Hiking the Haute Route in the Pyrenees

I took a bit of a beating in Bosnia given the heat and carrying a heavy load of food, and my fitness isn’t in top form, so I adjusted my plans for hiking the HRP (the High Route) in August to be a little bit easier. For the first time in years, I am actually going to do the recommended days in a guide book (apart from a couple of double ups), which will largely mean leisurely 8-9 hour hiking days with 1600m of climbing and 20km of walking. I am also not keen to carry a heavy load of food when there are refuges along the way that can provide three course dinners, so have prebooked places to sleep (it is the high season) but am taking my tent as have to pitch for nights where there is nowhere to sleep. So it will be a leisurely stroll with lots of alpine lake swims and cups of tea

What is the Haute Route?

The HRP is a 750km thru hike that goes from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, following the highest ridge in the Pyrenees as closely as possible. It is not way marked. There are easier trails on either side of the Pyrenees the GR10 and the GR11 which follow the French and Spanish side of the pyrenees respectively. These go to towns and villages most days and I prefer to stay as high as possible and as wild as possible. I have recce’d the route, and have picked the continuous section that I am most interested in doing from Candanchu through to Salardu. I also like the look of the section from Salardu through Andorra, so might come back and do that next year.

Day 1 Astun to Col de peyreget 11k, 1100m ascent, 4 hours walking

I woke up in Oloron to a very cloudy morning and was worried about the weather. But I was more worried about getting gas for my stove. I had planned to get gas in Paris at the decathlon (as you can’t take it on Eurostar), but a long Eurostar delay killed that plan. And it was Sunday which means most things in France are closed! After ringing around I found a small shop 20k away that probably had gas, so I got a taxi with Pascal to Lescun, where they did have gas, and then Pascal dropped me at Astun to start hiking. Blissfully we had driven up through the clouds and the weather was glorious

The first section was a hike up to the lake Ibon de Escolar – it was quite crowded with day hikers so I kept going over Col de Moines on the Spanish border where had the first jaw dropping views of the Pic du Midi du Ossau. I kept strolling to the lovely Lac Casterau where I had tea and lunch. I sunbathed and read as was not in a hurry.

Then it was down to a high valley – very loud with sheep bells – where I left the main GR108 track and slogged up hill in heat towards Col peyreget. I saw 20 people coming down so was delighted when got to lac de Peyreget and there was no one there so stripped off and had a lovely mountain swim and lay in the sun reading

From there a slog up to Col peyreget over a bolder field but was rewarded with great views of the pic du midi and spied a perfect bivouac spot at the little lac de peyreget which would avoid having to camp near the refuge with all the other hikers. I had another swim in the tiny lac du col and dried off on a rock enjoying the view before making dinner. I dutifully waited until 6.30 to pitch my tent (you aren’t supposed to before 7pm)

Day 2 – 8 hours to refuge Larribet via refuge arremoulit 18km and 1300’m of ascent and the horrendous traverse from col de palas to port du lavedan

I woke up to a beautiful sunrise with a lovely view across the valley with spectacular cloud inversion. I walked past the refuge plombie which reinforced my decision ti bivouac high and alone – as it was very crowded. On the way down to the valley I met Taco a retired Dutchman who has lived over the world in the descent and he suggested we join forces for the day given the terrain was dodgy and I said yes provided we could swim in the good lakes we passed.

The descent was easy and last 300m of altitude through cloud. We crossed a road and immediately began a slow and steady climb on a well graded trail up a stunning river valley to the Col de Arrious 800m of climbing above where we stopped for a lovely swim at Lac Arrious. I was a bit nervous about the next section – passeig de orteig – a cabled passage along the side of a cliff but it was totally fine, nice and wide and lots of handholds.

We stopped at the Refuge de Arremoulit for an excellent lardon omelette for an hour, and then steeled ourselves for the hard stuff.

We ascended the Col de Palas (which had an ominous sign as we started up saying ‘off path’) and it was a steep bouldery climb but lots of cairns and stunning views. From that col an unmarked and poorly cairned and sketchy traverse across scree and boulders ended with a scramble up the port du Lavedan. It took 2.5 hours from lunch to go a mere 2k. I was very grateful that there were two of us, as the navigation was tough and I had a couple of moments skidding on scree and finding handholds on rock which were a bit stomach churning. (I hate scree and my vertigo gets worse with age).

The way down from the Port du Lavedan to the refuge was in cloud and very bouldery and slippy and was well sign posted but my legs were stubbornly slow on the 600m of descent and the c 3-4 k to the refuge. We were delighted to finally arrive at 6pm – the Larribet refuge has lovely hospitality. We had an amazing dinner of split pea soup and stew with rice then cheese and bread and then chocolate tart. And a large bottle of wine. Good chat mostly in French with our multinational table

Day 3 to Wallon – 22 km, 7.5 hours and 1300m of ascent

It took a while to leave this morning between breakfast and the general faff of 80 people and two toilets, but we eventually got going at 7.20am heading down the stunning Larribet valley with streams and waterfalls and amazing pine trees .

We reached the junction in the valley after an hour and turned right for the stunning walk up the long gave d’arrens valley with was perfect hiking – light breeze, in the shade and a well graded track with graceful switchbacks. I also saw my first vultures up close – blimmen enormous and there were about eight of them devouring two dead cows – it is the Pyrenean waste disposal system

By 11am we had reached Port de La Peyre Martin at 2296m and then turned left to head up to the col de combales. The path was mostly good with just a few navigational moments – but it was very steep and with a sheer drop down to boulder hell. I would have no business being up there on ice but it was fine today

We stopped for lunch on the Col de Combales at 2700m which has breathtaking mountain views in all directions and sunned ourselves like lizards. The descent down the other side was mostly fine – with just a few slippy dusty bits which I did not enjoy.

Then the lacs started coming into view – beautiful alpine lakes with different colours and we saved our swim for the grand lac which was freezing but amazing

The descent down to refuge wallon was well switchbacked and along a series of stunning waterfalls. The refuge is under construction and looks like a nuclear bunker. The plateau around the refuge is a well known bivouac spot and at 4.30 was already full of people ‘baggsing’ their spot for a tent. So we headed 20 mins further up the trail to a flat bit in the trees. We arrived at 5.30 which is too early to bivouac (park rules say after 7pm) but I decided I was drying my tent out. We had dinner and a very early hikers bedtime of 8pm

Day 4 to Baysellance – 6 hours, 14km, 1300m of ascent – oh wow, Vignemale

We headed out at 7pm and it was a stunning walk in valley in shade up the hill to lac de arratille. Then on to col de arratille past a lovely high lake. Then we had an amazing path across Spain from Col arratille to Col de mulet- sidling across an amazing scree slope with fat marmots wandering across the path. I normally hate paths like this, but this one was well constructed and nice and wide

There were stunning views from col de mulet, and then it was a lovely descent down to refuge des oulettes de gaube. The views got better on the way down with unbelievable views of vignemale up a glacier valley. We were looking forward to an omelette but the refuge had run out of eggs so I bought some tart and an Orangina and cooked up a curry on the terrace – unbelievable view for lunch

We left at 12.30 and headed up to hourquette de ossoue- After the refuge, the HRP has joined the GR10 until gavarnie so the route is well graded and very easy to follow. Amazing views down the valley and across to vignemale

View down from the hourquette was amazing, and it was a short hop down the the refuge de baysellance – the highest hut in the Pyrenees. It’s a proper climbers hut – breakfast starts at 5.30 and we are smushed together like sardines in the dorms. Taco and I had a quick swim in a muddy lake near the refuge but the weather was closing in so we spent the afternoon chatting in the refuge to a lovely German couple – Tobias and Katarina – and then had a huge refuge dinner

Sleeping was a little challenging in the dorm – with young guys slamming the door on their way in and our, several snorers, and a grumpy Spaniard who kept closing the window – we were cooking. At midnight, still trying to get to sleep, I resolved I was done with dormitories. At 4am I was awake, and not in great shape with some stomach issues – I am assuming food poisoning – and it is pretty grim.

Day 5 Baysellance to Gavarnie – 18km, 5 hours – a baking hot down hill and digging holes 

It was supposed to be an easy day today but my stomach cramps and a requirement to stop every hour to dig a hole made it feel quite long. The walk down was well graded, passing some cute grottos where hikers camp. We passed the lovely barrage de ossoue and then it was just a long mostly flat walk to Gavarnie. It was super hot and I took my shirt off at lots of streams to dunk it in and put it back on my head.

I was delighted when we arrived at 4.5 hours at a small refuge on the outskirts of town and we sat in the shade for a cold drink. Tobias and Katarina arrived so we had a nice chat to them as well and then farewelled them as they are continuing on the GR10.

Arriving in Gavarnie was a shock to the system. Cars and campervans everywhere and hundreds of tourists everywhere – quite a shock after five days where I only passed one road. My hotel is suitably French (including a taxidermied wolf and lots of signs with instructions). I emptied my pack, washed my clothes and had a nap. Taco and I had dinner to roughly plan the next stage, and then my dodgy stomach and I went back to bed – fingers crossed a rest day tomorrow will sort me out.

Day 6 was a rest day in Gavarnie and I didn’t leave the hotel.  My tummy was wildly uncooperative and I avoided most food all day.  I made the mistake of eating dinner and had a rough night.   But I decided if I was feeling crap (pun intended) then I would rather be in the mountains than a hotel, so the next day…..

Day 7 – Gavarnie to Heas 1250m of ascent and 18.5km of hike – loved the Cirque de Estaube

We left Gavarnie at 6.30 and my stomach largely cooperated with my plan.   The 1000m climb to Hourquette de Alan via the Refuge des Espuguettes was all in the shade and we arrived by 9.30am and sat in the sun enjoying the view.  

The descent down the other side had magnificent views up to the Cirque de Estaube and a lovely river flowing through.   We reached the lac de gloriettes at noon so sat in the sun, had lunch, paddled in the stream and sunbathed for a couple of hours.

We continued on down the valley to Heas meandering as we were in no rush, and arrived at the delightful Auberge de La Munia at 3pm and sat in the sun with a drink, reading for the afternoon.  This place is an utter delight – super friendly staff, at almost the end of a dead end road on the way to the Cirque de Tourmouse.  Dinner was amazing – salad, pork loin and pomme anna and cake.  

Sleeping on the HRP is probably not for everyone.  Gavarnie was a treat as I had a room with an en-suite.   Normally the choices are the tent – which I love, but it is less comfortable than a bed, or a refuge (lots of snorers and early morning rustlers).   Tonight we have an Auberge and when I tried to book a room they told me I must share the room with someone else – as they sell rooms by Demi pension/half board.  The room has a spare bed (top bunk) so there was space for taco too.   The ladies in charge encouraged me strongly to take the double bed, and I did (feeling mildly selfish but with no guilt).   We shared with Alexander – an English guy on his first long distance hike – not the easiest hike to start with.   I wasn’t a good room-mate as kept getting up with my stomach – am pretty sure it is giardia

Day 8 to Parzan 25k 1500m – unbelievable traverse to the Lac de Barroude

We were up and eating breakfast at 5.30 am and off at 6am for the 1000 climb up to the ‘hard to find’ (according to the guide book) Horquette de Heas.  The trail was actually easy to find on the ground, although there was no alignment between my gps track and the path.  It was a remarkable zig zag up rocks and scree to pop out at a small notch in the rocks.  We met a shepherd and his dogs a few metres at the top – he has lost his flock (seems like not a great outcome for a shepherd, and was wondering if they had climbed 600m to go to the other valley).

We scree slid down much of the other side and had morning tea on a rock in the sun – I was treating taco to a Mel special of mid morning coffee out of my super fast jetboil.  Then we meandered up to the second pass of the day – the Hourquette de Chermentas. 

From that col, it was an epic traverse on a high (relatively well benched) trail below the huge Barroude rock wall, arriving at the unbelievable Lacs de Barroude after an hour.  It was an incredible spot – felt just like home, and we only saw a few people.  We found an excellent lunch spot and enjoyed the sun. 

At 1pm, we headed off as we were too hot, and climbed up to the Port de Barossa to enter into Spain.  By 2pm a huge storm had rolled in – very loud thunder, lightening relatively close by, and then an epic and aggressive hail storm.   We were lucky we were headed down the other side, I would not have wanted to be on an exposed ridgeline.   We made it to the small unmanned Refugio de la barossa at about 3pm and then had a long wet boring walk down the valley to the main road.  We arrived at the road at 4pm, expecting to have a wet 5km road walk into Parzan on a busy highway with no footpath, but a lovely French family gave us a lift.  Parzan had nothing much to recommend it – three supermarkets selling cheap liquor and cigarettes to French people returning home.   However, it was nice to have a hot shower and an early dinner.   My stomach is still behaving badly, so I was up most of the night, and I texted Taco at 2am to tell him to go on without me, as I was in no shape to do much, and I wouldn’t be ready to go at our arranged 5.30am departure.

   

Day 9 to bivouac at Anes cruces – 26k, 1800 m – no juice in legs, dirt roads and rain

I was feeling vile, but was awake at 6.30am so I roused myself out of bed and headed up the road to rejoin the trail.  After 45 minutes I was feeling nauseaus and dehydrated and started fantasising about full sugar coke (the remedy for all stomach ills).  And weirdly five mins later there was a full bottle of coke in the middle of the dirt road – clearly it had fallen out of some hikers pack, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.  That coke got me up the 3 hour, 1000m climb up to the pretty boring Col Urdiceto, where I had a tea break at the unmanned hut.  

The views were nice, but I had been spoiled.  I then headed down the valley stopping for lunch beside a stream.  My stomach doesn’t want anything but instant mash with cheese powder and haribo lollies.  I kept walking down the valley and arrived at camping forcallo at 3pm where I had intended to stop but it was full of kids and cars, so I had a Coke and crisps and kept going to Refugio de Viados – which was also super crowded.  So I found some mojo in my legs and kept walking another 90 mins up the valley to a lovely bivouac spot at Anes Cruces, albeit the 90 minutes was in the rain, and my legs were very slow.   I pitched the tent and enjoyed the solitude and had an early night

Day 10 to a bivouac near refugio de corona 27.5k, 1300m ascent  – not the most inspiring day, but I got a bocadillo

I slept in, and experimented with breakfast, as my tummy is still uncooperative.  Mash it is again.   I slowly meandered up the hill at 8am to get to the col at Purto de Gistain with no juice in my legs.  It was a lovely quiet morning, and I stopped to watch some fearless marmots play on the hillside.  

Over the col, there were lots of hikers coming up other side, and it was a nice scree slope and valley walk down to the Refuge de Estos where I stopped for another miraculous Coke and crisps.

From the refuge down to the road, it was an easy 10km clip passing lots of slow day hikers.  The path wasn’t that interesting – forest and a river – but it was easy.  I was delighted to find Camping Aneto when I hit the road, where I charged my watch, ate an amazing bacon and cheese bocadillo, had an icecream and drank three Aquarius (a magic Spanish drink) 

I could have stayed at Camping Ixeia  in the valley but didn’t fancy seeing loads of people, and it was only 3pm.   So I slogged up 10km on dirt road and 700m of ascent to the Refugio de Coronas.  I was a bit miffed to see a bus bringing hikers down from the refuge on the dirt road, though I probably wouldn’t have taken the bus. 

By this time it was 5.30pm – there is an unmanned refuge at Coronas but already had four people in it so I snuck off to find a quiet bivouac spot about 500m from the hut.  The thunder and rain started as I was looking so I put the tent up in a downpour and had dinner in my sleeping bag listening to the sound of rain on the tent.

Day 11 – 15k, 850m ascent to salanques – lakes, boulders and cols

I had an easy start at 7am.  Walking in the morning is the best – knocking out the tough climbs in the cool of the day in glorious solitude.  I reached the ibons de ballibierna at 8.30 – a pair of stunning mountain lakes.  I then grunted up boulder field to the Collada de Ballibierna at 2700 and there were stunning views to even more lakes on the other side.  There was also 3g, so I annoyed my friends by sending a morning selfie. 

I xcooted down bowlder field on other side and arrived at Refugio de cap de lauset which looked lovely, had good bar, and had lots of loos and individual rooms.  I was starving so I cooked up a big pasta on their terrace and had a coke and an acquarius.   It was then slow going up to the tiny collet des estanyets as it was baking hot and I had a full tummy but amazing views at top – back over estany de cap de lauset and in front to the four stunning estanyets de cap des anglos.  Descending required getting over another big boulder field but it was lovely to stick me feet in.   I then meandered to Refugio de anglos after which I thought it would be an easy stroll down the valley – um no – it was a kiwi grade rocky rooty hanging of trees descent and I had fun bombing down the hill much to the annoyance of the hikers I passed. 

I reached the bottom around 4pm and had decided on the col that morning to hitch to town as the weather forecast was rubbish and the proposed bivouac spot was near a road without great views.  A lovely Spanish family were happy to drop me at the hotel – I had a bath and shower and washed clothes, and also went to a magical place called a supermarket to buy more haribo and bread and cheese.  

Day 12 to Lac deth cap deth port – 15k 1250m hiking – the most unbelievable mountain lake day and best swim so far

It really was an unbelievable mountain lake day.   I got a cab back to the trail at 7.30am and headed up the hill.  I wasn’t speeding but I did overtake some unhappy Spanish dudes en route to port de ruis, but the eventually let me pass.   My stomach is finally feeling better and I am starving so I had a second breakfast of coffee and a cheese paste sandwich next to the lovely  lac de ruis in the morning sun.  

The trail then meandered by tarns and lovely lac tort de ruis before climbing up to collada de lac du mar where I passed some nice young French guys (Martin and Pierre) – where we were treated with stunning views over the Lac du mar – it is apparently egarded as most lovely lake in the Pyrenees and I can see why.  It was a bit of a scramble from the col down to lac du mar – but worth it as I had a lovely divine lake swim – with easy entry from my private beach.  Apart from the French guys, we had the lake to ourselves (the day hikers don’t come this way). 

I then meandered over a lot of boulders along the lake and down to restanca refuge for a Coke and crisps.  The refuge had lovely view but heaving with loud Spanish hikers.  The guide had said 7h15 of walking to get to the refuge, but it had taken me less than 6 hours.  I sat in sun and chatted to Pierre and Martin.  I had a bed booked in the refuge but it was rammed so I headed up the hill for 45 mins to a private bivouac spot next to the Lac deth Cap deth Port.  I was very early as it was only 5pm so so pitched and collapsed tent so ready in case of rain (Spanish rules prohibit bivouacking before 8pm).  I sat in the sun with my feet in the lake and reread the third foundation novel by Asimov (I had been working my way through the series on the hike), had dinner (twice – once at 5pm and once at 7pm) and then watched the moon rise.

Day 13 walking out, still looking for orcs, to road end near banhs de tredos 

It was a lovely morning and I had a sleep in.  The hike up to the first col was easy in the cold morning air, and the view over the other side was more epic lakes – starting with the stunning Estany des Monges.  The trail then weaved through more lakes and up to the Port de Caldes.  Then the day hikers started appearing – they get bus-ed in to not far from the Refuge to Colomiers, so the rest of the morning was a bit overwhelmed by fluoro day hikers in big groups talking loudly.   I stopped at the refuge as was starving so had an omelette sandwich (I had miscalculated my supplies against hunger, so was a little lean on food).   And then wandered down the valley to the road.  It was supposed to be an 11km road walk to Salardu – and I hate road walking.  Two minutes after hitting the road a taxi drove past, so I flagged him down.  In the small world we live in, he was the taxi driver who had dropped me off the day before.  So he took me all the way back to Vielha.  And that was my hiking holiday done.  I am not ready to go home, and already planning to come back next year to do the next section 

August 13, 2022

Additional information – the cicerone guide from Tom Martens is excellent, I recommend Gaia over outdoor active as it has the French and Spanish IGN Topo maps which can be downloaded for offline use. The Facebook group PyreneanHauteRoute was very useful for up to date information on snow and trail conditions

Note blog is written on iPhone with thumbs, apologies for typos

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