2011_365171 - Celebrating the HRP

This collection of pages gives a few hints and tips and reviews from our expedition on the Pyrenees HRP in 2011.

It is not and cannot be a guidebook – there are publications that do that specifically. However, coupled with my journal, the photographs and other blog articles, it might serve to help anyone planning an HRP walk in the future.

I undertook the trek with my best mate Wayne Gosden. That summer marked my 50th birthday (and Wayne’s too). What better thing to do than to walk the HRP in 50 days. One thing is for sure: making an expedition of this duration is not going to get any easier.

About the HRP

The HRP or Haute Route Pyrénéenne runs from Hendaye Plage on the Basque coast to Banyuls-sur-Mer in Roussillon, a distance of 500 miles and between 40 and 50000m of ascent.

It is more of a concept than a waymarked trail, and was created by Georges Véron in 1968. Although the route utilises the lower-level GR10 and GR11 in places, it follows closely to the frontier ridge between France and Spain, crossing the border frequently to attain the highest walkable route.

Numerous summits are crossed: Larrun and Pic d’Orhy in the Basque country, Pic Carlit and Canigou in the Catalan Pyrenees. In the central section, classic summits such as Grande Fache, Vignemale, Perdiguère and Aneto are all close to the route and attainable to the trekker.

Whilst the the French Pyrenees national park is well served by mountain refuges, much of the route will require overnight bivouac, and frequent deviations will be necessary in order to restock food supplies.

We used Ton Joosten’s guidebook, “Pyrenean Haute Route”, published by Cicerone Press, for our route planning, which gives a timeframe of 45 days for this expedition.

Originally we intended is to complete the journey in 63 days to allow time for climbing summits, for photography and for contingency. But with variations and forced changes we completed the route in 50 days – 45 days walking and 5 rest. See our detailed Route page for the variations we made and why.

 Why do the HRP?

On a philosophical level, there is just one simple answer to this question: “because I had to” …

When you feel compelled to do something, it lives inside you. It cannot be explained.

It has always been the HRP, and not the GR10 or the GR11. And from experience, the least interesting parts of the HRP were those that coincided with the GR11 on long dirt roads. The HRP visits remote parts of Spain and Andorra, crosses beautiful and sometimes challenging cols, and stays high wherever possible.

I have been passionate about the mountains since I was first taken to Snowdonia as an 11 year old, nose pressed against the window of the car as we drove into the heart of the Eryri for the first time. It was a magical feeling, one that has never left me, and has only intensified as life has moved on.

Wayne and I both had our setbacks. In 2006 I endured a serious chest infection and complications during and after a winter expedition on Mulhacen in the Sierra Nevada of Spain. There were times when I thought I would never regain full fitness.

The trouble with life is that it gets in the way. And long expeditions don’t get any easier. I’ve had reason to be reminded several times recently that life is for living. We never know what fate awaits us around the corner, and being, right here right now, is ever more important.

As Pure as Possible

I wanted our journey through the Pyrenees on the HRP to be as pure and as low-impact as possible. The Pyrenees are well served by mountain refuges, and the HRP could certainly be more easily (and much more expensively) accomplished by using these or gites d’étape for accommodation en route.

But a wilderness adventure requires an element of challenge and a connection with the soul of a place. One of the greatest joys in expeditioning is the self-sufficiency of camping and finding peace and solitude away from as many trappings of everyday living as possible. Being in the moment is about experiencing something fully, about feeling immersed totally in the mountain environment.

I know that this is important for my photography too; if I do experience something fully, then I know that images will come to me naturally without the need to search them out or to look too hard. It is like being tuned in to a different wavelength.

So what does it mean to walk the Pyrenean High Route in a purist manner? In short:

  • We travelled to the Pyrenees by rail and sea.
  • We camped wild wherever possible, and always left no trace. See Camping …
  • We walked light: almost without exception we met people who were carrying way too much gear, some in excess of 20kg. My base weight was under 9kg, which allowed me to carry food comfortably. Over the course of 50 days, I’m quite convinced that it enabled both of us to stay fit and strong, to move comfortably at a good pace, to recover quickly, and to finish the trek with no ill effects at all – not even tired feet. See Equipment…
  • Refuges were used mostly for lunchtime snacks of omelettes and coffee, and occasionally for a big evening feed. When we did stay in refuges, it was in poor weather (Viados and Pinatell excepted) . See Refuges…
  • We navigated by map and compass only, using no GPS.
  • We used locally-available food in shops, restaurants and huts. It is clear that we could have made long detours by bus to bigger shops – it was amusing watching two fellow trekkers sprinting for the bus to Canfranc – but I am very satisfied that we didn’t, even though pasta and soup got a bit tedious! See Shopping…
  • We walked with the light: every day we started walking at 7:30am, and finished most days by early or mid afternoon. This allowed us plenty of scope for rest and renewal.
  • We walked slow and we walked long – and we were still quicker than most!
  • I’d like to say that we didn’t go near a vehicle, but Pascal, the campsite owner at Arles sur Tech, insisted on driving us 50m from the reception to our pitch in a golf-cart. Failed!

I hope this makes an interesting and useful read for all HRPers and those to come.

… Ken