Easyjet from Newcastle to Stansted, 18.05 departure
1 night stay at 'Days Inn' on service area with shuttle bus
4.30 am shuttle bus to Stansted for 06.20 flight to Pau (Ryanair)
Bus to Pau Train Station
Train to Lourdes - arrives 11.30am
2hr wait for bus
13.55 Bus to Luis St Saveur, arrives 14.50
17.15 bus to Gavarnie, arrives 18.00
Starting from Gavarnie means you are among the high mountains straight away, my first day was very hot, which meant spectacular views of the Cirque de Gavarnie on the 2hr initial climb. Then on to the col to pass into the next valley the terrain is rugged, high and enjoyable.
The only problem the day threw up was that you could not pass over the dam at Lac des Gloriettes, because of construction work, this cost an hours detour - even worse the detour was signposted down the track from which I had come, but the signposting was so poor that no-one would have seen it unless they had followed the detour route!
The auberge at Heas is a nice place to relax - so I did, under their canopied restaurant.
Leaving Heas for Parzan again takes in some spectacular mountain scenery, around the middle of the route arrving at the Barroude Wall, a fantastic wall of rock that hangs above a bright blue lake with islands and fantastic places to camp. I learned some time ago that if you find a good place to camp, even a few hours before you intended to stop, you should use it - the place you intended to camp may not be nearly as good. So I camped below the Barroude Wall.
This left me with some time to make up the next day. The descent from Barroude is down a very picturesque valley, classic mid level scenery of steep rocky outcrops with evergreens clinging to them and a nice path taking you down to the Parzan road.
The route then spends 4 hours on a dirt track walking up to the Paso de los Caballos - if I had my time again I'd hitch a lift.
After the pass the climb down to the campsite at Forcalla is uneventful, the weather worsened for me but I got the tent up before the real storm hit. The campsite has good facilities and provided an excellent evening meal, the route had taken me 12 hours to complete.
The weather on day 4 was initially dry but characterised by low cloud and mist resulting in poor visibility, making navigation quite difficult, and the route fairly uninteresting. I reached Refuge La Soula at 3.30pm, it had just started raining and I settled in for a meal of cassoulet. At this point I was still intending to walk for another few hours to where the guidebook said was a decent camping spot.
As I left the rain was getting heavy, and as I walked it was getting worse, after half an hour it was hail stoning and visibility was down to a few metres. As the route was carrying me higher rather than lower, where the weather was likely to be worse, I reluctantly decided to return to the refuge and stay there the night.
Today was both one of the best days and one of the worst days of the whole trip. A couple of hours out from La Soula and I broke through the low cloud and mist and from then on I was blessed with mainly good clear weather with the occasional cloud rolling in to spoil the view.
The terrain is fantastic, high rocky mountains with significant snow fields to negotiate. Route finding is tricky but the views are truly breathtaking. I crossed all the obstacles encountered and made the descent to Refuge Portillon around 3.30pm. Had soup and coffee and left around 4pm.
According to the guide I had a 3 hour trek to the Valle de Remune, I was trailing the guidebook times so perhaps it would take 4 - worst case. I knew I had light till 10.00pm so plenty of time!
The next section was great too, from the Col Inferieur de Literole the view is stunning, and the way ahead filled with snow with just a compass bearing to go on. I traversed the valley keeping as high as possible and sticking to the bearing and was delighted to pick up a line of cairns after a considerable traverse by dead reckoning.
The path swings East toward the Valle de Remune. The path here was unclear but I travelled East, lost the cairns and came to the top of a steep cliff. The way down wasn't clear and so I had to find the path, which I knew turned to the North at 2600m, this is where an altimeter would have saved the day, as it was I chased North far too early and spent 2 hours on the plateau before I eventually found the path again.
It was now a race to the valley floor to find somewhere to camp, it was getting dark as I hit the bottom, the terrain still comprising a large boulder field. I raced down the boulders that followed the stream, at 10.00pm I ran out of light, I had a head torch but the large boulders were too dangerous to cross with such a light because it didn't reveal the angles and distances adequately enough - there was a real danger of falling or catching an ankle.
I bivied among the rocks, I was still near the river so managed to make a meal. The weather was kind - only cold, no rain. In the morning as I left the bivi it was a mere 15 minutes to the first stretch of green grass!
After a couple of hours I arrived at the Benasque Rd, normality barged into my day as I passed a huge carpark filled with day hikers and walked across the Valle de Esera, a large flat bottomed open valley to the Hospital de Benasque, a large modern 3 star hotel, although the style was a little rustic.
The guide says not a place for walkers - so I bought a buffet breakfast for 9 euros and sat outside enjoying the luxury - especially the fresh fruit and coffee, I was grateful to get reception on my mobile phone and contacted home. I pushed a large orange into my pack for later, had a wash and shave in the loos - and felt human again.
Carried on through gentle countryside, stopped for a beer at 'the place where the road ends', mingled with the tourists just off the bus and walked up to the stunning Forau de Aiguallut - leaving the tourists behind I headed towards the Col de Mulleres.
A few hours later I arrived at Ibon de Escaleta, it was only 3pm but it was a good place to camp and I decided to stay, this turned out to be agood decision as by 5pm the low cloud had returned to the higher ground and was descending fast to my level.
The next day the weather was poor again, I continued on towards the Col de Mulleres, but with visibility down to 10-20m I found it difficult to follow the path, in this case there were too many cairns, the plateau was littered with them. With a key turn in the route it was difficult to assess the right time for the turn.
I ended up at what I thought was the col, then decided it wasn't, and scouted around in the mist for a long time. I knew that to find the descent from the col you had to walk North to find a difficult route down the other side. I followed some cairns roughly North and noted they seemed to drop off the edge, the descent looked tough but the section I could see was do-able.
I very carefully made my way down, there were no further cairns even though there was a choice of routes, as I got lower it became tougher and the steepening to a cliff face meant that I struggled to see an obvious route down.
After about 20-30m of descent I decided that this could not be the route, or if it was - it was too difficult for me - especially solo when one slip could be disastrous. I climbed gratefully back to the ridge and continued North again, visibility was still very poor but then I came upon another cairn which confirmed that the route I had been trying to descend moments earlier - was not a route at all, just a cliff, probably unclimbable!
After a further brief ascent up the ridge I arrrived at a huge carefully made cairn, there was a plaque with the word 'PAU' on it. The weather was clearing now and I reasoned I was on the Tuc de Mulleres, the guide book mentions this is an easy climb of a 3000m peak from the Col de Mulleres. With this key piece of information and the clearing weather I found the col and made my way North to find the correct descent route.
The descent was still tough though, and at the very end I came to a short section to a snow slope that seemd to have no obvious way down. I clambered, fell, lowered myself onto the edge of the steep snow field. The snow I had negotiated days previously had been straightforward and easily 'edged'. This snow however was harder packed and almost immediately I fell flat on my stomach and started sliding feet first down the slope.
After grasping at the snow with my fingers with little effect I scanned the end of the slope, there were rocks, but I was moving fast and didn't necessarily want to stop my descent with my legs and risk an injury. Luckily the rocks were small and acted like an extension of the snow slope - I slid down them and came to a stop.
That was two escapes in the same day - I was re-alerted to the dangers of travelling alone.
Ahead were some stunning views. I made my way down to the largest Mulleres lake and had some lunch, dried the tent had a well earned rest.
That was the second time I had been lost and the second time I had lost a couple of hours finding the right route. The rest of the day was on the enjoyable walk down the valley - I wildcamped about half an hour from Refuge Vielha on a flat marshy plain.
Breakfast at Refuge Vielha, superb walking today, no difficulty, two superb lakes, had a short swin in Estany de Mar. Continued on to Refuge Restanca, arrived around 4pm, celebrated with a sandwich, beer and coffee. Continued on for 45 minutes more when I reached another perfect campsite - Estany deth Cap deth Port.
By this time I had run out of food that didn't need cooking - no breakfast - walked for 4 easy hours to Refuge Colomers, rested for an hour, had soup and a salad. Set off on the 3 hour descent to Salardu, sadly mainly by road, arrived in Salardu at 3pm at the end of stage 3. The following day (Sunday) was to be my rest day.
In my guidebook dating from 2003 the next 'day' is Salardu to Alos de Isil, walking time given as 9hrs 50mins. As you will read I couldn't make it in a day and have to admit I didn't like any part of the journey!
The first section is straight-forward, but not very inspiring as it passes through ski-resort country, I did become puzzled though because I managed the first section much more quickly than the guide time - almost a first for this trip.
I reached the base of the Marimanya, the guide accurately states there is no path, just walk to the top. But the way is very steep and by the time I'd hauled 8 days food plus my other gear to the summit I was knackered and a full hour behind.
Although the weather was fine the climb really took it out of me, route finding up the slope had taken some time also, and now on the summit I spent more time fretting about the next section, the obvious route looked tricky and after my previous experience wanted to be absolutely sure that it was correct.
Eventually I moved on and found my own way to the Coll d'Airoto, passing over it and down towards Estany d'Airoto, which the route passes on the left hand side, some distance from the lakeside. The terrain for the full length of the lake is boulder field, difficult at any time, but when travelling solo the risk of injury through falling or trapping a foot has more serious consequences.
I therefore travelled gingerly and very slowly until finally reaching the end of the lake. I now knew I wouldn't be going much further and decided my best option was to walk the 10-15 inutes to the Refuge d'Airoto where there's water and a good place to camp. When I arrived it was quite busy but welcoming, I pitched the tent next to a group of Spaniards who were watching a tiny television!
The next day the world was good again and I reached the Coll de Clot de Moredo and descended easily to the tiny tarn, La Basseta, and continued on to the un-named pass.
The guide states that you can see Bordes de Moredo (a few buildings) in the distance and 'to save time' you should walk in a straight line to it - flippin' nightmare. I tried it initially and turned back because the terrain was very rough and the going very slow.
Having decided to follow the dirt road I intermitently tried shortcuts but invariably found them pretty unpleasant and wasn't convinced I had saved any time. After a very frustrating descent I arrived at the group of buildings - the revised guidebook says 'although it is possible to take a number of shortcuts the best thing to do is to follow the dirt road' - hmm!
Beyond these buildings a very patchy track descends through thick woods and its easy to lose it, when you do the thicket is annoying and the terrain can be rough and steep underfoot.
I fought my way down to Alos de Isil eventually arriving at 11.30am, 4 1/2 hours after leaving the refuge, the village is nice and I sat for a long while on a bench under a tree in the hot sun. That was the end of my frustration with the route - I spent a nice couple of hours walking up to the 'tiny lake' referred to in the guidebook and camped by it, its a great and peaceful spot.
The walk up to the Col de la Cornella is pretty good and once over the other side there's a lovely section round the lake then down through a jumble of oddly shaped rocks to the Gallina lakes, an abundance of cairns make it easy to choose dfficult routes over easy ones! But you can't get lost as the destination is clear.
Curiously the guidebook remarks about the difficulty of crossing the outflow of the last lake, I found this to be easy in comparison to other sections of the route not highlighted in this way!!
Lunched at Refuge Enric Pujol then continued on the long descent to Noarre, the tiny village without a road connection. There were at least three families eating in the open air, and I was ravenous! I settled for a chocolate bar and walked up to Estany Inferior de Guerosso and camped again, arrived around 5.30pm.
It shouldn't matter but I'm only human and I noted that I'd made up 2hrs of the 4hrs I'd lost getting to Alos de Isil! Really enjoyed the day.
The next day, the 12th, was cloudy, and after lunch it rained quite a bit, but in many way it was a welcome respite from the hot sun. After a couple of hours I arrived at Refuge Certescan looking for breakfast! The guardians were cleaning the place after everyone had left - the burly cook offered me Cannelloni from the night before, which I gratefully accepted, pastas always better the day after...isn't it?
I left around 10.00am and the weather was cloudy but no rain, later it rained and it made the descent through the forest particularly hazardous and I slipped onto my back a couple of times.
The route then ascends to the Col de Sellente, a climb of a couple of hours, it was raining quite heavily now and it was just a matter of plodding on, as I got to the Col and looked over the rain had stopped, and below the low cloud I could see the tiny orange box that was the Refugi de Baborte.
I camped just below the refuge, at the lake - arriving at about 6.30pm. It was cold and a bit miserable so I got food and drink going, got the tent up dry and settled in for the night. I was up again at around 8pm to chase a herd of cows away from the tent - it appears I was in their 'evening place' by the lake. One in particular didn't think I was scary enough and kept coming back to check me out again.
Eventually they moved on! The night was cold but comfortable.
The tent was frozen this morning - no wonder I had been cold during the night, had to fold the tent like cardboard! Weather cloudy but pleasant enough and the first section of the day was descent.
After a couple of hours I arrived at Pla de Boet, a flatish area hailed as a beauty spot - and I could see it had potential! But the powers-that-be allow grazing and the plain is just covered with the results - all that chewed grass must go somewhere. It was a pleasure to move onto the climb to Port de Boet then the gentle descent to Etang de Soucarrane.
By the time I reached the lake the cloud was low and visitbility was severly curtailed. The guidebook mentions an easily missed fork in the path that crosses a stream then another in quick succession, I found this and the first stream but not the second, furthermore the path disappeared underfoot.
I retraced the first section of the path and hadn't missed anything - so I made a decision. As visibility was only a few yards I did not want to risk a simple bearing, I therefore decided to go back to the faint junction and follow the well marked path into the valley.
This I did then worked out a route back to the next climb. The decision probably cost me 1-1 1/2 hours but I don't know how long I would have taken if I'd got lost without a path to follow!
On the way back to the route I met an english family whose teenage son had sustained a leg injury during their descent. They had sent others on to raise the alarm. There was nothing I could do to help so I disappeared into the mist - after 10 minutes or so I heard a helicopter arrive, I couldn't see it due to the visibility - but it was unmistakably for the family.
I continued, carefully following red spots of paint and checking direction with my compass, the next col is the border with Andorra and the route goes through a ski area, and the cafe opens in the summer!! I dreamt of a hot meal and floated over the Port de Rat.
Once over I lost height quickly and the world appeared again under the cloud, I made my way to the restaurant which had closed at 4.30, it was now 5minutes to 6pm.
I made the short walk to the Estany del Miti de Tristaina, arriving at 7pm, weather stil miserable and cold, got the tent up and meal eaten just before the rain started - I was in Andorra.
Weather the next day was not much better although the rain stayed off for most of the time. Road walking for a couple of hours to Refugi de Sorteny (looked inside this large refuge - not my idea of fun, the place was filthy just one big room with a huge fireplace, and a small, smelly toilet cubicle - give me my own tent anyday), followed by a long walk to Collata dels Meners.
The walk was obviously very pleasant on the right day, but with low cloud and occasional showers it was best ust to get it out of the way! Once over this col the weather improved for a while and the walking to Refugi de Pala de Jan was great, as was the next section over the ridge to Camping d'Incles.
The guidebook plays down the desirability of this campsite but I couldn't help having high hopes - perhaps a cold shower, a soft drink at the bar even. By this time my 'dreams' were of a pretty low standard!
I got there just as the rain started - the campsite had closed some years before! I saw a group of french lads erecting a large tarp in a field nearby so I joined then - I put the tent up back to the wind in record time and cooked a hearty meal and hot coffee managing to keep dry and cosy in the tent vestibule.
Tomorrow was the final day.
Weather was mixed again for the final day, there were some bright spells but equally long periods of poor visibility!
Set off at 8.00am arriving quickly at the Refuge de Juclar - one of the best refuges I'd seen, even had new fangled outdoor loos that composted your poos, had to give them a try!
Had breakfast outside the refuge then continued on above the lake, only caught snippets of it through the low cloud.
Decent views from the Port de l'Albe though, then down again into the mist. Arrived at Etang de Couart, the guide says go round the South shore rather than the North due to a difficult section. Trouble was the main path was the North shore and there was no path I could find round the South. I know you can't get lost if you are walking round a lake but you can get stuck on sections because you haven't taken the right line. And with visibility still down to only a few yards I decided to take the marked path.
The difficult section turned out to be not very difficult and I met up with the guidebook route on the next section, which was a straightofrward descent down a valley.
I arrived at L'Hospitalet-Pres-L'Andorre at 3.55pm, it was shut.
I had decided to take the night train to Paris and onward to UK, the guide said that the train stopped at L'Hospitalet but the train station was closed (despite signs saying it should be open), and I couldn't verify this from the information on the timetables.
I met a guy who said the night train went from Latour de Carol, which was only twenty minutes away so I went there. Arrived about 5pm, this station was manned and I verified the times and bought my ticket.
My dreams of a meal were left unfulfilled, there had been nowhere open in L'Hospitalet, and similarly in Latour de Carol, despite my walking round the area to try and find somewhere. The train left around 8pm, I had a berth to myslef (6 bunks) which was a huge relief because after so many days of poor weather I smelled a bit! I had a small bottle of water and some nuts to last me through until Monday morning.
Arrived in Paris the next morning, used the Metro to get to Gare du Nord, bought a ticket on Eurostar to get me to London. The women at the ticket office explained that a first class ticket on Eurostar was cheaper than a second class! The first class included a meal and drinks - so I did what anyone would do - went for the cheap option - scrambled egg and a bottle of complimentary wine.
Eurostar arrived at 11.28 in St Pancra, got the 12.30 train to Darlington from Kings Cross, picked up at Darlington at 3pm, getting home had taken 24 hours.
About Maps - I didn't find these as useful or as detailed as UK maps, on the two occasions that I got lost I found the detail to be inadequate for finding out where I was and getting back to the route. Luckily most of the route is well waymarked as I could have easily imagined getting lost when visibility was poor, and given the terrain this could have serious consequences as often the route is the only feasible way across, up or down a particular section.
Tough? - Yep, I found it tough, and lagged the guidebook times most of the time. I've got my eye on the John Muir Trail for next year and I compared the ascent and descent on each day between the HRP and the JMT. In all but one case (Day 1 of the JMT climbs the back of Half Dome) the HRP has about 60% more ascent AND descent in a single day than the JMT - let me at it.