UKH-er and outdoor blogger Stephen McAuliffe offers advice on the GR10, the classic 866km route along the French flank of the Pyrenees that links the Atlantic with the Med via the full length of Europe's second greatest mountain chain. When to go, what to bring, and what to expect along the way...
The Pyrenees are one of the great ranges of Europe. A formidable barrier between France and Spain, the range offers an unbeatable richness of landscape and wildlife. For walkers the high mountains are more accessible than the giants of The Alps, and though technical climbs are available many fine peaks can also be climbed by competent hikers. The Pyrenees may be a walker's pardise, but they are rarely crowded. If you fancy a long distance challenge the range is criss-crossed by several grand hiking routes. Running from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the GR10 is a real classic. This is an amazingly varied route, and every day on it you'll experience diverse scenery, weather, flora and fauna.
Pyrenean coast to coast classics
GR10: This popular waymarked route runs along the French side of the border, taking in forested valleys and foothills as well as high mountain passes. Some form of roofed accommodation is available at the end of most day stages.
GR11: The Spanish equivalent mirrors its French counterpart, running through some of the best scenery south of the watershed.
Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP): This strikes an uncompromising high line along the border peaks, making it the most remote and challenging of the three. Self sufficiency is needed for several days of wild camping at a time.
Completing the entire GR10 is a major achievement, but each single day brings its challenges too. The range runs roughly east-west with a central spine from which (on the French side) spurs radiate northwards towards the lowlands. As a consequence of this topography the GR10 has to climb high over each radiating spur in turn and then drop down steeply to the next valley. These high passes can reach up to 2400m and often the valley floor will be as low as 500m, so 2000m of ascent and descent isn't that unusual in the course of a day. Add to this the heat at these latitudes. You are considerably further south than, say, Chamonix and if like me you are used to more northern climates there is an unmistakable extra force in the sun here.
Let's say you are passing from one valley base and travelling to the next one en-route. Chances are it will be bright and sunny (hopefully) early in the morning but down this low the heat builds quickly and soon you are glad to enter the shade of the beautiful forests that cover the lower slopes. Here you may come across a signpost that tells you that the col you are aiming for is 1500 meters above you and you can expect to take five hours to reach it. Hah you think, I'll beat that at my ease, but as the day passes and the temperature rises you are more concerned with keeping well hydrated and you welcome the occasional breeze that greets you as you round a turn in the marked trail. The bag that you felt wasn't too bad when you started is now starting to feel a bit heavier.
" New horizons open, with fresh and exciting challenges ahead"
Eventually you reach open pastures and new and exciting views open ahead. Now you are in the full glare of the sun but you don't really notice as you are too mesmerised by the beauty of the alpine meadow all around. Lizards skitter out of sight from some rocks by the trail and after you see your first snake you take a little more notice of that bit of root or twig that lies across the path. Way up ahead the col that you are aiming for comes into view with impressive rocky peaks rising either side. As afternoon approaches you notice a bit more cloud appearing in the high mountains. Updrafts are working their magic and high cumulus clouds have started to form. Vultures can be seen using these same updrafts to good effect as they effortlessly circle, scanning the ground below for their next meal. You'll probably hope that isn't you!
As you head up to the col you pass a well constructed "cabane" that offers a certain amount of comfort, as you know it is there for you if the weather turns or fatigue becomes an issue. You also know that there is another one on the way down the far side of the col. The col arrives, and well deserved rest. Perhaps there's still snow on the ground. New horizons open, with fresh and exciting challenges ahead. Re-enthused about the adventure to come, you set off down for that little Gite in the valley far far below. Life has become very simple.
After the initial shock of big mountain days is past, the body starts to acclimitise to the new regime and a strength develops that only adds to the general sense of wellbeing. You are in tune with your body and your enviornment and the most important things have become ensuring that you drink and eat enough, how heavy your bag is and how far (or not) you might decide to go today. Making sure that those clouds that are forming haven't yet reached the critical mass that means an electrical storm is nigh; knowing where your shelter options are and how far you have to go before that sanctuary and shower. The Pyrenees may have a somewhat softer facade than The Alps but they are still big beasties, and be they lumbering broadbacks or sharp toothed tigers, they have real challenges and dangers.
"The Pyrenees may have a softer facade than The Alps but they are still big beasties"
Each day develops its own rhythm that has very little to do with the outside world, and the body and mind attain a freedom. Eventually your home for the night arrives and the chances are that you are quite tired after perhaps seven or eight hours on the move. A relaxation comes during the evening and night that is hard to experience elsewhere and somehow by the time the next morning arrives you are ready to go and do it all again.
You can expect to take 50 to 60 days to complete the whole GR10, walking for perhaps 6-8 hours a day. During those days you will experience everything a mountain enviornment has to throw at you from searing heat to hail and lightning. In the real world not that many people have the luxury to take a couple of months out to complete the entire traverse of the range but this doesn't mean that the delights of the GR10 cannot be appreciated. It's quite possible to break the route into smaller chunks; anything from one or two day walks to week-long sections at a time.
When to go?
The time of year you visit has a huge bearing on what is available to you, and indeed how heavy your bag will have to be. Most of the manned huts, certainly in the higher areas away from the coast, don't open for hotel service until around the middle of June as it usually takes until then for the snows on the high passes to melt and allow access to hikers. Winter rooms are available but it means that you will have to bring your own food and gas and it goes without saying take all your rubbish away with you. You can of course bring an ice axe and crampons on the trip and this gives people competent in their use access to the high mountains at a time when you might have them almost exclusively to yourself. The high mountains (perhaps above 2500 meters) in late May or early June certainly have the look of a high Alpine enviornment with extensive snow cover and everything that entails, including avalanche, stonefall and lightning storms. However some huts will be open and staffed so it is advisable to check online beforehand.
Where to stay?
One of the big plusses of the Pyrenees is the superb network of Refuges found right accross the range. These come in various degrees of sophistication: Everything from staffed CAF refuges that offer an hotel service, to the most basic cabins and pastoral huts that can offer no more than a dry place to sleep or take shelter in a storm. In the valleys a network of Gites also offer basic but comfortable places to stay. With this wonderful choice of accommodation it is up to you to decide what kind of experience you fancy. You might travel light and stay in the manned refuges and gites; alternatively you can have a more Scottish type experience and rough it in the bothy-like refuges and cabanes; or indeed take your tent and do a combination of all three. Be aware that the rougher options mean that you have to carry enough food for perhaps several days and this adds considerably to the weight of your backpack. An extremely useful site is www.pyrenees-refuges.com This site gives the location and information on the full range of refuges and cabins accross the range, with pictures and excellent location maps. I have found it invaluable when planning trips.
There are several airports that service the route, from Biarritz on the Atlantic coast to Perpignan on the Mediterranean. It is possible for example to fly into Toulouse and catch a train/bus right into the mountains, ie St Girons, and spend a week exploring the delights of the Midi Pyrenees before catching a return train from Luchons back to Toulouse. Other great places to base yourself for short sections of the GR10 include Ax les Thermes or Tarascon sur Ariege. In the east there is the wonderful "Yellow Train" that will take you through the mountains almost all the way to Andorra and in the west you can catch a train from Bayonne into the delightful little town of St Jean Pied de la Port. The bottom line is that all areas of the range are accessible and with a little pre-planning, delightful adventures can be had of an extent that suits your wallet and available time.
What to bring?
I almost invariably carry too much, so my number one advice is ...don't. A lightweight waterproof hard shell jacket and pants should suffice for hiking, plus a light insulated jacket for when you are staying high. A medium/light pair of gloves and a liner should be plenty. Two tops, two pairs of socks, two knickers and two lightweight hiking pants are really all the clothes you need. In summer long johns etc shouldn't be necessary. One thing I have found invaluable is a pair of crocs or similar so that when you take off your boots in the afternoon you can put on something airy and super light that lest your feet breathe and relax. They are also useful if you have to cross a flooded stream, as you can take off your boots and still have something other than bare feet when stepping into the stoney current. What you wear on your feet also depends a lot on when you go and if you want to climb some peaks. Early in the season when snow covers the high passes a pair of summer alpine boots would be a good idea. Later in the season when the passes are snow free and if you are sticking to the trail then robust and comfortable trail shoes suffice. I would recommend walking poles, since long days on stony paths take their toll. A lightweight hat is also very useful, both to keep sweat from the eyes and of course as a shade from the sun. Add to all this the usual headtorch, batteries, compass, penknife, sun cream, shades etc and you're good to go.
If you are sticking faithfully to the GR10 the IGN Randonnee 1:50,000 series is sufficient. But if you want to venture off trail and perhaps take in a peak or two I would suggest using the more detailed 1:25,000 series map.
The GR10 Trail by Paul Lucia (Cicerone)
The Pyrenees by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone)
Food and drink
Food is something of a personal choice depending on the time of year you go and wheather you intend to buy all your meals in the huts. I would recommend carrying enough to last you at least a day in case of sudden change of plan or emergency. Water is another issue that merits careful consideration. Some people are extremely fussy what they drink but I have found that water from the mountain streams is generally clean. Of course there are no guarantees, and some may prefer to carry a filter or tablets. Be aware that there may be long stretches that don't have any water source; it is advisable to carry plenty just in case.