This is a diary and personal travel essay including pictures and details that could be used to help you planning a trip in the area, but please use it as a complementary source only – due to the intentional lack of guidance.
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The challenge: Solo-tramping for 12 days non-stop, carrying all my home-made food (snacks and dried mixes), and staying every night in my tent.
I've chosen the Pyrenees because of the countless ups and downs through a mountain range, and the area seems the less crowded one in France.
I planned my trip using the following maps (contrary to the famous IGN maps, those maps include Spain, and cover a wide area with enough details so you don't have to buy many, they are also in English/French):
I finally made up my mind with a genius combination of tracks going along the French / Spanish border, visiting the Parc national des Pyrénées for the French territory, and the Parque nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido for the Spanish territory.
Also, I've baked some shortbreads, muesli bars, energy balls, and the most tasty meals based on dried mixes. That takes space and weight in my backpack. Therefore, I didn't carry my DSLR for scenic pictures. I have no regret since I haven't found inspiration, neither found landscapes wild enough. Here you have raw shots taken with my GPS.
As you can see in the map, I've spent most of the time zig-zagging between 1,500 and 2,500 m high.
I woke up at 4:55am, took the 1h train, spent 9h tighted in a small car, 1h30 in an other train, and 30 minutes in a bus. I finally arrived at 7:30pm in Etsaut. I could have had a meal in a restaurant in the last 75-inhabitant inlet but I prefered to start walking like a real strong man. I started with the famous Chemin de la Mâture, an easy-grade track carved on a cliff. It was dusky and I kept walking with torch on. I've spotted a couple of bats, a wild boar, and cows with patous – unfriendly dogs guarding cattle. The difficulty was more about finding a flat area to pitch my tent rather than the walk itself.
Whereas I didn't expect to see cattle in a national park, shit is everywhere. Not many flowers, nor birds, nor wildlife but marmots. However, the forest reminded me the New Zealand red beech forest, but drier with brownish moss.
The tramp to the Embalse1 del Arriel Alto was pretty steep and I was not sure I could climb the Balaïtous with my load. Indeed, I've met mountaineers who said I would need abseiling... Therefore, I headed north on what became my physically hardest climb down hill. Going up was okay but the other side of the bluffy saddle was covered of loose scree and dust – steeper than Cascade Saddle with no track to follow. I made a good decision not to climb the peak, the Brèche2 des Ciseaux was challenging enough!
Back to the forest, I said to myself I'm more a bushman than a mountaineer.
Another sunny day. The walk from Labassa to Ibón3 de Llena Cantal was easy peasy cool bananas. Then I climbed through the Cuello4 de Tebarray o Piedrafita, covered of sand and loose scree, slippery even dry. The last bit at the top was my hardest climb up hill. Contrary to its name, the Cuello del Infierno (literally Hell Saddle) was easy game.
The area is mostly rocky with grass and scrub. Not many flowers, maybe due to the elevation (≈2,000 m), warm weather, and cattle. I pitched my tent in a hidden grassy flat spot, higher than the last night for freshness. I could see the sky covered of wide high clouds and I could hear some birds and waterfalls. Just peaceful.
I walked along the southern side of Ibón Alto and reached the Collado4 del Letrero. It's not a busy spot probably due to the fair walk from any hut – I should rather say hotel. All huts I passed are large buildings, with solar panel, tap water, shower, food and drink for sell, crowdy in summer.
That day, I've walked about 12h and passed three saddles.
Thanks to cairns, navigation through the Col5 des Gentianes was okay. The Lac6 Glacé is a peaceful mountain lake surrounded by intimidating high peaks. The head of the Ossoue Valley has some nice waterfalls. Due to cattle, the Ossoue and the Canau Valleys smell shit. There is a nice landscape though, with rocky mountain ranges and snow. The Spanish side has a completely different vegetation, many flowers, scrubs, grasshoppers everywhere, pines down hill.
The walk through the Brèche2 de Roland was the most scenic section of my tramp. But the Cuello4 de Tebarray o Piedrafita (fourth day) is still the hardest saddle so far. The Brèche2 is a giant open gate toward a wilder world, the Parque nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido. No hotel, no busy track, no car park, just nature. The descent from 2,800 to 1,300 m-high was diverse in vegetation as well as difficulties. From massive rocks and scree to flat grass covered of flowers dashed by bluffs. Some sections were real climb! I met a lady having a short break who asked me if I had iron-way gear... Indeed, there it was, just 10 m-long. To be honest, I could have expected that if only I had known that clavijas (written in my map) means iron-way in Spanish. I said to myself “Well, it's not safe, one bad step and I go to hell, but after what I've been through I know I can do it” so did I.
I got my inner strength and passed all steps.
Then I entered the forest, tall pines, then a mix of trees similar to the Fiordland National Park.
Similarly to the day before, clouds appeared later the afternoon, nice white clouds, flattened by a layer of warm air at low altitude, so no rain. So far so good!
Nights were warm, so I was feeling lucky my sleeping bag had lost half its feathers.
I especially enjoyed tramping through the Parque nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido with its friendly native forest – yet very quiet – and the Custodia Ridge – off-track – with its view over two canyons and big mountains. The walk to the Cañón7 de Añisclo needs focus on cairns because the path is easy to loose at the first steps (stay on the true right of the stream, well above the streambed to avoid a gorge, and finally go down later on.) The last bit of the track goes quickly down to the Río8 Bellós.
I had a long ascent under patchy rain and fog to the saddle – Collado de Anisclo. I found a colourful Papilio machaon caterpillar on my way. The wind shield just below the top motivated me to have a fresh hot coffee with super tasty home-made energy balls. A couple of griffon vulture flew around the misty peaks. Those are elegant big birds. I continued down and up again to La Larri.
On the other hand, the walk along the gravel road up to Pic Liena was boring, with a nice view though. I found a bunch of wild raspberries and blueberries on the descent, so fresh, tasty, organic! Fresh day today, with a few clouds, and a slight drizzle end-afternoon.
I could see all the southern mountain ranges from the Port de la Barroude but fog covered most of the north – where I was heading to. The Lacs6 de Barroudes are the most beautiful ones I've seen during this tramp. I could not see the other side of the small misty lake dashed with mini islands. Some birds appeared and disappeared like ghosts.
Arrived in the Badet Valley, I met a farmer who said (a) I can camp anywhere I wish, (b) there is no storm in the area, and (c) the climb up to the Hourquette9 de Cap de Long is pretty steep and probably doable with a roped party. So there was no better way to go north than to go back to town. Mountains in the Pyrenees are similar to the Dragon's Teeth: Pretty sharp and hard to cross. It may explain why the ridge makes the French / Spanish border.
I do rekon the Hourquette9 de Cap de Long looks super steep from what I could see, an I guess what I couldn't see is steeper. My last day was easy going and sunny. I met a toad early morning.
I pitched my tent near Gѐdre, hitchhiked early morning to Lourdes and took the train back home.
Again, tramping is my way to refocus myself on my “right motivation”. This 12-day tramp was the most physically challenging one, but actually and suprisingly not in the technical and mental point of views. Indeed, contrary to Kiwis, French prefer clean tracks so that they can run, hotel instead of basic hut, French don't like crossing rivers so they are all bridged.
Probably since I've learned tramping in New Zealand, I prefer the Kiwi way: walking on barely used tracks or just off-track, crossing rivers, getting wet and staying in basic huts, cutting wood and warming me up with the fireplace. Besides, I'm disappointed of the impact of cattle in the environment, especially in the core zone of a national park – « an area of excellence in conservation management »10 – in France but also in Spain. Indeed, cattle eats everything including wild plants, cattle (especially cows) drops a big load of shit polluting ground and rivers at a point that I've seen blueish streams like on leaky service stations, cattle replaces native forest, cattle disturbs wild animals, uses their land. The French region's « desire to safeguard biodiversity and its commitment to ensuring sustainable development »10 seems misled or wrongly prioritised.
I'm afraid, a wilderness area exists in the country only where men cannot harvest or make money from it. From what I've seen, economy is above ecology. But both could grow together for a sustainable future. I do miss the taste of meat but this tramping experience confirmed my new daily life as a vegetarian and I'm thinking of not eating cheese anymore – surprising for a French dude, hey!
Embalse means dam/reservoir in Spanish ↩
Cañón means canyon in Spanish ↩
Río means river in Spanish ↩
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