Hut-to-Hut in Austria
Indulging in a decidedly un-Scottish form of walking, Ronald Turnbull spends a mollycoddled week in huts on Austria's spectacular Stubai Höhenweg.
Widely regarded as one of Europe's best long-distance hikes, the Haute Route Pyrenees extends for some 800km from Atlantic to Mediterranean over the crest of the Pyrenees. Alex Roddie offers the lowdown on this classic trek, and tells a few tales from the trail…
I first visited the Pyrenees in 2016, and was immediately smitten. Towering summits, glaciers, summer snow, diverse forests, and a real feeling of wildness added up to an environment very different to anything I'd experienced elsewhere. I knew I'd be back.
My chance came in summer 2019. On 16 July I began my hike of the HRP from Hendaye, France, and completed it at Banyuls-sur-Mer on 21 August. It was the longest backpacking trip I'd ever done – and also the best.
My trail stats
There are three main options for a complete traverse of the Pyrenees:
The GR10 keeps to the northern (French) side of the watershed. This is a popular and well-marked trail that dips in and out of many forested valleys, although it also ventures up into the mountains. It visits plenty of towns and villages along the way. Here's the lowdown on this classic trail:
The GR11, another waymarked trail, sticks to the Spanish side. It's generally regarded to be slightly tougher than the GR10. It's not as popular and has a reputation for hotter and drier weather.
The HRP strikes a higher, wilder line closer to the watershed, although it also shares some mileage with both the GR10 and GR11. Some sections are waymarked, while others are pathless and rugged. Fewer people hike the HRP.
All three are well-regarded routes, and I'd experienced bits of each on my 2016 visit. The sections that impressed me the most were the higher, wilder reaches of the HRP, however – hiking that takes you up into the bare rock and summer snows, within reach of big peaks. This is truly world-class hiking through some of the best mountain landscapes in Europe.
This is a tough and very long walk. It requires high levels of fitness, experience and motivation. At a minimum, aspirant HRPers should have years of experience of hillwalking in the British mountains, including long multi-summit days, scrambling, off-path navigation, and (ideally) winter mountaineering. Backpacking and wild-camping experience is also a must. If you'd be happy and competent taking on something like the Cape Wrath Trail, or a multi-day summer traverse of the Cairngorms over the plateau, you're probably experienced enough.
Getting psyched out by huge cliffs and glaciers is an occupational hazard on the HRP, so it would also be helpful to have prior experience of backpacking amongst big, intimidating mountains such as the Alps.
The best paper maps for most of the trail are published by Rando Editions, available from Stanfords. You'll need the 1:50,000 Carte de Randonées series, sheets 1, 2, 3, 12, 23, 22, 21, 8, 10 and 11, plus the IGN Carte de Randonée 1:25,000 sheet 1346.
Over a hike of this length, traditional paper maps will add up to a hefty chunk in your pack. There are two possible ways to deal with this:
An alternative option for experienced hikers is to use 100% electronic mapping. This is feasible if you know what you're doing, and carry a reserve power source and backup system, but is not without disadvantages. I carried an iPhone with the ViewRanger app loaded with a full set of topographic maps and a planned route for my trail, plus a waterproof and shockproof Garmin GPS (again, with full maps and route). I also used the excellent MapOut iPhone app.
Most of the time I just used the Garmin, and I got about 5-6 days of battery life on Lithium AA cells. Other hikers I met used a combination of a smartphone and a Suunto or Garmin GPS watch.
I wouldn't have attempted this without extensive prior experience of 'paperless' navigation on long-distance trails in remote and serious places. Map and compass remains the safer choice.
Cicerone has you covered with the new edition of The Pyrenean Haute Route, extensively revised and updated in 2019 by Tom Martens. I used the Kindle version of this guide and found it excellent. It includes downloadable GPX files you can use with your GPS or smartphone.
Although I measured my route at 832km, the Cicerone guide specifies 748.5km. Depending on which variants you take, including any optional summits, the total distance could be anything up to around 850km.
The Cicerone guide splits the HRP into 44 day stages. Although a few of these are tough days, some of them are very short. Experienced hikers will likely end up doubling up on a few stages, or camping partway in between to take advantage of high wild-camping opportunities.
My 37-day hike (including 4 rest days) felt about right for me. Fit hikers who like big miles could do the HRP in 30 days or less, although that would involve some very long stages. I met a German ultralighter called Jakob who completed it in a mere 20 days! If you prefer a more leisurely pace, I recommend sticking more or less to the Cicerone itinerary. Don't forget to allow time for days off, either for rest stops or to wait for bad weather to clear.
In the Pyrenees, extensive snow usually lingers in the high mountains well into June. Every year is different, but ice axe and crampons may still be needed for several sections of the HRP as late as the second week of June; inquire locally about conditions. Some refuges have a Facebook page or Twitter account. These can be useful for photos showing recent snow levels.
By July in an average year only snow patches will remain. However, tricky snowfields in locations such as Col Inferior du Literola and Coret de Molieres can be showstoppers without some form of traction throughout the summer (the Cicerone guide has full details on these tricky spots). I started in mid-July 2019 and did not need winter gear at any point, although I carried Microspikes as far as Benasque.
July and August are the hottest months, and the eastern part of the trail, towards the Mediterranean, can get very hot. Some hikers favour a later starting date, aiming to complete in September. The weather usually starts to get colder throughout September, with more overnight frosts and a greater chance of snowfall.
Throughout the summer, thunderstorms often spring up in the Pyrenees – usually in the afternoons. These can lead to torrential rain, low temperatures, hill fog and high winds for a few hours, not to mention the risk of getting struck by lightning. Bad weather doesn't usually last for more than a few days, though.
Wild camping is possible over most of the HRP, although there are some important restrictions to be aware of.
In the Pyrenees, there's a distinction between 'bivouac' (low-profile, zero-impact wild camping with a single one-person tent or tarp) and 'camping' (something more like car camping, with a large tent, lots of stuff, and greater impact).
Although you'll find plenty of signs saying that camping is forbidden, bivouac is often permitted. In France it's generally allowed at least an hour from the nearest road.
In Spain, the situation is a bit like the Lake District – strictly speaking it's forbidden, but bivouac is widely tolerated if done discreetly.
In some areas bivouac is allowed in dedicated areas near refuges, even if it's discouraged elsewhere. There may be time restrictions on when you can pitch. 19.00-09.00 is common. In other areas it's 20.00-08.00. In certain national parks and sensitive areas, bivouac is strictly forbidden. You'll have to hustle through these areas or stay at one of the huts.
As always when wild camping, leave no trace.
There's an excellent network of staffed refuges in the Pyrenees. These tend to be busy during the summer, and it's worth booking in advance. Cost is usually around €40-50 (or less if the International Reciprocity Agreement applies to your mountaineering club) plus extra for food. You'll also find numerous unstaffed huts – these are free shelters, and vary from crude semi-ruins to huts resembling Scotland's better bothies.
In towns and villages, you'll find the full range of accommodation from hotels to gîtes. There are also many hiker-friendly campsites along the HRP. I stayed in commercial campsites at Hendaye, Lescun (recently renovated and with excellent facilities), Gavarnie (booking advised), Camping Aneto near Benasque, Arties, Camping Bordes de Graus near Tavascan, L'Hospitalet-près-l'Andorre, Arles-sur-Tech, and Banyuls-sur-Mer.
If you're experienced enough to be considering the HRP then you'll be experienced enough to know what works for you, so I'm not going to be too prescriptive. However, I recommend a light pack. You'll be tackling big miles and big climbs day after day for weeks. I met countless hikers in Lescun, Gavarnie and Benasque who had decided to send items home they thought they would need – items that just ended up being a burden. By the time I got to Andorra, most hikers still on the trail had either started with a light pack or had whittled their load down to something more manageable.
The weight of your food and water will vary day by day, but I recommend aiming for a base weight (pack weight minus any consumables such as food, water or stove fuel) of no more than around 8-9kg. Considerably less than this is possible if you're willing to be a minimalist and can afford the best kit, but the majority of experienced hikers will find it easy to hit a base weight of less than 9kg simply by evaluating their true needs and leaving a few items at home. Need a few pointers? Check out my UKHillwalking article on lightweight backpacking for beginners:
Of course, if you prefer to pack a few comforts and know you're happy hiking long distances with a heavier load, that's fine too – especially if you want to take your time. Again, experience is key.
View my gear list here. I ended up adding a few luxury items to my original list: comfier sleeping mat, drybags (my pack liner sprang a leak) and a bigger towel.
Daytime temperatures on the trail will vary from around 5°C to 30°C, with an average of somewhere in the middle, and warmer towards the Mediterranean. You'll find plenty of hot sunshine. There will likely also be spells of cooler, wetter weather. You don't need to go overboard with your clothing, but it does need to be adaptable.
During the summer, I recommend a lightweight long-sleeved hiking shirt, zip-off convertible trousers (which you'll probably be using as shorts most of the time), a thin fleece top, fleece hat and gloves, sleeping clothes, underwear comfortable for hiking in, two pairs of socks, and an ultralight down or synthetic top. You'll also need full waterproofs; ultralight ones work fine in the Pyrenees. Don't forget a sun hat and sunglasses!
Although boots are a valid option, the vast majority of thru-hikers I met in 2019 were wearing lightweight, breathable trail-running shoes. Personal preference rules here. Make sure whatever footwear you choose is comfortable in hot weather, dries quickly, and won't give you blisters.
It's possible to use a very lightweight tent in the Pyrenees, but it does need to offer shelter against heavy rain, high winds, and light bug pressure (there are midges and mosquitos in some places, but not as bad as Scotland or Scandinavia). Plenty of hikers use a tarp and bivvy bag. Tarptents and ultralight pyramid shelters are also very popular.
Choose a sleeping bag or quilt proven to be warm for you down to at least freezing. If you plan to stay in any refuges, a sleeping bag liner is essential – most refuges will insist you have one.
Sections of the HRP are quite dry, which means that you'll need to carry several litres of water from time to time. I found the first week through the Basque country as far as Lescun to be the driest section, which also coincided with the hottest weather on my hike. The final week to the Mediterranean was also hot and dry. Carrying up to 3-5L at a time was not unusual on these sections, but in the more mountainous Central Pyrenees I rarely needed to carry more than 1-2L. Your mileage may vary.
There's livestock everywhere in the Pyrenees. Treat or filter all the water you drink from streams or pools.
If you need winter gear, and this will depend on the season, I suggest finding the lightest ice axe and crampons you can lay your hands on! An aluminium ski-touring axe will be fine for the main HRP during the summer, if you need one at all. Some hikers carry Kahtoola Microspikes instead of crampons. These are fine on well-frozen slopes if there's an existing line of steps, but can be dangerous on steeper, trackless slopes. If hiking early in the season or in doubt about conditions, carry a pair of lightweight walking crampons instead – and make sure they will safely fit your footwear.
Whether or not winter gear is needed, hikers should have the basic skills. If in doubt, take a winter skills course the season before your hike.
If you can afford it, staying and eating in refuges will allow you to carry a much lighter pack, but otherwise supplies will need to be carried for several days on most stretches of the HRP.
There are a few larger supermarkets near the trail, but most small rural shops stock a fairly limited range. It's easy to find staples such as fresh bread, cheese, cereal bars, chocolate, dried fruit and nuts, and pasta/rice, but a lot more difficult to find specialist backpacking meals. They are available in the outdoor shops at Gavarnie and Benasque, but I did not see them elsewhere.
The longest stretch without easy resupply comes after Salardu. Depending on how fast you are, it's about 6-9 days to the small food shop at L'Hospitalet-près-l'Andorre. There's an optional diversion off the trail to Tavascan after 2-3 days, where an even smaller food shop offers a basic range of snacks and fresh food.
To save weight, I decided to hike without a stove and carry only food that could be eaten without cooking. This is possible in the Pyrenees, although given the limited range in the smaller shops I often found myself eating nothing but bread, cheese, cereal bars and peanuts for days on end. Next time I go to the Pyrenees I'll be taking a stove.
I was able to buy food at the following locations:
The Pyrenees are easy to get to from the UK. The Eurostar is the best option. From Paris you can get a direct train to Hendaye, which takes about 4 hours 30 minutes. After you've finished your hike, there's a very convenient sleeper service from Banyuls-sur-Mer direct back to Paris.
Here are two extracts from my journal to whet your appetite…
Vignemale's impressive north face, with its decaying glaciers, was hardly visible through the rain and mist by the time I made it to Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube at 16.00 – and I was utterly soaked. I poked my head through the door, saw the lobby crammed with dripping hikers and their dripping gear, and decided that I would try to make it to the Vignemale grottos on the other side of the Hourquette d'Ossoue (2,734m). From my last trip I knew there was a good spot to pitch a tent near the grottos, and one of the artificial caves would make an emergency shelter if the weather really turned.
I felt cold and wet as I powered uphill in the pouring rain, wondering if I should have dug my gloves and spare layer out of my pack, but the climb soon warmed me up. The clouds grew ever blacker around Vignemale. Rarely have I seen a mountain look so foreboding. Then I heard the first distant rumble of thunder.
'It'll be fine,' I told myself, and kept walking. 'That sounds miles away.' The rain came down harder. More thunder, closer this time.
I met a man and a teenager coming down from the pass at a steady jog, and they looked at me in disbelief, as if shocked anyone would consider going up in this weather. I started to wonder if I'd made a bad call.
Moments later, there came several ear-splitting cracks of thunder only a second after flashes of lightning. Cascades of water were streaming down the colossal rock buttresses of Vignemale. When the thunder boomed again, I made an immediate decision to turn back to the refuge.
As I ran to catch up with the two walkers I'd just passed, the storm intensified – rain came down in rivers, the thunder was near-continuous, and lightning was now visibly arcing off nearby peaks. With great relief, I reached the refuge only a moment after the other two, who turned back to me in stunned silence, water pouring from their hoods.
'I changed my mind,' I said, and half the people in the lobby burst out laughing.
By 07.20 I had reached the top of the minor pass where you can see the start of the fabled descent to Alos d'Isil. Apparently it's traditional to get lost here. Even the guidebook isn't much help; it basically says that there are tracks going all over the place, and until you reach a place where you 'walk between several stone walls', you're on your own.
At 07.45 I met a pair of other hikers at a junction on the dirt road, peering at their GPS and looking confused. I pointed them in what I thought was the right direction and hiked on. When I reached the hamlet of Bordes de Moredo the 'improvisation' mentioned in the guidebook began and all bets were off. I was faced with about 1km of steep hillside, a maze of scrubby woodland, and about 200 different sheep tracks, and had to aim for a place I couldn't see or even identify on the map. I ended up following a likely looking path too far north, which ended at a ruined house next to a ravine. From there I descended haphazardly east, making use of steep, eroded sheep tracks through the scrub.
By sheer luck, after about 30 minutes I managed to find the area of several stone walls – it's obvious once you're there. It's a system of walled fields long since gone to ruin. The walls are tumbling down, trees and shrubs encroaching on the fields themselves. From this point, yellow waymarks took me down what had once been an expertly constructed switchback lane, zigzagging between fields and terraces, but is now much neglected and in places barely discernible. I imagined the path as it once would have been, alive with men pushing hand carts, children slipping away to pick berries. All silent now. But the life that has returned here is just as significant: wildflowers, lizards, butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles, birds. Life finds a way.
Alex Roddie is an award-winning outdoor writer and professional editor who writes about mountains, long-distance backpacking, and the environment. He helps aspiring authors craft books about the great outdoors, and blogs at www.alexroddie.com. He's currently writing a book about backpacking the Cape Wrath Trail in winter, due to be published by Vertebrate Publishing.
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