In 2010 we hiked the Pyrenean Haute Route, which follows the Pyrenees mountain chain along the border between France and Spain, from the Atlantic in the west to the Mediterranean in the east. The route is 500 miles long, with a total of about 40,000 metres of ascent achieved over 46 days of hiking. We hadn't yet discovered lightweight hiking, and our rucksacks were seriously heavy. This, combined with early season alpine hiking over snow (we set off on 12th June) made it a huge physical challenge.
We set off from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain on 12th June. The weather was dreary and damp, and would remain so for most of the next eight days. The Mediterranean felt like a very long way away!
Hiking through the Basque country was beautiful, but very hard work. With around 1000 metres of ascent every day it was a hard introduction to a hike, and with so much low cloud and rain we didn't even get the reward of a view at the end of most ascents. But there were some pretty villages along the way, such as Roncesvalles where we crossed the Camino de Santiago (a pilgrim route acrosss northern Spain which I (Tanya) had just completed), and also Les Aldudes, shown here.
Some heavy hail showers in the limestone area around Pierre St Martin heralded a change in the weather. The clouds lifted a little to give us views of towering mountains and snow patches.
By the time we had descended to the pretty mountain village of Lescun the sun was shining, giving an enormous boost to our spirits. It was an important resupply point for us, and also a bit of a milestone as it marked the end of the first stage of our hike. Setting off in sunshine the next morning through lush flower meadows with the sound of cowbells jangling in the distance was a welcome change.
The next day had some fantastic mountain walking on well used footpaths. The area around Pic du Midi d'Ossau is very popular with walkers.
Being early in the year there was still a lot of snow about - fortunately it was mostly quite firm underfoot so once you were on top of the snow, walking on it wasn't too bad, just very hot. This was above the Refuge d'Arremoulit, where we had stopped for cold drinks while sitting in baking sunshine next to a frozen lake.
One big problem with thick patches of old snow was getting onto and off them - as the snow melted away underneath, we were often faced with a high undercut wall of rotten snow. This one was at the end of a very steep ascent where we had used our ice axes and crampons, but still felt very vulnerable on the steep slope with a real sense of exposure, made worse by our big heavy rucksacks. We were really glad that a couple of folks from the refuge had gone up just before us and created these steps to make getting down off the snow and across the bergschrund much easier. After a short steep scramble up a wall of shattered rock we were finally at the top; then it was just a question of picking our way down the other side of the mountain which was equally steep and exposed.
And then there were the navigation issues. The rain we had experienced in the Basque country had fallen as snow in the high mountains, so there weren't many tracks to follow across the snow. We were also worried about avalanches, evidence of which can be seen behind Neil. We crossed dodgy sections one at a time, and always breathed a sigh of relief once we'd got past the steepest snow slopes.
At least the snow was melting, but it did make some stream crossings more exciting than they would have been later in the summer.
Gavarnie was our next major resupply point after Lescun. It's a tourist honeypot, and the backdrop of the Cirque de Gavarnie was amazingly beautiful. We took a day off here - we hadn't intended to, but the cashpoint wasn't working, there was no post office from which to send home our used maps, and I needed to replace my rucksack which had suffered a broken strut. So we took a bus to the nearby town of Luz and got everything sorted. Setting off the next day through the meadows we sweated our way past large groups of tourists, and were glad when we finally left the crowds behind.
After a few sleepless nights in refuges, we decided that where possible we would pitch our tent near to the refuge, enjoy a good meal at the refuge in the evening and sleep in our cool, peaceful tent. This was a particularly lovely camping spot near the Barroude refuge.
Our guidebook rated each day's hiking from 3 (short easy walks on well-worn paths), through 2 and 1 to E for Exceptional. This meant steep and potentially dangerous exposed sections where moderate scrambling could be necessary, with no paths or waymarks. This was an E day. Luckily the weather was near perfect, making navigation over the high snowy passes a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. This was at the Col du Pluviometre.
Heading out of Salardu with 6 days of food in our rucksacks, and hangovers from sampling the barman's homemade orujo the night before, we needed something to cheer us up on the long ascent out of town - this donkey provided fine entertainment. She started following us on the outskirts of town, and from then on we just couldn't shake her off. If we stopped to take photos she would go past us then wait for us a few metres further on. She stayed with us for miles, until we got to the next village and we managed to leave her behind on the other side of a fence round a building site, looking very forlorn!
Later the same day we came across possibly the hardest physical challenge of the trail. Heading down to Refugi Gracia Airoto (small orange dot just visible to the right of the furthest lake) we came across the biggest boulder field we'd ever had to cross. Boulder hopping with rucksacks that must have weighed about 20kg was just incredibly hard work! Twisting an ankle here would have been pretty disastrous.
After hiking over high mountain passes over snow and rock, it was always a lovely contrast to walk on a good footpath down one of the many lushly vegetated valleys filled with spring flowers. Near Refugi de Coma Pedrosa, Andorra.
Collada de Juclar, Andorra.
As we got closer to the Mediterranean, we had two last big mountains to go over, Pic Carlit and Canigou. This is the Balcon de Canigou, a beautiful section of path on the descent from Canigou.
After Canigou, we started to gradually lose height and drop down into a recognisably Mediterranean world, with dry scrub, cork oaks and views of the sea.
Having dipped my feet in the Atlantic, of course I had to dip my feet in the Mediterranean. I did feel a bit daft though.
Celebratory beers in Banyuls sur Mer! 46 days of hiking with just one day off, so we felt we deserved it!