Pyrenees Adventure 2019

A life-changing retreat experience in the mountains in the South of France.

Itinerary

Trip A departs the UK on 2nd September 2019.

Trip B departs the UK on 12th September 2019.

  • Flights not yet available, likely departure from Luton airport around late morning/lunchtime. Possibly Gatwick, but Luton most likely
  • Flying to Toulouse
  • Collect van/minibus then 90 minutes drive to village of Vicdessos in the Haute Ariege region. We arrive to a pre-stocked kitchen, fresh healthy whole foods all ready for us
  • Cook for ourselves, or out to dinner in Tarascon-sur-Ariege, depending on how time is going (subject to flight delays, etc.)

 

Day One

Day One and our first hike. We will tackle a 10-to-12-mile'ish out-and-back hike to the wonderfully remote Etang Gnioure. This hike is everything a mountain adventure should be - rugged, pretty, remote, it has that wild mountain feel, far from the crowds, this is no well-worn tourist trail, this is beautifully off-the-beaten-track.

Approximately 19 minutes drive from our Gite, this day includes around 3,900 feet of ascent, and we can 'pick our turnaround point' as we like - so the walk could be 9 miles, or it could be 15, depending where along the lake we decide to stop and picnic before we turn and head back.

As shown in the picture, there is one section of path, just a hundred yards, that uses a fairly narrow path, above steep vertiginous drops. It's actually not too narrow, it's fine, and a steel cable is bolted to the rocks for you to hold on to. Karl will hand-hold the nervous one-by-one, no problem!

Day Two 

What may turn out to be the hardest single day, and possibly the most amazing scenery, we hike out to a most magical place, a mountain hut, the Refuge des Etangs de Fourcat, where we can buy a good cup of French coffee and dip weary feet in a beautiful lake at 8,000 feet. After the 5,000 foot ascent to get there, your feet will be grateful! 

The day will be around 12 miles total, and some steep rocky climbing. The scenery will blow you away, it's breathtakingly beautiful, as we walk along the banks of Etang d'Izourt, and up the steep ascent to the Etangs Fourcat. 

We will rise early for this day so we can start hiking soon after first light. Expect to be up at 5am and out at 6am, it's roughly 19 minutes drive from our Gite to the start. We will start early to give ourselves all day.

Evening dinner out in a local restaurant.

Notes on the week's structure

How the days are put together, and early morning starts.

In broad terms, we have six hiking days, and the intensity of the days is structured to be - 

  • Moderate
  • Hard
  • 'Rest' day - non-hiking, rock climbing instead!
  • Easy
  • Moderate
  • Hard, summit day

This is approximate, and obviously subject to change according to the weather, and other factors.

Almost without fail, we will live by the maxim 'early to bed, early to rise'. Expect to be up and at 'em early, often before 6am, probably rising soon after 5 on a few days, and off out soon after 6 some mornings. There are several good reasons why this makes sense. For one, we want to make the most of the hours of daylight. In this quiet region of the Pyrenees, there really aren't any 'crowds', but an early start should also ensure we make the most of the quiet times. (At the weekends, there will be a few people around, but on weekdays, it's likely we'll find the hills very quiet.) Additionally, if the weather is hot and sunny (as we hope it is!) then an early start enables us to do the uphill graft before the hottest part of the day. Better to be in the physically-easier descent phase at 1pm to 3pm when that sun is hottest.

Or if the weather does turn wet, then it tends (generally speaking) to happen in the afternoon. It's fairly typical Pyrenean weather to push warm air up the Spanish side all morning, condense clouds at lunchtime, and dump rain on the French valleys in the afternoon. This is a typical weather pattern in spring, and less likely in early September, which should be nice and dry. Still, for all these reasons, we will be early-starters for the week. If we finish hikes early on the easier days and return to our Gite at 3pm or 4pm, then that's nice, we have several acres of private gardens to enjoy, with river frontage, so some time to relax will be nice for everyone.

Day Three 

After a fairly demanding Day Two, on Day Three we take a 'rest' day...but only a rest from 5:30am alarms and hiking up steep mountains!  

In the morning, we drive about half-an-hour up the road, and then go for 2.5 hours horse riding in the mountains! The stables will cater to all levels of ability, we'll have around 30 mins 'orientation' and then 2 hours ride in the mountains, rivers and meadows of the high Pyrenees. We will ride on beautiful black horses, Merenes, that are native to this area of the Pyrenees, the Haute Ariege region.

After a morning riding, we will pop down the road to the beautiful town of Ax-les-Thermes for a cafe lunch, then we have an afternoon to relax in a local spa. We have 2 hours in the spa, including a 30-min massage of your choice. The town also has thermal hot springs rising in the middle of town, which makes for a lovely place to relax in the sunshine.

We have slow cookers installed at our Gite, so home in the evening for a hearty, healthy home-cooked meal. 

Day Four 

The 'spine' created by the highest mountains in the Pyrenees, in many places, acts as a natural frontier, and the border between France and Spain stands unguarded on these high peaks. When you look at some of them, you can see they create all the natural barrier a nation will ever need. At one point, a little bit of France pokes out South, a valley surrounded by high peaks, creating a fantastic 'cirque' of mountains - French territory, with Spain over to the right, and Andorra over to the left, three countries meeting around one stunningly picturesque valley. 

We will hike down this most beautiful valley, walls of mountain seemingly impenetrable all around us, and we take an easy climb up to the pretty Etang de la Soucarrane, a delightful lake at 7,500 feet above sea level (heated pool it is not!), a climb of around 3,000 feet at most. This is the day for the brave few to take a wild swim in the freezing waters. Today is the day to take swimmies and flip flops and a sense of adventure! 

If you don't fancy freezing your bits off, Karl will lead a few people on a short optional extra, to stand on the Spanish border between mountain peaks, adding an extra 2 miles to the basic day of just 7 miles, and adding an additional 750 feet of ascent. Today we drive around 33 minutes each way from our Gite.

This place will take your breath away, the whole day, it's insanely scenic, utterly beautiful, and you may see wild horses running through the valley and vultures circling overhead, some seeming almost close enough to touch.

Day Five: morning 

Adventure time!

If the week so far hasn't been exciting enough for you (!!!), this day will definitely keep you on your toes! In the morning, we will ascend an awesome via ferrata (it's like rock climbing, only 'steps' and steel wires and little 'rope bridges' are attached to the rock, and you use a special safety harness), climbing over 2000 feet above the town where we are staying, safely secured to the rocks on these steel ropes. We will have a professional local guide leading us, and all harnesses and safety helmets will be provided.

We will spend about 3 hours 'playing' on the rocks, then return to our Gite just up the road for some lunch and to pack up our rucksacks to head off for a night in the mountains.

 

Day Five: afternoon 

Pic d'Estats. Our 10,312 foot mountain, this is what we have come here for, the 11th highest mountain in The Pyrenees.

Pic d'Estats is the highest point in this part of the Pyrenees, and the second highest mountain in the whole range based on prominence (how much it sticks up compared to all it's immediate neighbours).

In the afternoon, we take a 4 to 5 hour hike (it's about 4.3 miles, and 4,200 feet ascent) up to the Refuge (mountain hut) halfway up Pic d'Estats, where we stay for the night. A night in a mountain hut is a unique experience, most people don't know these places even exist. Dining is communal, as are the 'dorm style' bunk rooms, and we'll wake early for sunrise in the mountains the next morning.

Day Six 

The day we summit Pic d'Estats.

This beautiful big rocky mountain is broadly ignored by the French, and instead it is mostly loved by the Spanish, as the highest point in Catalonia. The summit stands across the border, and as you stand on the top you will have one foot in France and one foot in Spain.

Next to Pic d'Estats is Pic du Montcalm - very slightly smaller, yet the local French people will tell you Montcalm is the 'local hero', as if Estats does not exist! National pride in all it's glory!

From the Refuge du Pinet, we have around 3 miles to go up to the summit, clocking up around 2,600 feet of ascent. It is all rocky, lots of fun scrambling, and we pass beautiful mountain lakes on the way. 

All hikers must carry a rucksack, taking plenty of water, appropriate clothing (layers, waterproof) and a headtorch, just in case. This grand adventure is a day you will never ever forget.

We will summit Pic d'Estats, and for those who wish, a half-hour detour, adding only 1 mile and 300 feet of ascent, we can bag Pic Montcalm too. After we summit, it's then around 7 miles back down, taking in around 6,800 feet of descent. By the time we go out to a local restaurant in the evening for our end-of-trip celebratory dinner, your knees and toes will be glad it's all over!

Trip A returns to the UK on 9th September 2019.

Trip B returns to the UK on 19th September 2019.

  • Drive by minibus back to Toulouse
  • Fly to UK for afternoon arrival 
  • Flight times to be confirmed

 

Please note:

Our agenda can change.

Activities in the mountains can be inherently dangerous, and are always subject to change if weather conditions create a potentially dangerous situation.

We are going to Pic d'Estats in early September, pretty much the optimal time of year to still get summer sunshine (it is the South of France after all!!) but as late in the season as possible, to ensure minimal residual snow, and minimal residual tourists! However, these high mountains are no place for novice hikers in wet or stormy weather, and while that is unlikely to happen, please be aware that your safety will ALWAYS come first, and if there is any doubt about conditions high up, any summit attempts will be abandoned.

The other factor that can impact our agenda is the fitness and abilities of the Group as a whole. While the hikes on this trip broadly avoid precipitous steep-drop-off high ledges, we still need to walk on the mountains together, as a Group, every day, for the safety and wellbeing of everyone. We cannot separate. Therefore, all hikes will move at the speed, going up and coming back down, of the slowest member. 

As the week progresses, if your leader (Karl) determines that more time should be allocated to certain hikes, the agenda will be adjusted accordingly, for the safety of the Group as a whole.

Any such changes to our agenda, for the weather or for the ability of the Group as a whole, will be made 100% with safety and wellbeing in mind. Please understand this is the nature of such activities, and remember the old adage of mountain sports - it's far better to be at the bottom, looking up and wishing you were up there, then to be at the top, caught in a bad situation, looking down and wishing you were safely at the bottom. No messing about, people die on mountains all the time, your safety is paramount. This trip is put together with safety as the #1 priority. At no point will hikers be put at any avoidable risk.

 

The MND 2019 Pyrenees Mountain Retreat

2nd - 9th September 2019 * 12th - 19th September 2019

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