In the Pyrenees, for 19 years, time waits
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.
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.