Hiking the Pyrenean Haute Route

Keen for a cheap new challenge this summer Rebecca and I decided to pull out our dusty hiking boots and find some hills. After a quick bit of research we stumbled across the Pyrenean Haute Route which sounded perfect - a short flight from home, quiet trails, and lots of big mountains!

The full route runs for 45 days from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the French / Spanish border, but we chose to walk a more manageable eight day section from Le Perthus (France) to Setcases (Spain). We were excited about the simplicity of walking, carrying everything we needed in our packs and camping wherever we chose...

With limited mountain walking experience between us we felt pretty apprehensive as we arrived in Le Perthus and saw huge mountains all around, disappearing into big black clouds far above. A torrential hailstorm broke out as we checked we had all we needed - tent, stove, sleeping bag, food. We hoisted heavy packs onto our shoulders and marched off into the first of the hills, wondering how on earth we were going to cover nearly 100 miles on foot through the terrain ahead.

The Pyrenean Haute Route combines parts of the well-known GR10 and GR11 trails with additional high altitude sections, creating a coast-to-coast path following the main ridge of the Pyrenees. Our first day had gone smoothly enough, however as we went to light the stove on the first evening we discovered that the camping gas canister I'd bought after arriving in Spain didn't fit our stove, a classic school boy error. Morale plummeted as we realised the eight days of dehydrated meals in our packs were useless without hot water and we'd just walked four hours away from the nearest town. With neither of us prepared to turn around we managed to start a fire using 80 (!) pages of Rebecca's trashy novel (no great loss there) and some damp twigs, which fortunately gave us enough heat to boil some water in our tiny pan.

Our route passed through one small village after three days, so to avoid having to make a fire every time we wanted a hot drink we found the required ingredients to make a DIY soda can stove. The only slight hitch was that I couldn't really remember the instructions that I'd seen on the internet, but after a couple of false starts we had a poor imitation of a functional stove! Our distinctly average dehydrated meals were back on the menu.

[I've since learnt how to make a 'proper' soda can stove, which doesn't look like a dog has eaten it, and they're really good! Simple and light. I would consider using one as my sole stove next time, although you really need one per person.] 

It quickly became obvious that this was going to be a tough 'holiday'. The trail rose and fell sharply and within days we were exhausted, feet and legs painful to touch. It became increasingly hard to get back up from our rest stops, which were usually spent lying down with our boots off. I love hiking in isolated areas miles from anywhere, but this inevitably means heavy loads and only being able to eat and drink what you can carry.  As a man with a massive appetite this represents a challenge!

Low hanging clouds made for some eerie walks through forests...  

...and poor visibility on exposed sections of the trail.

But as we climbed up to higher altitudes four days in the weather lifted too.

WOW - suddenly we could see for miles, stunning panoramic views all the way to the Mediterranean Sea on the horizon. This was what we came here for!

We rose early on the morning of day six to start the ascent of the Pic du Canigou, the highest point of our trip at 2,784m, and were treated to a series of picture perfect sunrises behind layered mountains as far as the eye could see.

We clambered up rocky slopes for several hours, chilled by the fierce wind and cold air. Excitement grew as we neared the top...

...and we finally got there we weren't disappointed. The 360 degree panoramic view from the cross that marks the summit was breathtaking.

My favourite day came towards the end of our trip as we traversed a series of high altitude plateaus and ridges along the border, all above 2,200 metres.

The wind was fierce above the tree line as we wrapped ourselves in every bit of clothing we'd packed, but progress was surprisingly quick striding across the relatively flat terrain. This could barely have been more different to our first few days when we'd struggled along steep, narrow tracks in thick forest, sweating uncomfortably in the warm, humid air 1,500 metres below - the variety of the route in just eight days was amazing.

 On the final day we descended over 1,000 vertical metres, down to the bus stop at the small village of Setcases. We basked in the warm sun, devouring the last of our food as we waited for our ride. It had been a cracking adventure, and I'd highly recommend the Pyrenean Haute Route to anyone interesting in mountain walking. The only question left is will we go back one day to attempt the full 45 day route?!

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