**Note on the text**
This is an account of my solo traverse of the 780km Pyrenees High Route, completed between Aug 6 – Sept 18, 2013. The HRP is a challenging route with minimal way marking, suitable only for experienced walkers. Please be aware that this text is not intended as trail-notes. If you are considering an attempt I highly recommend the latest edition of Ton Joosten’s guide ‘The Pyrenean Haute Route’, published by Cicerone (2nd ed, 2012 reprint). Be aware that there are some errors in that guide, and several minor details have changed in the years since publication – corrections can be found online. Please feel free to contact me for any information.
‘Fernweh’ – some Swiss-German guests taught me this recently. Google will tell you that it translates simply as ‘wanderlust’, a word that already exists in German, but Michael and Barbara described it as something more profound, an almost painful craving to move and explore; to wander.
There is something in the nature of a ‘traverse’ that is like a drug to the fernweh impulse of a long-distance hiker, a clarity and purpose that begs to be tested, and the Pyrenees High Route, or Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), is a classic amongst the world’s long-distance traverses. It begins on beaches of the Atlantic Ocean in Hendaye, before threading it’s way 780km along the unbroken spine of the Pyrenees Range to Banyuls Sur Mer, on the Mediterranean Sea.
Unlike the GR10 and 11, which traverse the French and Spanish sides of the Range respectively, the HRP does not follow a way marked route, but rather winds it’s way between Spain, France and Andorra, crossing the border dozens of times as it patches together a network of shepherds trails and goat tracks to find the highest passable route.
I had been eyeing off the HRP for a few years, after hearing about it from a grizzled old independent hiker during my first season of guiding. I almost made an attempt during the European summer of 2012, before second-guessing my experience and making for St Jean Pied de Port and the Camino instead (a sensible choice in retrospect). During the first day of the Camino, walkers cross the HRP in the hills above Roncevalles, and sitting there in the mist and cold I eyed the intersection with longing, determined to come back. 2013 was to be the year, and my whole off-season was planned around the single goal of completing a coast-to-coast solo traverse.
Section 1: Hendaye to Lescun
Day 1: Hendaye – Col de Lizunga
The day before starting the HRP, I arrived in Hendaye after an 11hr train ride from Galicia anxious and strung-out, as is often the case with international hikes. I eventually found the local campground in the dark, and after tracking down the caretaker, fell into a fitful sleep as a violent thunderstorm crashed around me. Waking early in the morning I spent a few unsuccessful hours trying to chase down some fuel for my MSR. Despite having half a dozen different French and Spanish variations of ‘shellite’ jotted down, the store attendants just gave me blank looks. This would prove to be an ongoing problem for the first couple of weeks, and would leave me dependant on cold food until I finally found a butane stove in Gavarnie on Day 16.
After dipping my toes in the Atlantic, I headed for the foothills of the Pyrenees. I’d just spent a month with friends in Galicia sampling some fantastic food and drink, and i was dreading what Ton Joosten’s guide described as an 8hr+ day with over 1300m of climbing. I made it onto the trail proper after about 1hrs walking through the outskirts of Hendaye. The low cloud that had greeted me when I first poked by head out of the tent would stay for the rest of the day, shrouding the rolling Basque hills in a warm, muggy softness typical of the region in mid-summer.
My notes had little to remark, as cloud cover restricted visibility to just a few metres for much of the first day. Col d’Ibardin was very strange, a tiny town in the hills entirely dedicated to duty-free shopping… I missed La Rhune (900m), the day’s high-point, but managed to follow a series of orange trail-markers to Col de Lizuniaga, where I set up camp on the grass in front of the pub.
Day 2: Col de Lizuniaga – Arizkun
Another long day through low-cloud with minimal visibility. I woke to the sound of heavy rain on the tent, and although it stopped by the time I’d finished breakfast, poor weather would follow us throughout the day. Over coffee and croissants I met a bunch of other walkers; two Americans and a Welshman who were planning on completing the HRP in a similar timeframe as me, and a Dutchman walking the first section.
The sun briefly popped out as we set off, but before long we were back in the mist. By lunch time the mist had changed back to heavy rain, adding a ethereal, almost Lord of the Rings feel to the beech forests. Limited visibility made navigation challenging around Col d’Equisaroy, but before long we made it, absolutely soaked, to the Fonda Etxeberria, a beautiful old Basque inn in Arizkun. My lack of track-fitness was starting to show, with bad blisters developing and muscle soreness in my left foot, and I went to bed feeling pretty sorry for myself.
Day 3: Arizkun – Les Aldudes
We had a disastrous start to Day 3, as Ilse, the Dutch walker, and myself followed a typo in Joosten’s guide (always read the corrections!) and ended up walking most of the way to Errazu (about 2hrs out of the way) before realising our error. By the time we had everything in order, we didn’t manage to get a start until after 1pm.
Once on track it was another day of mist, rain and amazing beech forests. The brief off-track section across the summit of Burga (872m) passed without incident, although we ran into the Americans, Matt and Micha, and Welshman, David, on the summit, looking very bedraggled after getting lost in scrub to the south-west. From Burga it was an easy walk down to Les Aldudes, where we bunked up in an old school house before beers and pizza at the pub.
Day 4: Les Aldudes – Roncevalles
Our first day of sunshine! We woke again to heavy cloud, but once we’d stocked up at the local supermarché and ascended to the ridgeline high above the Vallée des Aldudes, the clouds lifted and bright sunshine followed us for the rest of the day.
We had some amazing views from Errol (832m) and along the ridgeline through Col d’Hauzay and Col de Lindux, before finally descending into Roncevalles for the night. This is the first stop for most people on the Camino de Santiago route, and it was very strange coming back a year after completing that walk myself, and seeing all the first-day pilgrims looking rather shellshocked after ‘traversing’ the Pyrenees. Some more beers were had, and my body felt like it was starting to get in the mood of the HRP.
Day 5: Roncevalles – Erurgui
Another day of perfect sunshine and perfect walking! The presence of real coffee in Roncevalles delayed our start, but before long we were off and traversing the ridge lines towards Col d’Arnostéguy (1236m). This was still Camino country, and we received many strange looks from pilgrims as we walked the ‘wrong’ way. When I had come through the previous year the Pyrenees had been completely clouded-out, so it was great to see the area on a clear day.
After a few hours, we left the Camino route and headed off on minor paths towards Ergurgui. Crossing the Col d’Orgambide we saw an amazing display of raptors – literally hundreds of birds hovering on thermals above the Col. After tearing myself away we descended into the stunning Vallée de Harpéa, before a steep switchback ascent and descent to the abandoned Point d’Accueil Jeunes cabin, setting up camp beside the stream.
Day 6: Erurgui – Col Bagargui
We woke to thick mist this morning, although again it had burnt off by the time we packed up tents, leaving us with bright sunshine for the rest of the day. The day’s walking began with a brutal ascent to the Urculu Ridge, gaining around 500m in less that 1.5km. Once on the ridge it was straight forward walking for the rest of the day, with some amazing views from Sommet d’Occabé (1466m), where the HRP joined the GR10.
The afternoon was a bit disappointing, walking through highly disturbed forestry operations, before reaching Chalet Pedro, a pretty ugly tourist trap (although they had fantastic Confit de Canard). Eventually we reached the Col Barargui, a famous bird watching area, and settled down to a delicious dinner at the local restaurant. Also excellent was the locally made saucisson – a kind of mountain sausage.
Day 7: Col Bagargui – Cabane d’Ardané
Day 7 is the first of Joosten’s ‘Grade 1’ rated days, meaning long and hard. We began in the dark to catch the sunrise from the Crête d’Orgambidesca. After taking in the sites for a while, we continued along lush green hillsides through the Crête de Millagaraté, before making our way up the sharp ridgeline over the Zazpigagn (1765m) and on to the Pic d’Orhy (2017m) – the first time the HRP tops 2000m!
From the summit of Pic d’Orhy there were fantastic 360deg views, including along the spine of the range towards the Haute Pyrenees in the distance. Especially remarkable was a cloud-bank that formed below us, perfectly following the border ridge to shroud France in mist, while Spain basked in the sunshine.
After a long lunch and siesta on the summit, we continued following the ridgeline, eventually dropping into the fog before reaching Cabana d’Ardané for the night.
Day 8: Cabane d’Ardané – Source de Marmitou
A remarkably diverse day today, following a fairly average night. At about 10.30pm, a torrential downpour swept through the valley. I was quite happy lying in my tent reading and listening to the sound of rain on the fly, until I put my hand down on the tent floor and realised that it was literally floating – thank god for Hilleberg and their over-engineered floor tubs! The spot I’d chosen, thinking it was nicely protected, turned out to be funnel for stormwater runoff, and in the end I picked up the whole tent, contents and all, and carried it inside the cabane…
The next morning the rain had cleared and we began walking as mist lifted from the valley and vultures hovered on the thermals. The first half of the day wound itself amongst a collection of peaks along the border ridge, including the wonderfully named Pic de Bimbalétte (1677m). After descending to the abandoned Refugio de Belagua ski station, the clouds developed again, and as we moved into the Llano Carreras visibility dropped to a few metres.
This was a remarkable area of limestone karst that has formed a bizarre labyrinth of outcrops, pine and beech forests, and sinkholes, and it one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve walked through. After a few hours of very careful routefinding, I made it to the Col d’Anaye and descended to the night’s camp at the Source de Marmitou.
Day 9: Source de Maritou – Lescun
A quick and easy day to finish the first section of the HRP. After a late start and slow breakfast, we began the long descent down the Cuvette de Marmittou. Unfortunately it was still full of mist, so we didn’t see much of the surrounding mountains (I saw them from a distance a few days later and they are amazing!) but it was beautiful nonetheless.
At the end of the valley we followed a series of switchbacks beside the Ruisseau d’Anaye as it cascaded down a fantastic series of waterfalls, before an easy walk along the road into Lescun. The town itself was beautiful in a classic French mountain village way, and we had a lovely final dinner before the group went their separate ways.