Walking The Pyrenees: Summits Or A Long Distance Path Wednesday September 8, 2010

On two occasions recently in the Pyrenees, I got some extensive and useful advice from local Spanish walkers. The first time I’d walked up from Refuge Larri, above the Pineta Valley, on what I came to realise was a madcap plan. After I’d got a lift from cloud sodden Gavarnie to the sunnier Spanish parts, I wanted to return to the High Route which meant, if possible, going up to the Barroude Lake. There appeared to be a way of doing this on my map passing over the mountain of La Munia, but it wasn’t marked as a footpath. I discussed this with Herbert when we drove from Gavarnie to Pineta in his car, and he had a larger scale map where a path was indicated. When I reached a lake below La Munia for an intended wild camp before following this plan the next day, I met a party of about ten Spanish people. After the initial parlez vous Francais, je suis Anglais and all the rest of it, I found one of them spoke English and told him my ideas.

He wasn’t emphatic, because it’s simply not possible to give that kind of advice when you have no idea about the ability and experience of a stranger you meet in the hills, but I got the impression my plan was a very bad idea. He’d climbed part of the route himself but not all of it, and advised that it would be very dangerous in wet conditions. Sharp Edge in the Lake District’s Blencathra is like this; there’s a polished sloping rock you have to walk across and the exposure is potentially life threatening. This, undoubtedly, would be worse; not so much a hazardous drop of thirty feet onto sloping rocky scree as, more likely, a precipitous descent over several hundred feet to certain death. The Spanish guy indicated it was high and exposed – Pyrenean style. Furthermore at part of the route there was a rope attached to the rocks, and that doesn’t happen without very good reason. Then finally, he said his party had been up near the Barroude area that day and seen absolutely nothing because of thick cloud, and a storm was forecast for tomorrow that would possibly manifest overnight.

OK, enough. Dangerous, no aesthetic reward, bad conditions approaching. I decided not even to camp at the lake, but return down to Parzan and resume the High Level Route from there. Missing the Barroude Lake, which I was looking forward to, but c’est la vie dans le montagne.

The second time I got advice was from a nice guy called Jose, who’d given me a ride up the boring dirt track starting at Parzan going up to a peak called Punta Suelza. I’d only been walking twenty minutes before I realised Ton Joosten was right in his guide book – it was a boring trek. I resolved to try and hitch a lift with my thumb and Jose came along with his wife and baby son. I was very pleased; it was very likely the only opportunity for a ride I’d get and I was successful.

At the top, just below Punta Suelza, Jose spoke with me for an hour about walking in the Pyrenees. I made some written notes, as I realised how restricting a trek like the High Level Route is and how I needed to improvise and consider other possibilities: in particular, how to arrange for some summit ascents. Jose’s advice was “get down to Benasque as soon as possible” and use the valley as a base. He noted that two days of my planned High Level Route were exciting and worthwhile but another day was inferior, in his opinion, to a lower GR11 alternative. One goes high across the Aneto-Maladeta massif, the other skirts underneath it with rewarding and more photogenic views.

Jose said he’s been walking the Pyrenees for twenty years. The best part, he said, is between Lescun and Vielha and some parts are not worth bothering with. I understand this; I decided many years ago I’m not interested in walking all of Alfred Wainwright’s designated Lake District hills because some of them are quite boring. I’m not interested in attainment for its own sake, or what gets called ‘peak bagging’. I quite enjoy a bit of sweat and effort, but only if it’s rewarded. Jose said, with the maturity of a seasoned walker, you eventually stamp your personality on your mountain days: you can undertake long distance treks across a large area or, based in a valley, undertake one or two day climbs to summits waiting, if necessary, for favourable weather. The best he said is probably a combination of both. I agree.

I decided to more or less follow this plan, breaking up the High Level Route accordingly; I didn’t take a direct route down to Benasque but once there I used it as a base for several days, also allowing for pleasant rest days.

It’s an interesting comparison, the difference between walking a long path and undertaking a few or a series of summit ascents. Last year, I walked from Lescun to Gavarnie taking in some peaks along the way: Grande Fache when I was walking to Refuge Wallon, Le Petit Vignemale as a morning climb up from Refuge Baysellance, Le Taillon and Pimene while based in Gavarnie, albeit Taillon was punctuated with a meal and overnight camp at Refuge Sarradets.

I have some lovely Lescun to Gavarnie memories; when you walk a long path you develop a narrative, like a pleasurable novel. I remember valleys opening up before me and washing in lakes; waking in the morning and long tiring climbs up steep hillsides; getting an overall feel for an area seeing Pic Du Midi d’Osseau from different viewpoints, and the great thrill of exploration. A path going up to a summit, terrific as it is, is a different experience. The highlights however were the summits, the really great moments like poignant parts of the narrative, although I rate the moment, walking up from Candanchu and Astun towards Refuge Ayous, turning a corner and seeing a huge area open up with Pic Du Midi d’Osseau dominating – as the equal of any summit experience.

Last year, I felt dissatisfied in the final few days. I’d not planned them sufficiently, got a little bored, but also felt I was too tired to walk significantly any further. I met a British party who went over to Refuge Goriz from Gavarnie, and I could have done that. Instead, I went back down to Gavarnie from Le Taillon for another night at the camp site. This year, I had a more deliberate plan to use Benasque as a base for a few days, but although I wasn’t bored my rest days there were, I felt, just a little wasted: I’d come all that way, the sun was shining and I wasn’t walking – I was sunbathing. As a result, walking the Pyrenees this year overall gives me a slightly dissatisfied feeling because I only completed about half of the High Level Route plan and had several rest days.

The latter was based on how I’d felt at the beginning of my trip when the weather was initially quite bad and I was uncomfortable with what Ton Joosten calls the ‘extreme’ days in his book (rough, challenging, potentially dangerous). I did two of them (Soula to Portillon and Portillon to Benasque/Renclusa) and the problem was not that they were beyond my ability, but I didn’t find them very enjoyable – the first in particular. I don’t mind a bit of rough stuff, in fact it’s fun as some variation in a walking day: scrambling, a knife edge traverse where you need to use hands etc, such challenges work different muscle groups and concentrate the mind where you otherwise amble along gently with wandering thoughts. I suspect it’s partly the concentration required in rock climbing that makes it enjoyable for those inclined: you are forced to attend to every detail of the face and the possibilities of your body across it, at every moment. If your concentration slips, you slip.

For me, the problem with the ‘extreme’ days Joosten describes in the Pyrenees is there’s so much rough stuff – hours and hours of it. The two I undertook were like that which is not my idea of fun, more so in bad weather which is what I experienced. Because of those days I decided to take everything a bit easier with plenty of rest and making use of a valley base, instead of risking more bad weather along a committed route. But, as a result of that, I simply didn’t do as much as I did last year and my memories are not as full and deep.

Highlights? Most definitely, the ascent of Posets which is the second highest Pyrenean mountain and possibly the most beautiful. That, together with the GR11 route from Benasque to Vielha; parts of it, at least, are very satisfying. The first is the thrill of a steep summit climb, the second is the pleasure of a rewarding explorative walk through varied terrain: valley, scree climb, high altitude col, another valley, lakes, grassy plateau, forest.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book