Our guide Mike (happily married) became confused as we descended from the Cirque de Gavarnie and the path shown on the map failed to appear to our left. Nor did it help that the only waymark sign pointed in the wrong direction, towards the Spanish border.
After one-and-half hours of backtracking along false trails, he concluded that we had been on the right path all along, and we continued down into the valley, and safety. If only our lives, after setbacks, could so easily find the right route, as Alan ruefully remarked while negotiating a fast- flowing stream.
Frankly I had been apprehensive about taking a singles walking holiday in the French Pyrenees. I was right. "How long have you been on your own then, Robert?" asked one of my fellow ramblers at dinner the first night.
"Oh, about 48 years."
"I'm sorry, I naturally assumed you were divorced or separated."
Single these days has come to mean divorced. The pungent aroma of emotionally damaged middle England hung in the air, and after seven days I was wondering if there was a collective noun for a group of divorcees. A victimisation of divorcees, perhaps? A tyranny? But the flipside to the lashings of sadness was a grim determination to enjoy, whatever the company or the state of the weather.
Our base was the Richelieu Hotel in the mountain village of Bareges, also renowned as a skiing and hang-gliding centre. From here on most days our party of 37, roughly half men and half women, took a coach to a walking area further away; other days involved nearby walks. There were always three choices of trek - high, medium or low - the variation in difficulty being gauged by the ascent rather than the distance, which was always somewhere between eight and 14 miles. We had three volunteer leaders, who swapped group levels throughout the week.
The first morning dawned murky, with poor visibility. The coach crawled up the Bastan Valley, the natural pasture land and streams giving no hint of the snow-capped peaks soaring above the line of mist. We stepped gingerly into the dripping air and glanced at each other's gear: a pair of flashy Italian boots here, worn English clodhoppers there.
I'd broken all the rules about the importance of wearing in boots first by buying a pair the day before I left. The expensive German ones I'd opted for were, I was told in the shop, fine for wearing from the outset. But I still feared blisters and wet feet. I needn't have worried: they were a perfect fit.
I learned all about rambling snobbery and about its customs too. Some hale and hearty walkers thought taking photos naff, and stopping to look at flowers just ate into valuable walking time.
When I announced one evening that I fancied a rare cigar I was greeted with howls of derision."Walkers don't smoke," said Julia. Want a bet? As far as I know I was the only one to light up anything all week. But
by then I was determined to be perverse and shun the conventions. Just as cyclists daub themselves in multi-coloured reflective gear and high- mindedly gesticulate at thoughtless motorists, so fashion-victim ramblers jealously guard their equipment, continuously stepping in and out of waterproofs at the slightest change in the weather.
Magically the mist cleared at midday to unveil the melting slopes of the Ruisseau d'Oncet, looking with their black and white sides like the flanks of a Friesian cow. The haul up to Lac d'Oncet took us through a field of deep snow where we slithered and slipped and had brief, tottering snowball fights. At the lake we tucked into our packed lunches in the shadow of the observatory on the Pic du Midi.
Sprawled out on the ground dreading Mike's call back to the action, I narrowly missed squashing a wild gentian, its distinctive deep blue tube shaded by an overhanging rock. The wild flowers were wonderful: we saw azaleas, orchids, irises, violets, saxifrage and far more we didn't know. There are 150 endemic plants there, ranging from the tropical to the glacial.
Exotic butterflies bobbed about the meadows - testament to the the natural farming methods that prevail there. Bareges has even been called the butterfly capital of the world. Playful marmots scurried about the rocks as the griffon vulture with its huge wing span hung spookily above the valley. We thought we spotted a golden eagle too.
Flora and fauna are one thing, but by the third day pairing up among the unattached human beings was taking its natural course. Suave Donald offered lively Rosemary his superior bottle of red wine at dinner while he had hers; that seemed to seal the attraction as far as she was concerned. Later in the lounge he steered her delicately by the elbow towards two chairs in the corner, whispering sweet-nothings.
Handsome Alan continually had two women in tow. Couldn't he make up his mind or was he keeping his options open? Was it that they were yet to decide or couldn't they get away from him? The paths towards these dogged romances were as circuitous as the trail up the Vignemale.
There were those who would go home without a liaison under their belts, which was nearly everyone. Tom, a retired civil servant for ever dressed in a stubbornly cheery red sweat shirt, quoted swathes of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as we descended from the Lac de Gaube. A group of women frightened the cows as they ran through the score of The Sound of Music. Nick looked, sounded, and had mannerisms so like those of Jasper Carrott that everyone was a spectator at a cabaret act when he was around. Terry, our man in the Serious Fraud Office, said he couldn't talk about his job and then talked about it all week.
At one point I watched with Roseanne, a psychiatrist, a riverside drama fought out between a snake and a pair of coal tits over control of the nest. It got us talking. "Being divorced is a kind of status symbol now," she said. "People use it to define themselves as victims. It's the role they adopt for themselves in society."
"Mmm," I said and walked on.
Wednesday was a free day and most of us went to the thermal baths for a sulphur Jacuzzi. Napoleon's soldiers used to go there to heal their war wounds, but unfortunately for us its medicinal waters eased only physical pain. We donned white robes and strode beneath the Roman arches, passing rows of glum senior citizens reading Paris Match, post-treatment.
There were no late-night parties at the Richelieu; tiredness forced people off to bed early. After dinner the three leaders introduced the programme for the next day, and like barrow boys tried to outdo each other with exaggerated claims for their own walks. Games were arranged: a quiz, a lateral thinking contest called dingbats, and whist. There was a pool table but five of the balls were missing. There were three Scrabble sets but all the letters had been thrown together.
The last day turned out gorgeous, although the forecast had indicated otherwise. I chose the low walk up the Aygues Cluses, a valley where rushing streams plunge beneath the ground for a quarter of a mile and then gush out again. The sun shone, and at the lake we stopped for lunch and sunbathed beside melting snow. White peaks towered above us, and it was quiet.
Wild ponies strutted their stuff in Arcadian splendour, coats gleaming in the heat. Full rivers rushed by on either side. A protective mare hung her head over her foal as it slumped motionless on a bank of king cups. When I approached for a photo the young one received a kick in the ribs from mum, but I didn't want to disturb their rural peace, and slunk away.
At the cafe in the valley bottom we downed scalding cups of hot chocolate. The coach back, the last supper, a few speeches, early breakfast and off to Toulouse for the flight home, with 37 singles resuming their single lives. Or nearly 37: perhaps the muffled opening and closing of doors in dark corridors on that last night hinted at something a little less lonely.Reuse content