We hiked the GR10 in June 2016.
I don’t like climbing mountains. I think of it as macho: the egoic human wanting to conquer the peak. Don’t get me wrong, I love long distance hiking, and I have done my fair share of hikes. But I don’t feel the need to climb a few thousand metres high.
So I wonder why I am here, why I have chosen to walk the GR10, a trail that spans all of the Pyrénées, from west to east – a whole 900km of up and down. It is, of course, because I want to be immersed in beauty. And surely you don’t get much more beautiful than the Pyrénées.
Of course, I didn’t do any training for the Pyrénées, confident that my body would get fit as I hiked. Big mistake! My muscles scream with pain as I climb; breathing becomes a chore.
Before leaving Brighton I bought the Cicerone GR10 guidebook. “Coping with the changing weather is the most challenging aspect of the walk,” I read. I chose to ignore this statement, and had blind faith that the sun would shine its happy rays on me twenty-four hours a day. “Don’t pack a hat! Don’t pack gloves! You don’t need two jumpers!” I said confidently to my travel companion, Chris, as he packed his rucksack.
And so I arrived in pissing down Hendaye – the start of the trail – with only one jumper, a waterproof jacket that wasn’t actually waterproof (and was promptly replaced with another waterproof jacket that also turned out not to be waterproof), and hiking shoes that, quelle surprise, were not waterproof.
I have lost count of the number of days that I have hiked with sopping wet feet, water squelching with each footstep. The rain lashes down here, and the storms are ferocious. It’s like being in the torrential monsoon rains of Asia, but without the heat to dry you off afterwards. We usually start the day with soaking wet shoes, or if they’ve miraculously dried overnight, the chances are that they’ll be wet within an hour. There are days when it rains solidly and there are occasional hailstones.
Often we find ourselves in the clouds, thick fog engulfing us, reducing visibility to just a few metres. We blindly attempt to find the red and white waymarkers which will guide us in the right direction.
We’re by far the slowest people walking the trail. Maybe it’s because we’re not those super lightweight hikers who carry just a couple of kilograms. And as practical as it may be, I’m never going to wear lightweight hiking tops which ‘wick away’ my sweat, and I’m not going to wear those trousers which unzip and magically become shorts. Or maybe we’re the slowest because we’re carrying a tent, stove and food (whilst others hike from guesthouse to guesthouse and eat at them, too). Maybe it’s because I’m carrying luxuries like juggling balls, a book and a harmonica…Or maybe it’s because I sat on my arse for months before I left England and didn’t do any exercise…
“Although I have at times been frustrated with how slow we are going,” I write in my diary, “I don’t understand why other hikers speed through, almost in competition with themselves to complete the trail in a certain time. Surely it’s better to go more slowly, admire nature, spend an hour eating lunch, take photos…? I also don’t understand why most people are choosing to pay for guesthouses rather than stay in the free cabanes (hikers’ huts) where you can dry off around a fire.”
But for all the hardships, there is, of course, absolute beauty. My feet and muscles stop aching after a week of walking. There are days of glorious sunshine, suncream slathered on skin. We lay in the warm rays and eat our lunch in bliss. The intensity of colours here take your breath away: the bright yellows and purples of the flowers, the deep greens of the mountains and bright greens of the moss and lichen. The even brighter greens of the blueberry bushes that carpet the birch forests. And the dark greys of the rockfaces against the bright blue sky or the even darker greys of the storm clouds. Vultures soar over our heads, lizards scurry over rocks, ancient oak trees watch over hikers. Nights of camping with the distant tinkling of horses’ bells floating through the air.
After 200km of hiking, my mindset starts to change. As city life becomes a distant memory, walking becomes a way of life. No longer separate from nature in a concrete world, I am nature, discovering my true self, immersed in the beauty and ferocity of the mountains….
But then the terrain suddenly changes drastically. Leaving the Basque Country behind, we say goodbye to the oak trees and say hello to pine trees, jagged limestone rocks, and snow. So much snow. In June. June!! We cross mountains by walking on precarious ledges.
Then Chris gets a fever. We stop camping and spend our nights in the mountain cabanes, sharing our spaces with little mice. Chris shivers and sweats in his sleeping bag as I chop up wood, trying to keep fires alight so that he stays warm.
We hike up to Pic d’Ayous. It’s minus degrees, thick snow is falling, my hands hurt from the cold and about a metre of snow blankets the ground. Visibility is low. We tentatively follow the footsteps of others who have ventured here before us. Occasionally one of us falls half a metre as the snow collapses from under our feet. We need crampons. We’re definitely not prepared for this weather.
“I’ve had enough,” I think to myself. “Hiking the Pyrénées was supposed to be a meditative experience, one of healing. This is a nightmare.”
We walk for a few more days through the snow, having to detour because the actual route is too snowy and treacherous to contemplate (in June!!). Arriving in the town of Cauterets, we decide to quit the GR10. We have walked about 350km.
So what’s gone wrong for us? Why are we quitting so soon into our hike? Well, firstly, I’m not mentally prepared for the weather. I had (stupidly) envisioned hiking the GR10 to be therapeutic – a form of medicine to cure me from the stresses of my life. And now that I know that hiking the Pyrénées is actually very difficult, I don’t feel that I currently have the mental strength to continue through the thick snow. And Chris is still sick with a fever. And my gear certainly isn’t equipped for the wet, especially my shoes. But one hiker points out that even his waterproof boots aren’t good enough: “There’s only so much rain and snow your waterproof boots can take before your feet get wet. My feet are soaking.”
Although we have been unlucky with this year’s adverse weather, in hindsight, June 1st is too early to hike the GR10. If we come back, we’ll start it in July.
We quit the trail with some sadness. As I leave the GR10, I look back at the mountain range and wonder if we have made a mistake, knowing that the most beautiful days are still to come. But then the heavens open and the rain lashes down hard. I’m happy to jump into a car and hitchhike away from the Pyrénées. At least for now.