After a wet day with thoroughly uninviting views, we awoke in the little French town of Mandailles to what promised to be better weather. There were pockets of blue in the sky (hurrah!) and while the tops of the higher mountains were still shrouded in cloud it looked like it was only lingering like a bad smell.
Today was to be our last day of our three-day hike along a section of the GR400 route in France’s Auvergne region. So far, we had been buffeted by gale force winds in an almighty thunderstorm, my hiking companion’s tent had nearly blown off the side of the mountain, and we had climbed two volcanoes as part of my #40by40 quest to climb 40 volcanos by the age of 40.
Today’s aim was to take on two more volcanoes – including the immediate region’s highest peak Plomb du Cantal.
I was excited because we might just get more than the unappealing varieties of grey we had as our view the day before. There would hopefully be a sprinkling of green and perhaps even a dash of blue and a sizzle of sun.
We set off – about two hours later than we anticipated – and instantly hit the incline. Our pace slowed to a snail’s crawl as we puffed our way up the mountainside. Despite two days of traversing hillsides and summiting volcanoes, my trail legs were still yet to appear it seemed.
And so, an hour in, it made sense to have a little break and refuel with sweets and nuts and huge gulps of water. We looked out at the French countryside and gloried in the fact we could see further than 20 metres.
We crept on – still uphill. My pack didn’t feel that much lighter.
And then, not long after, we were at a wonderous viewpoint taking in the green valley surrounded by forested slopes that towered over the tiny houses dotted below. Sure, we’d stopped less than an hour before but one of my hiking companions was dead set on brewing up a coffee on the picnic table and appreciating the views – it was perfect, he said; just calling out for the gas stove to be lit.
So, we sipped hot coffee, admired the views, aired their tent, took copious photos and generally faffed around – all while the clock ticked.
We finally packed up and were on our way again, slowly continuing in an upward direction.
We padded through forest, which was pleasantly shadowed and cooling just as the sun decided to turn up. We ventured through meadows of wild alpine flowers; colour pops of yellow and pink, which were an absolute delight. And we trekked towards Puy Griou, a cone-shaped volcanic peak with a distinctive bobble-like top, where a traverse of its side would bring us out above the ski hub of Le Lioran with the next two volcanoes on the far side of the valley. The idea was to watch the sunset and wild camp on Plomb du Cantal.
We stopped for lunch.
We carried on.
Our pace was slow.
It was starting to get late in the day.
After three days of walking our feet were sore, while the weight of our packs hadn’t seemed to lighten as we ate through our food. There was a growing consensus that perhaps we shouldn’t attempt the other two volcanoes today: I mean that was going to be a lot of extra uphill walking and anyway, it was really starting to get quite late. Did we really want to walk for another four hours when Le Lioran beckoned?
It was decided then. Bin Puy du Rocher and Plomb du Cantal.
I’d leave the Auvergne with just two volcanoes ticked off not four. I felt the stab of disappointment but what could you do? I buried it aside and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
And then Puy Griou came into view up ahead, with its bobble-summit looming over us.
I was surprised. It was like it had crept up on us – there is was off in the far distance all day, looking like a melting Mr Whippy ice cream, and then all of a sudden, bang, its summit was right there in front of us.
I was impressed. We’d climbed almost to its top and from this angle now it didn’t look nearly as scary or as steep as it had.
“So, are we going to climb it?” my hiking companion quipped, reasoning we needed to attempt to make up the volcano shortfall given that the two on the far side of Le Lioran were no longer on our radar for the day.
By all accounts the scramble to the top was a mere 20 minutes – it was a no-brainer.
We picked our way over chucks of steely rock, making up our route pretty much as we went, choosing one of the numerous goat trails that seemed to split and merge and zigzag up the mountain.
A little bit of hand-over-hand scrambling brought us to the 1,690m summit of Puy Griou, along with the views we had missed the day before.
All around us were valleys, a tableau of greens from across the colour spectrum, and behind those stood the magnificent mountains of the Auvergne; ancient, green-cloaked lava flows that rippled into the next. It looked like a land of fairy-tale and make-believe, where princesses would live and dragons would hide.
I punched the air, thrilled I had made it to another summit, and that for once I was rewarded with optical delights that didn’t include cloud.
We took the customary photos before cautiously making our way back down to re-join the GR400.
The buzz of the climb stayed with me for some time as we took the track down towards Le Lioran, the sun slowly starting its own descent in the sky behind us.