Prep Weekends (18-20 May & 30 Jun – 2 Jul 18)
1. In preparation for this expedition two training weekends were conducted in May and June to prepare and assess all potential participants ensuring that they were both physically and mentally up to the challenge. Both weekends were conducted from Halton Camp, Lancaster and the walking routes were conducted in the nearby Lake district. As well as providing valuable preparation for participants and instructors, during the 2nd prep weekend we were also able to trial the loan pool equipment we would use for the trip ensuring its serviceability and suitability.
2. The prep weekends were not solely focused on the physical and technical aspects of the expedition but also exploring the history of the many escape routes and the many brave and legendary people who were associated with them. The Battle field study element was always the primary motivation for conducting this expedition and it added much more interest and inspiration for all involved. WO2 Cupples prepared and co-ordinated the various study periods during the weekends; which comprised of a central brief and issuing of study packs detailing events and factors that lead to the development of the ‘escape routes’ in Europe. Participants were each given short back briefs to deliver during the course of the weekends, based on the contents of the packs. It became evident during group discussions, that the theme of this trip had caught the imagination of participants, as many added insightful thoughts and information that they had recently researched or read about.
3. On completion of the prep weekends we had established the final 17 participants and developed a broad understanding of the factors and events that led to the formation of the escape routes. With 3 weeks left to go before deployment there still remained a significant amount of work for the organisers to do. With participants coming from Belfast, Scotland and the North East of England, the main conundrum was which airport to fly from that was both convenient for the majority and cost effective. Manchester was chosen as it had direct flights to Toulouse at a reasonable cost.
Advance Party Deployment
4. Friday 20th July. WO2 Rob Cupples and Sgt Steve Spence, both MLTs, formed the advance party and departed Edinburgh airport at 0600hrs for a two-leg flight to Toulouse via Amsterdam. On arrival in France their main objectives were to;
a. Collect the hire vehicle.
b. Secure our campsite in Saint-Girons.
c. Buy basic provisions for arrival of main body.
d. Buy specific kit and equipment such as gas and local walking maps.
Having completed their primary tasks with relative ease, WO2 Cupples and Sgt Spence found time to do some route recces and investigate the local town and our camp site amenities.
Main Body Deployment
5. Sunday 22nd July. The main body was scheduled to meet at T3 Manchester airport at 0400hrs for the 0650hrs direct flight to Toulouse. There were 15 participants arriving from various locations across the North of the UK including Belfast, Glasgow, Catterick and Scunthorpe. Fortunately, all members of the group arrived on time and once all were accounted for, the final issue of kit and rations was conducted. The group quickly established a communal admin area in which to strip down and pack the rations and loan pool kit into already overloaded grips. Check in, bag drop and security checks went smoothly with everyone arriving at the boarding gates with time for breakfast before boarding.
6. The flight arrived as scheduled in Toulouse and again there were no issues with bags or security. We were greeted at arrivals by the advance party and our guide for the exped, Cpl John Howie and were quickly loaded into our transport for the 2-hour drive to our camp site in Saint-Girons.
On arrival at Parc de Paletes Hotel & Camping site the group quickly debussed and set about erecting tents on our allocated plot which included a portacabin toilet and shower facility in the centre. We occupied a secluded plot that was spacious enough for us all and some members of 2 Royal Irish Regiment who coincidentally were on a similar exped. The ground was flat and grass covered, however we did discover, when attempting to put the tent pegs in, that the ground was full of stones and shale which resulted in a few deformed pegs.
7. With the immediate camp admin complete, the group assembled for a central brief from the instructors detailing the plan for the next 6 days, including safety brief and kit checks. WO2 Cupples then lead with the battle field study element where we discussed the challenge that faced us crossing the Pyrenees and how that compared to the challenge that faced those escapees during WW2. In order to better understand and assess the challenges faced by the escapees we split down into 3 groups and used the popular Defence Doctrine concept of Fighting power in order to discuss and then back brief our findings on the following components of Fighting (Escaping) power;
a. conceptual component (the ideas behind how to fight/escape)
b. moral component (the ability to get people to fight/escape)
c. and physical component (the means to fight/escape)
On conclusion of our study period we determined that we faced a significant challenge over the coming four days however it paled in comparison with what the escapees would have faced. We had several significant advantages including; modern kit & equipment, experienced instructors, a good understanding of the route and we were all relatively fit and well nourished. Perhaps the only advantage the escapees had over us was the imperative motivation to complete the journey as the consequence of failure would be severe or final.
8. With admin and battle study complete, the group retreated to the camp site restaurant where a traditional 3 course meal had been booked. Cooked by a very eccentric English chef and served outside on the terrace that comprised an eclectic array of furniture, wood carvings and odd contraptions, including an engine block converted into beer taps. 3 delicious courses were gratefully received by all, comprising; a Confit duck salad starter, followed by slow cooked beef with ice cream for dessert. The food, setting and warm evening all contributed to a very sociable enjoyable dinner and with moral high and belly’s full, the group were all excited and eager for the day ahead.
Le Chemin de la Liberté
The ‘Chemin de la Liberte’ was the toughest of several escape routes across the Pyrenees during the Second World War; we will be following in the footsteps of history, from France to Spain, on this challenging and historic mountain hike. Running from Saint-Girons in the Ariege district of France to the village of Isil in Spain, the Chemin de la Liberte, or Walk to Freedom, has been an official way-marked walk since 1994. Starting out in the forested foothills of the Pyrenees we will climb to cross the highest mountains of the Ariege via the Refuge des Estagnous (2245m) and the Frontier Col (2495m). En route, we will pass safe houses and barns used as hiding places by the escapees and encounter rocky cirques, mountain lakes, boulder-fields and possibly snow-filled gullies, whilst marveling at some of the finest mountain views in the Pyrenees.
9. Monday 23rd July – Scribe: Capt John Dunn.
Day 1 started with reveille at 0630 and a light breakfast of fruit and pastries. By 0730 the group was assembled with only light order safety kit and rations. All none essential items were loaded into the admin vehicle to be collect on arrival at Gîtes d’Étape et Camping d’Aunac, a refuge for the first night situated in the lower Pyrenees 23km from our start point. After a final safety brief and kit check the group departed the camp site on foot to the official start point of Le Chemin de la Liberté, located on a road bridge in Saint-Girons and marked by a plaque Cpl Howie explained that the bridge was originally an iron railway bridge and escapees would often commence their journey by leaping from the train once across the bridge and then they would have to sneak past the Div HQ of the Nazi’s before silently fading into the forest tracks of the lower Pyrenees.
10. After the obligatory group photo, the group set off towards Aunac some 23km away through shrouded tree lined tracks and woodland which offered protection from the blistering sun and affording the escapees protection from prying eyes. After 15kms we stopped for lunch and to place a wreath in memory of a young 19-year-old passuer, Louis Barrau. A member of the revered Barrau family who are famous for r escorting parties of 30 or more escapees across the mountains. Louis was waiting to escort a party of refugees when he was surprised by a German patrol and shot. Louis and his brother Paul had been betrayed and although they went after Paul, he used his extensive knowledge of the mountains to escape into Spain. After a 2-minute silence to pay our respects, we moved on to Aunac Refuge.
11. After completing 17.5 miles in 9 hours and 40 minutes and ascending 800m, we finally arrived at the Gîte where we were given a bed and a warm shower for the night. After a few hours admin time we were called to a homemade dinner of a pate and salad starter followed by duck and bean casserole prepared by the young couple who ran the Gite. With full bellies and tired bodies an early night was on most people’s minds and the race was on to get to sleep before the snoring started.
12. Tuesday 24th July – Scribe: WO2 Chris Adams & WO1(RSM) Gary McCraken
Following a fantastic breakfast including several bowls of coffee, we departed Aunac Gite at 0800hrs with full kit this time! Following our guide Cpl John Howie, we set out at a fast pace which considering that he was the oldest in the group and more than triple the age of our youngest member was very inspiring. After 7 km and an ascent of 520m we arrived at “Col de la cave” where we were met by the admin wagon and a lunch of baguettes, croissants and cheese. During lunch, a decision was made to split into 2 groups which would take slightly different routes but converge again the following day.
13. Group 1 departed Col de la Cave at 1320 and headed for Cabane de Subera situated at 1500m. With Cpl Howie setting off at his usual sprinting pace, the group made short work if this leg, arriving at Cabane de Subera by 1500hrs. Having survived Cpl Howie’s murderous pace and a close encounter with a snake! There was finally time to enjoy the spectacular views and scenery of these majestic mountains. Our ‘cabin in the clouds’ came complete with running water and a stove which were all put to good use whilst we got our admin sorted and a sentry rota was wrote up to keep an eye on the shifty looking Shepard living in the next hut!
14. Group 2 headed along GR10 for the lake and refuge at Etong d’Eychelle. Shortly after leaving our lunch pit stop, some ominous looking cloud forms were spotted on the horizon and about half way into our afternoon journey thunder and lighting signaled the heavens opening and a 30-minute deluge of heavy rain. The rain was a welcome relief from the suffocating heat and despite being completely soaked through, moral was good. A short pit stop was taken on arrival at the lake to decided the winner of the wet t-shirt competition which the RSM won unanimously. We finished our arduous 2nd day at Cabane D’Eychelle, 2064m, which came complete with ‘cold tub’ and stove. After collecting fire wood and completing other essential admin, we all had a well-deserved dip in the tub outside!
15. Wednesday 25th July – Scribe: Sgt Nick Heath
Group 1 – A 0500hrs was deliberately planned for today as we would be facing the hardest day of the hike with some significantly hard climbs that we did not want to attempt in the blistering midday sun. Although we were not covering as many kms as the previous days, we would be reaching an altitude of 2245m and were expecting to be on the go for at least 8 hours. We started our day with a 3.5km ascent to the site of a downed Halifax bomber which crashed here at the end of WW2 killing all on board. We conducted a small remembrance ceremony with a minute’s silence to remember the seven crew members killed. We then continued on our journey to Refuge des Espugues enjoying spectacular views and an encounter with some friendly mountain horses.
16. Group 2 – A relatively late start compared to the other group meant we were up for breakfast at 0600hrs and on our way by 0700hrs. The first few hours were spent ascending to Col de la Crouzote (2237m) where we were rewarded by some spectacular views and were also able to observe the other group descending to our meeting point at Espugues. With plenty of photo’s taken we continued on our path to our scheduled rendezvous point.
17. With both groups reunited and after a short lunch break, we continued together over Cul Pollech (2458m) to face a wall of clouds! This was followed by a tricky decent to refuge Des Estagnous (2246m) where we were treated to beds and a home cooked meal. After 3 days of hiking, the climate, terrain, altitude and a few minor injuries were taking a toll on many of our bodies. Considering the following days technically challenging ascent and physical condition of some members, the instructors and guide offered up an alternative route for those who felt they might struggle. Again, our group was divided into 2, with group 1 continuing on the planned route into Spain and group 2 descending to La Maison de Valier in France.
18. Thursday 26th July – Scribe: Sgt Baldwin
This morning started slightly slower as the fatigue from the last few days set in. The hike began with a decent of 200m to a lake where are groups split up. From here group 1 started the ascent up to the Spanish frontier which included some climbing with assistance from preplaced wire ropes for safety. This was a very unnerving section as the path was narrow and a slip or any mishap would lead to a 200m free fall. After safely negotiating the climbing section, we reached the lake of Etong Rond and prepared for the 300-400m climb up a 30-40-degree snow and ice filled path. In order to negotiate the snow and ice that Cpl Howie had anticipated we put the crampons we had all been issued on day 1. This section of the hike was physically very demanding due to the terrain but also the altitude but the crampons worked exceptionally well and without them this section would have probably taken far longer or been abandoned.
19. After the successfully negotiating the snowy section in the shade, we reached the summit and the border into Spain where we were greeted with glorious sunshine. From here it was all down hill to the finish point where we would hopefully be met by the admin team. The decent would take us 3hrs and included some scree surfing and more snow and ice with crampons which was all very hard going on the knees. We had a short break at a waterfall before finally catching sight of the admin wagon. After 4 days and 72km covered it was a joyous moment removing our rucksacks and sitting in the bus feeling a strong sense of accomplishment.
20. Group 2, having set off from the lake followed an almost continuous decent to La Maison de Valier. Although not as challenging as the planned route, it was hard going and the pressure on the knees and back was felt by all. After 4 hrs, the group arrived and was met by the admin team for onwards travel to Spain and a rendezvous with the rest of the group at the Tapas bar.
21. Tapas debrief – Cpl Howie had booked us in at a tapas bar where we all had a celebratory drink (less drivers) and enjoyed some authentic and delicious local tapas. There was a triumphant and joyous mood amongst the group as we were all engrossed in conversations about the adventure we had just completed. The afternoon was concluded with the CO presenting a REME plaque to Cpl Howie for his efforts in successfully and safely guiding us to Spain.
22. A short but mountainous drive brought to us Luchon, where the admin team had booked us into a camp site, Caravan Pradelongue, for our final 2 nights. The campsite was a short walk from Luchon, situated next to a river on flat ground and surrounded by mountains. We had been allocated a generous plot that included a large shelter with 6 picknick benches inside, perfect for admin and meal times. The camp site had plenty of amenities on site or nearby including a supermarket. The admin team had managed to secure BBQ and power supply for charging phones, and once all our tents were pitched and admin complete we settled down for gastronomic experience devised by Maj Balsillie.
23. Friday 27th July – Scribe: WO2 Grand
Having arrive in Luchon on Wednesday as part of the admin team, I had decided to scope out the town for interesting activities to conduct. I had brought back a raft of leaflets from the tourist information centre in town which included; sedgeway tours, paragliding, mountain biking and many other exciting options. However, being a spa town and considering the physical condition the guys would be in I suspected that a trip to the spa would trump all options.
24. A light breakfast was organised for early risers, with fresh bread and croissants provided and at 10am we all convened to concluded the battlefield study element where we reviewed our thoughts on Fighting(Escaping) power and compared with the actual experience of the trip. A BBQ brunch concluded our discussions and everyone was free to pursue their own interest for the rest of the day where several of the group did attend the spa. For our final evening meal the group opted for another gastronomic BBQ experience from Maj Balsillie rather than a restaurant.
Saturday 28th July – A relatively late start was allowed as our flights were not until evening time. We cleared the camp site by lunch time and were on the road to Toulouse airport. We arrived at the airport mid-afternoon and the hire vehicles were returned without incident. The advance party only had a short wait until they boarded the first of their two-leg flight to Edinburgh via Paris. Unfortunately, the main body flight was not until 2130hrs or at least we thought! We eventually boarded at about midnight, arriving in Manchester after 0100hrs! On arrival all loan pool kit was collected in by Sgt Spence and everybody dispersed as quickly as they could leaving only those travelling to Northern Ireland, who had to wait until 1000hrs the following day for a connecting flight to Belfast.
Despite the extreme cold and wet conditions, moral was always high!