Hello all! Millie here, back for another little round of storytelling, this time about my recent adventures hiking in the Pyrenees. You may remember my blog post about my slightly catastrophic but equally hilarious attempt at doing a training hike back in April with Hetty and my dad – this is what I was training for!
For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of making a journey under one’s own power, be that by sail (technically not one’s own power, but…) or on foot. I never really considered hiking until a year or two ago, and then I stumbled across some YouTube videos about people attempting the massive 1000 mile+ trails in the USA and I knew that I wanted to do the same sort of thing. Obviously the States were a little out of the question, but France also possesses beautiful geography and many excellent hiking trails.
Last year was when I really started planning to make some sort of walk. I decided to do a section of the GR10, an almost 900 km long path that snakes through the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. One of my best friends, Gildas, volunteered to do the walk with me (being an equally if not more curious/idiotic person).
A couple of things were decided for us – first of all, that we would sleep in tents and eat our own food, because going from gîte to gîte is far too expensive for two teenagers, and also that we would start at St Jean Pied de Port, a popular hiking spot, as having recently passed our baccalauréat, our end of high school exams, we were entitled to a free train ticket within the region.
I admit that we definitely weren’t prepared enough, but I know this, so no need to point it out. Neither of our pairs of shoes were broken in enough, we’d never done a multiple-day hiking OR camping trip, neither of us had walked a long distance with a heavy backpack, I bought and (sort of) learnt to used a compass the day before we left, and Gildas’ first steps in his shoes were as we got on the train to leave! With that cringe-inducing warning, please read on…
We set off on a cool sunny morning, promising heat later in the day, from a nearby train station. It took us two trains and then a crowded, overheated bus before we reached our destination, the picturesque little town of St Jean Pied de Port, famous as being many people’s starting point for the Camino de Santiago.
Once there, we popped into a local food shop to stock up on extra food (Gildas hadn’t realised he needed to bring any food and for this reason we would go through mine very quickly) and ask where we could camp for the night. A young man with a Basque accent pointed us vaguely along the path, promising we could camp beside it, and we set off around 5pm. Our first couple of kilometres led through very civilised fields and hamlets, and we ended up straying slightly off course in order to find the shady corner of an empty field to set up our tents in. Already feeling exceedingly accomplished, having walked for all of perhaps 45 minutes, we cooked some couscous in my tiny stove (13 grams! And smaller than a golf ball!) and settled down to watch the sunset. With rolling green hills and the gentle sounds of cowbells from the valley below, it was already one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
The next morning, we set off bright and early after applying copious amounts of sun-cream, knowing that the day would be a scorcher. Looking at our map, we saw that the path led towards where the hills abruptly became mountains, and were only slightly nervous.
For an hour or so we followed tiny farm tracks, up and down small hills, fording several small streams, and having our first encounter with cows (they didn’t bat an eyelid at us). After stopping at a tiny cluster of houses where a gentleman very kindly filled up our water bottles, we started our first real Ascent, promising to be a 1h50 climb to the summit. At first we followed a farm track, already quite tiring, and then the path emerged on top of a hill where ponies, the infamous Pyrenean Pottox (they have a mean kick), where grazing. We spent several minutes trying to find the path before realising that it led straight upwards through bright green ferns.
The next hour was very tiring, and hot, and sweaty, but we also met our first fellow hikers and had fun comparing notes. At the top, we stopped to congratulate ourselves and have a cup of tea, as well as enjoy our first real photo opportunity. It was absolutely gorgeous.
Afterwards, we followed a track for several hours back down into the next valley. This, while not tiring, proved to be slightly treacherous at times, as it was pebbly and you could easily slip. Both of us went flying several times. After that we clutched our hiking poles more tightly. Oh! The perils of hiking on an almost flat path!
Around 1pm, we reached the little village of Estérençuby, where the Nive river wound through the trees along the valley. Here, we found a shady bank on which to put down our bags, and spent a couple of hours eating, washing clothes, swimming and of course NAPPING, avoiding the heat of the day, before setting off for our camp ground for that night.
This proved to be more strenuous than previously expected, as it turned out that the campground was right at the top of the next mountain. However, deciding that we were two hardy and foolish young youths, and also because we couldn’t not sleep, we set off up the mountain, following a tarmac road and avoiding the risk-taking local drivers for an hour. When we finally reached the top, both slightly less dry and energetic than before, it turned out to be another 800 metres to the campsite. The view more than made up for any hardship, however. People really do make homes anywhere – there turned out to be several small farms perched atop these exposed, gorgeous green mountains. Our campsite for the night was in the garden of a gîte d’étape for hikers, and we enjoyed having a real shower and a real breakfast the next morning! We also got to try ice cream made for local sheep’s milk. I was quite apprehensive at first, but the ice cream was actually seriously DELICIOUS; sweetened with local honey. If you ever get the chance to try some, do!
The next morning began quite nonchalantly, and while we’d gulped at the “22km: 8 hours” mark next to that day’s section, we really had no idea how it would eventually turn out (a think we may otherwise have been too intimidated to set off!).
Shouldering our backpacks, we started our trek for the day, which was quite reasonable for all of about 20 minutes! Very rapidly the path veered up our first hill of the day, we walked up through ferns, cows, sheep and brambles for about an hour before reaching the top of that first, breathing quite heavily. We soaked our hats in water from a barn tap, waved goodbye to the animals, and set off down a path through an uninhabited valley.
Here we also discovered some very beautiful spider webs and became acquainted with the many butterflies of the Pyrenees. The path wound down through the valley for a good two hours, most of the time (thankfully) in the shade, and we crossed several rivers.
This was all very pleasant, but I must admit that as we were going down I had the nagging fear that all this would mean having to go up again at some point!
It turned out I was right. Just after we reached the valley bottom, we turned a corner to find that the path stopped because there was a hill in the way. The path went… straight up. Literally. The first 20 metres were a steep STAIRCASE up the slope! This turned into a miniscule footpath, complete with rolling pebbles and big rocks. Being about a foot smaller than my hiking counterpart, I climbed more slowly, and after an hour I reached the sole tree on that side of the mountain, where Gildas had stopped to take some photos and enjoy a snack. After a few minutes we set off again. I must say that I stopped to breathe probably every two minutes, but in my defence the path really did NOT stop going up. I’ve also never seen so many ferns in one place. For another hour we kept going upwards, clambering over boulders (this required hands because I’m tiny), and navigating what was almost a cliff. I’ve never actually climbed, on hands and knees, up through a forest, but now I can say that I have! It was exhausting, and we stopped to eat the last of our bread and Nutella under a tree. Because we didn’t want to take out our stove, it looked like our only snack between lunch and supper would be a small apple compote each (not very filling at all), and we also started to worry about the diminishing amount of water in our bottles.
After lunch we set off again, but the path was much less steep, despite being perilously close to the edge of the cliff (have I mentioned that I’m scared of heights?). The most dangerous part of the day was when we had to cross a boulder in our path. The edge of it actually dropped off the cliff, and unlike Gildas I was too small to step across the gap, so I did it (most dignified, of course) in a crawl, gaining some fantastically fashionable mud stains in the process.
Five minutes later we emerged at the top of the path. A sign told us that our altitude was 1010 metres, and that we still had 14 kilometres and another four hours of walking. The view was incredible. Our path joined a small road that was perched along the ridge line, following it for as far as the eye could see. In any direction one turned were sweeping mountains and deep, green valleys. In the distance were haze-covered, impossibly tall mountains. The feeling was one of being on top of at-once both very small and very big world. At a small hut found an outside tap to get water from, and a cyclist stopped to copy our idea. I asked him in French where he’d come from, but he only squinted and then said “Espagne” in a foreign accent, pointing at the distant mountains. Up there, on the roof of the world, was Spain. It was unbelievable. We said goodbye and set off again, thinking that the worst was over.
Unsurprisingly, as you can probably guess, we were wrong.
The path followed a very peaceful, flat, road for about ten minutes. Here we came across a free-ranging ponies and even a foal. Several people in cars were taking photos of them and the view, and Gildas pointed out that the scenery was surely even more special to us, as we’d climbed a kilometre high with our own feet to get there, carrying everything we needed on our backs. It was freedom.
Then (once again, hooray) the path decided to go up a hill. By now though we were used to hills, and the top looked maybe twenty minutes away. It was a beautiful view, anyway. Gildas reached the top before me, and when I finally got close enough to see his face, he did not look happy. “What? Does it keep going up?” I asked.
The hill had been hiding another hill. “Maybe we take the path that goes down to the right,” Gildas remarked. I examined the markers.
“No, we’re going left and up.” I announced. His face fell. Mine did too, probably.
Squinting at the distant pile of boulders we were to climb to, we started walking again. The footpath was steep, but it was quite smooth, and by now I’d got the hang of using the walking sticks to pull myself upwards. The path followed the curve of the hill, and the grass around us was rippling and shimmering in the wind. It was beautiful.
As I reached the top, a distant shape revealed itself. That hill had also been hiding another mountain behind it, and the path definitely went up it.
Gildas seemed quite disgruntled (as he hadn’t brought hiking poles, thinking he wouldn’t want them, and now wanting them desperately), but as we hiked, my mindset definitely changed.
That morning, I’d wanted to cry and sit down and refuse to move, or say that I wanted to go home. I’d been focusing on how I felt physically, taking breaks every couple of minutes and listening to my own breathing. Climbing up that seemingly endless series of mountains upon mountains, though, something definitely changed. I got into a rhythm, and I only stopped at each crest to drink a little water. My legs were aching, and I could feel massive blisters on my heels, but despite all of the pain I wasn’t tired. As long as I kept walking, I could keep going up those hills at the same pace for hours. I don’t know how I knew that, but I definitely did. I would just walk and walk until we reached our campsite. My legs might collapse, but I wasn’t tired. I overtook Gildas and finally reached the sign and the cairns at the top of the mountain, where the wind was blowing fiercely, threatening to dislodge my poor hat. The view was breathtaking.
There, the only path led downwards, and we were in disbelief at the fact that it could do so. Somehow we’d walked for six or seven hours, over fifteen kilometres. It seemed like a short and easy downhill walk, but the downhill bit actually seemed to be the hardest.
The path went down through the trees to a high-altitude valley, and we followed a dirt logging road that had been churned up by vehicles. It was steep, and every step needed to be calculated otherwise one would slip on the loose stones. Previously I hadn’t been tired, but now, bracing myself over and over, I felt like my legs would give out at any moment. They were dead.
Finally, we reached the road at the bottom, and a concerned-looking man told us where to find the campsite (I dread to think what we looked like!).
We limped into a café and sat down, planning on never standing up again, but it felt like we’d done something incredible. I dialled my mum as we waited for our drinks. Not only had we walked 20 kilometres, with heavy backpacks, but we’d also climbed to the place where the earth touches the sky, and we’d been higher than the eagles. We’d looked down on clouds fro our highest vantage point.
As someone who does tennis competitively and taekwondo, I’ve done lots of exercise and sports in my life, but I’ve never done so much concentrated physical effort over one day in my life. We were both quite proud of ourselves. Later, we also chatted about how we felt accomplished for having walked that far with a backpack, but how there are people who walk further than that every day of their life simply to go to work and to survive. It was a very humbling experience. There’s a lot that we take for granted.
I’ve never been so glad to have a cold Coca Cola in my life, and went Gildas got up to the pay the bill he discovered that he couldn’t even bend his knees anymore – our legs had become non-functioning sticks. We waddled like penguins to our campsite, and I had to peel my shoes and socks off my blisters, but none of that tarnished the sense of achievement we felt at having done something like that.
Our final campsite was at Iraty, a tiny green valley high above sea level. A beautiful river runs through it, and several shaded pools are deep enough to swim in. Ponies and cows roamed freely amongst the tents and campervans. I hadn’t been there in ten years, since I was a little girl, so it was quite cool to know that I’d walked on my own feet into a memory.
We spent one final day doing nothing more than swimming and enjoying sleeping and eating in the sun, as well as chatting to several people who arrived after us. We met a man who had a backpack the size of a small purse and who walked at the rate of a quick jog, a father and son who were in their third year of hiking and who had their bags organised so precisely that they carried lists of their belongings and their weights, and two women who were spending their first year of retirees enjoying nature.
Several people (the majority of the hikers were middle aged or elderly) remarked that it was nice to see young people out enjoying the wilderness and being active, and that made me think a little. It’s true that many people nowadays, especially people my age, are tied to their phones and their comfortable life. For several days, I had practically no phone and wore the same clothes (washed in streams) every day. The only way I was going to have somewhere to sleep and something to eat was if I carried my tent and my food. The only way I’d get to the train station to go home was on my feet. Yes, by the end my socks and shorts were a nice brown colour, I was wearing several days’ worth of sun cream, we were down to eating couscous for breakfast, lunch, and supper, and I had blisters that would require antibiotics and bandages – but it was almost one of the best experiences of my life. I saw beautiful, untouched places, and I met and talked to some really interesting people! It also meant that I had to put up with my best friend and he had to put up with me. We both got slightly grumpy at times, but we also shared the adventure of a lifetime.
I’ve always found that sport is the best way to take your mind off something, relax and feel good. That definitely applies to hiking, with the added benefit of being quite-off from the outside world and experiencing more of nature. It’s sad that people were surprised to see young people outdoors, and hopefully people will begin to realise just how important it is to escape and to get back to where we came from. I have no clue why I enjoyed walking myself into the ground for three days straight, but I really, really did, and I’m itching to pick up my backpack and go off again.
The most painful and scary things are always the most rewarding. So, if anyone wants advice from an eighteen year-old who doesn’t know much, here is some: get outdoors! Go on a walk! Keep walking until you can’t and then still keep going! I think it gave me something amazing.
If anyone made it to the end of this very long ramble (pun intended), then I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on my adventure! Thank you for reading. I would share the pictures of my infected blisters, but they would probably be flagged as graphic content, so I’ll leave them to the imagination…
Until next time!