Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lhers, Barrancq, and Borce

Our originally planned hike for the day was held off - Mark was feeling a cold coming on yesterday and wanted to rest today to beat it off.

Still when I looked outside the window this morning and strode the terrace and saw only blue sky I felt the need to get out.

After consulting the map and guide books I came up with a plan. The main hiking route through the French Pyrenees is the GR10. It goes right through town, across the valley to a small plateau and the town of Lhers, up and over the ridge that forms the southern border of the Cirque, and down the other aide to the small strip of buildings that is the village of Borce, which is wedged against the Aspe river, which parallels the main north-south road in the region. This segment from Lescun to Borce is a moderate day for a thruhiker. Many go a bit farther and cross the Aspe to the equally small village of Etsaut.

Lhers is verdant flat area directly across the valley from where we are staying. When we hiked the local Belvedere walk two day ago, we had an excellent view of it. By hopping a ride from the others and being delivered to the trailhead in Lhers, we all got the reverse view of Lescun, and I skipped an hour or two of preliminary hiking.

I got dropped off at the designated trailhead and set off around noon. I kept a look out for red and white stripes: the blazes that signify the GR10. After a promising start and one such blaze, the trail became a quagmire - a thin track with brambles on either side, and steady stream of water, and muck of who knows what kind underfoot. Re-reading the trail instructions, I knew I needed to start heading uphill and, seeing a break leading up, started moving that way.
A hundred feet on the way, this steep climb became impossible. The ground was soft underneath, and steep, and I was wading through a dense forest of grass and 3-foot tall ferns. Deciding thy this could not, in fact, be one of the prominent trails of the whole continent, I headed back down and tried the muck sluice again.

The muck panned out, eventually, into a farmers field with a beaten dirt path. Following it to the fenceline, I was greater with a red-white blaze: I had regained the trail!

An so I began the ascent for real: switchbacks up a sun-beaten slope up and up, merging with a rough-hewn logging road, branching off, merging with another. Below me, viewing off to the north, was most of the cirque. I could at times see Lescun. I was able to find the cleft we ascended to reach Lac de Lhurs the day before. With the scree, the dusty trail, the low vegetation, the heat and sun, the smell and sight of livestock, the countryside reminded me of places I had been in the American Southwest, although much greener and less arid.

Up and up, with never a downward step, until I crested the Col de Barrancq, at which point the trail would start heading down. But in had been in the trees for a bit, and wanted the views from the ridge I had just reached. Following a trail along the ridge, I soon broke out into a sloped pasture. This trail heading up the ridge is not part of the GR10, but rather a side trail that, after another few miles and 2000 ft of elevation, reaches Pic de Labigouer. That would have been a gorgeous hike under other circumstances. It is an exposed trail out on the ridge, with no place to retreat to in case of injury of weather. Plus, I was hiking solo in unfamiliar territory. It would have been a much longer hike than I had planned for, and I was running on a deadline: I had made arrangements to get picked up at the bridge into Etsaut at 5, which allowed me book time for the route plus about a half hour. I had already consumed most of that slack time mucking around the trailhead.

But I am a swift hiker, so I figured I could spare a little time and get up a bit higher on the ridge. Twenty minutes of steep uphill got me high enough on the ridge to be above all the trees and have a nearly 360-degree view. Near to me on the east and west the ridge dropped away steeply.

To the west I could easily pick out the major peaks of the area: Pic d'Anie, Table des Trois Rois, and the several peaks of Ansibere. I could also see all the way back to where I had started in Lhers and, if I had binoculars, the house we were staying at in Lescun. To the east were new ranks of mountains whose names I knew not.

Having spent too much time in sightseeing and refueling, I lengthened my trekking poles and took my first steps of a loooong charging descent. The trail downward passed in an out of the pasture before returning to the forest.

Along the way I saw a bush that had clearly been set ablaze (what, no prophet?), the ruins of an old cabane, a herd of grazing cows and sheep, and a few new farm buildings.

Didn't I see these rocks in Lord of the Rings?

In the woods more strange sights awaited. I found this tree with a deep cleft - possibly two trees that had merged and separated. Where the trunks parted, in a saddle of deep moss, was a short conifer sapling.

The trail exited the woods and come out onto the open slope of a steep gully. I lost many hundreds of meters in switchbacking through more fern-forest under a baking sun. I could see Borce below, and hear traffic on the main road. But it was still far below, and I could not have gone quickly if I wanted to - the trail was too narrow, and my feet too worn, for fast trail running.

I passed yet another visual wonder: a tree that had clearly been hit by lightning and eviscerated by the blast. Despite the fact that 2/3 of the trunk had been cleaved off, despite the charring around the edges, what still stood was most definitely alive!

As the ravine settled out the trail merged with a twisty road that led down to the village. As I had been able to see the village from on high for most of the last hour, I was growing increasingly frustrated with each plodding footstep on pavement. Can I please be down now!? Eventually, of course, I was, and took a stroll down the main drag (the only drag?) of Borce.

Another footpath took me down farther and onto a footbridge that crossed over the valley highway, followed by a short stretch alongside the road. I walked across the bridge to Etsaut just a minute or two after the local church rang 5:00. But there was no one there! After all my worry about arriving in time, there was no one to chastise me for being a minute late. After a few minutes waiting, I took a stroll down the main drag (the only drag?) to Etsaut to a cafe/post office/convenience store, figuring I would have a beer and wait. As I approached I saw the car with my companions, who had been seriously mislead in Borce about where to find the bridge.

And so went my solo hike in the Pyrenees. All in all a good time. Paul asked me how the pain-to-reward ratio worked out on this one. It would have been better had I not had the confusion at the beginning. After a few days of clouds and cool temperatures, I had no reckoned on being out in the hot sun half the day. An actual summit would have tipped the scales nicely as well. But I saw a number of wondrous things and had a nice bit of quiet hiking that avoided disaster. So I'll count that a pretty good day.

The day was made still nicer once we returned to town. We had made reservations two days before to eat at a local restaurant. We had to make the reservations so early because they are a small operation, and only purchase and cook a set menu each night for confirmed customers. We sat outside and watched the shadows creep up the hillsides, until only the peaks were illuminated. Could it be much finer?

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