The Cirque de Gavarnie may be the most famous of the Pyrenean cirques, but it is not the only one. When the day dawned with yet more cloud hanging over the local mountains we thought we’d try going a little further afield. Not very far, just a short hop to the next valley and the Cirque de Troumouse. On the way we passed the road that takes you to the Cirque de Estaube, but that cirque is going to have to wait for another day.
The road into the Vallée de Héas is narrower and less well travelled than the road to Gavarnie, but still it must carry a fair bit of traffic in high season. If you want to experience the cirque without a long walk you can take the toll road, which rises from the end of the valley up into the cirque itself. There was no-one collecting tolls in this low season period, but still we didn’t want to drive up. It’s narrow with multiple tight switchbacks, and anyway we like to walk. There is ample parking just before the toll road on gravelly hard standing and we stopped here to start our ascent.
We had a feeling that we’d made the right choice, there were large patches of blue sky above and we could see the tops of the surrounding mountains. Happy Days!
While the Cirque de Troumouse is definitely a cirque, with a wide semi circle of steep rock cliffs, it is not the perfect cirque you find in Gavarnie. Gavarnie’s cirque is open-fronted so that you can see the scale of the amphitheatre as you approach it whereas Troumouse has a massive hill in the middle of the cirque that obscures the views of the cliffs until you get right up amongst it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have it’s own special attraction. The landscape is different, the cirque is wider and the grassy meadows in the centre of it are full of strangely eroded boulders and small lakes. On the central hill is a statue of the Virgin Mary, benevolently surveying the cirque, and you can stand next to her for a great panoramic view. Because it was a sunny day, and less crowded than Gavarnie, we enjoyed it more. Who knows how we would feel if the weather was different.
Our path took us up the eastern side of the cirque, along the east side of the valley between the cirque walls and the central lump of a hill. Initially the ascent was gentle but eventually the path had to climb up to get into the base of the cirque. You soon realise that most of what you’re walking on is gravel and rock; glacial moraine pushed down the mountain sides who knows how many years ago by rivers of ice that are now long gone. Where the grass and shrubs hold the loose rock together the walking is good, but where water and footsteps have eroded the topsoil and exposed the scree it is harder work.
It didn’t take long to get up amongst the lakes and rocks, avoiding the path that would have taken us up and over the cirque wall. We came across a few more people, most of whom had driven up the toll road and were taking a stroll around these lush meadows where you can explore to your hearts content.
Eventually we meandered our way around to the car park at the top of the toll road and were doubly glad we had decided to walk because it was closed and people were having to park on the edge of the road. I don’t think Bertie would have been happy perched up here.
The route down was via a set of steep and eroded paths that crossed the toll road, cutting out the switchbacks but making for hard work, especially when the path had been eroded to create a two meter drop down to the road (this was near the bottom of the valley and I managed to backtrack and find an easier route). The unpleasant parts of the path were countered by the beautiful scenery. This is the path of the river that runs down into the valley, and there are many beautiful waterfalls and cascades. A nice flat plateau part of the way down gave our legs a break (make sure that you follow the path that leads down here – we nearly went too far to the right) before we picked up the path for the final descent from behind the restaurant.
A fantastic day, this is definitely in our top 5 walks so far in the Pyrenees so far.