Walking the Pyrenees High Route (Haute Route Pyrenee: HRP) in Early Season
In April, May and June 2011 I walked from the west (Atlantic) coast eastwards along the Pyrenees to the highest point: halfway to the Mediterranean side. This doc summarises the trip from a ‘technical’ point of view.
Mainly I followed the HRP (ie. Haute Route Pyrenee, aka La Alta Routa, The High Route, the other one) but also a bit of the GR11. See a rough map. The route is split between France and Spain.
The intended audience is others thinking of walking the Pyrenees early in the season.
When planning, I found a lot of information about Summer walking, but very little about Spring or Autumn walking. This webpage aims to plug that gap.
I started at the end of April and finished mid June. During this time :
- there are very, very few people around,
- the refuges are mostly shut.
- above 2000m there was significant snow.
- temperatures at night were low (min -5°C) and okay during the day (10-25°C)·
- it snows high up
That summary might sound dubious, but was actually it was a great time to go.
Where to go and in which direction?
I walked west to east. See a rough map. This worked well, because it gradually got steeper as I gained more experience. And as the weather warmed (in June), it got higher and colder. Also, most guide books go in this direction.
In the low Pyrenees (see below) I followed the GR11 which is on the Spanish side. Then, I switched to the HRP which is right along the French / Spanish border.
What was it like?
The Pyrenees are divided into low, medium and high.
|Low||Irun to Canfranc||Forests, remote but usually
pass though a village each day. No snow.
|0 – 1000||2 weeks|
|Medium||Canfranc to Parzan||Small mountains. Patchy snow.
2-3 days without villages.
|1000 – 2000||4 weeks|
|High||Parzan to Aneto (highest peak)||Big mountains. Snow. No
villages: walk down to them as required.
|2000 – 3300||4 weeks|
The low Pyrenees a bit dull, but great to get fit, meet people, eat well and generally settle in.
The mid Pyrenees were starting to get challenging and more serious but only standard bushwalking equipment (no crampons) were required.
The high Pyrenees were serious, snowy and generally awesome.
How hard is it?
When I left, I was a 34 year old guy, medium fitness. I had a reasonable amount of bushwalking experience but no alpine experience. I had lots of skiing experience but had never used an ice axe or crampons.
It was physically hard in the mid to high Pyrenees, because it’s steep and sometimes rocky. In the high Pyrenees, it was also hard technically (snow, ice, temperatures, mist, navigation).
By starting on the low west side, I got fitter and more confident (with navigation, in snow) over the weeks. I read the magazines in the refuges and talked to everyone. By the time I go to the harder high Pyrenees I felt confident (though nervous in parts) and fit.
What do you need that you can’t buy?
- Experience in hiking, though you can get it on route (see above).
Hiking partner: I went alone. Overall I think this was safe as I was more cautious and took extra gear (see below). I enjoyed the solitude (there’s a lot). I met a friend on route for a week – this was great too.
- French and Spanish: I’m fluent in French and roughly fluent in Spanish. It was great to be able to chat, vital to make bookings for refuges and useful to discuss the route conditions. This isn’t essential, but I’d highly recommend learning the basics in both languages.
- Time: the more the better, so you can go at an easy pace. Absolute minimum is 2 months for the whole HRP; I took 1.5 months to go halfway.
What do you need you can buy?
My list is below. Some notes:
- Less is more·
- Spend the money on good important stuff (eg tent)·
- Save the money on little stuff (eg fork)·
- Pack weight of ¼ body weight: maximum for mortals·
- Pack weight of 1/5 body weight: maximum recommended
- I was safety focused and wanted to be self-sufficient. However, there’s a trade-off: the more safety stuff you take, the slower and more tired you’ll be, which defeats the original safety intent!
for organising, worthwhile. Colour code.
Torre. Great but heavy.
one iceaxe strap and crampons holder.
if you can get off over boots and crampons.
Face off ebay
all the time in camp
pants for walking.
all the time in camp and days off
quality overmitts on route and needed them. Used a fleece hat with visor and
ear warmers instead of separate beanie and sunhat.
wool thermals and underwear excellent. Cotton useless.
a thin one. Layers, plus down jacket was a good mix.
cup, pot, scraper, grips
gas, like a PocketRocket. Alumunium and plastic pots/fork fine. Spork great.
maps (“TOPO”) reasonable. Used GPS as a backup to traditional
a SIMM in Spain. Used as camera too. And alarm clock. Minimal coverage but
okay in villages.
AAAs for Torch
to work when below zero.
torch. Quality one.
powered phone charger
battery powered for phone. Could use a light plugin charger instead or a
unless on snow.
900g 700 loft down
in a tent. Nights downs to -5°C.
most nights. Appreciated the extra space of a 2 man tent. Could use a lighter
or smaller one, but in the big storms I enjoyed the 4 seasonness.
in the cold to allow drinking on the go.
Aas for GPS
lenses – 1 day disposables. Worked well.
450 Strap on
for lightness. Must take off for rocks. Many don’t like aluminium and one did
break but I think the lightness is worth it.
standard axe. Made a wrist strap. Longer was good for use as a kind of
walking stick. Aze was useful for step cutting occasionally.
quality, but don’t need a miltary or sighting one. Small declination in
Book + Maps
the more important. Used 1:50 000 which was okay. French ones better.
Guidebook was the Spanish “La Alta Ruta Pirenaica” ISBN
84-9829-023-6. Was pretty good but some dodgy “alternatives.” I
needed a mini Spanish dictionary to assist with terminology. Guidebooks where
most useful for planning ahead (info on food, villages, etc). Sometime info
is out of date so beware. I called ahead as required. Refuge “guardians”,
when available, are the best source of information.
So that’s 15kg. As a body weight fraction:
of body mass
3kg foods and water
I found 15kg (one fifth body weight) okay and more than 19kg (one quarter) burdensome. UPDATE 2015: This is needlessly heavy: I’d now aim for 10kg by taking a lighter pack, tent and down jacket.
See the figure below for categorisation of mass. Note that:
- It’s really about: clothes; tent; pack
- The small, expensive stuff (titanium cup, fork, etc) is solving a non-existent problem. However, Google “Light Hiker” if you want to really get into it.
- Making this kind of list, with accurate weights was very helpful in decision making.
Figure 1 – Mass of all equipment (g) (excl boots) by category
Day to Day Essentials
Food, water and shelter are the essentials, and I’ll add one: a track.
The longest stretch without any supply points was 4 days. Mostly I carried 2 days food plus 1 day emergency. Where possible I ate inrefuges as it’s very sociable. Plus there’s chocolate, wine and beer.
Due to snow melt, water was generally abundant. A one litre Camelback was suitable, but I sometimes needed my dodgy one litre plastic bottle if I was sleeping high.
In the lower areas I used Aquatabs (i.e. chlorine pills) and then nothing in the higher areas. No problems from water. I did get sick twice (vomiting at night) but I think that was over-exertion.
Most refuges are shut until mid-June. I assumed refuges were shut unless I could contact them by phone. Where possible, phoning ahead is appreciated by the guardians. If a refugee was open, there were usually a handful of people, or none. On weekend some were crowded (I heard) and so I biv’d then.
I biv’d most of the time, even if refuges were open. I found eating inside with others, and sleeping outside alone a good mix. In the high Pyrenees I never had to sleep on snow, but did sometimes have to clear the ground. In the lower, populated areas, I had no troubles biv’ing, but it take care to ‘hide’ the tent, leave nothing and set up camp late.
In the higher mountains some refugees have a winter section open which varies from emergency only (too smelly) to lovely (gas cooker, fire, etc).
In May and June there it’s light from 5am to 10pm so there’s plenty of time to hang out.
Route-finding was a fun and challenging requirement on the HRP. 1:50 000 maps were okay and pretty accurate. I improved as I well.
I figured getting lost was the biggest danger, so I took a GPS as a backup. I did use this occansionlly to confirm my position. Whiteout conditions or general bad weather were the biggest challenge, followed by the track being covered in snow. The GR10 and GR11 are well marked (at least compared to the HRP).
The maps show ‘paso delicado’ or ‘passage délicat’ in parts which I found means, depending on the weather, snow, etc:
1. Slightly difficult track section: fine to traverse, OR
2.Highly dangerous track section: avoid like the plague
Sometimes they were a bit dicey, other times I took them, and it was fine. The best way to differentiate between the two is to talk toother hikers and refuge guardians. Guidebooks are helpful here. I avoided some difficult sections and when the long way. Sometimes the only way to find out is to try and see, because each year is different (snow, ice, etc).
Ice and Snow Safety
I experienced no avalanche danger. I went on a few glaciers, but talked to others beforehand to check conditions. There are few glaciers anyway, particularly compared the Alps which is an advantage for solo or small parties. The crampons and ice axe were necessary. I didn’t take snow shoes (‘racquets’) and didn’t need them, although I was told they were useful during other years. Instead, I’d go really early to avoid the soft snow.