Pyrenees Mountains, Navigation, Ton Joosten's HRP Book Sunday October 12, 2014

If you want the highest paths, the best Pyrenees views, the High Level Route is for you. That doesn’t mean you should adhere to it and at times I prefer the GR11 and occasionally use the GR10. I suspect the book which is most used for walking the Pyrenees mountains is the one by Ton Joosten about the Haute Route, or High Level Route. It was my first purchase. I then bought a few more books describing the GR11, GR10, the HRP in more detail, walks by Kev Reynolds, and I recently got a copy of the out of print book by Georges Veron and another by Chris Townsend.

Several times I’ve had problems with Joosten’s book and this has now been confirmed. A few years ago, I was walking to refuge Coma Pedrosa before dropping down to Arinsal in Andorra. Joosten’s words are always terse and concise. For most of the time this works quite well but there are several places where it does not. Walking to Coma Pedrosa is one of them. He says go down to the lake, turn right, then turn left at some rocks. I did precisely that. Nothing more, nothing less. What he should say is go further right and turn left at some big rocks. Then you climb up to Coma Pedrosa, not go up into another area where you will get horribly and possibly dangerously confused. Two Spanish people came by and with their knowledge and large scale map it was clarified. I was looking around trying to fit the terrain into the instructions. It’s a logical thing to do but not a good idea. It meant I considered climbing up a rocky hillside which could have been dangerous. Joosten describes a steep climb up scree and there wasn’t any, except up the hillside where there wasn’t any path. It was wild country and going in the wrong direction.

I went down the track to Arinsal, came up again, looked around, tried to work it out, wasting an hour in the heat. Then I met the Spanish people and realised I should go down the track again and keep going, to reach Arinsal. There was no time to retreat and find the correct way up to Coma Pedrosa. I was fairly happy with this situation because it was the end of a grueling part of the HRP I’m not fond of. It meant a night in a comfortable bed, a shower, and pizza. It’s possible to get fed up in the mountains and I was. I did however gaze yearningly towards Coma Pedrosa as I descended to Arinsal, wondering what I’d missed. Curse you, Joosten. I recently discovered someone else who made exactly the same mistake. If mists come down or you twist your ankle situations like that become dangerous. It was nearly dangerous for me when I tried fitting the land into the instructions and undertaking a crazy climb.

This year problems with Joosten were compounded even further. When I descended through the Espelunguere forest in 2009, walking to Candanchu from Arlet, I got lost then managed to correct it. This year I got lost again for the same reasons, and it escalated into something worse. I walked down a road which I thought was another then, after hailing a car, understood I was going the wrong way. She gave me a ride back to where I was lost in 2009 and where I started to go wrong this year. When she left me, I thought I was going somewhere entirely different but leading to Candanchu all the same. I think I’d missed a small path and shouldn’t have been on the road. This was a good thing because it meant I was in the right place again. It was however very annoying getting lost, stressed, and wasting more time.

Then I got lost again, trying to find the path up to Ibon de Estanes. In 2009 there was a sign. I couldn’t see any sign this year, Spanish people pointed me to a path which I thought I recalled from 2009, and either it was wrong or the next path is very difficult to find. I went back, searched for the path, consulted map, used compass, tried again, backwards and forwards, wasting time and getting stressed. In 2009 the path at this point was easy to find. You climb up through a forest then up a steep track above a ravine. Eventually I was walking the GR11 down to Candanchu, which is initially where I thought I was heading for down the road. These problems are partly because of maps. The 1: 50,000 scale are best for the Pyrenees but if you do get lost, they don’t give you enough information.

No less than five people had the same struggle. I met a chap walking with a group of children, he too was looking for the path up to Ibon de Estanes and hadn’t found it. Although he was using a tourist style map for an easy day walk; nothing to do with Joosten. A few days later I met three Canadian ladies using the Joosten book who’d shared my experience. They too missed out on Ibon de Estanes. Fortunately I’d been there in 2009 so I wasn’t too disappointed. I was also very tired – I often am – and told myself it was a fortunate situation because there’s a steep climb to Ibon de Estanes. The GR11 to Candanchu effectively cuts a corner and provides you with a shorter and easier route. There was considerable mist that day and, I told myself too, the higher areas seemed covered. That was not however my experience earlier that day when I’d enjoyed a stunning cloud inversion. I was guessing and speculating. I met some people later who said when they first arrived at Ibon de Estanes the area was covered in mist but then it cleared. I can’t fool myself: I wanted to visit Ibon de Estanes a second time and poignantly so. I remembered climbing a section of the route and wondering at the beauty of the area. I wanted to see it again. Curse you again, Ton Joosten. If I hadn’t wasted time going down the road I might have had the time and energy to find the Estanes path. I’m not sure, but I think the Spanish people were wrong and because I’d seen no sign, in navigation terms this was very difficult. One blames oneself, gets frustrated, gets fed up, but I’m focusing here on Joosten’s book.

A few days later, setting off from the Respomuso refuge I encountered another problem. Joosten says keep a dam on your left which is precisely what I did, going wrong. What he means is keep the water of the dam on your left, the wall of the dam on your right, following a path which you can’t initially see. I remembered having some anxiety there in 2009. I didn’t experience the same precise confusion, but I wasn’t sure I was following the route correctly leading to Col de Fache and eventually refuge Wallon. I discussed these problems at Wallon in the evening, and someone suggested it might be a translation problem. That’s possible. The situation with the dam could easily arise because of the subtleties and imprecision of language.

I’ve not walked the entire HRP because the Basque area and arid Catalan parts near the Mediterranean don’t appeal to me. There’s too much mist and rain in the former and too little of it in the latter which means relatively bleak scenery. I judge this aesthetically, thinking of photography, because it’s the aesthetic of mountains which inspires me. I do this in Britain too. For a few years I couldn’t relate to Snowdonia because I was comparing it to the sublime beauty of the Lake District. Wales is rougher, craggier, scarred with mining and I didn’t find it so attractive. I would look down to the Gwynant valley and think yes, not bad, it’s approaching the beauty of Borrowdale but there’s still a big difference. More recently, only this year in fact, I’ve been enjoying Wales on equal terms to the Lake District and even preferring it. I may write about that another time.

I haven’t walked the entire HRP so can’t comment on all of Ton Joosten’s book and further errors or dissatisfactions. It wasn’t that he was wrong on the Coma Pedrosa path, more that he was annoyingly and avoidably inadequate. It needed more explanation. “Walk ten metres right then turn left at head height rocks” or similar. There was in fact a path where I turned left, and I did turn left at some rocks. I don’t know what happened with the path up to Ibons de Estanes. I said five people had the same problem – three Canadian ladies, the Spanish chap with the children, and the fifth was a chap I met later at refuge Ayous walking the GR10. He got lost there too but eventually found the path after wasting an hour. Add my experience in 2009 and that makes six cases. The instructions with the Respomuso dam need improving too. If you’re reading this, perhaps you have experience of Joosten and want other parts of his book either corrected or improved. Let me know. If not, and you intend to walk the Pyrenees mountains, take note of these points.