How to be No. 1 — on the GR 11

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - — M.B.

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.avan­z­­dex.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.

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