1330 – ‘Northern Freedom Trail’ – Midi Pyrenees – France & Spain

After many months of research and planning, 9 Cadets and 3 Adults departed Manchester Terminal 3, on Friday 19th October 2012 on the start of an Adventurous Training Expedition, that was to test the cadets as they retraced the footsteps of ‘downed allied airman’ as they crossed the Pyrenees to freedom. The route is known at the ‘Le Chemin de la Liberte or (Freedom Trail)’ starts at St Girons – France, and ends in Esterri d’ Aneu – Spain, some 4 days and 80km later having reached an altitude of 2532m, on the ‘Col de la Cluare – the internationally recognised border crossing.

Leaving St Girons at the start of our adventure, the group stopped at the site of the old railway bridge (official starting point) for the obligatory group photograph, before setting off towards Aunac some 23km away through mist shrouded tree lined tracks and woodland which rarely ever lost its damp earthy smell, whilst affording the escapees protection from prying eyes, until we reached a small hamlet, and one of the original ‘safe houses’ on the route. Leaving the safety of the forest, we stopped briefly at one of the memorial stones near our first nights rest at the refuge de Aunac, and a time to treat those dreaded blisters, and sore knees that could cause problems if not treated. However, Nicola did not complain of the pain or discomfort she was in, and after rest Lauren’s knee settled down.

Overnight the rain set in making our journey along the GR 10 to the Cabane Subera some 16 km away more difficult, as the ever present low cloud gave way to poor visibility for most of the day, once more hiding the most spectacular views. Reaching our refuge /shepherds hut for the night we quickly settled in and enjoyed a hearty gourmet meal from the latest ‘boil in the bag’ menus, and copious amounts of tea, before settling down for the night.

After a restful nights sleep and hot breakfast, we continued our journey towards Spain, and the crash site of the ill fated Halifax Bomber, where all crew members perished, after the plane drifted off course in extremely bad weather. Around the site, twisted metal lies scattered as a stark reminder of that fateful night. A plaque now marks the site, and is tended by trekkers who pay their respects to the fallen, leaving poppies, crosses and a Union Flag to flutter in the breeze.

Reaching the Col at 2200m, the weather closed in again, making our journey more difficult, as we picked our way past the small lake at La Herrane to the Col du Cruzous before descending to the refuge des Estagnous, where we enjoyed the comforts of a warm bed, and freshly cooked meal.

Finally the end was in sight, and after an early start, we descended some 500m before climbing again to the Col De La Clavere (which was our highest point at 2522m), and the point were the escapees would have finally reached relative safety, as it marks the international boundary between France and Spain.

Thankfully, at this late stage the weather changed, opening up wonderful panoramic views across the Pyrenees into Spain, whilst making the going underfoot easier, as we clambered down fine scree, and slippery grass, before heading once more along forest tracks to the village of Alos de Isil and start of our final leg of our journey to Esterri d’Aneu, and transport to Luchon.

Reaching Luchon the group enjoyed a day off, sightseeing and shopping, before heading back to Toulouse for our journey home.

The journey took its toll, with one or more of the cadets suffering from frightful blister, wrenched knees or sore hips, and shoulders. However, it shows that with grit and determination, Cadets can achieve what they aspire to, and come home better for the experience, and smiling.

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

In partnership with:

Nuffield Trust