First Pyrenees Snow - James Lomax

For my first trip to the Pyrenees I stayed at a September hostel. I wasn’t camping in 2007 and didn’t want to endure nights in a shared room. Autumn, I thought, would be bearably quiet. It mostly was except for the last night when a group arrived and I stuffed in ear buds and turned to the wall. No see, no hear, no problem getting tense and I could then remove the buds and sleep. But I didn’t sleep, I was tense, as snoring and movements disturbed me. For me it’s like having a stranger in my bedroom at home or in a tent.

It was badly dreich which meant I could barely walk. Every day, thick wet mist and impaired visibility. This was the Pyrenees, not the Lake District, where you might venture up Scafell Pike on such a day (I have) for the sake of exercise and meagre sights. If you get lost it doesn’t matter. With the Pyrenees, or any big foreign mountains, it does matter.

I was going mad with inactivity. I walked down roads exploring the local area, around the village and around it again, up to a nearby slope with reported good views, had one grey ramble which was reasonably pleasant and finally - one blue sky day and a walk up to Pic d’Anie except I didn’t make it to the summit because of snow. There were no paths to see. All I could do was take a rough aim upward and hope I didn’t drop into a sudden hole as snow reached my waist. In those conditions I didn’t have time for the summit.

It was my first good walk in the Pyrenees and I remember the early morning. The other man in the hostel, British, living in France, came indoors as I had breakfast. You’ll never believe it, he said. He’d told me how beautiful the Lescun valley was in summer and I said yes, but I couldn’t come back here again if it’s more dreich. Pyrenees summers are actually very good, far better than Britain, and I returned to Lescun in 2009 and 2014 with shorts, vest, tent, sandals, camera. Six backpacking trips and I walked and photographed a great deal.

The other part of the morning concerned the local effect of the snow. It was on a few summits (and deep on the hidden Pic d’Anie hillside) but not in the valley. Lescun has one hotel which was closed for the season, a small cafe for food and drink and one shop. It’s a good shop for provisions and supplies with postcards and tourist books. I lingered inside to kill time, tried to read French books and magazines, I lingered outside for the shop to open. I’d seen a lot of the owner, his wife, and a little of their young daughter. The fruit was old and tired, slow to sell with rare deliveries; bread arrived every few days.

In summer Lescun is busy but it’s a small mountain village not Grasmere, Llanberis, or Fort William. Locals drive there for Sunday lunch then go home. The hotel is old, dark, wood panelled, and not large. The hostel has four small rooms. The camp site a mile away is busy (and wonderful) in summer but after meals and drink you return to your tent.

The man in the shop works over summer then closes middle or late autumn. The Pyrenees are not like Britain where facilities stay open and we walk in the cold. Summer is so good, when holidays finish people are happy to go back to the cities. The man in the shop is there most days and autumn means the end of another season then home for rest. He came out of the shop with cries of delight. First snow! Look! And there it was, a patch of frosty white on crags beyond Pic d’Anie. I imagine it had been a long hot summer. 

There are two beautiful words for first snowfall. Japanese people refer to it as hatsuyuki. They also have a word referring to the search for and enjoyment of autumn leaves, and have a ritualised enjoyment of spring cherry blossom. That’s linked to another word, hagakure, part of Samurai philosophy about the transitory passing of life. Blossom is here for a few weeks then gone.

There’s an old Welsh word too, cynneiry, meaning first snowfall. It’s used in a Medieval volume called the Red Book of Hergest which is a source for the Mabinogion tales: pronounced, I understand, as cun-ay-ree.

Back in history, across the world, we enjoy the first fall of snow. Mountains are transformed for walking and photography and it’s fresh arrival reminds us of cycles and seasons. Autumn arrives like a second spring, wrote Albert Camus, with every leaf a flower. Winter arrives with cold days and a quiet land softened with cynneiry

Note: Camus, Act 2 1944 play The Misunderstanding

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