Well, maybe not highest ever, if there have been blipmeets in the Alps or the Himalayas. But at 2784 m, it's the highest one I've ever been to. Note Ingrid's T-shirt, one of a set of ten S had made the last time we did this in 2001. We've long since worn ours out, but Ingrid's is immaculate
It was well-nigh a perfect day. Conditions were ideal; we were eating breakfast at 7, as the sun rose, and were out of the chalet by 7:30. The weather was fabulous, not a cloud in the sky, but the advantage of setting out early is that you are kept cool by the shadow of the mountain almost all the way up. We were the first out of the chalet, but we weren't exactly Speedy Gonzalez, so after the first hour, people started catching up as we paused to admire the views and catch our breath. The last part is a zigzag scramble over rocks that seems to go on forever, but all of a sudden, almost unexpectedly, there was the cross, and we were there, along with about 20 other people. Bright sun, glorious views, barely a breath of wind, who could ask for more? We sat down and enjoyed it, ate a few more Twixes and Mars bars, and then got someone to take the iconic photo (blip). I was a bit concerned to see that the love lock plague has reached here. Most mementoes attached to the cross are flimsy enough to degrade naturally over time thanks to the wind (ribbons, prayer flags, soft toys, scarves) ... Still, for the moment there are only two padlocks.
I was so chuffed; I've done this twice before, in 1997 and 2001, and both times found it so exhausting that I vowed I'd never do it again (spot the mistake). This time, it wasn't "easy" but I never got out of breath or felt I couldn't go on. One Twix was enough, as opposed to the three Mars bars and many pep talks I needed last time. It's gratifying to realise I'm fitter now than I was in 2001 -- I think those 11 missing kilos may have something to do with it. At one point I left S behind. And then instructed him from the top of a steep bit of rock on the best way to climb it, as he was doing it wrong. Ha! Admittedly he was deliberately going slowly :) It took us three hours, whereas on his own he'd have done it in under two.
The descent is pretty hard on the knees, and it was very hot by now. There were hordes of people coming up from the chalet, streaming with sweat as the path was now in full sun. We must have passed over a hundred people; they'd have to queue to get onto the summit and get their photo. It definitely pays to get up early; the only thing we could have done better would be to set off an hour earlier. Then no-one would have overtaken us and we'd have had the summit to ourselves for at least a few minutes.
We were glad to get back to the chalet and order more beer. But due to being slow both ways we'd cut it a bit fine -- we only had 10 minutes before we needed to meet our driver. However as we hastily glugged beer, a young woman came over and introduced herself as Nathalie, Thibault's girlfriend, who was going to be driving us. She told us we could take our time, and mentioned that she was collecting someone who had severe stomach pains and taking him down to the hospital. This mode of transport is hardly ideal in these circumstances!
On the way down to the van we met our fellow passengers, a family of four with two boys. The older one had a broken toe and was hobbling. The ten-year-old's stomach pains were so severe that he couldn't walk, so his dad was carrying him. "He was fine this morning," said dad. "We walked up from Vernet yesterday, six hours, and then this morning we went up to the summit and back. But he wouldn't eat anything at lunch and he's too ill to walk back down to Vernet." We were a bit shocked that they'd do an itinerary like that with young children in blazing heat. "Oh, they're very sporty." It later transpired that the three families involved in this trip had zero experience of mountain walking ...
Anyway, we set off and not surprisingly the ten-year-old was soon sobbing with pain and hyperventilating as we bounced and bumped over the rocks and potholes. After a few kilometres, Nathalie stopped on an open, grassy plateau and said, "I'm going to call the emergency services. It's another hour to Prades, and once we get into the forest, there's no phone signal." To cut a long story short we were soon standing around the van waiting for a helicopter to appear. Here's how you hail one, courtesy of a man from the ONF who had stopped to see what was happening. The herd of cows seemed quite unconcerned and ambled off as it landed.
The doctor duly inspected the boy while we had visions of appendicitis, nephritis and other serious problems. The truth turned out to be more banal. "He's severely constipated," pronounced the doctor. But they took him and his mother down in the helicopter anyway, while the rest of us had to endure the bumping, rattling, noisy, smelly journey down to Prades. "I love my job," said Nathalie, surprising us all. "It's an adventure every day. "
On arrival S took dad and remaining son back to Vernet with all their bags so that they could collect their car and drive to the hospital in Perpignan. It was after 4 pm by now. Nathalie gave the rest of us a lift into town, where she was going to grab a sandwich for a late lunch and then do another round trip to the chalet. Argh. I wasn't surprised to notice she had braces on both wrists -- RSI seems like it must be a given in her job.
Once S arrived at the bar where we were refreshing ourselves, we decided that given the time and the fact that we hadn't had time for lunch either, we'd go to the bistro in Villefranche as they serve food at all hours. I'd forgotten that this bistro is actually called El Canigó :) So we ended the day over copious plates of food and general winding down before we took Bundle back to Vernet and then drove home; the upside of our lateness was that I've never seen the roads around Perpignan so empty, and it was a smooth, easy drive home. Early night again! It was a brilliant two days, and we promised we'd have another adventure next year.
Flickr album here.