Tough Luck in the Pyrenees

Lescun, France, Pyrenees, sunrise, town
Sunrise Over Lescun : Prints Available

Sunrise over the town of Lescun.

On the first day of September Claudia and I started walking into the Pyrenees, the great mountain range that forms a natural border between France and Spain. Our plan was to trek along the Pyrenean Haute Route as far eastward through the range as we could in the next three weeks, staying in mountain huts and occasional small towns along the way. Unfortunately, due to a sudden stroke of bad luck our trip came to an abrupt end on the sixth day; I’ll explain more below.

Lescun, Pyrenees, France

Our first day and night was spent lounging around in Lescun, a small isolated village surrounded by green meadows with jagged limestone peaks towering behind. The village is immediately charming with its narrow streets and traditional stone buildings; it would be difficult to imagine a more idyllic mountain setting.

Pyrenees, horses
Horses graze in the meadows below Pic d’Anasabere (2377m).

As we walked directly out of Lescun and up a deep valley towards the base of the jagged peaks, I was positively high on life. For many years I’ve longed to see the Pyrenees, and on this morning I had the unique and palpable feeling of experiencing my dreams coming true in the present. Even better still, I was there sharing the experience with the woman I love – my wife. I was so full of these great feelings I kept babbling about it to her… and now to you!

Anyhow, I had chosen a longer route than the guidebook suggested for this day in order to take us right through the most impressive scenery which I did not want to miss. Well, it ended up being a grueling 10 hour hike, the second half along a high ridgeline trail obscured by blowing fog. We finally arrived exhausted at the Refuge d’Arlet hut at 7:30; we were the only guests there and despite our late arrival the hut people still cooked us a delicious, filling meal.

Pyrenees, France, sunrise, Refuge d'Arlet
Arlet Sunrise : Prints Available

Sunrise above the clouds as seen from the Refuge d’Arlet.

Pyrenees, Astun, pool, hiking
Hiking past some lovely pools above the little ski area of Astún. Claudia made sure to take a dip here before moving on!

Day 3 took us briefly into Spain where we found a room at an aging 60’s-modern-style restaurant/lodge at Col du Somport, located at the border on a high pass road where busses take sightseeing tourists for a brief stop to see the view. In this random, lonely, semi-abandoned place we ended up enjoying ice cream, a delicious bottle of wine, and a terrific dinner! High on life again…

Pyrenees, Pic du Midi d'Ossau, hiking
Hiking with Pic du Midi d’Ossau towering across the valley.

On day 4 we hiked over a pass back into France to Refuge d’Ayous, which I knew would be a highlight of the trek. Positioned right above Lac Gentau, one of four lakes in this attractive alpine valley, the hut has a postcard view of the awesome pyramid of Pic du Midi d’Ossau which dominates the skyline on the opposite side of the valley. I was satisfied to be able to photograph the sunset and dusk light here on a perfectly crystal clear evening, since every previous afternoon so far we’d been socked in with fog and clouds.

Pic du Midi d'Ossau. Lac Gentau, Refuge d'Ayous, Pyrenees, France
Lac Gentau Reflection : Prints Available

Dusk reflection of Pic du Midi d’Ossau in Lac Gentau near the Refuge d’Ayous in the Pyrenees – September.

From the Refuge d’Ayous, we crossed a valley and hiked around to Refuge de Pombie on the other side of Pic du Midi d’Ossau. This hut is located at the base of the huge sheer eastern rock face of the mountain and is therefore popular with climbers, who we could hear shouting to each other from high up on the face throughout the afternoon (and who made sure to arrive back at the hut with all their harnesses and helmets still on, to show off their achievements, as is the norm in Europe! Hehe..)

Pyrenees, refuge, pompie
Refuge Pombie and Pic du Midi d’Ossau.

By about this time, we really started to get a bit jealous of the campers who had brought tents. If you’re willing to carry the extra weight, this is really the way to trek in the Pyrenees, since you’ll have a lot more flexibility with where you can spend the night (and you save some money too!). But we didn’t have a tent or sleeping bags, so the huts were our destinations for every night.

I’d also made up my mind by now that huts are a great novelty for an American backpacker like me, but in the long run I’m glad I live in Colorado near the wilderness. In other words, I’m glad that for me wilderness camping is the norm and alpine huts are a novelty, not the other way around. But maybe I’ll change my mind again the next time I load up my heavy camping backpack! (Or get injured in the mountains…)

Pic d' Arriel, Pyrenees, hiking
Hiking with Pic d’ Arriel (2824m) behind, shortly before the incident.

On day 6 we knew we had a big day ahead of us, with two big passes and a tough 9 hour hike between the Refuge de Pombie and the Refuge de Larribet. But by now we were really hitting our stride, firing all cylinders so to speak. Then disaster struck.

While crossing the second pass, on a short scrambly section that is normally routine business for us, Claudia’s hand or foot somehow slipped and she suddenly tumbled down the rocks about 3 meters straight down. I was shocked and appalled and no doubt she was too. Fearing the worst, I was greatly relieved that she had not apparently broken any bones nor hit her head; however, she was scraped up and her chest hurt badly – we thought she might have bruised her chest or ribs.

Despite her acute pain, she was able to re-climb the pass she just fell off (no other choice), and hobble down the remaining 600 vertical meters of rough terrain to the next hut, while I carried her backpack. Once there we spoke with the hut warden and he urged us to call for a helicopter rescue. Claudia thought that was ridiculous, but on the other hand we didn’t really know what her injury was, plus a multi-day storm was forecasted to arrive that evening. Our window of opportunity was NOW or never. We took some time to calm down and assess our options, and finally we decided to go ahead and call the helicopter. Better safe than sorry. She spoke with a doctor over the radio who also confirmed our decision. A half hour later the chopper was there, we were loaded up, and off we went to the hospital in the nearby city of Tarbes.

Turns out, that was absolutely the right call. X-rays revealed a cracked sternum (breastbone), an injury that can often signal much more serious heart and/or lung injuries. Fortunately further tests showed that not to be the case – the sternum was cracked but that’s it. Hiking down the next day in the rain and hitchhiking and riding busses all day could have badly aggravated her injury.

So… having been plucked out of the Pyrenees and stuck in a hospital for two nights, we now we sit in the small French town of Oloron, where we started our trek from a week ago… not so high on life anymore. We will try to relax a few days here while Claudia recuperates and endures her pain with her characteristic toughness, and will eventually make the long train ride back up to Germany to visit her friends and do some follow up tests with a German doctor (who she can speak with!). Our big trip plans are all up in the air now, but all I really care about is that Claudia heals well. Accidents happen… shit happens… but we persevere!

27 thoughts on “Tough Luck in the Pyrenees

  1. Pretty much any hikers worst nightmare. The only thing worse than taking a bad fall in a remote location is watching someone your partner take a tumble instead! Glad she’s OK!

  2. Oh my goodness, so sorry this happened! I hope Claudia heals quickly. I will keep her in my prayers. How very scary that must have been for both of you. Thank goodness you got her to the hospital. I have enjoyed all of your photos of this trip, but take it easy and help Claudia follow doctors’ orders. 🙂 There was a woman that fractured her sternum falling while hiking Sneffels this summer and had to be rescued. I was thinking that was an unusual hiking injury until now.

    I think we will have a late fall in the Ouray/Telluride area this year. It has been raining so much that the wild flowers are starting to bloom again. Pretty crazy!

  3. Oh my gosh Jack and Claudia. And as horrible as it is, I think you were being watched over, got good advice, were smart enough to take it, and now onward and upward. Hope Claudia heals rapidly. Glad you are both basically OK.

  4. Jack and Claudia… sorry about the injury! Despite the pain and disappointment, I am so glad you guys are okay! Rest, heal well and enjoy the time together! I will keep you guys in my prayers.

  5. I’m glad Claudia’s okay, Jack. Certainly a bummer, but it does sound like things could have been much worse, like if the accident had happened further from a hut or during the bad weather. Evac decisions are always difficult, and more so when it’s your trip and your spouse. You definitely made the right call!

  6. Sorry to hear about your misfortunes, was really looking forward to seeing more photos. Hope Claudia has a fast recovery and you have a great rest of your trip.

  7. Hopefully Claudia recovers quickly, what a bummer. In the end though I think you hit the nail on the head — as long as she is okay, you can always go back. Nothing is more important than your health and safety. For what its worth, the mountains look amazing.

  8. I am so sorry to hear about Claudia’s injury! I hope she’ll recover quickly!
    When I started reading this, I thought “My Sierra”, as I like to call the Pyrenees; had swallowed you guys with bad weather, but it most certainly took a turn for the worse. Glad to hear/read you made the right decision and got her off the mountain!

    All the best to Dresden(?) – I assume…

    1. Hi David, yes we are back in Dresden for the week and are flying back home to Colorado soon. Claudia’s accident occurred in the afternoon right before about a week of stormy/rainy weather, so the timing was good, I guess. Still I’d have rather been stuck inside a hut than in a hospital any day!

      Now that I have a taste of the Pyrenees I must return someday… and for sure next time we will bring camping gear – I’m convinced now that that’s the way to do it there.

  9. If you are still in France – let me know. I can invite you to our house in Tours so that Claudia can recover before going back. My husband is a doctor. Next time you climb french mountains we would be glad if you had some days to spend in Tours so that we can meet. Bon courage

    1. Hello Iréne, thank you for your message and invite! We are actually back in Dresden and will be flying back to Colorado on Monday. But we do appreciate your offer and would love to meet up next time we make it to France (I do want to return to the Pyrenees, and also to visit the Chamonix area someday!)

  10. THANK YOU everybody again for your well wishes! Claudia has been healing quickly and is feeling better by the day (it will still probably be many weeks before she can put a backpack on, but she’s up and about and relatively back to normal). Our big trip is kaput, though, and we’re heading back home next week. But that is ok – I am actually quite excited to get back home to the San Juans – just in time for the autumn aspen colors too! 🙂

  11. Wow!! I am so sorry to hear about Claudia’s injury. Glad to hear that she is on the mend, though I am sorry your plans fell through. You both definitely made the right call up there on the mountain. We’ll have to catch up once you guys are back in the States. Big hugs from all of us. – Daniela

  12. Well, bad luck, but on the other hand – it could have ended much worse. I always hike on my own, so I can’t imagine such a fall happen to me… Anyway, I hope you had a chance to come back to Pyrenees, if not – you must definitely do that. I’m going only for a few days in June, but won’t have time to see Pic de Midi d’Ossau :-/ I also think it may be a highlight of the trip…So – next time 😉 Ps. Awesome photos!

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