A Pyrenean Adventure Written in Thumb and SwypeBy Emma Pearson
December 6, 2023
27 August 2022
All photos my own – Summers 2021 and 2022
Main photo – by the Refuge Juclar in Andorra
I thought I would pull together the various updates I posted on to Facebook when I had occasional internet access during our Pyrenean Haute Route – begun last summer, and completed this year.
Inspired by my dad John and my uncle Ian who completed it in well into their 60s (in one go, I might add), getting on for 20 years ago. And both of whom are still alive and fit today. Thank you for the inspiration. It was a profound experience.
And as always, to Mike, my number one, who I so wish were alive to walk this dream with me. Two of your birthdays – 58 and 59 – would have been spent in glorious places.
And Julia. Sweet Julia. With me every step of the way each day. And, with increasing frequency, in my dreams at night. Nothing eases up – perhaps especially this year with what should have been your leaving school and starting whatever might have come next.
And finally, thanks also to Medjool, my precious number two. I am blessed in this bittersweet life.
Part One – Summer 2021 – Stages 1-11 ½
30 July 2021
A taste of days 1 to 5 walking the Haute Route des Pyrénées. In and out of Spain and France from East to West. Stunning. Varied across days and varied within each day. Wish we had the requisite 45-50 days to complete it in one go. My dad and uncle Ian did it in one go together 15 years ago, both aged 68. It was special to commemorate Mike’s 58th birthday with Medjool. He would so love this too.
6 August 2022
HRP days 6 to 10. Feels weird to have finished the majority of the walking days we are doing on the HRP this year…the Haute Route des Pyrénées. We have completed 10 of 43 ‘étapes’ or stages, each taking approx 6 to 8.5 hours of mountainous walking. Daily routine is 7h30 to 16h00 or 17h00, including the requisite breaks for adding or removing layers, drinking, eating, photo taking, map reading, and of course skinny dippy lake dipping.
We had a couple of rest days which were a ‘very good idea indeed’, especially as it poured down almost non-stop for one of them, and Medjool has been under the weather for a bit and simply rested. A good lesson in listening to one’s body’s wisdom.
And now some real rest in a gorgeous hotel spa in El Serrat, Andorra. And a bed with proper sheets and a pillow! And a towel!
Andorra is a new country for both of us. Full of contrasts in that it boasts remote and wild mountains and basic refuge huts with high class ski resorts and town after town full of tax-free luxury goods shops. Ugh. Commerce and capitalism gone awry. Somehow it’s stayed pretty. But still a culture shock after barely crossing a handful of people most days.
Next week hopefully we will complete the first two stages from the Med into where my parents live in Céret. That will leave more than a month’s worth of walking for next year and the year after.
I love the Pyrenees. Perhaps even more than the Alps and the Jura which are on my doorstep.
Note – It seems I never updated Facebook with news of the completion of the two stages closest to the Mediterranean, but they were completed! Instead, I wrote this piece on my blog:
Part Two – a year later, Summer 2022…
Thank you, Life, for granting me this time. I realise that not everyone my age gets this additional year.
22 July 2022
Haute Randonnée des Pyrénées continued… started last year and completed 11 (well – 11 ½ really) Stages from Mediterranean coast to Andorra. We have picked up where we left off and are hoping to do quite a bit of the rest in the next 5 weeks… we are unlikely to get to the Atlantic as we want some rest days and will have poor weather at some stage… but we might cover a lot of ground. Tomorrow sees us leave Andorra, pop into France for a bit, then spend the night in Spain. God willing. In challah!
28 July 2022
Our Haute Route des Pyrénées adventure is ongoing… No injuries, just a few falls, some route-finding errors, including rather a lot today, mostly sun, one storm, lake dips almost daily… and heavenly sights, glorious collaboration of nature all around, and all encounters with other human beings interesting and supportive.
Including last year’s stages, starting at the Mediterranean, we have now completed 18 of the 43, going westwards to the Atlantic. Quite a way to go yet! Anything from 1000m to 1800m climb each day, carrying all our stuff. All good so far, with approx one night in three in an unmanned refuge hut, then a couple of nights where dinner is made for us. Bliss.
29 July 2022
Day 9 (?) Solidly scary conditions today…thunder, lightning and hail again and again for about 3 hours of a 7 hour stage. Of course I took no photos during the storms when we huddled against big rocks and threw our batons far away from us so as to not attract lightning. But here you see some of the four seasons we had in one day. Safely arrived in Refugi Restanca where everyone looks a bit shaken. And sadly, my rucksack contents, despite dry bags and bag cover…all damp. Tomorrow the sun should shine again.
2 August 2022
Days 10 to 13 have been a mix of the Haute Route des Pyrénées and the Spanish GR11. It took us a while to relax back into decent weather after the frightening lightning, but relax we have.
Spanish mountain huts are lively places. Short, rich, intense conversations and friendships are made in minutes, only to dissipate the following morning as we head off in opposite directions (we are going east to west which is counter to the way most people walk the Pyrenees long distance routes). We have been over more cols/passes than I can count, filled our bottles from as many rivers, springs and lakes, stayed in mountain huts that seem to have been built before 1900, as well as one that seemed to have been plucked from the future and plonked at high altitude.
Some people really stay in mind, like the Belgian family with four kids under age 15, plus dog, doing the entire 700+ km walk, with camping. Multiple madcap 20-something men doing 2 stages in a day and living off couscous, and a good handful of wiser, older women who actually take breaks and have zero objectives for how far they will get in a given day.
I am grateful to be doing this with Medjool…I know I don’t have it in me to do it solo.
In the coming days we head back into France and are likely to need to sit out a few days of predicted storms. And then onwards again to the Atlantic.
Including last year, we are finally about half-way distance-wise, if not days-wise.
6 August 2022
The very lovely Haute Route des Pyrénées continues… we have left Spain and are in France for a few days. We have gone from saying ‘holà bonjour’ as we pass people to ‘bonjour holà’. Feels appropriate and respectful.
Days 13 to 17 finally includes a rest day – today – in beautiful if also touristy Gavarnie, where I buy new walking boots as my old ones are as slick as soap on skin.
Interestingly my mum studied/ worked near Pau as a young and newly minted student and teacher, and visited Gavarnie 60 years ago. As always, the mountains remind us that they were here long before we were, and will be here long after we are pushing up the daisies.
Daily storms build and explode anytime from 15h00. We have avoided being caught out in them so far, but have a week coming up now where the refuges are very full or closed and we need to camp a few times. I don’t much want to be in a tent in a storm at 2,000 m or higher but we will know more day by day. And perhaps it will be just lovely.
Here in Gavarnie, where hoards of people roam, so do rescue helicopters. It is a frightening background noise even if it is awe inspiring to watch.
14 August 2022
Our Haute Route des Pyrénées continues … days 18 to 25 have gone past in a snap of the fingers.
There have been lots of mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls; a few glaciers, closed refuges, and storms complete with hailstones; and next to no phone network, making it hard to sort out upcoming refuge accommodation. Many refuges are simply full, and one place didn’t have a record of a booking we had made. So the emergency tent has come in handy.
Last night we were at the closed/under renovation Refuge Arlet and, as a storm was due, decided to look for a sheltered space on the building site. We found the perfect spot and squatted in a sort of concrete cubbyhole at the back of the refuge, next to where the tins of food…sardines, olives, chickpeas etc were stored. We could literally reach in and help ourselves if we wanted to.
It feels clear that we have left the high mountain terrain now and have entered Béarn and, after tomorrow, Basque country with its rolling hills and more pastoral lands. We actually see shepherds milking their ewes and get to buy their cheese.
The end feels nigh, even though we have 8 full days of walking left. I am in full anticipatory grief of it all being over.
15 August 2022
Day 26 … and after today’s walk I am truly tired in my leg muscles and joints. Two nights ago we slept at 2000 m, last night at 1450 m, and tonight we are at 600 m. I have altitude sickness in reverse. How it will take our remaining 7 days to get to sea level, 0 m, I cannot yet fathom.
We have arrived in the teensy tiny village of Sainte Engrâce where there is a church and its cemetery, which I will wander around shortly, the auberge which provides food, dortoirs, hot showers and local beer, and a whole new language – Basque. Unrecognisable to me.
Gloriously long words, with letters juxtaposed that I have not seen elsewhere. A quick internet search suggests that the language’s origins are not known! Good. I love that we don’t know everything about where language comes from.
Here is an article with a bit of info….
Again I keep on thinking we are out of mountainous terrain, and we are, really, and yet the beauty of this region’s limestone is stunning. Mist weaves in and out and keeps us cooler than we might otherwise be, which is a relief. Water in troughs though is dangerously low. I hope the animals are okay.
20 August 2022
Days 27 to 31 on the Haute Route des Pyrénées and the end is truly nigh.
We are currently at only 197 m altitude, which is much lower than where I live. Which does not mean we don’t have stiff climbs on our remaining two days. We do.
On Monday, our final day, we will have over 1,000 m positive ascent before getting down to 0 m, sea level, in Hendaye-Plage.
Tonight we are in a veritable town – Elizondo – in Spain. Last night we were in a small village – Les Aldudes – in France. And the best accommodation ever. Double bed with sheets! Glorious!
The night before, we were in a rather remote, very basic unmanned refuge – Azpegi – in Spain, and the two nights before that, in France…Chalets d’Iraty (delimiting the famed AOC Ossau-Iraty ewe’s milk cheese region), and Logibar … the name, we think, being simply about putting the words “Logis” (accommodation) and “bar” together…for there was just one edifice in the place, providing simple rooms, food and drink.
And bed lice. Unfortunately.
Weather has been mixed these past few days. We walked under continuous rain for eight hours two days ago, after which we had the unmanned hut, so no warm food (as we chose not to pack a stove), and no way of drying very wet clothes. It was a definite low point of the month of walking that we had to put on dirty, muddy, wet clothes yesterday morning and just get underway. Memories of orienteering camping holidays in Scotland, Wales and England in the 70s and 80s came flooding back. Squelch squelch squelch went the shoes.
At one stage I muttered, “I don’t think I signed up for this”, and Medjool said, “Well yes actually we did… we could have had a week of this weather”. ‘True fact’, as Julia would say.
And after getting clothes washed, a good night’s sleep and a mere half day’s walk today, we feel human again and more than capable of completing our “périple”.
I have loved it. I am ready…I think…for us to finish. I think. I am not sure.
I know it will be a deeply emotional experience to walk on to the beach and into the sea. Rucksack and all. I will be grateful – always – to Medjool for joining me in this dream, and I will wish, I do wish, that I were completing this with Mike, and had an intact family back home. He would so have wanted to do this with me. Like the GR20 in Corsica, which I also did without him.
Forever bittersweet… my life a twisty plait of Grief, Love and Gratitude.
22 August 2022
Days 32 and 33 …and so we are complete. The final two stages/étapes of the HRP Haute Route des Pyrénées – have been damper, no, wetter, mistier and even chillier than we might have wanted. Suffer from heatstroke, we did not. Nor did we run out of water.
Yesterday, in Elizondo, Spain, feels a lifetime away. This morning, at the Col de Lizuniaga on the French/Spanish border, also feels lost in time.
There is a good reason the Basque region is gloriously green…it rains a lot! I whipped out my camera myriad times just so we might have memories of just how damp and grizzly it was.
The walk on to the beach was welcome, and less bittersweet than I expected it to be, for I feel complete. Walk-satisfied. And it was wet! It might have been tougher to close out the adventure on a brilliantly sunny day.
There is always a risk that finishing something like this feels a bit of an anti-climax. What….no crowds of people cheering us to the end as there would be in a marathon or long trail run? Just body surfers in the water, concentrating on the waves immediately around them, rather than the waves of mountains, heading all the way to Andorra and beyond, that we have scaled, relentlessly, these past 33 days.
And now… delicious hot bath, clean sheets, meal out…and a day-long train journey tomorrow to the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenees where my parents live… a violently snappy unravelling of everything we have done.
No…I am immensely proud. I feel grateful that Medjool and I both chose to carve out this time because this is something I – and he – wanted to do.
Not to have said we would wait until we retire, because I know too well that many people don’t get to retirement age. Something like this was too important to wait for.
‘Don’t wait’ is the first of Frank Ostaseski’s Invitations. It is a good invitation to live by.
Yes. I feel complete.