Conangles to Andorra

Me (glasses and hat) with some very helpful Spanish walkers.
I'm now into the second half of the trip having covered about 250 miles and climbed a lot of very high hills. I wasn't peak bagging but often the climb to a col would be the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis. Think of the cols as Munros and you get the idea.
During the walk I took many pictures for the purpose of constructing panoramas. None of these appear in the bolg but can be viewed on my Flickr page. or here.

In planning my trip I paid close attention to the blogs of other walkers. I aspire to making this as useful as I found them.
Cross Gentian
The main ones are:
HRP essential
Travelling on foot
Writes of Way
Selfpowered, David used his walk to raise money for charity.For a donation you get loads more.
Touching the Light
Amy Lauterbach where I picked up the tip to carry an umbrella.
Tilly and Martin  I love this site.
Andy Howell
GR10 Pyrenees Walk
Gordon's Pyrenees Challenge
Judith Hind    Judith Hind walked the route photographing and identifying every flower she found.  I bought a Pyrenean flora that she referred to on her site but left it at home as it is bigger than a phonebook.
Pyrenean Haute Route 2011 This guy  did the HRP in 23 days and took time to keep a useful record.

Day 22, Wild camp to wild camp (Val de Conangles)
It was a short walk to the road and it didn’t take long to hitch a lift into Vielha. I was there before the shops opened at 10-30am so had a pleasant kerbside breakfast. I had a choice of shops and went into one that took my fancy. The owner was very helpful. I tried on a few pairs before buying. I told the owner that the shoes I was asking him to bin were literally 4 weeks old and had only done three weeks hiking. He was reluctant to believe me but agreed to old the shoes outside so that I could photograph them.
I hung around town for a while looking for an internet connection but couldn’t find one. Wi-Fi was easily available but only useful if you had your own computer. I bought some self adhesive bandage for my feet, had a pizza and headed back to the road to hike back to where I’d left the trail.
I saw a large snake by the road as I walked away from the town. It took a while to get a lift as the road was not an easy one to stop on. When I got back I walked toward the Hospital de Vielha refuge. I was met by a fairly shirty guy with a dog who informed me it was no longer a refuge. It was late afternoon so I headed out the route toward Port de Rius to a level place near trees and a river to camp. The ground here was well churned up by sanglier (wild pigs).
The sky had been threatening a weather change for a couple of days. After I had set up camp hundreds of sheep started pouring down the hill and I wondered if they had heard a forecast that I had missed. During the night world war three broke out. Thunder was continuous and overhead. The lightening was flashing like paparazzi flashguns at the Oscars. The rain was threatening to flatten my tent  I was reassuring myself that nothing I could do would make me any safer than I was. I half expected when I poked my head out in the morning to see charred trees, sheep and sanglier but apart from a low mist and some light rain all was well, though I was uncertain whether I would be able to cross the port.

Day 23 Val de Conangles to Arties.
I watched the weather rather than set off uphill.  I saw another walker approaching and asked him if he had heard a forecast. He told me he expected the clouds to clear and not to have difficulty on the hills. I quickly packed up and proceded along the path. I was soon in mist with poor visibility but able to find the reassuring red and white stripes marking the route. I met another couple of guys coming down carrying a lamb they had found on its own. The sheep in their hurry to get to low ground had left it behind. BAD BAD mothers. The path divided between a direct route uphill to the port and a longer variant route via Estany Redo. I mistook the marking for the turn uphill as a signal to go straight on. I soon realised my mistake but as I was on a path leading eventually to the port I continued.
It started to rain heavily and blow harder. I got close to the lake when visibility became an academic concept. I was totally dependent on my GPS to tell me where I was. I climbed a rocky slope to a small building overlooking the lake. Except I could see the lake. I tried the door but it was locked. I was now out on the hill in a gale.
I sat in the lee of the building confident that I could put up my tent if necessary and sit out the storm for a day or two if necessary. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and waited. Then a group of local Spanish walkers turned up. They knew the area well and insisted on escorting back down. I was not keen to go back to the valley. By the time we reached the turn uphill that I had passed the weather had eased considerably so I said my goodbyes to my new friends and crossed my fingers that I would at least get over the col before the weather broke again. My helpers had said the forecast was bad.
Font at Sobira
I cleared to col and followed the GR11 to Refugi de la Restanca. According to my map the GR11 would drop into the valley and take me to the road to Arties. My plan was to give Restanca a miss. The path that I should have taken had the red and white ‘X’ marking indicating that it wasn’t the GR11 so I stayed  on the path I was on. This led up to Restanca by a loathsome excuse for a path. The refuge is a large building by a dammed reservoir. It had been originally built to accommodate worker building the dam. A fairly steep unpleasant path took me back down and connected me to the Arties road.
I now had about 5 miles of road walking to do. Soon I was dining on copious raspberries and redcurrants  along the side of the road. But the plod was long and the plod was slow.
I eventually found the campsite and it was a good one. As soon as my tent was up the skies opened again, but while the thunder roared and the lightening cracked I was enjoying a very fine pizza and a litre of San Miguel. Much of the campsite was under water when I returned to my tent but my pitch was dry...ish.
Pipe cemented into crack in the rock to catch rainwater.
I had told Dave that I would be in Arties if he wanted to join me again though I was there sooner than I had planned. I would have one rest day here but wanted to get away again after that. I phoned home from the campsite asking my partner to talk to Dave’s partner to find out his plans. I said I would phone home again the following night. That was the only time on my trip that I had specified exactly when I would phone. But the storm knocked out the phones and the next evening calling was impossible. I was worried about scaring my partner and did manage to get a call through at 7-00am the following morning.
Arties is a tourist town. Very little exists of the original hamlet, all is modern ski lodge type buildings. It also has two captive bears on display in a caged enclosure. I didn’t like that. I shopped in a posh delicatessen. The only tea I could buy was Twinings ‘Prince of Wales’ tea. Yes I know you have never heard of it. It is a  tea that you can’t buy in England except on the internet. The pack lasted almost to the end of my walk and I grew quite fond of it.
Having heard that Dave wouldn’t be joining me again I hit the road.

Day 24 Arties to Espot.
There is a carpark a couple of miles out ofArties where walkers park before going into the hills. The track I was taken started from the carpark. As I had already walked to the carpark and indeed beyond it I felt justified in hitching a lift back to it.
The walk to Espot was long and tiring and I was soon back amidst soulless granite.
I took the circuit around Colomers rather than over the col. The track had been severely damaged by the rains and it was officially closed. I met a couple of mountain bikers coming the other way who asked me if it was safe to proceed. I warned them about a couple of spots where the floods had cut through the track but where bikes could be got through.  Refuge de Colomers and the lakes were a bit of a tourist trap. The crowds were gathering.  The higher I rose towards Port de Ratera the fewer people I saw. I was entering a barren landscape of broken tumbled granite and mountain lakes. The view back down the valley was breathtaking.
Els Encantats
The decent to Espot was slow and rough. It was a hot sunny day but fortunately no shortage of water which is the saving grace of granite.
 Espot is a centre for visiting the popular sights of Estany San Maurici and the Catentats. This is the busiest part of the Parc National de Aiquestortes. It was a place I knew from previous visits but which had developed substantially since. A continuous stream of vehicles ferried people to and from the lake. I resisted the temptation to take a ride into town. But I was tired and footsore when I reached the Voraparc campsite which was packed to the gunnels. So packed they packed me off to find somewhere else. Fortunately there was another campsite in the town itself. This one had space and was very welcoming. The owner was curious about my Irish passport and introduced me to her daughter who had worked in Bray for a while. I met a hiker doing the GR11. He was heading to La Guingueta D’Aneu the next day. My plan was to reach Estaon.

Day 25 Espot to Estaon
 I was able to buy meths and bread before leaving Espot. It was clearly going to be a hot day. The route to Guingueta is mostly on road and not very interesting. I watched two elderly gentlemen walking at a leisurely pace ahead of me but was surprised at how long it took me to catch them. They in turn were bemused by my umbrella. La Guingueta sits on a main road and I saw nothing to recommend it. I ordered lunch at the Gite and then ordered second. They clearly weren’t accustomed to the dietary requirements of hikers. I headed off uphill to Dorve in the midday heat. I was out of the granite now and passed a series of dried up stream beds and hoped that reports of water at Dorve weren’t wrong.
Dorve was fascinating. I don’t know if anyone lives there still though someone keeps a garden. Otherwise it looks totally deserted. The buildings are disintegrating and bullet holes are visible. It is easy to imagine that this was the sight of conflict under Franco.
Water was plentiful and I rested in the shade for an hour.
The track uphill is not clear and I had to check maps and GPS a couple of times. The problem is that there are too many tracks and too few GR11 signs so I ended up doubling back. I was looking for a gap in the ridge that takes you onto a path that rises through woodland.
Again at the top the variety of options confused me for a while. I met a couple with a young child at the top and asked them about the route. I too them for day trippers picnicking but they told me they were about to set up their tent. They were doing the GR11, east to west, with their child. Sure,  they told me,  progress was slow but who cares. There was no water to be had between Dorve and Estaon but they had carried enough.
It was a long decent into Estaon. I was keeping an eye out for suitable places to camp for the night but didn’t find any. The flat grassy  summit would have been ideal but I wanted to cover more distance. It was another one of those occasions when you find the best site earlier than you want to stop but then have to keep going because there is nowhere else.
It was about 8-30 when I reached Estaon. Quaint or what. This is an extraordinary little hamlet of old buildings huddled together in a tight little valley. Too small to get lost in but too complex not to. I asked a woman in the street if she knew of somewhere I could camp and she offered me her back yard. The yard was tiled with broken slate and I was nervous of my groundsheet. I was able to find enough gaps between the slates to get tent pegs in. I cooked some pasta and sardines and had a lovely night’s sleep. If I had walked on another 30 minutes I could have found suitable spots along the river. There is a refuge in Estaon which was closed when I passed through.

Day 26 Estaon to Camping Serra
Two overly long days had left me tired again. I would try to make this a short day. I was up early and away before any sign of life in the town so didn’t get to thank my host. The route skirts the valley side eventually dropping to the riverside due north to Bordes de Nibros.  Here it zig zags up the valley dise and over the Col de Jou. The decent on the other side is heavily eroded but not to difficult. By now, mid morning the heat of the day was becoming oppressive. I met a couple walking with a dog. The dog was carrying its own panniers. They were doing the GR11 from the Mediterranean and had come through Tavascan. They told me there was nowhere to camp there.
I decided to skip Tavascan and drop down to Camping Serra south of Lladorre. I reached it about 1-00am. At reception the owner put my rucksack in a golf buggy and drove me around the site to choose a pitch.
Electric fence on crash barrier
I set up and was soon approached by my Spanish neighbour, Carlos. This was a very hospitable site. It appeared that everyone knew everyone else and were mostly Barcelonans decanted for the summer. I was introduced to someone else whose English was very good. We were soon talking politics at the site cafe. Once again my Irishness attracted attention and I was assumed to be a fellow struggler for the freedom of small nations. If anyone on this site wasn’t a Catalan nationalist, I’m sure they weren’t letting on.
I stocked up at the site shop which was small but adequate, had coffee with Carlos and back to the cafe for a pizza, which I’m sure I forgot to pay for. Carlos asked me what Time I was leaving in the morning and I told him I would be up at 6-00am. He insisted that he to would be up at 6 and make me a coffee before I left. He told me we were in a heatwave butthe weather would be cooler in a couple of days.

Day 27 Camping Serra to Plat de Boet.

This was to be a long day starting with a big climb to Coll de Tudela.
 At 6 it was still dark and the site was dead quiet. True to his word, Carlos was ready with the coffee. I packed  up in silence and was hoisting my heavy sack on my back when  Carlos presented me with a bag of groceries which I could neither refuse nor find room for in my sack.
I waited until I was clear of the site to have a look at what I had and decide what to do. Bread was always welcome, but I had a number of peaches, some tomatoes, a toilet roll, a packet of salt and more. I decided to eat the peaches and tomatoes straight away.  By the time I reached Boldis Sobera they were gone. Fruit and veg were always in short supply, and to heavy to carry. My usual custom was to make sure I had plenty when stopping at a village but not to carry any. 

Water font at Boldis
The route to Boldis was on the road and I noticed that a farmer had incorporated his electric fence into the crash barrier. Metal rods supporting the fence had been inserted into the hollow uprights supporting the barrier. I warned myself not to rest on the barrier. I have rarely seen anything so stupid and funny at the same time. A cyclist landing against the barrier and touching the electric fence would be perfectly earthed. I suppose you could think of it as instant defibrillation.

I was met by a couple of large dogs at Boldis where there was a water font enabling me to refill. This would be one of the hottest days yet so I was happy that the route to the coll would be mostly through woodland. The ascent was through forest tracks which contoured  along the slope before rising. GR11 signs were few and far between so I was anxious at one stage that I had somehow gone off the route. But there were no other tracks to follow. The crest of the col was unshaded and on the short climb over I was glad of my umbrella. I would use it a lot today.
Boldis Sobera
It was a 1000m drop to Areu, a decent into stifling heat. There was one bar open where I decided to sit for a couple of hours hoping the day would cool. A group of young people sat near me. They were a mix of nationalities so were using English as a common language. Conversation ranged from sex to skiing;  philosophy to responsibilities for elderly parents.
At about 4-00pm I set off again though the day was still very hot. I was walking on the road for the first mile or so and able to replenish my water from streams. The path was rising through  the valley. The road ran out and dirt tracks took me up the valley side into the welcome shade of the woods.  I still had a long way to go to reach the Pla de Boet where I intended to camp. At one point I was worried that I’d climbed to high and was on another track but I was fine.  As I approached the Refuge de Val Ferrera about eight o’clock I met a woman hiker. We exchanged pleasantries, I asked her how from my destination I was.  She was in the area climbing peaks and had just come down from Pica D’Estats which she highly recommended. When I told her I had walked from the Atlantic she commented on how much I must have to eat to fuel such exertions.
The guide book warns that Pla de Boet is a popular camping spot and that I might even have to pay a small fee to camp there. In fact I had the plain to myself. It is a very fine place to stop. The cattle were welcoming but so also were a few midges. I think this is the only place in the Pyrenees where I did get bitten by the little blighters but in reality they were not a deterrent to camping, merely an echo of experiences in Ireland and Scotland.
I was able to wash some clothes in the stream, photograph the sunset and enjoy an evening meal of pasta and sardines.

Camped at Pla de Boet

Day 28 Pla de Boet to Camping D'Ancalonga (Andorra)
Today would take me over the probably the steepest col of my trip, Port de Baiau (2760m). I had a choice of entry points into Andorra. The easier Port de Bouet would have taken me into a ski station but positioned me better for crossing Andorra.
It was a long uphill climb to Refuge de Baiau though much of it through pleasant woodland and open grassland. My starting point at Pla de Boet was well under 2000m. I rose eventually into the wasteland. Wonderful lakes sit under an intimidating wall of crags. It was difficult to look up at them and think there might be a sensible route through. The refuge at 2,500m was an iron shed bolted to the rock and held down with steel hawsers. One didn’t want to experience the type of weather this was built to resist.
A Spanish mountaineering group were using the refuge and planning their own ascent of the col. I had lunch and made myself sociable seeing the opportunity to keep company on this difficult climb. Clouds were gathering and rain looked likely later. I was sure (correctly) that we would get over the col dry but thought that rain on those gravelly slopes would be a much greater hazard that wind or mist.
Refuge de Baiau
The climb was, in the end, pleasant and it was reassuring to be in the company of a group who were looking out for each other. The main disadvantage was that I had to watch out for stones being set rolling by people in front.  At one point the gradient was at the limit of what I could climb and I struggled to get purchase on broken rock. We all made it up to the col and rested there. I was continuing down into Andorra towards refuge Comapedrosa and the group were climbing higher. The decent was every bit as barren as the ascent but not as steep but I had nearly 600m to shed before I could dine in comfort.
Looking back from Col de Baiau

Refuge Comapedrosa was a welcome stop and the food was good. I arrived about 4-00 pm. I walked on further along the GR11 which carries on down the valley before climbing again over Col de les Cases and dropping down to a campsite. By the time I reached the turning it was raining heavily. I could see nowhere to camp as I was entering an urban area near Arsinal and decided to hitch a lift. The lift took me to Pont D’Ordino from where I walked another few miles on the road to the campsite at, the wonderfully named,  D’Ansalonga.
The campsite was good except for a few idiot Englishmen partying all night.

Day 29 D’Ansalonga to l’Hospitalet Pres l’ Andorra
I was not enjoying Andorra. I should have stuck to the northern regions and avoided the urban areas. But now I decided to leave the place as expeditiously as possible and got the bus to Pas de la Casa on the border with France. This took two buses, the first into Andorra city itself. This made for a fairly miserable alternative to hiking the cols.
Pas de la Casa was a real shock. I may not have found it attractive but the hundreds of drivers queuing to get in clearly did. It was a shopping mall of ginormous proportions.  It is at 2000m, the mist was down and it was cold. I walked the road to l’Hospitalet and it was the most unpleasant part of my trip. However the campsite at l’Hospitalet, despite comments I have read elsewhere, was a gem. A family site rather than a trekkers site but very relaxed. The reception had free coffee, toys for children and a computer for the free use of people like me. I ate the food that I had left and walked back into the town later to buy more. The shop is a very small appendix to a small cafe but it met my needs. The cheese was expensive but delicious.


Gavarnie to Congales

Path to Horquette d'Alans

The next stage takes me from Gavarnie to near Hospitalet de Vielha. This is the third stage of my walk and takes me to the half way point. On reaching the end of this stage my coinfidence was high. I had lost weight on my body though not in my sack but I had carried my sack over the highest cols. I was anxious about the heat and access to water but I had walked through temperatures in the 30s. Bringing the umbrella had been an inspired decision.
Monte Perdido
 Day 16 Gavarnie to Heas

The Cirque was in cloud and the weather looking iffy. I was reluctant  to start off without sufficient supplies and a weather forecast.

I’d had a day and a half rest but was still feeling a bit wobbly. However I had done more than two weeks of serious backpacking and was meaner and leaner than Dave. His pace was slower than mine but this had the real advantage of enabling me to proceed without exhausting myself. A few slow days were going to be as useful as another days rest in Gavarnie would have been. Also Dave had come well equipped with foot dressings and provided a bit of common sense about footcare. I noticed that he was more observant than me. My head down, best foot forward approach was causing me to miss sightings of birds and marmots. It was more conducive to spotting interesting rocks.

Our progress was slow and when we got to the dam at the end of the reservoir and were on the road we opted to hitch into Heas. We paid for our sin. The driver didn’t quite understand us and took us down the wrong road. We spotted a campsite, Chez Ernest, and asked him to drop us there.

Chez Ernest was a quiet little site along the river. Few people were camped there but we were welcomed by neighbours who had lit a large fire. This was a family with children. We cooked up our pasta and sardines and went to bed. In the morning the attraction of the site became obvious. This is where the serious flyfisher was to be found. Marc , our neighbour, emerged equipped and dressed for the hunt. He told us  he had been coming here for years.

When we went to the house to pay we were invited to have a coffee by the farmer. He was interested in our walk and very curious about the Veron book we showed him. He was delighted that his house was on one of the maps. I gave him the book as a present glad to reduce my weight. He was planning a motor tour of the Pyrenees in the next few days. In fact we were to meet him again...

Day 17 Chez Ernest to Barroude
We walked up the road to Heas and got breakfast. The day was starting slowly and the heat was building fast when we started uphill out of Heas. Our progress was slow. My tent was very wet from the heavy dew of the night before. I had packed it wet. We stopped at Cabane d’Aguillous for a rest and I took the opportunity to dry it out. This was one of those places where the route ahead is clearly visible, or so you think but you are wrong. The obvious col ahead of us was not the crossing we assumed it to be and we were a bit off track before realising it. We were walking up the valley when we should have been zigzagging up the side.

Horquette de Heas really is invisible until you reach it when it opens up as a gap in the ridge looking into the next valley. Bare rock slopes into the barren scree. The valley we had come up was green. The one we were decending into was a wasteland, a wonderful beautiful wasteland. Dave commented that it felt like the Cuillins. The path at least was clear but another col had to be climbed. Joosten shows this as not a climb at all. In our sorry state I can tell you it was. Once over Horquette de Chemantas we were into the limestone moonscape leading to Barroude. At one point the path goes along the edge of an overhanging wall from which we could hear stones falling. I was developing another blister but had decided to suffer in silence until we reach the refuge and set up camp. If the overhanging wall was impressive it was nothing compared to the Barroude wall when we saw it. This is one of the most spectacular places in the Pyrenees. It was getting dark when we set our tents up but I boiled up some pasta to which I added a tin of sardines. It wasn’t actually as dark as I thought it was. I was still wearing my sunglasses though unaware of the fact.

A full moon rose over the Barroude lake illuminating snowfields on the wall long after the sun had set.

Day 18 Barroude to Parzan (Bielsa actually)
I was able to buy bread at the refuge. This is a little know fact but something I was able to take advantage of a number of times. Some refuges bake their own bread. They make big heavy loaves and will sell you a chunk if they have enough. Sometimes it will be stale and occasionally it will be fresh and warm. I can’t remember how I found out but I rate it as about the most useful service I have had from the refuges.

The climb over Port de Barroude takes us again into Spain. The path down is rough and rocky but the backward views of the sun rising on the Barroude wall are jaw dropping.  I often wondered about these cross border paths and who used them to bring sheep to market or guns to fight fascism. At one point the track across a gully had completely collapsed in a landslip except that it had been rebuilt in a magnificent feat of drystone engineering. The path must have been an important route for people to have put such effort into restoring it.

Dave at the  Barroude Wall
An American blog I had read comments on the quality of the paths in the Pyrenees referring to the fact that they are not as well maintained as paths say on the Appalachian Trail. My biggest complaint was that sometimes there was a route but no path at all. But sometimes you just had to be impressed by paths cut through rock or built like this one in impossible places.

We eventually reached the floor of the valley and walked out to the road along the valley. When we reached the road we decided to hitch a lift into Bielsa, beyond Parzan. I had hoped to find somewhere I could buy new shoes but we needed groceries, I fancied a pizza and looked forward to a shower at Bielsa campsite.

Bielsa is a lovely town. I got my pizza and very nice it was to. We bought some groceries. I managed to check email in a bar with internet facilities. I had an ice cream. Eventually we walked out of town to the campsite and it was when we were walking onto the site that everything went pearshaped.

A passing car honked at us an pulled up. Here was the farmer from Chez Ernest delighted to meet his old friends and keen to be helpful. We explained that we were going to the campsite and in the morning make our way back to the GR11 to continue the walk. Why didn’t we let him take us back to the GR11 now, we could camp there and be ready to start on the path in the morning. Says I “but it is a dirt track up a steep hill, there is nowhere to camp” and inwardly “but I want a shower”. Says Dave “Thank you that sounds like a good idea”.
So our bags go in the boot and we are driven back to the route with about an hour of daylight left. We tried to be optimistic as we went further and further up the dirt track. We didn’t even have water and couldn’t find a stream. Eventually we found a place where a stream was dammed, I think for hydro electricity. The place had a big fence around it and concrete steps leading down to the dam. I went down with bottles. The only place you had any hope of filling them was at a side sluice where a torrent rushed past the steps. It took a little bit of stretching and judicious use of a skyhook but I got water.

We then found a spot along the track where we could lay out our sleeping bags. There was no room for a tent, the ground was stoney and sloped away dramatically but, yes, I did sleep.

Day 19 to Camping Forcallo.
We continued along the dirt track past the hydroelectric station to Puerto de Urdizeto.  By the time we reached the top the day was clear, bright, sunny and hot as hell. There would be little shelter on the decent and when we reached some we stopped for half an hour to savour it. The valley floor levels out well before the campsite. There are two campsites. The first one is some kind of youth camp dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I had to reassure Dave that what we were looking for was a little further on, though he was so hot and tired I think he would have accepted conversion.

Forcalla reception and cafe is on the road side facing a pleasant grassy area which I assumed was the camping area. After registering I wandered off to a perfect little pitch near a stream and surrounded by large boulders. I went off to have a shower and wash my underwear. When I returned an air of panic had decended. Campsite staff were seeking me out to demand what the blazes I was thinking of pitching my tent on private property. Clearly there had been problems before.
They thought me particularly stupid for not noticing their beautifully laid out campsite with water and electricity points.

I harumffed and moved my tent. Steve from Gavarnie was already at the site. He had climbed Posets that day.

Sunset on Posets
The sunset on Pico de Posets had to be seen to be believed. We had arranged to eat at the campsite cafe and meet Steve there. Walking over to the cafe the view of the mountain was striking and I returned to my tent to get my camera. The face of the mountain is the most impossible tangle of folded strata which probably, to the knowing eye, tells the full geological history of the Pyrenees. These tangles glow in the evening sun. The walking photographer should not miss an opportunity to see this.
The meal in the cafe was superb. We washed it down with a few beers and  discussed  how to put the world to rights. Steve had some wonderful stories that can’t be retold here for fear of libel actions.

Day 20 Camping Forcallo to Camping Ixeya

Another slow start. First stop at Refuge Viados to buy some bread. I’ve read good reviews of this refuge though all I can say from experience is that the warden was helpful, the bread was tasty and there is a public phone.
The slow start again dropped us into noonday heat. The path ascended slowly up the valley side until it reached a point where three streams meet. The path divides here. The HRP carries on towards Refuge de la Soula and into the high country. The next three days of the HRP are the other three ‘E’ days. The GR11 turns east at the three streams toward Refugio de Estos. Joosten offers the GR11 here as a variant route to the HRP to be used in poor conditions. The poor conditions I was experiencing were my disintegrating shoes.

Dave and I parted company here. He headed north to the highlands hoping to catch Steve and I headed east.
The variant route is not a doddle. It rises to over 2700m and takes you through appalling granite boulder fields. Joosten allows three days, I did it in two. On the third day I hitch hiked into Vielha to buy new shoes.

After saying goodbye to Dave I climbed the rocky path that leads to Puerto de Gistain. On the way up I met a couple who had come the other way on the GR11. They had spotted that vultures were interested in a carcase further up the track and were waiting for them to return so they could photograph them. I asked them about temperatures at the Mediterranean end and also if the path had been damaged by the recent forest fires. They told me they had started before the fires and didn’t know what damage was done. They also told me that the weather had been stifling and one of their friends had dropped out after one day because he found it too hot. I asked about finding food on the route and the assured me that on the GR11, unlike the GR10 through the Ariege, they had no difficulty finding small shops.

Curious rock formation
The path continues over the col and decends slowly on barren scree. The rock formations here very interesting. One type of rock had very clear smooth black rectangular features on  yellow background. I couldn’t imagine how it had been formed. Further down the valley where strata have been completed turned to the vertical a gorge cuts through a particularly thick yellow strata which  stands on both sides like natures gateposts.

Refuge Estos has a pleasant balcony on which I sat and ate an omelette sandwich (torilla bocadillo). I had been making good time and decided to carry on down the valley. I passed an unstaffed refuge and a cabin with a sleeping platform but carried on to Camping Ixeya.
I loved Camping Ixeya despite some obvious weaknesses. The welcome was very friendly. It had a delightful, and cheap cafe bar. It had free internet access with a computer in the cafe area. The toilets and showers were pleasant and free. I like moths and in the morning when I went to the toilet block the white walls hosted a rich array. Coffee and bread were available  at 7-00am, as was the internet.

What were the weaknesses? The ground was pretty lumpy. It was situated on horrible grey sand that could barely hold a tentpeg. But like Chez Ernest this was a warm friendly welcoming place.

Day 21 Camping Ixeya to wild camp  (T 316032 4718578) near N-230

The route divides
I had an early start to long day For the first couple of hours I followed a dirt track which rose along the valley through woodland. The trees thin out. Streams flow from different directions and among an increasing number of boulders. I find a flat grassy area for lunch. At this stage the walking, the scenery and the availability of water, shelter and a soft place to put your bottom make this an ideal stopping point. But this walk has stings in its tail.

The route, let’s not call it a path, takes you through granite boulder fields. Let’s not call these boulders. This isn’t like hopping from one rounded rock to another along the seashore. These are massive sharp edge rocks skewed at all angles. Sometimes you do hop along confidently. Other times you freeze at the thought of the consequences of a slip. I couldn’t help thinking of the guy who trapped his arm in rocks and was stuck for days until he cut his own arm off. I wondered if I would be able to reach the swiss army knife in my bag. Should I for instance, wear it around my neck. This landscape encouraged dark humour. A couple of cols are crossed before you emerge into idyllic meadows which provide an opportunity to call it a day, put up your tent and watch the sunset. Actually the clouds were building.
I pushed on and soon regretted it. The route again becomes tricky and descends through a stream course, the shortest route downhill, through woodland. It was 7-00pm and I would camp wherever I could now but it took be a further two hours to find a flat piece of ground the size of my groundsheet. The walk along the Barranc D’Anglos in the valley bottom is pleasant but I was practically at the road before I found a place to camp, A beautiful clearing by a wide river coursing through, you guessed it, granite boulders.

These shoes are 4 weeks old. I have been hiking in them for 3 weeks only.


Roger's Pyrenean Traverse- Urdos to Gavarnie

Looking across a sea of cloud from Pic d'Anie to Pic Midi d'Ossau, where I would be in a couple more days.

I was very satisfied with my progress through the Basque country. I had expected navigational problems due to the area's notorious low mists. The lushness of the area is testament to an atlantic climate.  The next stage to Gavarnie would take me through much higher, rougher country. I was confident that if I could complete that stage in reasonable time I would be able to complete the walk.

Day 9 Urdos to Refuge d’Ayous.
I started at 8-00am still feeling anxious about the weight I was carrying on what would be a long ascent. This route took me along the Chemin de la Mature. This is a striking route through a channel cut into the face of limestone cliffs. It could be pretty freaky for anyone with a low tolerance of exposure but is a very safe walk, at least in good weather.  At the beginning of the route you could hire a donkey or mule to take you through. The route is long and relentlessly uphill. It eventually takes you into woodland but until then the views are striking. Today’s route is wholly on the GR10.

When you leave the woodland you follow a clear well marked path to the Col d’Ayous. When I did it the col was blanketed in low cloud and visibility poor. I was glad of the frequent markings indicating the path. It was here I had one of the oddest experiences of my journey. I had seen very few people all day, though I did find a hat on the path which replaced one I’d lost earlier. Very near the col itself I hear a child crying. I could see nothing and reminded myself that I was more than 2000m above sea level in the mist on a craggy slope.  I called out being reluctant to dash into the mist and maybe have difficulty finding the path again. No one replied but I did hear another child’s voice that had no hint of fear or distress in it. I walked on deciding that I would inform the staff at the refuge which was now about 20mins walk.

As I dropped out of the mist on the other side of the col I saw ahead of me two adults leading two mules carrying their baggage accompanied by two children, a boy and a girl certainly both under ten years old. The children were roaming all over the place and now the refuge was in sight were heading down across the slope making a bee line for it. The adults seemed reluctant  to leave the mules but were trying to call the children back. I followed the children down the slope to keep an eye on them. They were both wearing cycle helmets and oozing confidence. At one point the little girl let me tie her bootlace.

I booked a meal at the refuge and set my tent up by the lake facing Pic Midi d’Ossau. I’d read about the possibilities here of photographs of golden sunsets light up the mountain. With the low mist I knew this wasn’t going to happen but was pleased with the shots I got.

I dined at a table with two young  French men who were out for a few days walk though not well equipped. One explained to me that he made a living from internet poker. He assured me that although the rewards were not great that a skilled and safe player would always earn enough to live on. He spent about 10 hours a day playing. I thought bank robbery might be an easier and more reliable source of income. Anyway how could being in prison be worse than full time poker playing?

The food was very good. The refuge was packed and preparing for a second sitting at 8-00pm. The meal cost  17 euros. The refuge was raking it in without of the need to meet the expectations a customer in a restaurant would have-like sufficient toilets, choice in your menu, the freedom not to be ushered out of your seat after  45 mins.

There  were many tents along the lake shore so many more people were eating at the refuge than staying at it. I knew now not to order breakfast a refuge. Breakfast is a very different experience in that at dinner you get fed well, at breakfast you get dry bread and coffee. A totally unwarranted lightening of the wallet. Anyone gambling that a refuge breakfast would set them up for a day’s hiking would be wiser taking their risks at internet poker.

 Day 10.  D’Ayous to Pombie.

Today my navigational skills deserted my. This wouldn’t have been too bad except that my common sense took the day off to. I forgot my golden rule, that when you stray off the path you should back track to a point you are confident is on your route. It is fun sometimes to navigate your way out of tricky situation but in these hills it is dangerous. The route today would divert from the GR10 and I was a bit anxious about managing without the familiar red and white stripes. It was however a well trodden route and if I had just followed the flow all would have been well. I would be going over Col de Peyregret on the shoulder of Midi d’Ossau. This involved a long steep climb to above 2300m. I wasn’t yet attuned to the scale of these hills. Sign posts and guidebooks usually gave distances as timings. These weren’t always reliable but they told you “don’t expect to reach the col before 3-00pm” which is very useful for quietening the little voice in your backseat of your head chirping  “Are we nearly there yet?”

The scenery was magnificent and the stop by Lac de Peyregret astonishingly beautiful. There were lots of people about and I noted one photographer even carrying a tripod. So I had a brew up and watched the trail of people ascending to the col along no obvious path. They had all gone by the time I set off. The path swings north on a gentle rise before climbing and I became confused, sure that I had missed a turning,  and headed uphill. I did realise my mistake and got a clear fix on my position but again decided I could navigate my way back onto the right track. I was soon on very steep ground which was shaley and slippery. A detour to safety brought be into the middle of boulder fields where a sharp edge snapped one of my precious carbon poles. I ended up circuiting Pic  Peyregret rather than going over the col, a longer and much more difficult walk than I had planned. But in all it was a relatively short days walk and I got to Refuge Pombie mid afternoon. I think the fact that I knew I had plenty of time encouraged me to explore a different route.

At Pombie I was a too early to put my tent up but another walker had spread his tent out on the ground without actually erecting it. At some refuges it is difficult to find a nice level spot and walkers will stake their claim to a site by spreading their tent out. The rules forbid tents being put up before 7-00pm. They have to be down by 9-00am.

Pombie was very busy refuge. At dinner I was sat with my neighbour and new companion for a couple of days. Also at the table were a group of Danish people on an organised trek. All spoke English during the meal for my benefit and our paths would cross again at Wallon.

The sunset was wonderful.

Day 11. Pombie to Larribet.

In Joosten’s book this is the first of four days graded as ‘extreme’. There are two crunch points on this long and difficult walk. The first Passage d’Orteig is a roped traverse across a rocky face. This proved not to be difficult. The second is the Port Du Lavadan. This and the subsequent decent is a serious undertaking which should be avoided (like the plague) in poor visibility or high winds.

The day was bright and sunny and the afternoon very hot. It started with a long decent to a road, the D934. You have just squandered 640m but don’t worry you are going to claw back them all and more, much more.  By Col D’Arrious you have climbed a further  940m and the day is young. I cooled my feet in Lac D’Arrious before tackling the Passage. My neighbour from Pombie had caught up with me. He had done the route before and I was glad of his company. We then proceeded down to Rerfuge D’Arrimoulit. By now the heat was blistering. My friend was stopping at the refuge but I was continuing on to Larribet. I decided to wait a couple of hours in the hope that the sun would cool. I lunched. I set up my solar panel to charge batteries. I watched younger braver folk swim in the lake and I studied my map determined there would be no navigational errors on the next very difficult stage of the walk. As I left the refuge someone asked me where I was going and wished me ‘Bon Courage’. I was indeed a little nervous.

It was a hot dirty climb. I got to Col Du Palas without difficulty. I took a bearing on the invisible Port Du Lavadan and I stuck to it. I am now in SpaIn. There were a few cairns to remind me that I was on course. They would have been difficult to find if I had not been on course. Nothing prepares you for the sight of the port. This is a rocky gully running up the slope across the line you have been walking (sorry crawling). It is full of large boulders which you haul yourself over. It leads magically to a col looking down a vicious scree slope to a lake. Refuge Larribet is not yet in view. I am back in France.

The most direct route now is down the scree slope but the guide book tells me there is an easier safer route on the rock to the left. I tried to find it but was soon in a dangerously exposed place and decided to take my chances with the scree.  A one stage I took a short cut across a snowfield which was easier to walk on in my micro spikes.
This is where the concept of the HRP breaks down. The route here takes you north to Larribet before turning south again. The variant route from D’Arrimoulit to Respomuso is just logical. Having done the Port I have no wish to do it again.

It was nearly 9-00pm when I reached Larribet. I asked at the refuge if I could eat there. I had to wait until the 8 o’clock sitting was finished and was presented with a feast. While waiting I set up my tent in the bivouac area. There was one other tent with two pretty uncommunicative blokes. They told me in the morning they were climbing Balaitous.
The ground was a bit lumpy and the night windy.

Day 12  Larribet to ?

I rose early to make my way to refuge Wallon. The day started again with a long decent which took me through some pleasant woodland. The route then turned south and rose steadily along a valley side at one point climbing steeply in zigzags. I stopped to cook lunch by the river (Gave D’Arrens), a feed of pasta and sardines.

The afternoon got hotter and hotter as the place rose through a shelterless dusty landscape. I worried about finding water but was reassured by people coming the other way. The path took me right up to the Spanish border before dividing. There was a pleasant looking drop into Spain but my route was to take me over one more high col, Col de Cambales.

The directions in my guide book were skimpy and misleading. My compass and satnav were telling me I was on the wrong track but I wasn’t listening. I struggled over a col that fitted the description in the book, snowfield, lakes, path to the right of the lake, blah blah it looked right but it was wrong and a long, enjoyable decent took me into the wrong valley. I kicked myself because I managed to believe what I wanted to believe and ignore for instance the fact that I was walking into the setting sun, something you seldom do on a easterly path.

The sick part was that I had landed in a spot I could have reached a day earlier if I’d taken the variant route from Refuge D’Arrioumulit instead of scaring myself on Port du Lavadan. It was late and a wild camp was in order. There was already someone pitched on the plain so I joined him. Jorge was Spanish and enjoying a few days in the hills. He was very pleasant company for the evening and we exchanged some meagre food supplies. Before bedding down I made sure I had my bearings and was clear about the next days route which would take me over Col de la Fache and on the refuge Wallon.

Day 13

There were many compensations for my unplanned detour.

I met Jorge

I crossed the magnificent Col de la Fache and got some of the best photographs of my journey

I met a Scottish teacher, John,  who was pleasant company, though we disagreed on a few education policies. He had arrived with a friend who had to return home quickly due to a medical emergency.

My delayed arrival at Wallon coincided with the arrival of the people I had met at Pombie.

I started off tired and a little demoralised. The climb to the col was steep and rocky and I stopped a couple of times to rest. Arriving at the col there was a snowfield across the path. I tried a route along the lakeside but it was impassable so scrambled up to the higher path and across the snow. There were quite a few people at the col.

It was a long decent to Wallon and I was tired and footsore. I was developing burn blisters on the balls of my feet. I met John on the way down and we met an English couple going the other way. These were the first native English speakers I had met on my trip. The scenery in this valley is stunning and the views backward to Gran Fache amazing. Marmots were everywhere and here they seemed to have little fear of humans. This is not always the case. John was a keen photographer also and stopped to do a bit of exploring. He had been up early to climb the summit of Grand Fache.

He caught me up later when I stopped sooth my feet in the stream and take a few of my own photographs. He was already booked into Wallon and directed me to the dining area. After lunch I risked a beer.  I thought it might knock me out I was so tired.

I set up my tent by the river, washed myself and a few moldering clothes then rested until dinner time. At dinner the Pombie gang showed up. They didn’t cover the miles but they were having fun.

John also introduced me to moleskin plasters for my feet. He was gone early the next day and I didn’t get a chance to say farewell, I hope he wasn’t upset at my comments about Michael Gove.
{I had said “Well surely we can agree that Michael Gove is the Devil’s spawn?”  No he replied ,”he is just an idiot journalist who has suddenly found himself as Minister of Education, what do you expect?”)

Day 14. Wallon to Barrage d’Ossau.

Despite my weariness of the day before this would be one of the biggest walking days of the trip and pass through magnificent scenery moving from glacier eroded granite to iron rich sandstone to wild limestone cliffs and ravines. I would have lunch at Oulettes de Gaube facing the Vignemale glacier and hear my first threatening rolls of thunder. This was also the day I saw a bear.

The climb away from Wallon is gentle and beautiful taking you to Lac d’Arratille where only a philistine could resist stopping. I had started off on my own but by reaching the lake had been joined by my friends.

There followed a steep stoney climb to Col D’Arratille. We passed a number of snow bridges over streams where the dangers of walking on melting snow were all to obvious.  Karen, the Danish guide, told me she had been in the area two weeks previously to scout for this walk when there had been much more snow about. She told me she never walked on soft snow fields for fear of dropping through into who knows what.  The wind at the col was very strong and although the Danish group had decided to stop there I thought it wiser to carry on out of the wind. The path drops down from the col and contours around the valley head to re enter France at Col des Mulets from which it drops down to Oulette de Gaube.
I had lunch at the refuge and the group arrived shortly after. The sky had clouded over and rain was starting to fall. It quickly became heavy and was accompanied by thunder. I was worried that the weather would finish my walk for the day but looking at the sky felt reasonably confident this was just a passing shower. The group were settling in and advising me to stay and not risk a further climb over Hourquette d’Ossoue (2734m) to refuge de Baysallance.

The rain stopped and I nervously headed up the track keeping a close watch on the sky. I could see no sign of frontal activity so didn’t think the overall weather pattern was changing. I was aware of the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms in these mountains and had felt fortunate that I hadn’t experienced more of them. The ascending path gave striking views of Vignemale and it glacier and rose to one of the highest points on the walk. Although there was loose scree on the col the walking wasn’t too difficult and I was soon looking down towards the refuge.

This was smaller than the more popular ones I had visited but a real mountaineers refuge. Few day walkers would arrive here. I was totally dismayed though to see the sharp flakey stone that covered the ground which, for me, ruled out the possibility of camping. I asked in the refuge where I might find levellish, cleanish ground to camp. I was told that people did camp around the refuge and indeed a couple erecting a tent, but it would be two hours walking to find anything better. I decided to carry on.

The decent through the valley from Baysallance to Barrage d’Ossoue is an extraordinary trek through glaciated limestone. You have the sense that the glaciers have just popped out to the shops and will be back in a moment. Snowfields filled the gullys and the path was broken in places by rockfalls. It was occasionally steep and hazardous. I met no one on the way down. A twisted ankle could have serious consequences. I passed Henry Russell’s Grottes de Bellevue. I regretted that I was moving so hurriedly to find a camping spot before dark. This wilderness begged to be photographed and the setting sun was showing it at its best.

Eventually the valley levelled out. I could see tents on the opposite side of a reservoir but decided to pitch where I was. There were a few cattle about that I hoped wouldn’t sit on my tent. I had dropped 900m from the Hourquette and was only a few hours walk now from Gavarnie.

Day 15 Barrage d’Ossoue to Gavarnie

 Today I awoke relieved that by lunchtime I would be camped in Gavarnie, grazing on pizzas and able to replace my broken pole. I was still carrying it (like Strider’s broken sword) as I had yet to find a rubbish bin. I’d taken the opportunity to test it by breaking  the remaining bits on sharp rocks. It snapped like a carrot. I was also looking forward to meeting  Dave in Gavarnie.

I had been walking in trail shoes (North Face Hedgehogs) which I now realised were not going to last the whole walk. They were wonderfully grippy and  generally comfortable except for a strange ridge on the insole which I’m sure was causing fiction burns. I just don’t think I could have covered the distances in boots. I traded the security of my ankles for lightness and speed. I did suffer a couple of scuffs on my ankles. These were  painful at the time (like hitting your  thumb with a hammer) but didn’t slow me down.

I walked the road into Gavarnie and found the Tourist Information Office. From there I was able to email home and get directions to the campsite. The campsite is out of town towards the Cirque. The pitches are stoney but the grass had just been cut. I spread cut grass under my groundsheet. It was cheap and welcoming though definitely sniffy (rude)about my poor French. They also charged 2 euros for showers. Gavarnie is a tourist hotspot and a bit up its own ass.

Pizza time.
I rested. I showered. I washed my clothes. I rested. I would rest the next day as well. At the time I thought I might even have to rest the day after that.

A glimpse of the Cirque through the mist
I bought new poles in the hiking shop which confirmed my view of the town. It was overpriced and the staff were rude.  Had I not needed use the shop I would have left resolving not to darken its door again. If it had been more welcoming they would probably have sold me a pair of shoes as well. I consider poles to be essential safety measure for a hike like this especially in shoes.

I wanted to buy some moleskin for my feet but there was no pharmacy in town.

The Cirque is quite a magnificent sight, almost on a par with the Barroude wall or the Cirque de Lescun. The town developed as a day outing for pilgrims to Lourdes and a major activity is pony rides from the town to the cirque.

Dave arrived and we met a couple of other walkers. One Thomas was trying to complete the HRP in 30 days. Another, Steve, was walking some of the high hills in the area. We would meet him again a couple of days later at Viados on the GR11.


Roger's Pyrenean Traverse- Basque Country

Camping at 999 metres, (Plateau 999)
On 10th July I took the train to south west France to begin my walk along the Pyrenean chain to the Mediterranean coast.

My plan was to follow fairly closely the route of the HRP as described in Tod Joosten’s ‘The Pyrenean Haute Route’.  This is the high level route that incorporates elements of the French GR10 and the Spanish GR11.  I had no rules other than to walk coast to coast and wasn’t strictly adhering to any route.  I was starting from St Juan because I believed it would give me easier access to the GR10.  I had read reports of the awkwardness of getting out of Hendaye.  My solution, don’t go to Hendaye.

I was staying on the GR10 throughout the Basque country. This is not the usual way of doing the HRP but again writers had suggested it was a more interesting route.

I had a language issue.  Both my French and Spanish were abysmal. So why not stay in France and take the opportunity to improve my French? Because the Pyrenees are international. I grated at the idea of a French walk or a Spanish walk in these hills that were both a boundary and a life saving link  between France and  Spain. The HRP was attractive because it was the one route that ignored the very modern international boundary. It would take me to places I would have preferred not to go and frightened me into avoiding others as a lone walker. Some of the HRP just goes the long way round in order to take you higher, just as some of the GR10 takes you the long way round so as not to cross into Spain. As a walker on a journey with a beginning and an end, sometimes finding the easiest way through was an attractive option.

All three main routes (GR10, Gr11 and HRP) have their idiosyncrasies. Some parts are better signed than others.  Some parts are routes across barely passable wilderness. For instance the GR11 has been rerouted to take you to  the new Refugi de la Restanca.  The route it takes is a bee line up an overgrown boulder slope, horrible. Someone setting the route drew a straight line on a map and sent someone else  out to scramble up here with two tins of paint. There are places like this on all three routes. This is not the worst by any means, it is just the most illogical.

I got the impression that local mayors set the routes through their patch. Routes changed frequently and generally to take you to a refuge. I camped every night of my walk sometimes using refuges to eat or buy bread.  In one section of the GR10 a refuge itself has put up a fake marker to lead you to the front door and another sign at the refuge to get you back onto the GR10.

The refuges were variable in quality and internet bloggers get very different impressions usually based on one night’s experience.  I’ve seen Wallon criticised for not having a drying room. I wouldn’t have noticed as it was blazing sunshine when I was there. What I did notice was that it had no showers though more than 100 people were staying the night I passed through. Visitors were directed to the river outside if they  wanted  to wash.

I enjoyed Wallon. The atmosphere was friendly. The food was excellent. I arrived there knackered and hungry, having had a pretty meagre breakfast. Within minutes, no  seconds,  I was addressing a beefy stew as big as some of the hills I had just crawled over.

 It was the first refuge I saw that clearly had a system for recording financial transactions. Many used post it notes, didn’t have signing in books or anything that looked as though it might be useful to the taxman. As some are private businesses that annoyed me.

A cow showing some interest in my laundry at Pla de Boet.
People I talk to are often surprised that I camped every night. Why didn’t I use the refuges at least occasionally. There was indeed a great social buzz at some refuges. Some near roads are busy all day with day walkers or even those who just enjoy a view with their beer. I walked into some and felt I, the hiker, was the odd one out. Other more remote ones like Larribet and Bayssellance were more responsive to a walker’s needs. I arrived late and tired at Larribet, when meal serving was finished, yet got well fed.

I had researched my route for about two years. I had read gear reviews by the mile and spent some money. When I left home that morning to catch the train I had a horrible feeling that my pack was too heavy. I hadn’t followed all the good advice. My tent was a 1k Vaude Power Lizard (great buy) but my sleeping bag was a heavy North Face Cat’s Meow. My cooker was an Evernew titanium meths stove which served me very well but my camera was a Nikon D7000 with a 35mm f2 lens. I had looked at lightweight rucksacks but as back comfort was critical to me I bought an Osprey Kestrel 68. I was very pleased with it. I noticed that some of the more regular walkers and group leaders were using this model. With all kit you eventually adapt the way you use it before you appreciate how good it is. I’m sure there are very good lighter sack around but I couldn’t take the risk of reactivating old back issues.

A note on my day numbering. I have only numbered the days that I walked. Rest days are referred to but not numbered.

The Basque Country
Day 1, 11th July 2012.

I reached  St Juan at about 11-00pm the night before and  slept  near the beach. I’d been advised not to sleep on the beach as it is cleaned by machines at 6-00am each morning. I was up by 6 and the weather was starting to feel British. I walked back through the town admiring the posh shops selling, among other things, a carved elephants tusk. I reflected on whether or not that should be legal. I was planning to get to Ainhoa on day 1 and to pick up a bit of the GR8 before connecting to the GR10 at Sare.  As it was getting more wet an miserable by the hour I decided to stay on the road until Sare.

Sare was a pleasant little place with a lovely boulangerie and an excellent public toilet. Generally the Basque country to be well equipped with regard to toilets and water fonts. I found my first red and white slashes with little difficulty and followed the route out of town. I soon got my first lesson in not following these signs blindly. I must have backtracked on a variant route but after a couple of hours was practically back in Sare before recognising my error. Pay attention. I arrived at Ainhoa about 3-00pm and headed for  the campsite and Tourist information office.

The campsite is excellent offering Randanneur rates for solo walkers and a small shop. The reception was very friendly and  my struggling French was laughed at. There was noise from nearby building works but you couldn’t blame that on the campsite. I had my first experience of a special welcome for the Irish in Basque country. I had to present my passport at campsite receptions as proof of identity and it was always commented on. If I then went on to ask how Bradley Wiggins was doing in the Tour I would elicit surprise. ‘Why do you care?, you are Irish.’ I even received a comment once about my umbrella which was assumed to be an English idiosyncrasy.  Both in Basque Country and Catalonia I witnessed intense nationalism expressed in response to my Irish Passport.

The Tourist Information Office at Ainhoa had an internet connected computer for public use for one euro for 15 mins.  It is a tourist town and I couldn’t find a grocery shop. There were many tourist shops and a large and well used pallotte court. Play was continuous through the evening.
This would be my first night sleeping on my thermorest neoair. This is so light I was scared to take it out of the tent in case it blew away. It took time to work out that it work best about half inflated so that you could sink into it and distribute your weight.
Day 2
I walked from Ainhoa to Bidarry.

This was a bright sunny day. The walk starts with a climb on a clear track to the Col des Trois Croix where three rather gruesome crucifixes (Christ and the two thieves) look back over the town. The path is good and generally easy to follow for most of the day though I did get confused at a point where the GR10 goes right up to the Spanish  Border and of course veers back from it. It does this a couple of times on this day’s  route. I didn’t appreciate how much the route climbed before the long steep decent to road into Bidarry. This day ends with a long road walk.

Ravine on route to Bidarry
Lucia’s ‘The GR10 Trail’ describes this decent into the ravine as long loose and exposed which ‘would be dangerous for all in wet conditions’. It was not to be incident free. As I approached the start of the decent I passed a fellow lone walker who appeared to be  in difficulty. He assured me he was OK but after getting a little ahead of him and seeing that the path was difficult I decided to wait and watch. The only other life around were the circling vultures and a couple of eagles. It became obvious that he was going to need my help. I went ahead a bit, put down my rucksack and went back up to him. I insisted on taking his rucksack so that at least he could tackle the path unburdened. His progress was still slow. We repeated this many times on the long decent. Even so at one point he fell forward on the track and grazed his face.

When we got to the road he insisted on being left to himself as I, wearily proceeded to walk into Bidarry where my first priority was to find a restaurant to eat and eat some more. I noticed there were several good riverside spots along the road where I could have camped.  As I sat under a canopy of vines indulging in a 22 euro menu randonneur I was joined by a woman who had come out for a smoke. She asked me if I was walking and I explained that I had just had a difficult decent, helping  a Frenchman, to which she replied ‘not Andre?’  She and another couple of GR10ers had been walking with Andre from Hendaye but had gone ahead of him that day. Then in walks Andre himself having clearly got himself to the gite and cleaned up (he must has got a lift into Biddarry).  Andre announces to the world that I saved his life and insists on paying for my meal. He was still on an adrenalin high and probably in shock. He ordered the same 22 euro spread and beer. We had been joined by the other GR10ers from the Gite and I was the toast of the evening. I had however still to fined the campsite and get to bed. Bidarry campsite is not well signposted but is worth the visit. I eventually reached it in the dark and didn’t meet anyone there until morning. I was about to head up to the Iparla ridge and was glad to speak to people who knew the route. I was cautioned to carry plenty of water.
This was the first trip on which I had used light thin titanium tentpegs.  I had brought some thicker aluminium ones with me as backup just in case. The titanium pegs were much superior. They were easier to get into hard stony ground without bending and they held much better than I had expected.
Day 3
The Iparla Ridge.
The campsite owner offered campers a lift back to the GR10 which I accepted. I had a slow start and it was nearly 11-00am before I was on the trail. For a hot day this was a mistake but I wasn’t at peak fitness yet and was tired from the exertions of the day before. (no not the beer,  I didn’t have any).

The Iparla Ridge was my main reason for staying on the GR10. To me it looked like a range of sea cliffs incongruously overlooking land. It reminded me of the north cliffs on Rathlin Island, though much higher. The edge forms the border between France and Spain. Here you could fall off France and land in Spain.

Iparla Ridge
I was glad of my umbrella in the rain on day 1. I was now using it to keep the sun off my head. The ridge itself is pleasant easy walking with magnificent views. At Col d’Harrieta , where the first water is found at a spring 150m from the track (signposted) the route enters beech woods. Navigation can be difficult here. Deep  beech leaves are my least favourite walking surface and on slopes can be wickedly dangerous. I lost the path for a while and found myself floundering in deep leaves before regaining the track and descending to Urdos. I continued into the campsite at St Ettienne-de- Baigorry.  This was the cheapest campsite I found, apart from my wild camps, at 3 euros for a Randanneur.

I quickly got my stove going. Although meths wasn’t always easy to find and was slower than gas to cook on I really enjoyed using my stove. Later on the walk I would have difficulty lighting meths on cold mornings, but I always found a way.

Day 4 St Jean Pied de Port

St Jean Pied de Port
I was much more tired by this time than I had expected to be and decided on a short day to St Jean Pied de Port. I realised by this time that I drunk water I shouldn’t have and decided a days rest in St Jean was needed.
I found the municipal campsite by the beautiful city walls, set up camp and chilled for the afternoon. I set up my solar charger grass to recharge my phone. This attracted interest from a German cyclist who had arrived having cycled through Germany,  Italy and the Alps. He was interested in the charger as he was looking for something reliable. He was an interesting chap, happy to talk about his travels but dedicated to travelling alone. I learnt a couple of things from him. Firstly beer is best for replenishing minerals (!). and not to use cleats on a touring bike (!) as you inevitable have to walk and push at times. He also told me that cycling is better than walking because you don’t have to shower as often. Once every 4 days is enough.
I went out in the evening to phone home and bumped into the GR10ers I had met at Bidarry. They told me Andre had phoned his son to come and collect him having decided not to walk further. We found a restaurant and had a meal together followed by a beer followed by me teaching them to sing ‘I tell me ma’. This was 14th July and a holiday weekend to celebrate Bastille Day. The main celebrations would be on Sunday night.
Sunday I continued chilling.  I met an interesting couple of teachers from Chicago and had a fascinating conversation about the efforts of the teachers unions there to resist attacks on their conditions of service.
On Sunday night the Bastille day celebrations got serious as brass bands played the same patriotic marching tune repeatedly for most of the night.  At one stage a group tried to vary the theme a bit by playing Auld Lang Syne but they got lost in the middle of it. The march kept recurring in my head throughout the walk but I’ve no idea what it is called.
Day 5 St Jean Pied de Port to Chalet Pedro.

Despite delays I was still on time for a pre-arranged rendezvous with a friend at Lescun. I started fairly early but needed to buy bread before leaving town so didn’t get away as quickly as I had hoped. I stopped for a coffee at Esterencuby. The route at this stage wasn’t very interesting though it was gradually rising and views were improving. The route was generally simple to follow but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get confused. I missed the turn off after Col d’Ithurramburu and found myself on a path going in the wrong direction which would take me onto the ridge some distance from the connection with the road. I sat down and took a few bearings and studied the map and decided to carry on up. This gave me a longer but more interesting route and the satisfaction of having navigated (and scrambled) my way out of the situation. In general I resolved that when I went off the track I would backtrack to a point of certainty and proceed again from there. I didn’t always listen to my own advice. From the road the route Carries over Col d’Irau.  I met and walked a while with another GR10er. At this stage of the walk I had the impression that most long distance walkers were, like myself over 60. The further I progressed the younger hikers got until I felt like a bit of an oddity.
There were some interesting stone circles on route which I enjoyed photographing before heading down to Chalet Pedro.  I remembered a theory I’d read that stones in stone circles were aligned with hilltops with a similar profile. A couple of my pictures here try to illustrate this. I didn’t visit the Chalet but camped  by the river. This was obviously a popular spot as the detritus of previous users of the site was evident.

Day 6 Chalet Pedro to Plateau 999.
I awoke to a heavy dew and a wet tent. I had little difficulty finding the route and getting to Chalet d’Irati. I replenished my water bottle but didn’t dally. I took the road down to Larrau which was pretty unpleasant as it had been recently tarred and smelt terribly in the heat of the day. Larrau delivered one of the more memorable meals  of the journey. A plat de jour at the hotel. The management nearly had a heart attack when I walked in but said they would bring me a ‘plate’ outside. I had no idea what was coming until it arrived. Truth be told I’m still not altogether sure what it was. But I ate heartily in the shade and ‘people watched’ other diners. On the way out I spotted the bar which would have been a more natural stop for hikers.

There was a decision to be made at this stage, whether to continue on the GR10 or divert now onto the HRP going over Pic d’Orhy. Pic d’Orhy certainly looked like the more attractive option when I was walking on sticky tarmacadam. Afternoon temperatures were now in the 30s and I was aware that water sources on the HRP at this stage were infrequent. However the GR10 had some very pleasant surprises in store. At Logibar the route tracks through limestone gorges. According to the guide books this is a variant route but it is clearly marked on the ground as the primary route and so it should be it is magnificent. The gorges are a popular local walk. Most people walk up, have a look and walk down again. The day I was there the trail was littered with wilting day walkers greedily clinging to any shade they could find.  I however had had a lovely lunch and a very fine umbrella which was much commented on that afternoon. I’m confident that I’ve started a trend because as amused as people were by it they were unanimously jealous.

I didn’t  go into Logibar. The route through the gorges curved around the valley head and onto plateau 999 (because it is 999m high). It was about 8-00pm when I arrived there and it was still quite hot. My food supplies were meagre so I saved some pasta for breakfast.
I sat outside my tent watching a glorious sunset and sheep gathering on the ridge trying to look like the Apache nation.
I was pleased with my progress and feeling that my recovery rate was good.  I would feel very tired at the end of the day but wake up  ready to do it all again.  I’d had a couple of reminders to be more careful about carrying enough food and water. I would have a long hike the next day on a small breakfast and little water.

Day 7 Plateau 999 to St Pierre Martin.
The highlights of this day were helping a hill farmer move his cattle away from a dangerous slope, a cracking lunch at a cafe and finally reaching the limestone wilderness at 2000m. The heat was oppressive and water getting scarcer. I remembered that limestone country rarely has surface water. The walk down to St Engrace was quite tedious though the views were getting better all the time.

Lunch was a four egg omelette followed by a salad. Wrong order.

Arrival in Karst country is almost a shock, being so different from everything I had seen up to then. In the heat it feels dangerously dry.
I camped at the Refuge Jeandel. This is in the heart of an ugly ski station which just looks like an act of vandalism in that landscape with views across to Pic d’Anie.
Farming carries on though and a group of farmer’s pigs were wandering free in the carpark of the ski station. (You will see them more clearly on my Flickr page) Further up sheep were being milked and cheese was being made in farm cabins.
I’ll say little of the refuge except that I wouldn’t recommend it.
A long tiring day.

 Day 8 St Pierre Martin to Lescun
 I started walking with a guy doing the HRP. It wasn’t his first time and he was full of helpful advice and encouragement. He also gave me a few water purification pills. We parted company as he was heading to refuge D’Arlet and I has a rendezvous in Lescun. Much of the walk was stunningly beautiful. The Cirque de Lescun is one of the wonders of the Pyrenees.
I bought cheese at Cabane du Cap de la Baitch. The farmer there was very friendly and his cheese is magnificent. Made with basic technology. Unfortunately as you drop towards Lescun you enter a beech forest which is very dull compared to the glorious landscape you are leaving. It would be a couple of days before I would get back to such landscape.
I expected to catch up with a travelling companion Dave at Lescun but in fact he had move on. We wouldn’t meet now until we reached Gavarnie. But Lescun is a beautiful town and I was able to stock up  with pasta, sardines, bread, sausage and Meths (Alcool a bruler).  I bought a litre of meths but gave half of it to another camper to save weight. I wouldn’t do that again.
The campsite at Lescun is OK minus . I found flies a bit of an issue.

Day 9. Lescun to Urdos
This is a day blueberries. The walk was largely through woodland and heather moors and felt a lot like Donegal. I had a very pleasant brew by a stream.
I met a Pyrenean sheepdog at Col de Barranc. I had read about them and how they stay with the sheep to guard them. This one seemed to be on a different mission altogether. The track takes you to Borce but the nearest campsite is at Urdos further down the valley and the only route seems to be along the road. I had visited Alle D’Aspe a few years earlier and was now struck by the amount of development that had taken place.  I like the campsite there and was able to walk into Urdos  to buy some more pasta and sardines..and chocolate. I would have to wait until morning to get bread.