Haute Route Highlights

I met up with Andy Howell recently, who knows the Pyrenees well, and he asked - 'So, what were the highlights of the trip?'

It flawed me a little.  Partly because we were walking through the city and its been a few months and alot has happened in the meantime.  Trying to sum up is pretty impossible, because the whole is more than the sum, and all of it counts, even the parts that weren't so inspiring or comfortable, so its not really divisable.  And because what I now remember most clearly is a feeling of wholeness and yes you can laugh and please, be my guest - but that's what doing a long distance walk feels like.  Once your metabolism has changed and your in the zone hypnotised by the excercise everything is fluid movement, a blur.  Your purpose is to be there, full stop - 360 degrees of sensory equilibrium.  You are acutely aware of your mortality but glide through glorious country as if immortal.  You are in the landscape, not on it, not quite sure where it ends and you begin.  After a few weeks, it all gets a bit jedi knight, but without the self agrandising.  Na, that's for later, when you try to describe it.  But I did fall in love with the world again on that trip, shed my cynicism and left behind the hard shell.  I needed to lose some mental ballast, and ended up traveling light - became an optimist again, returned to myself.  It was some kind of alchemy, and I'd recommend it.

That said, I thought about it some more, and here are some of my own highlights.  It'll be different for you of course, and there's more out there than what's in here, but it might give you an idea of what to look forward to, if you do the walk.  The best camps are here, the other peaks are here:

The beautiful walk out from Burga.  I walked long into the evening after summiting the first 1000m+ top of the traverse in high temperatures.  As the day began to fizzle away and the shadows grew longer, I felt myself sink into the rhythm of the walk for the first time.  I knew I was in for the duration, I had arrived and was completely present in the moment.  The beech forest at this stage of the walk is unfathomably lovely.

The mighty Pic D'Orhy is the first 2000m+ summit on the walk, and is quite a challenge.  Its a 3 parter, all dry as a bone - the first a long and tiring walk in on a big bold hump strafed by crows, the second a pretty bracing arete with a scrambly drop at the end, and the third a high steep pull to the summit.  After that you drop off the peak to its right, then around to bounce down and along the ridge you can see on its left in the photo.  Its a good one to size up to and get under your belt early on, and its great fun when you do.  Not advised in bad weather, pretty exposed.

The Sierra de Anelara is the high limestone ridge around the Pic d'Anie.  Its just heaven here - meadows, butterflies, spikey crags, sinkholes, Isards, alpine nirvana.  Watch out, though, all that limestone means its beautiful, but deadly.  I will be back here...but with more water next time.  Or maybe in winter?

The view from most of the way up Pic d'Anie.  I already told you about this one.  It took us 14hrs there and back from Lescun, I nearly killed Mark doing it and he nearly killed me after for dragging him along.  Access is good and relatively straight forward, and the walk in is long and beautiful, though country lanes and paths in fields and cloud ringed fairie woodlands.  After the refuge and the tundra and the shepherds hut you climb high on a stream side and turn onto a broad buttress.  Crossing a sudden threshold from granite to limestone you finally see the Pic, pretty arrogant looking.  Then the ascent starts.  Definitely best done over 2 days.

We took a detour via the GR10 for a few days, just for variety.  Then we took a detour from our detour.  Rather than join the tourist throng at d'Ayous, we cut the back way via Co d'Aas de Bielle, wandering down through this misty iris covered paradise with an eagle for company.  We got a bit entranced and forgot the sore legs for a while.  We stopped for lunch at an ancient looking stone table by a mountain hut and later went for a swim in the dam.

The walk between Wallon and Refuge d'llheou was Mark's last full day and a walk of 7 swims.  We'd all had a tough stage and I was exhausted and missing my girlfriend, but this redeemed us all.  Mark jumped in every lake on the way and had a Roger Deakin moment in the reedbeds.  Tim and I took pictures and snoozed.  Things lightened up.  Then the vista as I turned the corner under Castet Abarca stopped me in my tracks, dead.  The clouds flew in and out fast over the Valle de Marcadau and we waited there for ages to watch, speechless, mesmerised.  If you need to go to Cauterets (and its far better than Gavarnie), go this way.  Its a high pass over to a knee busting valley that time forgot.  Magic.

The phenomenal Col de Mulets is at the head of the walk into Odessa.  Its a place of zen terrors and some folk get the wobbles here on the scree slopes.  The wind is ferocious.  I love it - when I laugh in the face of the universe's indifference here it laughs right back with me - we cackle together like lunatics.  From here you can take a day to walk down the Val de Ara into Spain.  It gets less exposed but still with big skies and serious mountains on all sides.  Superb.

At the other end of Odessa, the landscape up to the Breche is just a little bit out there.  Its as if someone shook a sheet out and froze it mid shake - immense ripples, giants fingerprints. This is the backside of Monte Perdido, (high above on the left out of frame, with refugio Goriz at its foot) something of a hallowed summit for many Spanish mountaineers.  Maybe next time.

There will be those who will regard the Breche de Roland as passe but on a cloudy wet day, with no-one else around, it was great.  Here be monsters!  This photo is from the day after, when you could see more. 

Taillon is also well worth a visit, since you're in the neighbourhood.  We had mixed conditions but the ridge ascent is right on the border and just fantastic - if the weather is good you can see for miles over both France and Spain, and right into the cirque de Gavarnie.  Don't rush through, stay a while and do a summit or two. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The Barroude lakes are something else.  The wall is just vast, it blots out most of the sky, and the lakes are still and quiet and seem to bear witness somehow.  Marmots nest on tiny peninsulas that jut out into the water, and you can walk through the cotton grass and the shallows and sit on a little mound with them.  The route over the pass from Heas is pretty great too, all slabby like Transformers on the top and loose scree as you descend. Beware the walk out from Barroude, to Parzan is a day in anyone's money, the descent to the lakes takes forever, and then there's motorway after that.

 The George Blanc.  Now there's a thing.  Next time.

This is looking back on the Col de George Blanc.  Safe to say this whole stretch blew me away.  The wind nearly blew Tanya away, literally - she took a small fall in that scree mess in the middle.  Its an incredible place, and the start of the really high stuff.  Alot of the 'highlights' of my trip are crammed into this small chunk of the walk - its where we were challenged and for that reason I remember it vividly.  Its also like nowhere else I've been, save perhaps Teide - a completely surreal and alien landscape.

This is the Col de inferior de Literole, the pass after Portillon and the highest of the trip.  The weather swelled in and out like a tide as we descended.  It's quite tall.  One or two went down without axe or crampons whilst others used rope and belayed as well as the winter kit.  We used axe and kahtoolas and were fine - it was good to get a little practice again after last years course.  The walk out from here was a taxing and disorientating granite wildnerness, snow and talus tumbling over miles down to the Valle de Remune.  Incredible.  Awe full.

I'd say the same about Aneto.  We didn't summit, though not for want of trying.  Weather was serious and we had to turn back or get zapped by the lightning storm on the summit.  It was still worth every step, and I will revisit this area.  There's enough here to keep you in mischief for a month or two.  Utterly spellbinding, this land of rock and ice.

The Mulleres pass is also pretty darn heavy duty.  The guidebook is seriously off the mark here, and it would be easy to get caught out, fatally - it wants to send you off the pink coloured col you can see to the left of the walkers, where rock is disintegrating almost by the second.  That is not advised.  The maps don't give much away either.  On the ascent the granite becomes enormous, rounded, glacial, as if a brontosaurus were buried.  It sort of feels like as if it might wake up and throw you off too - a little tenuous.  And that is precisely its charm.  It spooked Tanya a little, I enjoyed it, although she was better on the steep and quite technical scramble down from the Col than I was.  This picture is taken as we climbed up the back of Tuc de Mulleres, too far south, to the appropriately named Cap Deth (cough!) Horo de Mullures, attempting to find the Col.  I am looking back towards the weather on Aneto, which had continued the day after our attempt. 

The lakes on the HRP just along from the Port de Rius.  A fantastical watery labyrinth of rocky islands and rainbow trout coloured granite.  The weather was finally calming down and the sun did its thing on the tops all evening.  The photo of alpenglow at the head of this post was taken here as well.  It lasted precisely 45 seconds.  The walk out the following morning was another piece of magic, through the inlets and over the mounds, between the mists swirling over the tops and across the lakes.  A morphing wonderland.  I'd be happy to end my days in this place.  There's even a beach.

Looking back the way we'd come, from the summit of Tuc de Marimanha.  Its the start of the red and blue country - iron rock, azure crystaline views.  No path up here, and we missed the summit the first time ending up on a ridge to the left just too edgy for big bags, so went back down a few metres and tried again.  Thomas was fresh from the fleshpots of Barcelona, but held his own through the first few days of hurt.

After the tuc you follow quite a sketchy little ridge and drop down on Talus to this little beauty.  The dark patch at the back is where the alien octopus lives of course, it goes all the way down to Nemo's lair.  Humbling terrain. 

This is the Pic de Certescan.  It doesn't look like much in the photo but since you go past, it'd be rude not to climb it wouldn't it?  Someone randomly left a whole packet of chocolate biscuits at the col below, which I took as a good sign.  500gms of sticky, artery clogging palm oil and chocolate flavoured goodness - that's the good weight, not the bad kind.  I dumped the rucksack with Thomas and went up to a false summit, swung back left and nipped along the ridge to this.  All of France under cloud on one side, Spain swimming around in the haze on the other.  It feels pretty wild up there, not many visitors, none whilst I was there.  On the way back the weather swooped in and battered me with hail and sleet - I fairly ran down.  I had a laugh at my own expense, but Thomas was a bit worried and both of us were soaked to the skin. 

This is looking over to France, on the way to Pic d'Estats, the highest mountain in Catalonia, and possibly the highest thing I've done solo at a little over 3000ms.  It really is quite a special mountain and is clearly held in total reverence by all who climb it, judging by those I talked to on the way up, who all had a lovely twinkle in their eyes from summiting.  By this point I was really fit and hooned up this in 2.5hrs as everyone else was coming down.  I had the top to myself for half an hour at teatime.  I might write this up in its own post at some stage, there's something really lovely about this one, the fact that so many hold it in such high regard.  On the top there are tens if not hundreds of memorials to departed friends and relatives.  I felt quite honoured to be up there alone with all those memories, paying my respects.  You know you're alive on Pic d'Estats.

The lac de Negre, after the Port de Baiau.  The ascent of the port is fairly serious, so be en guard.  Scree and then some.  Keep your party close, but not too close, comprends?!  The views at the top are worth the work.  It also marks yet another watershed in terrain as well, where it really does become more Mediterranean.  Then down to a path alongside this cold dark lake in the shadow of Pic de Sanfonts.  I loved this valley, its plainly cut off from much human contact and as a consequence feels suitably untamed and brooding in atmosphere.  Thomas was convinced that there was black magic afoot in one of the stone circles, I thought it was just a well cleared tent pitch.  Maybe we're both right.

A valley after Llortes.  More insects than I've ever heard or seen in my life.  Its a takeover.

Don't let me hear you say, life's taking you nowhere.  Angel.  Sorry, where was I?  Oh yes.  Don't let anyone tell you its all over in the east.  Not true.  Lake to lake high above Hospitalet pres d'Andorre.  Natures bathtubs keeping us clean and cool after a serious cooking in the sun.  Some fantastic walking around the Pic de Rulhe

This is the end of the Noarre ridge, which in a way is the big surprise or secret of the last stage.  Its enormous, a good day long, two if you count the incredible plateau walk that comes after, and the rock formations are out of this world.  Seriously windy, it was a job to stay upright at times, but big horizons and superb views in all directions.  Bracing stuff.

A blissful walk in under Canigou, the last hurrah of the walk.  We went in too late, too high, but the golden light left me speechless.  We went quietly though forest paths, too late to be joined by many others, accompanied as always by the glassy tinkle of icy mountain streams.  It was good.

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Oh yeah, and happy holidays by the way.