Our 2010 Haute Route Pyrenees Hike
In the summer of 2010 we (Amy and Jim) hiked through the Pyrenees from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean coast, following the Haute Route Pyrenees (aka HRP or Alta Ruta or Pyrenean Haute Route) through France, Spain, and Andorra. We had a terrific trip, and would recommend the route for others with the skills, interest and time.
Link to Route Map
Link to Google Map (gmap-pedometer) allowing you to zoom in on details of the route, satellite images, etc. The blue line follows our route, within a half km. (If you double click in gmap it will extend the route, which will make you quite confused.)
Our photo show, with annotations is posted at SmugMug:
Link to the full photo show (300 images)
Or, alternately, a subset of 75 images
Here are a few images to whet the appetite:
Introduction to Coast to Coast hiking in the Pyrenees:
We won’t repeat introductory and overview information about the coast-to-coast routes through the Pyrenees, since other people have already written well on the topic. Many thanks to the authors of these sites for sharing information and wisdom:
Link to the Cicerone HRP Guidebook by Tom Joosten
Link to Viajar A Pie website about HRP
Link to Roger Caffin’s page about coast to coast hiking in the Pyrenees
Link to David McClure’s BPL 2008 HRP Trip Report
The Details of our Trip:
If you are not thinking about hiking the HRP, you may want to stop reading now. The rest of this report provides details that should be useful for people considering or planning an HRP hike, but it is not a narrative description of our walk. (The narrative of our walk is provided in the comments in our photos on SmugMug.)
• Dates: 35 days hiking, July 9 to August 11, 2010
• Routing: We followed the route as described in Tom Joosten’s 2003 Cicerone Press Guide. There are a couple of places where this route is significantly different from the 2009 edition of the same book. The first version of the HRP was published by George Verone (available only in French) and is somewhat different from both of Joosten’s routes. Finally, alternate routings for parts of the route are shown on both the Spanish and French 1:50,000 topo maps. We stayed entirely on Joosten’s primary route as we never used his lower altitude alternates.
• Accommodations: One night paid camping in a commercial campground in Hendaye prior to the start of our walk; 2 nights in hotels in towns (Salardu and Banyuls-sur-Mer); 2 nights in unstaffed mountain refuges; 31 nights wild camping in our tent. Of the 31 nights camping, we stealth camped only once (tucked in behind a barn and hay bales on the edge of Lescun); the remaining camps were in the open. Other than at Lescun, we never felt a need to hide our campsites, and it appeared that many other people felt the same way.
• Cost: Not including transport to and from Hendaye and Banyuls, we spent ~$200 USD for maps, ~$150 for 3 nights of paid accommodation, and ~$28 per person per day for food and beverages. (Based on an exchange rate of about $1.29 USD to the Euro.)
• Weather: We had only one day with enough rain during daylight hours to use raincoats. We had rain during the night a half dozen times, including a few walloping nighttime thunderstorms, but we generally enjoy rain that occurs after we have our tent set up. Strong winds were fairly common, but rarely problematic. There was dense fog in France for at least half the trip, but it was nearly always below us. We walked in significant fog for 3 or 4 days, and it hampered navigation once or twice. Temperatures over 80º F on perhaps a dozen days, but only the first day was blazing hot. We had ice form overnight on only two nights. We consider ourselves quite fortunate with the weather and others should not count on being so lucky. For example, we dined with two HRP’ers toward the end of the trip who reported that their first five days, in Basque country, were entirely in dense fog and they never had views. We also met a couple who had started in Hendaye before us, but after five days of extreme heat they changed plans and rented a car and drove to the higher mountains, then spent a month taking day and overnight hikes. The first day of our trip was the last day of their five day heat wave.
• Bugs: We never had significant bug problems while hiking, although biting flies were a very occasional annoyance. We had 2 or 3 campsites where the evening bugs were bad enough that we ate dinner inside the tent.
• Re-supply: On long distance hikes, eating and re-supplying food is a critical issue. We didn’t want to carry any more weight than necessary, but we wanted enough calories to stay happy. We shopped at ten stores en-route; that is every store listed in the Cicerone 2003 guide except Col d’Ibardin on the first day, Parzan (which was off-route), and Amelie-les-Baines (Sunday and all food stores except the patisserie were closed). We didn’t walk more than ten minutes off route to shop or eat at refuges, and we never used vehicles to travel off-route for food. We re-supplied at the following locations:
o Day 0: Hendaye: before starting; several adequate grocery stores are available.
o Day 2: Arizkun: two small stores with limited, but sufficient selection.
o Day 3: Les Aldudes: a surprisingly useful quick mart in the gas station.
o Day 5: Col Bargargui (Irati); very small shop at the ski resort.
o Day 6: Lescun: a well-stocked medium sized market.
o Day 8: Candanchu: tiny Supermercado El Bozo
o Day 12: Gavarnie: small, but moderately well-stocked grocery
o Day 20: Salardu: barely adequate small market.
o Day 27: l’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre: barely adequate small market and deli.
o Day 29: Bolquere: excellent market and great deli.
o Day 34: Le Perthus: huge stores with everything you could ever want.
• Restaurants and Refuge food: We ate at nearly all the restaurants and staffed refuges we passed if food was available when we were there, but we generally did not modify our schedule in order to accommodate serving times. We were able to get food at any time of day except when their kitchen staff was preparing the evening meal (~5:00 until 7:00). We ate meals at the following restaurants and refuges:
o Lunch #1: Restaurant at Col d’Ibardin
o Dinner #1: Restaurant at Col de Lizuniaga
o Dinner #4: Restaurant Chalet Pedro
o Dinner #6: Restaurant in Lescun
o Lunch #8: Restaurant in Candanchu
o Dinner #9: Refuge d'Arremoulit (late afternoon omelette)
o Dinner #10: Refuge Wallon 3-course dinner
o Lunch #11: Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube
o Lunch #12: Restaurants in Gavarnie (two lunches in two hours!)
o Lunch #13: Restaurant in Heas
o Dinner #13: Refuge de Barroude 3-course dinner
o Lunch #15: Refugio Viados 3-course lunch; best refuge meal of the trip
o Lunch #16: Refugio de la Souda
o Lunch #17: Refuge du Portillon
o Breakfast #19: Refuge Hospital de Vielha
o Lunch #20: Restaurant in Salardu
o Dinner #20: Restaurant in Salardu
o Dinner #23: Refuge Certascan very good 3-course dinner
o Lunch #24: Refuge de Vall Ferrera
o Lunch #25: Restaurant at ski resort in Andorra
o Dinner #26: Refugio Juclar 3-course dinner
o Snack #28: Restaurant Lac des Bouillouses (light sandwich & big ice cream)
o Lunch #30: Refuge d’Ulldeter
o Lunch #31: Refuge Mariailles
o Lunch #33: Restaurant in Las Illas
o Snack #34: Gite at Col de l’Ouillet
• Peaks: Joosten’s route traverses a number of summits. In addition, we climbed two peaks, Petite Vignemale and Certascan, each of which was less than an hour off-route. We also traversed the five summits beyond Coll d’Eina on day 30. There are many opportunities to climb other summits.
• Water: Potable water was frequently available, and we treated water on only a few occasions. We had had only a couple of dry stretches, each no more than a half-day long.
• Language: Amy spoke enough Spanish and French to take care of logistics, but not enough to have a meaningful conversation. Jim doesn’t speak either. And, no surprise, neither of us speaks Basque or Catalan. We didn’t have any problems taking care of logistical things with her language skills, but it was frustrating to be unable to have interesting conversations with the hikers and locals we met.
• Gear: This was our 8th hike of 3-5 weeks in Europe. We have our gear dialed in for what suits us in the trade-off between weight and comfort, convenience, and happiness. Our base pack weight was 13.5 pounds each, not light by BPL standards, but quite light compared to other backpackers we saw in the Pyrenees. We’ll create a second forum post with information about the gear we took.
The opinions and impressions:
• Scenery: The scenic quality of the route is consistently high and the walking interesting. We were surprised by how much we enjoyed the vast majority of the route. Even at the lower elevation beginning and end, the HRP is well worth walking. Only once does the route descend to a truly over-developed place (at Col d’Perthus). While nothing on the route could be considered remote by North American wilderness standards, the overall ambience is being out there in mountains that show only a light touch by the humans who have lived in and used the area for thousands of years. Overall, we were very pleased with the route and have no hesitation in recommending it to those who are capable of meeting its challenges.
• Up and Down: With a very few exceptions, the route is not technically difficult in a mountaineering sense. However, it is physically demanding. The route consistently gains and loses altitude and Joosten (2003 edition) understates that altitude gain. Joosten does not include all the minor and not so minor ups and downs that can add so much to a day’s climb: he only accounts for the deltas between major high and low points. We did not turn on the “accumulated gain” feature of our altimeter, but guess that the actual gain is 10-20% higher than Joosten’s reported 42,350 meters for a total of something like 50 kilometers!
• How much time? Joosten 2003 suggests 42 days for the route that we completed it in 35 days. Jim was satisfied with the trip length while Amy would have preferred more than 40 days. The other people we met who were hiking the HRP were taking 45 to 55 days. The amount of time you should allocate varies widely depending on your style. Perhaps a way to plan is to estimate your normal altitude gain per day and divide 50,000 meters by that number. Distances walked are difficult to estimate. Joosten and the trail markers all list hours between points, not kilometers. The HRP distances we have seen published range from 800 to over 1000 kilometers for the entire route.
• Technical difficulties included a couple of short hard class-2 or easy class-3 rock stretches. None of these will be problematic to anyone with basic rock scrambling skills. There are also many snowfields, and for several of them Joosten recommends crampons and an ice ax. We had neither and each of us used a single trekking pole for stability on the snow. Whether one can safely cross the snowfields depends on several factors. The amount of snow depends on the preceding winter’s snowfall, and how much of it has melted off. Obviously, all other things being equal, the later in the season you go, the less snow you will find. The second factor is when in the day you cross the snow and what the very recent weather has been like; when the snow is icy due to cloudy weather and/or morning conditions, it is more problematic than soft snow on a warm sunny afternoon. And the third factor is the condition of the steps previous climbers have made. There are snowfields where if you slip into an uncontrolled slide, you will likely be injured; Col Inferior de Literole is the biggest of these. We were fortunate that on the steepest snow slopes the snow had been sun-softened and the steps were adequate. However, if the slopes had been icy and/or without steps, we could not have crossed them safely. Thus, in our opinion, each person should decide for themselves what they are comfortable doing and whether or not to add the weight of an ax and crampons (instep crampons should be sufficient) to their pack. You can always take the alternate routes around these obstacles, but then you miss some of the most glorious country as well as the satisfaction of seeing the route through on its own terms. Some of the optional peaks, such as Aneto should not be attempted without snow climbing tools.
• The quality of the trails is not nearly as good as the John Muir Trail in the US or the National Trails in the UK. There is essentially no trail maintenance and therefore erosion is common. Actually most of the route is not on trails as we think of them, but on use paths that have developed over the centuries. Thus they are often steep and frequently covered with loose rocks of all sizes. There are few long sections where you can walk in a day-dreaming or cruising mode; you have to pay attention to where you place your feet. This adds to the physical challenges of the HRP.
• Altitude: The HRP never gets higher than about 10,000 feet, unlike the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, southern Rocky Mountains, southern Sierra Nevada, and other ranges where trail altitudes exceed 12,000 feet. Therefore it may be a suitable alpine alternative for people susceptible to altitude sickness.
• Fantastic Campsites: We had so many 5-star sites that we lost count. Nearly every campsite on our trip had a fantastic sense of space and great view. That said we did find two notable issues in terms of campsites. First, there were a number of sections where we walked for 2 to 3 hours through rocky terrain with no obvious reasonable spot for a tent. Second, many luscious looking meadows are covered with a grass with extremely sharp tips. These grass tips were so sharp that they easily passed through our spinnaker cloth ground sheet. We were concerned that the tips could puncture the coated floor of our tent and even possibly our NeoAir pads, so we never set up in these locations. These grasses reduced the number of possible sites. That said, a good site could always be found sooner or later. Many people camp right next to refuges in order to retire to their tents after eating dinner at the refuge. We prefer more solitude for our campsites, and we’re very picky about finding a flat site on level ground, so we rarely camped near refuges.
• Navigation was relatively straightforward. We used Joosten’s guidebook, 1:50,000 French and Spanish topo maps, an altimeter, and a compass. In conjuction with the maps, Joosten's book (or Veron’s book) is essential and adequate, but was frustrating at times. Part of the problem, we believe, is not the quality of the original text, but poor translation from the original Dutch into English. Frequently the instructions were phrased in a way that made it unclear which side of a landmark you should be on, such as “pass the lake on the left” which is intended to mean “pass with the lake on your left side” as opposed to “pass on the left side of the lake”. Often ambiguous words like “few” or “soon” are used to used to describe a distance or elapsed time; “shortly the trail will branch” could mean in 1 minute or 15 minutes. We often wondered why he didn’t write “in about 5 minutes the trail will branch”. Also, since the 2003 version was written, there have been a few cultural changes on the ground that led to confusion in a few locations (such as newly paved roads or ski-lift pylons which had been removed since the book was published). Presumably the 2009 version of the guide is more up-to-date. We also believe that having a good “mountain sense” will help enormously in your ability to stay on track. This is particularly true in dense fog. Fog heavy enough to reduce visibility to no more than a few yards is not uncommon in the Pyrenees and when that happens, navigation can become a significant challenge. We did not carry a GPS, which would probably be a useful tool in dense fog. However, even with a GPS, fog makes it tough to pick out a good route over a rocky pass; the GPS ensures you are crossing the right pass or following the correct ridge, but doesn’t help pick a safe route through rocks and cliffs. Another issue with navigation is that free-lance cairn building appears to be an national sport in the Pyrenees. It’s quite common to see innumerable sets of cairns leading off in multiple directions, or just fields of cairns that don’t appear to form a thread leading anywhere. When the HRP was concurrent with the GR10 or GR11, the way-marks were usually consistently good.
• Grazing: There are lots of cows, sheep and horses throughout the Pyrenees, and most of these animals wear bells. The clinking and clanking add to the ambience for some people, but keep in mind that the racket does not cease at sundown, so you might want to carry earplugs.
• Food: We did not carry a stove (and have not for nearly 15 years). Although most of food shops on the route are either “tiny” or “small”, they all had some basic provisions: virtually all shops had high quality locally produced cheese, saucisson and bread; nuts, dry fruit, cookies and crackers, chocolate, yoghurt, and canned tuna could usually be found. Note that we never saw a selection of freeze-dried foods in any of the markets we used although there are a couple of outdoor stores in Gavarnie that may stock these foods.
• Choice of Route: Joostens’ route is based on the premise of using refuges for meals and lodging as often as possible. Thus there are places where you will descend to a refuge in a valley only to immediately climb out on the other side, while what looks to be a perfectly feasible ridge route would avoid the descent. In a few places, if you don’t need to visit a refuge, you could possibly modify the route to make it shorter and/or reduce altitude loss and gain. Then again, you wouldn’t be following the route.
• Refuges: We were not interested in sleeping in refuges, but we enjoyed the meals, and eating at refuges lightened our pack weight considerably. The meals were surprisingly good and plentiful, and, on occasion, excellent. The prices seemed quite reasonable given that the refuges usually don’t have road access. A good mid-day omelet with bread cost 4 to 7 Euros. A three-course dinner (soup or salad, main meat course with rice or potatoes, dessert) cost about 15 Euros per person. Wine cost 3 or 4 Euros a half liter and we often bought some to carry out. Some people find that the scene at the refuges disrupts the sense of being in the wilderness, but for us, the refuges seemed as appropriate to the route as the shepherds and their animals. Other people like the refuges because of the social scene; some Tasmanians we met mailed their camping gear home after a week and spent the rest of the trip in refuges, primarily because they enjoyed interacting with the people they met.
• Crowded? We met at least two parties every day of the trip. On most days, we passed several dozen hiking parties at one time or another. On the descent from Puig Carlit we passed literally hundreds of other hikers during a 3 hour stretch. Most of the time, people were clustered near trail-heads and refuges, so we often had long stretches without seeing other hikers. One the other hand, we only met four other parties walking the HRP coast to coast; the GR10 is far more popular.