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Great Cirques, Great Pics

When we did research for this trip one of the things I was keen to do was visit the Pic du Midi de Bigorre in Summer. I had been here a few times before, but only in the winter and I wanted to see what lay under the impressive deeps of snow seen as you pass high above on the téléphérique. We also discovered the existence of another, even bigger Pic Du Midi D’Ossau.

Our week in the Haute Pyrenees was based around these two destinations.

So here we were in a lonely car park of a ski cafe area - adjacent to a gloomy, brute building with peeling red window frames, ski restaurant and chair lift. I always feel a bit depressed in ski resorts in the summer - they look so dismal and unloved. The transformation to a place to get delicious hot chocolate and a good French meal during a day on the slopes, is hard to imagine.

But there was the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (peak no 1 on our agenda) and typically for the Pyrenees the mist shrouded it one minute and revealed it the next, jutting dark and foreboding into the sky. The Pic is topped with an impressive observatory and spire, responsible for the best images of Venus and Mars the world has seen. It looks every bit a James Bond villains lair. We decided to do it as a run. We left the comfort of the van early to start up the near vertical route towards the summit. The legs and lungs held up for a hundred metres, before we turned to fast walking and trotting on the flat. We passed cheery walkers heavily laden with coats and big rucksacks. These people were doing the GR10; a route following the entire length of the Pyrenees. Although intimidating in places, the clamber up was great. We went up some very steep shaley stuff, as part of the official path was closed. We could see the diggers ahead of us trying to clear the deep snow from the footpaths. In doing so they made the steep switchbacks of the route dangerous so care was needed.

There were a few others heading for the top and some turned back, thinking the weather bad and the path too dangerous, but there was a couple of other people also making a fast ascent on undefined routes, so we followed their tracks and sometimes they followed ours. This was one of those occasions when I should have taken The Stick.

Once at the top we realised that we could not get to the restaurant, the museum, or access the observation decks. We think this was because of some building works, rather than a wish to exclude walkers. We sat on a chilly bit of gantry and ate sandwiches, before setting off again, this time for the Col du Tourmalet. Joy of joys as John informs me that the Col is actually down hill from the Pic du Midi. Yep, downhill all the way. Well, I suppose that makes sense - it is a col after all.

Cirque de Gavarnie

The day before we had rode the mountain bikes the short distance to the pretty village of Gavarnie. We purchased some home made fruit cake in the local supermarket to fuel this particular trek, because pain au Raisin was not available. I was sceptical about this purchase as I did not recall the French being well known for good fruit cake, which I think of as being a British speciality. However, it was very good cake and I take it all back.

We rode and pushed the bikes as far as we could when the national park restrictions made us leave our bikes. From this point only feet and donkeys are allowed. We passed many children astride strong looking donkeys. I was envious as it was such a hot, dusty route, but the children were sulky looking as though this wasn’t the best thing that had ever happened to them. Probably just playing it cool.

The crowds thinned out as we approached the Cirque. We had passed a women doing a slack line, 300 metres or so long, above the valley. This had delayed our progress so intriguing was it to watch her and waiting for the fall, which she did, about every 30 metres or so. She was attached to a safety line, but the strength required for this feat was impressive.

Incidentally they were seeking some payment for doing the slackline (like a busker would) and a hat with a note was positioned en route. John and I threw all our change into the hat, which until that point was empty. I thought this was possibly the worst money making idea I had ever encountered. Even worse than making art, or music.

The Cirque de Gavarnie did not disappoint as you can see from the photographs. Victor Hugo described it as the Colosseum of Nature. This great cirque was immensely wide and featured numerous waterfalls. It was like Malham Cove as a geological feature but huge. The mountains are constructed from different types of limestone and so had worn into incredible staggered steps that seemed to reach to the heavens. We did feel as though it was a site that you would expect to see in Yosemite. It was difficult to get close to the base of the waterfall as it thundered into a depression (that I couldn’t see) but we were free to wander around and onto the remains of the glacier. We discovered some large tunnels below the ice, made by the melt water, and it occurred to us that this was not the safest place to linger.

Later that day we drove to another Cirque nearby - Cirque de Troumouse (last photo). Similarly spectacular but in a quiet and secluded valley. We paid a toll to use the mountain roads and took another load of photos. Thank god for digital, it would have cost us a fortune in film.

Facts about Gavarnie

Waterfall is second highest in Europe at 422 metres

3000 metres wide at the top by 1500 metres deep rock faces

Formed by glacial erosion

Rock types: Limestone from various eras

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