A short story from the Pyrenees, the short version….


I started writing this, 8 weeks ago, toned, fit and bouncy
having just finished two months in the mountains. My enthusiasm was, perhaps,
slightly sickening and I wrote a 3000word account. For the sake of the readers,
I’ve shortened it up, to just give you a flavor of my experiences in the 3
mountain ranges I explored this summer. I now sit, fat and reminiscing and I’ll
start at the end, in the Pyrenees.

Happy campers – sunny afternoons setting up camp and
swimming in lakes

If I were to brainstorm the Pyrenees. The first word would
been GREEN, very very green. The second word, which ironically precedes green
in the normal order of things, would be RAIN, lots and lots of rain. My friend and I started on what was supposed to be a 3 week
hike, touching on the 800km Pyrenean Haut route, one of the toughest in Europe.
It is apparently more of an “idea” than a way marked path, the idea being to
traverse the length of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Naturally,
we started at the longest unsupported part; “a walk without compromise…in
remote and inaccessible areas” (Joosten 2009) with the next supply of food 9
days away. It was 8.30pm, jumping off the bus at the end of the line in the low
mountains that I had my first and only doubt “was this a good idea?” There
wasn’t much going back, the bus driver settled in the lay by to sleep before
returning to Perpignan the next day and we set off up out of the village to
discover the isolated wonderland of green valleys and steep rocky cols.

Very green! Misleading low grassy valleys

It has to be said the first couple of days were perhaps a
little misleading. We strolled happily in the sunshine up and down rolling
green valleys capped in low rocky tops. Crossing over the back of valleys
normally took an hour of scrambling on steep, loose rock for 2 – 300m (assent).
The days were long and sunny, we covered just under 20k a day and normally
finished around 4pm for a slouchy afternoon complete with paddling in the
nearest lake/river and an early dinner. I was pleasantly surprised at my
ability to carry a 15kg + pack, (10days of food, fuel and camping gear isn’t light),
but the sunshine and friendly gradients didn’t last for long.

Getting steeper…

We passed into the higher mountains which consisted of
steep, craggy valleys, marked with obstacles like glaciated slabs, large rivers
or waterfalls. Ascending the valleys was followed by a 6-700m climb over a
col/summit often taking 2 hours to painfully pace steep scree or thick forest. The
weather shifted to match the scenery; thunderstorms are common in the
mountains, favorably, they are often limited to short periods in the

….and wetter!

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, drizzle threatened every morning
and often broke early in uncomfortably close thunderstorms which lent persistent
rain to the rest of the day. Ever-cheerful I ignored my squelching feet and
admired the great variety of slugs that seem to dwell in the Pyrenees. However
there is little ignoring wet shoes at 7am in the morning and it took a great
deal of persistence to compete the lengthening days to the next town and
supermarket, Saladuru. 

Picture taken late afternoon, we had come from over the far
col that morning

Nothing however, not drizzle or rain or snow or wind takes
away from the great satisfaction of reaching a summit or col as you pass over
the dramatic scenery. A precipitous atmosphere gives a deep blue hue to the
endless mountain tops that cover the world around you. That is your world: col
after col and valley after valley, marked only by feint old paths and the square
of flat grass left by our tent. Lakes are haunted by the occasional skipping
fox or ibex and the woodland by snorting hogs. The overwhelming sensation of
humility in the world is immensely freeing and the final decent through a
flowery wet meadow to the town was surprisingly disappointing.

Snowy gullies, icy lakes

The advice from books and people for the next section was
not to attempt it in bad conditions since it was characterized by steeper,
higher cols, impassable in snow without crampons. Some of the cols we has
passed before has been challenging, often we had avoided gullies of snow and had
scrambled on rocks instead, the temptation was to go ahead, but checking the
forecast (at least 6 different ones, several times each) there was no question,
there was no way to go ahead on the next high section. I mention this with
reflection, I am not a seasoned mountaineer, I am learning like many, but one
of the most important lessons I can gain from other’s experiences, friends and
famous book-writing mountaineers, is that is ok to say no.

Route climbs up the waterfall on the left

Timing and economics meant this was the end of our trip, we
didn’t have the time or money to wait or move to a different part of the route.
So bitterly disappointed my friend and I drank away our sorrows over pizza in
Saladuru and made a tipsy Skype call to family saying we were coming home. We made
our way home the next day, an adventure in itself, as we walked, hitched,
bussed and trained to the airport. I can’t regret our early return and I remember
the trip extremely fondly; there is no doubt I will return to the Pyrenees, for
their isolated beauty, the secret villages and dazzling number of slug species.

I tried to keep it short, congrats if you made it to here, I
wish I could write more as it was such a great trip. Feel
free to get in touch for a more detailed itinerary/logistics in the Pyrenees which
I won’t bother every reader with.

 Reference: Tom Joosten
(2009) “The Pyrenean Haut Route” Cicerone Press

ps. We never managed to take a picture of the wildlife as it was normally very small and running away – but I did a quick sketch to give a rough idea what they looked like

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