Probus Club member, retired RAF Squadron Leader, Chris Perkins MVO, talked about his recollections of three backpacking expeditions to the French and Spanish Pyrenees some four decades ago. They were “home spun” adventures involving experienced members of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service, although the last trip was with those with little or no mountaineering experience providing a trekking experience second to none.
As a boy, in the immediate post war suburbia of south Birmingham, he always held an interest in the great outdoors. Birthday, Christmas and pocket money was spent sourcing items of ex-military maps, rucksacks and compasses. Only after embarking on his RAF Service in the 1960s could he afford to purchase up to date clothing and equipment and eventually joined the RAF Mountain Rescue Service.
A decade later, he was persuaded to put together a ‘trekking adventure’ to the French/Spanish Pyrenees. Being a military sponsored expedition, permissions had to be obtained and diplomatic clearance achieved for them to operate in the border area. They were challenged on the first two expeditions by the French National Gendarmerie as Basque separatists were active in the area. This worked to their advantage for the third trip as a liaison had been established with the Gendarmerie unit based at their start point in Bagneres de Luchon: an ideal location to securely leave valuables, a change of clothing, camp overnight and ‘clean up’ prior to the long rail journey back to base.
None had experienced travelling in the area during July. The scarce information that could be gleaned, described fantastic rocky ridges and peaks, permanent glaciers and high valleys holding year-round snow and ice. On the first expedition, they kitted themselves out with normal RAF Mountain Rescue winter mountaineering clothing and equipment as if tackling a winter trip to the Scottish Cairngorms or Glencoe. Combined with the heavy tentage of the time, all rucksack loads exceeded 60lbs with tinned food for a couple of weeks.
The plan was to set up a base camp just inside the National Park boundary and each day make exploratory excursions, some with overnight bivouacs to look at various glaciers, mountain huts and suitable routes to gain the frontier peaks. They looked very strange ‘apparitions’ toiling up the steep, but well-defined lower tracks loaded up and perspiring profusely. In temperatures well over 30 degrees, they were overtaken by folk trekking in their shorts, ‘T’ shirts and walking trainers, all carrying lightweight overnight sacs and plenty of water. They were bound for French Alpine Club mountain huts below the snowline where accommodation and food could be provided – at a cost. Utilising these ‘facilities’ and locating camps nearby, the RAF team were able to access the upper snowfield couloirs, peaks and frontier ridge thus saving the gruelling descent and climb each day.
Much was learnt from that first excursion into the area. Looking across into Spain more incredible mountain ridges were seen, and above the snowline, only a few experienced climbers and the alpinists of the Gendarmerie were encountered. Some access valleys and rocky passes in the area had been utilised by the Resistance during WW2 taking Allied Evaders into Spain. This knowledge set the scene for a return next year to expand the trip into a ‘lightweight trekking expedition’ taking ten days crossing into Spain, climbing the highest peak in the Pyrenees, Pic de Aneto and returning via a steep and rocky pass over the frontier.
Each trip they travelled by train from London, with the Hovercraft used to cross the Channel from Dover. Also, instead of sitting upright in crowded, bench seated carriages, couchette compartments were utilised. However, on the return journey some French passengers allocated overnight beds in a couple of their compartments, were unimpressed with odours radiating from two weeks of backpacking kit.
They had gained access to a remote and completely unspoilt, beautiful area of the Pyrenees for these expeditions. Unforgettable adventures for all and extremely gratifying. It is hoped that with the passage of decades, climate change causing glacier melt, mass holidays for all and the advent of motor vehicle incursion into those mountains, that the area has not changed for ever!