Ton Joostens guidebook is geared towards trekkers taking advantage of hut accommodation which explains some of the idiosyncrasies around how the route is split into days, these can be avoided if you are backpacking. Having said that there could be a lot more information in the guide about the potential for wild camping along the route to allow informed decisions, as it is there were times when I wanted to carry on but did not know whether water or flat ground was available further on the route, the guide could have helped here.
According to the guide the first day’s walking is only 3 hours, to Refuge des Besines, having planned my arrival time to the start of the walk at 5.20pm it made sense to do the first three hour section on the arrival day, Friday. There’s a sign in the village indicating the route up the steep side of the valley, however the path is heavily switch-backed so the going is relatively easy. The first section is mainly through woods but the occasional breakout gives you the chance to admire the views and check your progress.
Eventually the trees give way to open ground, the path levels out for a time before rising again but more gradually this time. Higher up there was a lot of mist around, very damp, above the mist the sky was clear and I arrived at the refuge ahead of schedule at about 8.15pm. I walked further on for about 45 minutes; I considered going on longer but found a good campsite near a stream and decided to use it, it was about an hour before dark (at around 10.00pm) and I wanted time to make a meal.
Gaining height above l'Hospitalet
Etang des Besines
Refuge de Besines
Dusk at the first camp
Today is regarded as one of the toughest days of this section as it includes the ascent of Pic Carlit with a few hours walking either side of the mountain. I was packed up and ready to go by 8.00am, a little later than normal but my body clock was still on UK time, the walk up to Col de Coume d’Angel took about an hour, its a nice climb among rocks, past some lakes, the weather was great, a nice breeze kept me cool.
From the col the path descends in a sweeping arc to the right heading towards Estany de Lanos, a large lake damned at its far end, the walking is easy and I made good progress. On reaching the lake the path continues at an easy gradient above the far bank until you almost reach the dam, I met a few groups of French people who joined this route from the GR10, we conversed a couple of times at path junctions where some map reading was required.
Although they said they were heading for Pic Carlit we eventually parted when I determined a different path was the right one. After climbing a bluff and descending down the other side the path split again, there was a path that looked like it was heading for Pic Carlit but I thought it had appeared too early, I spent quite a bit of time making sure it was correct.
When I was confident about the path I stopped for lunch, it was hot and sunny and my spot next to a stream was idyllic, up ahead I could see Pic Carlit which seemed much farther away than the guidebook suggested! After 20 minutes, at about 12.40 I set off again, leap-frogging a French couple who had passed earlier.
As the mountain approached I could make out the scree slope which was the route up –it looked very steep and messy. It took me five hours from camp to reach the lake below the start of the climb, according to the guidebook I should have taken about 3.5 – oops.
The climb is indeed as ‘sloggy’ as I’d thought, the slope is covered in fine scree that’s like walking on sand, but on a very steep gradient. I reminded myself that each step was a step closer to the summit and allowed faster people to climb effortlessly past me! I reached the summit at 3pm, the top section is a bit of a scramble but when you get there the view makes it worthwhile.
The descent route from the summit is the tourist path, which explains why the summit was busy and why I didn’t linger too long, tourist or not the descent is steep and tricky initially until you reach gentler slopes. The landscape is dominated by lakes ahead, I reached the first at 4pm, it was very hot and difficult to stay out of the sun. The book assumed another two hours walking before tonight's halt at the Barrage des Bouillouses, but tiredness and a desire to camp by this beautiful lake got the better of me and I set my tent up.
Colde Coume d'Agnel
The approach to Etang de Lanoux
View from the Summit of Pic Carlit
Camping by Estany de Trebens
The following morning I slept in till 7.00am, fabulous morning, gazing up at Pic Carlit, it had been blustery during the night but the tent held up well, I headed off just after 8 following the well worn route to the Barrage des Bouillouses. There’s a large hotel on the nearside of the dam and a small village with gite and auberge on the far side. I crossed immediately and had a coffee at the auberge.
A little way down the road the route heads off to the right, through forest to a lake, then along its shore on a rough path to a junction with a much larger forestry track. I followed this for a further couple of hours getting low on water and keen to get to Bolquere where I expected to get more water and have lunch. There’s also a shop which I didn’t need but intended to use to get some fresh food to munch on the way.
I arrived at Bolquere at around 2.30 and sorted my thirst out, there were no nice spots for lunch so I headed for the shop, it was closed, re-opening in 2 hours time. It had a picnic bench outside occupied by four English lads who were trekking in the opposite direction, they had just had a meal in a restaurant and were playing cards until the shop opened.
I decided to press on, the next section was on road and probably the least inspiring so far, still looking for a nice place for lunch I eventually reached the village of Eyne, and sought out the Bistro featured on a signpost in the centre of the village. ‘Now serving Meals’ was the sign outside, but when I went in they had just finished meals and were serving drinks only. I bought a drink and ate my own food at the table.
It actually rained quite heavily for a brief couple of minutes, so I stayed a full hour before heading off up the valley d’Eyne, fortified by the food and rest I set a good pace and reached the ruins of an old stone hut after about ninety minutes, it was 6.15pm and I set up camp in the least windy spot.
The route down to Lac des Bouillouses
Set off at 7.30 this morning, a bit earlier than normal, it had been very windy during the night but the route stays in a valley as it climbs higher to the Col d’Eyne, a broad very windy saddle that forms part of a ridge running West to East. The route follows this ridge and the winds were very strong at times, on occasion I felt I was being blown off my feet, luckily though I was being blown onto the ridge rather than off it.
On those sections where the path dropped to the leeward side the walking was nice and easy, there are a few cols to negotiate including one with nine metal crosses cemented into the rocks, after this the route drops down into a valley on an easy path before climbing out the other side to the Col de la Marranna about thirty minutes above the Refuge d’Ull de Ter.
I arrived at the refuge at 3.30pm and purchased a ham omelette, it was served with two massive slices of bread, I ate about half of one and left the other, with a can of juice and an instant coffee I had spent 9 euros. At 4.15 I was ready to go on, I felt rested and planned the next section, according to the guidebook there was a water point in a couple of hours but no hint of whether you could camp, it was a risk but I decided to aim for that.
After about 15 minutes of leaving the refuge however I came across a great camping spot by a stream, with the valley narrowing and a ski resort to negotiate before my planned stop I reconsidered, I spent a ridiculous amount of time wondering whether to go on or take advantage of the campsite – in the end I decided to stay put, as I often say, if you find a good camping spot you should use it.
I had plenty of time before bed to get washed, fed and rested.
Col de Neuf Croix
The main ridge
Col de la Marrana
Superb camp spot
Decision vindicated! Shortly after leaving camp the trail came to a road, which is followed uphill to a ski resort, behind one of the buildings the trail continues above a stream and eventually crosses it higher up the mountain. This was the water mentioned in the book, but there was nowhere to camp, the trail was narrow and looped round to gain the crest of a large saddle – you could camp there but it’s exposed and there’s a trek back for water.
It’s windy again but not as bad as yesterday, initially the trail is over rounded terrain but then it joins a long ridge running North East, the path sticks to the leeward side but stays close to the top staying just out of the wind for most of the way. Walking this section is superb, there are clouds around so it’s not too hot, I end up leapfrogging a group of French hikers and an older French couple, neither of whom speaks much English. Water is sparse on this section.
Eventually the path leaves the ridge and heads down into a valley, it joins a track which leads to refuge Mariella. This last section is a bit tedious and I arrived at the refuge around 3.45, as its serviced by a road the vicinity of Mariella is a bit public and busy and therefore doesn’t lend itself to camping – I decided to ask if there was room to stay, there wasn’t, I was offered an emergency bed which was basically a mattress laid in the corridor, which I declined. After a beer I bought 2 Snickers and some crackers and headed off.
Almost immediately it rained, quite heavy but by the time I got my waterproofs on it was starting to stop. The guidebook mentioned two water points on the way, the first was at a confluence of two rivers after a couple of hours, the second was a further 30 minutes where an old shelter was mentioned, with a ‘waterpoint’.
At the confluence there didn’t seem to be any camping spots till I noticed a small flat patch in the trees, enough for about two tents – I was tempted to go on but didn’t know the status of the ‘waterpoint’ so decided to stay – the ground was very rocky so tent pegs were virtually useless, I ended up pitching the tent using rocks and the surrounding trees.
As night fell a young Frenchman turned up with a massive rucksack, I showed him the campsite and he decided to stay – he also had trouble pitching his tent but between us we got it secure. We were both up at first light but while I was drinking coffee he was heading up the trail!
Porteille de Mourens
Les Esquerdes de Rotja
Refuge de Marialles