Mountain Magic on the Pyrenean High Route
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Dec 16, 2008 at 3:34 pm #1232681Addie BedfordBPL Member
Companion forum thread to:Dec 16, 2008 at 3:59 pm #1464794Chris TownsendBPL Member
@christownsendLocale: Cairngorms National Park
Great article David. It makes me want to go back to the Pyrenees. In years gone by I've done several two week hikes there and have covered the High Level Route from the Cirque de Lescun to the Carlit. It is magnificent country. I've always camped even though that meant a heavier load and only carried an ice and crampons on one trip, for the ascent of Aneto.Dec 16, 2008 at 4:06 pm #1464798George MatthewsBPL Member
Wow! Great report and pictures. Seeing the fox tracks is one of those things that can only be explained, as you did, as magic.
The forked summit of Pic du Midi d'Ossau picture is awesome.Dec 17, 2008 at 2:06 am #1464883Andrew SkurkaBPL Member
Nice work on this article. You seem to have a natural talent for writing.
In the section on pack weight and the environmental demands of the route, I feel like an important question went unanswered: Did you feel that your previous backpacking experiences (the biggest one of which seems to have been the AT) would have adequately prepared you for the HRP? I'm trying to understand exactly how difficult the HRP is — perhaps to put it on my own tick list, since it looks pretty awesome — and it would help to know what sort of skills and experiences you brought to the table, so to speak.
While I have not done the HRP, I can think of some comparable experiences (Sierra High Route, Iceland, shoulder-seasons in the American West). But if I had done any of these immediately after doing the AT without first having cut my teeth on more intermediate-level trips, I think I would have been taken back by their difficulty. (And, in that sense, kudoos to you for just going after it and figuring thing out along the way.)Dec 17, 2008 at 2:09 am #1464884Andy HowellMember
Nice account. I know these mountains well. Your comments about gear are very sensible!Dec 17, 2008 at 8:14 am #1464919Inaki Diaz de EturaBPL Member
@inaki-1Locale: Iberia highlands
enjoyed the article but I'm afraid I'm gonna disagree quite some. I'm aware you were there kind of early in the season in a high snow year and I'm sure that made your HRP hike harder than strictly necessary but by reading your account it seems the Pyrenees are a kind of last frontier, inhospitable wilderness which by any means they are not.
What's true is these mountains are rugged, beautiful and the scenery is as dramatic as it can get and the HRP takes the rough approach. The actual difficulty I find a HRP thru-hike involves is the exposure and the potential for trouble this may bring. That is adequately pictured in the article. When the HRP takes the rocky areas near the crest, there's usually no trail and you get very exposed to the weather, a bad combination. These stretches are not uncommon and they're the kind of place where I wouldn't want to be in bad weather conditions. Your experience in Gourges Blancs is a good example. But in good weather (mostly to be expected during the summer) these are glorious sections with no farther difficulty than hiking on a rocky wasteland or ocassionally over some really steep terrain. There's hardly any length of the route without some marks (rock cairns are common where there's nothing else) so one needs to be map consciuos but I found route finding straightforward while there was visibility. Most of the route is over good trails though and part of the orienteering challenge lies on choosing the right fork, there are so many trails in some sections. I'm aware there are many areas that would look scary and could be actually dangerous in bad weather but the bad weather is not to be expected all the time.
I thru-hiked the HRP in august 2005, a quite average snow year and only found significant snow in Gourges Blancs (exposed but slope-wise easy terrain) and Literole (steep and potentially dangerous if the snow is frozen, which was not when I went through but may happen anytime in the summer). I'm well aware more snow would have completely changed my perception of the trip but what I found is quite the average for these mountains in mid-late summer which is the easiest time to be out there on the HRP.
One thing that stands out from your report is that you hiked a very fast pace on the AT but didn't keep that up on the HRP. I'm sure this had a huge impact on your logistics. I hiked the HRP in 29 days (4 of which where shared with a friend who would hike barely half the distance I was used to) and my sections were 5 to 7 days long at the most. I was also following Joostens (excellent) book. I didn't do any side trips or climbs though except for a couple obvious ones very close to the trail. What I mean is the HRP is absolutely doable in ultralight fashion (if I can do it, anybody can) in a 20 mile per day average despite the huge, continous climbs. Maybe not by the time you were there though. I was also avoiding the stuffed huts entirely and only once did I stay overnight (but not eat or ressuply) in one due to those fierce winds that do actually happen (but not every night! :) Ressuply anyway is not as difficult as it seems from the article, even if you avoid the huts. At 20 – 25 miles/day, I was crossing a road (a tarmac road) pretty much every day! and villages are all over the place, usually just a few kms. down the road if not right en-route. I haven't hiked the AT but for a comparison that may be valid for many reading this forums I've thru-hiked trails like the PCT or Colorado Trail where ressuply is way far more scattered and away from the trail than on the HRP, even if huts are not considered. I chose to follow Joostens' stage breakdown and only ressuplied 4 times but I skipped several on-trail options and slightly off-trail ones too numerous to mention.
My base weight was just under 10 pounds and I must say that's the lowest I've ever gone for a long distance trip. I'm definitely not at the edge of UL. On the HRP maybe I got more confident for being near home (not that it helps anything but it may have a psychological influence) or for knowing civilization would always be a stone throw from wherever I was. I actually missed the feeling of being really away from civilization. I used unstuffed huts or shepherds' huts occasionally but camped most nights. It's absolutely true that camping out puts you in a vulnerable position: no much forest camping, most is high up in the mountains with little shelter but I didn't find it so difficult to find spots. The high reaches have many flat areas like the valley headwaters with thick grass and meandering streams, those make for gorgeous campsites and were my standard kind of place to camp. They are still exposed places and very sensitive to bad weather. There are indeed a few longish stretches that are too rocky but they're not the norm. Gourges Blancs to Literole is probably the only really long one. I used an oversized tarp and no bivy and I was fine even through some big storms. A mountaineering tent could be a good idea if you want to camp no matter where, no matter the weather but it's not strictly need IMO. Using a tarp certainly had an influence in my hike but that's to be expected and I didn't find it was a big limiting factor on this trip.
Another important difference about the different timing is people. You mention few people! definitely not the case in august. I'm surprised you found few people even in July. Actually, one of the most disturbing things I find about these mountains is the people. Not as much the quantity as the quality. There are so many roads (easy access to the high country) and stuffed huts (easy staying in the high country) that it's common to meet people who woudn't otherwise be there. I'm careful to avoid saying "shouldn't" be there but it was deeply disturbing to be coming down from some gourgeous pass, feeling like you conquered something and alone in the "wilderness" and suddenly meeting a group of 20 having a stroll, hands in their pockets. 15 min. further I'd come across a huge, hotel-like stuffed hut. A couple hours down a good trail there was motorized access. The thing is, there's no real wilderness anywhere in the Pyrenees. Sometimes it may look like there is but look north and south: there's bound to be a road and a village down every main valley.
I don't want to make this longer than the article itself :) which was great reading and inspiring but again I honestly think it's a tad overdone in some aspects. I'm well aware though the difficulty of a trip lies a lot in the conditions met and that's particulary true in these rugged mountains so much encroached by human activity that the hiking takes you inevitably to where you're more vulnerable.Dec 17, 2008 at 10:53 am #1464961
Guys, thanks for the kind words and the feedback. Let me try to respond to some of Andy's questions and some of the points raised by inaki diaz de etura.
About the conditions – this year must have been a big snow year indeed! When I came through the third section (in the high summer), I was usually in snow for 3-4 hours a day, sometimes more. As a rule of thumb, just about anything over 2,500 meters between Lescun and L'Hospitalet was completely blanketed, which, in the middle of the hike, is just about everything. To use the Gourges Blancs example, I was in crampons from about 500 meters below the pass all the way through Portillion, Literole, and down to the big wayside in the valley next to the Maladeta massif (and then again on the way over Mulleres, and most of the way to Salardu).
Also, I think you may have gotten a bit lucky with the weather/fog/wind. I had five or six days of really, really dense fog up high in the mountains, and lost lots of time stumbling around with the map and compass trying to find the route. No doubt, this was made worse because I'm far from an expert routefinder. I also had a spat of really bad, really scary weather in the second and third sections – on the way through the Refuge Wallon/Gran Fache area there were a series of nighttime thunderstorms that about blew me off the ridgeline! Twice I camped in what seemed to be protected spots, and the wind got so bad that I had to pop the poles out of "The One" to keep the fabric from ripping, and just spend the night with the tent lying on top of me, whipping around in the wind. Not fun, especially when it's pouring rain. Lightning was also a big issue – I feel like I almost got killed on the way over a few high passes, and even when you're down lower, if a storm blows over there is rarely any tree cover.
You're right about the tourists around the huts – they can be really annoying, and they really break up the sense of being in the wild. But, for every touristy place out there, there is another with NO ONE – this may have also had to do with the high snow this year, but in the second and third sections I would often see absolutely no one going over the high stuff with me. Also, the fourth section was almost completely empty – I probably saw two or three others hikers, all just daytrippers, in seven days.
About the pacing and resupply – yes, as I mentioned in the article, I was trying to find a compromise between ultra-light utilty and, at the same time, really making the most of the mountains. I don't have the money to go to Spain every weekend, so I wanted to soak it up! I'm no stranger to big mileages – on the AT I averaged about 30 miles per day on normal (non-resupply) days of hiking, and I'd guess that, like you, I did about 30 or so days of "transportation hiking" on the HRP. But I also packed out enough food so that I could do the "Classic Summits," as well as three or four other big mountains near the route. I think it would be a shame to do the HRP and not climb, at the very least, Gran Fache, Aneto, the Vignemale, and Estats. As I said, it is completely possible to hike the HRP ultra-light; the trail is only about 500 miles long, and if you wanted to zip through you could do it very fast, probably. But, I'm not sure this is the best venue for that kind of thing (and don't get me wrong – I love fast hiking..).
It sounds like we had two very different experiences out there, and part of it is probably that I'm less experienced! Or maybe 2005 was a more tame year than 2008. Either way, I don't think the Pyrenees should be underestimated; the gear list in this article is a "recommended" list, not what I actually carried (although it is similar); my base weight was probably around ten pounds as well, and I felt unprepared for a lot of what I ran into. Also, this article is written with "normal" backpackers in mind (like myself!), so I apologize if some of the stuff that really wowed me seems like no-big-deal to more experienced folks.
..which brings my to Andy's question – I went into the trip with, basically, an AT-skillset and nothing more. I spent about a week reading up on basic crampons/ice-axe stuff (proper footing, self arrest, etc.) but I had no "hands-on" knowledge going into the hike, which was not good. There were three or four days out there when I felt more than a little uncomfortable about what I was doing. That being said, I did do the hike with no real problems (other than some fear), and I think that a novice to alpine backpacking can responsible solo the HRP, provided a basic physical wherewithal, athleticism, and a healthy sense of fear and respect. Especially if the snow is low, as it was for "inaki diaz de etura."
-DavidDec 17, 2008 at 1:02 pm #1464991John Frederick AndersonBPL Member
Congratulations on a fantastic article and a great hike.
I hike these mountians and treat them with the healthiest respect. Every hike I made last summer saw me hit by a big storm at some point, irrespective of the forecast. I think your gear selection in spot on- my base (everything except food and water) is around 5.5kg, or 12 pounds, and I've survived some nasty blows comfortably.
I'm only a novice compared to most people here. I hike solo, and feel reassured that there are people around, if not in sight or hearing distance. Being able to speak French and Spanish, I actually look forward to a chat with the locals on some days when I haven't seen anyone for a while. It's the European way.
Pristine, unpopulated wilderness it isn't, but you can still get away from it all and interact with nature and the wildlife in the raw, along with the cows, the horses, the goats and their shepherds that dwell in the high country for the summer.
Congratulations again. Great read.Dec 17, 2008 at 1:17 pm #1464994
Hi David and Inaki and all
> About the conditions – this year must have been a big snow year indeed!
Yes, 2007 was pretty exceptional. We were there a bit earlier in the year and were amazed/appalled by the amount of snow all over the Pyrenees. We had to alter our route too: no way could we have got through without snow shoes.
> Also, I think you may have gotten a bit lucky with the weather/fog/wind.
You had some fairly bad weather, even for the Pyrenees. In fact, at the start of the 2007 season the weather was bad for several months and the walking traffic was way down on what the locals had hoped for. More than once we were the only people around, and many of the refuge owners were a bit glum about it.
> the fourth section was almost completely empty
Yeah, I don't think it gets as much traffic, for whatever reason. With the bad weather …
But, the Pyrenees are a fantastic place.
CheersDec 17, 2008 at 1:29 pm #1464998
Having hiked there already a few times and certainly planning to go back, I can only agree that this article was a joy to read.
For me personally, it was also interesting to get somekind of comparison between the kind of trails I'm used to hike and what to expect in the US. I was kind of suprised to read that even the easiest day in the central section was harder than the hardest day on the AT. How then would the HRP compare with the other trails in the US like the CDT or the PCT. Still something I haven't figured out after all those years and most of the pictures in trip reports here on BPL give the impression of much easier walking than what I'm used to in the Pyrenees or the Alps.Dec 17, 2008 at 5:19 pm #1465051Amy LauterbachBPL Member
@drongobirdLocale: San Francisco Bay Area
Thanks to David for taking the time to write a great article, and to Inaki for adding thoughtful comments.
The timing of your article is great. Jim and I recently decided to hike the Pyrenean Haute Route next summer, and this helps us plan. The article raises three questions I'm still researching in order to make some decisions for our trip.
First, regarding choosing a start date and planning for snow — obviously snowpack varies greatly year to year, and you hit a heavy snow-pack year. It also looks like you started a bit earlier than Joosten recommends; he says "not before the end of June" for a through hike, and I think you started June 21 (calculating backwards from Vignemale on July 4, day 14). The data I'm seeking, and hoping somebody reading this can provide, is a website that gives real-time information about the snow-pack in the Pyrenees. I'd like the Pyrenees version of this:
I've tried to find it, but I don't know French or Spanish well enough to find the right information. Can anybody help?
Second, the issue that's already been raised by you and Andrew Skurka — how to describe the difficulty of the route. We are planning to go late enough in the season to avoid all snow except the few sections with year-round snow. When hiking the JMT or any other trails, I wear trail running shoes. But on off-trail class-2&3 trips in the Sierra, I wear leather boots with hard soles, which I find useful in steep scree. Does anybody know how the HRP compares to Steve Roper's Sierra High Route, or other off-trail passes in the Sierra? How would it be described in R.J.Secor's comprehensive guide to the the Sierra Peaks and Passes? Are any of the sections class-3, or is it all class-1 and class-2? I've read Joosten's book, but his ratings are not as crisp as the standardized terms Secor uses, and I'm still a little unsure of what to expect and therefore what shoes to take.
My third issue is languages. I speak a small amount of both French and Spanish. I plan to refresh one of these languages in preparation. If I try to study both languages simultaneously I'll get brain-fry. Which language is more useful on the HRP?
Thanks again for the great article and thanks to anybody who can help with my questions.
Amy Lauterbach, Palo AltoDec 17, 2008 at 7:05 pm #1465072
The French usually ring the 'meteo'. There may be a web site now – need to search. Check also through FFRP. Starting in June is indeed taking a chance – especially as many of the Refuges and Gites don't open until the middle of July!
we (wife & I) wear joggers with a good sole. The Salomon Extend lows were fine. The New Balance MT1110GT would be fine. You don't need leather boots. But a stiffish sole rather than something really soft is better as there are muddy and snowy patches.
> Which language is more useful on the HRP?
The Spanish on the border do not speak French, and the French do not speak Spanish. So There!
Having a bit of both languages is useful, although a fair bit of English is spoken!Dec 17, 2008 at 7:22 pm #1465074
Yeah, you would probably be fine in trail runners, although going no-boots would also mean no-crampons, which could be a problem, depending on the snow / season. Also, I would really recommend climbing some of the big mountains along the way, most of which would be risky without crampons (the Vignemale and Aneto, for example, include glacier walks, meaning that they would actually be tougher in a LOW snow year with the glacier, and the crevasses, exposed).
When I climbed Le Tallion (3000 meter-er in the middle of the range) a local in Gavarnie talked me into leaving the crampons behind to save weight, and I ended up REALLY regretting it – more than half the climb was in snow, and I had to do some creative stuff with the ice axe not to slip, although it wouldn't have been too dangerous if I had in most places.
So, trail runners are possible, but you may have to take a few variants to go around snow (which would be no fun – the "hardest" days on the HRP are by far the best), and you won't be able to climb the 3 big, hard mountains (Aneto, Vignemale, and probably Estats, which I believe is less consistently problematic in that regard).
As for the language, I would definitely go with French – the HRP spends a bit more time in France, I believe, and most of the resupplies are in French territory. Also, I found that the refuge staffers tended to be French more often than not (most are run by the French Alpine Club).
-DavidDec 18, 2008 at 12:11 am #1465097Rog TallblokeBPL Member
@tallblokeLocale: DON'T LOOK DOWN!!
David, this is easily the best article I've read on BPL. Informative, thorough and well written. Congratulations on your crossing, a great adventure. Kath and I ended up on an unplanned foray into Andorra in November a year ago and found our lightweight kit slightly inadequate to the ice-rime on the inside of our small single pole tent. That said, we did ok. I can attest to the steepness and ruggedness of the climbing in the high pyrenees, I day hiked up a couple of the mountains from around 1300M to around 3200M and it was…. hard. Carrying a 25 pound pack as well would have had me gasping and your article is an excellent primer for planning a realistic route for us. For those like us who would find it a bit much, I can recommend the lower route on the spanish side at the eastern end. A more gently undulating route with beautiful views and welcoming small villages. The GR8 I think, I'll check.
Thanks again.Dec 18, 2008 at 2:41 am #1465102
> the lower route on the spanish side at the eastern end. A more gently undulating route
> with beautiful views and welcoming small villages. The GR8 I think
The GR11 maybe? We did the full length in 2004.
CheersDec 18, 2008 at 3:07 am #1465105Rog TallblokeBPL Member
@tallblokeLocale: DON'T LOOK DOWN!!
Thanks Roger C. My memory is abysmal since the crash I was in a while ago. Do you have an account of your trek online anywhere? I'd like to revisit that route and go further.
We are flying to Alicante in late Jan for some fun on the Bernia ridge and around.
Do you have any plans to return to Spain?Dec 18, 2008 at 4:26 am #1465109
GR-8 is certainly a possibility. It's a shorter route going through the provinces of Catalunya and Aragon. There a number of routes over there likes this map will show you:
http://www.azcola.arrakis.es/grsmap.htmlDec 18, 2008 at 5:59 am #1465121roman a. labaBPL Member
I thought that doing the HRP was like a combination of the John Muir Trail and the Sierra High Route. But you have to add in the fierce but usually short storms, the added danger because of lightning and the fog banks which can sit on the French side for several days.Route finding can become very difficult if not impossible.
Like the Sierra, the temperatures are usually mild . I would advise a medium fleece jacket rather than down.
This year has started out as a monster snow year. The French Meteo is very easy to use and has a depth of snowpack feature for all parts of the Pyrenees. You can find it under France Meteo and I believe there is an english version. Have a great timeDec 18, 2008 at 6:36 am #1465130Derek GoffinMember
@derekoakLocale: North of England
We did Hospitalet D'Andorre to Luchon that is the last part of part 3 and part 4 of Ton Joostens route(except backwards) last early-mid July 2008. We climbed all the classic summits of that part, (except we retreated at the Aneto glacier,) we used inov8's "trail runners" and found they were fine with steel Kahtoolah crampons. With softer shoes you have to put your crampons on a little earlier, but even with the extra weight of crampons on your feet a lot of boots without crampons, would be heavier.
I would not like to use Aluminium Kahtoolas because they would take too much care to avoid blunting them on rock.
David maybe we passed you going the other way. We did it that way to go up the East side of the Col De Mulleres.
The fog is so French specific. Several times we were wandering around on compass bearings cross a pass into Spain and we were in bright sunshine.
Amy I can think of steep scree in part 4 but my memory is more of daunting boulder fields, footwear is very personal but my "trail runners" worked for me without a moment of wishing I was in boots.Dec 18, 2008 at 7:07 am #1465133
Yes, we probably did pass somewhere. And it was probably a good idea to go over Mulleres west-bound; that was one freaky 10 minutes on the way down the first 50 or so meters off the rocks on the top.
It's interesting what you said about the Kahtoola crampons with trailrunners; I considered them, but ended up going with boots/CAMP crampons to play it safe. I far prefer trail runners to boots as well, and I think I'll probably try what you used next (early) summer on the Colorado Trail.
-DavidDec 18, 2008 at 8:48 am #1465149Jonas BodenäsBPL Member
A question to David: Did you only use the book of Joosten when planned for the HRP-trip? Nothing else?Dec 18, 2008 at 10:00 am #1465165
Yeah, I more or less just used the Ton Joosten guide. I also did some poking around on the internet (there wasn't much), and talked with some people I know from other backpacking forums. The Joosten guide is good, although the 2004 version is a bit outdated, which sometimes causes problems (one of the refuges, for example, has since closed down).
However, I heard from an English couple that Ton Joosten actually hiked the HRP again this year to update the book, although that's just hearsay. Although, I also heard that he took the variants around GeorgesBlancs / Portillion / Literole / Mulleres because he didn't want to deal with the snow, so I don't know if he'll just go to press with the new book without re-hiking those pieces, or if he'll go back and do them this summer (I don't think it matters – I don't think anything has changed in the high parts since '04).
He's quite a celebrity in the Pyrenees – apparently everyone knows him on sight, and he's supposed to be a really affable, easy-going guy (he's also famous for carrying a "huge" pack!).
-DDec 18, 2008 at 10:11 am #1465166
If you want to know more about Joosten and the books he has written, take a look at his website:
He's Dutch so I have the privilage of being able to read all of his guides. I must have 5 or 6 of his books.
He does mention that a new edition of is HRP-guide will be available for spring 2009.Dec 18, 2008 at 10:43 am #1465175John Frederick AndersonBPL Member
I have a gear list specific to doing sections of the HPR for the first time on
and I would really appreciate some feedback from the people here who have far more experience than me as I plan to do parts of the HPR next summer.
Sorry if I have seemed to sidetrack the thread momentarily, but this seems like too good an opportunity to miss seeing as this thread is about the area I hike.
Many thanks in advance if you can spare the time.Dec 18, 2008 at 1:22 pm #1465202Derek GoffinMember
@derekoakLocale: North of England
This is my pitch for doing the HRP in the opposite direction to Ton Joosten's book:
1)I think it is easier to traverse the most difficult piece of the route, the Col De Mulleres, from East to West.
2)If you have to take the Alternative route to avoid the Col De Mulleres, because of bad conditions it is quicker to retreat to the Alternative junction if going East To West. The retreat from a similar height going in the opposite direction is significantly longer.Ton's Alternative is a section of the GR11.
3) You are supposed to rise early and finish early each day to minimize the chances of being caught in the frequent late afternoon electric storms. If you do this you are walking into the rising morning sun going West, no problem going East.
4) You get to meet more people, but only fleetingly, as most everyone else is going the other way ;)
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