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Pyrenean Haute Route - Pyrenees, France
Dick Everard's Walk: thoughts and advice
(Walkopedia says: THANK YOU Dick Everard for your invaluable thoughts - and congratulations for completing this tough route!)
I had decided in early 2012 that I would do a long walk somewhere in 2013 when I would reach the age of 65. I had originally thought of walking the Via Alpina but decided it was too long and having read stories regarding the difficulty of obtaining maps and the fact that many sections weren’t waymarked, I decided that the Haute Route Pyrenees offered better options. I spent a considerable time planning the walk including the navigation methods to be used, gear to be taken and in getting myself fit. Navigation Of course, the Haute Route is, itself, not waymarked in many areas and therefore thought had to be given to navigation. The answer seemed to be GPS especially as I would be on my own a lot of the time. After doing some research I decided to try using software on a mobile phone as opposed to buying a dedicated GPS navigator. This had the advantage of only having to carry one item, as I would need a mobile phone in any case. After some research I plumped for using Viewranger on a Samsung Galaxy S Advance. This enabled me to buy digital maps for both the French and Spanish sections of the walk and to mark the route sitting at a PC at home using the waymarks given in the latest edition of Cicerone’s Guide to the Pyrenean Haute Route by Ton Joosten. With the use of the digital maps, the 500 waymarks and the detailed instructions in the guide, I was able to produce digital maps for each day’s walking which each had about 50 or so waymarks. These “routes” could be backed up on the Viewranger website. The only difficulty with using any electronic device to aid navigation is the fact that they need power. The Samsung had one advantage over an iPhone in that spare batteries could be used allowing a battery to be changed every day and sometimes before the end of the day. There was, of course, the difficulty in charging these batteries when sleeping in a tent or a refuge which had limited power itself yet alone the provision of power points. As I would be staying in the occasional hotel I could charge the batteries occasionally even though this sometimes meant setting an alarm to change the battery every three hours – I had four batteries in total. I also decided to buy a solar charger and after buying and returning one rather inadequate device, bought a Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit which I could hang on the back of my rucksack whilst walking and which charges a set of 4 AA batteries which can then be used to recharge the mobile phone. It worked to some extent but it didn’t charge very well when hanging on one’s back walking from west to east and the best charging was achieved on a day when I finished walking in the early afternoon and could place the solar panels directly facing the sun for a few hours. Regarding the use of Viewranger, it was very useful on the occasions that I either didn’t know which path to take; there was no path; when the mist came down and visibility was poor or when I was just plain lost. On these occasions, I could see immediately where I was in relation to my planned route – this did rely on planning the correct route in the first place. It didn’t stop me getting lost as I certainly didn’t refer to it ever few minutes and if I had done so, the batteries would very soon have gone flat. It did allow me to plan a route back to the correct path without reversing my steps completely although this might mean going up or down slightly steeper slopes than intended. And in the mist one had to be very careful. One comment on the Samsung Galaxy S Advance which although technically adequate in all respects It is not a regular model such as the S2 or S3 and accessories such as hard waterproof cases are not available. I would have been better off with a regular model as although the soft waterproof case (basically a thick polythene bag) kept the mobile waterproof, the mobile wasn’t easy to use when inside the case. Gear and Equipment I will make a few comments on some of my equipment where I think it might be of interest to others. Tent – this was an MSR Hubba weighing 1.47 kilos suitable for one person and performed well and was very easy to erect and take down which was especially useful when I arrived at my chosen camping area just after a heavy downpour had started. Rucksack - this was an Exos Osprey 58 weighing 1.19 kilos. It survived the journey but only just. My main complaint was that the straps were rather narrow and dug into my shoulders. This might have been the case with other rucksacks when carrying almost 18 kilos but my shoulders were never really comfortable. Stoves – I carried two stoves: a Trangia using methylated spirits and an MSR Micro Rocket. Some guide books indicated that it was difficult to obtain gas cylinders for the Pocket or Micro Rocket which is why I carried the Trangia. I never had difficulty in buying gas cylinders and never used the Trangia which when I tried it out beforehand proved very slow. In fact I only used one gas cylinder on the whole trip despite cooking for myself on 12 evenings and mornings. Boots – I used Salomon Quest boots which I had also used on the GR5 and TMB but for some reason I suffered badly from a soft corn between my first and second toe. Salomon’s are slightly narrower than many boots and the heat in the first few days may have exacerbated the problem. My only solution was the use of painkillers every day for the latter part of the walk. Sleeping Bag – I carried a Gerlert Extreme weighing 600 gms designed for use down to 0° C. It was fine when sleeping in a refuge but was not adequate when sleeping in a tent when the temperature dropped to almost zero in the early mornings. Sleeping Mat – Thermarest Neoair weighing 360 gms was fine although slightly narrow and I soon learnt not to blow it up too much as it became like a bouncy castle if one did. Crampons – I mused Yaktrax weighing 100 gms and while probably inadequate on ice proved very useful on steep sections of snow and could even be put on and taken off without taking off a rucksack. Personal Locator Beacon – Since the guide book suggested that one shouldn’t walk the HRP on one’s own, I thought it prudent to buy a FastFind Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which weighed 200 gms. Alpine Club Membership – I joined the Austrian Alpine Club which for £30 a year not only gave me discounts at many of the refuges but also provided insurance in case of accident or illness. In total I was carrying about 17 to 18 kilos which included 3.5 litres of water. I would have much preferred to have carried less and almost all my equipment was the lightest available. I will admit that I probably won’t do another walk where it is necessary to carry a tent and cooking gear. I much prefer walking with a pack weighing around the 10 kilo mark as I did on the GR5 and TMB. Weather and Conditions I didn’t start until late July for two reasons: firstly so as to avoid the crowds during the French holidays and secondly to avoid any snow on the high passes. It was reported in June that there was still enough snow for skiing to continue two months after the normal date due to the exceptionally late winter. I met someone who had tried to start the GR10 in mid June and had returned to England for 6 weeks because of the conditions. There was still snow in August at Port du Lavedan (2617m), Col de Cambales (2706m) and at Col de la Fache (2664m) and I was advised that ice axes were required to cross Port de Lavedan. I, therefore avoided the section from Refuge d’Arremoulit to Refuge Wallon via Port de Lavedan by taking the alternative route via the Passage d’Orteig and Col de la Fache. There was a considerable amount of snow on the Col de la Fache but it could be crossed with care if not using crampons but the use of Yaktrax made it relatively easy. Snow was also met on many other passes but not such that it caused any undue difficulties. In general the weather was very kind perhaps brilliant. The worst weather from a walking point of view was in the first week following the start at Hendaye with temperatures of between 36° to 40° C. My colleague who started out with me from Hendaye on 29th July had to return home because of the heat and I know that some people delayed their start by a few days, preferring to lie on the beach in such heat. I experienced about 4 thunderstorms but really only got thoroughly wet once when it rained for several hours. Otherwise it rained a little one night when staying at Refugi Enrico Pujol and that was it – certainly there was some cloud but for many days there were just glorious blue skies. There weren’t many sections of the walk when one didn’t have to constantly look where each foot was going to be placed next. There were a few sections where this wasn’t the case most especially the stage between Refugi d’Ull de Ter to Refuge de Marialles which was very easy walking and not just because there were few ascents or descents. There were some very steep sections and one in particular up scree which was the only time that my leg muscles complained. It is also worth mentioning that the period from 1st to 15th August was extremely busy in Spain, this period being almost a national holiday. Some of the refuges were full and although I never had nowhere to sleep, I did have to use my tent at one refuge and at another to sleep on the floor of the dining area. I met very few people walking the whole of the GR10, GR11 or HRP. I should add that the HRP frequently used either the GR10 or GR11 as well as some of the routes joining the two GRs. Most of the people staying in the refuges were on short holidays, often just of a few days who had walked in from the nearest road. Whilst it is not surprising that I didn’t meet many people walking the whole route with apparently about 10 people starting the GR10 each day in the high season, presumably by the end of July there are much less and I would have thought the figure for the HRP was just one or two. It did, however, mean that the refuges were generally much more crowded than I had expected. There were exceptions and at Refugi de Coma Pedrosa where there are 60 places, there were only three people staying the night – this was unfortunate as the gardiens decided not to light any fires for so few people and I shivered during dinner with no heating and no bodies to warm the large dining area. The Guide Book I used Cicerone’s “Pyreneean Haute Route” by Ton Joosten. I know that others have commented on some of the inaccuracies and inadequacies which having noted some in my copy of the guide book, I felt to be incorrect. For instance on page 82 of the guide it says “Leave the white-red markers and follow some ancient yellow marks”. There was a comment on the Internet saying that this was wrong and that you “should not follow the yellow/white markers but double back left when you reach a cairn on third tree and pick up red-white markers again.” I believe that this is wrong and that Ton Joosten’s advice is correct if one is trying to reach the Col d’Anaye. There were other instances where I felt the criticism was unwarranted. I do, however, have one serious criticism and that concerns the timings given in the guide. I realise that this is always going to be difficult given differences in age and fitness of those walking the route. However, it would seem that the times were calculated from height difference and mileage as opposed to being measured whilst walking. Whenever the walking was difficult due to having to cross large areas of boulders or loose rocks, I always found the times to be far too short with the converse being true whenever the going was easy the times were too generous. I will comment on this in detail in my daily diary but just to give one example. The final day from Col d’Ouillat to Banyuls-sur-Mer is relatively easy going and the guide book suggests 8 hours 25 minutes walking time. I completed this section in 7 hours 14 minutes and I stooped for at least a total of one hour during the walk thus it took me about 6 hours 15 minutes compared with 8 hours 25 minutes suggested in the guide book and I had a very sore foot which meant that I was walking considerably slower than normal. Unfortunately there were sections where the going was extremely difficult and the walking time was two hours more than suggested. I am also suspicious of the figures given in the guide book for ascents and descents each day. For instance on the stage between Lescun and Refuge d’Arlet, the guide book says 1300 metres of ascent and 200 metres of descent. My Viewranger gave figures of 1711 and 614 metres respectively. I can’t be certain that the Viewranger figures are accurate but when the cross sections in the book show, for instance, a continuous downward slope from Col de Nou Creus (2781m) to Collada de la Marrana (2535m) when in fact there is a downhill slope to about 2425m followed by a climb of 110 metres one begins to think that the basis of some of the information was unsound. Training Since I am 65, I took my training quite seriously as I didn’t want to be walking for several weeks suffering from blisters and aching muscles especially when having to carry a heavy rucksack. I walk about 20 miles a week on a regular basis and from the New Year started carrying a rucksack with a load of about 7 kilos (15 lbs) increasing to 12 kilos (26 lbs) by the beginning of May. After this date, I kept a record and walked some 250 miles at an average speed of 2.87 miles (4.6 kilometres) per hour and slowly increased the weight carried to 15 kilos (33 lbs) – in hindsight I should have finished training carrying at least 18 kilos (40 lbs). The training walks involved an average of 160 ft ascent and descent per mile walked (31 metres per kilometre) compared with the actual ascent and descent walked of 330 feet per mile walked (65 metres per kilometre) but then if one lives in England, it is often difficult to find steep hills on one’s doorstep. The average speed walked on the route was 1.63 miles (2.61 kilometres) per hour taking due allowance for stops and lunch breaks. The only problems that I suffered from were aching shoulders and I think that this was due more to the narrow straps on my rucksack than anything else although if I had increased the weight carried during training I might have discovered this earlier. I had no blisters but did, as mentioned above, have a problem with a soft corn due to my boots being perhaps too tight. I did fall over several times and the worse morning was the climb down from the Refugi Enrico Pujol as it had rained all night and the path as well as being very tricky was very wet. Luckily I never did any serious damage just a few scratches. It did mean that it made me extremely careful when tackling difficult or steep sections and to be fair to Ton Joosten, the guide book does mention several places where extreme care is needed although not all of them! Stastistics I walked 42 of the 45 stages given in the guide book missing out the section between El Serrat and Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre as I had a pressing engagement in the UK which meant I had to cut a few days off the walk. In fact I only did about half of the stages exactly as described in the guide book, making changes as the weather and conditions dictated sometimes walking further, sometimes less and sometimes taking short cuts, for example, avoiding the walk into and out of Parzan which seemed unnecessary unless one needed provisions. Total distance walked: Number of days walking 715 kilometres 42 days 450 miles Total hours walked including stops 328 hours Total hours walked excluding stops Total Height Loss and Gain 274 hours 47,000 metres 149,000 feet Summary I will probably need to re-write the summary when I have finished typing my daily diary which I haven’t read since writing it each evening of the walk but perhaps it might be useful to record my general impressions taken from memory before reading what I wrote at the time. Having previously walked the GR5, the GR20 and the TMB, one inevitably makes comparisons with what one’s previous experience. I would say that it was perhaps slightly harder than any of the other walks but having only carried about 22 lbs (10 kilos) when walking the GR5 and TMB, it is difficult to compare like with like. The walking is, I am sure, tougher not because of the ascents and descents but the general condition of the paths whether existent or not. I cannot remember having to pay quite so much attention to every foot fall before and this does remove some of the enjoyment. However, there was still plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and I took about 90 photographs of wild flowers and a total of some 550 photographs. The scenery is fantastic but so is that of the Alps and Corsica. I thought the wild flowers better than I had seen elsewhere but I expect the very late winter and hence the late start of summer meant that there were many more plants in flower than in previous years in August and September. I spent 8 nights in a tent, 5 in unmanned refuges, 23 in manned refuges and gites and 7 in hotels. My only problem when camping was the cold at 2000 metres for which my sleeping bag was inadequate. My experienced of unmanned refuges was mixed from the excellent Gracia Airoto where there was a wood stove and running water just outside the door to the filthy hovel at Refugi de Salinas not to speak of the night at Refugi Enrico Pujol where 18 people slept in a hut designed for 9 people. This wasn’t the fault of the hut just the Spanish organisation that had sent 15 scouts (boys and girls) into the mountains to stay in a refuge which wasn’t designed to cater for so many people. The manned refuges and gites were generally as good as those on the GR5 and TMB. The food was always excellent although the Spanish idea of serving food as though one were in a canteen left something to be desired if not just more food – there is nearly always enough food for second or even third helpings in a French refuge which was rarely the case in Spain – the food was equally good. Sanitation was generally good although very few refuges had hot showers and those that did always charged a few Euros for the privilege once 4 Euros. Of course, hot water to wash clothes would be a real bonus which is why most people at least wash some clothes whilst having a hot shower. One complaint I have of the Spanish and that was there habit of leaving toilet paper everywhere and often within feet of the refuge. And it wasn’t only near the unmanned refuges but frequently beside the paths. It is so easy to a) go a little further away from the refuge or path and b) burn the toilet paper. I rarely saw this problem in France. There were a lot of vultures, some Red Kites especially in the Western Pyrenees, a few Ravens, large quantities of Choughs, Wheatears and Alpine Acceptors and a few that I didn’t identify but not many other birds. I saw a few Isards (called Chamois in the Alp) although they were very much more wary of man than those in the Alps as can also be said for Marmots. I noted that the Isard are slightly redder than the Chamois that I had seen in the Alps. I was lucky to meet up with two Australians, Ray and Stephen in the first few days of the walk who kept me company between Les Aldudes and Chalets d’Iraty well almost as Ray had trouble with his foot and rested up for a short while and I never saw them again although I did hear that they had decided to have a couple of days rest at Chalet d’Iraty. I also enjoyed the company of Tobi and Nina , a German couple, who I first met with Ray and Stephen at Egurgui and finally said good bye to for the fourth and final time outside Alos de Isil some 23 days later and although we didn’t generally walk together and sometimes separated and went different routes, we frequently met up again and shared many experiences together. On the whole, I found the Spanish less friendly than the French which I am sure was partly due to my total lack of any Spanish language skills. I met very few English walkers, a few Scottish who weren’t at all sociable, quite a number of Belgians and a few Dutch so most of the time I had to practice my rather rusty French but I got by and did manage to converse at dinner provided there were English or French speakers – a surprisingly large number of the Spanish seem to speak no other language or maybe they were just antisocial.
By Dick Everard ()