Mountain People, walking people: a love story

One of the ideas I have for this blog is a (ir)regular feature on people I meet on the way.  Its an idea that's been brewing for a while now, starting with my first solo outing earlier this year and meeting lots of new people for the first time.

I would ask to take a photo, and a name, and then show them here, with your permission of course!  I don't have any pictures as yet, but we have met some wonderful people....and mountain people are great, always alive, often generous and funny!

In France they sit in the Refuge after dinner and read books about the dialectics of democracy, until the loud rope carrying guy who is tick-tocking with us along the same route comes in with his small climbing group and starts a miniature party.  In UK youth hostels I've seen exactly the same response, a studied glare across the horn rimmed specs/book/the paper.  I know how he feels, I'm a bit of a volume fascist out in the sticks, too.

In the same refuge we met a couple: She's very friendly, eager to prove her proper hiker credentials to us, erm, holiday makers.  He has more experience and is more relaxed.  They are doing the whole HRP in one bite, which is no mean feat, actually its really inspiring.  We see them later in Gavarnie and they make a good team.

I talked to a guy near Vignemale, who I saw coming in with UL gear, about his choices, including a Mariposa pack.  The Mariposa looks really good up close actually, very tough fabric, he said he was throwing it around like a heavy-weight bag with no problems.  I'd need to get my weight down some more before I go this way, I'm the first to admit.  He'd been walking for 2 weeks straight and was pretty beat, but not too tired to snort with derision at our rubbish tent!

Any of this sound familiar?  Its easy to get caught up in the tyranny of stages, miles to make each day, goals and challenges, which keeps it all first person focused and doesn't allow for as many surprises. But the target is always a falsehood, man-made, stitched on, like the map is not the territory.  The 'inventor' of the HRP, Veron freely admits that it's an idea, not a route, and linking paths are so good and so profuse its easy to see why cicerone writer Joosten has spent most of his career in the Pyrenees, exploring.

Still others (especially us blokes) get geeky on the kit side, which certainly helps with the weight/pain threshold, but might our sole focus on that sometimes lead us away from the real reason we are here?  Let's all take a deep breath of that lovely alpine air, and relax a little!  Isn't the journey at least as important as the destination?

But mountain people are like the cats of the human world, and I love 'em, furballs and foibles and all.  Mostly incurable romantics, determined dreamers, poets and thinkers, independent of mind and spirit, sometimes reserved and sometimes gregarious, and often not suffering of fools gladly.  What's not to like?  I wonder about the compulsion to gain height - do we desire to set ourselves apart, imagine we see things from a unique perspective?!  Well, being in the mountains certainly feels different, and changes the angle of view, not just on the immediate environment but also on yourself I think.  Its not all vanity, even the blogging is about sharing a passion.  The danger is, as with all things, that we start to believe our own hype and think we are different (to each other, as opposed to how we felt before), which can lead to bad judgment, both of others and on the hill.  We aren't of course, we're just putting ourselves in the way of a non-urbanised experience, which isn't the norm for most, most of the time.

Even if we were, there seems to be an awful lot of us!  Perhaps the demarkation isn't as great in France as it is in the UK, at least in the south - the weather is better over there, you don't have to suffer as much, and there were day trippers and overnighters with babies and very young children all over the Pyrenees - its great to see, almost without reservation - mostly its us adults who mess things up!

However, I wrestle with the ideal of solitude - its a big part of the draw.  Sometimes I resent other peoples presence there, which I know is totally unreasonable.  Mostly that's because some aren't behaving in a way I see as suitable - its a large group, or they are noisy and disruptive, or worse still they leave waste (both litter, and human) - they DO leave a trace, they are the centre of their own universe, they are not guests!  There seemed to be a fair bit of this in the Pyrenees, in the summer - it was quite busy, noisy, even a little dirty in places, but we got round that by wild camping most of the time - you can still find places that feel like real wilderness, after the day trippers have gone down and the refuge hoppers are tucked up in their bunks.

At the risk of being a Luddite, I think alot of people struggle with the basics because we're now so cut off from the outside, so much of the time - our lives are made completely inside, socialised, littered with technological mediation, confused by our own self importance.  Its inevitable then, that some bring that silliness along for the ride, into places it doesn't belong.  Our need for status, creature comforts, latest technology, habits and schedules simply makes no sense here - its another planet, if we compare it with concrete and glass!  So with better access, there must be education, not as a luxury but as a necessity, in order to bridge this gulf.  One of the best things I saw was a local guide showing a small group wild mint growing alongside the footpath, they all had it stuffed up their noses and were laughing at each other, full of joy.  Without this kind of gentle intervention, you just get people using the glacier as a toilet.

We met some amazing people, because mountain people are amazing.  The Dutch couple at Wallon who had brought the kids up for their first highland adventure, who just gave us lovely cashew-rich Gorp, dark chocolate and 2 oranges (fruit, are you kidding!!!) when we were running low on food.  They shared thoughts about showing young people their own strengths and limits through exposure to the countryside early on.  With the right guidance of course, but away from our stultifying H&S culture - self reliance.

The staff at the refuges, especially Arremoulit (check out the video on the front page, which shows just how much is involved in providing for us all up there, and also this just to make you smile) which was run beautifully by a radiant family and who cooked the best vege meal we ate the entire time, and Wallon, who cooked us the worst vege meal we ate, but despite this suffered my ridiculous, broken French with honest good humour.
Also, at Refuge de Oulette des Gaubes, where they run a little scheme encouraging everyone to make a 'petit gesture' - take down a little plastic bag of rubbish from the refuge.  They gave me about 300gms, a bit shocked that I'd offered I think.  We didn't eat there but we did buy wine and chocolate, so I carried our little gesture over to Gavarnie - why not, its a tiny thing we can all do, and if we all did it would save a helicopter journey every so often.

Anne, who sat astride the petit Vignemale calmly watching the comings and goings, huffings and puffings whilst making a brew, who works in Toulouse for The Commission for the Management of the Pyrenees (partnership building and making small grants to innovative projects within the national park. I'm trying to find a link, but no luck so far...if anyone knows, gimme a shout) who had the look of a woman that knew, from the moment we saw her up there, but was as interested in our little trip as we were in hers.  The glacier at Vignemale is shrinking, they have measured it.  She talked about the tourist pressure points at Pombie, (roads in valleys either side) where we saw a huge 40-strong guided group coming over the Pic du Midi - very, very wrong.   Plainly, an incredible woman, whose life is all wrapped up with a deep love of these mountains.

Two young dutch hikers sheltering from the rain, making a round trip from Cauterets into Odessa and back again via the Breche de Roland, sounds like a nice route.

A pair of french teachers, on holiday from their work in Ghana for the summer, taking five days in the hills around Borse.

Another, English couple, who volunteer as guides in the UK and were doing the entire HRP in 50 days, busy drying themselves out after a major soaking the day before - enjoy the pasta!

Chris, a Danish Telemark who was leading a group of 10 from Copenhagen for a tourist company, and handling the huge age difference (21-76!) and range of experience within the group very well we thought, despite an ambitious itinerary.

In Gavarnie, 2 Welsh cyclists who'd stopped off to climb Tallion, and made it despite thunder and hail, really friendly and completely unpretentious - one of them had a beat-up old Akto, gaffered ends staked out with 6'' masonry nails.  Bet it bloomin' works though, no fancy 1gm titanium pegs there (well, OK his mate had those!)

I only wish I'd asked to take your photos, but it was a pleasure to meet you.  Next time.  

In the meantime....Ella says it best