Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Our second hike from Refuge du Rulhe after the Crête des Isards took us to L’Etang Bleu via a landslide portion of the GR10 long-distance trail. After a much better night – we now knew to crack open the window to cool down the room, we enjoyed a lazy breakfast around 7.30am and got ready for our second day out.
Down in the valley below us, a wave of fog was slowly creeping up the slopes, playing catch up with the low menacing clouds shrouding the highest peaks. From our breakfast table, we watched the fog’s progression with interest – harbinger of a sunless day or temporary morning phenomenon? In doubt, we packed swimming costumes as well as wind-breakers and warm clothes. The beauty of mountain days in late summer is you can have all seasons in a day.
Outside the refuge, the two pet sheep were grazing away on the hill along the GR10, looking gorgeously fluffy and unfazed by us hikers. As it were, the same pastoral scene welcomed us every morning, a sure sign that these sheep had an established grazing routine along the GR10. Fortunately, the strong night winds had died down a bit and a breeze made the prayer flags sway lightly, wishing us well on our mountain adventure.
Roughly 5 km from Refuge du Rulhe, L’Etang Bleu was basically up and over the pass then down the mountain. Depending on weather conditions, we saw it as a stop on the way to the Col de la Lhasse or the Pic du Rulhe. Clouds and visibility would decide for us. Cutting through the mountainside, the well-marked GR10 initially led us in the direction of the Pic du Rulhe. To our right down the slope, two brightly-colored climbers were gearing up to climb a granite wall. About 30 minutes in, our daughter Iris spotted a flat rock and suggested we stop here for her breakfast (she had slept in).
Like regular little Hobbitses, we stopped, opened our bags and got out: bread, butter, jam, spoon and a butter knife. Yes, we travel in style when it comes to breakfast. While Iris was eating, Adèle and I started picking wild blueberries.
The first bush was loaded with small blue shiny fruit and we used our hand to collect them but soon we looked around and saw that every bush around us with covered in berries. What’s a forager to do with time and nature’s bounty? Bringing a folding cup to the rescue, we managed to harvest enough blueberries for a vitamin-packed lunch treat for everyone. I carefully packed it in the top of my backpack and we hit the trail again.
At the Col du Rulhe, we discovered two things. One, our phones started waking up furiously in our pockets. We had an internet connection!
That’s when I realised that my mother had tried to reach me all of the previous day and didn’t understand why I was ignoring her. Obviously, we forgot to mention that Refuge du Rulhe was an internet-free zone. Quick, quick, I got back to my mom and my dad called her. Phew, family crisis averted. As luck would have it, my older brother rang at that very moment to ask me something. Five minutes before or later, our internet connection was gone. Serendipity, eh. With our screen time duties over, we focused on the landscape. Pic du Rulhe that afternoon, yay or nay?
Make that a nay. The Pic du Rulhe’s summit was well wrapped up in clouds that were getting lower, and lower, and lower. So much for bagging the summit today. The pic being out, the Col de la Lhasse became the lone contender for a day extension.
From the Col du Rulhe, we started our descent through gorgeous terrain where mountain pines seemingly sprung from behind giant boulders in between blueberry bushes and mountain heather. If the sun had made a guest appearance, it would have been heavenly but as it was, it was already a feast for the eyes.
Gently, gently, we reached a meadow with perfectly enormous boulders inviting… elevenses! Yes, how could we have passed on nice rocks to lay down our packs and eat some delicious chocolate panforte? Lucky for us during lockdown, my husband systematically went through all our kitchen cookbooks and experimented a lot. Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for chocolate panforte was a killer and he made a batch for our Pyrenees trip.
So here we were, munching with delight, when down the path comes the “Kilian Jornet Fan Club” on tour. Kilian Jornet, if you don’t know him, is a superhuman who was born in Catalunya, raised in the Pyrenees and who, with his gifted parents and sister (dad was refuge warden), proceeded to hike and climb everything that looked like a rock in the Pyrenees. Fast forward a few decades, Kilian Jornet is the pride of Catalunya and one of the most famous trail runners in the world. Maybe because the Pyrenees were his early stomping ground before he graduated to Mount Everest, they’ve always attracted trail runners. So we were not too surprised to spot, coming down from the Col du Rulhe, a trail runner who was making swift work of what we had just walked. My, my, these people don’t dawdle. Second trail runner came shortly behind. Yup, he was definitely in a hurry – maybe even trailing behind. No time to wave hi or even smile – that takes precious muscular energy. Before we could finish our chocolate panforte, they were gone.
OK, then. Back on the trail.
“You weren’t hit by a rockfall, were you?” was the first question the refuge warden asked us when we returned that afternoon. Granted, my dad’s leg was showing a nasty bloody cut but no, we were only indirect victims of a landslide as our next challenge on the GR10 came in the form of a big old rocky mess.
Tarkei Ness Krede, who hiked this portion in 2013, wrote “Above Étang Bleu there had been a large rockslide and the trail was caught right beneath it, a deviation has been made through the boulder field (marked with cairns) to lead wanderers past the unsecure part you have to pass. I had to do some scrambling over and around large boulders to be back on the GR10 again.”
Well, by the time we came around, the deviation had slipped again and some of the deviation rocks (marked red and white) were now way down the steep slope. That wasn’t convenient. Also not convenient — how we believed that L’Etang Bleu was on the trail. Wrong. L’Etang Bleu was way off the trail.
We started off-pisting a very chaotic field of rocks, some the size of a bus, all extremely disorganized (landslides, seriously), and navigating with our common sense.
Common sense is fine but at age 80, you need a bit more. I’ve mentioned it before, my dad is 80 and when he saw the steep slope he wasn’t too reassured. Beyond the jumble of rocks, the biggest risk for him was hidden holes under thick vegetation that could twist his ankle. Cautiously, we descended to L’Etang Bleu, trying to find the safest route.
My dad gardens year-round and is an active hiker, which makes him extremely fit. However at age 80, he didn’t have the same balance or sure-footedness as my husband and I did so we sandwiched him for all inclines. With one in front and one behind, we made sure he was safe on rough terrain.
Guess what, that didn’t always work. Close to the end of our descent, my dad slipped and to avoid throwing us both down the mountain, he fell back and scratched his calf. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious but by the time we reached the others by the lake, his leg was bleeding.
Quick, the first aid kit! Good thing I took an Outdoor First Aid training course last year. We cleaned the wound with anti-bacterial wipes and looked for sterile dressings and microporous tape. Failing to find any tape (why didn’t I check the first aid kit before leaving?), we secured the dressings with a bandage. It looked a bit clumsy, much bigger than the injury and very temporary but we felt we had done our best given the circumstances.
Now was time for lunch! We all set out on the “field hospital” rock which was the only one large enough to accommodate more than one person. In front of us, L’Etang bleu – the blue pond. In the Ariège Pyrenees, which is where we were, étang (or pond) is another word for lake though the etymology requires some digging. In old Occitan, estanh is a word meaning pond and in Catalunya and Andorra, lakes are indeed called Estanys. It’s not a stretch to accept that lakes would indeed be called étangs in former Occitan-speaking France.
Regardless of what humans call it, it was a roundish lake rendered moody by the weather. Mountainsides plunged rather steeply in the water and even the water became deep rather quickly. No proper beach or gently sloping meadow to warm your cockles and soften the rocky landscape. So, a glacial lake then.
Though the weather was not the best, I had to take a swim and quickly changed to slip into L’Etang Bleu. From a grassy bank, I stepped onto a submerged mossy boulder up to my knees, onto a deeper one up to my waist and then there was nothing else to keep me dry – I went in completely. Suitably chilly for a high mountain lake, L’Etang Bleu was somewhat intimidating.
As I made breaststroke progress towards the middle, mountain fog appeared at the other end of the lake and I remembered a foggy swim in another étang in Ariège where for a moment, I’d lost sight of the banks. It was the most unsettling feeling as I’d had to rely on my girls’ voices to make it back to shore, hoping that the strange acoustics of a mountain lake didn’t lead me astray.
I promptly returned to the comfort and warmth of my hiking clothes and while putting my socks on, was nose to a nose with a large leafy plant. It reminded me of another plant I’d seen in Iceland – wild angelica.
If you’ve never smelled wild angelica, it smells absolutely delicious. Think of sweet fennel mixed with juniper berries, though much more on the sweet side. In France, candied angelica stalks used to be a staple of fruit cakes but it’s become much rarer these days. I can still buy candied angelica stalks at the farmers market in Béziers, sold by the olive lady (her stall is mostly olives). Anyhow, I snapped a stalk in two, checked for the smell and checked the base of the plant for stains or distinctive colors.
Mostly, I was concerned that I’d forage a poisonous plant as being part of the carrot family, wild angelica is a distant cousin of hemlock which is deadly. I was almost positive of my ID but mountain plants are rare subspecies and I’d need to double-check later.
Trying to prevent any damage to my precious (or deadly) harvest, I secured the alleged wild angelica to the top of my backpack and off we went back up the mountain, retracing our steps to Refuge du Rulhe.
Eager to stretch his legs a bit more, my husband Cédric decided to take off and continue all the way to the col de la Lhasse where, reputedly at 2,301 m/ 7,550 ft, the views on the surrounding rocky ridge were magnificent.
How’s that for fog?
Ah well, it was to be a foggy day. It didn’t help Cédric’s return either as he got lost in another rock slide and couldn’t find the GR10 anymore. He was rescued when he spotted a trail runner who was on the GR10 and made it back to Refuge du Rulhe right before dinner (getting us all worried).
As for my dad’s leg, it was taken care of as soon as we made it back to the refuge and declared “unfit for lakes” for a day. So all taken into account, it was a minor inconvenience that wouldn’t cause long-term damage.
As for my angelica, I’m still consulting foraging forums to get a positive ID before I can make myself an herbal tea 😬