Monday, 22 July 2013

That day has come - Pic du Midi d'Ossau


First peek of  Pic from Portalet
Pic from Col de Soum de Pombie

Pic du Midi d’Ossau, Major, Iberian prominence number 23, 2886m P1092, France
N42.84301 W043806

The hardest part of the climb up to the Pic du Midi d’Ossau is at the point where walking turns to scrambling and walking poles have to be put away. Marked on the map as the 1ere cheminee it is not easy to find N42.84539 W0.43114 (2315m). A couple of French women who had been in the same dormitory as me at the Refuge de Pombie N42.83553 W0.42694 (2029m), had got up at 5.00am – I waited until 6.00am because I had ordered petit dejeuner and that was the earliest it was available. 
On the way from the refuge to Col de Suzon
Pic from Col de Suzon
As I was getting near to the scramble in the rain that had started as I reached Col de Suzon, they were coming back down. They said they could not find the route and, anyway, the rock was too slippy because of the rain. I decided to have a look, anyway. And they were right. However, I decided to wait and see, maybe it would stop raining, maybe the sun would soon dry off the rock and maybe I could find the route.
The path is obvious up to the cheminee. 
1ere cheminee
The worn path then seems to go to the left and right but not up. 
1ere cheminee
There is a little evidence of previous feet in several places but none of them seemed promising – least of all the cheminee which had the least signs of wear.

Not to the left then
To the left you end up looking at the next photo – that is for rock climbers only, wouldn't you agree.

To the right it just peters out.
So I tried the narrow chimney.
1ere cheminee looking down
Part way up a large rock has fallen and got wedged – and it blocks the way. Whilst wet, I did not fancy trying to clamber past. And, anyway I was not convinced this was the right way. So, I dropped back down and waited. I could see the two French women were talking to another couple – part of me wished that this couple would come and show me the way, especially if they were to be carrying a rope; part of me was hoping they wouldn’t as it be embarrassing to show that I could not even start up. 

As it happens they dropped over the other side of the Col du Suzon. I was on my own. The rain ceased, the rock began to dry.
At the refuge, the night before the extremely friendly and interested staff had put all the English speaking people together at the same table for the evening meal – we called ourselves the Commonwealth table as there were two Australians, a Canadian and his French wife and me. The two Australians were trekking, however, they had made an attempt at the Pic and had turned back at a planned turn-around time because of worries about getting caught in the regular afternoon thunderstorms. 

Two things they clearly told me were it is not a climb you do in the wet and the key was finding the metal peg in the slab of rock.
Well, it was no longer very wet – at least for a while – however, where the hell is this peg? I had another look at the cheminee, scrabbled inelegantly over the blocking rock  and then I found the peg high up this large slab.

There was the remains of a peg that had been inserted at the bottom of the slab and this would have meant it was relatively easy shimmy up the slab. I had a go but could not figure where to put one foot to push up high enough to get my other foot on the peg. I tried again. No. I considered giving up – if I was going to find this so difficult what other difficulties would stop me in the 2eme and 3eme cheminees? However, I had another go and somehow managed to get my foot on the peg and grip the top of the slab and stumble up. I know you should never go up something if you are not sure you can get down again – but I thought I will worry about this later. From the slab there is a scrappy bit of rock with a boulder blocking the way at the top – the boulder has several belay slings on it – so hoping that at least one of them would hold my weight I used them to help me get around the boulder.
From thereon the climb is very steep, with the occasional bit of exposure and lots of small stones on narrow ledges to make it feel unsafe but it is not overly difficult as long as you keep to the route. There is even one or two more helpful pegs. I confess I lost the route for a while and ended up scrambling up some rather dodgy looking rocks. I found the route again by heading for a cross on top of one of the Pointes.

Lac de Bious-Artigues
And, I was in luck the clouds cleared enough and long enough for me to get a spectacular view when I finally reached the twin summits – the Puente de France and the Puente d’Espagne, which is the true summit. And I had the whole mountain to myself – except for a few Alpine Chough and a mouse that ran across the summit, near my feet.
Puente d'Espagne
Espagne summit
Looking down from summit
France summit
Puente de France
Looking north
Down to the Col de Suzon
As I was slipping and sliding down the 3eme cheminee there was an ominous single clap of thunder. I was already going as fast as I dared in the terrain so there was nothing I could do to beat the storm, if it came. I found the correct route  down from the cross – it was only marginally better than the one I had used. I spotted where I had gone wrong – someone had built a little wall to discourage people going on the wrong path and I had obviously stepped over it without seeing it on the ascent.
Then came the 1ere cheminee. Those belay slings didn’t seem as useful as on the ascent. The pegged slab was dealt with by sliding and hoping that I could stop myself falling too far down the rest of the cheminee, the blocking rock was dealt with inelegantly again. And there was me and a Gryphon vulture on the ridge back down to Col de Suzon N42.84704 W0.42352 (2119m) and the walk back to the refuge for a bowl of mint tea, before following the easy trail back over the Col de Soum de Pombie N42.82654 W0.42577 (2099m)to the start in the Col de Portalet/Cabane de l’Araille N42.81559 W0.41740 (1734m)

Vignemale et al from the refuge
Was I pleased with myself? Unashamedly and big-headedly, yes. Some decades ago when I used to frequent town centre pubs there were a couple of slightly older men, Tom and Tony, who were in the same loose collection of people I hung out with. One summer they spoke passionately and animatedly of their plans before and their experience after summiting the Pic du Midi d’Ossau. I recall having mixed feelings – surely it cannot be that great a mountain, it isn’t even the highest one in the Pyrenees; a tinge of jealousy that they had the means and the opportunity to visit such an exotic location; and a determination that one day I would summit it too. That day has come.

19.5km 2047m total ascent

Overnight in ski station carpark near Portalet

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