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This page provides some information that a hiker planning a trip to the French Pyrenees, will need before leaving. It was written because when we were planning our trip, we checked the Web for information, and found very little.
The Pyrenees is a range of mountains running along the border between Spain and France, in Europe. They are approximately 600 km. long, but for a traveller on foot, the distance to walk the entire range is approximately 850km. There are several local and regional paths in these beautiful mountains, as well as the two major "entire range" paths: the GR10 and the HRP.
The Haute Route Pyrénéenne is a path devised by George Véron in the 1970's and traverses the mountains from East to West, roughly following the Hispano-French border. It keeps as much as possible to the high peaks, which although beautiful and rugged, present numerous problems for the less experienced hikers, mainly that food is not available every day, when walking the route in the suggested stages.
The Chemin de Grande Randonnée is a lower level route, which is different mainly in that it does not stick to the high peaks, and that food is available, with a few exceptions, every day when following recommended day stages. BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE: THE GR10 IS BY NO MEANS AN EASY OPTION, the altitudinal variations being considerable within short distances. It is a demanding route. This applies to most of the main walks in the Pyrenees: the terrain is difficult, and a certain degree of physical training is necessary.
A small group of us went on a walk in these mountains in the summer of 1996. We walked for 5 weeks, and in this time, managed to get half way, that is, from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Luchon, in the Central Pyrenees (Département de la Haute Garronne). The time it took us reflects the aims of the trip, which were to have an enjoyable holiday; it would be possible to cover the distance in less time. We walked for approx. 8 hours daily, and covered a little over 500km., which is about 100km. a week. We were also struck by a few mishaps along the way, namely a sprained ankle by one of the group, which forced us to rest for 5 days half way through. I think that it is probably best to rest for a couple of days every 2 weeks or so anyway, to avoid becoming over-strained and tired.
What do you need?
Various guide books have been written for this walk. The ones used by us were the guide to the HRP by G.Veron (translated from French: Pyrenees: High Level Route, by Georges Veron, West Col Productions. ISBN: 0906227488) and the GR10 guide by Alan Castle (UK publication: The Pyrenean Trail: GR10, by Alan Castle, Cicerone Press. ISBN: 1852842458). They provide a good introduction to the material needed, as well as dividing the walk into day stages of various lengths, that serve as a useful guide in planning, in the field and before starting.
Other guides, namely those published by the IGN (the French Institut Géographique National) are also useful, containing practical and cultural information, as well as extracts from the 1:50 000 maps. These are available widely in France and are probably in good specialist shops elsewhere (see also useful links.
We used the 1:50 000 maps, which are also available in many locations within the Pyrenees. Eleven (11) maps are required in total at this scale, and we found that in general, they provided sufficient detail. Indeed, they are those recommended by the IGN.
We found that the date of publication of the maps is important, as even from year to year, there can be minor changes in the marked routes that affect navigation.
Certain areas of the Pyrenees could be described as dynamic. That is, man is making changes to the landscape, which involve, among other things, changing the exact path of the route in certain areas. This was found particularly where intensive forestry was being practised and where ski resorts were expanding. Sudden changes, like landslides and avalanches in winter, may alter the landscape; even recent maps can't show such changes! SEE MAP LIST.
The GR10 is marked by these markings:
In general, these are well placed, but there are sections where the white/red waymarks are confusing and others where they may be absent as they await re-painting. If in doubt, consult the map, and we advise that a compass is carried (and that you know how to use it!). As with all outdoor activities, a certain degree of common sense is necessary when hiking in these mountains, which form an area of still wild and sometimes inhospitable terrain.
Water, we found, was generally not a problem on the GR10. Most of the villages we passed through had fountains or pumps where potable water could be obtained for free. Restaurants and bars were generally amenable to filling water bottles, also free. While away from built up places, water became more available as we climbed; that is, in the higher sections, away from the coast, natural water sources, such as springs, were pristine and therefore drinkable. Whenever we were in doubt, we purified our supply.
See also below.
Pasta, cheese, soup, cereal, bread and sausage were our staple, get used to eating the same thing over and over!
The GR10 passes at least a small food shop almost every day, and when we were on the HRP, we only went for about 4 days without re-supplying, and therefore had to carry our own. Planning was required, but food was never a major problem.
We walked from 8th July to 12th August 1996. We found that the typical hot mornings and stormy afternoons that we were warned about occured only in the central Pyrenees. In the Basque country, we had 2 weeks without any rain and HOT sun all day, and we suffered initially from the heat (partly due to not being quite as fit as we should have been when we left!).
In the Haute Pyrenées Region, we suffered in a few major storms, where rain was torrential and sometimes long-lasting. Good equipment will help you cope with this weather.
We typically walked 5 to 10 hours a day, the exact time depending on our destination for that day. We found that, towards the beginning, we tired more quickly, so needed to stop more and hence walked less. As we became more and more fit, we could walk longer days.
Planning the day is important in the Pyrenees, as it is in many places. The hot sun that we experienced made efficiency paramount, as we certainly learnt from our mistakes. For example, our 4th day of walking from a picturesque little Basque village called Bidarray, to the little town of Saint-Etienne de Baigorry, was terrible, as we left too late. It is a 5 and a half or six hour route, with over 1000 metres of ascent, most of it in the first 2 hours. The scenery is splendid, with the silhouette of the high Pyrenees is the distance. Walking is mainly along a line of peaks, and this is the problem: as the path is high and along a peak/cliff area most of the time, there is no shade. We left at 10:00, which was too late (we had been enjoying the Basque party the night before!). By the time it was mid-day, we were only just starting on the peaks section, and since water was scarce that day, we ran out (we carried two litres each). There was supposed to be a stream at one point, but when we got there we found it dry (remember, these mountains are very unpredictable). We arrived dehydrated in St. Etienne de Baigorry.
I suggest that you leave by 07:00 or 08:00 at the latest, and perhaps rest at the hottest times of day. Everyone has their own preferred rhythm, some walking through the hottest period, others only in the morning and late afternoon. The best advice is really not to under-estimate the heat if you are not used to it.
There is a village festival in Bidarray in the second week of July, by the way, with a lot of beer and food, and traditional Basque performances. It's worth a visit!
Generally, we found the people of the region to be very friendly. It should go without saying that you are walking in their "home," and respect for their way of life is necessary. This is particularly the case when dealing with shepherds in secluded high valleys, whose livelihood depends on the animals they are raising.
This page is provided for information, and I am afraid that I no longer have the resources to answer regular queries.
Disclaimer:- This page is not written by professionals. The above is what I consider good sense, and what I found useful on our trek. I cannot accept responsibility for individual interpretations of what I have written!