Pyrenean Refuges

Up high, above the cares of life below…

Nothing quite beats sleeping up high, above all the movement and activity in the valley below, and definitely far removed from city life.  Of course it is more rustic than hotel or apartment accommodation, but some discomfort is rewarded ten fold when you watch the sunset, sitting outside in the cold clear high mountain air.

The first mountain shelters were simply caves and rocky overhangs, used by those travelling over the mountains. Rustic shepherds’ cabins, “orrys” and “cayolar”, where then built into the hillside using vegetation and local stone. These were places the shepherds could return to each summer.

In the 19th century, with the age of mountain exploration, came the construction of refuges whose sole objective was as a shelter for mountaineers. The French Alpine Club began their constructions in the Pyrenees in 1874 with “Tuqueroye”, a small refuge built on an extremely narrow pass (really only a breach) between the Estaubé Valley and the high plateau above the Spanish Pineta Valley. It looks onto the north face of the Mont Perdu, which as its name suggests (the “lost mountain”), is extremely difficult to access. As one visitor commented, the only thing this refuge has to recommend it is the view. But it did allow excursions to the Mont Perdu with some kind of better shelter. Even today the most popular (and uncomfortable) refuges are those that provide access to either the Mont Perdu (Refuge Goriz on the Spanish side) or the three thousand metre summits above the Gavarnie Cirque (Refuge des Sarradets), or the Vignemale (Refuge Baysellance, which has been renovated, but being the highest refuge in the Pyrenees remains relatively basic). We stay in these refuges only when there are no viable alternatives!

With the evolution in construction methods (most notably with the use of helicopters), refuges too have evolved and become more sophisticated. This is seen for many who would like to keep the mountains in their wilder form, as a shame. Others, who like a minimum of comfort as they trek across the Pyrenees, are quite happy to see more modern bathroom facilities, and most of all get a hot meal at the end of each day!

That said, even today refuges differ greatly in their level of comfort. Some remain rustic with the certain charm this entails, some have become nearly hotels in the mountains. Some have showers and several toilets, some have a lake to wash in and one lone toilet! Most have dormitories with baflan, long sleeping platforms, some have rooms for four with individual beds. In any case, if staying in a refuge has its disadvantages, it also has the great advantage of allowing us to be truly “up there”, immersed in the mountain atmosphere. Food is always generous and of very good quality….nothing like a 4-course meal in a warm atmosphere after a long day’s walking.

Most of our treks involve a combination of comfort levels in refuges. We usually have some nights where we can use a shower and have smaller dorms or individual beds. don’t hesitate to ask us more specifically if this is a concern for you. We can provide a number of suggestions about how to cope with the discomforts that refuge accommodation can entail (see our packing list for some clues), while taking advantage of their wonderful location.

Amitges Refuge19. Refuge Saboredo w. snowboarders