Queens of the mountains

I’m not sure if it’s age or experience, but one thing I have learnt is that who you are with on an adventure is just as important, maybe even more so than the destination.

This last week I struck gold with both – the destination and the company.

After a few sleepless nights worrying about packing, my general fitness and meeting new people I arrived into Toulouse late on a Saturday afternoon. I was joining my fellow Adventure Queens Karen (@karenquila) and Leah (@wilddaysout) for a week’s adventure organised for us by Penny of Adventure Creators.

After an initially very confusion phone conversation with Christian, who was collecting me from the airport, about my having landed and waiting for bags, I was speaking quickly in English and speak very little French, we successfully met at arrivals and headed to what would our group’s base for the week in Bagnères-de-Luchon, Gite Le Lutin.

My lasting impressions of Le Lutin is the genuine warmth and hospitality of the owners. We were made to feel very much at home, and the food was amazing.

Because there had been snowfall down to the 2000m level there had been a change to our itinerary. Part of me was quite relieved that I wouldn’t have to complete a 1400m ascent carrying a 40l pack.

On our first full day we explored the town, discovering an old funicular station that used to transport people to a restaurant and a dilapidated adventure area in the trees. And of course, we found the bear.

Prior to our walk we had visited the vaporarium, the only natural hamam in Europe. A series of geothermal caves that a slight smell of sulphur about them. The caves were lit with red and purple lights to show off the rock and add to the atmosphere. The deepest section was so warm you were advised to stay for a maximum of 2minutes.

Our walking guide for the week was Marc, and we headed out for hikes on the Monday, Tuesday and Friday. On all three days we were truly spoilt for wildlife.

The sound of Monday was the low bellow of rutting Stags. We spotted plenty of small groups of red deer, and what looked like fresh bear poo. Lunch was eaten above the snow line on the hillside as the cloud drifted in and out to tease us with a view of the valley below. Just after I got my first ever glimpse of Griffon Vultures, taking full advantage of the thermal currents.

Tuesday was the day of cow bells and the vulture M25. The hike started with my first ever summit, Mount Ne. As we summited, the Griffon Vultures soared above us and skimmed the mountainside below. Lac de Bareilles was our lunch destination, the lake shimmered in the sunlight multiple shades of blue and green.

When you’ve come down, you must go back up. But, OMG this was some ascent. Near vertical, over 100metres and on grassy scrub. Sweat dripped into my eyes, my heart pounded and my muscles screamed. Thankfully, I had the best hiking companions in Leah and Karen. I’m. It sure how, but they got me up the hill. There was however an awesome reward, walking down the track with the free roaming horses. I had a full glass on wine that night.

Wednesday was a different type of challenge altogether. Rock climbing. I do, and I don’t like heights. I’m quite happy to abseil off various buildings, but going up I’m not so keen. We had a great instructor in Olivier and I felt confident enough in him to give it a go. 4 lines were set, getting progressively trickier. My first attempt didn’t go so well, asking to be lowered about a third of the way up. I switched to the easiest line and made the full climb. After being lowered, shaking from the adrenaline I was greeted with a round of high 5s. I successfully completed 2 other routes but failed to make the 4th. Karen successfully completed all 4 original routes, plus the additional 5th route that was much more tricky and almost double the height.

Due to an injury our planned guide for via ferata was not available, and a replacement couldn’t be sourced at short notice. We had some additional down time, and were able to visit the Balnea spa.

Balnea has 4 themed spa pools, 2 inside and 2 outside pools. The outside pools had stunning views of the surrounding mountains, with a water temperature of up to 40c in the Japanese pool.

After a spot of R&R I was more or less ready for our final hike on Friday.

In terms of wildlife, this was the most spectacular of them all. It was also the day of our greatest ascent, but as it was gentler I barely noticed. It was also our longest walk. We got a good look at the endangered Bearded Vulture, we had only seen them at a distance on our previous hikes. But the icing on the cake was the herd of 40+ Pyrenean Chamois. At the same time as they were immediately ahead of us, 3 Griffon vultures perched on rocks to our right. On the hill to our left, a Stag with some hinds on the ridge with a young Stag approaching from below. We were spoilt for choice.

There were so many amazing elements of the trip that if I tried to share them all it would be quite a tome. As a cyclist it was also pretty awesome to stay in a town that always features in the Tour de France.

Would I go back to the Midi-Pyrénées ? Without question.

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