3,000m is a serious climb by any standards, but at least in the summer months, almost all of the Pyrenees is within the reach of a reasonably fit person who has mountain walking and scrambling experience. You don't need specialist equipment or technical climbing skills, though there are lots of climbing areas for those so inclined. The Pyrenees are much less popular than the Alps, and so less crowded. For me they are the perfect mountain range. Stretching but not impossible. Attractive but not crowded and not over-developed. Views to die for:
The Refuge d'Ayous, a typical Pyrenees refuge, in front of the Lac d'Ayous. It is at 2,300m and had opened for the year only on the day I arrived, 14 June 2010. All supplies were brought in on the backs of donkeys, beer & wine included.
There are lots of footpaths that wend their way through the mountains and mostly you can go where you wish, footpath or not. There are three major routes along the chain: the Grand Randonnee 10, or GR10, which stays on the French side of the range, the GR11, which stays mostly on the Spanish side - and then there is the HRP, the Haute Route Pyreneean. The HRP stays as close to the watershed of the range as it can. That means it is generally high up and out of range of towns, villages and most facilities. There are refuges like the one above, with varying levels of facilities; some have catering, some nothing at all.
After completing the Pennine Way in 2009 I decided I was ready to tackle the Pyrenees and quickly fastened on the HRP as the route to go for. If you are going to do it, do it thoroughly..
A certain amount of planning and preparation took place (though not enough) and I set off, full of optimism and expectation, on 31 May 2010. I got the Eurostar to Paris and an overnight train arriving at Hendaye about 6.30am the next morning, an experience in itself, sharing a sleeping compartment with three farting Spaniards. (This was first class; in second class, you share with five). I set off from Hendaye and for the first three days or so things went well, but then the weather took a turn and the rain set in.. and, it rained. On and off, it rained every single day for the next three weeks. 21 days. This had a number of consequences beyond making me somewhat bedraggled. It meant that you could spend an entire morning climbing some of the higher mountains of Europe, only to find that when you finally reach the top you are in a little grey sphere. No sun, no views, just mist and cloud. It meant that above 2,000m the rains tended to fall as snow and so a number of the higher HRP passes became completely impassable, at least to lone walkers. It also meant that the Whitmarsh spirits sank rather, and stayed low.
The first serious hurdle on the HRP is the Pic d'Orhy around day 7, just over 2,000m but quite an exposed mountain. I got to within about 300m of the summit, but gale force winds and rain meant I had to retreat.. so much for the HRP. After that I followed the GR10, which tended to stay a little lower and had more villages, hostels and similar facilities. After three weeks I reached Cauterets, a rather nice, slightly faded spa town. I stopped to take stock, but I had had enough. It occurred to me that this was supposed to be an enjoyable experience, and so far it hadn't been. So I gave up and returned home. I had walked 257 miles, about half way.
There is a gallery of photos of the 2010 trip to look at if you are keen. Not too many because of the weather!
Trying not to look too bedraggled, half way up the Col d'Ilheou, 2242m, passable with care despite the snow. I am wearing all available clothing. June 2010.
Still, it was a valuable learning experience. I decided to return the next year, and set off a little later, on 22nd June. I had concluded it was not so important to do the whole walk in one go, and basically just set off, with three weeks of time in hand, to see what might happen.
What a difference a year made! The weather was fine, the sun shone. Rather than start again at Hendaye, I got a train to St Jean Pied-de-Port, a lovely, colourful small town used by many strange and wonderful pilgrims as the starting point for the Camino de St Jacques to Santiago de Compostella. From there I walked over the hills to Iraty, setting-off point for the Pic d'Orhy. This time, the weather was fair and I managed the climb, though I found it very hard work. Looking back, I think this was the effect of the sudden exposure to altitude; 2,000m is almost 6,600ft and plenty high enough to cause side effects.
Still I had done it, and I was still on the HRP. To cut a long story short, I walked for three weeks along the HRP and I had a whale of a time. I got as far as the Lac de Barroude, one of the Pyrenees' more imposing features, and about 211 miles from St Jean Pied-de-Port. At the point when I stopped, I don't think I had ever felt so fit or so happy.
There is a gallery of photos of the 2011 trip - far too many of them!
Camping at the Lac and Barrage de Barroude, 2,355m, in 2011
So, that was the second visit. Then I left it a while, and went one more time, in 2013. I left on 18th June, but even before I set off I knew there would be difficulties, because a huge amount of snow had fallen in May and June and most of the higher passes were blocked to walkers. So it proved. I walked as far as Lescun, a lovely village deep in the mountains, but I could get no farther and even getting there was difficult and in hindsight, rather dangerous. I arrived home on 3rd July, having walked about 150 miles from Hendaye to Lescun, in ten days.
There is a gallery of photos of the 2013 trip.
Near the Col d'Anaye. Only 1800m up, but just too much snow already..
|Clinging on at the top of Pic d'Orhy, 2017m, in 2013|
So there, very briefly, is the story of my three trips to the HRP. One more thing I should add is the nice people I met en route. Although I go on my own, and although you can easily walk for a day and see no-one at all, you do bump into other walkers especially at refuges, mountain huts and so on. On each of these trips I made good friends, some of whom I am still in contact with. I can't list them all, but I must mention Arne, a cheerful Belgian from Ghent (and World Champion snorer), without whom I doubt if I would ever have got to Lescun in 2013. And also Hans & Diny, a Dutch couple that I met and walked a good way with in 2011. Whilst doing so I probably ate more of their food than they did, they were very hospitable. These and others make such a big difference to the walking experience.
This is the last of my background posts.. subsequent posts will deal with the planning and preparations for my next and possibly last visit, later this year. This time, the goal is very simple: to walk the whole way to the Mediterranean. For the first time this is the focus and primary goal of the effort and I intend to complete the trip this time, if I possibly can.
The next post will set out a timetable leading up to departure for France...
Hans & Diny, on the Hourquette de Heas, 2608m, in 2011. Nice weather that year!