The drive to the start of the walk was dramatic enough. Forested and craggy, our narrow road out of Auzat switch-backed steeply up the slopes in a seemingly endless series of hairpin bends.
And our walk began, an 1800 foot climb, upwards through forest then out onto the stony, rocky path towards the man-made étang d’Izourt, one of the many reservoirs in the area maintained by EDF to provide power. Once, a helicopter flew over. Since there are no roads up there, it was delivering either men or supplies to a team we could see labouring on a more distant slope.
The walk changed for me as I learnt the story of what had happened back in 1939 when the reservoir was being built. Most of the members of the construction team at that time were economic migrants, Italians from the Veneto, and whilst working there, they lived in huts on site.
The weather conditions had already been atrocious for days when on March 24th 1939, a fierce blizzard struck. There was no option for the workers but to hole up in their huts. The storm was so fierce that huts B and C were destroyed from the weight of snow above, and the roof from hut A blew off. The desperate men sought both to escape and to try to help their work mates, many of whom had died or been gravely injured by the tumbling buildings. A nearby avalanche brought down the cable car linking the site with the works below. The only way up was on foot, and rescue attempts were pretty much futile, though bodies and the injured were recovered as management attempted to evacuate the entire area. On 28th March, a team of army skiers managed to get through and working into the night, brought down the remaining bodies and wounded. 31 men, 29 Italians and 2 French, were buried at the cemetery in Vicdessos on 31st March. There they remain, as the families in Italy were too poor to manage the expense of repatriating the corpses. The memorials at the lakeside are still the site of pilgrimage, thanks to the efforts of the ‘Ricordate-Izourt’ Association: locals and Italians who honour the memory of those lost workers.
We ourselves had started our walk in bright sunlight. Spots of rain began. Then the wind. By the time we reached the lake, there were times when the gusts felt almost horizontal, and we struggled to find protection from the rocks to eat our lunch. The more modern huts now on site have their roofs held on by strong metal cables, and we could understand why.
The sky turned the colour of lead, and we rejected the idea of exploring the lake in favour of hurrying down the way we had come. We knew we’d be OK, but we also know to treat the mountains seriously and with respect – conditions can change very quickly. We were fine of course, but that fierce wind on a warm October day gave us the smallest hint of what things could be like if you were trapped there in much nastier conditions. Even now, the most efficient way of supporting the workers still on site from time to time is to get them and their supplies there by helicopter. A noisy chopper whirled up and down the mountainside several times as we walked down, our journey cheered by a rainbow linking our mountain with the one next door. Though we were sorry the weather had chased us home, we were grateful not to have been exposed to the dangers the mountains can offer from time to time.