How to be No. 1 — on the GR 11
When to go: The GR 11 guidebook published by Cicerone (“The GR11 Trail — La Senda: Through the Spanish Pyrenees,” $19.15) warns that snow can be a problem in the passes until late June and says the best months are July, August and September, though even then snow is not impossible at high elevations. We had no snow, but our August mornings were cold, and I was glad for gloves, a warm hat and lots of layers. The Cicerone guide — the bible for GR 11 trekkers judging by the number carrying it — includes helpful information on trip timing and logistics.
Getting there: We flew to Barcelona, which has nonstop connections from Dulles and bus service to a number of villages in the High Pyrenees near the GR 11. The bus we took — part of the Alosa/Avanza system — departed from the city’s Diagonal terminal (next to the train station). Advance tickets are advisable in the busy vacation months and can be purchased online (alosa.avanzabus.com/index.jsp).
What direction to take: Guidebook author Brian Johnson recommends doing the GR 11 west to east, in part to put the prevailing weather at your back, but also because he says the most difficult descents are encountered east to west. We ran across others like us who were walking a portion of the route on an east-west course. But the few end-to-enders we met were eastbound.
Accommodations: Overnight facilities along the GR 11 vary widely in creature comforts and price. Our stay at the basic Refugio de Estós, including dinner, breakfast and snacks, cost about $104 for the two of us. At the luxurious Parador de Bielsa, the charge was around $245 including a light supper, breakfast and two bagged lunches. Most facilities, including refuges, take advance reservations online, though with one exception we just showed up and were able to get in. The exception was Parador de Bielsa; we called a day ahead to reserve a room there. Most places, but not all, also took credit cards; the small hotel in Parzan was cash-only. We carried a backpacking stove and cooking pot but found them largely unnecessary given the general availability of stores, restaurants and refuges.
Camping: Theoretically, you can spend every night on the GR 11 under some kind of roof. (In addition to refuges, hostels and hotels, there are primitive huts along the way that hikers can use in a pinch.) But that assumes a strength and speed we knew we didn’t have, so we carried a tent — and were glad we did. It gave us flexibility and ease of mind. Once, for example, when our legs and the afternoon both gave out halfway up a pass, we camped on a stamp-size piece of flat near a spring. Our bedroom view that night was a glorious panorama that included Mount Perdido, the third-highest peak in the range. In addition to those posed by topography, there are some limitations on where you can pitch a tent; we passed through two national parks — Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park and Posets-Maladeta Nature Reserve — with camping restrictions.
What else to bring: Even if you don’t camp, a sleeping bag and pad are useful in refuges. Some kind of water purification device is also advisable; there are too many sheep and cows around to trust even the most seemingly pristine water source. The guidebook includes maps and elevation charts, but we also carried large-scale walking maps from the Spanish publisher Editorial Alpina.
Safety: Thunderstorms are the big concern in summer, especially above the tree line. Margaret, whose respect for the danger of lightning is robust, insisted we cut short one day and camp in the woods instead of pressing on into open country. That storm did not materialize, but one did the day before — a doozy that went on for hours; luckily, we were near a refuge when it started. The folks who run the refuges are helpful with weather predictions. We also consulted online forecasts when WiFi was available.