Saturday, July 26, 2014

À vol d'oiseau

Half a mile straight up, and nine miles all told for the loop around the Lacs d'Ayous. All of the websites I checked when trying to figure out elevation and distance blithely say that this route takes five and a half hours, an easy hike when it's sunny and dry, take the kids, it'll be fun!

People in France are in much better shape than I am.

Poor Flo - it took us eight hours to get back to the parking lot, because I was going so slowly, especially at the end. She probably would have clipped a half hour off the suggested time, had she been alone, but instead she spent a fair amount of time sitting on rocks and smoking cigarettes and (I hope) enjoying the view.

There are two parking lots, one a half-hour's walk lower down the slope, but we got there early enough to get a space in the upper lot, next to the Lac de Bious-Artigues. You can see where we started, and where we looped around the other lakes, on this website with its nifty floating magnifying glass. The path starts out paved, then alternates with graveled spots, past holiday rentals and camping sites, a place to rent canoes and a place to rent horses, up through the woods to the first plateau. Some sections are fairly steep for a fairly long time, and several people passed us. Passed me, anyway. Poor Flo.

A soggy slope was filled with wild orchids; they're marsh orchids (also called spotted orchids) and were the first of many, many photographs of flowers and rocks and random beautiful scenery that I took as an excuse to catch my breath, as well as photoblog the day. I'm not out of shape, I'm a journalist!

Once you get up to the first plateau, you have a choice of going right and up through the woods to the high plateaus and the lakes, or going left to a large meadow with a stream running through it. The meadow was full of marshy plants, which seems to indicate that it's fairly boggy or at least gets a lot of flooding in the spring. There was a sign for a fly-fishing club on the signpost pointing to the bridge, and two small vans that had passed us earlier were setting up tents and tables down by the stream. No one was there by the time we passed by the tents later that afternoon, so it must have been a weekend event. The setup people were long gone, so we couldn't ask anyone. It would be a lovely venue for a wedding, though, as long as all the guests were up for the hike in, and fording the second stream not spanned by the bridge. They could rent the horses by the lake, and ride up - that would be romantic. I was sorely tempted to rent a horse, especially after hour six or so of the hike ...

But the puffing and panting and increasingly sore legs were easy to forget with vistas like this. Just a little meadow, where a herd of cows and some horses were grazing, a small pond in the middle, and the Pyrénées as a backdrop. The transhumance was scheduled for the next day, but some herders obviously got an early start. While we were hiking up the steep muddy trail through the woods, I noticed hoofprints, both on the trail and off; the churned-up edges of the path on the dropoff side made it clear that not all of the cows (or horses) had an easy time getting up the slope either.

Above the tree line, the rocky meadows stretched out to either side. Patches of wild azalea made brilliant magenta splotches on the green, and the air was fragrant with wild thyme, covered in pink blossoms; the yellow flowers of wild flax lined the edges of the trail, and spiky blue thistles popped up here and there. The shrill cries of the choughs rang out from the higher rocks (Alpine or red-billed, but I'm not sure which as I didn't see any of them closely) and griffon vultures soared high above, heading for their cliffside nests.

Florence said that there are lots of marmots living among the rocks as well, but that she's never seen one. I have a recipe for cooking marmot but I'll have to try it out some other time, because I didn't see one either.

The higher we got, the more amazing it was to look back to where we had been. See that small round pond down there, in the photograph on the left? That's the one in the cow meadow. The first part of this hike is nothing but up, and up again.

Looking ahead was daunting and inspiring at the same time. Every time I looked back I'd think, "Wow, we've come a long way!" Every time I looked forward I'd think, "... and we still have to get up there?"

The stream far, far below where the tents were set up starts in the interconnected alpine lakes above, and the first one you come to is Lac Roumassot. A large waterfall feeds this lake from the one above it, with a steep path (is there any other kind? I was asking myself by this point) climbing alongside. And at the bottom of the waterfall, there's a sheep-herder's hut, and a newly-constructed prefabricated cabin, and people making cheese.

I can't find the piece of paper where I wrote down his name! But I remember that he and his young female helper (family member?) were among those who passed us on the first paved slope earlier that morning, and if I had just managed to walk a little faster, we would have been there in time to see the last of the milking, which finished not 15 minutes before we arrived.

Phillipe (I remember his first name, at least) had already made two cheeses, and a can of milk was staying cool in the stream for the third and last. He makes the sheep's-milk cheese Ossau-Iraty there in the high meadows of the Vallée d'Ossau, like his father and grandfather did; his son is getting ready to take over and keep the tradition going.

They used to make the cheese in the old stone and wood cabin where they live during the summer months of the estive but the regulations changed, and he had to purchase the prefab for his cheesemaking. We commiserated about rules - he was appalled at the attempt by the FDA to ban wooden boards - and he showed me the stamp he puts on every cheese, a stylized edelweiss, that shows the cheese was made on site in the mountains. He takes the cheese to a grossiste who sells it to shops in the region, and who takes a share of the cheeses as payment.

Tempting as it was to stay talking cheese all day, or to spend the afternoon just sitting in the sunshine with the Roman-nosed basco-béarnaise sheep, we had to keep going and scale the cliff (my perspective on this trail was changing radically) by the waterfall to get to the higher lakes, and the picnic spot. Up, and up, and then up again, to the small Lac du Miey at the top of the waterfall; I looked back down at the speck the cheesemaker's cabin had become, and the smear of white where the sheep were chewing their cud.

And then around the lake and up again, passing stones piled on boulders every so often. I thought this was just a hiker's habit, stacking rocks just for the hell of it, but apparently it's done deliberately to indicate to hikers who are lost in the fog and rain that they're on the right path to get back down again. Flo also said that parents use these boulders to encourage their children to keep going, giving them small rocks to carry "just a little farther" so they have a goal that is more immediate than the eventual destination high above.

She asked me if I needed a small rock to carry.

No, just a few more rest stops. Um, "opportunities to photograph the local flora." Whichever.

Up and up once more, to the second-largest lake, the Lac Gentau, with long sloping sides perfect for a picnic, especially when there's a nice warm flat-sided rock to lean your weary back against.

There's a refuge up there, a chalet that opens up in the summer to host people, whether that's spending the night or eating a meal or just topping up a water bottle and going pee, not necessarily in that order, which is what I did. My legs were so sore from the constant climb that getting up the tall rock-built steps to the building required many groans, and putting my hands on my thigh to pull myself up to the next step. Getting down was harder.

The obligatory "happy feet" photo features not so happy feet, and it was wonderful to sit down for a while. Flo had suggested that we do the side climb up to the col d'Ayous, the pass that gives a great view (she said) of the Pyrénées in both directions and over the Spanish border. We were close enough to the border that my cell phone had sent me a message reminding me of the charges for calling or texting while not in France. But I was dubious, given how long it had taken to get where we were, and how tired my legs were. Florence said that I'd feel better after we rested a bit and had lunch.

Lunch was thin-sliced Ferme Bergeras jambon de pays, a thinner slice than we usually did, which the clients didn't seem to want to buy. "They don't know what they're missing," said Flo. I agreed; it was wonderful piled on my seeded gluten-free rolls. A crunchy apple for dessert, lots and lots of water to drink, and I was ready to go on.

But not to the top of the pass. Although it was only noon or so, I could see the path up was steep (what a surprise!). The signpost said it would take 30 minutes to get to the top of the pass, but my legs told me that it would take me an hour at least, and that they were thinking of going on strike and calling a helicopter to get back down, were I foolish enough to attempt it. I conveyed their message to Flo, and she was willing to forego the views, especially since the clouds had rolled in to that side, and the views might not have been there anyway.

But I made it up to the top of the loop of lakes, and here's photographic proof, standing at over 2,000 metres with the iconic Pic du Midi d'Ossau rising almost another kilometre higher behind me. You can see this mountain peak from Pau (scroll down to the bottom of this post for a view of the peak as seen from Henri IV's château), and its outline was used by a marketing agency to create a spiffy new logo (note: not spiffy at all actually) for the town several years ago. The old logo (the one on the left here) was much better, except for one teeny tiny detail: the outline of the peak was reversed, so it was the view you'd get from Spain, not from France. I still think they should have stayed with that one and adjusted it, because (as many people commented back in 2011 when the new logo was unveiled) the three-P version they're using now is boring and looks like an iPhone icon, and the details of the three images that make the empty spaces in the Ps are so small you can't really tell what they are unless the logo itself is really big.

And then of course I had to get back off the mountain. Easier said than done. We did the loop rather than going back the same way, past the waterfall and down through the woods, though that would have been much shorter. Instead, we circled around and walked along the edge of the largest and highest lake, Lac Bersau, which has an island in the middle that looks like it should have the ruins of a castle on it. Which it might have had, at one point; if not a castle, at least a fortress. While it's not the easiest way to get over the border, it's one of the ways, and there were undoubtedly people living up there, herding sheep and eating marmots, and fending off invasions from Roman soldiers or particularly intrepid Moors.

It was a long way down. I took a lot of pictures. Every time I'd catch up with Flo, she'd ask, "Are you going to make it?" "Do I have a choice?" I'd answer. And since I didn't, I kept going. It reminded me of the time I got my truck stranded in the snow halfway across the pass between Randle and Packwood, and had to hike out wearing foam clogs and yoga pants and just a light jacket; I'd been going to a massage appointment, and had absolutely nothing that helped with the near-freezing weather for the nearly seven hours it took me to walk without stopping to the nearest house.

But as my legs started trembling and the trail got steeper, requiring much climbing over slippery rocks, I put away my camera because I needed both hands to get down the trail. My right knee, which has not had an anterior cruciate ligament for over a decade, and my left ankle, which still twinges me now and again from the surgery I had back in 2000 after I broke both leg bones falling off a horse, were letting me know in no uncertain terms that I had to be really, really careful or I'd be breaking and tearing more things pretty quickly. My thigh muscles started twitching and burning with the constant downhill movement, my calves began cramping, and I had to watch my feet as I placed them because I wasn't getting accurate feedback from them, nearly losing my balance several times before I slowed down ever further and paid more attention.

By the time I got down to where Florence was (patiently?) waiting for me at the place where the rocky trail turned into a hiking path again, I was nearly in tears from the pain in my legs. In fact, I couldn't walk forward when the path went down more than about 10 degrees. I had to walk backwards, holding on to Florence's hands, to let my leg muscles work in a different way. Trying to walk forward and downhill caused such intense burning pain that I could barely breathe.

Poor Flo! And poor Frédo, too, because he had to open the store that evening, since my already-slow pace got even slower with all the walking backwards. But we finally made it back to the parking lot, where I filled my water bottle from the underground spring someone with the national park service had piped up into a series of cascading troughs, and the collapsed onto the front seat. I pulled out my camera one final time to capture the late-afternoon view of the mountains; the slopes that were shining in the morning light were dark and grey under the gathering rain clouds in the late afternoon.

But honestly? I'd do it again, it was such a beautiful hike.

Or at least I'd do it after my six-month intensive fitness training class.

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