Plotting a running route on an IGN map, high in the French mountains, was much like my holiday reading of Andrew Marr’s EU referendum themed ‘Head of State’: from a distance each promised thrills and some escapism, but in practice the plot gets lost in the thick of it. I had to keep going on both counts. I was almost at the end you see. Still the frustration led to anger, and the anger to the dark side.
If anyone can tell me of a greater physical obstacle than navigating through a mature forest then I’ll whip my naked, hairy backside with an ash sapling. Spread open – the map, not my backside – dotted footpath lines follow contours and white cart tracks snake their way through large shaded areas of deep green and mint-coloured woodland. Helpfully, these obvious route ways follow or cross major waters at seemingly clear junctions as they fall from large tarns, e’tangs, or swimming pool sized bodies of water. Between mountains and woodland, clearings are well marked and sometimes these correspond with boundary features, such as fencing or walls. All ticketyboo then.
On the ground, though, the terrain only seems to correspond to contours and the area of woodland. Depending on the area or density of the latter, the former is almost always impossible to determine. You might descend from an open mountain side via a col or exact point of physical note, such as a mountain hut, or refuge. Quickly, in the thickest of deep woodland, the track you planned to follow abruptly ends and the huge conifers and deciduous friends block out nearly all daylight. The forest comes alive with crickets and rustling. With the map now in hand and several head scratches later you begin to lose your bearings. You also remember the Pyrenees host both bears and wolves. You might even wonder if the French play the banjo.
My proposed 5 hour, approximately 10 miles/ 3000 feet route spiralled out of control at the 9 mile mark. My Human SatNav thrown was creaking. Or maybe it was Treebeard and the Ents. We were heading north when I knew the car was somewhere south east or south. After descending on a dotted line from the refuge there was a clearly marked, white forest track that we’d reach – it was simply a case of turning right. Earlier, on a mountain summit, a hiker had even confirmed that this was a good loop, or boucle, and described the easy to follow route more or less as I had pre-planned. He even agreed that the route finished at the ski resort tennis court.
I ran my finger over the map again. Sweat dripped on to the paper. I proposed a brief adventure, off piste, over streams and through woodland. I was convinced this more acceptable compass direction, towards the distant sound of timber machinery, would place us back on the correct track. For Pierre’s sake we were only a few miles from the finish! I joked we’d be drinking a cold beverage within 30 minutes, 40 tops. Easy.
We found the forest track. Tick. Turned right. Tick. Following contours and bends that – almost – corresponded with the map we headed in the direction of the finish. Tick. Check for ticks. Tick. Damn it – again the track unexpectedly turned north. And descended. We needed to be south and follow the contours without losing elevation. I proposed reversing and following a visible ski run, overgrown with saplings, shrubs and long grass. This pointed us towards the finish area and, at a guess, less than a mile from that cold drink. Again Rose trustingly agreed. I knew where we were. That would soon change.
The ski run ended after 5 minutes of leisurely plodding between ash and birch new growth. Several steep climbs later. Through ferns bigger than parasols. Over boulders like washing machines. And between ground shrubbery that shredded the bare legs of the unprepared. We were now well off piste and very pissed off. Our check for ticks had long since ceased. I was more worried about stepping on a hunter’s trap or starting a sparring session with a startled bear. I was snappy and Rose well meaning. We were both running very low on water. Neither of us had a torch. I surrendered and suggested to reverse – somehow – to the forest track at the start of the overgrown ski run then follow down to the surfaced road. This I navigated successfully. Woop-woop, one small achievement versus nature.
Almost 1000 feet descending down the forest track and we both cooled off in a nearby pool of fresh water. This was only a brief respite for the inevitable climb back up to the finish. Ironically, I sustained my worst cut here on my shin from a bramble. Nature scrapes back. We soon reached the tarmac road. I guessed there would be 2 miles and maybe 1500 feet of climb back up to the car. We trudged upwards, the walk of shame. Cars flew passed. Neither of us resigned to sticking out a thumb. Nearly 40 minutes later we arrived between the silent wooden ski lodges into the ski resort of Mont d’Olmes. We shuffled annoyingly passed the sign for the tennis courts. It was almost 7pm. Almost 3 hours ago we’d been less than a mile away.
The entire route ended at nearly 17 miles/ 5000 feet. Rose did say she wanted time on her feet for Yorkshireman training. We’d been on our feet for over 8 hours. Both our Garmin watches had long since died. Along with my SatNav pride. We no longer fancied a coke and departed with tails between legs. Like an oasis, though, the day ended with oven-baked pizza, from a van, at the bottom of the mountains. Munching on molten cheese I was itching to return and discover the correct route. Later we were both itching with shin scrapes and hand splinters.
A hiking blog later confirmed that we were only metres, YES METRES, from the best route on that overgrown ski run. We will just need to return next year to complete the final chapter. The descent from Mount Fourcat to Mont d’Olmes will be revisited. As for the outcome of ‘Head of State’, I hear you ask? The result of the actual EU referendum was more entertaining. Riveting read, my derriere.