Recently I’ve been feeling in danger of going a bit wibble and realised it might be time for a break. I suspect hours behind the desk have a lot to do with feeling a bit fragile, so I put some leave in and spent £60 on a return ticket to Toulouse. The plan was to stick my bivvy bag in my rucksack and head out in to the Pyrenees for 10 days.
As it turned out, I made it five days of the projected 10 (I had put together a route card for safety reasons, but utterly underestimated the combination of heat, mountains, a heavy pack and a 2-a-week Dominos habit) before banging out. Nonetheless, I left France in a significantly better place than I started (I don’t mean Luton airport).
The GR10 (La Grande Randonnée 10, literally Big Walk Number 10) runs across the Pyrenees from Atlantic to Mediterranean; a cross section of the route looks like the action end of a saw. At around 500 miles, most will do it in chunks rather than one go. I planned to start at the mid point and head for the Med, giving myself 10 days to get there.
After an early flight out and a couple of buses and trains, I made it to Bagneres de Luchon, a little spa town up in the mountains. I picked up a few last minute supplies and headed up hill, looking not a lot like the experienced outdoorsman that I profess to be, with a badly packed 45 litre pack with kit hanging off and a Sainsbury’s Bag for Life with bottled water and some local sausage and cheese in hand. As load-carrying methods go, I can’t recommend it for 8 mile uphill trogs.
I reached the Berger’s Hut (Bergers are Pyrenean shepherds who spend a lot of time up in the high pastures tending their flocks, accompanied by Patous, frightening mountain sheepdogs which, when advancing upon you, look more like a bear/yeti cross) before the sun went down, to find two others already camped there. After quick intros, it was bivvy up and head down, with my sleep disturbed only once by a shout to someone to stop snoring (I didn’t hear anyone snoring…).
I was up with the (really loud) larks, sorting my kit out properly so I looked a little less like I was on day one of training, and headed further up the mountain. Right from the start, the views , altitude and heat were breathtaking. The first big descent however had my legs burning, with the loose path seeing me on my bum more than once. Happily, I was able to take advantage of the stream to have an impromptu shower and cool down, before cracking on.
Hitting the first hamlet on a Sunday lunchtime, everyone had downed tools for a mountain music festival. Despite my recent ‘wash’ in the stream, I wasn’t keen on inflicting 6 hours of hill sweat on people, so I headed uphill…for another 7 hours. I will confess to a couple of rest stops on the climb, mostly to hide from the sun, but made the worst case of my three overnight points before the sun went down, 8 miles short of my 30 mile target.
Rather than pitch my bivvy, I checked out the Cabane (bothy, in Scottish money) and decided it looked safe to use. That lasted until an hour after dark before rats the size of Yorkshire Terriers* started gnawing in to my kit (*it may have been a single small mouse). Purely in the interests of safeguarding my stuff, I opted to spend the rest of the night on picquet outside in the fresh air (in my bivvy).
Day 3 started uphill, and saw me cross four different ridge lines, with almost 8000′ of climbing, on a day that hit 40 degrees. My Northern constitution was in danger of failing me, when I found a plunge pool to sit in to bring my temperature back down.
I had a further scare when I came across the tail end of a big flock of sheep. Now, the French seem to have a fairly relaxed attitude to health and safety, so given that they had posted warning signs every couple of miles about staying away from the Patous, and twinned with my inability to run past my local Jack Russell pack without flapping about getting bitten, I was taking them pretty seriously. Happily, I made it through the flock of sheep unscathed (there’s a Yorkshireman joke in there somewhere), but kept a wary put out for good mile after.
Despite drinking half of every stream I passed, my dehydration tests were still coloured closer to Coke than water so I was more than glad to find an unoccupied platform in a Berger’s hut to get my head down in. The mouse here was a lot more friendly, and was content to rummage through my rubbish for food rather than go for the goretex and down kit in my pack, so my night was relatively undisturbed.
I managed an early start to get ahead of the sun, and was half way up the first 3000′ climb before the 2 minutes of ‘pleasantly warm’ turned in to ‘UK grinds to a halt’ temperatures. Happily, I found that rarest of things in the Pyrenees – a traverse! It was such a novelty not to be going either up or down, I almost broke in to a jog. The motivation behind the jog changed as dark storm clouds appeared with little warning. An exposed ridgeline was not really where I wanted to be when the clouds started making noise.
In my haste dropping off the ridge, I missed the last water source for some miles. Up until then, I had been managing well, carrying empty lightweight soft flasks to bridge the gap between streams. I was somewhat parched when I made it to what I though was another bothy but turned out to be a manned Gîte. This was in fact the best value B&B I’ve ever stayed in, if you didn’t mind sharing a bunkhouse with 7 French retirees who, in addition to walking the length of the GR10, had the energy to ask a 2-hour string of Brexit questions.
Despite the friendly banter (I got my own back by noting that if Wensleydale wasn’t one of the best cheeses worldwide, Wallace and Gromit wouldn’t eat it, which for some reason seemed to fall flat on multiple counts), it was lovely to spend the evening in the company of other people; it was the first time I had felt that way for quite some time.
The following morning, with badly bruised feet (lightweight running shoes with a thin rock plate are not suitable for all terrain) and calves, glutes and areas prone to chafing all in clip, I opted to retire early. My planned 30 miles a day had turned in to closer to an average of 20, despite putting in 12-hours plus daily. The thought of beasting myself in similar conditions for a further 5 days and still not making it to the end was not appealing. More to the point, although it felt a little like giving up, I’d done what I came to do; to sort my head out and lift the cloud that had been hanging over me. I saw no reason why I couldn’t continue recuperating on the beach with some of the local wine.
Of course, I hadn’t fully thought through my escape plan, with no internet access most of the time. It was somewhat liberating to freestyle it in the knowledge that, worst case, I could put my bivvy up in a field somewhere. After walking 10 miles cross-country to the nearest small town, I stuck my thumb out (it being a Wednesday and therefore a half day for the majority of French people, including the bus driver) to get a lift. A short hop in a friendly farmer’s 4×4, then I was in a clapped out Mk 3 Golf with a pastis-drinking (literally, he would have had to move the bottle to apply the handbrake) shepherd and his mum speeding towards the closest town. While I had my doubts at times, I made it through the journey!
I did learn a couple of valuable lessons: first, just because you could do something ten years ago, doesn’t necessarily mean you can still do it now, at least without acclimatisation and training. Secondly, if you travel alone and use your GoPro as a video diary, at some point you will find you are talking to yourself, with your camera still in your bag. On the plus side, you feel less idiotic with no one there to see it…