France has a great network of long distance paths the Grand Randonnees (GRs). They are all waymarked – usually by paint marks on rocks, trees or poles.
In July 2007 we went to southern France and walked from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean across the Pyrenees following the long distance footpath, the GR10.
The walk is divided into 4 sections Pyrenees Occidentale, Pyrenees Centrale, Pyrenees Ariegoise and Pyrenees Orientale.
The first section runs from Hendaye to Arrens.
We started from Hendaye on 23rd July in the Pays Basque and walked up into the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Very rapidly the terrain became much more mountainous but it was still green and lush. After 5 days walking we reached our first rest stop – a town called St Jean Pied de Port. This is a famous stop on the pilgrimage to St Jaques de Compostella in Spain so was full of pilgrims and tourists.
By this time it was clear that the walk was going to be physically very challenging. Partly this was due to the fact that we were backpacking and so carrying everything on our backs.
We chose to backpack partly because it is cheap – we don’t have too much money now we are no longer working. But also because sleeping out in the wild gives you some unforgettable experiences.
We have had quite a lot of experience of backpacking – although nothing anywhere as long as this – so we knew that it was really important to keep things as light as possible. In fact, as Tilly will tell you I am a complete anorak about this – I study gear magazines continuously, surf the net non stop and then when I finally buy something I weigh it just to check that I know exactly what it weighs. I then write spreadsheets so I can track exactly what our packs would weigh – My pack without food and water weighed 10 kilos while Tilly’s weighed 7.
That was OK the problem occurred once you added food and water
The problem with light gear is that it tends to be rather minimal and also rather delicate.
Here is our tent – as you can see it is pretty small and we slept in it for 57 nights in all – you have to be pretty friendly with the person you are sharing with – but it is light – only 1500 grams.
And here is what we slept on – it is called a torsolight – you can see why. In fact it is surprisingly comfortable.
Clothes were also reduced to the absolute minimum – 2 t shirts, shorts, one pair long trousers, underwear, wet weather gear and one fleece and one warm top – and I lived in that for 3 months Which meant that washing clothes became an essential part of the trek. We walked for between 5 and 7 days then had one or two days off. The key activity on the rest day was to get the clothes washed.
After about 10 days the country changed completely – we were now in the limestone mountains with deep gorges and bleached white rock – often very dramatic.
We then moved into the really high mountains – the cols, that is the mountain passes that we were crossing were now between 2000 and 2500 metres high.
We camped in front of Pic Midi d’Ossu and almost froze in the night – it was so cold that there was ice not just on the outside of the tent but on the inside as well. There were lots of people camping at the same place and everybody came out of their tents in the morning, complaining about the cold – it was much colder than usual for early August and jumping up and down to try and get warm. I only survived by wearing all my clothes inside my sleeping bag and then wrapping myself and bag in a space blanket. But the views of the mountain made it all worthwhile.
On the 15th August we were started on the second section – the Pyrenees Centrale This section took us until 3rd of September to complete.
By the 27th August we were camped at the base of Vignemale – the highest French summit in the Pyrenees (3298) – we then crossed our highest pass the Hourquette d’Ossoue - 2734 - although the clouds were down so we did get any views.
One of the big issues when backpacking in the mountains is food. The first issue is the weight of food – we dealt with this by making our own dried food – here you can see a typical meal of dried tomato sauce which we cooked up with pasta and cheese and then we had fruit roll-up for pudding – that is stewed fresh fruit which we had dried.
To reduce the amount of weight that we carried we sent ourselves food parcels poste restante to different French post offices on route. This basically worked fine except the first parcel did not arrive in time at St Jean Pied de Port so we were without our dried food for the next section. However, the nice lady at St Jean post office sent the parcel on to our next stop which was Cauteret which was good but it did mean that we too much food then!
Cooking was in just one pot on a very small stove and it often got really cold when the sun went down causing the cook to wear some pretty strange combinations of clothes. We also needed to be ingenious. Eating inside the tent was very cramped so it was very easy to knock over your glass of wine or even worse the bottle. So here is our patent wine glass and bottle holders!
The other issue with food is the number of calories consumed – it is very difficult to eat enough – hence the importance of stuffing our faces whenever we had the opportunity – alcohol is also good here since it pushes up the calorific intake nicely!
We finished the second section by walking from Luchon to Fos. We stayed in a cabane above Luchon and saw the most spectacular sunset.
On 3rd September we started the third section – the Ariege.
This is reckoned to be the toughest section partly because the valleys are very narrow and steep – so there is lots of climbing up and then climbing down before climbing up again! But also because there are very few villages or refuges or gite d’etapes so it is difficult to get supplies of food. This means you have to carry more. When we started this section we carried five days food and with water my pack weighed somewhere between 18 and 20 kilos – at the end of an 8 or 9 hour day walking having climbed maybe 1200 metres and descended the same amount – I was completely shattered
The other problem was that it was now September and so the school holidays were over – this meant that shops and restaurants closed much more often. This could be a real problem if there was only one shop/restaurant in a village. For instance when we came down to St Lizier on 13th September we were looking forward to a good meal – we had been there before and knew there was a good shop at the campsite and a couple of restaurants nearby. But it was Wednesday afternoon so the shop was closed and so were both the restaurants and we had virtually no food. In the end Tilly managed to persuade the man in the Gite to sell us some pasta so we did not starve.
Finally, we started the last section on the 23rd September.
It was now getting really late in the season so often we would be the only people staying in a refuge or gite. We increasingly needed to stay in places like that because there were very few places to camp and also because it was getting dark by 8 o’clock and did not get light again in the morning until almost 8 – 12 hours in a very small tent is not to be recommended. Then the weather went off.
It got really cold and nasty and then we woke up and found that it had snowed – and I mean it had really snowed – about 4 or 5 inches.
This made the mornings walk really difficult since the snow covered up most of the GR10 waymarks – fortunately there were enough marks on trees to allow us to get through but it was a bit scary at times.
The snow did not last which was fortunate since we would not have been able to do the next days walk if it had. We now were increasingly staying in the winter rooms at refuges – a room left open all the year. This could be good if it was possible to make a roaring fire.
We then found that when the book giving all the information on the walk said that a gite was open all year it did not mean October which meant that it became increasingly difficult to find anywhere to stay. However people in the mountains are usually very kind and so when we hit a real problem with nowhere to sleep or put a tent while the rain poured down – a berger – that’s a shepherd - let us stay in a private refuge for hunters which he looked after –it was really comfortable.
Our final problem was the fact that by the end of September the hunting season had started in earnest. The French are fanatical hunters and the hunters are not too keen on walkers – I don’t have a photo since they were not keen on being photographed. But you would turn a corner and see one or more men dressed in camouflage trousers and top with shotgun or rifle on their shoulders. The thing is they would then wear a dayglo orange jerkin and hat – this is to try and stop them being shot by other hunters. This is a very real possibility by the time we left France 5 hunters had been killed in hunting accidents. Anyway if they are after serious big game like Sanglier – that is wild boar
then you see a notice like this
You then just hope that they don’t shoot in you direction since a bullet from the high powered rifles needed to kill sanglier can travel 2 kilometres.
Finally, on the 8th October we staggered into Banyuls sur mer where the GR10 finishes
It had taken us 78 days to get from Hendaye on the Atlantic to Banyuls on the Med. We had walked for 60 days covering almost 1000 kilometres ( that is about 650 miles). We had climbed in total 54,825 metres and descended the same amount – so everyday that we walked we climbed on average over 900 metres and descended over 900 metres. We had spent 57 nights in our tent.
Why do it?
Well you get a terrific sense of achievement which more than makes up for the creaking knees and aching feet.
You see a tremendous amount of animal life
The flowers are out of this world
Finally you experience some magical, extraordinary scenery – it makes you feel really alive.