A retired firefighter and one of our dedicated volunteers is raising funds for us with a series of challenges this year – one of which was completing the World War II Pyrenees Freedom Trail challenge in September.
Dave Smith, 66, was a firefighter with Hereford and Worcester FRS for 30 years, before retiring in 2008. He’d always dreamed of taking on the trail, also known as the Chemin de la Liberte, which follows what was once a difficult and dangerous escape route from Nazi-occupied France into Spain.
The group Dave was in trekked for up to eight hours a day for four days, taking on heights up to 2,382 metres. And he says while it was gruelling, he loved every moment of it.
Dave is one of our dedicated Living Well Group Coordinators. He’s been volunteering for 42 years, raising around £500,000 for us overall – an incredible amount.
Just some of his many challenges have been taking on the 3 Peaks and Yorkshire 3 Peaks, the 9/11 Boston to New York Cycle Challenge in 2005 and his very own 999 Challenge.
When it came to deciding who to support this time round, Dave says he never questioned it should be us – having seen first-hand the work we do with his former colleagues across the UK.
“I decided that as I have been a supporter, volunteer fundraiser, a volunteer official on numerous committees, an employee, and a Company Member for more than 44 years for a charity that is very close to my heart, I would sign up for the challenge,” Dave explains.
As a way of sharing his experience with others, he’s written a diary of the challenge which you can read below.
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Dave’s diary of the trek:
The Freedom Trail came into existence in WWII when downed Aircrew, Escapees (POW’s), French Resistance, Jews and their families made a bid for freedom whilst trying to evade capture by the German occupational forces.
The route was not only dangerous and arduous but life threatening for those making a bid for freedom and escape to Spain, risking their lives in making the precarious journey in all weathers. Can you imagine during those dark years the fear of capture by the occupational forces? Whole families had to uproot and make a bid for freedom, taking with them their worldly belongings in suitcases. Men, women and children whose lives were in jeopardy having to take on the journey, a journey that many failed due to capture or perished trying to cross the Pyrenees.
The route over the mountains has numerous memorials in dedication to those who tried to guide those refugees’ seeking safety to Spain. One such memorial is of Louis Barrau a 19-year-old guide who was betrayed and trapped in a small barn by a German Patrol. Louis refused to surrender and whilst making a bid to escape was shot some 50 metres from the barn.
I have been wanting to take on this Trek across the Pyrenees for probably 20 years or more. Discovery Adventure were advertising the Freedom Trail and at the age of 66 I thought it would be my last opportunity to take on such a trek. I decided that as I have been a supporter, volunteer fundraiser, a volunteer official on numerous committees, an employee, and a Company Member for more than 44 years for a charity that is very close to my heart, I would sign up for the challenge.
After meeting Steve our Discover Adventure Rep, and the rest of the group, eight in total, at Heathrow we departed for Toulouse, France. There, we are met by our local representative Richard. Richard would transport us to our overnight stay in St Girons. The hotel we stopped at, Chateau De Beauregard, was the headquarters for the Gestapo in that region in WWII. Before our meal we looked around the village taking in some of the sites of this fascinating village. After our meal we thought it best to get an early night in, as the next day’s walk, although shorter than the rest of the week, had some steep climbs.
Day One:St Giron – Aunac
The start of our first day got off to a good start with a hearty continental breakfast and coffee. We then met our French guide Bertrand. We had an interesting brief of what to expect during the first day’s trekking. We were warned although the chances of seeing any Brown Bears and Wild Boar were remote (!) it went without saying to stay well away from them. The chances of seeing Griffin and Bearded Vultures, as well as Golden Eagles, however, was very high – especially when we get to higher altitudes.
We set off with quiet undulating countryside at first and taking on some steep climbs before stopping for some lunch. Continuing, we ascended further upward viewing some fantastic countryside. Now and again, we passed some small refuges that were used to hide those making the same journey so long ago. It’s not an easy stroll, there’s very little flat terrain with plenty of steep gradients, ascending to 760m. After just 4.5 hours we arrived at our refuge in Aunac, got settled in and awaited the call that dinner was served.
Day 2 Aunac – Cabane d’Eychelle
After breakfast we left Aunac and set off, where we would be sleeping under canvas at La Subera, trekking up some difficult ascents and undulating landscape and narrow paths. The path takes you up to the Cole de le Core at 1395 metres, a demanding trek taking in the amazing scenery. We met our vehicles for the last time before Spain, where we had lunch and took what we needed from our main luggage. All packed and fed we started gaining height through a shady forest as we contoured around the mountainside. As we neared the campsite we entered open pastureland and saw our simple hut after an 8-hour trek, Cabane d’Eychelle. It’s while we are waiting for our dinner to be prepared, we heard the awful news that the Queen was very ill.
It wasn’t long after we heard the terrible news that Queen Elizabeth had passed away, the camp fell silent and I’m sure like so many others we wished we were at home. Such terrible news which hit us all like a sledgehammer blow, it was then that I realised and remembered Queen Elizabeth was The Fire Fighters Charity’s Patron and had been for almost her entire reign!
We pitched our tents and camped for the night, 2-man tents which you might say, were a little cosy. However, we made no complaints. We thought of those poor soles making this journey with very little in the way of shelter so many years before us.
Day 3: Cabane d’Eychelle – Estagnous
An early start with a wake up at 0600hrs, 0630 breakfast and on route at 0700. The terrain today was to be very challenging which took us into serious mountain terrain ascending and descending through fields of boulders. As we ascended to what is normally the snow line, we found ourselves trekking through thick mist/fog which made it difficult to stay on the correct track. A spectacular landscape awaited us with the peaks of the surrounding mountains rising above the mist. Pyrenees Mountain dogs guarding the flocks of sheep on the mountainside. The views as we climbed onward were amazing.
On the steep climb we passed the crash site of a Halifax Bomber which flew into the mountain when it had strayed off course. All the crew perished, and the wreckage had been left in place as a mark of respect for the crew. The team stopped for a short while as a sign of respect for the crew. With towering cliffs around us, we clambered over and around the rocks to reach the Col de Craberous at 2522 metres.
We ascended through the boulder strewn slope to see our refuge appearing through the mist which was at 2245 metres. We’d made it after a 7/8-hour trek over some very difficult terrain but euphoric that we had all made it safely. God knows how those fleeing fearing for their lives made it so far under such extreme circumstances. It’s something that I am sure we all had in our minds when we found the going very tough.
That night we did loosen up a little having a few drinks in this amazing refuge that had dormitory rooms a restaurant and a bar. We did feel it would be rude not to have a celebration after completing what was a challenging day for all of us. The views and terrain were spectacular. After good night’s sleep, we were ready for the last leg of our challenge with Spain beckoning.
Day 4: Estagnous – Spanish Border – Vielha
After a hearty breakfast and getting our gear ready and boots fastened, we left the comfort and hospitality of our refuge and set off downhill following a narrow path to Lac Rond (Lake Round) at 1929 metres. Lac Long (Lake Long) lay about an hour away, some 200 metres above us and our path to it was extremely steep.
After a 45-minute difficult climb up a narrow path we came upon an almost sheer wall of rock in front of us. To help us climb to the path that continued to the lake, there were fixed cables that helped us ascend the rock face.
The path up the deep gully, which is normally filled with snow, was clear. The slog up the stone covered gully was extremely arduous with every step having to be checked that the stones/rocks didn’t move under foot. The top although in sight just didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but after what seemed like an age, we managed to reach the top at 2522 metres. We were now standing on the French Spanish border…
My thoughts drifted to those fleeing France in the 40’s… All that was left now was descending into Spanish territory and meeting with our transport. The descent although easier than the climb up the other side it played havoc with your knees. We stopped for lunch at a small lake where some of the team decided to strip and take a nice cold swim in the clear water of a lake. We than made our way to our meeting point just above the village of Esterri de Aneu where we were met by Richard who had taken the liberty of supplying us all with some snacks and a well earned drink. We had made it; we had successfully crossed the Pyrenees following the Chemin de la Liberte’ The Freedom Trail.
After a short break and getting onto our transport we made the short journey into Vielha where we booked into our hotel. I’m sure that guests approaching us made an unintentional wide berth around us! After booking into our rooms, the shower was so welcome as the grime from four days of sweat washed away. I just wished it stopped the legs aching at the same time, but hey some things you begin to live with.
The group met in the lobby at the time requested and we made our way to the restaurant where we had a meal to celebrate our success and new friendships. Unfortunately, it was to be an early night as we had to be up and away to Toulouse airport by 3am.
The flight is short and sweet, although fog at Heathrow did delay for a short period. Through customs and baggage claimed it was time to say cheerio to new friends and we went our separate ways. With a WhatsApp group generated and photos and messages exchanged, I’m sure we will all meet up again at some point, maybe a reunion? Who knows… but just maybe!