Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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We arrived at Refuge du Rulhe in thick fog on a Sunday afternoon. Half an hour earlier, we’d walked by a group of hikers on the trail who pointed to the cottony greyness of the mountain, “Look, it’s right there.” Where? Hidden in plain sight, the refuge was close. We literally bumped on it and set foot in the place that was going to be our base camp for our annual mountain week in the Pyrenees.
Thus started a great week away from the humdrum of life and away from internet (which was pure gold). The 2020 group included my 80-year-old father, my husband and I (47 & 48), my 15-year-old daughter and her 15-year-old cousin. Five of us and three generations were ready to explore what the Refuge du Rulhe had to offer, such as:
Refuges are the lifeline of mountain travelers in the Pyrenees, the Pyrenees equivalent of Swiss mountain huts or isolated mountain hostels in the UK. They offer food and shelter in the remotest places, several hours hiking from any trailhead.
Conveniently located at the crossroads of several valleys, Refuge du Rulhe overlooked as many hiking options as there were views and there were a few. Also, it was built in the early 1990s like a giant blue cool box, which sorta guaranteed modern if rustic amenities.
Old-school 1940s refuges shine by the absence of bathrooms and extensive dorms without privacy. When searching for refuges, I now tend to look at the years they were built or renovated to take decisions. With teenagers keen to change away from adult eyes, it’s a must.
Our dorms were in fact rooms. Each of the could sleep between 2 and 10 people on wooden platforms and top bunks were accessible via metal ladders. Because of COVID19, groups didn’t share dorms which meant we’d have our own exclusive dorm. Sweet! Not that I don’t enjoy a stranger snoring my ears off but it’s much more comfortable. Our teens were, of course, thrilled. Other COVID19 consequence: gone were the traditional wool blankets and pillows of a certain age. With furnishings down to plastic-wrapped mattresses, we had packed our own sleeping bags, sleeping sacks, and yes, pillows for some.
We spent the first night in a 6-bed dorm (arranged with 5 mattresses, as our group counted 5) and the following nights in two smaller dorms, a 2-bed dorm for the boys, and 3-bed dorm for the girls.
The smaller dorms had breathtaking views on the valley and were exposed to winds full force, which caused some complications. As metal shutters were a bit old, they wouldn’t lock properly and swinging shut, plunging us into total darkness. On our first night in the smaller dorms, we were woken up by a loud bang. Our shutter had slammed into the wall and wouldn’t budge – too windy outside.
The following evening, I climbed onto the roof to latch the shutter properly and secure it with cardboard. No swinging shutters on my watch. Mine was a rather undignified worming experience that inspired my dorm-mates about the many possibilities of crawling out of a window. That night, a mini-roof stargazing party ensued for our teenagers. They sure enjoyed the (probably unsafe but extremely fun) easy access to the roof.
As in all refuges, bathrooms meant shared bathrooms on ground floor and if there was any hot water (there was), you had to pay for it. Don’t worry, it was all fine! Lucky for us, Refuge du Rulhe counted 2 showers with (optional hot) water so we kept our body hygiene habits in check all week. The old-school look with white tiles and chrome apparent plumbing was an added bonus.
For kicks, I even took 3 days of cold showers which was very invigorating and allowed me to jump the hot shower queue. With water heated via solar panels, those weren’t fully charged until the end of each afternoon. As a result, guests had to wait 5pm for hot showers. As I didn’t care, I could shower as early as I wanted. Conveniently, there was another smaller bathroom at dorm level with sink and toilet.
Food, glorious food! The best part of a mountain day is always the evening meal in the refuge, enjoyed with other mountain lovers in the communal dining room. Everybody excitedly sits down at their tables, sets the table and awaits for what is going to come out of the kitchen. It’s always a good moment to enjoy the last of your apéritif, whether local craft beers, wine or sodas.
French refuges have a well-deserved good reputation for food and Refuge du Rulhe did not disappoint. Each dinner started with a soup, followed by a main and starch, then cheese (local) and fresh bread and dessert. Our evening mains featured vegetarian stews, moral and cream veal stews, pineapple curried pork with rice and other hearty comfort foods perfect after a long day out.
Seeing how remote the refuge was (2 hours walking to the parking lot, itself quite a ways away from any food store), we asked Calou the refuge warden: how did they all get it up there? “On our backs,” was the answer. Each one of the refuge staff return from their weekly 2-day break “in the valley” with a 20-kg/40-lb load of food on their backs. Imagine if you had to shlep back to work carrying 1/3 of your weight in electronics – there wouldn’t be many takers for office jobs! That definitely made us appreciate the fresh bread at breakfast all the more.
As for the recipes, we discovered that they were all handwritten on wall tiles in the kitchen, some without proportions, which cracked us up. Eyeballing and group meals, eh?
We also brought all our own snacks, including this homemade chocolate panforte, recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi.
Now, no sane mountaineer would go to a refuge if they couldn’t have a drink at the end of a long day. As a fully-licensed dining establishment, Refuge du Rulhe offered a nice local drinks menu featuring Catalan and Ariège organic wines (including their own eponymous vintage, here modelled by my dad) …
… as well as hot drinks (chocolate, teas, coffee), local craft lemonades and cola, local craft beers and a few local mystery spirits that would probably knock the wind out of you.
In order to choose, all we had to do was get up and check the whiteboard or the line of bottles on the shelves.
Calou says, you can’t walk into Refuge du Rulhe with your dirty shoes on and he’s right. The no-dirty-shoes rule is fairly standard in refuges for cleaning purposes. This year, COVID19 creates an additional barrier to bringing outside stuff in.
As a consequence, the entrance of Refuge du Rulhe led to a storage room where we could store our hiking boots and sticks, put on our house sandals, hang our backpack and grab a carrier bag to ferry stuff to our dorm.
Over the course of our week, we explored the surroundings of the refuge extensively, taking advantage of the GR10 proximity. Said GR10 is a famous long-distance trail linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean by way of the Pyrenees.
Our hikes (in various formations, smaller groups or everybody) included:
We took a day off hiking to explore the mountain differently. With my young niece, we packed our journal and spent a few hours sketching local flora and trying to identify it with a guide borrowed from the refuge’s library. Mountain botanical nature journaling is such a wonderful way to enjoy the mountain when you want to chill out.
You read that right, Refuge du Rulhe counted two resident pet sheep. They’d arrived there by accident. As told by Calou, he found a young lamb that was severely injured in the mountain on the same day that guests at the refuge included a vet.
The vet took care of the lamb that night but for its recovery, the lamb needed daily treatment in the valley. Calou carried the lamb on his shoulders every day down to the valley and back during three weeks. After the lamb was healed, a local shepherd noticed that the lamb was one from his herd and the mother had been inconsolable ever since the lamb’s disappearance. So he gave the mother to Calou too. Hence the two resident sheep that walk around the refuge and give it a proud hippie feel.
Last but not least, I’d like to mention how warmly we were received by staff at Refuge du Rulhe. When our teenage daughter felt unwell and couldn’t get out of bed one morning, they let her stay in bed while they cleaned the floor. When dinner or drinks were served, it was always with a smile and questions on our day. Every day, Calou and his team were eager to share trails and wildlife spottings with us. And when my dad came back with a bloody calf from a minor fall, they patched him up in the kitchen, the first aid kit coming straight out of a big toolbox (that part was hilarious, not the bloody calf). Anyway, they were really cool and made us feel very welcome. More than anything, they shared their love of the mountain and that made a big difference for us. I wouldn’t say we left as friends, but we weren’t complete strangers either. Calou and his team can be proud of what they do.
The trailhead starts at Parking Plat des Peyres at the end of a single-lane mountain road (passing places). From the trailhead, the refuge is roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes away on foot, counting 600m/2,000 ft elevation gain.
Directly on Refuge du Rulhe website. Calou and his team speak French, Catalan, English and Spanish.