (which was inspected, but too rocky). A fine sunset was enjoyed.

Last rays of sun on Pic du Midi d'Ossau.

Day 33a: Punta O Risté to Lescun

Woke to find that while I was still above cloud over France, it had retreated from the ridge and Lescun was clear.

Early morning view from Punta O Risté, looking back along the previous day's route.
Early morning view from Punta O Risté, looking back along the previous day's route.

Whizzed down to Lescun because I knew the shop was closed for a chunk of time from middayish and I didn't want to hang around. A sign at Col de Pau said it was 2hr30min to the car park... I was there in 80 mins, it was easy to go fast downhill on the dirt track. I got to Lescun in plenty of time for a bit of shopping (the muesli still had chocolate in it, went crazy and bought a Camembert) and a long lunch at the epicerie too.

Lunch (duck) at the Lescun shop.
General observation: over the last week or so, all the HRPers coming the other way seemed to have gone from having big sacks (occasionally with an ice-axe too) to skimpy little Zpacks/Sierra Designs/Hyperlite/Gossamer Gear type jobs. Looks like "ultralight season" opened on the HRP! They might have had some nice gear, but I did wonder how the party that had apparently only just discovered a few days in that you cannot properly cook rice in a pot-cosy are going to get on.

The final stage to Hendaye is described here.