I was at two-thirds height when the storm struck Pic Carlit from the southwest. Above the increasing fury of the wind I heard the rumble of distant thunder and fear quickened my pace. Once I crossed the col and descended onto the east face, I should be reasonably sheltered from the relentless wind and rain.
The loose, scree slope felt exposed and the faintly discernable ridge on my left offered a tempting handrail in the thick cloud. A shaky banister feels better than nothing on a rickety staircase, so I allowed it to lead me on up.
Eventually passing through a notch, I descended a few metres into relatively still air and marvelled at the sound of the express train roaring above my head. I peered into the clouds below, searching for the route. I was puzzled by the absence of any obvious signs of human traffic on the rocks around me.
A worm of doubt began to turn in my stomach as I moved back and forth across the slope hunting for the descent route. I remembered the guidebook describing the col at 2900 metres and from there the summit a twenty metre scramble up to the right. I wedged my rucksack firmly under an overhanging rock and, trying to stay on the sheltered eastern side of the mountain, I started to climb into the swirling clouds. After about thirty metres the rock continued to rise up steeply in front of me and I knew I had made a mistake.
I down climbed carefully, retrieved my rucksack and studied the map. A quick check on my wristwatch compass gave me cause for concern and, no matter how hard I willed it not to, my Silva compass confirmed the northerly aspect of slope. The altimeter on my Suunto Vector showed 2800 metres (100 metres lower than the col I should be on). I was at the wrong col – separated from the right one by loose rock and precipitous drops.
If I descended the apparently easy angled north face, I could immediately escape out of the storm into the sheltered valley below. The roar of the express train over my head made this a tempting proposition but this would also put me on completely the wrong side of the mountain, a very long way from the CAF hut where I intended to stay that night and even further from the tent that I had left earlier in the day. In the poor visibility I had allowed the shaky banister to lead me off route. I was annoyed that I had made such a rudimentary mistake.
On the two dimensional map, this error only put me a few millimetres away from the correct col. But on the three dimensional mountain it was a rising traverse covering 100 metres of ascent and 300 metres distance as the crow flies. Unfortunately I was not a crow. Even if I had been, I’m not sure I would have taken off into the teeth of the storm.
So I stuck my head above the parapet once more, into the forceful blast of the oncoming express train and made a slithering retreat as fast as I could down the way I had come.
I soon came across the track I had unwittingly left on my way up and in no time at all I was safely down at the bottom of the scree slope. Relieved but disappointed to arrive once again at the little Estany (lake) dels Forats, I contemplated the ignominious 14km schlep back to my tent. As I looked up again towards the mountain, the clouds parted momentarily and I stared in disbelief at the obvious path winding its way up through the scree towards the correct col. How could I possibly have missed that? On a clear day you could see that track from outer space!
In the next moment, the clouds descended and the route was once again obscured but I could not erase from my mind what I had clearly seen. The wind was still strong but the lightning had not arrived with it and the rain now seemed more intermittent.
Fearing a change of mind, I headed back up the slope at the gallop. The weather was better initially but 100 metres below the (correct) col the wind returned with a vengeance, driving torrential rain and sleet. The last few metres were wild as I climbed through the gap onto the eastern side. I dropped down a short distance to the shelter of some rocks and listened to the next train pass loudly overhead. Finishing the last of my food and water I waited for the train to move on. Leaving my sack under the rock, I scrambled quickly up the 25 metres to the summit.
A few minutes later I had retrieved my sack and was heading down the rocky, eastern ridge as the sky brightened, rain turned to sleet and briefly some flurries of mid-summer snow. By the time I had descended to easy ground, the sun came out and an incredible double rainbow appeared below me spanning the beautiful Estany (lake) de Sobirans. At the end of the rainbow, about 8kms away, I could make out Lac des Bouillouses. On the other side of that lake lay the CAF hut, a warm welcome, a cold beer and a great meal.
Pic (or Puig) Carlit is the highest peak in the eastern Pyrenees. My solo west-east traverse covered 42 kms of beautiful mountain scenery, sections of the GR10, GR 7, and Pyrenean Haute Route, returning around the massif after a night in the hut. I worked out a circular route that enabled me to get back to the car at Porté Puymorens where I had left my tent pitched. The poor forecast suggested that a summit attempt might not be possible – had that been the case I intended to retreat back to the tent on Day 1. Then if the weather looked like it was going to improve, I would have rearranged my hut booking and tried to make the summit and traverse the next day. Fortunately this was not necessary.
Day 1 Campsite at Porté Puymorens 1600 m ASL > 14kms to summit of Pic (Puig) Carlit 2921 m (1321 m height gain) then descend 8 kms and 911 m to Chalet Refuge des Bouillouses 2010 m.
Day 2: Chalet Refuge des Bouillouses 2010 m > 22 kms to Porté Puymorens 1600 m via Portella de Grava 2426 m and Etang de Lanoux along the GR10 and GR 7.
MAPS: 1:25,000 Carte de Randonée IGN 2249 OT Bourg-Madame Col de Puymorens Pic Carlit and IGN 2249 ET Font-Romeu Capcir
GUIDE BOOKS: “Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees” by Kev Reynolds, published by Cicerone, 6th edition 2015 is a well written guide and very useful, as is “Trekking the Pyrenean Haute Route” by Tom Joosten, Published by Cicerone 2009, reprinted 2016 with updates, as well as “The GR10 Through French Pyrenees” by Paul Lucia, Cicerone, updated 2010.
EQUIPMENT: (Early August) La Sportiva Evo lightweight scrambling boots, POD Super Teardrop rucksack (sadly discontinued), maps, Silva compass, Suunto Vector (watch/altimeter/compass), whistle, small first aid kit, Petzl head-torch, hill-food (nuts, raisins, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds), wash-kit (toothbrush +small toothpaste, earplugs, spare contact lenses, lens case with fluid in), Leki trekking poles (only used in descent), Terra Nova Bothy 2 (very lightweight emergency shelter), 2 x 500 ml plastic water bottles, chlorine tablets for water purification (half a tab per 500 ml), camera, phone, base layer, lightweight zip-off trousers, fleece gillet, lightweight fleece, Rab lightweight pullover smock (synthetic insulation), Crux Torq Smock (eVent breathable waterproof, discontinued), Lowe Alpine very lightweight over-trousers, warm hat, leather gloves, sun hat, sun glasses, small tube factor 50 sun screen, spare T-shirt (for hut), spare socks.