"The Pyrenees aren't that far. In case you feel like joining for a bit ..." If Katrien was just being polite, she is in for quite the surprise. A week after receiving her message, my train ticket is booked. I will join her for a stretch of 126 kilometres on the GR10, one of three long-distance hiking trails cutting through the French-Spanish mountain range.
While Katrien and I are strangers, acquainted only through the world wide web, something connects us. We had both planned to start our thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in April, but spent the last few months mourning our cancelled trek during a nationwide lockdown instead. To not let summer go to waste, Katrien now aims to thru-hike the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast.
Our adventure begins in the small town of Gavarnie, where I snap a photo of the first cows I spot, eliciting a giggle. "I also took lots of cow photos during my first week, but I have gotten used to them now," Katrien explains. Right, rookie mistake.
When I fall flat on my face that afternoon while searching for a suitable campsite, I bid my credibility as a competent hiker farewell. "All things considered not an unsuccessful day. I did make it up the hill after all," I comfort my ego, as I savour the first of many instant soup flavoured vermicelli bowls.
Pyrenese wake-up calls
"I think a horse is licking my tent." As I unzip my door, I confirm Katrien’s suspicion: a brown stallion is indeed sniffing her humble abode. Her one-person bedroom not only comes with a mountain view, it apparently also includes a free wake-up service.
The day of the self-doubt – also known as day two on any multi-day hike – starts with a long descent towards the small town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur. My body is tired from yesterday’s efforts and not quite adjusted to the exertion yet. Having gone through this phase before, I know that I will probably feel more confident tomorrow, but fail to silence my inner critic.
Tempting though it may be to call it a day by lunchtime, we have another 800 metres of ascent waiting for us. Once we start our climb, my body luckily seems to have found its rhythm. By the time we reach the top, I am on cloud nine. Even the extra kilometre walked in search of a proper campsite – flat and free of cow carcasses – does not bother me in the slightest.
Head in the clouds
I wake up early to a dense blanket of clouds lingering in the valley below us and observe the spectacle while crunching my muesli. As the temperature rises and the valley starts to overflow, we pack up our things and hit the trail.
After a quick descent to Barèges – with obligatory coffee and quiche break – the real work starts. We scramble past the many day-trippers and soon have the high-altitude mountain lakes mostly to ourselves. Over the next 12 kilometres, we gain 1,200 metres in altitude, but the view from the summit successfully soothes our sore legs.
We pitch our tents by the most pristine lake until a disgruntled couple marches past, tent dangling over their arms. They inform us that we are still on the outer edge of the nature reserve, in which it is illegal to camp. To avoid sharing their fate of getting fined, we make our way to the bivouac site three kilometres further down. A little late to the party, the hunt for a decent spot begins.
Already off trail, we decide to continue down the alternative route to Lac d’Oredon in the morning. The sharp descent is followed by a steep climb, only to descend again to Lac de l’Oule and then climb back up. By the time we close in on the Col de Portet at 2,215 metres, a thick mist envelops us.
With the view gone, my ankle hurting, drizzle permeating our clothes and exhaustion setting in, I drag myself forward. Our pace slows down even more when we find ourselves stuck behind a herd of cows lining up to pass the slope’s narrow parts. We eventually set up camp in the rain and brace ourselves for a cold night.
Homeless to hot tub
My whining ankle turns into a fully-fledged limp by the time we reach Vielle-Aure. Time to rest the tendons. While Katrien takes on the next mountain, I skip 11 kilometres ahead by bus. With high hopes, I make my way to Loudenvielle’s one and only campground to discover it is fully booked for the night. The tourism office informs me that randonneurs – long-distance hikers – can camp on a small grassy patch behind the caravan parking lot. Less than idyllic, but a solid plan B.
As I wait for Katrien, the town's stares are glued to my skin even more than the layers of sweat and sunscreen I accumulated over the past five days. The question ‘hiker or homeless’ is written all over their faces as passers-by assess my situation: two wet tents left out to dry, muddy pants, greasy hair and one foot elevated on my pack.
But along with Katrien, our lucky break arrives. She manages to secure a spot for us on the five-star campground after all, allowing us to indulge in the hot tub and enjoy our first shower of the week. After a dinner that is not instant soup vermicelli – hello, actual veggies – our spirits have been lifted.
The sound of panting tourists
It is well past noon when we part ways with the town’s many comforts and start our lengthy climb. A few hours later, we are greeted by tens of griffon vultures at the summit of Couret d’Esquierry. With a wingspan of up to 2.8 metres, these majestic creatures do not fail to impress. "Why don’t you hold up your leftover sausage and see what happens," I jokingly suggest, immediately changing my mind when a bird the size of my pack soars overhead.
After a short night at the top, we exchange the seclusion of the mountains for hordes of panting tourists hauling themselves uphill as we pass Astau’s parking lot. Our sense of solitude is restored once again when we leave the Refuge Espingo behind and continue ascending. Three last bumps in a row put our calves to the final test before we enjoy a beautiful sunset with the Spanish snow-capped mountains as our backdrop.
The 1,900-metre descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon transforms my knees into rusty old hinges the next morning, but the end is near. When we reach the sleepy town, we wonder whether it has been placed under lockdown again. That is, until a glance at our watches informs us it is merely siesta time. A well-earned lunch and ice cream later, Katrien and I say our sweaty goodbyes as I start my journey home, confident I will be back someday to use my guidebook’s pages left unturned.