It’s November now and I’m back home from the Arizona Trail where I sustained a season-ending ankle injury. I’ve been pondering our experiences along the HRP, GR5, and Via Alpina from the summer in Europe and I’ve been trying to organize how I’d like to communicate what we saw, felt, smelt, heard, and tasted. I’ll begin by summarizing our hike on the Pyrénées High Route and try to throw in some things we learned that may be of help to those of you out there considering this trek.
Honestly, I wasn’t prepared physically for this route at all. Since the start of the 2021 spring hiking season, I’ve operated a shuttle along the southern AT which involves a lot of sitting and eating for about 4 months during the late winter and spring. However, I completed the CDT successfully last season after being in poor shape from an arduous shuttle schedule and I was pretty confident I could do it again. One of the biggest mistakes I think seasoned thru hikers make is that they tend to look back on the entirety of a previous long-distance walk with rose colored glasses glossing over the most difficult parts. It’s as if I think back to the end of those hikes with regards to how I felt when I was the strongest and somehow think that’s how I’ll feel starting off on a new hike. I know this isn’t logical, but I know I’ve made that error more than once. Personally, the physical and mental transition from a mostly sedentary lifestyle back to walking for 12 hours per day without any warmup is a shock to the body and mind. This time would not be any different and I was also quitting smoking to boot. God bless my partner as she was more than graceful and patient with my experience. I basically needed to lose 20 pounds and rewire my brain to exist without being chemically dependent on nicotine all while climbing intimidating peaks and passes. In my mind, there’s no better place than a really hard but rewarding hike to get the body and mind back in shape. That may sound sarcastic, but I believe it to be true. Diving heard first into something difficult where it’s sink or swim pushes me to perform and it’s worked in the past, so I thought I’d try it again.
After a multi-day international travel schedule with an overnight stop in Lisbon, Portugal and Bordeaux, France; we arrived in Hendaye. This is a bustling beach community along the French and Spanish border and it’s the western terminus for the GR10 and the Pyrénées High Route. This route is often referred to using the acronym HRP, which in French stands for Haute Route de Pyrénées, and this is how the path is most commonly referred to by the hikers on the trail.
Route vs. Trail
One important difference to note when discussing a trail versus a route is that a route isn’t one defined trail but a trek that is made up using a conglomeration of trails. In this instance, the GR10 is a trail in the sense that it goes from one terminus to the other and it doesn’t use any other paths to accomplish that. The Pyrénées High Route is never actually called that on trail signage along the route and it uses a multitude of trails like the GR10 and GR11 to guide hikers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. An important note is that the HRP will alternate many times between the GR10, which is a trail on the French side of the Pyrenees and the GR11, which is the trail on the Spanish side of the range. The route is a little less than 500 miles, crosses in and out of 3 different countries (France, Spain, and Andorra), and has a variety of alternates you can take.
From the outset to the end, the HRP is physically demanding. On a long-distance trail in the US, I can typically walk 20 plus miles consistently everyday regardless of the shape I’m in, but that was not the case here. Steep ups and downs are a constant and heat was a factor nearly every day. We averaged roughly 15 miles per day over the course of the route and we were giving it all we had. Starting at sea level, we gradually made our way through the rolling hills of the Basque country, into the high passes and peaks of the heart of the range, and eventually went back to sea level at the Mediterranean.
Highlights of the Basque region and first section included La Rhune, historic war bunkers, hedgerows, gnarled oaks, bracken ferns, and a brief overlap with the famed Camino de Santiago near Roncesvalles. At times I felt like I was walking in some real-life version of a Jethro Tull or Led Zeppelin song. The ever-present fog rolling in and out of the landscape produced this sense of living the Misty Mountain Hop or walking alongside the sot from Aqualung. The novelty of being in Europe for the first time was exciting and I took it all in every day. The villages in the section are known for their baguettes, sheep cheese, and killer coffee. Resupply was a bit different compared to a hike in the US but was actually quite refreshing to change up the typical hiking diet. I’ll explain more about the details of resupply in a follow up post.
The first reality check on the seriousness of this route was the Pic d’Orhy, but that was only the beginning. Our campsite the night we passed by this first sizeable peak was the most amazing sunset I’ve ever witnessed. Entering the village of Lescun, France marked the end of section 1 and the beginning of the more technical section 2.
After leaving the scenic Lescun, we ascended into the first national park of the Pyrénées and got our first taste of the pristine alpine lakes that this range offered. With the Basque Country now at our back, we geared up for daily elevation gains sometimes totaling more than 8,000-10,000’. At this point, route finding became a daily duty and the technical nature of the trek notched up a level.
The famed Passage d’Orteig was a narrow trail cut out of the side of a rock face with a chained guardrail for us to hold onto. Next up was the Port du Lavédan where some basic rock climbing skills were necessary and having Aly there as my hiking partner probably saved me from serious injury and a minor nervous breakdown. The views up there from over 8,000’ took our breath away. I don’t feel as though I’m being hyperbolic when I say that up to this point in my hiking history, it was the most scared I’ve been on a pass. However, with solid teamwork and communication, we guided each other up and over this narrow and steep slot in the mountain. I don’t think I could’ve done it without Aly there. On the flip side of that coin, I will say it’s the most accomplished I’ve ever felt on a trail. We faced our fears and felt proud that we navigated the technical pass safely.
Finally, as we neared the end of section 2 and the tourist town of Gavarnie, the majestic Vignemale (the highest peak in the Pyrénées on the French side) came into view. I will never forget the hike descending from the east side of Vignemale down to Gavarnie. The waterfalls and wildflowers were out of this world and words can’t adequately describe their beauty! Gavarnie is a quaint and beautiful tourist village with views of the well-known Cirque d’ Gavarnie in the distance. The Cirque is basically a semi-circle of steep peaks with probably the most stunning waterfall I’ve ever seen as the visual centerpiece. If we’d had time, a couple day side quest to hike the Cirque would’ve been ideal. Nevertheless, we kept moving to section 3 and would be in for a wild ride on our way to Salardú.
We left Gavarnie and passed by some friends from France and Germany that we met previously. They were attempting the HRP as well and it was nice to experience a small portion of the camaraderie that long distance hiking in the US provides so much of. While the number of hikers out attempting the HRP were small, we were able to make meaningful connections and hike a few miles with others. However, I think it’s important to note that experiencing a “hiker bubble” along the HRP is unlikely.
Cresting the pass just after the village of Heas treated Aly and I to a cloud inversion like no other. We setup camp that night above the clouds and watched with amazement at the colors that the setting sun produced as its light bounced off the peaks and said clouds. We’ll never forget that camp spot! Hiking in this section brought us into contact with alpine shepherds, their dogs and flocks. It was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed seeing these men and women command their dogs and control their flocks.
This section also took us by the famous Lac de Barroude (alpine lakes) and the two highest passes on the route, Col Inférieur de Literole and Col de Mulleres. I’ve hiked the big 3 in the US, gone up Whitney and across Forrester in the snow, and I survived some steep snow traverses in Colorado and Glacier National Park. The two aforementioned passes had me considering the possibility of turning back. With this being said, I believe there are hikers that can do these passes without hesitation and some that shouldn’t attempt ascents and descents like these at all. I lie somewhere in the middle of that and it’s a spectrum of comfortability and skill level that can only be determined by the person hiking. The climbs up these two weren’t technical, but the descents on the eastern faces were the steepest grades I’ve ever faced with foot and handholds that required steady extremities and nerves. Once again, having a partner there to assist with where to place my hands and feet was paramount. Of course, the visual rewards and feelings of satisfaction were priceless, and I think overcoming the fear I was experiencing was an integral part of these feelings. This section had our favorite town stop of Vielha, Spain where there was a vibrant Catalonian culture, affordable lodging, and a supermarket that had the most variety of food selection that we’d seen. We finally reached the enchanting village of Salardú on a rainy day and then made our way to the start of section 4.
The beginning of section 4, like many other times when leaving a village, we walked along ancient cobblestone roads that connect the small communities along the route. We thought the most difficult parts were behind us, but to our surprise the climb up to the Tuc de Marimanya had us scrambling up a steep slope of tussock grass and loose scree. We laughed at ourselves thinking this route would let us by with an easy day, but the rewards were definitely worth the effort.
The HRP isn’t really a walking trail most of the time. Boulder hopping, using 4 points of contact, and down climbing along rock faces are all in a day’s work. Although it’s a challenging trek, I’d encourage anyone reading this article to seriously consider it. My hiking partner, Aly, has a reduced field of vision due to a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. She can only see about a third of what I can. I bring this up while writing about this section because of the 2-3 hour boulder field that we had to traverse to get from the Col d’Airoto to the Collado del Clot de Moredo. She moved effortlessly through the challenging terrain leaving me 5-10 minutes behind her pace. I don’t want to assume that anyone can hike this route just because she has a visual disability and successfully hiked it. Doing so would diminish the skills, talent, and experience that she possesses that probably puts her light years ahead of most with a full field of vision. Nonetheless, in my opinion, it was impressive to see what she could do on this route, and I think that should translate to others developing confidence to walk here.
After a beautiful campsite near the Pic de Certascan, we set ourselves up perfectly to walk in 3 different countries (Spain, France, and Andorra) in a 24-hour period. Before walking the HRP, I had no idea that Andorra existed. The country is small but has a thriving tourism industry. We decided to take a night in La Massana to get a small taste of Andorra life and it’s no surprise that it mirrors the culture of neighboring Spain and France. Once we left Andorra, we entered back into France reaching L’hosiptalet-pres-l’Andorre to end section 4.
The final section took us over Pic d’ Carlit and Pic d’ Canigou which are the last two high peaks on the route. By this point, our bodies were tired and our nerves for exposed and technical hiking were shot. Based on these factors and a threat of a serious afternoon thunderstorm, we decided to take the alternates around these potentially risky situations and opted for a valley walk near Carlit and a contour around Canigou. The ridge walk from the village of Eyne to the Refuge de Marialles was honestly one of the best parts of the entire trail. I’d recommend doing it in good weather as the exposure to bad weather could be dangerous. We actually were caught in a pop up afternoon storm and were forced to cross a pass with lightning crashing around us, but it was one of the lower passes on the trail thankfully.
Once we got beyond Canigou the trail changed dramatically. The mountains became rolling hills and the flora changed to what one would expect in a Mediterranean climate. We weren’t prepared for the August heat in the latter part of this section as our night in Arles sur Tech saw evening temps in the mid 80s. I parted ways with Aly that night to walk in the dark and avoid the heat of the day and was surprised at the wildlife I saw. Wild boar and foxes crossed paths with me multiple times that evening. The final day we could see the Mediterranean off in the distance as we walked and our final campsite allowed us to see Banyuls sur Mer, the eastern terminus, at night. The cloud inversion that evening which resulted from the sea air was unforgettable. On the last day we got to walk by the vineyards on the outskirts of town and the dip into the sea on that hot August day was refreshing and satisfying. We had just completed the hardest and most beautiful 500-mile hike I’d ever done.
In summary, the HRP demands a lot from those who choose to take it on. However, the alpine scenery, culture and cuisine in the villages, and overall experience couldn’t have been had on any other route in my opinion. The difficulty, landscape, and cultural experience was unique and I would go back and do it all again in a heartbeat! In the next post I’ll describe the differences between hiking in the US as opposed to Europe from my perspective.
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I’m Nathan “Nate” Gressett aka Zach Galifianakis on trail. I’ve hiked over 10,000 miles along the big three trails in the United States achieving the triple crown of hiking. After completing the PCT in 2020, I came home to Asheville, NC and started a shuttle and resupply business along the AT where hiking and supporting those that hike long distance has become my singular focus in life. Come join my partner and I as we hike trails beyond the big three.