Hiking the width of France – the Haute Route Pyrenean – Stage 1 Hendaye to Lescun ( 165k in 5 days)

So, avid blog readers may remember I hiked part of the haute route Pyrenean last year (a.k.a the Pyrenean High Route or the HRP). I loved the sections I did, and part of me also wanted to do the full traverse of the width of France (having done the lengthwise traverse a few years back), so I am back again to walk from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. I have 28 days, and the guide book lays it out in 40-45 days, so let’s see how I get on.

Stage 1 – Hendaye to Lescun 165km 5 days

Day 0 Get out of Hendaye

10k hiked according to book, signs said 12k, pitched at Pitara

BA have a convenient flight to San Sebastián airport which is about a 20 minute taxi ride to the start of the hike. We arrived on time, though I did have to wait for a bit to get my checked luggage of my knife, hiking poles and tent pegs (note to other hikers, I carry everything else on board as have met too many people whose gear got lost). I got a cab to Decathlon to buy some gas – not sure why but I bought the enormous heavy canister – oh well, more cups of tea.

From decathlon I walked to the beach to the trail beginning and it started to rain. The sunbathers were running off the beach as the heavens opened. Great way to start. The rain didn’t stop for the entirely sodden stroll out of Hendaye town, through Biriatou village and up the Pitara Hill. I didn’t really want to stay in town, and other hikers had suggested this spot for a bivouac. Fortunately I found a water source not far from the hill as the public tap in Biriatou was broken. I arrived at 9pm, there was already one tent there so I pitched discreetly, cooked up some dinner and went to sleep.

Day 1 Near Hendaye to Near Arizkun – a miserable wet start to a long hike

30k hiked, pitched at unmanned hut – Refugio mandos malratados about 2-3 hours before arizkun.

In total, 40k hiked, 250g cheese consumed

I woke up with a wet tent and it was raining and it pretty much didn’t stop all day. I trudged through the rain to Col ibardin and had a coffee, then trudged further in the wet to Col Luziniaga and had another coffee and then arrived at Col Lizzarieta at 11.30 and decided to wait for lunch service and they were nice to me even though I was sopping wet.

Then I kept walking in the rain and at about 2.30 I really wanted a cup of tea so sat down in the rain to make one . I looked at the map and realised I was about 1km from a hunters hut which might not be locked so I got up and kept going.

I arrived at three and had only planned to have a cuppa but I was soaking wet and there was no sign of sun.

I (uncharacteristically) decided to stay put as there was definitely no dry spot before arizkun and I had walked 30k. The hut was quite dirty and almost certainly had mice, so I hung my sopping clothes up in the hut and pitched my tent out front. I warmed up, drank more tea, read my book and had an early night. Not the best start to a long walk, but felt like I made a smart call to stop

Day 2, Near Arizkun to Col de Lindux – lovely day though timing poor on food

35.5k hiked, pitched at redoute de lindux (one hour before roncesvalles),

In total 75.5k hiked, 450g cheese consumed

I woke up to see some sun – yay – so got going at 7am and watched the sun come up – it was a lovely stroll with excellent cloud inversion. My favourite part of the morning was a herd of semi wild horses on the way down to arizkun. I stopped for two coffees in a farmers bar around 10am after the first 10k

Then I headed up hill and followed the gpx and ended up in bracken and ferns above my head with heather patches scratching the hell out of my legs. I should have turned around, I didn’t, eventually I re-met to the nice forest road I had been on, and I should have stayed on. Obviously there had once been a trail through those ferns but no longer. The trail down to Aldudes was enlivened by some huge curious pigs

I rolled into Aldudes after 23k at 1.45 looking forward to lunch in the restaurant (hmmm, closed Wednesday) and resupplying at the mini supermarket which reopened at 14.30 (nope, reopens at 16.30 on Wednesday). Bugger! I did find a very pricey ham and cheese shop and bought brebis, saucisson and jamon, and made lunch on the picnic table (including making a tea on my stove) outside while they charged my power banks.

Full up, I left at 14.45, grunted up a big hill with lots of grazing and did my part feeding the horse flies (who draw a surprising amount of blood). I ended up on a road and realised that last three hours to roncecalles on road so wondered where I would pitch my tent. There was also no water at a point the guide said there would be. Arse!

I was quite thirsty at 17.45 when arrived at Col hauzay which did have a water tap. There was likely no water between there and Roncesvalles so I cooked dinner, had two cups of tea, and drank 1 l of water to save carrying too much. Then also took 3l with me for hot chocolates and breakfast. There were no obvious camp sites near the road so kept going until the Redoute de Linux. It was a lovely site, a steep climb off the road, and seemed a perfect pitch site – except for the two bloody bird watchers installed there with massive cameras

Oh well found a less than ideal pitch around the back (where they could see me when they came and looked) and hoped they wouldn’t call the cops as it wasn’t strictly a legal pitch. Wild camping on this section of the HRP does feel more like being a hobo than a hiker. The sunset was glorious.

Day 3 – Col de Lindux to Refuge Aterbea – that odd climb from Egergui and then a storm

34.5k hiked, pitched at free refuge aterbea,

110k hiked in total, 600g cheese consumed

My divine pitch in the evening turned out to be quite noisy as it was quite a windy night. I gave up trying to sleep at 6.30and headed out at 7. It was a lovely morning which made up for the dull road walk from the lindux Col to Roncesvalles.

I walk very slowly these days, so just plodded my way up the 400m hill from Roncesvalles. This section overlaps for a few km with the compostela de Santiago and I was amused at how over waymarked it was – about every 100m. God forbid the pilgrims get lost

I stopped to make tea at Col Bentarteko at 9.15 and then headed down. I bashed around a bit on descent as the gpx and guide sent me on an unmarked non pathed route. Oh well – more heather scratches. At the bottom there was a huge flock of vultures eating some dead carcass and some angry horses, so I went around them and then began the long 6k road stomp (I hate road walks)

Then I was treated to a nice descent to the pont de chubigna where I had lunch at 12 next to the stream. It was hot, the horse flies were doing a good job of taking my blood, so I summoned my courage to get going and hiked back up the 300m on the other side of the gully on a steep grassy hill.

That sweated out, more road walking down to the abandoned and filthy Refuge Egurgui. I arrived at 2 and decided to have a swim and read up on the next stage which I would start now. Hmmmm – it was another massive 500m unpathed slog up to a ridge line. I followed the gps and couldn’t quite work out the guides instructions so got a bit off track and probably lost half an hour but eventually found the track we were supposed to meet. From there it was an easy meander along ridges and around okabe and down the hlll to chalet Pedro through the forest. I got to the bottom at 6pm with energy to walk the next two hours to Col bagargiak. But it started raining. Just as the heavens opened I arrived at the grubby but free refuge aterbea. The other hikers said there was a yellow alert out for a storm so I decided to stay put but in my tent (the Refugio was like an old concrete cattle pen and for sure had mice). The refuge was next to a road and lots of campervans parked up plus about 50 scouts in tents. Bivouacking was free and there was even a grubby but free hot shower.

I found some left over soap, had a shower and dried myself with my hiking T-shirt – five star. Early dinner and an early night. The downside to the pitch though was the noisy neighbours playing music in their vans and five slugs who tried to get into my tent – blech

Day 4 – Refuge Aterbea to near Refugia Belaqua – conquered the exposed ridge, then a glorious frontier walk

33k hiked- pitched 3 km before Refugio belaqua

143k hiked in total, 750g cheese eaten

I woke up to a Misty morning and a wet tent and headed out at 7. I hoped the valley was just in cloud, and was happy that the views were lovely above the clouds as I walked up to Col Bagargiak.

Then I had a run in with a cow. Not sure why, I wasn’t that close but she decided to charge me. She didn’t have that much momentum and I stuck my hand between her horns to try and stop her sticking me with her horns, and she knocked me right on my bum – cheeky cow. Can’t fathom why, but they were close to a busy camping area on the Col and I wondered if some kids had bothered her so she was wary. Any how, will be giving cows an even wider berth from now on

I got to bagargui at 8.15, did an excellent shop in their fancy store (they even have dehydrated meals), and went to the restaurant for two coffees, two yogurts and pain au raisin. Fortified for the day I left at 9.

My least favourite French word is crete. It means ridge (or more correctly – bloody technical exposed ridge with steep frightening drop offs on either side) and todays section of the guide book had numerous mentions of three Cretes. From bagargui the first couple of hours to Col de Tharta were fine, even the steep grunt up to Zazpigagn was ok. I did question the wisdom of tackling the ridgeline given the very strong gusty wind conditions, but I could see a few people ahead so figured it should be fine. Then I met a young lady who had turned back as it was too windy. I decided she was quite skinny, and I am a bit more hefty with a low centre of gravity so I would probably be ok. It was actually ok, no worse than crib goch in Wales and a lot shorter. The blistering was unnerving but I made sure I was stable. I did shit myself watching two Germans hanging off the side of the ridge in front of me and I assumed that was the path and then realised they had gone the wrong way (as did they shortly after)

Ridge conquered it was another 300m slog up to the top of Pic d’Orhy which was heaving with a church group and very windy, so I bombed down to Port Larrou where I stopped just after 1 for lunch and tea and to watch the people watching the migratory birds fly over.

From there it was signposted 5.5 hours to the Refugio Belaqua where I contemplated heading for dinner. It was a blissful frontier stroll but hot and long. I fell twice, probably as was a little tired. The highlights were Col uthu and port bellhay views. I met some French on the last pass who told me the refuge I was going to was full and no bivouac allowed (I could have, it turned out later but who knew).

I had carried 4l water but didn’t really have enough for an overnight so would have to keep going until I found water. Luckily found a tiny stream at 17.45. I then improvised a camping spot in between copious cow poop, nettles, and thistles but out of sight of valley below (not that they would likely come get me but the Spanish are less enthusiastic about hikers bivouacking than the French). It was hot so I dried out my tent, had several cups of tea and an excellent mushroom pasta for dinner.

Day 5 near Refugio Belaqua to Lescun – stunning walk to Marmitou

25k hiked, Pitched at a paid campsite in lescun,

168km hiked in total, 1.1kg cheese eaten

It was a lovely morning with a very nice cloud inversion in the valley. I got up early as wasn’t sure of the opening times in Lescun for the shop and I needed food. I had a nice stroll to Refugio belacqua 3km down the valley which took an hour, arriving at-7.30. I was happy I didn’t stay there, as the place was heaving with cars and vans and people eating breakfast on the carpark

Unfortunately I blindly followed the GR10 route out of the refuge versus the GR12 (which was along the HRP for some of the day). Curses that was the 30 minutes I had gotten up earlier for – all hikers hate back tracking

I got on right route, and it was a lovely stroll up through the beech forest. I met Reiner the German and ended up walking with him the Lescun. The karst landscape up to Col d’anaye was incredible and I kept stopping for photos. Over the Col and we arrived at the lovely source de marmitou (an excellent bivouac spot)

Martina and Sylvain were walking together and just leaving for the day when we arrived at 11.15 (they had done a 40k day before) – Reiner had met them earlier so we had a chat.

Reiner and I stopped for breakfast and coffee and then had an easy 2.5 hour steep stroll to lescun with two glorious friendly patou the highlight of the descent

We found an open restaurant, met martina and Sylvain and ate with intent. I ordered a double lunch – goats cheese salad and a ‘complete’ (ham, omelette, cheese, salad, chips and bread)

We all resupplied ok in the shop but there were no hiking meals – so I got nuts and soup and couscous. I also got lots of fruit and yogurt and goats cheese to eat today as decided to stay at paid campsite for a shower and to charge devices and to eat

We all got there at 16.30 after slow lunch, pitched our tents, washed ourselves and our clothes and charged out devices. Camp grounds are weird – can’t quite understand why people drive to places to sleep in tents next to noisy people (we pitched in the farthest quietest corner), and it’s odd watching everyone carry their kit to the communal kitchen (we all cooked outside on our hiking stoves). It was an interesting anthropology experiment for me.

Next update from Gavarnie. Happy trails.

Saturday 29 July, 2023

4 thoughts on “Hiking the width of France – the Haute Route Pyrenean – Stage 1 Hendaye to Lescun ( 165k in 5 days)”

  1. This is a good read. This sort of hiking does not sound like my idea of fun, though! I had to laugh about your encounter with the cow. I know what it’s like to be charged by a cow, as I used to round up the cows for milking when I lived on the Coast as a child.

    1. honestly, they are terrifying. And also, I think that I am mildly worried about the embarrassment factor of having survived 197 countries, including some dodgy ones, and then getting blimmen murdered by cows!!!!

  2. Great blog as always Mel, I really do enjoy reading your adventures, I did have a little chuckle about the cheeky cow. Love the km and cheese stats too! I just got out from the bush here in NZ, the Tararua Ranges so it nice to read this with that post-hike feeling!

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