Chemin de la Liberté 2015
The Chemin de la Liberté memorial walk follows what is described by the organisers as one of the hardest war-time escape routes across the Pyrenees - and I wouldn't argue with that. The four-day route from St Girons in the Ariege and over the mountains to the Catalan village of Esterri d'Aneu is certainly a tough one and the fact that the event starts outside the old zone interdite (forbidden zone) means that walkers don't even get to see a mountain until the middle of the second day.
I've been walking the Chemin (with one year off) since 2001 so this was going to be my fourteenth time on the event. Held over the second weekend of July each year, and following (when possible) the same route, I've walked it all weathers from baking heat to freezing cold, in high winds, low clouds, torrential rain, thunder, hail, sleet and even falling snow. There is no way of knowing in advance just what the Chemin is going to throw at you so you have to pack sufficient kit to survive all eventualities. The fact that the four-day walkers (most of the British and an increasing number of French) camp for at least one night in the mountains also means carrying a tent, sleeping bag, food and cooking gear.
Motivations for walking the Chemin vary - some go for the history, some for the physical challenge, some to raise money for charity and some for a combination of all three. I went originally because the Chemin is one event that celebrates, amongst others, the Pat O'Leary escape line which brought my father out of France in 1941. I made friends amongst both walkers and organisers and so went back the following year. However in 2002, heavy overnight snow at Estagnous prevented us from crossing into Spain and so I had to go back a third time to finish the job and I've been supporting the event ever since.
This was to be the first time since 2012 that we would actually follow the complete Chemin route all the way to Spain. In 2013, heavy snowfalls earlier in the year had not only blocked the route to the Friday night camp-site at Subera and made crossing the highest passes impossible, it had also washed away the road to Spain so our coach couldn't get to Esterri to bring us back. In 2014, bad weather again frustrated our efforts with ice making the highest cols too dangerous for a party like ours. This year, our problems with the weather were the complete opposite.
Most of the British walkers arrived at Toulouse Blagnac airport on the Tuesday morning to be met by Chemin organiser Scott Goodall and his wife Judy. They had arranged a coach to take us back to St Girons where we were delivered to our usual base for the week, just outside the town at the Parc du Paletes. After a very welcome lunch, and sorting out our accommodation, many of us went into St Girons to buy fuel for the cookers we would be needing in the mountains.
Amongst this year's walkers staying at the Paletes were a six-person team from the British Legion and a seven-man, multi-national team from NATO in Brussels, led for the third consecutive year by Frenchman, Xavier Michelot. There were also several British returnees along with a number of Chemin regulars.
Before the meal that evening, I stood in for Scott and gave the new walkers a quick briefing to describe the route and offer advice on what kit would be essential and what could probably be left behind. Southern France was experiencing a heat-wave and conditions for walking with a heavily loaded pack were going to be difficult with heat exhaustion a very real concern.
The first day is technically quite straightforward with a mix of roads, tracks and trails. It is however quite long, often quite hot and subject to the odd torrential downpour. We would be setting off from the bridge in St Girons at seven o'clock in the morning and there would be a water-stop at about eleven. Another hour and half of climbing would see us at the Col de l'Artigue, followed by a short descent to a ceremony at the Barrau family barn followed by a picnic lunch supplied by the local community. The final section to Aunac is comparatively easy and should only take about two and a half hours. From Aunac, we would be driven down into the village of Seix where we would spend the night, with our evening meal in a restaurant.
We would set off on Friday morning at eight o'clock for the Col de la Core. The first couple of hours are spent walking up the road but then we get into the Esbints Valley proper and the going gets much tougher, with a couple of really nasty climbs. I warned everyone that with the high temperatures we were experiencing, the Esbints was likely to be quite a challenge but that we should reach Col de la Core by about twelve o'clock. Another picnic lunch would be provided at the Col before we set off through the woods for a three-hour hike to our overnight camp-site at Subera.
Saturday would be our first day in the mountains proper and it would be a hard one. Everyone needed to be packed and ready to go by eight o'clock, at which time we would be joined by a group of French walkers who had set off from Col de la Core that morning. We would be formed into groups of about ten to twelve, each with their own guide for the trip over the mountains, the groups staying together and working as teams all the way to Spain.
The route on Saturday starts with a steep climb straight up the side of the mountain, followed by a long slog towards the site where an RAF Halifax bomber crashed in 1945, killing all seven crew, and where there would be a short ceremony. From there, it's a hard climb, often through snow, to the Col de Craberous. The descent from Craberous is very steep, mostly through scree, and extra care has to be taken not to dislodge rocks down onto the walkers below. Then it's about forty-five minutes to the lunch-stop at the Cabine des Espuges.
The afternoon is spent climbing down into the valley to the Milouga lake and then a very steep climb up the other side to finally reach Pecouch, the last col of the day. From Pecouch, we should be able to see the refuge of Estagnous way down below and again, I warned the walkers to take their time on the descent which is both difficult and dangerous.
After the very hard Saturday, Sunday would be shorter and slightly easier. It starts with a long, steep descent down to Lac Rond, which could be seen from the refuge, followed by a short but very steep climb to Lac Long. Once everyone reached Lac Long, we would be led out onto the final stretch to the Spanish border, firstly over scree and then onto the long climb through snow to the actual frontier, which we should reach by about noon. There would a short ceremony at the border (no details were given at this point) and from there it is (literally) all downhill to the finish point. That was the plan
We had Wednesday free until four o'clock that afternoon when we were taken by coach to Kercabanc where there is a memorial marking the edge of the old restricted, zone interdite. Each year on the Chemin, there is a ceremony of remembrance for the evaders and passeurs who passed through the area. Everyone wore their smartest clothes and the NATO men were in full uniform as we listened to the speeches by local dignitaries before rejoining the coach for a ride into St Girons and the Chemin museum. There, the maire of St Girons treated us to a vin d'honneur as we greeted more friends from previous events and looked around the latest exhibits in the museum. Then it was back onto the coach once more for the ride back to the Paletes, our evening meal and an early night.
Thursday morning breakfast at the Palettes was a special treat with everything from fresh croissants to bacon sandwiches before Jo-Jo Maury and Paletes owner Pascal Fourcroy waved us off. We boarded the coach at six-thirty for the short trip into St Girons and assembled at the Pont du Chemin de la Liberté. We were joined by numerous other walkers - mostly British or French and including artist Bridget Sheridan and her husband Nicholas, back for their second Chemin - and some of the Chemin guides, including chief guide Paul Debons, Rolande Eychenne, Brice Esquirre and Casimir Gonzales. We had a short speech from the Chemin Association President, Guy Seris, and Scott was there to see us safely off.
The first few miles are easy enough and conversations were started with friends old and new as we made our way towards Alos. Much of the route is single-track and I was near the back of the group when we came to a halt on a gentle descent. It turned out that a tree had come down across the path, causing a diversion up and around it and whilst negotiating this simple obstacle, one of the three women from the British Legion team had lost her balance and somersaulted over a barbed-wire fence. Several walkers and guides went to her aid and she was taken to hospital where it was found that she had broken her collarbone.
After the water-stop at Alos, it's a bit of a slog up to the Col de l'Artigue, a climb that often stretches the group out. I normally try to finish the climb somewhere near the front, leave my rucksack and walk back to help the guides who bring up the rear with anyone who is struggling. This year everyone was more or less together and no help was needed. From the Col it's an easy walk down to the lunch-stop where walkers first leave their packs and walk up to the Barrau family barn. There is a ceremony to remember nineteen-year-old passeur Louis Barrau who was shot and killed there in September 1943 and again, I stood in for Scott with a rough translation into English (prepared by Scott in advance) of the speech given by M Rene Pujol, maire of Sentenac.
The Thursday lunch is always an enjoyable affair with walkers and supporters comparing notes on the first few hours of their adventures. Finally, Paul Debons signalled it was time to move on and with many thanks given to the local providers for our refreshments, we set off once more. The afternoon walk starts with a long and easy descent followed by a couple of climbs before we go down to the river for a short break. The temperature had risen and it was a rather sweaty group that made the last forty-five minute (and rather tedious) climb to Aunac. One more brief ceremony at the monument there and it was into the vehicles for the drive down to Seix.
Chemin walkers can stay in the local gymnasium, complete with toilets and showers, free of charge and if they are lucky, get to use one of the judo mats as an overnight mattress. The maire of Seix gave us a vin d'honneur (with olives and pizza snacks) at the mairie before dinner but sadly, the restaurant seems to have changed hands since last the last time we were there and the evening meal of cassoulet was something of a disappointment.
It started off fairly cool on Friday morning as we walked out of Seix (waved on our way by French veteran and local resident, Paul Broué) and headed up the road for the climb to Col de la Core at 1,395 metres. However, the temperature soon rose and many people were reaching for the sun-screen at the first stop. Then we ran out of road and started into the Esbints Valley proper. The first half an hour is through the woods but then the serious climbing begins and it's out into the open. The sun started to hit us and with no shade and no cooling breeze, I for one was starting to struggle a bit on a couple of the climbs. I should point out that high temperatures don't usually bother me too much but this year I simply hadn't trained enough and was paying for it. However, I wasn't suffering quite as much as some who were forced to abandon that lunch-time.
I had explained at the briefing that abandonments are common on the Chemin as it is easy to underestimate the toughness of the challenge. Abandoning during the first day and a half doesn't cause the organisers too many problems as we would be either on or near a road but once into the mountains, the consequences are more serious.
The temperature continued to rise and our picnic was moved down the hill from the Col in an effort to find some shade. Here, we took off our boots and rested weary feet before tucking into the generous helpings. Three of us also took on extra loads as Boris Spence tied the British Legion wreath to his rucksack and Edgar Aromin took the crosses they would lay at the Halifax crash-site, while I took the flag and speech from Scott Goodall. I also took on a small container that would be revealed at the Spanish border.
Friday morning briefing at Seix as chief Chemin guide Paul Debons describes the route ahead
Friday morning in the Esbints and our first rest stop, just before the serious walking begins
Rising temperatures made the climb up the Esbints Valley towards Col de la Core particularly hard going
Boris tying the RBL wreath onto his rucksack while Mark Rogers gets his feet up in what little shade there was
That afternoon, we walked through the woods, ever climbing, and then out into open countryside as we made our way to Subera. By the time we reached the half-way water-stop, everyone was sweating and it took some effort on my part to get going again, even after downing a litre of isotonic sports drink. The walk to Subera is easy enough but I think everyone was glad to arrive although even setting up our tents didn't offer much relief from the heat until the evening shadows finally crept in. That evening, for the first time ever, the guides organised a party with copious amounts of snacks and drinks that led to singing and dancing which continued long after I went to bed.
The Friday afternoon walk to our camp-site at Subera starts with this climb through the woods
Out of the woods and into the sunshine, I think everyone was glad to reach the afternoon water-stop at Cazabede
It was cool and damp in the morning at 1,499 metres and our tents were still wet when we packed them away but everyone was ready to go long before eight o'clock when Paul Debons led a group of more French walkers up from Col de la Core to join us. Increasing numbers of French now walk all four days and camp overnight at Subera but there are still many who only walk the weekend. They sleep Saturday night in the refuge at Estagnous which means they can travel much lighter than us as they don't have to carry tents and so much food. On the other hand, they start much earlier that day which evens things out a bit. Greeting were exchanged with friends from previous events and a quick cup of coffee downed before we were taken up the hill to be formed into our groups.
The French two-day walkers have arrived at Subera and everyone has their early morning coffee
Three of the Chemin guides, Raymonde, Daniel and Paul Williams, are ready for the groups to form up
The theory is that groups stay in the rough order they set off in and because I wanted to be near the front on the Sunday approach to the border, I got myself into the second group setting off from Subera. I was joined by Boris and Edgar, the NATO team and two British first-timers, Ian Roberts and Nick Wildman. We were led by English professional mountain guide Paul Williams, fresh from a jaunt to Andorra. Normally, a four-day Chemin walker, Paul had come straight from taking another group on a memorial event, following the route of an American airman who was shot down over Normandy and died on the mountain crossing in 1943. I had helped with the historic background for that journey but because of the timing, wasn't able to take part myself which was probably just as well as it turned out.
My plan to stay in a leading group lasted as far as the first rest-stop where it became apparent that one of the NATO team was suffering badly from heat exhaustion and we waited as his kit was redistributed amongst the group. The climb to the Halifax was as hard as ever but I managed get my breath back in time to give the short memorial speech in French and English before we set off once more.
Climbing out of the clouds on our way to the Halifax
The Halifax memorial is at the top of this valley
The climb up to the Col de Crabarous at 2,382 metres is long and hard and as usual, through snow in places. However, the views from the top almost made it worth the effort - that was until you looked down the scree slope on the other side. Steep and scary for many, it's a difficult descent for anyone although on the plus side, it's even worse in the rain. Progress was slow and groups were spread all over the mountain by the time we all got down for the last forty-odd minute wander to our lunch-stop at des Espuges.
Because we were one of the last groups to arrive, our break wasn't as long as some but there was still time for a good drink and other refreshments. I don't know what they did to the NATO soldier but by the time we set off again that afternoon, he had made a remarkable recovery and was once more carrying his own pack.
This is the start of the descent from the Col de Crabarous
Des Espuges with Mont Valier in the background
That morning's hard climbing over the Crabarous (which we'd missed for the last two years) makes the afternoon even tougher. As described in the briefing, it's a long and difficult descent to the valley bottom before the endless climb up the other side. I'm sure the route we used up until 2007, around the valley and skirting Mont Valier, was never as hard as this but then memory is a funny thing. We seemed to climb for ever in that baking valley, the temperature not easing as the slope flattened slightly before the final climb to Pecouch at 2,494 metres. The two hundred and fifty metre descent to the refuge at Estagnous, which we could see clearly in the distance below, was as hard as ever although again, not as difficult and dangerous as it would have been in the wet. I think we were later than usual in arriving but still in plenty of time for cokes and a celebratory beer before having a wash (or freezing shower) and the usual, excellent dinner. I can't speak for anyone else but I for one slept rather well that night.
It's been a hard descent but we're almost at the bottom
Unfortunately, it's an even steeper climb up the other side
This is towards the end of the long climb to Pecouch
Our first sight of the refuge at Estagnous
Sunday morning and several walkers had decided that the final climb to Spain would be too much for them. They joined us on the long and difficult descent to Lac Rond but then turned right (north) onto the escape route while we headed south towards Lac Long. The climb to Lac Long, although quite short, is the steepest of the whole event, with steel ropes bolted into the rock-face for hand-holds. Paul Debons waited until everyone had a rest before setting off on the final climb to the border. I jumped into one of the earlier groups along with Chemin guide Daniel, who knew why I wanted to get to the top as early as possible. The four hundred metre climb isn't that hard but following on from the day before, I don't think many were in much condition to run up there. I found the final few metres over scree to the frontier (at 2,522 metres) particularly difficult.
Sunday starts with the descent to Lac Rond, with Boris still carrying the box that the RBL wreath came in
This is the climb to Lac Long where there are steel ropes bolted into the rock face for use as hand-holds
The beautiful Lac Long where we had a short rest before the final climb to the Spanish border
About half way up the snowy approach to the border. The going isn't too hard at this point - but it does get steeper
Everyone waited while I got my breath back and positioned myself for a quick speech. What few of the walkers knew was that I'd been carrying the ashes of an RAF evader's widow and that I was going to spread them at the border. In 2006, I had carried out a similar ceremony for Maurice Collins and this year, I was doing the same for his wife Dot. I had composed a few words before coming out and translated them into French and then Paul Debons spoke on behalf of the guides, many of whom remembered Dot well. The ceremony was short but (hopefully) a poignant moment for those attending. Like Maurice in 2006, Dot's ashes were duly carried over the frontier by an obliging breeze as we had a moment of silence and Steve Coupe recited the RBL exhortation.
In remembrance of Dot Collins
It's still a very long way down from the Spanish border
From the frontier, it's about forty minutes of steep downhill paths to the Lac de Clauere where we stopped for lunch. We had the option this year of ordering a picnic lunch from the refuge at Estagnous but for many, it was whatever food we had left in our rucksacks. An hour or so later and we continued on the long trek down to our pick-up point at the Pallaresa river where our hiking finally ended. There was a convoy of 4WD taxis to ferry us down to Esterri where it was just a matter of taking a shower and then downing a few drinks in the local bar before the speeches and a sumptuous multi-course meal in the town's gymnasium. It was about nine-thirty when the two French coaches loaded up tired walkers for the long drive back to St Girons
Many thanks as ever to everyone involved with organising this brilliant event. Hopefully, I'll see you all again next year.
All photographs are the copyright property of Edgar Aromin and used with his kind permission.