Walking the Pyrenees – the summer I summoned the courage to do the best thing ever

Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood
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Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood

Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood

The first day of our Pyrenean crossing, Bear confessed later, he thought he just wasn’t going to be able to do it. We only walked for a few hours and, as I remember, stopped for rather an extended lunch in one of those local restaurants the French do so well, but it was hot, very humid and very much uphill. It was also true that we hadn’t had the best night’s sleep, given that were under a bridge in Hendaye on the French coast – four of us in a row in our sleeping bags, with rain washing in and centuries’ stench of urine around us – after arriving too late to find the campground. Most of all, however, he knew we had an entire mountain range before us.

We laughed when he admitted that initial fear, because Bear was by far the youngest of us – only 22, if I am doing my sums correctly. It was 1989. Pam and I were both 10 years older, Matthew a bit younger than us. We had all fetched up in the same South London squat and spent most weekends hiking somewhere or other in Britain, hitching to the start of a long-distance path with our tents and our little gas burners, packets of pasta and an emergency Twix, walking through rain and shine and hitching back with the Sunday night trucks.  None of this could hold a candle to six weeks in the Pyrenees, however.

I don’t know why we chose the Pyrenees. Perhaps it was the comprehensive sweep of a mountain range that ran from one sea to another: the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. There were some unmarked paths on the high route that were 2000 metres above sea level. Only Pam – a New Zealander whose parents were both mountaineers – had walked at such altitudes. There was the sense that we had to do this now, while we had the strength and endurance to carry tents rather than rely on mountain refuges. I resigned from my job to do it.

At my insistence, we weren’t going to do anything involving crampons and ice-axes; this meant there were only six weeks in summer we could do the walk with a near-certainty we wouldn’t have to cross frozen ground.  We bought maps and new gear. I love gear: show me a lightweight torch or some new kind of sleeping mat and I’m there. Other than that, we didn’t plan very much.  That’s the great thing about walking: whether you plan or not, it’s basically just one foot in front of the other until you stop.

Two paths follow the range on the French side of the border – the Haute Route Pyreneenne and the GR10; a third path, the GR11, runs the length of the Spanish side. The GR10 is waymarked and a little lower although, as we discovered, they coincide much of the time.   The guide to the HRP was written by Georges Veron, clearly a titan among men who had actually designed the route himself in the ’70s and was known to us as Hercules; over the whole trip there was only one day we managed to walk the day’s stage in the time he said it would take.

Walking in high places shifts your mind somehow. Many memories of specific places have since faded, but I remember the eagles flying below us as we followed a long ridge, the mountain falling away steeply on either side; I remember how the plants would change abruptly every couple of hours as we descended a mountainside, exactly the way one belt of vegetation gives way to another in the illustrations in geography textbooks; I remember the fierce cold the night we camped in the snow next to the Vignemale glacier.

Above the treeline, you could see across mountain crags and the shadows to the point where the sky and snow blurred into each other. Occasionally you would see a group of chamois goats picking their way over scree that would have crumbled under a human foot. It was as if you had left the world.

Of course it was hard, too. On the second day, when we were still really only in the Basque foothills, I recall curling up in the only bit of shade on the sun-beaten slope: the small shadow cast by a single rock.

A passing middle-aged French woman wishing me “Bon courage!”: to this day, I tell myself those words whenever I feel myself flagging.

I was glad to spend the next day in a soft mist of rain; less glad when it poured relentlessly the day after that. We were all drenched by the time we reached Col de Roncevaux, where Roland’s defeat by the Saracens is marked by an outdoor chapel used by Santiago di Compostela pilgrims.

The chapel was open to the elements, but it had a roof. The altar made a good cooking table; surely any decent God wouldn’t begrudge us that. Matthew, the lapsed Catholic, did draw the line when Pam hung her wet underwear from the crucifix on the wall.

Five weeks later, more or less, we were descending through the extraordinary horseshoe of rock that is the Cirque de Gavarnie towards Lourdes, where we would wander the trashy religious souvenir shops and marvel at the knots of nuns and priests whooping it up outside the cheap hotels.

But all the villages were somehow extraordinary; on the days we didn’t walk – one in three or four, depending where the path led – we could spend hours in outdoor cafes doing no more than savouring the fact we weren’t wearing hiking boots.

In a town called Cauteret, I was so dazed by modernity that i walked straight into a car – fortunately, it was moving at about five kilometres an hour – because three straight days in the wild had made me forget how to cross a French road.

Some slightly larger towns had beautiful swimming pools constructed so that you couldn’t see any other buildings from the water, only the forested mountainsides from where we had recently descended like wolves; we would float about, trying to pick out the next part of the path. At each of these stops, we knew we were stronger. It was in Cauteret that Bear proposed we double back by a different route – the mountains are threaded with paths, not just the two main ones – to a restaurant we had all fancied a few days ago on Lac d’Estaing, a notable beauty spot accessible by car. And so we did: up and down thousands of metres to get a meal of duck with cepes. After that dinner, what did we do? Went for a walk, of course, around the lake. The flat tourists’ path felt so easy after the mountains, that we might have been floating.

It’s curious now to look at the blogs and walking holiday guides online that cover the paths we walked 25 years ago. Anyone of normal fitness could walk the GR10, says one holiday company encouragingly. The GR10 is supposed to take something like 54 days of walking, while the Haute Route is divided into 46 day stages. A keen blogger writes about doing it in 23 days: that means 35 kilometres with vast ascents and descents every day without a break. Hardly anyone could manage that or, indeed, would want to. Even “normal fitness” is too vague to mean much. Fit for what? Climbing mountains day after day is not part of many people’s normal life.

We were all better than normally fit when we left Hendaye, thanks to long hikes with packs every weekend. Pam ran most days; I did aerobics. Even so, what with our rest days and our variants on the prescribed route, we only made it about half way along the range in roughly five weeks.

We were profoundly tired by the time we stopped in Lourdes; we must have been, because we had begun to make bad decisions: we walked when we should have stopped, just because changing direction was too hard.

Even so, we knew we had done something stupendous. And just a few years ago, when Bear and I were remembering the day I was stung by a wasp while I was making dinner and thought I’d been bitten by a snake – a dramatic highlight, in retrospect – he suddenly said: “That trip was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

And it was. The best thing I’ve ever done.

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