The High Pyrenees

The GR10 Hike

posted in: Europe, Expeditions, Holiday

A few summers ago we spent 7 weeks hiking over 900km across the GR10, one of Europe’s longest mountain ranges and found a great adventure, on this trip of a life time.

An opportunity for time off work and adventure presented itself one summer. The GR10, a classic long distance walking trail the length of the French Pyrenees, ticked all the right boxes and we decided to have a go at this epic hike.
We left home on one of the best June bank holiday weekends on record, apparently that was as good as summer in Ireland got. Taking only a rucksack each packed with everything we would need for the next 2 months en route. That is 1 two man tent, camping and cooking gear, 1 hat, 1 pair of shorts, one pair of walking trousers, 1 long and 1 short sleeved top, 1 fleece, a rain jacket, waterproof trousers and one pair of Crock shoes for evening wear (girlie pink for the girls and patriotic green for the men). The weight of each packed rucksack without food and water was between 12kg and 14kg.
The flight to Berritz, France was followed by a short train journey. This had us in the trendy seaside town of Hendaye on the Atlantic Ocean, the start of the trail. From there our ultimate target for the next 7 weeks was a town on the far end of the mountain range, the seaside resort of Benyuls-sur-Mer, this time on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Camping at dusk in the Pyrenees
Camping at dusk in the Pyrenees

The route, which is mainly in France, takes a course approximately parallel wit the French-Spanish border, crosses into Spain briefly and passes to the north of Andora. It is marked with little red and white striped markers painted on a rock, a tree or on a sign post. Mostly there are narrow path like trails. Maps and a guide book are still necessary though as difficulties can arise navigating between markers. There are occasional variations to the trail which are often marked with the same markers. One small error had us off course for a half day with the other half day spent backtracking to pick up the correct path.
Late snow meant that there were questions about some of the high paths during the early days and whether they would be passable. On our way from Gabas to Gorett word was that there was still a lot of snow and it might be wiser to take a lower route. We met an Australian guy doing the GR10 in the opposite direction who had just come from Gorett and figured we could take the higher route. Soon enough we were crossing larger and larger snow fields and cutting new paths towards distant markers. Another couple joined up with us and took advantage of our fresh footsteps. At parts it was nerve wracking hearing rivers underneath the snow and in other places sheer drops off ledges. Thankfully only one fall happened in a safe enough spot when Niall slid down a smooth slope managing to stop short of exposed rocks. We did see bear footprints in the snow and were kept an eye on from above by a mountain rescue helicopter crew before making it to our Gîte just in time for dinner, which was served at 7.30pm sharp.

Hiking trail on day 11
Hiking trail on day 11

Towns & Accommodation
The bigger the town the harder it was to find somewhere to stay and the halfway town of Bagnères-de-Luchon was no exception. Getting there was tough work as it involved the biggest descent in one day of 1,857m to arrive into the U shaped valley. After the luxury of a pizza dinner eaten on the wall of a fountain, followed by chocolate cake sold to us by girl guides we set off out of town to find one of two camp sites marked on the map. Both of these had long since vanished, one now an industrial park and the other a garage. Not wanting to backtrack to the far end of the sprawling town we opted to hop over a fence and pitch our tent in a corner of a camper van park in secret.
When not camping we stayed in the French equivalent of the hostel – a Gîte d’Etape. These offered communal dorm style sleeping arrangements and the use of a kitchen. On average the cost was €15 each per night with hot showers and washing facilities included. Where the kitchen was run by the Gîte owner meals were on offer again about €15 each. These proved to be great social occasions with all occupants sharing a table and a three course meal of bread and cheese, stew and pasta and gateaux dessert. Through multi lingual conversations everyone was eager to communicate and share their stories, often with hilarious sign language such as a warning not to eat berries without washing them as wild animals may have “pssshht” on them.
Many of the towns and villages have municipal campsites complete with shops, laundry rooms and sometimes swimming pools. At certain stages there was no choice but to wilderness camp as we were a long way from civilisation. In these areas there are some old mountain cabins. These were basically stone sheds with a fire place and a bench which doubled as a table and a bed, if it had not been used as firewood. One night due to a thunderstorm we had no choice but spend a night in one of these cabins and for comfort pitched the tent inside.
There is some road walking involved, most memorably towards the town of Mérens-les-Vals which followed a route used by the Tour de France. The road is painted with cycle jerseys, team colours and the names of cyclists. The town itself is known for cycling and on arriving we were in time to see a semi-professional cycle race with all the entourage and support cars passing through.

Shorts and snow - not for the first or last time!
Shorts and snow – not for the first or last time!

The Weather
The thunder storms in the high Pyrennees are spectacular and all the better if you can watch them out through a window. This is, of course, not always possible and one afternoon we pushed on to avoid a storm we could see and hear clipping across the peeks towards us. Stopping to put on rain proofs was almost a fatal error and we narrowly missed being hit by lightening which struck within 200m as we sheltered in a ruin, which had been a mountain cabin until it was hit by lightening.
Mostly the nights spent camping were warm and clammy and involved a lot of tossing and turning to get comfortable enough to sleep. Within a week of the end there is an option to summit Mount Canigou 2,784m but we stuck to the track and spent two days circling the mountain which involved an overnight camp at 2,000m. In the morning we woke up to ice on the tent.

One of the high lakes on route
One of the high lakes on route

Food & Water
In smaller villages there was often no shop, just a bread delivery van in the morning depending on what day of the week it was. Most villages have a “one stop shop” for all your food and grocery needs. We drank wine whenever possible but never paid more than €3.00 a bottle. As its heavy to carry we opted for the lighter option of a plastic bottle of brandy when we would knew we would be away from places to shop. Everything shuts down on a Sunday and for an hour in the afternoon every other day of the week, which you have to bear in mind when arriving at a village in need of food and provisions.
Hunger being the best sauce, chorizo sausage quickly became a favourite. It is cheap and easy to carry with a best before date approximately 10 years from now, ensuring that it would keep for days in a warm rucksack. We ate it for lunch with cheese and baguette and for dinner with pasta and tomato sauce. Nuts and trail mix were good high energy food which we kept for when all the chocolate rations had been eaten.
Carrying a litre of water adds a 1kg to your load so it had to be collected en route. Passing through villages drinking water was available at public taps. Barmen and café owners never refused a request to refill water bottles, often washing them first and refilling with ice cold fresh water. In the high mountains we collected water at source and on occasion added purification tablets.

The People
We met fewer people than we thought we would but everyone we did meet was genuinely friendly and very helpful. Turning up on spec for food and accommodation with very little French was daunting at first but once we attempted to speak French we were welcomed with friendliness and a willingness to communicate.  After one particularly long day’s hiking through constant ran we turned up at a hotel WHERE? thoroughly drenched. The owner took one look at us, ignored his wife’s concerns about mud on the carpets and welcomed us in with a warm smile, gave us a room and put our sodden hiking boots in the boiler room to dry.
There were many small groups of French people, who we met along the way, doing the GR10 with friends and family on their summer holidays in two week sections. We met a group of 5 French teenagers on a two week hike before they each set off to their various colleges and jobs. They had brought with them a Dungeons and Dragons board and game set which they played every evening. We also met a younger couple on summer holidays from college doing the entire walk too who were good company and we shared many beers, stories and laughs.

Vultures often circled overhead when we stopped to picnic. They looked very graceful in the sky but as we stood on a ridge and the vultures were lifted up on thermals to within arms reach they are very big and very ugly.
Most snakes we saw were of the dead variety. There were many warning signs for Vipers and one time we did have to gingerly pass an angry snake on the outside edge of a path cut into a cliff face. In hindsight poking it with a stick for a better photo was not the best of ideas.
Twice we heard horses stampede very close during the night which was terrifying but thankfully they negotiated around the tent both times.

Along the journey the mountains changed from lush green hills to snow capped awesome mountains. For the first third the vegetation is very similar to Ireland’s with bracken, beech trees and a lot of green. Through the mid section rocks and limestone took over with snow and ice on high paths and fantastic scenery. Towards the end it is almost as if you can small the Mediterranean where dry sandy ground, pine trees and cactus become the norm. The first sight of the Mediterranean Sea was so exciting and put a spring into our tired feet. A winding path down through terraced vineyards on the last day is so completely different to the early days that there is a great feeling of having passed through many regions.

The end is in sight!


The Finale
A typical day involved getting up at 7.00am or earlier to make best progress before the heat of the afternoon. Traveling west to east provides shade in the morning when there is a big climb early in the day. The shortest day’s hike was 5 hours and on the longest day we did a 12.30 hour marathon. On average each day involved a 1,000m climb and a 1,000m decent. The last day was no exception and we arrived hot and tired, with plans of a refreshing Mediterranean swim, into the holiday town of Benyuls-sur-Mer full of well dressed tourists. Like the beginning, the end is marked only by a plaque on a wall and nothing more. Here we met the first Irish people in 7 weeks, a family on holidays, they asked us how we got here (Benyuls-sur-Mer) you should have seen the look on their faces when we told them we walked!
It seemed that having told friends and family we were going to walk the entire GR10 was in some way a guarantee to ourselves not to give up and the low times were more bearable than throwing our hats at it and going home. The sense of personal achievement of having completed this trail is fantastic and extremely satisfying. The memories will last forever as will the whole spirit of living for the here and now.
The feet are itching for another GR route and the GR5 looks like a good place to begin again.
Useful Information
Outward journey: Ryanair Dublin to Berritz followed by train journey to Hendaye
Homeward: train to Gerona and Ryanair flight Gerona to Dublin
The GR10 Trail, Cicerone Guide – essential for planning days as it sets out where there are shops and banks. It has info about what type of accommodation will be available and the distance to the next town, though it does need updating in parts.
Toppo Guides – Refs 1086, 1090, 1091 and 1092 while in French do have the relevant sections of maps and avoid the necessity to purchase countless maps.
GPS – This was very handy for confirming our location on a map.
Tent – two man North Face Tadpole, weight 1.5kg
GR – Grande Randonnée (French, long distance footpath)
The highest point is a Col de Madamette at 2,509m
Total ascent = 49,714m and total decent = 49,714m
The budget was €2,000.00 which gave us €20 each a day for 50 days to pay for food and accommodation. The total cost was €2,050.00 which included 23 nights in Gîte d’Etapes, 24 nights camping and 3 nights in hotels and one superb restaurant meal.
ATMs are few and far between but are noted in the Cicerone guide. Nearly all towns have a Credit Agricole bank but you must have an account and you cannot take money out using a Visa card