In the Pyre­nees, for 19 years, time waits

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MICHAEL H. BROWN

Nine­teen years ago my wife, our 14-year-old daugh­ter Cate and I set out from the lit­tle prin­ci­pal­ity of An­dorra in the Pyre­nees moun­tains and headed west on the long-dis­tance Span­ish hik­ing route called GR 11. With op­ti­mism born of ig­no­rance, I had bought a dozen de­tailed trail maps — enough to get us 200 miles closer to the Atlantic. At the end of our al­lot­ted 19 days, we had used six of the maps and cov­ered 86 miles — kind of like Lewis and Clark get­ting as far as Ne­braska. I wrote about that bare-bones ex­cur­sion in The Washington Post’s Travel sec­tion.

A lot hap­pens in 19 years. Not, ob­vi­ously, to the Pyre­nees; they en­dure. But how about us hu­mans? Creakier, to say the least. “Hey, how old are you, any­way?” a younger man — well, who the hell isn’t younger — asked as he breezed by us last sum­mer on our way up to Col­lata Anis­clo, an 8,000-plus-foot pass in the heart of the High Pyre­nees along the north­ern tip of Spain’s Aragon re­gion.

Daugh­ter Cate was long gone from the nest, but my wife, Mar­garet, and I set off on the GR 11 from the same Span­ish vil­lage where we ended the trip 19 years ago. In ad­di­tion to fi­nally us­ing those sur­plus maps, the two of us were go­ing to find out to what ex­tent we had en­dured.

In truth, there was an­other, more pow­er­ful force pulling us back. The Pyre­nees, that mas­sive chain of soar­ing peaks sep­a­rat­ing Spain and France, of­fer the walker a con­stantly changing mix of vis­ual plea­sures.

Nine­teenth-cen­tury ex­plorer Henry Rus­sell was down­right lyri­cal on the sub­ject: “It is to the Pyre­nees that the smiles of the artist and the heart of the

poet will al­ways turn.” I’m nei­ther artist nor poet, just an old news­pa­per hack, but in those in­ter­ven­ing 19 years I often day­dreamed about tak­ing up where we had left off.

Al­most daily, the High Pyre­nees trekker makes his or her way through a val­ley vil­lage of small stone houses, up green pas­tures punc­tu­ated by patches of blue wolfs­bane and streaks of cas­cad­ing streams, and then up more steeply across the gray scree to a notch in a wall usu­ally of lime­stone or gran­ite but al­ways with a top-of-the-world view. The dis­tant peaks may be a glis­ten­ing white if the sun is shin­ing or dark, even for­bid­ding if it is not. The whin­ing of the wind, the whis­tle of a mar­mot and an oc­ca­sional bleat from sheep some­where in the dis­tance are the only sounds.

It is a mag­nif­i­cent ex­pe­ri­ence, but a chal­leng­ing one. Not as tall as the bet­ter known — and more heav­ily vis­ited — Alps to the north, the Pyre­nees nev­er­the­less are plenty steep and rugged, es­pe­cially for some­one with cry­ing knees. Mine were ab­so­lutely bawl­ing as we inched up the al­most im­pos­si­ble Anis­clo in­cline — al­most im­pos­si­ble for us but not for Franco, the speedy Ital­ian who in­quired about our age as he zipped by.

Maybe it was our less-thanrapid pace — in­deed, the use here of “pace” is de­bat­able — that in­formed his ques­tion; no doubt Mar­garet’s white hair and the scarcity of mine con­trib­uted. The an­swer, which we gladly shared with our new and fast-dis­ap­pear­ing ac­quain­tance, was that I was at the tail end of my 73rd year and Mar­garet was early in her 72nd.

The Pyre­nees stretch a lit­tle over 250 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediter­ranean. But the GR 11 cov­ers twice that dis­tance as it twists and turns to find gaps and avoid sum­mits.

It’s part of Europe’s GR net­work of long-dis­tance foot­paths, GR for Grande Ran­don­nee in French, Gran Recor­rido in Span­ish, mean­ing great ex­cur­sion or tour.

Ex­cept for one brief skip across the French bor­der and a short sec­tion in semi-in­de­pen­dent An­dorra, the GR 11 is en­tirely in Spain, run­ning from near the re­sort city of San Se­bas­tian on the Atlantic to the Mediter­ranean shore of Cat­alo­nia at Cap de Creus, main­land Spain’s east­ern­most point. The High Pyre­nees, where we were, cover the trail’s 235-mile mid­dle sec­tion. Peaks there top 9,000 feet, and hik­ers cross a 7,000-plus-foot pass al­most daily.

Not to con­fuse things, there is also a GR along the Pyre­nees’ French side — GR 10. It’s a bit longer than the Span­ish ver­sion but not as rough, ac­cord­ing to Brian Johnson, au­thor of guide­books on both for the British pub­lisher Cicerone. Johnson makes two other com­par­isons of in­ter­est to any­one weigh­ing the options: GR 11 is gen­er­ally sun­nier and drier, and spends more time above the tree line. Nei­ther re­quires tech­ni­cal climb­ing know-how or equip­ment — just some stamina and, ev­ery now and then, free hands. On par­tic­u­larly steep ups and downs, I needed all four ex­trem­i­ties. Hik­ing poles were def­i­nitely a must.

We started last sum­mer’s trip — and ended our pre­vi­ous one — in Be­nasque, an at­trac­tive tourist vil­lage not far from Aneto and Posets, the Pyre­nees’ two high­est peaks. The bus ride there was it­self an ad­ven­ture. The first leg from Barcelona to Bar­bas­tro was un­event­ful. But the sec­ond into the moun­tains was on a nar­row, sharply curv­ing road, and as we were go­ing up, one large, heav­ily loaded truck af­ter an­other was com­ing down. That our driver and his co-pi­lot man­aged to get past each with­out a scratch seemed a small mir­a­cle, and that they did it in con­tin­u­ing good hu­mor a large one. It def­i­nitely took both of them, one in­side slowly turn­ing the wheel, the other out­side ne­go­ti­at­ing with the on­com­ing trucker and mea­sur­ing inches be­tween ve­hi­cles.

We picked up the GR 11 just north of Be­nasque, and had an easy walk up to the Refu­gio d’Es­tos, one of the route’s nu­mer­ous

back­coun­try hos­tels of­fer­ing meals and overnight ac­com­mo­da­tions. Like the refuges scat­tered through the Alps, th­ese are in­for­mal, lively es­tab­lish­ments but on the spar­tan side, which is to say you can ex­pect to be packed away for the night on a wooden plat­form in a tightly spaced dor­mi­tory — a lit­tle too cozy for us claus­tro­pho­bics. One fel­low suf­ferer, showed me his cop­ing strat­egy: Bose head­phones.

We car­ried a tent and used it five of our 10 nights out, our other ac­com­mo­da­tions rang­ing from a small ho­tel to a fancy parador. But when a storm threat­ens, as it did that first af­ter­noon, a refuge — no mat­ter how sar­dine-like — is a wel­come sight. Given that we ar­rived at the fa­cil­ity in prime va­ca­tion sea­son with­out reser­va­tions, we were lucky to get in for the night.

Thank­fully, the storm turned out to be merely rain­drops, and the next morn­ing the sun was out in force as we headed up to our first pass, the Puerto de Chis­tau at 8,438 feet. As through­out the GR sys­tem, the GR 11 is blazed with red and white stripes painted on rocks and trees. Where there are no such sur­faces — only loose dirt and stones, as on the ap­proach to Chis­tau — there are cairns to show the way. We had se­ri­ous trou­ble di­vin­ing the trail at only one spot: a high pasture where a herd of sum­mer­ing cows had oblit­er­ated the way­marks.

Con­quer­ing Chis­tau boosted our con­fi­dence, which was promptly shaken by the de­scent. As with a num­ber of passes, the ter­rain was rock­ier and steeper on the down­side. But I don’t want to overem­pha­size the phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. We spent much of the trip tramp­ing con­tent­edly along forested val­ley paths and shaded farm tracks. Cruis­ing down the gen­tly slop­ing pasture above the deep Ordesa Canyon in the soft, late af­ter­noon sun­light was bliss it­self. The next day, we would de­scend to the canyon floor and into the throng of tourists at­tracted by this spec­tac­u­lar chasm. But up here, on top of the canyon walls, it was just the two of us — and sheep, lit­er­ally hun­dreds of them.

Our end-of-trip stats won’t knock you over: In 10 days we cov­ered 77 miles. But, as they say, who’s count­ing? We had learned 19 years ear­lier about ex­pec­ta­tions and this time had none, at least not for dis­tance. The only re­quire­ment was to end up some­where with enough time to get back to Barcelona for our flight home. That turned out to be a re­sort com­plex north of Pan­ti­cosa.

Rather than mileage, our main goal was in­ter­nal: to find out if we had en­dured suf­fi­ciently to com­plete a Pyre­nees trek, what­ever the length. Sim­ply put, could we do it? The an­swer, we con­cluded the fi­nal night at a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner in our ho­tel above Pan­ti­cosa, was a re­sound­ing yes. To ex­pe­ri­ence the High Pyre­nees and emerge ex­hausted but whole — that is the very def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess.

PHO­TOS BY MAR­GARET BROWN

TOP: The rooftops of the small-but-busy vil­lage of Torla in the even­ing, near the im­pres­sive Ordesa Canyon. ABOVE: The au­thor con­sults a guide­book on the GR 11 route.

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