Saturday, January 9, 2010

Los Pireneos 2010 – Part 8

9 Jan 10 – 1000 Local
Location: A Laundromat in Lourdes, France

I have been in Lourdes for the past 2 days and 3 nights. There is not much to do here. The first night was spent sorting Dan out and staying in an expensive hotel near the hospital. The next morning I went back to check on him before he went in for surgery and then started tooling around the city. There are a lot of churches here and they are all pretty amazing. The Rosary Basilica is part of La Grotte area and is the biggest church in Lourdes. I went to see it on my first day in Lourdes; it was gorgeous and recently visited by the pope. I toured as much of it as I could, but there was a mass going on in the crypt while I was there. I have heard that the crypt is the most amazing part and wish I could have gone in. After my trip to the La Grotte, I continued to wander the town with the occasional trip to the hospital to see if Dan had got out of surgery yet. Finally, he was out and seemed fine other than the cast, IV bag and drainage tube sticking out of his leg, haha.

Figure 1: The Rosary Basilica near La Grotte.

Figure 2: Looking out over Lourdes.

Figure 3: In the hospital.

That night, I went to La Barcelonne for dinner. It turned out to be the ex-pat local pub. I had duck for dinner and some beer, before returning to the hostel I was now staying in. The hostel was, by far, a better place to stay than the fancy hotel from the night before.

Figure 4: Waiting in the hostel.

I woke up yesterday and went to the hospital. We had hoped to leave that day, but the insurance company and the doctor were moving slowly. We soon realised we would be stuck in Lourdes for at least another night. So, after sorting the gear, I went to the train station to ensure I could still get to Barcelona in time to catch my flight, if we stayed for another day. I could, so I am still in Lourdes. I would have hated to abandon Dan in a French hospital.

Last night, I went back to La Barcelonne. It was great. I talked about everything from bare knuckle boxing to the French (a usual topic) to Lady Gaga with two guys from Manchester, Tommy and Steven. I think they were just happy to speak English with someone. It was a great atmosphere. I ordered drinks in Spanish, talked about my trip in French and discussed the politic situation in the Middle East in English with an Iranian guy. Around 10PM, I headed back to the hostel.

Figure 5: Wandering around Lourdes.

This morning, I woke up to do some laundry. Soon, I will head to the hospital and try to get Dan out. I hope he can come. If they don’t let him out today, I have to leave without him. I have to get to Barcelona!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Los Pireneos 2010 – Part 7

7 Jan 10 – 1200 Local
Location: Lourdes, France

We woke up around 0400, to move to Vignemale, but the weather was awful, as usual. So, we slept in, and eventually got up to move to a hut at the base of Vignemale called Baysellance. By 0900, when we left the hut, the weather was gorgeous. We hadn’t had weather this nice for the entirety of the trip. Moving through the valley was easy, enjoyable and the views were amazing. We were deep in a valley with high peaks all around us.

Figure 1: Beautiful.

Soon, we arrived at the Barrage D’Ossoue, which was a dam across the river that ran through the valley. We stopped there, checked out the hut, filled our water and kept moving. About 2 kilometres later, we encountered an impass. The valley just ended. In front of us was a wall of mountain. Double checking the map, it appeared that the path we were following went straight up a waterfall. This was clearly not the path we wanted to follow. Dan and I analysed the situation and decided that heading left, up on to the ridge and over would be the best and safest option. Dan began moving up the 40m semi-technical terrain first. He tried it in snowshoes and was left hanging on his axe, flailing his legs, for most of the ascent, but eventually made it to an intermediary ridge. I followed with my crampons on and soon joined him. We stood on this ridge and drank in the immense beauty of the valley before us. We had to keep pushing forward, though, and Dan made his way right towards an easy gully that would take us over the main ridge. He was about ten metres up when I saw him pitch backwards.

Figure 2: A photo of the dam taken from the hut.

Figure 3: Double checking the map.

Figure 4: Climbing up to the ridge.

Figure 5: Dan a few metres before he fell.

The scream Dan let out when he impacted the rock corner of the gully is one that shook me to the core and with it came an instant realisation that our situation and my mission had drastically changed. Dan dropped his 30kg pack down to the ridge and down climbed to it. In his state of shock, he pitched the pack off the edge of the cliff and made his way over to me. I shoved an Ibuprofen in his mouth and told him not to pass out. It was clear his leg had broken and now we had to get him out of there. We down climbed another ten metres, so we could rappel in one go. I set up a two picket anchor and dropped the rope. He used the line as an assist as he went down. As soon as he reached the bottom, I pulled one of the pickets and headed down on one.

Figure 6: The run out zone at the base of the cliff.

When I got to the end of the rope, Dan had already started dragging himself out through an avalanche run-out area. I pulled the rope and moved towards the remnants of Dan’s pack. Everything had been stripped off the outside of it and the frame was mangled. I picked his pack up and started moving. When I got to the blocky, complicated, avalanche area, I dropped my pack and took his out, then went back for mine. I met up with Dan at the bridge we had crossed earlier in the day and splinted his leg with our ice axes. Dan started moving back to the last hut, at Barrage D’Ossoue, using an avalanche probe as a crutch. I started carrying his pack out. I dumped his pack at the hut, laid out his sleeping back, mat, got him some water and headed back for my pack. We arrived at the hut around the same time, Dan on a broken leg and me on my second trip. I laid my sleeping bags out and set up the stove. Once the hut was good to go I shoved my bivy bag, some chocolate and some water in my little pack, told Dan I’d see him in a day or two and started running.

Figure 7: Leg successfully splinted.

Figure 8: Where I left Dan.

It was dusk as I booked it away from the hut at Barrage D’Ossoue and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find any help in Gavarnie when I arrived there. My biggest fear was spending the night in town unable to do anything to help Dan. I was hoping to find someone to rent a snowmobile from, as a rescue operation would be much more expensive than Dan or I could afford. After 10km and countless practice explanations, in French, I arrived in Gavarnie. It soon became obvious that renting a snowmobile was not an option, luckily for me as it would likely have been a very dangerous ride, so I banged on the first lit door I saw. The lady who answered listened to me try to explain what had happened and then dialled the rescue service number from memory. Being the first house in Gavarnie, she must get that all the time. She then called her husband, who drove me to the rescue hut.

The guys were already gearing to go in for Dan. They seemed excited at the prospect of an early season rescue. The local helicopter pilot wouldn’t fly through that valley at night, because it was too tight, so the guys were planning to go in on skies for Dan. They didn’t speak much English, but we generally understood each other. They were all really good guys. I told them I was glad the helicopter couldn’t go because it would be very expensive. They informed me that rescues in France were free, and I wished their pilot had the guts to fly through valleys at night. They got me a beer and food, while I waited and started asking me about myself. They asked where I lived, how long I had been in France, where were we going, what I did for a living, etc. As soon as I answered “Canadian Military Officer” as my profession, the head rescuer immediately got on the radio and spoke very quickly in French. A couple of minutes later he told me that a French Army Helicopter Pilot was being woken up in Toulouse and would be flying in for Dan.

We all continued chatting while we waited for the helicopter to show up. When it did, two of the rescuers hopped in and it took off for Dan. Ten minutes later it was back with Dan and all our gear. This was the proudest moment of the entire day for me. Dan was still wearing the splint I had put on him and apparently the rescuers were impressed with it. They began examining Dan and I got a chance to relax for a minute. Then the ambulance arrived. We piled all our gear in, shoved Dan in and I jumped in behind, with barely enough time to thank the rescue guys. We rode in the ambulance for an hour and eventually arrived at the hospital in Lourdes, France.

Figure 9: Reunited at the rescue hut.

We pulled into the emergency room and Dan was shuttled into a room. I was left standing in a pile of gear in the main entryway, until a nurse fetched me. She took all our information again and told me to wait in the hall. Soon, Dan was all x-rayed and I could go see him. They told us he had broken the ball joint off his Tibia and would need surgery the next day. So, I left Dan and found a hotel. It felt good to take a shower and sleep in a big bed. I just hoped Dan was OK alone.

Figure 10: In the emergency room.

This morning, I checked on Dan. He was being prepped for surgery and I couldn’t stay. So, I have been touring around Lourdes looking at churches and pictures of popes, waiting for Dan to get out of surgery. Hope he’s OK.

Figure 11: One of the many churches I toured in Lourdes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Los Pireneos 2010 – Part 6

5 Jan 10 – 2300 Local
Location: Mountain Hut outside of Gavarnie

Sabinanigo was not great, to say the most. We couldn’t find wifi anywhere, the locals were shifty and the bus schedule did not favour us. We ended up just walking around the industrial district looking for a place to stay. Eventually, we found an abandoned barn, on the outskirts of town, to sleep in. We took our ice axes off our bags that night, just in case anyone barged in on us.

Figure 1: Glamorous accommodations in Sabinanigo.

Figure 2: An interior shot.

The next morning, we caught the bus at 1100hrs to Torla. Torla was a very, very, small town. We bought some bread and tried to hitch a ride. After an hour and a half we gave up and started walking. After about 500m, a couple stopped and picked us up. They were very nice and took us to the Bujaruelo trailhead. From there, we walked the 8km to Bujaruelo. The refuge was really nice and it had a great view. Unfortunately, we couldn’t admire it for long because we had to get to France. We walked hard for a few more hours and eventually made it to an old cattle shed. It reeked of manure, but had a fireplace and was shelter from the winds.

Figure 3: Walking towards Bujaruelo.

After a night in the manure dump, we started our push into France. It was slow and hard moving through the pass. Intermittent storms kept visibility minimal and the slopes were steep and prime for avalanches. After a morning of skittering across the tops of cliffs, we made it to the pass and proceeded into France. We quickly descended into the valley and headed towards Gavarnie. Along the way, we saw the Cirque de Gavarnie, which has the best ice climbing in Europe. It was quite beautiful.

Figure 4: Climbing towards France.

Figure 5: Still climbing towards France.

Figure 6: Looking into France.

Figure 7: Cirque de Gavarnie.

We finally arrived in Gavarnie that afternoon. It was a ghost town. It was too early in the ski season to be bustling the way our research indicated. So, we bought a really expensive sandwich, dried our socks and started back into the mountains. We walked about 8km this afternoon and arrived at a mountain hut in the pitch darkness of night.

Figure 8: Drying out and eating in Gavarnie.

Figure 9: En route to Vignemale.

Figure 10: Vignemale approach.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Los Pireneos 2010 – Part 5

3 Jan 10 – 1740 Local
Location: Huesca Bus Station/Bus from Huesca to Sabinanigo

Holy Jeez! The past few days have been ridiculous. I thought about breaking this post up into several, but then figured it was worth it to show how much has happened since I last wrote.


After an unsuccessful attempt on Aneto, Dan and I took a long nap, in order to prepare ourselves for midnight New Year festivities. There was a big party scheduled at Reugio la Renclusa and people had been arriving throughout the day – there were nearly twenty of us in attendance. We spent the evening talking, eating, drinking, playing games and generally enjoying the fact that we had made it back to a refuge so full of great people. The food was delicious; the refuge staffs put on chocolate and other snacks for everyone, and even free champagne. In Spain, for the twelve seconds before midnight, a gong is rung every second and you are supposed to eat a grape. We did this and at midnight everyone shook hands and kissed. As the party died down, it became just us and the refuge staff. We had been talking with one of the staff who spoke perfect English (she had an American mother) and it had become very late. We all started drinking Spanish liquor together (I wish I could remember what it was), until early the next morning. It was a great way to celebrate the New Year and a good way to unwind after our experience on Aneto. We were very glad that the next day was a rest day.

Figure 1: The crowd on New Year's Eve.

Figure 2: Dan and I celebrating the new year in Spain.


Today was quite uneventful. Basically, we spent the whole day drying gear, eating and drinking. In the afternoon, we tried to make a toboggan out of our packs and shovels, but it wasn’t as much fun as we had hoped. Late in the afternoon, Inaki and Javier arrived. They were both planning to climb Aneto alone, but decided to link up. We all planned to wake up at 4:30 the next morning.


We woke up this morning at 4:30 to utterly perfect weather. It was cold, windless, there was a full moon and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We quickly boiled up our water and had a little food. As we were boiling water and eating, we were gearing up to go. Soon, around 5:15, we were on our way. Inaki and Javier headed straight up the valley. We chose to take a slightly more technical approach and ride the ridgeline to the Portillon. Objectively, it was slightly riskier, but we thought it would be faster, plus we had gone up the valley on the previous attempt. The climb was utterly beautiful. The full moon illuminated the snow and the rock was pure black. It seemed as though we were climbing through a black and white calendar. Eventually, after several hours, we arrived at the Portillon Superieur. We were happy to find the correct gap in the ridge so quickly. We stopped, took a snack break, roped up for glacier travel and began descending towards the glacier. As we began moving out of the gap, Javier and Inaki caught up to us. We continued down and across the glacier, now in near white out conditions. Soon, we realised that we were just breaking trail for the Spanish, so we waited for them to catch up and the four of us began taking turns breaking trail.

Figure 3: Slogging up the glacier.

After about an hour of slogging up the glacier, the weather broke. Again, it was epically beautiful. Walking along the edge of the giant crevasse that had formed where the glacier didn’t quite meet the mountains, it seemed as though all the dreams I had dreamt as a fourteen year old boy were coming true. I had been training for serious alpine climbs for a long time and was finally making my way towards a high summit! As we approached the summit ridge, we began cutting switchbacks into the side in order to ascend. Soon, we were at the top and only had one more obstacle between us and the summit – the Paso de Mohamet. Mohammed’s Pass is a blocky ridge, approximately 45 metres long, with vertical drops on either side of well over 600 feet. Dan lead the way across, while I belayed him off my axe jammed under a rock. We fixed the line and the two Spanish mountaineers followed. I brought up the rear and was the last on to reach the summit. We quickly took some pictures, shook hands and were generally jubilant. Soon, it grew cold and we started back.

Figure 4: Standing on the edge of the glacier.

Figure 5: Still moving along the glacier.

Figure 6: Aneto's summit ridge.

Figure 7: Aneto's summit.

It was a long haul back, but the faster we went the warmer it was. We arrived at the Portillon and were happy to be so close to the refuge. Dan and I took out our shovels and prepared to slide down the valley. When Inaki and Javier saw the first gully we were planning to slide down they decided to walk. We continued sliding/running down hill and made it to the refuge about half an hour after leaving the Portillon. The other two arrived about 45 minutes later, as we were already cooking. We celebrated the ascent with leftover wine and some Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai from the night before. Dan and I quickly packed our gear and we all began the 15km walk out. Javier offered us a ride back to Benasque and we couldn’t refuse. So, we booked it out with them with three or four times the weight on our backs.

After a quick 15km, we crammed into Javier’s tiny Fiat and headed into town. Along the way, Inaki offered us a free floor to sleep on in his hostel room. We immediately accepted – WARM SHOWER! Eventually, we found a parking spot in Benasque. We headed to a restaurant and had some beer and food together. Javier was driving back to Madrid that night, so we went back to the car, recovered our gear and said goodbye. Inaki, Dan and I headed to the “hostel”. Inaki went in to get the key and then took us to the room. It turned out that all the regular rooms were taken, so we had a two bedroom apartment, which included a washing machine – awesome. We got cleaned up and put our clothes in the wash. Since all our clothes were in the machine, Dan and I wore Gore-tex only to dinner. We all ate a great dinner and were soon back in the room for some much needed sleep.


This morning, we packed up, grabbed some breakfast and checked out Barrabe’s (the mountain shop) one last time. We also paid for some internet usage and sent some reports home. We said goodbye, thanked Inaki for everything and took off. By “took off” I mean we went to the outskirts of town and tried to hitch a ride. Eventually (an hour later), some one stopped and took us 15km down the road. We tried to get another ride, but weren’t having any luck. So, we moved down the road and tried again. Then, we got ridiculously lucky. A camper van, with a pirate flag in the window, stopped and a guy stuck his head out the side yelling “come on!”. So, we ran to them, he opened the back and the van was full of climbing/mountaineering/skiing gear. We tossed our packs in the back and hopped in. The driver threw down a map and asked where we were going. We replied “Ainsa”. “Oh…Ainsa” he said “we go to road here”, pointing to the road that lead to Ainsa. “OK, where are you going?” we asked. He pointed to a city past Huesca. So, we told them we could go there instead of Ainsa. They readily agreed and we started on the three hour journey to Huesca. Huesca is a larger city than Ainsa, but slightly more out of the mountains. We knew we could get a bus somewhere from there, though. They didn’t speak much English, but they pointed out all the great crags along the way.

They dropped us off in downtown Huesca. We found the bus station and the next bus to Sabinanigo was at 1825hrs, 3 hours away. So, we grabbed a burger and started wandering the city. We went to the “Plaza del Toros” (I really wanted to see a bull fight, but there weren’t any going on) and the local cathedral, which was built around 1302, it was gorgeous. We then made our way back to the bus station and waited. Now, we are on our way to Sabinanigo. We may make it to Torla tonight, we aren’t sure.

Figure 8: Inside the cathedral in Huesca.

Figure 9: The Huesca bus station.