UKH

Mike Coppock, FKT on the Haute Route Pyrenees Interview

© Mike Coppock

In September 2021, Mike Coppock recorded the fastest known time (FKT) on the Haute Route Pyrenees, completing the classic 750km long distance trail from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean in an impressive time of 12 days 4 hours and 41 minutes, to take 42 hours off the previous record.

He did it solo and in a self-supported style, carrying all his own equipment and food for up to four days at a time, and resupplying in the occasional villages on the way.

Near journey's end on Canigó/Canigou, the last major summit before the Med  © Mike Coppock
Near journey's end on Canigó/Canigou, the last major summit before the Med
© Mike Coppock

For me the Pyrenees are the perfect mountain range for pure enjoyment

The HRP is one of three great trails to traverse the length of the Pyrennean chain, along with the GR10 on the French side of the range and the GR11 in Spain. With around 40,000m of ascent, this challenging high level route weaves between France and Spain, crossing and re-crossing the border ridge all the way. It is characterised by its rugged terrain, much of it above 2000m, including glacial cirques, boulder fields and scree slopes. Very little of the route is marked in any way and good navigation skills become essential in bad weather.

Averaging around 62km and 3000m a day, Mike faced difficult weather for September, with thunderstorms, rain, snow, and icy conditions which all took their toll mentally and physically during the challenge.

"Because I was travelling so light, with a bag base weight of around 4kg, my equipment was on the limit of its functionality" he tells us.

"Freezing temperatures and wind usually woke me up around 3am so sleep was difficult from day one."

"The most challenging moment came at the highest point in the glacial cirques where I encountered completely verglassed boulder fields and spent four hours almost crawling off the mountain as if I were wearing rollerblades, with ice preventing any secure grip on the rocky terrain."

The final push to finish culminated in a 135km non-stop effort over Canigó (2784m) to the coast with around 4000m of total ascent. High winds and thick mist on the final peak, only 10km from the sea were, he says, a fitting end to 12 days of mercurial weather.

It's impressive mountain terrain nearly all the way  © Mike Coppock
It's impressive mountain terrain nearly all the way
© Mike Coppock

One of many remote bivouac huts high in the hills  © Mike Coppock
One of many remote bivouac huts high in the hills
© Mike Coppock

"It was an amazing feeling to reach the beach with nothing left and know that I had given everything to the trail especially after the last few hours getting lost in the mist and being buffeted by strong winds." he says.

To date the record stands as the fastest Pyrenees crossing by any route in a self-supported style.

The previous summer Mike recorded the FKT on the GR11, which traverses the Spanish side of the Pyrenees:

 

UKH: Was there any particular rationale for doing it west to east?

Mike: It is really nice to run into the sunrise every morning! I would also prefer to have the afternoon sun on my back, and since I'm based in Barcelona, the journey home from the end was much closer. The Pyrenees also end more abruptly in the Mediterranean and so there is less rolling countryside to run when exhausted.

You've now got speed records for two of the three great Pyrenean trails: what's so special for you about the Pyrenees in particular?

For me they are the perfect mountain range for pure enjoyment. Although the terrain and weather are not to be underestimated, their maximum height at around 3404m (Pico Aneto) means that they are low enough to avoid any serious glaciers and high enough to give a real alpine feeling.

Any designs on the GR10? (OK, you don't have to tell us!)

It would seem like the next logical step!

The weather was a mixed bag  © Mike Coppock
The weather was a mixed bag
© Mike Coppock

Why solo?

We spend so much time surrounded by other people that sometimes it's nice to just be completely immersed in your own thoughts. It's always difficult for the first few days and I often feel anxiety for no particular reason, but once I've adjusted there is no better feeling than moving fast through wild terrain with no schedule, pace or decisions except your own. It's quite refreshing to just think about life, memories, friends or how you are feeling for hours on end without the continuous sensory input of phones, screens and life in general!

Going self-supported seems to be a big part of your ethos. Can you explain why this matters to you, and how self-sufficiency influences the quality of the experience?

On the GR11 last year I was chatting to a photographer I met about my crossing and he said that what I was doing must have been a purely athletic endeavour. It's easy to see why he thought this with the distances that I was covering, but to me a supported run is more focused on optimum performance and speed. You have a team to pace you, carry your bags, support at the roads, control nutrition and a guaranteed warm bed every night. Packing everything you need into your bag and setting off self-sufficiently is all about the adventure. If you mess up, there are consequences, and you have to problem solve your way out of them yourself, which isn't always easy when you have been running for 12 hours day after day!

If it was a really bad low point, reminding myself of how lucky I was to be there in that moment among those mountains usually did the trick

What sort of route planning and logistics go into a big journey like this?

I'm not a great example of how to plan effectively! I spent a year pouring over maps but didn't really learn the route, so terrain changes and height gain every day came a quite a surprise sometimes. I knew the distances and the approximate number of days between shops and in between I ran more on feel, so when I was done for the day I stopped. I saw my tarp as my daily planning. It gave me the flexibility to push into the night without worrying about shelter or bad weather. However, I was aiming at doing 55+ km a day.

You surely can't have been running the whole distance: what sort of speed were you able to maintain, and is a steady efficient pace more important than out and out speed?

I was averaging between 4-5km every hour depending on the terrain and running the downhills and flats as much as possible. I focused on running at a pace that I felt I could sustain, which varied a lot depending on the weight of food in my bag or terrain at any given moment. Days after a shop were generally a bit slower but they got faster closer to the next resupply point, especially during the run down into Pas de la Casa in Andorra where I made the shop with only 15 minutes to spare. A bit of all out speed there was extremely useful!

The beginning of a fantastic day, below the north face of the Vignemale  © Mike Coppock
The beginning of a fantastic day, below the north face of the Vignemale
© Mike Coppock

The gear you carried was very minimal, of necessity. How on earth did you get the base weight down to around 4kg? What sort of sacrifices do you have to make in terms of warmth and comfort to travel that light?

What happened was that I basically sacrificed warmth and comfort! Not entirely intentionally but I was faced with colder than expected temperatures so my lightweight roll mat and sleeping bag provided very little in the way of insulation. I usually woke up at 3am freezing cold on the days I was under the tarp or bivvying. I had a full set of dry clothes and a set I wore running, so I knew that I could at least be dry overnight. Most of my kit was extremely lightweight racing gear so was fine when moving quickly. The clothes I wore everyday are not included in the base weight.

What about food: what did you tend to eat over the day and in the evening?

I would soak oats the night before so in the morning I could mix in some chocolate powder and eat it quickly. Then for lunches I would have a bread roll (jam or vegan cheese) and supplement this with crisps, Oreos and nuts for snacks. Dinner was couscous with a cuppa soup or instant noodles. I'd also take advantage of mountain huts for coca cola and coffee. Pretty boring and repetitive but it did the trick calorie wise.

Did you have to make any big detours to get to shops to restock?

Fortunately, because I was moving quickly, I only restocked on the route itself. The maximum distance between shops was about 230km between Elizondo and Gavarnie, and 192km between Parzán and Pas de la Casa. At each of these resupplies I bought around 2-2.5kg of food as well as eating lots of fresh fruit and several tins of calorie rich premade food.

Physically, what's it like to do back to back days averaging over 60km and 3000m ascent?

Draining! I've done quite a few ultramarathons so I knew what to expect, but generally I would be able to enjoy the first 40km or so before things got tougher. I was really focussing on my nutrition this time and it really paid off. It's amazing how much further you can push with just a little extra food. I had a few little pains that came up every so often such as tendonitis on the top of my foot or muscular pain in my thighs but fortunately they disappeared enough to continue running. Pain and injury management is important in these situations. When you are pushing your physical limits it is hard to know if a pain will stop or develop into something more serious so changing running form, pace or pole technique can help until you work out if it is getting worse or not.

How do you manage recovery overnight when you're not sleeping well?

Since going vegan I noticed an enormous improvement in my ability to recover quickly and I was amazed at the daily recovery I had, even up until the last few days. I got my recovery from being horizonal and off my feet and I just had to deal with the lack of sleep. I had read that with anything up to 500 miles you can get away with very limited sleep, so I went with that advice.

Being able to move quickly over complex rough terrain is important as most days involve some sort of technical section or exposed ridge and there are a few sections of hands-on scrambling

Did you ever find motivation and morale slipping, and how do you keep yourself focused and on task in that situation?

If it was a really bad low point, the first thing I would do was eat, then I would stick some music on. To be honest, I had very few really bad moments and they were usually related to slight route errors or slow terrain under foot. Some people use mantras, but I find that repeating riffs from songs in my head over and over or thinking about logistics is a great distraction. Smiling is also a big psychological boost when things get hard. Failing that, reminding myself of how lucky I was to be there in that moment among those mountains usually did the trick.

Was this more than an exercise in suffering and endurance – can you tell us about some of the more uplifting times?

Hitting the ridge of my local mountains in the Eastern Pyrenees, just as the thick cloud cleared to reveal a stunning display of swirling mists and the deep orange rays of the setting sun, was a special moment. I had the chamois for company as I ran into the night. Being in the high mountains at sunset is always an incredible feeling. Similarly, running into the sunrise as I passed the north face of Vignemale can only be described as epic, with the glacier calving below and the sky turning blue, I knew it was going to be a great day.

Tell us more about your icy high point… that sounds tough!

It had been raining heavily the previous day, but fortunately it had stopped by the time I got to my bivvy at 2500m. When I left the next morning, before long I realised that the rain had frozen solid into verglas on the scree and boulder fields. I had two passes of just under 2900m to cross and there was no path to speak off, just large angular unstable boulders. My shoes had zero traction, even on the flat, and were as good as roller skates. It was all I could do to stay on my feet as I used the joins where boulders met to twist and torque my shoes in to gain purchase. I covered about 4km in 3 hours crawling off the mountain until the sun hit. It's fair to say that was a low point!

"The HRP felt like a real journey through the high mountains"  © Mike Coppock
"The HRP felt like a real journey through the high mountains"
© Mike Coppock

What was the terrain like in general?

There was a great variety of terrain from forested trails to boulder fields. The trail through the highest parts was continually rocky and care was needed in parts as the consequence of a fall could have been serious. However, there was also plenty of amazing mountain running on perfectly maintained trails. 

How was the weather overall – a bit of everything?

Much more varied than I expected with days of persistent rain and wind with a little snow added in for fun. I had three or four days of great weather and the rest was a mixed bag!

September is really after the summer high season for walking: did you meet many other people on the trail?

The beginning and end was really quiet but in the central region and around popular valleys there were plenty of people where the trail met the GR10 or GR11. I went for up to half a day without seeing anyone at times.

The Pyrenees can be a lot wilder than the Alps: was safety ever a concern? Say you'd broken an ankle on a high scree field…

There were a few moments that I pondered safety, but it never concerned me. I always have a GPS tracker and safety beacon when I do long solo adventures and I know that I can fall back on my mountaineering and running experience if things get serious.

When picturing a long distance trail, readers might imagine frequent waymarks and easy route finding: but is it like that on the HRP?

There are usually cairns but whether they are going in your direction or not is another question! It is hardly waymarked at all (I saw two signs in 749km) and so you need to be able to navigate, especially when the cloud is down.

The HRP is high and often quite barren and 'alpine' while the GR11 has a lot of up and down on transverse ridges. Which do you think was harder to do at speed?

The HRP was much harder to do at speed and involves a lot more mountaineering as opposed to trekking. Being able to move quickly over complex or rough terrain is important as most days involve some sort of technical section or exposed ridge and there are a few sections of hands-on scrambling. The GR11 is also easier to follow and you don't need to make as many route finding decisions. I found that in order to maintain a good pace I was checking the GPS regularly because any navigational mistakes can cost a lot of time because you don't notice that you have made them as quickly as on a fully waymarked trail like the GR11.

Do you have a favourite trail of the two?

I think the start of the GR11 is nicer from Hondarribia to Isaba because it takes in more trails as opposed to tracks or mountain roads. However, the HRP stays higher and you cover more high mountain ground with the added bonus of exploring the Spanish, French and Andorran Pyrenees. The HRP felt like a real journey through the high mountains and regularly crossing the border changes the terrain, scenery and culture so it's my clear favourite.

Can you offer any words of advice for other people looking at doing fast solo missions on big routes like this?

The three things that I would recommend in order of importance are safety kit, bag optimization and a nutrition plan. I would always have a GPS tracker and emergency beacon in case you have an accident out of mobile reception and a basic first aid kit with surgical tape, a bandage, pain killers and antihistamine. The surgical tape came in handy to fix my poles on the final day! I spent a year researching and buying my kit and making sure it was fit for the conditions (the latter was done somewhat poorly!). Gram counting really pays off when you consider that you will also need to carry food and water at any given time. Finally, an army marches on its stomach so knowing exactly where and when you can buy food is essential. Time lost through a closed shop could put an end to a record attempt or cut your adventure short prematurely or at the very minimum take your enjoyment levels from hero to zero extremely quickly!

Time spent in the mountains on long trails is such a privilege and to experience the landscapes and wildlife so closely leaves a lasting impression. So, when things get tough, eat a biscuit, remind yourself of why you are there and smile. Then take the next step.



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14 Mar

Be curious if he'd be willing to post his kit list? (I bet he has it written down!)

16 Mar

Wow! Took me 5 and a half weeks to walk it and I thought I was going well.

16 Mar

Wow, that's very fast! I'd love to go back to the Pyrenees. I'm a little worried about the resurgence of bears though. Am I being silly or is it a real danger? It's not something I want to be worrying about.

21 Mar

Top effort Mike well done self supported with pack under 4kg some beasht!

21 Mar

I wouldn't worry about it though there is a certain frisson when you're walking through thick maquis on your own, picking myrtilles and all is quiet. People very rarely see them, but that's a lot more than 25 years ago when no-on ever saw one. There was face to face charge in, iirc, Val d'Aran a couple of years ago and recently a hunter in Ariege was attacked. He got badly bitten but he shot the bear. There isn't anywhere I wouldn't go but there are some places where I'd make a bit more noise. I've met a couple of people carrying pepper spray, something I've never considered.


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