The Haute Route Pyrenees is a long distance “route” in the Pyrenees mountains that spans the distance between the Atlantic and Mediterranean for 800Km (500mi). Unlike the two other established trails that cross the Pyrenees, the GR10 in France and the GR 11 in Spain, the HRP is more of a “concept” and has several variations one can take. The idea is to stay “high” and close to the ridgeline of the range, crossing the borders between France and Spain several times. The route also passes through the tiny little country of Andorra. If one were to thru-hike the entire HRP the typical time frame would be about 45 days with a cumulative vertical gain of 150,000 ft approximately.
As a point of reference, the Colorado Trail is the same length however it has half the elevation change compared with the HRP. With two weeks to explore the Pyrenees I have planned to hike from Lescun, France to Salardu, Spain, around 300Km (187mi) which will roughly amount to 72,000 ft of vertical gain and 69,000 ft of descent at an average of 14 mi per day. That’s the plan at least, we’ll see what these mountains bring!
Day 1: Sept.11th, 2022
Pont d’Itchaxe to Ruisseau d’Espelunguere
16 mi, vert +4,567ft/ -3,539 ft
I sleep the best sleep I’ve had on this entire trip to the European continent. Figures, sleeping outside in the fresh air with a burbling stream next to me is the way to go. In the early morning hours I hear a vehicle slowly crawling along the dirt track. When I open my eyes the full moonlight tricks me into thinking it’s morning. I briefly consider getting up and starting early, but no sooner do I have that thought I am asleep again.
Next thing I know there are voices approaching. I peek at my watch, it’s 7:24am. Wow, I slept! Then I rememer the rules for bivouacing. You can pitch your tent from roughly 7pm to 7am without it being considered camping. I am late! This motivates me to start my day even though I am so incredibly comfortable in my sleeping bag. This feeling is such luxury, I hang onto it for just another moment before sitting up.
There are no clouds in the sky and the morning temp is 52F, today it’s supposed to get up to 87F (31C) in Lescun, so it’s going to be a hot first day but at higher altitudes should be pleasant. As I’m boiling water for coffee a group of ten people walk nearby as there is s trail junction very close to my camp. They wave at me and say things in French I don’t quite understand except that one woman asks me to make them coffee. I gesture like I’m going to make ten coffees and we all have a laugh. They don’t seem to mind my being here at this late hour so I feel a little relieved.
According to my guidbeook it is a 6 hr 45 min walk to the first refuge, which is closed now for renovation, Refuge D’Arlet. From my campsite it would calculate out to roughly 5 hrs 30 minutes since I did a little walking yesterday evening. You never know how close your walking is going to be to the book’s timetable, something I will get better at gauging as I go. Nevertheless the distance is around 11 miles (17.5Km) and 5,274 ft (1,565m) of elevation gain from Lescunto the first refuge. Today’s route is “Day 10” in the guidebook and the description for the day is “A very pleasant walk that will cause no problems on a clear day. You’ll encounter a Pyrenean lake for the first time”. Cool, lets go see that lake!
Within a mile of walking I see Thomas sitting on the side of the trail. He tells me he camped about a kilometer further than me and that he is carrying fresh eggs which broke inside of his pack so he had a big mess to clean up. Then he tells me he is also carrying thick cut bacon. I make a joke saying that now I have a reason to camp with him, and he replies “well actually the real reason you should be camping with me is I have whiskey.” That’s the way to a girls heart alright! I prefer bacon over whisky, but don’t tell him that. I don’t think we will be camping together anyway. I am amazed at how much he reminds me of MP3 from the PCT six years ago, it is quite remarkable and quite entertaining. After a few minutes of chatting I move on as Thomas is still sitting down and says he has to make a phone call. I wonder if he will catch up with me? I wonder if he will continue to carry eggs on the trail?
The morning air moving down the valley is quite balmy and pockets of warm air brush by my skin from time to time. It’s warm for sure but not yet hot and I feel like once I gain a little more altitude it will be quite a nice day to hike. The trail follows a dirt track for a few miles, climbing up into the sun and I pass a few groups of grazing cows along the way and then suddenly there is a decomposing cow corpse and I’m not sure how I feel about this. I stare at it’s gruesomeness, it’s tongue sticking out, the way the hide hangs on the bones and the flies swarming around. Death is a fact of life, but I feel bad for this cow. I wonder what happened and why nobody gets rid of the body?
Further up I meet a couple from Pau who are out on a day hike to climb Pic du Burq from Col du Pau so we are heading in the same direction. We stop and chat for several minutes, appreciating the beauty of the day. It’s really cool that they can come out to a place like this and go for a day hike to a peak. I suppose it’s akin to my being able to drive out tot he Grand Canyon for a day. Definitely such a gift!
Shortly, I pass by a shepherds hut and am relieved when the dog does not charge me. I climb further up and away from the hut to take my first snack break. I have views of the valley below and the sounds of clanking sheep bells echoes within the wide basin. I watch two hawks soaring in circles and a few people climb on by me saying bonjour.
It’s one last steep push after this until I make it to the Col du Pau, my first Col in the Pyrenees, right on the French/Spanish border. Cool, a Col!
It’s not such a big dea reaching this Col, except there is a sign and several people there taking breaks. A woman asks me if I was the one down below in the tent. I do admit to this and try to chat in French telling her I’m hiking the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP) for two weeks and today is my first day. I tell her I like to bivouac and she replies with “oh, congratulations” and laughter ensues because the limited overlap of languages between us is comical. Thus our conversation doesn’t go much further except we wish each other a Bon Journee! I snap a few photos at the Col and continue on and up, the climing ain’t over yet.
The trail continues steeply once again from here and eventually evolves into rolling hills with wide vistas. By the four mile mark I finally get to enjoy a little downhill and somewhat flatter terrain. My body is definitely adjustingto the steep hillsides.
The sheep are now ubiquitous and I begin to really enjoy them with their odd looks. There is something primal and ancient in their bone structure of their heads. I love their matted dready wool, their poopy butts and their constant eating. They are definitely herd animals and seem to move as a large singular organism sweeping across the hillsides. Occasionally individuals linger behindthe group looking lost and for every 50 sheep or so there is a black one. I like the black sheep. As I pass through this countryside there are two sheep dogs that come towards me and each time I brace myself for an attack since I’ve heard that’s what they do. I’m now two for two today, no attacks so far. Actually both the dogs came up to me and let me pet them after getting a good sniff. I guess my scent is acceptable.
Getting close to 1:00pm I am thirsty as hell. I failed to check the water situation today and did a terrible thing. I assumed there would be water all along even though my book literally says “In Summer, water can be hard to find between Cabane de Bonaris and Refuge d’Arlet.” I didn’t want to carry it because my pack is stupid heavy. So now I am in search of water anywhere off trail that looks possible.
I’m thirsty enough that I venture off trail down a steep grassy slope toward somesemi- wild grazing horses. Everything that looked like it may have some water from above is dry. I am sorely disappointed as all I find are puddles of stagnant muck and shit water from all the animals. It’s not even scoopable and even if it were, I won’t risk it. This is not the Arizona Trail nor the CDT, I guess I have to get a little dehydrated. Welp, won’t be the first time (ahem, Death Valley…)
Nevertheless the views are stunning and I get a close up view of a mama horse and her suckling yearling. Sans water, I hike back up the steep slope to the trail and continue on. It’s another hour to the Lac D’Arlet where I will take my lunch so I set my mind for water in an hour and nurse the little bit I’ve got left. I got this.
Fortunately there is a lovely, soft breeze up here and a few clouds are building, occasionally obfuscating the sun. It’s about 75F and super comfortable now and despite my thirst I feel great. I was expecting worse weather so this is like a gift, I wonder how long it will last as I know for sure there is a forecast for rain this week.
I make it to Lac D’Arlet at 2:00pm, there are a few groups hanging out by the shore and I pick a spot for myelf. The water is decent, and I get right to collecting, filtering and drinking. My water filter is working really slow, it’s annoying because I’ve only used it for one month of backpacking in the Sierras. I clean it often an it’s still way slow, so I’m not so sure the Kathadyn BeFree is something I am ready to endorse. This slow filtration does not help my patience but finally I have clean water and I guzzle a half liter on the spot. Now, it’s time to eat! Yay!
The sun is scortching me here and there are no trees so I rig my umbrella with my backpack to block the sun from my face and that is really helpful. I make a little sandwich with my baguette, mayo-mustard combo, slice a few pieces of salami and cheese and enjoy my herbs de provence dusted potato chips that I found at the Bio-Coop. So gourmet! I take a lovely relaxed break for an hour and 20 min then filter more water and mix up electrolytes. I am not sure how far I will go this afternoon and I am determined to get back on par with my hydration.
The afternoon turns out to be really lovely, the climbing seems to be mostly over and the trail meanders through more sheep and cow studded hillsides. The views are stunning with sweeping panoramas and every bend of the trail offers something new. The clouds create dramatic shifting light and shadows. The hillsides are covered in deep green and yellowing grasses that also change color with the changing light. I pass a couple of Cabanes where the shepherds live, some of them apparently also make and sell cheese there. How fascinating, I would love to get the inside scoop on a shepherd’s life. It seems dreamy but I’m sure it’s a lot of hard work, discomfort and lonliness. Hmmm, does’t that sound familiar?
My thoughts drift to asking myself “What makes beauty, what makes joy?” It must originate in the senses I suppose. I am experiencing feelings of great joy and bliss out here this afternoon. I feel good not having to climb anymore, my body is fed and I have water. These all bring me joy. Then there’s the wind, sunlight, sounds of sheep bells and bahhing, the rich colors enhanced by the light and shadow, a soft breeze, the panoramic scale of mountains forever in the distance, the animals with their textures, so many textures and the sounds of hooves stomping the Earth. All of this brings me joy, all of this makes beauty.
The late afternoon arrives in an easy going fashion and I am grateful for it as my body is beginning to feel the weight of my pack and the steep climbing from the morning. I am thankful to be heading on a long downhill for the afternoon though it’s not without a couple wrong turns. Once, I spaced out because I was distracted by sheep watching and the second time I was confused because there are two differing tracks on my GPS and the book’s instructions don’t match up with either of them.
After passing by Cabane Grosse the trail turns into a small, rocky dirt road. I hear a woman hollering and feel her energy directed at me though I’m quite far away. I can’t make out what she is saying, but I get the feeling she is tellimg me I’m going the wrong way. I take this as a sign to pay attention and re-check everything. There is a yellow sign pointing the way, but my GPS track stays on the dirt road. I decide to ignore the yellow sign as the trail looks steep and overgrown, which might be slow going. Maybe that’s what the woman was trying to tell me?
Hard to know but soon I am walking in a forest of giant Beech trees and the shade is lovely. The afternoon is deeping and the light is turning a rich golden color. I walk downhill for quite a long time and now my ankle is really hurting. It’s the one that alwas hurts. My upper back, neck and clavicles are also super sore. It’s the pack weight I’m sure, I’m not used to it. If I had to guess I’d say it weighs around 40lbs. There’s a lot of extra stuff I’m carrying here that I normally would’t have back home, things like extra paper maps, guidebook pages, extra electronics, chargers, charging adaptors, a small notebook, microspikes, and that darn extra stove!
By 6:30pm I find myself stopping in the shade of a tree next to a creek. I take off my pack and just need to sit there for a few minutes rubbing my shoulders and stretching my neck. I read over my guidebook notes again and look at my maps again. Should I camp here or continue to the next lake? The guidebook suggests a bivouac near here and the GPS track I have also dropped a pin near here for camping, so it seems like I should take that as a sign. It’s not the PCT here where you can just keep walking and find something in a pinch. The terrain here is hardly ever flat and it’s often lumpy with tussock-like texture along with rocks and plants like thistle and elderberry.
I walk around this area called the Pla d’Espelunguere looking for a prime five star campsite for around 30 minutes and eventually settle on the first one I had seen. Isn’t it always like that? I was hoping for something with a little more of a view, but honestly this spot suits me perfectly. I am close to running water, away from the dirt road, and tucked under a lovely Beech tree on a completely flat grassy spot. I even have a little dirt spot to set up my kitchen.
It’s Annie’s Mac N’ Chese with Kale tonight and I am really excited about it. I take time to clean my water filter, and my body, and I do some massaging and stretching before bed. There is a peacefulness to this place, and now as I lay here in my tent in the dark, the sound of a bird almost like an owl coos in the distance. The burbling creek water is ice cold and so fresh, it’s the best water I’ve had so far and the sound of it rushing over the rocks will surely be condusive to good sleep. I will be at the little village of Candanchu mid morning tomorrow. Perhaps I will stop for a coffee? From there and for a good part of the day I will follow the GR11 in Spain. Should be a great day. I’m ready to rest. Good night.
8 thoughts on “HRP Day 1: I prefer bacon over whiskey”
Wow, what an awesome trip. Your photos are spectacular. Some of the craggy looks remind me of the east side in general and also of the Minarets. You’re off to a great start…enjoy!
Hi Tom!! Yep, very interesting geology in the Pyrenees, more to come soon, thanks for your comment!
Great photos of an area not often seen in Vlogs. Thanks for all of it. As always, so wonderful to see where you have been. Best, R
Thank you Robert, appreciate your comment, will be posting more soon!
This is your why! Why you hike and why we love reading your blog! It’s so good to see your wriiteups. Keep them coming! So many memories of good times trekking here in 2018-2019!
Hey Camelback!! Thanks so much, I just got back from a week in the Sierras, but will be posting more on my HRP hike in the coming weeks! Thank you for all your input and Im so glad you are enjoying re-living your own experiences in the Pyrenees. Love to you & John 🙂
Great 👍 pictures and storyline thanks for sharing
Thank you Rex, more to come!!