Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chemin de la Mâture

Today's outing: a climb up the fabled Chemin de la Mâture, a very curious construction of geography, man, and war. Then we come up over the Col d'Arras, and looping back down to where we began at the Pont de Cebers parking area.

First, the geography: the Chemin is a deep, narrow gorge in the rock. The man: Louis XV. War: France had a substantial navy in the 18th century, and needed tall, straight trees to provide masts for such trees. More geography: this region of France had such tall straight trees. What was lacking was a way to get them from where they were happily growing tall and straight to where they would be turned into masts for warships. Some idiot decided that this gorge would be a fine way to get the trees from up high down to the Aspe river, where they could be floated downstream and made good use of. The problem, however, was that the gorge has near-vertical, very high walls, and so getting the trees down was a little difficult.

The solution: carve a walkway into the gorge, span it with logs and ropes, and send the 100-foot logs right down the middle of the chasm. Brilliant! If you say so:

It is difficult to convey in words and pictures how terribly exposed we were during the hour-or-so ascent. The walkway was mostly only 1-2 meters wide, and paved with crushed/broken/exploded stone. In other places the underlying carved rock poked through, and had been polished smooth by the boots of many passing walkers. Trip, stumble, or slide over the edge of the walkway and nothing would stop you from a fatal 500-foot fall. What is more, the path lies on the northern wall of an east-west gorge, meaning that we were in the full sun for the entire ascent. It was much like ascending to the rim of a very steep canyon in the American Southwest (Zion comes to mind), complete with the heat and little scurrying lizards.

After reaching the top of this harrowing stretch, we had a lovely 1/2-km hiking on a gentle slope, under stately trees, hearing the river below, upon a rockless dirt-track covered with the remains of years of leaves. Compared to the decidedly uneven and rocky paths we have scrambled on this week, it was like strolling through shag carpet!

After this lovely break, we turned a corner and headed back up towards the Col d'Arras. It was difficult to know when we arrived. After heading up and up, we emerged from the trees and had views of the gorge we had been struggling up earlier, though now a few hundred meters higher. We could also see back to the Gave d'Aspe and, on further to the west, the slopes I had descended down to Borce two days ago. The trail flattened out and eventually started down, with narry a sign or landmark that would indicate that, yes, you have arrived at the Col.

Wait, now you guys put up a fence? WTF?!

After this somewhat disappointing high-mark on the hike, we began our descent. Unlike most of the walks we have done so far this trip, we did not simply turn around and go back the way we had just come (a good thing, neither of us fancied going down Chemin de la Mâture). We actually had a loop to do today.

The route down was, thankfully, also under the cover of trees. However, the trail was rather steep and rocky - reminiscent of hikes in the Whites. After losing most of our elevation, it ran into a small road that services some of the small farms in the area. This we followed back down to the trailhead we had started at. But, with over an hour until Holly was supposed to meet back up with us, we decided to hoof it back into Etsaut, to the cafe we stopped at two days ago, and have a beer while we waited. Not ten minutes after we sat down, Holly swung through, saw, us, and joined us.

There is one last hike in the area that Mark has scoped out: an ascent of Pic d'Anie. However, he's been battling off a cold for the last few days, and hiking. So, it is up to this young whipper-snapper to take a crack at it.

No comments: