Trial and Error in the French Pyrenees
At the beginning of October, I made a trip to the French Pyrenees, to do one final test run for my body, gear and mind to see if I really, really could do the Appalachian Trail. To spoil the ending, I learned a lot but decided it was succesfull enough for me to have finally booked my ticket! Leaving on the 27th of February from Holland.
Just a small intro on the trail: the Pyrenees mountain range form the natural border between France and Spain and spans from coast to coast. On the French side there runs a long distance trail (named Grande Randonnee, or GR in France) called the GR10. On the Spanish side you have the GR11 and the High Route falls inbetween.
So what did I learn from my make-or-break solo hiking trip to the Pyrenees? O, so much.
Life lessons learned:
Always double-check all your gear
To be honest, I am slightly OCD with checking locks and doors and thought I was a thorough checker with my stuff as well, but I learned the hard way I am not.
Day 0: after a long day of traveling (metro, train, airplane, bus, train), I finally arrived at the camping site where I would start my journey. It was early evening, the sun was out, it was quiet, everything seemed perfect. Putting my tent up for only the second time (first time in a local park), I checked the manual that I downloaded on my phone and saw right away I forgot my tent pole. So, so dumb! How? Well since my tent has the option of leaving the tent poles behind and just using your hiking poles, I just left the whole tent pole bag behind. But I forgot about the half circle tent pole used for the bottom of the tent. After cussing myself out, I just needed to share this horribleness with the people closest to me: my boyfriend, best friend and mom. Luckily with the help of these 3 people, I figured out a temporarily solution. I started looking for 2 short straight sticks of the same height that could hold the bottom part up, on top of that I would put the rubber ends of my hiking poles so as not the damage the fabric. In the picture above you can see the before on the left (only with guy lines) and with the sticks on the right. I was so proud of my MacGyverness!
Day 1: Lost the damn sticks somewhere on this long long day and ended up sleeping above the treeline, where there are no sticks available. Tore of some horrible crooked bush branches, but it definitely did not work as well. Luckily the angrily stuffing of my backpack at the bottom of my tent in the middle of the night, after suffering of cold feet for far too long, worked almost as well 🙂
Day 1: Imagine a beautiful creek, glittering in the sun with luscious green grass all around it. Of course I needed to enjoy this environment on a little break, before I would conquer the mountains that were surrounding me. Than imagine being completely exhausted at what I perceived to be almost the top, burning away in the bright midday sun, finally reaching for my water bottle while enjoying the view. No bottle!! The view now was offering me a teasing glance of the faraway break spot where I left my bottle… After some cursing (again) and doubting for a second if I could just continue on with my 1 liter Sawyer pouch, I bluntly dropped my pack and started on the long descent down again. Luckily my bottle was still there (in the river!) and stuffing it in the back of my pants I hiked up again. Was never so discouraged to continue ascending, especially since the total planned ascent of the day was already 1600 meters (5200 feet).
Always check your surroundings thoroughly when putting up your tent
Day 1: was so, so done with the long day of ascending that I just plopped down on the first available spot next to the gorgeous little mountain lake. It was the first site that looked like I could camp, since the giant rock fields that I crossed on the approach held no flat spots.
I dropped my gear, checked out the terrain a little to the left, saw no better spot and decided to put up my tent with the last energy I had left. After the struggle of trying to find straight branches for the bottom part of my tent, I finally kind of managed and while laying down in my tent, discovered the terrain was not flat at all. It had a slope to the right bottom.
Trust the advice other hikers give you
Day 1: After accepting that the slope was there to stay, I was preparing my dinner and watching the sunset, when I saw a hiker coming from the other direction. He stopped to say hello, chat a little (he was hiking the entire GR10 from coast to coast) and said that he saw a better spot a little further on the trail. I said I was okay and thanked him for the tip. My guidebook said there was only 1 spot for 1 tent available at this little lake, so I assumed the other spot was not there, or a lot further. I decided to trust the guidebook and not drag my tired body further up the trail to discover the spot he was talking about. The next day I passed the spot he was talking about, it was only a minutes walk, perfectly spacious and flat. Again, stupid! Had a pretty bad night, sliding in my tent, collapsing bottom part, moisture dripping on me and only a minutes walk away I would have had at least a flat spot!
Day 4: Obviously, I did not learn from this experience. Because on my final day, after staying in a lovely stone cabin with another hiker, he gave me the advice in the morning not to follow the designated trail, but another smaller trail that was less steep and only took a little longer. So I did, but after hiking for about 15 minutes, I decided to go back, since the trail seemed to divert a long long way from the original trail. Found the original trail and got completely lost. I mean bush whacking lost. It was still misty, the bushes were low but thorny. I tried different directions again and again but after one hour of this, decided to go back to the cabin and start anew. Found a little trail between the two trails I already followed and that finally, finally lead me up the mountain I was trying to climb for 1 hour already. Halleluja!
Never be too honest with your loved ones (especially moms) in the midst of trouble
Day 4: After having not had cell service for a while, my connection finally started to work again while I was trying to climb the mountain I got lost on. Shared with my boyfriend that I was having trouble at that time, being lost and that I would chat further when I would finally make it to the top. Once on the top, my mom texted me worriedly if I was okay, since she heard I was lost. When I called her, she said this is why you need to have a GPS with you, else it is too dangerous and you get lost. Heartily disagree, but learned I would only tell her about any troubles I would have, after I had solved them. Moms worry too much else (do not get her started on Lyme disease!).
Never camp too close to roads (or dog kennels)
Day 2: All day I was looking forward to the ski station that I already heard was closed, but would still have working toilets, water and even an official camping next to it. When I arrived, I wandered about, but everything was locked up. People and cars aplenty on the huge parking terrain, but no amenities. Looked up the place on my phone, but according to the website it should be open summer and winter. Apparently I was the unlucky guest that went there just between the seasons. The camping ground had just a big rope surrounding the area, after following it almost round to find an entrance, decided to save my energy and just continue. The first water source I would find, would be my camping spot. The wide dirt track I followed passed a kennel full of sled dogs (one of the winter activities available in winter) and they scared me shitless the first time. Because I had seen some warnings in French about not being allowed to walk your dog on that track and it being private terrain, I thought for a moment I had walked the wrong direction. The wildly barking dogs were also not visibly tied at first glance. After turning around, double checking the signs, guidebook and maps on my phone, I saw that it was indeed the trail and turned back again. Nervous about coming closer to the kennel again, I started to sing to make myself appear more calm and assured. I sang Merry Christmas… I know, I know, weirdest thing I could have come up with. The dogs were luckily tied up, past them quickly and relaxed. A little further up the trail, found the most charming little stream crossing the dirt track and the most perfect flat spot with a great view.
Even though it was technically on a dirt track, I thought since it was the official GR10 trail, not many would walk there at night. I was wrong. And it did not make me feel very safe to hear people walking by closely in my little tent, both at night and early morning. On top of that, the husky dogs started howling as soon as the sun set. Since I was not very far from them, it scared me even more. It reminded me so much of wolves and I was thinking all these, OMG I hope they do not let them wander about at night. Tried to calm my emotional mind with rational thoughts and somehow fell asleep around midnight.
Despite these trials and errors, a lot of things did go well. My tent is easy to set up, a little harder to set it up tight and a little prone to condensation, but spacious and comfortable enough for me to hike the AT with. The food planning was perfect, cooking went well, my body had no serious aches, I walked through heat, mist, rain and cold winds, I fell 3 times without hurting, all my gear held up. I think I can handle it 🙂
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