I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – what a difference a day makes.
We’d started out on our trek along a section of the GR400 in the Auvergne region in France in the presence of azure skies and a scorching heat. The mission: three days to climb four volcanic peaks of Europe’s largest stratovolcano – all part of my #40by40 quest to climb 40 volcanoes by the age of 40.
As the sweat ran rivulets down my spine and soaked into my clothes, we worked our way slowly up above the tree line and were rewarded with rolling French countryside stretching out to the horizon, dyed deep green from hearty rainfall – not that you would have guessed it given there was barely a cloud in the sky.
Eight hours later, however, and my clothes, which had been damp from sweat, were now sopping, having been drenched by a monstrous deluge of rain.
We’d been aware that a thunderstorm was on the cards thanks to the forecast but nothing could have quite prepared us for the sheer intensity as it ripped into us.
Sure, it had slowly been building all day, like a headache that just niggles in the periphery for hours before unleashing its full painful force. We’d walked the ridgelines as the dark and murderous clouds had rolled in, and reached the Bec de l’Aigle (Beak of the Eagle) at 1,700m while sheet and fork lightening punctuated the horizon and thunder rumbled around us. The rain at this point was still elusive.
That all changed as we sought about making camp above the Buron de Meije Costes refuge, a former shepherd’s hut. Within the space of five minutes nature unleashed her fury above us, emptying gallons of water and whipping up a wind so strong that both the hat and glasses of my hiking companion were wrenched from his head; his quick reflexes just grasping his glasses before they somersaulted into the abyss.
Try as we might, it was no use attempting to erect a lightweight tent in gale force winds – it was pure luck the tent flysheet didn’t tear as we tried to wrestle it into place, or worse, lose it to the wind. It was several minutes of high-tension, heart-pounding drama where we screamed at each other amid the pummelling of rain and wind.
It was inevitable, nature won.
With tail between our legs, we knocked on the door of the refuge – wind whipped, bedraggled, pooling water at our feet, we begged for a bed for the night. Despite our lack of French speaking ability, the host took pity on us. That night we slept cocooned in our sleeping bags inside a solid stone structure while the thunder, rain and wind roared outside.
The next day we awoke to relative calm and a blanket of claggy cloud that sucked the colour from the landscape and turned it to grey. Where yesterday there had been blue skies and views, today it was muted; a giant smudge like God had grabbed his rubber and erased his drawing.
Yet we ventured forth into the mist and in search of our first of two volcanic peaks for the day.
We skirted Puy de Peyre Arse, it’s summit completely obscured from view, and reached the intimidating Brѐche de Rolland, a short section of jutting rock that required the use of hands to scramble to the top. It was perhaps a blessing that we were surrounded by fog so we couldn’t fathom the almost sheer drop to either side. A look at the topographical map after set the heart a thumping.
And then it was the summit of Puy Mary at 1,783m, one of the Auvergne’s most visited volcanic peaks, described as having a distinctly pyramidic shape. Not that we could tell in the poor-visibility conditions. In fact, the summit was almost anti-climactic – we could only assume the views behind the cloud were breath-taking. I made the comment that I was sick of having no view when I reached the summit of my volcanoes.
We trudged on into the gloom towards peak number two, Puy Chavaroche (1,739m).
At times, as we walked, there would be a small break in the cloud, like someone had blown a hole through the mist, and for a snippet we would glimpse quaint farmland valleys far below surrounded by green mountainsides that disappeared into the grey above. But for the most part we were alone in our own little cloudy bubble, just the distant clanging of cow bells to remind us we weren’t the sole survivors in a post-apocalyptic world.
At Puy Chavaroche, the scenery was no different as we were greeted with yet more unwavering grey fuzz. There was no point lingering; we came down from the summit and, feeling the effects of two days walking and constant rain, we took the shortcut into Mandailles where hot showers awaited.
Tomorrow and more volcanoes would be another day.