Winter Social Meeting 'Walking In The Pyrenees', Speakers: Brian Richardson and David Shepherd

Reporter: Helen Richardson

The Pyrenees form a border between Spain and France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast. ‘Grandes Randonees’ 10 (France) and 11 (Spain) follow the range, one on each side of the border, whilst the ‘Haute Route’ - as its name implies - follows the high ground between, repeatedly crossing the border, and sometimes sharing GR 10 or 11. In the first social of the season, on 6th November, Brian and David told us about their epic Pyrenean adventure walking the Haute Route, achieved over five summers, along with Dave Taylor for the first two. The stats were impressive: during 54 days of walking along the route, they covered a distance of 665 km (416 miles) and climbed and descended 43,330 metres (142,160 feet).

An amazing amount of preparation went into each trip. First, for the high altitude terrain, timing was crucial: “after fresh snowfalls from one season and before fresh snowfalls of the next”. They also wanted to avoid the hottest months, July and August, when refuges were likely to be most full, but even in June, they could arrive at weekends to find refuges very busy with overnight walkers, who had hiked a relatively short distance. Apart from the first year of their walk, in early September, they planned their walking for late June and, to avoid excessive snows at high altitude, they extended into early July. At that time of year, their walking was rewarded with many beautiful wild flowers—emerging on hillsides’ sunny slopes, recently freed from snow-melt.

Another early aspect of preparation was the need to devise a realistic schedule for each day. They adjusted Naismith’s basic rule, of 5km on the flat or 600m of ascent in each 60 minutes period, (devised in 1892 for estimating walk times in the Scottish mountains), to better suit the variations in Pyrenean terrain (estimated from their maps). For example, a section of relatively easy terrain might allow 4km per hour horizontally and 500 m ascent/descent per hour, whereas for the most difficult terrain, they might cover only 3 km and 300 m ascent/descent. They built in frequent and regular breaks - to admire the view, take photos, and rest without their loads, approximately 17 kg each, plus up to 3 litres water (3 kg), the total load having been shared equally between them. A typical day would see them up at 5am (if camping or self- catering), starting out around 7 am for walk durations typically between 5 and 10 hours, with a few up to 15 hours. The average daily distance was 12 km, but occasionally they covered 25km. Daily total ascents were frequently 1000m up and down, and exceptionally 1770m up and 1600m down. Wide variation was dictated by conditions, and also by considerations such as where they could stay and where to obtain water when camping. Maximum altitudes were reached during years 3 and 4, and culminated in crossing Col Inferior de Literole at 2983m (9787 ft). This was one of several cols crossed that exceeded 2750 m (9000 ft).

They planned their route using Cicerone “The Haute Route Pyrenees” (HRP) books and “Rando” 1:50,000 map series covering France and Spain. For greater detail whilst walking, on the French side of the border the IGN 1:25,000 map series proved to be excellent. There was neither a Spanish nor Andorran equivalent, so the Rando 1:50,000 were used in Spain, except for some Spanish National Parks for which other 1:25,000 or 1:30,000 were used, but these were of generally poorer levels of detail. To minimise load, they cut up maps and guide book, and carried only extracts that were relevant to that year’s walking.

Overnight stops varied between wild camping accompanied by a variety of hoofed fauna (horses, cattle, goats, sheep); free of charge stone refuges without a warden, (just a few bunks, a table, a bench, and “bring your own food and water, and use your own cooking equipment”); warden maintained refuges providing meals; gites d'etape; and occasional hotels, providing much appreciated comfort and an opportunity to scrub up and relax. One overnight stop, the excellent Spanish ‘Hospital de Benasque’ even had its own museum! Twice, metal cabins, cable-stayed to the rocks, were planned: ‘Refuge de Molieres’ at 2360m (7743 ft) was comfortable and clean; ‘Refugi de Baborte / del Cinquantenari’ at 2392m (7848ft) was part-filled by a party of local climbers, so, as it was a calm night, David and Brian camped out in more comfort. A few stopovers were in ski resorts, of which there are 51 along the Pyrenees! For comparison with summer conditions, we were also shown occasional images and videos of David and Brian’s ski experiences in the same Pyrenean locations, - including one of Brian on skis on the roof of a nearly buried church, using a ski pole to toll the bell!

Inevitably, camping could necessitate carrying food for several days ahead if they anticipated no opportunity to buy items closer to the night(s) they were next camping. They took with them various dried food ‘meals’ and items such as nuts, dried fruit, porridge oats and couscous, requiring just addition of water, and bought protein items such as cheese where they could.

Obtaining water for high altitude camping could be a challenge. For example, to camp on ‘la Rhune’ which has a tourist train and mountain top station restaurant, they had to rush at the end of a long day’s walk to collect water at the restaurant, before it closed and the last train took restaurant staff down the mountain.

David and Brian encountered plenty of logistical challenges. These included planning the route to ensure they could ‘get in and out’ - they must always finish from where they could reach a suitable bus or rail connection. They needed to organise travelling and overnight stops in conjunction, but some trains couldn’t be booked more than three months before travelling. The whole schedule in year 4 was turned upside down, when, due to local major floods, the ‘Bagneres de Luchon’ access road ‘in’ to their first overnight stay (where they had ended ‘year 3’) was washed away, necessitating a complete re-think—in fact they took the train to the far end of that year’s section, and walked from east to west, with the added concern throughout that they needed to ‘complete the loop’ back to year 3’s ‘end hut’—they were very relieved that they managed it, especially as crossing the ridge Coret de Molieres was more difficult and risky from east to west.

Other organisational challenges included: it was too early in the season for some refuges to be open; some refuges were scheduled to be open, but couldn’t be booked, - leaving uncertainty as to whether beds would be available to fit their schedule; some refuges theoretically accepted a remote advance booking and required a deposit, but their Bank ‘IBAN’ number did not work; and it was not safe to rely on a warden being present even where expected: for example, at Certescan (2240m) the warden had gone to the valley for the night—leaving winter quarters and melt water in a barrel in case of guests, - luckily David and Brian had food and gas with them to provide their own hot meal.

There were also the challenges of the walking itself in such rugged terrain, including: extensive boulder fields, with boulders 'as big as taxis'; swollen rivers to cross, sometimes barefoot to keep their boots dry, expecting snow higher up; routes along steep sided mountain slopes, with an ice cold lake below, awaiting the unwary or careless walker; snow fields requiring crampons and ice axes, where a slip could, and did, result in long unpleasant slides down the slope, and, in shorts, consequent skin ‘ice burn’.

Much of it looked either hard graft or scary (or both) to me as an observer, but Brian summed up their experience in 6 words: "We enjoyed every minute of it!"

“Many thanks to David and Brian for this fascinating insight into their Pyrenean adventure”.