Friday, July 30, 2010

GR11 in 23 Days

I completed the GR11 on Monday 26th July at a scorching and windy Cap de Creus,
23 days since leaving Cabo Higuer on the Atlantic Coast. My route was about 825km with 39,000 metres of ascent.
Photo albums | Route on Google maps

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Getting home

Arriving at Cap de Creus is not quite the end of the story. I still had the small matter of getting home.

I had no clear plan of what to do next, so asked at the lighthouse tourist information centre. It sounded like the best bet was to walk around the coastal path to Cadaqués and then jump on a bus.

The hike to Cadaqués took just over 2 hours. The coastal path was heavily overgrown with thorn bushes in many places, and didn't look that well used. I reached Cadaqués at 4.15pm and was sitting on the bus to Figueres at 4.45pm. The Figueres bus terminates right next to the railway station from where I caught the train to Girona.

By 7.30pm I was in Girona and had found a room at the low-key Europa Hotel, close to the train and bus stations.

The following day, Tuesday 27th July, I spent the morning in Girona before catching a bus to the airport and flying to Prestwick with Ryanair, from where thankfully Ellie picked me up.

When I'd planned the trip, I had no clear idea how long the GR11 hike would take, and had estimated 26 days. Therefore my original flight from Girona was booked for Friday 30th. However when I reached Requesens in that gale force wind on Saturday 24th, it was pretty clear by that stage I would complete in 23 days, so I'd texted Ellie to book me another flight, since I didn't fancy sitting around for 3 days in Girona waiting to get home.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 23 - Port de la Selva to Cap de Creus

18km, 500 metres of ascent
Today was a strange little coda to the trip. It really felt like I'd completed the traverse of the Pyrenees yesterday, but the GR11 demands that you hike out to the barren wasteland of Cap de Creus to complete the route.

I had a super-dawdly start and didn't leave the campground until 8am, and then immediately stopped in Port de la Selva for a café con leche and croissant. I was getting a bit worried that the day was slipping away, and my foot was off the gas.

But once I was out of Port de la Selva, the kilometres ticked by, and it wasn't long before I was on the final stretch of tarmac road leading up to Faro Cap de Creus lighthouse, surrounded by cars and tourists.

At the lighthouse I could see continuing red and white markers. Not quite there yet. I followed the paint marks through ever more jaggy rocks, towards the true headland.

Soon I was alone again reaching the final red and white mark; then a cairn; then a cliff into the sea. This really was the end of line.

For 23 days, every footstep had been leading to this point, but now the journey was over. I was off duty. I was just another tourist bumbling around on the rocks.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 22 - Requesens to Port de la Selva

54km, 1350 metres of ascent
After the fantastic long day yesterday, I set out this morning feeling absolutely done in, with rock bottom energy levels and struggling for motivation.

I got virtually no sleep last night with the violent gusting winds, and the wind has still not abated, so Requesens is feeling a dour cheerless place.

I decide I need to strip off some clothes to myself going, and the second I stop two young German guys storm on past. This is just the jolt to the system I needed, since I hadn't seen any hikers for about 3 days.

I quickly catch them up, and we switch places a few times, but it is far too windy to be able to speak, however a bit later down the trail we re-convene and enjoy chatting as far as Sant Quirze de Colera, which makes the miles fly by.

The Germans take a siesta at Sant Quirze de Colera, and I visit the bar for a drink and to discretely eat the rest of my food. It is just after 1pm when I start hiking down the road towards Vilamaniscle in the full scorching mid-day sun. I am feeling quite frazzling, and the fatigue suddenly swamps me now that I'm back on my own.

I am struggling to walk in a straight line down the road, and the screaming wind means I can't hear if any cars are coming, so it doesn't feel entirely safe. I stagger onwards until I finally concede defeat and slump under a tree to rest my eyes and brain. I only doze for a few minutes, but suddenly feel completely awake again just from allowing my system to shut down.

Vilamaniscle comes and goes. I am passing vineyards now and entering a new arid type of landscape. It reminds me of California. I stop at Sant Silvestre briefly, but I have run out of water and need to get to Llançà for a drink. I pass through the Coll de les Portes 230m, and the Mediterranean Sea is spread out before me. It feels hard to believe that I have just walked across Spain.

Arriving in Llançà I feel frazzled from the scorching heat and scouring wind, and dive into a blissful air-conditioned supermarket buying one of every type soft drink. Kilian Jornet conveniently called it a day at Llançà on his recent trans-Pyrenees jaunt, however the GR11 carries on for another 27km, with almost another 1,000 metres of ascent, if you want to finish at Cap de Creus.

I tried to enjoy the 500m climb after Llançà to reach Sant Pere de Rodes. Suddenly I was surrounded by cars and regular tourists. Back into civilisation.

The descent from Sant Pere de Rodes monastery to Port de la Selva slices through all the hairpins and drops you right at the seafront, and 22 days after leaving the Atlantic, I had reached the Mediterranean.

I still needed to hike a good couple of kilometres along the coast away from Port de la Selva to find the Port de la Vall Camping, but at last I could stop and relax.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day 21 - Albanyà to Requesens

52km, 1690 metres of ascent
What a difference a decent night's sleep makes. This morning the world seemed a much brighter place. I packed up early and left before Bassegoda Park was awake.

The trail from Albanyà quickly gains height via a pista before following a mix of track and trail through wonderful pine forests. So much more scenic than yesterday, and much warmer, with full sunshine all day.

The trail northwards was fairly uneventful apart from one minor faux pas where the GR11 signs sent me around in a circle.

I stopped for a drink at Moli d'en Robert, but the barman seemed uninterested in serving me, so I just carried on towards Maçanet de Cabrenys.

On reaching the edge of Maçanet de Cabrenys I was in two minds whether to go into the town centre, but I thought it would just waste time, so instead turned right in the direction of Darnius, then cutting a corner through cork oak forests to pick up the road to La Vajol. The guidebook suggested following the road to La Vajol as being far easier than attempting the waymarked GR11, so I took this option,

It was still quite a hilly winding road to reach La Vajol, where I made a brief café stop, and actually got served this time.

After La Vajol, the GR11 is really starting to run out of inspiration. The route has given up with following the border hills, and instead follows a tedious tarmac road for several kilometres before taking pistas through scrubby farmland dotted with fig trees and cactuses.

The landscape is suddenly starting to look Mediterranean.

It is after 6pm when I cross the busy E-15 motorway to reach La Jonquera. The place looks like one enormous truck stop, lined with the most enormous supermarkets and junk shops. I need to get through this hell-hole as quickly as possible, to stand any chance of reaching Requesens tonight, which is still a good 3 hours away.

I hurtle round one of the supermarkets which is twice the size of some of the villages I've seen on my trip. Then march down into the old town hoping that I might pick up the GR11 markers again. To my amazement I look down an alleyway and spot a marker, and hope that I am now back on route. I scoff down as much of the food and drink as I can, then brace myself for the 600m climb up the ridge to Puig dels Falguers 778m.

I am extremely pressed for daylight, setting off up this climb just after 7pm. I try to move as fast as possible, since I don't think there will be any camping before Requesens. The trail is rocky and overgrown and not all that clear, so it requires 100% concentration.

As I get higher on the ridge, the sun is dropping low on the horizon into banks of cloud, and the wind is picking up to the point of seriously impeding progress. By the time I reach Puig dels Falguers I can barely stand in the screaming crosswinds.

It's just before 9pm when I reach Coll de l'Auleda, and although it's getting cold and dark and horrifically windy, I can partially relax now since it is an easy downhill pista to Requesens. Plus I get a boost from seeing a magnificent full moon rising into a cluster of pink clouds above the coastal town of Roses. I love seeing sights like this when I'm the only person on the hill, it feels like a special reward for bending the rules a bit.

I dilly dally on the descent taking photos of the full moon, which means it is pitch dark when I reach Requesens, but I find the first bit of flat ground and carefully pitch the tent in a buffeting changeable wind, trying to make sure nothing blows away. As soon as the tent is up I realise I have company from a large bull, but there is no way I have the energy to make alternative sleeping arrangements, so I just hope that I won't be trampled in the night.

I spend the night listening to violent gusts of wind approaching and then slamming into the side of the tent.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 20 - Can Planas to Albanyà

39km, 1380 metres of ascent
By 6am I was shattered from the electric storm lasting all night. Needless to say, the Can Planas woman didn't bring me a cup of tea, so I packed up the soaking tent in now drizzly rain, and plodded on down the muddy slippery trail to Beget.

It was 9am when I reached the ancient little village of Beget and of course there was nothing open and no shop. I went to the Hostal El Forn but there were no signs of life. Then to my astonishment the Can Jeroni actually appeared to be opening for business. I felt a bit ridiculous going into the restaurant in my stinking wet clothes, but the staff were very friendly and helpful, and brought me this morning's newspaper showing the strange outcome of yesterday's Tour de France stage on the Col du Tourmalet where Contador put his arm around Schleck as they crossed the line, like it was all planned.

The café con leche at Can Jeroni was good quality but nowhere near enough, so I went back to Hostal El Forn which had now woken up and grabbed another coffee. As I checked out the local newspaper, I saw a familiar site on the front page. It was the view down onto Núria where I had started yesterday, but the photo showed Kilian Jornet romping to victory in the Olla de Núria race that happened 3 days before I arrived.

Anyhow, I didn't need reminding of superstars who can run across the Pyrenees in 9 days. I needed to get moving in the direction of Albanyà.

Today's hike was a strange contrast to all the previous days. The weather and my lack of sleep probably didn't help much, but the walking was just unrelentingly dull and depressing. A muddy slippery track surrounded by dripping trees, creating a general feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation.

The only cheerful thing that happened all day was that the sun came out briefly as I walked past a field of sunflowers at Can Ferrers. Luckily just before Albanyà, there is a fantastic fully-equipped campsite called Bassegoda Park that even had an open supermarket, so I spent a quiet night here.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 19 - Núria to Can Planas

38km, 1900 metres of ascent
Yesterday was a day of suffering, but this morning I awoke in the comfortable surrounds of the Hotel Vall de Núria. White towels. En suite bathroom. Breakfast buffet. What more could you ask for?

I made the most of the self-serve breakfast with endless rounds of toast, plain yoghurt and café con leche. It was strange to be surrounded by normal people all of sudden. None of whom looked like they were mid-way through a cross-continental jaunt.

Once the waitresses appeared to be losing patience with me, I returned to my room, grabbed my backpack, checked out and then spent some time hunting for the GR11 continuation trail, which in fact turned out to be the very obvious pista heading north-east.

After feeling totally ill yesterday, I was a bit trepidacious whether my stomach would be OK, and whether any energy would have returned, so I set off slowly on the 700m climb to Coll de Noufonts. Thankfully as soon as I got going, the climb felt effortless, and I was soon at the 2645m col.

The next 3km follows the French-Spanish border along a high exposed undulating ridge, with great views north into France. This was quite pleasant, apart from the screaming wind that was trying to knock me off my feet. Once off the ridge it didn't take long to reach the Refugi d'Ulleter 2200m where I stopped for a coffee, and to get out of the cold misty conditions.

There was an option from Refugi d'Ulleter to follow the HRP high-level route to reach Molló, thereby missing out Setcases. But given the thick mist and imminent rain, this was not an appealing option, so I chose the straightforward descent to Setcases with the rain setting in.

Once at Setcases, I found a bar showing Stage 17 of the Tour de France from Pau to Col du Tourmalet. When I arrived, the riders were nearing the summit of the Col du Soulor, but still had 58 kilometres to go. The weather looked lousy. The riders were putting on jackets as they crossed the col. I treated myself to a bistec and greasy bread, but then thought I should get a move on and head over the hill to Molló.

A young Czech hiker who had just arrived from Molló warned me that the route would be tricky to follow in the mist. I liked the sound of a challenge so set off from Setcases, probably around 4.30pm.

As promised the route was extremely tricky to follow in the mist and rain, and I repeatedly lost the trail and had a few stressful encounters with cattle. But eventually the rain and mist cleared just as I was dropping into Molló at 8pm. My plan had been to stop here, but there were no obvious lodgings or decent looking bar/restaurants, so I just kept walking on autopilot.

I crossed the Riu Ritort and climbed over the Coll de la Boixera, now in grassy farmland. I was now descending towards Beget but it was almost completely dark. I dug out my headtorch and was thinking I really need to stop soon.

Passing the farmstead of Can Planas barking dogs alerted the owner to my presence, and the woman offered some flat grass beside the house for me to camp on. I was aware that the weather was looking pretty unsettled so asked about staying in the house, which offers accommodation. Unfortunately the woman refused to offer me any shelter since she didn't have a bed made up, and she didn't know I was coming.

I thought these were pretty lame excuses, and no sooner had I got the tent up than the most almighty electric storm broke out. My first thought was "thank god I'm not hiking down the trail to Beget in the dark, or I'd be soaked in seconds", but my second and longer-lasting thought was "how can that woman possibly leave me lying out here in this torrential rain when there is a perfectly good house 2 metres away". In fact the second thought pre-occupied me for the next 7 or 8 hours, since there was no chance of getting any sleep with thunder and lightning all night, and the heaviest rain I have ever experienced.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day 18 - Planoles to Nuria

20km, 1100 metres of ascent
Last night I had started to think that a 22-day finish might be on the cards, however today didn't go quite as planned. In fact things went a bit wrong right from the start.

Since my watch had packed up on Day 1, my policy for getting up in the morning was to wait until the first signs of light percolated through the walls of the tent, and then I was start stuffing everything away.

So this morning I woke up, saw light filtering in from outside, thought I'd make a nice early start, packed everything away, crawled out of the tent, and realised it was still the middle of the night. What an idiot. The light was coming from one of the campsite nightlights.

Of course a few hours later when it was really morning, I didn't feel like getting up!

My breakfast consisted of a handful of broken biscuits and some water before starting up the 700m climb to Collet de les Barraques. I could tell something was wrong straight away. It was like having hollow legs. I tried to ignore the problem and use mind over matter to kept some rhythm going, but I was barely moving at all.

My stomach was not happy, and when I reached the col my trip to the toilet confirmed what the problem was. I had some sort of horrible food poisoning, just like being in Nepal, when you get very little warning of your next toilet stop!

The next few hours were a bit of a blur of repeatedly losing the trail and repeated bouts of diarrhoea. At one point I suddenly woke up and realised I had fallen asleep lying next to the trail. I thought this is not a good sign, and must try to keep moving.

When I finally reached the funny purpose-built mountain resort of Nuria, I made a beeline for the first patch of grass, crumpled to the ground, and just lay there.

I had no idea what to do next, but eventually summoned the energy to locate the camping area, pitch my tent and crawl inside and fall asleep, despite it being the middle of the afternoon. Later I woke up feeling cold and achey. I had nothing to eat, but still felt awful so went to the hotel in search of inspiration.

I located the hotel doctor and had a consultation. The doctor gave me a re-hydration drink plus paracetamol and loperamide hydrochloride capsules, and I was told to go to bed without any food, so I retrieved my tent and checked into the hotel and treated myself to a wonderful night's sleep in total comfort.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 17 - Malniu to Planoles

41km, 1100 metres of ascent
This was one of the more unpleasant starts to the day. All my kit was sopping wet. The air outside was thick with mosquitoes. And the tent was sodden with condensation.

I got 100% ready inside the tent, with everything packed and shoes on, à la jumping off the boat in the Island Peaks Race, then leapt out and packed the tent as fast as humanly possible, whilst being chewed to bits by mosquitoes.

My wildcamp was above 2,000 metres, so it was quite cold first thing, and the ground was wet with early morning dew. The first few kilometres crossed open meadows on indistinct trails past grazing horses. I had to repeatedly double and triple check I was going the right way.

Lower down eventually the trail became more obvious and I dropped into the village of Guils de Cerdanya. One of many strange-looking, purpose-built clusters of holiday homes, with nobody around and no facilities.

I continued down the road past Saneja through cultivated farmland with colourful fields of crops and poppies. When I reached the campground just past Saneja I stopped for about 20 minutes to spread out all my kit on the ground to dry it out in the sun, before continuing to Puigcerda.

It wasn't obvious from a distance, but the town of Puigcerda is perched on a steep hill which forms a natural fortress. It was a steep slog to get up into the town centre, and not easy to find a supermercado, and I was getting a bit panicky that there was still a huge stage to do in the afternoon and it was almost mid-day.

I took a compass bearing to find my way out of the confusing town of Puigcerda and then found the continuation of the GR11 in the direction of Age, another strange holiday-home village. The weather was looking a little unsettled as I climbed to Coll Marcer. I stopped for a while to speak with an American guy near Coll de la Creu de Meians before promptly missing the trail and ending up trashing cross country for a while to re-gain the pista.

The final section past Dorria to Camping Can Fosses looks like nothing on the map, but turned out to be heavily overgrown with brambles and thorn bushes, making for slow progress and much cursing.

It was a major relief to arrive at Camping Can Fosses and relax with ice cream, cold drinks and a beer or two. Of course there was no proper food to eat, but I hadn't really expected any.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 16 - Encamp to Malniu

32km, 2200 metres of ascent
After the previous 2 gruelling days to get to Encamp, I was hoping for something slightly less challenging today.

We had a nice slow start to the day with cereal and coffee on the campsite, and then I needed to wait until 9am before the supermarket in town opened before we could head up the hill. Jason joined me for the first 50 minutes up to the big lake, Estany d'Engolasters, before heading back to his family to begin the drive across France.

The trail for the next few hours was nice and easy all the way to Cabana dels Esparvers, lulling me into a false sense of security.

I took a break beside the Riu d'Engait before starting the 600m climb to Portella d'Engorgs 2680m. As I gained height, the sky turned dark grey and rumbling thunder began echoing between the peaks. The spits and spots of rain suddenly began a full-on downpour, which suddenly turned into battering hail. I was still climbing towards the col getting pelted by the mix of rain and hail, with no options for shelter or escape. I wasn't enjoying getting quite so wet and cold, and was surprised when I reached the col that a vertical cornice of snow was barring any obvious descent on the other side. I could have done without this added complication, but I managed to find a point of weakness in the cornice where I could scramble down some steep rocks with water and hail gushing down the hillside.

The hills suddenly take on a different complexion in this weather. I descended to Refugi Engorgs, and discovered it was a filthy bothy, so no use for getting any shelter, but by now the rain had stopped so I carried on as far as the Refugi de Malniu, albeit with soggy wet shoes.

I didn't like the look of the Malniu area at all. It was at a road head with lots of dodgy looking people with nasty looking dogs, so I just kept walking until I was back in the forest and well away from the road.

I was feeling exhausted from the hammering from the afternoon storm, so just found the first suitable bit of flat ground and got eaten alive by mosquitoes as I tried to get the tent up.

This was without doubt one of the most unpleasant nights of the trip, being stuck in the tent with sopping wet gear, and the air outside thick with mosquitoes.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Day 15 - Pla de Boet to Encamp

35km, 2500 metres of ascent
My high camp at Pla de Boet 1850m was by far the coldest start of the trip, and it took a while to warm up after my usual 6.30am start.

Today was arguably the toughest day of the trip, with some incredibly steep climbs and descents, and scorching temperatures in the middle of the day.

The initial section of trail was thoroughly wild and alpine, leading up to Estany de Baiau which I reached just as sunlight was breaking over the ridges. I prematurely stripped down to shorts and T-shirt thinking I would work up a sweat on the climb to Port de Baiau 2757m, but in fact the climb was absolutely freezing since I was back in the shade and a screaming wind was blowing up to the col. The climb to the pass was across a mix of awkward boulders and old hard snow patches, before hitting steep-angled almost unclimbable fine scree.

My body was aching with cold as I popped out onto the Port de Baiau, so I relieved to emerge into bright morning sunshine with a nice easy-angled descent towards the semi-frozen lake of Estany Negre.

Suddenly I was amongst day-hikers out for their Sunday stroll, and the surrounding didn't seem quite so wild any more. The Andorrans certainly appear to take their hiking more seriously than the Spanish.

Spurred on by some human contact, I felt more energised for the descent down past Coma Pedrosa to Arinsal. This was my first experience of Andorra, and it is quite clear that they cater for international visitors in precisely the way that Spain doesn't. For example they had the novel idea of having a supermarket open in the middle of the day, which was ideal for my lunchstop.

After Arinsal you are faced with a surprisingly tough climb up and over the Coll de les Cases 1965m, where the trail hardly bothers with zig-zags so you are on a brutally steep gradient.

I was starting to feel a bit jaded when I reached Arans, and completely underestimated the remaining effort to reach Encamp. I thought my estimate of 8pm was perfectly achievable, but after La Cortinada the trail takes on a roller-coaster profile to drop you back on a pista just above Ordino, which you could have reached in half the time if you'd just walked down the road past Sornas.

So I was a bit wasted when I started up the final 600m of ascent to Coll d'Ordino, and I had pain in my heels and my left calf kept cramping up, so I was having to ascend sideways like a crab to take the strain off my calves and heels.

It took me a ludicrous amount of time to reach Coll d'Ordino 1970m, and all the while I was hoping Jason would appear for a bit of morale support. When I finally reached the col, I slumped on the ground for a few minutes, texting Jason to discover that he failed to find the GR11 and was waiting on the campground at Encamp.

Once again, the descent to Encamp was far steeper, rougher and more awkward than I could possibly have imagined, so it was a major relief when I shuffled onto Camping Internacional at Encamp to be greeted by Jason, Daisy and the 3 boys, shortly after 9pm.

The rest of the evening was complete luxury, slobbing around drinking beers and chatting.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 14 - Estaon to Pla de Boet

38km, 2500 metres of ascent
Whilst at Espot yesterday, I received a text from Jason Williamson of Cosmics saying he would be at Encamp in Andorra in 2 days time. This meant I would need to complete 5 stages in 2 days from Estaon to Encamp, which would be a challenge.

After Estaon the character of the GR11 changes to cultivated farmland, making for easy and deserted walking over the Coll de Jou (1830m) to the village of Lleret. At this point I decided it would be a waste of time to head to Tavascan, so instead cut straight down the hillside to Lladorre and hiked up the road to Boldis Sobira where I re-joined the GR11 just after 1pm.

I was then hiking past Roc de Bataller towards Coll de Tudela when something strange happened. I actually starting falling asleep whilst walking. For perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, I was weaving up the path with my head nodding and more asleep than awake and virtually falling off the edge of the trail. Then suddenly I woke up again, and I felt like I'd just had a deep sleep.

Lots of zig-zags through forest lead down to Areu, where thankfully there was a shop for provisions. I felt pretty jaded, but I knew I needed to keep going in order to get to Andorra tomorrow night, so at 6pm I set off for the final 3+ hours of the day.

The first few kilometres into the Vall Ferrera are on unpleasant dusty pista with 4x4 vehicles hammering past, but eventually the GR11 picks up a muddy undulating forestry trail away from the vehicle track.

I was conscious of time ticking away and impending darkness as I shuffled along through the forest, hoping to get to some decent camping before nightfall. Luckily I timed it just right and popped out at the Pla de Boet meadows, with perfect expanses of flat grass, just after 9pm. And after the usual savaging by mosquitoes, I was quickly in my tent.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 13 - Estany de Sant Maurici to Estaon

32 km, 1500 metres of ascent
In my excitement at seeing Muffy & Dave today, and having gone through the halfway point yesterday, I was up and away shortly after 6am.

Camping in a mosquito-infested forest was also an incentive to get a blummin move on, and the 12km hike down to Espot only took me a couple of hours, so I was in the village centre just after 8am. Needless to say, Muffy & Dave were nowhere to be seen, so I took full advantage of the fantastic pâtisserie that serves proper coffee and pain au chocolat.

Eventually Muffy & Dave appeared, and after a much-needed shower in their apartment, and ditching some of my disgusting socks, and off-loading my pan and gas burner and some clothes I'd never used we went back to the pâtisserie for more coffees and frenetic chat.

I was in danger of slumping into total inactivity today, so it was an effort to get away from Espot shortly before 11am. Muffy & Dave accompanied me along trails, well known to them, as far as Jou. At the point the GR11 plummets down the hillside to La Guingueta d'Aneu, so Dave headed back for the car. Muffy stayed with me as far as the next village for leisurely cold drinks, and then awaited a lift from Dave, whilst I slogged up the 1300m climb on the other side of the valley in the mid-day heat.

The climb to Coll de Calvo 2207m dragged on a bit, and was a bit confusing, but eventually I was on the descent and dropped into the back of Estaon, a tiny village consisting of converted farm buildings and housing about 8 people.

The well-appointed Refugi d'Estaon was open but deserted. In fact the entire village seemed to be deserted. I waited and waited, and then spotted a buzzer by the door. No sooner had I pressed it than the guardian appeared as if by magic.

So I had the Refugi to myself for the evening, with my own personal table service and meal provided, which felt strangely self-indulgent after the grim nights in the forest with the mosquitoes.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day 12 - Barranco d'Angliós to Estany de Sant Maurici (almost)

35km, 2100 metres of ascent
Like Day 2, today started and finished with a wild camp mid-way through a stage.

I felt tired setting off at 6.30am after yesterday's big day. The ground was wet and slippery, and it took longer than I expected to drop down to the lake and road crossing at Embalse de Moralets. From here there was an easy but muddy trail leading towards Hospital de Vielha where I imagined I would get a nice coffee to cheer me up and get me going.

As I got closer to the Hospital de Vielha Refugio there was the most bizarre pair of signs. The first sign pointed steeply uphill with "Vielha Refugio 10 min". Then after climbing for 5 or 6 minutes, there was another sign pointing steeply back downhill saying "Vielha Refugio 5 min", and I realised that the refugio was behind the first sign. There was no way I was going to hike back downhill, so the coffee would need to wait.

At this point I needed a sit down to get over the disappointment, and whilst texting Muffy a progress report, 2 determined looking day-hikers went stomping past. This was just what I needed and they provided a useful focus on the otherwise gruelling climb to Port de Rius 2355m, since after quickly overtaking them, they made every effort to catch me on the climb.

As you pop over the Port de Rius the character of the landscape changes in an instant. Suddenly you are in a world of sparkling lakes and a myriad of pointy summits. This is why people come to Espot to explore this wonderland, snappily titled the Parque Nacional de Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici.

So the rest of the day was through mind-bogglingly scenic landscape, albeit pretty heavy-going underfoot with rough trails. I stopped for some brief lunch at Refugio de Restanca, half-thinking I would only get as far as Colomers. But when I reached the Colomers lake it wasn't quite 6pm, so I decided to just carry on and see how far I could get. I knew I wouldn't reach Espot that evening, but I thought I might as well get over the Port de Ratera d'Espot 2534m and get within striking range of Espot for tomorrow morning.

The trail to the Ratera Col passes Lac Long and Lac Obago, and a few ibex were the only creatures I saw before dropping down into the shadows and fading light towards Estany de Ratera. I thought I might just reach the big lake, Estany de Sant Maurici, but got timed out by imminent darkness a kilometre or so short, so I just climbed off the pista into the forest to find the first bit of flat ground, and quickly pitched the tent whilst getting savaged by mosquitoes.

I tried to text Muffy & Dave my whereabouts, but there was no signal, so I just hoped I would see them the following morning.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day 11 - Biadós to Barranco d'Angliós

40km, 2500 metres of ascent
Today was Day 1 of a major attempt to cover the 87km to Espot in 2 days, in order to see Muffy & Dave on the Thursday evening before they headed off home. So basically I was trying to cover 6 guidebook stages in 2 days.

I had no idea whether this was feasible, and I didn't want to get stressed about it, so I had a slow leisurely breakfast at the Refugio de Biadós with 3 German guys, before getting my act together and setting off around 7.30am.

Luckily the first stage today was very easy going on good surface and well-graded trails leading up to the highpoint of the morning at Puerto d'Estós 2592m. I reached the Refugio d'Estós sooner than I was expecting and just kept going until the bridge over the Rio Estós where I took a short break.

I then sauntered on down the valley to the Aneto Campsite little realising the seriousness of the situation, and how narrowly I was about to avoid a major problem. I wandered onto the campground without any sense of urgency but then realised looking at my camera that it was 1:02pm, and the Supermercado shopkeeper was just turning the key for siesta time.

I had a moment of panic, but thankfully she re-opened the door and allowed me in to make my selections. Otherwise I would have had nothing to eat for the next 2 days!

Crisis averted, I sat and stuffed myself at the campsite picnic benches before trundling off to start the daunting 1500m climb to Collado de Ballibierna in the baking heat.

The initial section of this ascent to Puen de Corones is pretty uninteresting up a rough pista that has what must be a terrifying and uncomfortable bus service for lazy hikers.

Thankfully beyond Puen de Corones things become a whole lot wilder and more scenic as you climb towards the magnificent Ibons (Lakes) de Ballibierna. At this point I started imagining I was in the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail in bear country. It had the same type of rough hewn granitic grandeur, with Pic Aneto 3404m towering above.

As I passed the lakes it was around 6:30pm and I still had to climb up to the Ballibierna Pass at 2710m, so I was conscious of time marching on, and my sense of isolation in this wild environment. It was great relief to reach the col at 7:15pm and begin the descent towards the cluster of lakes in the direction of Refugio d'Angliós.

My original plan for today had been to get to Hospital de Vielha, or at least the Vall de Barrabés, but that was not possible now. The revised plan was to shift as fast as possible in the fading light and to get below the Refugio d'Angliós before pitching the tent.

I dropped around 200 metres below the Refugio on steep ground before I spotted a small patch of flat grass perfect for the tent. At 9.30pm I pitched the tent, getting savaged by mosquitoes the moment I stopped, and by the time I dived into the tent it was pitch dark.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Day 10 - Refugio de Pineta to Refugio de Biadós

36km, 1800 metres of ascent
I had my first cups of coffee for several days at the Pineta Refugio, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. I was feeling a bit jaded after last night's super-steep 1200 metre descent and glacial river wade, so decided on a slightly easier morning by hiking down the valley alongside the river, instead of climbing 800 metres up the real GR11. It was a slight cheat, but I needed to make up a bit of time if I was to stand any chance of reaching Espot in 3 days time to meet Muffy and Dave.

The trail down the Balle Berde was quiet, tranquil and deserted, apart for a few teenage summer camps in the woods. It didn't take too long to arrive at Bielsa, where I took a break and asked some advice at the information centre. They advised walking straight up the main road to Parzan to re-join the GR11.

After Parzan it was getting pretty warm for the long climb on pista up to the Ordizeto hydro-electric station and then the Collato Chistau 2326m. Thankfully the descent on the far side was pretty straightforward, although the final section through to Refugio de Biadós dragged on a bit.

I arrived fairly early to a completely mobbed looking refugio, but thankfully they had a bed and a warm shower. I spent the evening meal dining in good company with a French couple doing the GR11 in reverse (starting at the Mediterranean), and a Belgian guy on his own attempting the HRP (Haute Route Pyrenean).

Photos from Day 10

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 9 - Torla to Refugio de Pineta

26km, 2100 metres of ascent
After staying up late last night to watch the World Cup Final, I didn't wake up until about 8.30am, so this was probably my latest start of the entire trip. During the night it had been seriously wet and windy, but thankfully the weather settled down.

Dave and Alan set off a good 20 minutes before I was ready, but I caught them up before we reached the bridge across the Rio Arazas leading into the mighty Ordesa Canyon. The hike up to the Goriz Hut is very easy on a well-graded path, and gives fantastic views back down the canyon as you gain height.

Once I reached the hut, I just carried straight on up to the rather wild and desolate Collato Arrablo. From here the descent becomes increasingly sensational as you drop down to Fuen Blanca, where you'll find the most spectacular collection of waterfalls. This was pretty much the most scenic place I've ever seen.

After crossing the bridge at Fuen Blanca there is around 650m of ascent to gain the Collata Añisclo which looks like a mere stones throw from the Pineta campground 1200 metres below. But looks can be deceiving, and the descent turned out to be of epic steepness and difficulty with awkward scrambling down steep rocks and grovelling through endless trees to eventually pop out at the valley floor.

I spotted a sign marked "Refugio de Pineta, 5 minutes" and some yellow marks heading off to wooded swampland. I removed my shoes and started wading barefoot along the vague path in fading light. Bit by bit the flooding got worse and wood got thicker until I arrived at the main river of fast flowing glacial snow melt. With no footbridge, I had no idea how I could safely cross. I hunted up and down for a crossing until I spotted a black plastic waterpipe spanning the river and then used this as a handrail to avoid being swept away as I waded across in almost waist deep fast flowing icy cold water. It was quite an adrenaline rush to be across, and 5 minutes later I did stumble across the superb Refugio de Pineta at around 10pm in complete darkness. And to my complete amazement, at 10:03pm I had a plate of chicken and chips plus glass of cold beer in front of me. A fine end to the day!

Photos from Day 9

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day 8 - Baños de Panticosa to Torla

28km, 1000 metres of ascent
My shortest day so far, but still pretty tough on account of the weather and the rough underfoot conditions.

I got away from my uncomfortable mosquito-infested wild camp as early as possible and hiked up the steep zig-zags to the Ibon dero Brazato (shown in the header of this blog). More steep rough ground and snow patches lead to the Cuello de Brazato at 2550m.

The weather wasn't looking too settled, and it was feeling quite cold, so I tried to get down as quickly as possible, using various snow patches to get down past the lakes. Once down in the main Ara valley, there was of course no footbridge, so I had a freezing wade across.

Just before Bujaruelo, it started really pouring down and things became pretty miserable for the remainder of the hike down to Torla. My feet were incredibly painful with blisters, combined with the discomfort of sopping wet socks and shoes.

It was with some relief that I arrived at San Anton Camping just above Torla, and in time to raid the Supermercado just before it shut for the evening. I met the British guys Dave and Alan again who I'd met 2 days ago at the Anayet Lakes, when I warned them about the Cuello de Tebarrai, so they had completely missed out the hike up to Respomuso.

I really needed this relaxing evening at a proper campsite after the past couple of days, and enjoyed watching the World Cup Final between Holland and Spain. The Spanish seemed quite pleased when Andres Iniesta scored in the 117th minute to prevent the match from going to penalties.

Photos from Day 8

Route map for Day 8
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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day 7 - Respomuso to Baños de Panticosa

35km, 1300 metres of ascent
An awful long way for a shortcut.

Today I tried and failed to get over the Cuello de Tebarrai. I climbed steep hard snow as far as the bergschrund a few metres below the col, but then got freaked out by the prospect of falling or not being able to reverse the situation if I climbed any higher. So I decided to down climb and hike around the mountain, which basically cost me half a day, but I wasn't prepared to take any more chances on the snow when I was on my own, and messing around in running shoes with no ice axe.

I descended all the way to Sallent de Gallego before hiking along past the Lanuza Lake and making my way to Panticosa. From there a steep uphill road leads to Baños de Panticosa in 8km. I had to wild camp just above the village since there were no places at the Refugio Casa de Piedra.

Photos from Day 7

Route map for Day 7

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 6 - Candanchu to Respomuso

34km, 1800 metres of ascent
Today was a slightly easier day where I wandered through Canal Roya valley and past the Anayet lakes to descend to the Formigal ski area. I did however meet 4 Spanish guys who warned me that I would experience problems tomorrow crossing the Cuello de Tebarrai without ice axe and crampons, and they advised me to call in at Formigal to check conditions over the pass. I duly stopped at the Tourist Information in Formigal where they phoned the Refugio, and were told that axe and crampons were essential.

I wasn't sure what to do, so reserved a place at the Refugio de Respomuso and decided to head up to check out the Cuello de Tebarrai at first hand. So that afternoon I walked past the Sarra reservoir and up the increasingly dramatic valley to the Respomuso reservoir and refugio.

I got swarmed and attacked by mosquitoes as soon as I arrived at the hut, so dived straight inside and had a comfortable night and a good evening meal.

Photos from Day 6

Route map for Day 6

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 5 - Zuriza to Candanchu

35km, 1725 metres of ascent
I'm not sure why, but I found this stage incredibly tough. It was probably a combination of painful feet, inadequate nutrition and scorching heat through the middle of the day.

The early morning climb out of the valley from Zuriza was stunning, with a Dolomites style background provided by the jaggy Sierra d'Alano. And once over the Cuello Petraficha waves upon waves of jaggy mountains were stretching off into the distance.

The descent down to La Mina wasn't too difficult, and I spent half an hour at the river dossing around and having some lunch.

The afternoon however took on a different complexion. It looked all fairly innocuous on the map, but the initial long drag up the pista was in the full mid-day sun, then the hike across the Aguas Tuertas was riddled with ditches and boggy bits that made it quite slow, then the climb up and over past the Ibon d'Estanes was quite rocky and complex, and finally the descent to Candanchu was a bit of a nightmare. To start off with, the French had painted decoy markers in white/red/white just to confuse you and lure you off the GR11, and then when you finally found the GR you realised it went into a massive steep-sided re-entrant with a couple of very tricky stream crossings with no footbridges.

It was quite a relief to come over the brow of the hill and drop down into the Candanchu ski area. Luckily I found the Refugio Valle del Aragon, which turned out to be an excellent place to stay.

More photos from Day 5

Route map for Day 5
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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Day 4 - Ochagavia to Zuriza

35km, 2010 metres of ascent
I was up early on a quiet deserted campsite. I took a shower and washed some clothes and socks, and left the campground at 8am. Half an hour later I was still trying to find my way out of Ochagavia, which helpfully has no signs for the GR11 or any paint marks. I had tried every avenue I could think of, and eventually consulted the Cicerone guidebook which gave a useful description, and lo and behold once I'd walked up the pista leaving to the north-east of the village for about half a mile I saw the first red and white marker of the day.

The first 20km were entirely on forestry pistas, which was a bit mind-numbing, but the final descent jumped back into the forest onto steep rough switchbacks dropping eventually onto the main road below Isaba. The short walk up into the town centre was frighteningly hot, so I had a short break in the shade to re-group with the usual bread, cheese, water and biscuits. I then hunted around the village for ice cream or cold drinks, but there was absolutely nothing open, not even a bar.

For the afternoon shift it was back into the heat for more foresty pista leading into steeper grander mountain landscape. I was feeling pretty jaded when I reached the Barranco Bellabarze where hundreds of schoolkids were camping, and the climb up to the Collada d'Argubiela knocked the stuffing out of me. I was just craving a lie down, but when I reached the col I realised it was a road crossing and the signs said only 1 kilometre to Zuriza, so I thought there was no point in stopping and stumbled down a rough short cutting path to hit the perimeter of the campground, which I then walked almost the whole way around trying to find the entrance.

It was not especially late, and I could have pushed on a bit further along the trail, but I was feeling sufficiently wrecked, and the campsite looked great that it seemed pretty obvious to stay put and make the most of the supermercado.

I also managed to catch the World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany, which ended 1-0 to Spain off a Carlos Puyol header from a corner in the 73rd minute.

More photos from Day 4

Route map for Day 4
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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 3 - Casa Pablo to Ochagavia

48km, 1600 metres of ascent
Day 3 of the trip dawned cold and driech with low hill fog, but thankfully the strong winds and heavy rain during the night had abated. Four tent-less Basque hikers looked very much the worse for wear after spending the night sheltering under a tree! I overtook the 4 Basque walkers on the first climb, but then became confused in the mist when the red and white markers didn't match the route on my map. I found a good trail contouring eastwards and followed this, but didn't see any marks and luckily a hiker coming back the way confirmed that we were off route thereby allowing us to backtrack and figuring that we should be heading north to the Collado de los Puentes and descending to the Barranco Suringoa on a completely re-routed section of GR11 to Burguete.
At Burguete the 6 of us went to a bar for some coffee and breakfast, and hung out some of our wet kit to dry.
The guy on his own suddenly announced he was leaving, so I volunteered to join him for the next section. Unbeknown to me, the next 2 sections were totally different to my maps, so it was just a question of following the markers and hoping for the best.
A few hours later we arrived at Obara, after a very steep overgrown descent, but there was nothing open, so we just pressed on down the valley and up the other side to Hiriberri. By this stage I was desperate for something to eat and drink, so it was pretty disappointing to enter the village and find not a single shop or bar. However after a bit of badgering a local woman, we discovered that one of the buildings was in fact a bar, but they preferred not to advertise the fact. So I few minutes later we were having ice cream, beer, a huge salad, and bacon sandwiches.
It was now around 4.30pm and scorching hot outside, but I decided to press on anyhow, with the half-baked notion of reaching Ochagavia that evening. I wasn't too concerned if I didn't make it, since I could camp and continue the next morning.
I bade farewell and headed out into the heat for a 500m climb up onto a long ridge running east where it intersected with the old GR11 at Paso de las Alforcas. I watched the sun setting before I arrived at the final section dropping through dense woodland. To avoid getting the headtorch out, I raced down this as fast as I could and popped out at Ochagavia just as the church bells were striking 10pm.
I dropped down into the town square, but the bars out in Spain are still full of smokers, so there were was no chance to get any food or drink, and instead I walked down to the camping ground, pitched my tent and painfully rolled into my sleeping bag.

More photos from Day 3

Route map for Day 3
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Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 2 - Caseria Gorra to Casa Pablo

42km, 1630 metres of ascent
Day 2 dawned cool and hazy and followed easy rolling ridges, similar to the Long Mynd hills in Shropshire. I don't remember seeing any people until arriving in the next town of Elizondo where I wasted a good half hour hunting for the Supermercado, and being sent all sorts of wild goose chases, when a simple "walk down the high street and it's on the left" would have done. Slightly freaked by the supermarket hunting induced panic, I guzzled down as much ice cream, chocolate and coke as I could manage to get a massive sugar and caffeine rush to get me up the next hill.  By this time it was early afternoon and getting quite scorchio, and I was conscious of the need to press on. There were long sections of pista that lead to the Puerto de Urkiaga road crossing, which looked a particularly grim and unappealing place to stop and camp, so I just pressed on up and over the next hill - the Collada Adatun - that had a shady wooded descent on the other side.
The descent dragged on a bit, with the weather turning more cloudy, cold and windy. It was disappointing to reach the Refugio Sorogain (aka Casa Pablo) to discover it was little more than a building site. But there was good flat grass immediately opposite, so I pitched the tent as fast as possible in the increasing winds and slumped inside for a night that turned out pretty vile, wet and windy.
More photos from Day 2

Route map for Day 2
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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 1 - Cabo Higuer to Caserio Gorra

42km, 1380 metres of ascent
I left a silent lifeless campground at Cabo Higuer around 7.30am, and made my first steps of the 500 mile journey. I re-traced my steps and yesterday's bus ride back to Irun before launching up into the hills on a concrete track. Easy hiking lead to the San Anton Reservoir where I stopped for lunch outside the bar (closed), then headed up and over the Collado de Telleria where I bumped into a Belgian hiker heading in the opposite direction who had virtually finished his trip.
I soon passed through the small town of Bera de Bidasoa where I stopped for refreshments, but then pressed on another 10 or 11km to find a suitable camping spot. I was feeling a bit weary, and concerned at my lack of food when I reached a road crossing at the Puerto de Lizarrieta when I was surprised and delighted to find a bar/restaurant that was open.  A further 2km along the trail I found an excellent camping spot with picnic benches and water point, and spent the evening chatting with a fellow GR11 hiker from Catalunya who gave a few hints and tips.
More photos from Day 1

Route map for Day 1
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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Getting there

On Saturday 3rd July, I flew from Stansted to Biarritz, then jumped on a bus to St Jean de Luz where I caught another bus to Hendaye. I then wandered across the Pont Saint Jacques to enter Spain at Irun. From Hondarribia harbour it was a fairly short hike up the hill to reach the Faro de Cabo Higuer lighthouse, with handy campsite right next door. I didn't feel that hungry when I arrived, so just had an evening meal of bread, cheese and biscuits, which funnily enough turned out to be my staple diet for the entire trip. I spent the evening looking out at the Atlantic and thinking about the task ahead.

More photos of getting to the start of the GR11