M Mountain Magic on the Pyrenean High Route

by David McClure

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Article Summary:

This past year, on the fourth of July, I woke up an hour before dawn, wolfed down a hunk of sausage and a helping of unflavored couscous, shouldered a summit pack loaded with chocolate and climbing gear, and teetered sleepily into the ferocious wind howling across the Horquette d'Ossoue, a wide pass situated prominently on the central ridgeline of the Pyrenean mountain range.

It was a long-awaited day. After two weeks of hard-fought backpacking, I had finally managed to climb from the shores of the North Atlantic into the harsh, moonlike mountainscape of the high Pyrenees. To celebrate Independence Day (although I hardly needed the excuse) I was going to scale the 3,298-meter glaciated monstrosity that towered above - the Vignemale, the crowing jewel of the frontier ridgeline, the highest mountain on the border between France and Spain.

Four hours, two thousand vertical meters, and one enormous glacier later, I stumbled onto the razor-thin slice of the international boundary that fed into the summit. Straddling the two countries, I picked my way to the peak, gripped the ancient stake at the top, and used the metal bearing nailed into the top of the marker to orient myself. I faced east, assumed a broad (literally international) stance, and gawked at the sublime mountainscape spread below and around my divine perch. So huge was the Vignemale, and so superbly situated on the border, that I could visually intuit the physical geography of the entire mountain range with a single sweeping glance. Before and behind me stretched the ribbon-like corridor of serrated mountains that had been crunched skyward by the tectonic collision of the Iberian Peninsula with Eurasia, and to my right and left could be seen two abruptly flat expanses of agrarian patchwork - Spain to the south, France to the north.

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