Hiking the Cirque de Gavarnie, High Pyrenees

A perfect weather day, with crystal blue skies from morning to sunset, requires a hike worthy of our incredible good fortune. We chose a circuit scantily described in The Pyrenees by Kev Reynolds and pieced together a plan from the small trail maps found in Gavarnie-Luz by Michel Record. Could we actually complete the circuit? We had our doubts, but pushed onward by the amazing scenery we continued, checking our route with the few hikers we encounter along the way.

Between climbing up a steep rock-face and crossing snowy sections it is technically probably the hardest hike I have ever done, for which we were not well prepared. This time of year at the higher elevations you should have trekking poles at a minimum and better yet crampons. However every step was well worth the adventure and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Although our GPS gave out on us somewhere near the end of the hike we estimate that the loop trail is about 15 miles with a 3600 foot change in elevation.

The loop follows the gentle wide trail up through the town of Gavarnie to the hotel near the base of the cirque (about 1 hour).

There are two other trails that lead to the same point, on the left via Pailla and to the right via Plateau de Bellevue. Once past the hotel the trail to the Refuge of Sarredets (or Breche de Roland) crosses the river. The first week in June this meant crossing the river via the glacier which is it’s source. Once across head for the southwestern end of the cirque and ascend the wall.

The trail to the wall is fairly easy to follow and is marked with cairns. Later, as it veers right and steeply climbs the wall it’s marked with yellow and red blazes. While steep, requiring you to climb using both hands and feet, it’s not technical and can be easily done by a non-climber.

It’s a long slow slog with sharp vertical drop-offs and stunning views back over the valley and the cirque de Gavarnie.

At the top the trail easily leads you up a valley with the top of the cirque and the first views of the Breche of Roland to your left and the refuge straight in front of you.

While the trail through this valley is not always well blazed and parts were under snow at the time of our hike, your destination is clear, the refuge. Views along this stretch are stunning along this wall and out the cirque behind you as well as at the breche before you.

From the refuge you can make a side trip to the top of the Breche de Roland (about another 300 meter ascent).

In early June, with so much snow on the trail and without proper equipment, we headed across the pass of Sarredets and down instead.

Behind the refuge the trail leads over the pass towards Port de Boucharo with a cut off trail at the base of glacier down to a hanging valley and over the edge to a second valley to meet the Cabane du Soldat trail. At the time of our crossing the trail was under heavy soft snow which made it difficult to descend without equipment but not impossible.

The trail out to the pass of Sarradets is easy to follow and then becomes a sort of free for all.

Make your way down the glacier of Tallion and follow the trail to the right of the outflow of the glacier. The trail then follows the major waterfall flowing through this valley. At the time of writing the trail was very steep over scree or under snow.

Where the creek becomes a torrential water fall the best trail is found along a cliff face further right. Once the river has leveled off again you can make your way back along the stream’s edge.

Near the bottom of the ledge you should see cairns where you need to cross the river and find the trail that lead down into the lower valley.

Over this ledge the trail is well marked back to Gavarnie and easy to follow with more amazing views back through this valley and across the Bellevue plateau to the cirque de Gavarnie.

June 5, 2012

For links to all the posts in this series see the French Pyrenees page.

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