The High Pyrenees FAQ

What I have here is a basic post that captures some of the things that I am asked about the most. But feel free to add to this and to contradict my advice if you feel you need to! (But do explain why!)

When to go?

The season is short; these are big mountains! From July to September the HRP should be open but at either extreme of this range you can find a lot of snow. Allowance should be made for route variations in bad weather, at least a drop down to the GR10.

September is generally reckoned to be the best month. The humidity has died away a little and as a result the thunderstorms disappear! The Parisians have also gone back to work!

You can stretch things a bit but at your own risk. A few years ago I helped someone visit Lescun in October. I urged him to go earlier but his timetable didn’t allow this. He spent his time in a snow-bound Lescun! He was a photographer so that wasn’t too bad, but he didn’t get too far!

August seems like hell but these mountains are often not that crowded. It’s not like the Lake District!

The Walking?

Hard at times but never too dreadful. The typical day involves climbing over a col and then descending to a lower camp site. You need to be on the move quite early as thunderstorms can develop in the early afternoon, and you will want to be on your way down then.

Conservative Days

Walking here in the summer is very hot and the high mountains are exposed. I have found that you need to look at the guidebooks with a little caution.

Kev Reynold’s Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees is my favourite book. It describes point to point walks rather than whole routes. You put them together to create routes. But Kev’s times are walking times, they do not allow for rests. You will be taking rests not only because you are knackered but because some places to cry out to be lingered in!

Tom Joosten’s High Route book from Cicerone covers the whole High Route. A number of people have issues with the detail and his long days. He often says something like, “you can break the walk here …”. That usually means it is a good idea to break the walk at this point!

Refuges or Wild Camping

Both can be good! Study the maps closely. On the higher ground you will find things a little rugged and this usually means stopping near a refuge. All refuges have camping around them (except Baysellance which is too high).

Many refuges have great spaces around them. You can camp close to the refuge or away from others.

Refuges can be very civilised. Arrive in mid afternoon and you’ll be able to buy a cold beer. You should also be able to eat in the refuge as well even if you are camping — but be warned this is an expensive option.

Don’t just stay at Refuges though. The better wild camp sites are superb and add to the whole experience. Mix and match!

Wild Camping Rules

France

Wild camping is encouraged within the National Park so long as you are camped well away from any access roads. The signs will tell you that only overnight camping is permitted and that you are asked to pitch only after 7.00 in the evening and leave early next morning. In practice there is no one to enforce the time rules so just be sensible and if you think a particular location requires sensitivity then act on it and be discreet!

Most refuges have camping grounds around them and usually these are designated by stencils of tents on surrounding rocks. On many sites such as Wallon and Pombie there is a great deal of lush ground to camp on. As you climb higher you will find the camping grounds tighter but you will find space. Baysellance is the highest serviced refuge in the Pyrenees and although this has a rocky area marked with camp signs I wouldn’t want to camp there! In my experience it is OK to pitch your tent around a refuge from the time you arrive. At some sites you will see new explorers waiting faithfully to 7.00 pm by which most people will have given up and pitched — this is France after all!

At the bigger campsites you will see tents that are left up all through the day, usually to cope with the demands of climbers. But, for example, if you are at Wallon and you want to complete the Circuit des Lacs as a day walk it does mean you can leave your tent and walk with a light back!

I like to mix my wildcamps with some being close to refuges and others being out next to high and beautiful tarns. the sites of these becomes quite obvious if you study the map.

Spain

Things are a little tougher here as camping is not as encouraged as it is in France. However, on the high reaches of paths you will have no problem with wild camping. As you get lower and closer to civilisation just use common sense and pick discreet places. It is quite common to see stencil signs on trees and rocks that forbid wild camping — for example near Respomunso. I suspect this is more to do with encouraging you to stay at the Refugio (which is a Palace by French standards). Just walk on a while into quieter ground and you will have no problems finding a pitch.

The ease of wild camping — and the stunning nature of pitches — is one of the reasons why I love the area so much. Always follow the ‘leave no trace’ principle and be careful when nearer civilisation.

Using Refuges

Many people choose to book ahead. However, bad weather can slow you down for a day or so. But everyone is slowed and reservations then tend to sort themselves out accordingly!

Refuges are wonderful places in which to meet people from all over the world. But the High Pyrenees is really camping territory. Take a tent and enjoy it!

Staffed refuges will offer meals with wine or beer! It is relatively easy to book into these even if you are camping, so long as you arrive in mid afternoon. The food is often good and based on a heavy carb diet for walkers.

There is an active programme of refuge improvements in the French Pyrenees and the refurbished places are remarkably comfortable. A number of them will even serve you lunch as you pass by. Most will sell you a beer of provide you with a coffee. Sometimes this can be quite unexpected. The refuge at Baysellance has a ‘pub’ attached which is open most of the day!

These high refuges are mostly supplied by helicopter so food and supplies are on the expensive side. Eating at refuges is perhaps an experience to go for occasionally rather than regularly. All rubbish has to be carried out with you as there are no bin lorries!

Staffed refuges in Spain tend to be lower and better serviced. The Refugio at Respomunso is a great place, positively luxurious with a really good bar (it does have road access). I quite fancy a night there at some point. The Refugio at Bujareuelo is also served by a road and is a pretty decent hostel. If you are passing this way a night spent here is well worth it. If you are passing by then spend some time having lunch or a coffee. YOu can camp in the big field in front of the refugio although I seem to remember a small charge being levied.

It would be sad if you walked through the area without at least some kind of refuge experience. Refuges are meeting places for people from all over the world and the international flavour of them is really very attractive. You meet lovely people in the Pyrenees. The last time I was at Bujareuelo a Polish girl was working the summer at the refugio. She was carefully collecting the nationalities of those who stayed. We were the first English people through that summer although there had been a Nepali Sherpa through the night before (we had met him resting on the Col d’Arratille).

Un-staffed refuges come into their own as you move East through along HRP. By now the routes are more isolated and rugged and you are committed for several days at a time once you walk there. Follow the advice in guidebooks carefully.

GR10, GR11 or the High Route?

It’s up to you. The GR10 tends to start and finish in lovely villages but they tend to be expensive although campsites and hostels are comfortable and well equipped. The Spanish GR11 is a more rugged walk but follows many of the same principles. Both footpaths are well signed using red and white slashes that can be found on trees and rocks. In the High Pyrenees route finding is usually not much of a problem.

The HRP follows the line of the mountains dropping down into Spain from time to time. This is not an official route an on some 1:25 maps is not marked at all. It may be waymarked with yellow slashes of pain and it may not. Your navigation skills will be tested more than on the lower routes but in practice the routes in the main parks are reasonably easy to follow.

The GR routes are not soft options and can involve more ascent and descent than the HRP equivalent (once you get high on the HRP you tend to stay high). However, in the main the GR routes are less strenuous.

How difficult is the High Route?

Anyone who is a regular hill walker in the UK will find that they can cope without any problems. The days can be long and hot but so long as you are reasonably fit you will be fine.

Heat will be the biggest problem you will probably face. Start early and give yourself good breaks regularly. Good sun protection is a must. Mercifully, at this altitude the evenings are mostly cool.

How safer are the walks?

On the higher sections you will find that routes are marked as exposed — these sections are covered in the guide books. In these cases an alternative is always provided. Mostly these exposed routes are fine. Many of them are paths cut into the side of mountains which were used for dragging lumber down the river below. As a result these paths are quite wide and you never really feel exposed. On other sections I have found myself suddenly realising that I am walking next to a wire designed to protect you from a fall. However, I’m usually so knackered and concentrated on struggling up the hill that I’ve not noticed the precipitous drop down!

I think there are one of two routes where Kev Reynolds warns people carrying large packs that they may feel a bit nervous. If in doubt when planning your route take the alternative. One thing is for certain. The alternative routes are never inferior routes.

 

 

Fuel

A perennial issue this. Canisters can be hard to find with French Camping Gaz being the most prominent. Camping Gaz recently took over Coleman and it is now easier to find our usual screw threads. But I’d recommend the MSR Superfly stove which can cope with both. You will need to buy canister fuel before you climb high. This shouldn’t be a problem if starting from towns like Cauterets but might be more of a problem in a small place like Lescun. Allow yourself time to buy fuel at a major town or city such as Pau.

Micro alcohol stoves are a great option. Alcohol du Bruyer is bought in hardware shops and supermarkets, is cheap, and comes in litre bottles. I now take a wood burning stove and a micro alcohol stove for backup. IN a two or three week stint I use mainly wood with the alcohol being used sparsely.

Water

Much of the lower areas are inhabited by cattle. It is wise to take a simple water bottle/filter with you.

Itineraries

Some people plan quick visits but this is an area that rewards time spent.

I’ve already mentioned the weather and this can easily steal a day or two. However, of the weather is bad in a town such as Cauterets you will often find that you quickly climb above it. Check the weather at information stations or local shops.

Walking in very hot weather can take its toll especially when you are not used to this heat. Don’t worry if you feel more exhausted than normal. And remember you will be walking at altitude. While you won’t get altitude sickness you can tell!

Until you have the measure of the place plan for reasonable days. Take an unplanned rest day if you feel you need to.

In hot weather start early and arrive at your destination in mid afternoon or early evening. You want to be coming down from high ground in early afternoon, especially if there are thunderstorms about.

The weather can be really bad for a couple of days. A favourite trick of mine when this happens is to use the excellent bus service to move location so as not to loose too much time. But hopefully you won’t have had this problem.

Food

Carrying weight is a bind in this heat. You might want to think about leaving fuel behind completely and just eating cold food.

Local produce works well in the mountain. Hard mountain blood sausage lasts for ever and is a great source of energy. Similarly, Pyrenean cheeses can last a long time in the pack. If you find a hut selling cheese high in the mountains then buy some!

Bread, ham and tomatoes are easy to find and can easily last three or four days in the pack.

Local supermarkets are well stocked with dried foods and soups that are excellent for the hills and these are often a lot cheaper that specialised hiking food.

Planning on a Budget

You will probably want a meal out at some stage. Lunch is always good value and stick to the ‘menu’ in the evening and you won’t be stung too much.

It’s the little things that mount up the Euros — coffee in a bar or cafe, a beer or two at lunchtime. That lovely looking salad is tempting but it will also be expensive!

If working to a tight budget stick to simple things — it can make a big difference.

Gear?

I usually walk in shorts for the entire trip. Do not forget high screen factor sun cream. You will use a lot of it!

The evenings cool quickly in the mountains and you will want something to wear that can give you some warmth —a micro fleece will usually do. I take my lightweight PHD down jacket and am always surprised by how often I wear it!

Waterproofs do not have to be that technical. Even when it rains it is warm and I often use just a windproof rather than a waterproof.

Tril shoes like Inov-8’s are wonderful. They are cool and also cope with agressive ground well. Big, heavy, leather boots are a pain. Try to never go with boots that have a Gore Tex lining — you will notice!

1:50 maps or 1:25?

1:50 will be good enough. These are big mountains and the distances long. The 1:50 Randonées maps often have more detail of facilities and routes than the 1:25. Counter-intuitive this for a UK walker, but it is true!

Tarps or Tents?

Pyrenean storms are legendary. If taking a tarp make sure you are comfortable pitching it in bad weather. A single skin tent that use trekking poles for support would be ideal. There are few mosquitos up this high!

Personally, I like some real space.In bad weather you can be confined to your shelter for hours at a time!

 

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If what you are looking for is missing here then simply place a comment — the FAQ will then be amended.

This is designed to just be an opening post. Please feel free to add to it.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this valuable post! Another region on this globe I’d like to walk in…

  2. Andy – a useful post, but I would encourage readers to take their own counsel on the question of gear. Sue and I took both boots and trainers, for example, on our 2004 HRP crossing. I would contend that boots are essential for some of the rougher sections like the wonderful stretch from Barroude to Rioumajou (which weather caused us to avoid on that occasion), the tough section from Salardu to Alos de Isil, and the tricky descent from the Col de Mulleres.
    The MSR Superfly is an excellent choice of stove.
    A mid-June start could be considered – there shouldn’t be too much snow; and bear in mind that the season ends in many places in early September, and the hours of daylight diminish noticeably.
    The HRP should be easy enough for anyone who is comfortable in places like the Cuillin, or maybe even Crib Goch, but there are a few places where it helps to have a head for heights. Don’t be afraid of turning back!
    Our web page from 2004, together with reports on a couple of the tougher days, is still at http://www.topwalks.com/pyrenees.htm
    I appreciate that ‘gear’ has moved on since then, but I know the info there has been of help to some HRPers. I’ll try to add a transcript of our Postcards. One day I’ll properly tart up the page. Perhaps!
    The HRP is a great experience. Go for it!

    • Point taken Martin though I disagree about the High Pyrenees in June – possible but there is more risk. If walking the whole HRP start then but arrive in Lescun a little later!

  3. Andy, you wrote that”this is a basic post”. You’re being too modest! It is excellent and I’m sure I will refer to it often when planning my own GR10 trip this summer, and it will prove very useful to other GR/HRP wannabees as well. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  4. I had a good trip to the High Pyrenees in mid-June 2006, with no snow problems, though there was a bit of snow on the Brèche and on Le Taillon. However, my point is really that it should be quite safe to start a coast to coast crossing in mid June. Having said that, the flowers are great in June.
    The ‘Postcard’ transcript will be up later tonight, BTW, and could be a useful resource.

  5. Craig Powell says:

    Andy, a typo I think in your comment on Alcohol stoves. People will need to ask for “Alcool a bruler”. As you say only usually available in 1 litre bottles.

    Crossed the Pyrenees solo mostly by the HRP plus a bit of GR10 in 1992. Now live in France and have been back both solo and with wife and children – a lifetime of adventures to be had.

  6. The No Camping signs near the Refuge du Wallon were surrounded by tents.

    The path over to Lac d’Ilhéou is clear enough to follow in mist but not quite where the map shows it on the north side off the ridge.

  7. Zed – camping just means don’t leave yr tent up in the day…bivi means dusk till dawn. Its fine to mark yr spot with bags, but don’t pitch…

    Andy – mr joosten is opening a refuge apparently!

    http://www.lepetitrefuge.com/

  8. Interesting. Looks odd when you see it.

  9. Wow! you certainly get about! I have just started my own walking blog http://walksandwalking.com/
    I look forward to reading your tweets too 🙂

  10. stuart says:

    But there can be mosquitoes! We got driven inside on a wild camp pitch near Ibon Acherito near Lescun on the HRP but then there were none the following night even though we were on the shore of a lake. Strange

    • Stuart, that is unusual. This is a Kev reynolds camp spot Persoally, I’ve never camped there preferin the refuge on the French side. It is strange, mind you the Ibon is a lake and it is still relatively low. Once you hit the main High routes I’d be surprised if you found them. But as I’ve said elsewhere they seem to be mutating!

  11. molly says:

    We are planning a trip for early July and have been referencing your post for the entire process! Awesome and much MUCH appreciated! Do you know of anyone who has mapped out the GPS coordinates for the trails? Or are the trails pretty easy to follow with a map or basic cairn spotting skills?

  12. Matthew says:

    Thanks for the great info. I’m making a rather impromptu decision to do the GR11 (or at least the majority of it). A couple of questions if anyone can help:

    1) Can I get by without a tent? I have a one person tent, but it is not super light and I don’t want to simply take it for a walk through the mountains!

    2) Any issue going from the Med to Atlantic direction? Everything I read has one do it the other way, but I am flying into Barcelona and it would be more convenient to start at the Med side.

    3) Do I need to carry all the money I will need for the trip? i.e. is there anywhere to branch off the trail and find an ATM?

    My experience of trekking is limited to the Annapurna Sanctuary trail.

    Thanks in advance for any advice. (I will be starting early July, 2012)

    Matthew

  13. Jim "Mechanical Man" Rowland says:

    Mechanical Man says: Just finished the HRP. Took 36 days, two of which were spent in my tent due to a horrendous storm. Did put in long days but that is how I like to hike. Found route to be very strenuous, but at 65 everything is more difficult than it used to be. If I were to do it again, I would probably take a couple more days. Tented every night and never near a refuge but I did occasionally have something to eat at one. Took all of my food resupplies from the US to Amsterdam and had a friend mail them and maps/ guidebook pages for next sections to me at Lescun, Gavarnie, Vielha and L’Hospitalet pres l’Andorre and mailed home maps no longer needed and it worked well. There is bus service from Salardu to Vielha. Used a Jetboil stove. Found Joosten’s guidebook to be confusing at times and I think it was due mainly to it being translated from Dutch to English. For instance you see a lake on your left and book might say pass lake on left. In some cases this meant pass on the left side of the lake. Also book is strictly time based which for me was not helpful as there was no mention of what Joosten’s pace is. Point A to Point B would be listed as taking 2 hours and there would be many directions between points with no indication of approximate time to each so you don’t know if a fork is in 5 minutes or 30 minutes. There were nebulous terms such as soon and eventually and I found that when I saw these it typically took longer than anticipated. HRP is extremely rocky, especially in the middle, so I think you do need sturdy footwear. I had medium weight hiking boots because I have a bad right ankle and I used crocs in camp.
    At times finding water was an issue and I took full advantage of the refugios for that. Amazing scenery and journey.

    • Sounds like a great trip Jim. I see you have joined the club who are crtical of Joosten’s book!

  14. Yes Joosten annoyed me this year, too. His words are extremely sparse and cut down which means quite easy mistakes are neither anticipated nor addressed. “Turn left” for example, is just not sufficient if you don’t also say “don’t continue further” when its too easy to do so. In particular, I went badly wrong with the path up to Port de Baiau ending up in an entirely different area. All he says is “pass some rocks and turn left”. Which is exactly what I did! But he meant big rocks, slightly further, and then left – up a different path!

    I endured a couple of exhausting and stressful hours back tracking and trying to work out the problem, which was only resolved with a larger scale map a Spanish couple just happened to have! As such it wasn’t too bad – and I simply descended to Arinsal cutting out Coma Pedrosa. But – as we know – the mist comes in or it snows or gets cold etc, and you’re in serious trouble, especially if you’re not carrying a tent etc.

    I’ve worn sandals 4 times in the Pyrenees, Jim. Its a calculated risk, I realise that, should it turn wintry which is possible. But, in those 4 times, they’ve been excellent.

    • Jim Rowland says:

      I think I made exactly the same mistake you did and wound up at the Port dels Estanys Forcats. I managed to figure out where I was and where I was supposed to be and back tracked some and did a nasty traverse over boulders to the path to the Port de Baiau. With some hard hiking I managed to get to the Coma Pedrosa in time for dinner but I was very unhappy with the extra effort and lost time.

  15. Yes – same mistake. Or rather, same problem with Joosten! There’s a fairly distinct path where we both turned left, visible from the refuge Baiau, so when you see it you think aha! must be there! and then when you follow his instructions “pass some rocks and turn left” everything seems fine. Its just not clear! For me I was going down to Arinsal the next day anyway and then finishing my trip so it wasn’t too bad. Wasn’t too keen on this HRP section actually – wrote about it here – http://www.jameslomax.com/words/2098/pyrenees-walking-2012-snakes-sunburn-and-inedible-baguettes

  16. Joosten is generally OK but frustrating often enough to be a pain. I would say the same about 1:50k maps. They are grand for identifying surrounding peaks and non critical navigation but a pain when you are lost. Just about everyone who has blogged on the HRP including myself has got lost occasionally. My major gripe with these maps apart from scale is that they do NOT have grid numbers along the edges. Anyone used to OS maps and often using a grid reference from a gps to confirm their position on a map will find that they cannot do that with these maps.
    The french walkers all use the Topo Guides instead of maps. The Topo Guides contain the routes on sections of 50k maps which must be as useful as the maps themselves. They also have much more info about altitude profiles and time traveled between points.
    I shall use the topo guides on my walk in the Alps this summer and save weight and money, I believe without forgoing any convenience or utility.

    • Agreed about Joosten. I have never used a GPS in the Pyrenees and have had few problems navigating. And I do get lost 🙂

      I tend to walk with Veron’s guide.

  17. You are never really lost if you have a tent in your pack. I do think it a shame that Joosten reinvented the HRP. Where it is shown on maps it is the Veron original and an opportunity for further confusion.

    • There is much that is annoying about the Joosten book. It was written in Dutch first off and then given to Cicerone. Apparently the Dutch book has the same problems. I prefer Veron’s route and his book. I have it in French but there were English versions though I suspect Joosten/Cicerone have killed off any further English runs. A real shame. However, if you have a little French you can use Veron. As ever, Stanfords is the place.

  18. James Harding says:

    Hi,

    A couple of mates from uni are considering about 5 days walking over Easter. We were thinking of flying in and out of Lourdes, arriving 28th March.

    Will the HRP or other routes be accessible/recommend? We’re hoping to camp but are still researching, any tips appreciated.

    Cheers,
    James

    • Most probably not James — it will be far too early. You may have better luck on the GR10 but you have to be prepared for the worse!

  19. Hello Andy, I am planning to walk the GR10 east to west for a couple of months to see how far I get this year from mid june onwards. I would appreciate your insight as to why all guide books and walkers seem to follow the west-east flow? I’m planning to start in bessines (or similar) and head west from there. Cheers for great intel.

    • Any update to this? I am planning on the same direction, would prefer the sun on my back rather than in my face. Did you ever find out why everyone else is going the other way?

  20. Hi Andy,

    Thinking of going for about a week in april, south of Lourdes, a circular route would be ideal
    Any advice on getting around and wild camping?

    Abi

  21. How cold are the nights… I want to keep my equip as light as poss. Is a lite sleeping bad going to be ok in the spring time ?

  22. Elwin van Dulst says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’m also wondering about the nocturnal temperatures.

    I am planning to walk for 2 to 3 weeks in late August, early September.

    Am I right in estimating the nights will not be colder than 5°C?

    Elwin

  23. Geoff Bolte says:

    We are flying into Barcelona from Australia, we are hoping to hike around the Ordesa National Park and part of the GR11 for approx 8 days starting in Torla (we are flexible on this). Just wondering if you know where we can store excess luggage while on our hike.
    Geoff

    • Can’t help Geoff. Always a big problem. You might find a hotel willing to keep it for you for the duration. I just carry a very light load and use that in cities. You can always buy a cheap shirt !

  24. Thomas Vilarinho says:

    Is it possible to get bread/cheese/ham in the refugees for the way?

    • I think some may do this but I wouldn’t count on it. Certainly not common in the High Refuges, maybe more likely in the lower Spanish ones.

  25. Lawrence says:

    I want to hike this in July but now I’m wondering if I should bother with all the thunderstorms.

    • I am going mid June, east to west, where have you heard about ‘all these thunderstorms’? Is there a good weather forecast website for this or are you using yahoo.com?

  26. Tom Wheeler says:

    I am opting to go from San Nicolas de Bajaruelo to the Sarradets Rufuge instead of following the GR11 up through the Odesa Canyon. Goritz Hut will be my last night on this trip so I will be walking back out of the Canyon in the AM intending to catch the tourist bus to Torla. Two questions: Any possibility of a mini tent bivouac at Sarradets similar to that at Goritz Hut? And can I take the tourist bus out of the Canyon even though I didn’t ride it in?

    Thanks, TomW

    • Off the top of my head Tom, no! However, there are camp spots a little lower down the track towards Gavarnie. I may be wrong though ad there may be some small pitches. Best email and ask!

  27. Tom Wheeler says:

    Hi Andy, I have been wondering about the water situation on the middle portion of the GR 11 in Late August and into September. Here in New England, our water sources are pretty meager if not dry at that time of summer. I do use Aquamira for most water sources.

    Thanks again, Tom

    • In the middle section you will find a lot of lakes and river valleys, you should be OK. It is the western Section that gives the most problems. Having said that, a good look at the map will give a clue as to how far you are to be away from water. If in doubt I will carry a 2 litre water container in the top of my pack. The Pyrenees can be quite wet (on the French side) in August and September and while dry in Spain the water runs off the watershed both ways. On the maps the major river valleys are good water flows.

      I always treat water in the Pyrenees — the Sawyer Mini Filter is a good companion. Up high you should be fine but there is a lot of grazing on this land on the lower slopes. I’ve often had to take water from lakes rather than inflow streams when it has been dry.

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