Mountain Magic on the Pyrenean High Route
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Dec 18, 2008 at 6:52 pm #1465286
Yeah, Derek, I think there is a strong case to be made for doing the hike starting from the Med. You're right about Mulleres in more ways than you probably know – not only is the eastbound descent really difficult, but it can also be a bit tricky to even get the right pass on the way up, especially if there's a lot of snow. That was one of those areas where there is a kind of infinite matrix of meaningless cairns that could shoot you off in about any direction, and when I went over I followed one of the "incorrect" sequences of cairns and ended up looking over the edge of the wrong (even steeper) pass, and then had to backtrack for about 30 minutes and only then climb back onto the ridge.
That being said, I think that Mulleres is probably the only part that would be significantly easier coming from the other direction, and I think that Banyuls is probably a better place to finish then Hendaye.
-DavidDec 18, 2008 at 8:29 pm #1465309Ryan JordanAdmin
@ryanLocale: Central Rockies
Wow — this place is beautiful. Thank you for the terrific photos.
I cannot tell you how much this looks like the western and northern Montana Beartooths.
I wanna go. Thanks for the story!Dec 18, 2008 at 9:51 pm #1465323
> I think that Banyuls is probably a better place to finish then Hendaye.
Yeah, reckon. We liked Banyuls – spent a couple of days there resting before setting off again.
Found a cheap hotel there but they were full. I looked disappointed. The owner then offered a not-really-finished garret room for cheap. Sue loved it! VERY French painter garret style.
CheersDec 18, 2008 at 10:01 pm #1465326
> Do you have an account of your trek online anywhere?
No, sorry. My (film) camera died on day 2 just out of Hendaye, and I was not able to find a good camera shop for the whole of the GR11. OK, I could have found one in Andorra, but we went through there fairly fast as it was too 'tourist'. I went digital on return.
I do have some brief notes at http://www.bushwalking.org.au/FAQ/FAQ_GR10.htm – but they are not much.
If you have specific questions fire away and I will look at my notes in the margins of the guide books – such as they are.
> Plans to return?
What a silly question! Of course!
CheersDec 19, 2008 at 12:23 am #1465337Rog TallblokeBPL Member
@tallblokeLocale: DON'T LOOK DOWN!!
Thanks Roger, good notes on your link. The ISBN for the strip maps didn't yield anything on a search at altair.es but I found it here. The bottom one seems to cover the whole route.
The route we walked was further south, though we had spent part of the holiday as you did, walking round the cap de creus peninsula after climbing the peak with the castle on top. We also camped in the little valley down from the lighthouse. It was windy! Port Ligat and Cadaques are beautiful aren't they?Dec 19, 2008 at 2:01 am #1465340
> The ISBN for the strip maps didn't yield anything on a search at altair.es
Search on and it will turn up.
The guide book is in Spanish and we don't speak Spanish, but the strip maps were great.
Item 6 at the prames web site is what we bought. I hadn't seen items 7 & 8. I think they are sub-sections.
The 'castle' on top of Cap de Creus is of course a 'bar/restaurant'. Amusingly, it is run by an Australian! We said G'day, he replied G'day with a surprise, but we didn't stay.
The whole route was hot and dry, but the Med end was really hot and dry – even for Australians. The GR10 on the other side is much wetter and cooler. We might repeat parts of the GR10 or do the HRP, but not I think the GR11.
The Paul Lucia GR11 guide book from Cicerone is not bad in the country, but never follow his directions for getting into or out of any town. Oh Dear!
CheersDec 19, 2008 at 6:41 am #1465350roman a. labaBPL Member
If you are going to be in the Alps or Pyrenees,the best deal for mountain rescue insurance and reductions on nights spent in refuges is with the Austrian Alpine Club-UK Section (AAC-UK). You easily make back the membership fee if you spend a week or more in refuges.Dec 19, 2008 at 7:01 am #1465351Rog TallblokeBPL Member
@tallblokeLocale: DON'T LOOK DOWN!!
Hi Roger C, lol. not the restaurant at cap de creus, the castle on Sant Salvador at around 2600ft! Stunning views round the whole peninsula. I speak better french than Spanish, so the GR10 sounds attractive for a summer visit. The really cheap flights from the UK are in winter though, we are flying to Alicante in January for £20 each return!Dec 19, 2008 at 7:04 am #1465353Inaki Diaz de EturaBPL Member
@inaki-1Locale: Iberia highlands
David, I see the conditions you faced where much harder than those I met, but I consider (in my limited knowledge) my experience to be fairly standard for this hike.
I don't mean to underestimate these mountains (or any mountain), right on the contrary, I treat them with the greatest respect and caution to the extent of being a bit of a whimp sometimes. I think you did great from what you describe. It wouldn't have been easy for anybody, surely not for me.
I just wanted to point out this place, as beautiful and rugged as it is, is far from remote. Anybody visiting that expects remotess will probably be deceived. You're never more than a few hours far from a road, at 25 m./day I was crossing a tarmac, well travelled road every day but one (I think) on my whole traverse, there are long road walks (in Andorra and Cerdanya), you go across ski resorts… that doesn't make the trip any easier or the scenery any less dramatic but I think it bears mentioning.
About some of the things that were asked / commented on:
I used trail runners (Vasque Velocity) and carried no crampons but I did carry an ice axe which I never used but was IMO mandatory safety gear if only for the Col Inferieur de Literole. The snow may be hard frozen and it's steep. I went over Literole in the afternoon of a sunny day, the snow was soft on the surface and there was a good track of footprints on the east (steepest) side. Next time I'd use trail runners again but I might take some compatible crampons expecting they'd be dead weight 99%-100% of the time but that 1% may make a difference.
Other than the snow, I found trail runners perfect for the task. I don't recall any significant scree slopes. Talus and Boulder fields are common in a variety of boulder sizes but I actually find trail runners an asset over boots in such terrain.
Fog is indeed a north side thing. It may obviously happen anytime, anywhere if the weather is bad but on the french side it's common to have fog during stable weather conditions. It developes in the valley bottoms during the night (cold air sinking and humidity condensing, I guess) and raises during the afternoons/evenings, covering the high areas where the route goes and may give hikers a hard time route finding in the highest parts where the trail is faint or non-existant but if the weather keeps stable the fog will usually dissipate during the night and the morning will be clear in the high areas.
Fall 08 has been indeed a particularly snowy one all over the Iberian peninsula and the Pyrenees got dumped. We'll see how it goes during the winter.
The usual window in the HRP is July to September. I'm no pyrenean expert but I'd say easiest time is August and September: the steep sections look much friendlier with no snow. Between August and September, it's a hard call… August gets more daylight, warmer temps, more people and more chance of thunderstorms. September is colder but usually stable weather-wise, less people (huge difference here with august), less chance of thunderstorms but more chance of new snow (instead of water) in the almost inevitable bad weather spell. Some services (huts) may be closing in September. Any new snow that might fall should melt out.
I don't know the High Sierra Route so I can't compare. Some HRP passes are steep but I don't think they're particularly difficult for anybody used to scrambling. You'll definitely need to use your hands on the east side of Col de Mulleres but holds are plenty. Just take your time. I didn't find it dangerous or even difficult but I have some rock climbing background. It was dry and completely free of snow when I went through. Wet or snowy would be completely different.
Port de Lavedan south side is steep too but it's basically a walk up and across from the previous pass. East side of Col d'Arrious is steep and on a gully that usually holds late season snow but was almost free every time I've been there. Gourges Blancs has a permanent snowfield but is quite gentle. Literole is sure the trickiest with steep terrain on the west side (at the bottom of the climb, near the hut) and all along the east side and lots of snow in the shadier east side. Anyway, I'd say nothing of this is particularly difficult **if the conditions are favorable**. In the mountains, conditions are everything. I can imagine how tricky it can get in any of those places in wet conditions, not to mention if it's foggy or windy. They're very exposed areas, bad weather feels daunting and can be really dangerous. Waiting the weather is always an option. In the summer, bad weather usually lasts for one or two days but… it's the mountains, anything can happen.
As for languages, I agree french will see more use than spanish.
Comparing trails is difficult. They're all different but the perception we have depends a lot on the conditions met or even such subjective things like our own mood at the time. In general, I'd say the basic difference between Europe and the american west is population density, so much bigger in Europe so trails usually try to take you deep into the mountains over generally rougher ground than they do in America so you get huge, constant climbs and stretches over steep, exposed terrain. There are gentle trails but they're kind of suburban, countryside across villages stuff. On the other hand, civilization is always at hand and it's relieving to know you can resort to it if anything goes wrong. This is obviously a tricky issue in itself as it may affect morale: it may be psychologically difficult to camp in a downpour when you know there's a hut at hand or even a village a couple hours down the hill. In the american west, there's usually no option but relying on yourself, which is again good and bad, I guess I need not explain why. What's more difficult? I couldn't tell.
Camping out in a place lake the Pyrenees is one thing I find particularly tricky, maybe even more than the hiking itself because you're always in very exposed locations for those hours when we're more vulnerable. It's fine (and spectacular) while the weather holds but the weather will never hold for a month straight. That's probably one of the reasons why tarps and UL shelters are not so popular as they are in America as I was commenting recently on another thread. On the HRP, climbing down to camp in the forest is hardly an option, most times it'll mean a big detour and often will take you near a road.
The guidebook is quite enough for planning together with the relevant maps. I have some information about the HRP on my website, most of it is in spanish but that's where most of the pics are (http://www.viajarapie.info/rutas/europa/hrp_intro.htm) but I also wrote some background info in english (http://www.viajarapie.info/routes/europe/hrp.htm). I'm afraid the note at the bottom was just wishful thinking.Dec 19, 2008 at 7:55 am #1465358
inaki diaz de etura:
You make some really good points. Looking back on it, I'm not sure if I'm annoyed or glad that there was so much snow up there last year – it was hard/unnerving for someone like myself with no rock/ice experience, but it was also unbelievably beautiful. There's nothing quite like coming over a pass and seeing miles and miles of almost perfect white laid out in front of you. Unlike anything I've seen before.
I also agree about the UL shelters – if I did the trip again, the biggest change I would make would be to carry a more substantial tent. There were more nights that I can count that I really wanted to pitch camp at 2500-2800 meters, but decided to continue for another couple of hours down into a valley to avoid any wind. That was really frustrating.
It's actually possible that I might end up bumping around in Spain sometime in the next couple of years (trying to put together some post-college plans), and if so I'll for sure look to hike the route again, maybe this time with my girlfriend. Maybe I'll see you out there..
-DavidDec 19, 2008 at 11:18 am #1465413Paul TreeMember
Great writing style, very readable and exciting! I'm glad you had a perfect moment there.
You mentioned that the "GoLite Jam had been swapped for the larger-volume Pinnacle in vague anticipation of the heftier food load outs" but reached a folding point when overloaded."
Any idea what was the:
max weight carried incl. food?
max weight before folding?
max weight before discomfort?
Also, you mention using the Golite Pinnacle, but then your gear list has Mariposa Plus vs. the Golite Quest. If you since tried the Mariposa with the same weights as on the route, what did you think?Dec 19, 2008 at 11:59 am #1465427
I'm honestly not sure exactly how much weight I was packing out – beyond a certain point it gets hard to say, and I didn't get a chance to actually weigh the pack fully-loaded. I'd guess that I was carrying around 35 pounds, maybe a bit more, in the Pinnacle on the way out of town before the longest stretches I did (although, I quickly ate it down..). The Pinnacle proved to be a tough pack – for all the abuse, there was only a bit of ripping on one of the shoulder straps at the end of the hike (unnerving, this). But, overall I must say that I was not overwhelmed with how it performed; it was like the back pad got folded over by the heavy starting weights, but then just stayed like that when there was less in the pack. I tried lots of different configurations with the shoulder straps, but almost no matter what the back folded over on itself and pushed the hip strap up really high (like, over by belly button).
I haven't tried those weights in a GG pack, but remember that the "standard" gear list in this article assumes that you make significant use of the food in the refuges, meaning you don't have to carry so much food. With a pack like the Mariposa you will need to buy meals to ration your carried-food with food from the refuges, and you will probably have to take food-buying detours when that is not possible (like, you'll have to break the 4th section into two pieces).
The point is, IF you decide you want to buy refuge food / do the food variants, you can use an "ultra-light" pack – you don't even need something in-between like the Pinnacle. But, the Pinnacle is not really sturdy enough to do things "unsupported," which is why I left it off both versions of the gear-list; better to go really light, or just bit the bullet and get a sturdy pack, I think (but, of course, your mileage may vary). In fact, the Mariposa is really just a recommendation – I know it to be a good pack, but you could use something even lighter if you wanted, like one of those new MLD packs (I'm going to use one of those next summer, I think).
-DavidDec 20, 2008 at 4:05 pm #1465609Jonas BodenäsBPL Member
Sorry for being short in my last post. I was a little bit busy when I asked the question. But I was very interested to know if you (David) has used more books than Joosten. In last summer, I was in the Pyrenees and walked both at HRP and GR 11. In the beginning of my trip, we (I and my friend) started in St-Jean-Pieu-de-Port on the French side. First we went at the famous Pilgrim path and connected HRP and continued to Lescun. Kept walking on HRP until Candanchú and walked over to the Spanish side and connected to GR11. We finished our trip in Torla.
We used Joosten's book but it was a bit outdated so sometimes it was difficult to judge if some parts were still to be of use. We meet a nice French couple and they had a book (of course, in French) about HRP and it seems to be updated regularly too. The descriptions of HRP in the French book were better too. So I'm glad to hear that Joosten is planning to release a new edition in next spring. I've been there in the Pyrenees twice and like them very much.
Yes, the Pyrenees are not a real wilderness but their flexibility and lots of possibilities to trek everywhere are infinite.
Thanks for your responses!
Greetings from Sweden,
JonasDec 20, 2008 at 5:29 pm #1465618
Yeah, the current Joosten guide is definitely showing its age, but if I recall correctly there really weren't that many show-stopping problems. Off the top of my head, I remember that Refugio Belagua is now closed (end of day 8), and the restaurant in Alos de Isil, supposedly with food, does not exist anymore.
One thing that the book lacks, I think, is good information about the hiker services around the big resupply stops in the middle. For example, Gavarnie, Salardu, and L'Hospitalet really have very little in them, and it's much better to go into the bigger towns nearby – St. Jean de Luz, Viehla, and Ax-les-Thermes, respectively – to buy food and gear, if such is your need.
But, this is a quibble. I think the book is overall quite good, although it's nice that it's being updated.
-DavidDec 20, 2008 at 7:10 pm #1465626
Places like Gavarnie are just tourist traps for motorists. We sat on the ridge above it and watched the endless queue of cars trying to drive in and park. The sight was that awful we stayed up in the hills and went around.
We tried to buy bread at the nearest Refuge to Gavarnie but the owner was too busy preparing the evening dinner (around lunch-time) to bother with us. His wife was kinder, and sold us a loaf of bread. Outside there was a row of *very* expensive cars all lined up: the owners of them were all staying in the 'Refuge'. It was fully booked out. This was not a mountain hut in any form! The row of cars included the Refuge owner's Alpha-Romeo.
But the Pyrenees were … lovely.
CheersDec 21, 2008 at 3:36 am #1465658Jonas BodenäsBPL Member
When I prepared for our trip, I bought those books:
"The Rough Guide to the Pyrenees" by Marc Dubin. The book covers both French and Spanish side around the Pyrenees which is invaluable for planning a trip there.
"Trekking in the Pyrenees" from Trailblazer Guides. This book covers mostly GR11 and GR10 and some sections of HRP. I like this book a lot because it is a combination of description of routes and also information of services that hikers need to know, for example resupply, maps over Gavarnie, Salardu or public transport and so on.
Another good guide that cover whole GR11 is "Through the Spanish Pyrenees" by Paul Lucia (Cicerone). Unfortunately, the author died after he finished his book. I have not used this book much for our last trip.
JonasDec 22, 2008 at 11:43 pm #1466044Aaron ZunigaMember
Enjoyed reading your trip report and the energy in which you were able to capture it. Loved hearing about the application of ultra-lite gear on another blessing of a long trail. Some trips are for making records and race tracks out of, this sounds as though it could go either way depending on your goals and visions. Snow will definetly slow the pace and slighly shrink those big mileage days, which is something that you gotta love and expect on big snow years. All though there sounds to be some technical alpine travel,routefinding,and resupply issues, I question the remoteness of this route. In this instance the snow is our friend in providing solitude on the trail and an unserpassed remoteness in these alpine treasures.Jan 5, 2009 at 4:14 pm #1468126Michael SchwartzBPL Member
@greenwalkLocale: PA & Ireland
Just read thru David's interesting and entertaining article on the Pyrenean High Route and all the comments it generated. I found the dialogue between David (author) and Inaki especially informative and enlightening, as I am considering walking part or all of the route this upcoming summer. It seems that weather and level of experience of the hiker influence and shape the comments and the reactions of the person writing about any backpacking experience. This is an important point to keep in mind when reading any trip report/article. In this case, it seems that the weather and lack of experience on ice and snow transformed many segments of David's hike into fearful and terrifying events. It seems to me that Inaki's experience on this particular trail is more typical, as he did not have to contend with the snow and storms David encountered. I really enjoyed reading David's article, and I appreciate Inaki's comments because he calls to our attention the overall tone of the article and that David's report is based on HIS (David's) HRP experience. David's and Inaki's comparisons between U.S. and European long-distance routes are valuable too. By explaining that David's article on the HRP may not be so typical, Inaki opened up a very useful discussion that becomes a valuable resource for anyone considering this route. Also, the discussion sheds new light on the saying that we should "hike your own hike." Yes, we do, whether we know it or not.Jan 21, 2009 at 4:42 am #1471725Nicolas CostesBPL Member
There is a huge french-speaking (Ultra) Light backpacking community at http://www.randonner-leger.org/forum/index.php which has a tremendous coverage of the Haute Route des Pyrenees.
David's well written report is very interesting and he most probably meet bad weather conditions.
Yet I fell he reported them as exceptional because his experience on "mountaineering" trails was not great.
Lack of orientation markers and severe weather are typical moutain conditions. The Pyrenees may look easy as they are not high. but the proximity of the sea, the abrupt change in elevation, the contrast between warm sun-flooded lowlands and high cold mountains make pyreneean weather much moer challenging. It is not unusal to get a snow dump in winter on the Pyrenees with more snow in 24 than in most resorts in the Alps.
I can't escape the feeling that Ultra light practitionners with more miles in their tarps in difficult conditions would have reached a slightly different opinion about wether a UL shelter is (or not) enough for the HRP in summer.
Ther is yet a 3rd option regarding resupply: caching.
It is not unusual for through-HRP hikers to go and cache food and fuel in 1,2 or 3 places in order to not carry too much of it.May 5, 2009 at 9:32 am #1499173Didier MottayMember
Very nice report about the HRP, specially about the third part (les gourgs blancs,col de la Literole,Portillon). Since I am from Bagnères de Luchon,I agree with you : this part is quite difficult. And could be very difficult with storm, fog, ice or snow. Snow is not uncommon in summer, and you could expect heavy fog or terrific thunderstorm every time.
Very good article (in french) from "Olivier" on the french site "randonnée léger" about ultralight backpacking on HRP : http://www.randonner-leger.org/04_recit_hrp/hrp.php
For weather forecast :
It's difficult to have good forecast because you are on a natural border (north/south ; mediterranean/atlantic).
It'is difficult to have a good advice about south AND north side of the mountain because you are on an old border : Normally french forescast are about their side and spanish forecast are about their side and area.
French weatherforecast site : http://france.meteofrance.com/france/montagne.
For language :
Here in France,strongly centralized country, all people are speaking "regular french". Some people could speak also "local language" like basque, gascoun, occitan or catalan.
In Spain, it is a little bit more complicate…Normally they all speak "spanish" (in fact for them "castillan"). But between them they speak quite often : Vascos, Aragones, Aranes, Catalan…If you are a foreigner they will, normally, speak "castillan" with you.
In France people under 40 could often speak english, if they want. Quite the same in Spain but perharps only people under 35.
It's always a good idea to say some word of french or spanish first, and explain that you are a foreigner. After that, you could ask to speak english.
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