Nineteen years ago my wife, our 14-year-old daughter Cate and I set out from the little principality of Andorra in the Pyrenees mountains and headed west on the long-distance Spanish hiking route called GR 11. With optimism born of ignorance, I had bought a dozen detailed trail maps – enough to get us 200 miles closer to the Atlantic. At the end of our allotted 19 days, we had used six of the maps and covered 86 miles – kind of like Lewis and Clark getting as far as Nebraska. I wrote about that bare-bones excursion in The Washington Post’s Travel section.
A lot happens in 19 years. Not, obviously, to the Pyrenees; they endure. But how about us humans? Creakier, to say the least. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?” a younger man – well, who the hell isn’t younger – asked as he breezed by us this past summer on our way up to Collata Anisclo, an 8,000-plus-foot pass in the heart of the High Pyrenees along the northern tip of Spain’s Aragon region.
Daughter Cate is long gone from the nest, but this past August my wife, Margaret, and I set off on the GR 11 from the same Spanish village where we ended the trip 19 years ago. In addition to finally using those surplus maps, the two of us were going to find out to what extent we had endured.
In truth, there was another, more powerful force pulling us back. The Pyrenees, that massive chain of soaring peaks separating Spain and France, offer the walker a constantly changing mix of visual pleasures. Nineteenth-century explorer Henry Russell was downright lyrical on the subject: “It is to the Pyrenees that the smiles of the artist and the heart of the poet will always turn.” I’m neither artist nor poet, just an old newspaper hack, but in those intervening 19 years I often daydreamed about taking up where we had left off.
Almost daily, the High Pyrenees trekker makes his or her way through a valley village of small stone houses, up green pastures punctuated by patches of blue wolfsbane and streaks of cascading streams, and then up more steeply across the gray scree to a notch in a wall usually of limestone or granite but always with a top-of-the-world view. The distant peaks may be a glistening white if the sun is shining or dark, even forbidding if it is not. The whining of the wind, the whistle of a marmot and an occasional bleat from sheep somewhere in the distance are the only sounds.
It is a magnificent experience, but a challenging one. Not as tall as the better known – and more heavily visited – Alps to the north, the Pyrenees nevertheless are plenty steep and rugged, especially for someone with crying knees. Mine were absolutely bawling as we inched up the almost impossible Anisclo incline – almost impossible for us but not for Franco, the speedy Italian who inquired about our age as he zipped by.
Maybe it was our less-than-rapid pace – indeed, the use here of “pace” is debatable – that informed his question; no doubt Margaret’s white hair and the scarcity of mine contributed. The answer, which we gladly shared with our new and fast-disappearing acquaintance, was that I was at the tail end of my 73rd year and Margaret was early in her 72nd.
The Pyrenees stretch a little over 250 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. But the GR 11 covers twice that distance as it twists and turns to find gaps and avoid summits. It’s part of Europe’s GR network of long-distance footpaths, GR for Grande Randonnee in French, Gran Recorrido in Spanish, meaning great excursion or tour.
Except for one brief skip across the French border and a short section in semi-independent Andorra, the GR 11 is entirely in Spain, running from near the resort city of San Sebastian on the Atlantic to the Mediterranean shore of Catalonia at Cap de Creus, mainland Spain’s easternmost point. The High Pyrenees, where we were, cover the trail’s 235-mile middle section. Peaks there top 9,000 feet, and hikers cross a 7,000-plus-foot pass almost daily.
Not to confuse things, there is also a GR along the Pyrenees’ French side – GR 10. It’s a bit longer than the Spanish version but not as rough, according to Brian Johnson, author of guidebooks on both for the British publisher Cicerone. Johnson makes two other comparisons of interest to anyone weighing the options: GR 11 is generally sunnier and drier, and spends more time above the tree line. Neither requires technical climbing know-how or equipment – just some stamina and, every now and then, free hands. On particularly steep ups and downs, I needed all four extremities and would have welcomed a fifth. Hiking poles were definitely a must.
We started last summer’s trip – and ended our previous one – in Benasque, an attractive tourist village not far from Aneto and Posets, the Pyrenees’ two highest peaks. The bus ride there was itself an adventure. The first leg from Barcelona to Barbastro was uneventful. But the second into the mountains was on a narrow, sharply curving road, and as we were going up, one large, heavily loaded truck after another was coming down. That our driver and his co-pilot managed to get past each without a scratch seemed a small miracle, and that they did it in continuing good humor a large one. It definitely took both of them, one inside slowly turning the wheel, the other outside negotiating with the oncoming trucker and measuring inches between vehicles.
We picked up the GR 11 just north of Benasque, and had an easy walk up to the Refugio d’Estós, one of the route’s numerous backcountry hostels offering meals and overnight accommodations. Like the refuges scattered through the Alps, these are informal, lively establishments but on the spartan side, which is to say you can expect to be packed away for the night on a wooden platform in a tightly spaced dormitory – a little too cozy for us claustrophobics. One fellow sufferer, a Dutch backpacker, showed me his coping strategy: Bose headphones that numbed him through the night with musical meditations.
We carried a tent and used it five of our 10 nights out, our other accommodations ranging from a small hotel to a fancy parador. But when a storm threatens, as it did that first afternoon, a refuge – no matter how sardine-like – is a welcome sight. Given that we arrived at the facility in prime vacation season without reservations, we were lucky to get in for the night.
Thankfully, the storm turned out to be merely raindrops, and the next morning the sun was out in force as we headed up to our first pass, the Puerto de Chistau at 8,438 feet. As throughout the GR system, the GR 11 is blazed with red and white stripes painted on rocks and trees. Where there are no such surfaces – only loose dirt and stones, as on the approach to Chistau – there are cairns to show the way. We had serious trouble divining the trail at only one spot: a high pasture where a herd of summering cows had obliterated the waymarks.
Conquering Chistau boosted our confidence, which was promptly shaken by the descent. As with a number of passes, the terrain was rockier and steeper on the downside. But I don’t want to overemphasize the physical difficulties. We spent much of the trip tramping contentedly along forested valley paths and shaded farm tracks. Cruising down the gently sloping pasture above the deep Ordesa Canyon in the soft, late afternoon sunlight was bliss itself. The next day, we would descend to the canyon floor and into the throng of tourists attracted by this spectacular chasm. But up here, on top of the canyon walls, it was just the two of us – and sheep, literally hundreds of them.
Our end-of-trip stats won’t knock you over: In 10 days we covered 77 miles. But, as they say, who’s counting? We had learned 19 years earlier about expectations and this time had none, at least not for distance. The only requirement was to end up somewhere with enough time to get back to Barcelona for our flight home. That turned out to be a resort complex five miles north of Panticosa, a mountain village with bus connections south to the major city of Huesca.
Rather than mileage, our main goal was internal: to find out if we had endured sufficiently to complete a Pyrenees trek, whatever the length. Simply put, could we do it? The answer, we concluded the final night at a celebratory dinner in our hotel above Panticosa, was a resounding yes. To experience the High Pyrenees and emerge exhausted but whole – that is the very definition of success.
Brown is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia.
What to know before taking 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 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 also took credit cards but not all; 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.