Monday 20 August 2012

Hiking the Pyrenees: Conclusion and tips

The Pyrenees have been the most beautiful and spectacular part of my hike. There is no doubt about it. The Pyrenees sometimes even rival the High Sierra in the US in beauty. Also the weather in the Pyrenees is usually very favourable. There might be some thunderstorms (which of course I happened to run into), but usually there is hardly any rain but endless sunshine.

But did I like the Pyrenees? No, not very much. They will definitely not be my most favourite part of this hike. Would I recommend hiking the Pyrenees to a friend? Well, that depends on the friend. Some people would absolutely love it, and then there are people like me. So what was wrong with the Pyrenees? To put it in plain, short and simple words: For me in my situation they were too difficult and too demanding to really enjoy them. Now let me explain this in more detail:

There are people who surefootedly hop from one boulder to another, run down steep mountains over loose scree and find daily elevation gains of 2,000 m easy. Then there are people like me who have a sort of distorted sense of equilibrium, slight vertigo and very often more resemble a wet sack of potatoes than a surefooted mountain goat. The first type of people will love the Pyrenees and the second will have a hard time like me. I honestly think that the GR 11 is a bit too difficult and sometimes even dangerous for such a famous and well hiked trail. Passages like the Porta de Baiau where you have to descend more than 200 m of almost vertical elevation loss over loose scree is downright dangerous. Luckily there are not too many really dangerous sections but almost every day I encountered passages were I felt uncomfortable.

In my long hiking career I have come across lots of different unpleasant moments on the trail. I have been yelling German obscenities at trail mark, hit trail posts with my trekking poles out of frustration and just started crying because the trail was so hard that I felt I could not go on any more. On the GR 11 I did not feel like that. I just felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable on the steep stretches over loose scree and the endless boulder fields. I did not feel that my life was in danger. Those stretches are difficult, but not life threatening. But I know from experience that there is such a thing as bad luck. One wrong step, one slippery rock or boulder that moves and you are in the shit. You can sprain an ankle, break a leg or just hurt yourself very badly. If you encounter these passages only once a week, you just pay attention and very probably nothing will happen. But if you have to deal with this every day for several hours statistically your chances of bad luck increase dramatically. To nmake things worse I was in a rush. Instead of doing one pass every day I had to do 1 1/2. Therefore I ended up on those endless boulder fields at the end of the day when no one else was around. If I had had an accident then I would have had a real problem. I sometimes had to hike until sunset before I could camp because I had miscalculated the time again. Everything took so much longer in the Pyrenees than expected. I got frustrated because I was not making any progress. When I switched on my GPS at night I very often had to realise that it had taken my a whole long hard day to just cover 7 or 8 km as the crow flies.

I do not want to discourage anyone to hike the GR 11. It is beautiful trail and even people like me can hike it. You do not have to be a mountain god, even less athletic people can cope. But it will not be easy for them and you will sometimes feel uncomfortable. Do not even think that the Pyrenees are similar to the High Sierra. In California you have very well engineered easy trail with an easy gradient. In the Pyrenees you have boulder hopping and loose scree - and very often no trail or trail marking. But there are a few things you can do to make the GR 11 more enjoyable:

Time: According to the guidebook it takes about 45 days to hike the whole GR 11. Being an experienced fit hiker I thought I could do it in less time. Of course you can, but then you might end up feeling as uncomfortable as I did. You can definitely combine days in the beginning and end of the hike at lower altitude and sometimes even combine shorter days in the high altitude section. But keep in mind that this is a physically very demanding hike and you will need rest days, maybe more than you think. (Especially if you have hiked 3,000 km before and are tired already...). Also keep in mind that the daily stages are designed in a way that you have to do one pass per day only. If you combine two stages you will have to cope with 2 passes and sometimes 2,000 m of elevation gain. Plus you might end up in places where camping is less than ideal. I think that you should calculate at least 40 days for an enjoyable thruhike of the GR 11.

Trail marking: The trail marking has definitely improved since my last hikes in the Pyrenees more than 10 years ago. Often it is really good, usually it is decent - but sometimes it is almost non-existant. The trail marking is done by volunteers and depending who did it and when the quality varies greatly. You should definitely have maps and a GPS helps, too.

Maps and guidebooks: Thanks to a very generous donation from a German hiker I had gotten the Cicerone guidebook and the Prames maps for free. I think that this was the best combination possible, although it is far from ideal. The Cicerone guidebook dates from 2007 and urgendtly needs an update. The route between Burguette and Ochagavia has changed completely and is shown wrongly in the guidebook and even the latest edition of the Prames maps. The Prames maps are ok, but far from great. They only show elevation but not the vegetation type, so it is difficult to predict whether your chosen camp spot will have tree cover or not. Also not all side trails are shown and the maps generally are not very detailled. The times given in the Cicerone guidebook are ridiculous. The author, a middle aged man carrying a 15 kg backpack claims 5 hours of hiking time for a 16 km stretch with more than 1,000 m elevation gain. This is ambitious even under ideal circumstances, but utterly impossible in the Pyrenees for mere mortals. The times given in the Prames maps are generally 10 - 20 % longer than in the Cicerone guidebook and much more accurate. The Navarran government has produced a leaflet with elevation profiles and hiking times for the GR 11 stretch in Navarra and if you compare elavation gains and hiking times with the Cicerone guidebook you will realise that Cicerone also has incorrect elevations gains. You have to add at least 10 - 20 %, too. Still, the Cicerone guidebook has been useful as it shows water sources and potential campsites. The author only mentions campsites with water and if you are used to dry camping you will find a lot more camping possibilities.
On my GPS I had the Garmin topo for Spain and a track for the GR 11. The Garmin map was not really good either. No vegetation is shown like in France and the GR 11 is only partially shown - and then mostly wrong. Sometimes whole roads were missing and I guess Garmin´s data base is a bit outdated. The GPS track was like any track you download fromt the internet: You do not know what quality you get. Mine was sometimes incredibly good and you could see that the data was actually gathered while hiking and sometimes there were no trackpoints for a whole km.

Water and resupply: The water situation was generally very good. There were only a few stretches where there was no water for 5 or 6 hours. Usually you only have to carry food for a couple of days. In the villages there is usually a small supermarket. High prices and not much choice, but resupply is doable. Keep in mind that shops are normally closed between 2 pm and 5 pm.

Other hikers: Due to holiday time (I was hiking in August) I encountered more people in the Pyrenees than anywhere else. A lot of foreigners doing a thruhike and even more Spanish and French hikers, although they tend to do shorter hikes and stay in the refuges. Still the Pyrenees are not crowded, even in peak season.

I do not want to deter anyone from hiking the Pyrenees with this post. Just keep in mind that the Pyrenees are not a walk in the park. I think one day I will come back and hike them again - but with more time!


INK said...

Hey Christine. Sorry to hear that you had such a hard time on the GR11.
I have to say that i didn´t find it so hard. It took me 33 days to do the whole trail in 2009. Does that mean I am a mountain goat ;)
The only thing that i found annoying after a while was that sometimes it felt like some useless up and down. Like whenever you could go down or up the GR11 would follow that way. The locals told me that it is because of how the pyrenees are shaped.
Maybe you should have chosen the HRP for your traverse. More days of food to carry but less ups and downs.
I remember that climb you mentioned very well. Even though I had to go down.
I hope you still remember the pyrenees as beautiful as they are. All the best on the remaining rest of your europe tour.

Maybe when you are back i can invite you to another piece of cake.

All the best and wishes from Berlin!

Felix (INK)

German Tourist said...

Felix, yes, you are a mountain goat! And I am really looking forward to another piece of cake...
All the best from Spain where hiking the Caminos is dead easy

INK said...

Great! Just give me a shout when you are back in BLN.

I just ran into some crazy weather in the alps on the GR5. Temperature drop from 15 to 0 in half an hour. 40 centimeters of snow overnight.
Really didn´t like that.
GuessI have to work on my mountain goat appearance a little bit more ;)

INK said...

Sorry for the confusion with the account names ;)

Unknown said...

I have completely rewritten the Cicerone guide to the GR11. I am hiking the route again to check it this summer and it should be available for the 2014 hiking season. There have been major reroutes to the GR11 since the 2008 edition of the Cicerone guide.
The HRP is much more demanding than the GR11. The GR11 is at the toughest end of the walking spectrum and the HRP edges into mountaineering rather than walking.
You can see my journal to my 2003 GR11 trip on
Brian Johnson

Steve Cracknell said...

Just to mention that a new edition of the Prames guide came out in 2012, with the correct route in Navarre.

Coleman Fraley said...

Great article
Keeping Up On a Trail