Eastern half of GR11 in the Spanish Pyrenees, 2019
Pyrenees has been on my todo list for a few years. Unfortunately I don't currently have enough time for a complete thruhike (45 days on average). Started in Vilaller slightly east from midpoint and hiked towards Mediterranean with no expectation of reaching it. Initially considered the high route but ended up staying on the main trail. Scenery wise it was not a disappointment but the most remote sections generally were most interesting, so HRP is probably more enjoyable for those who have the means for extended remote mountain hike.
I intend to hike the Western half sometime in the future and sections of the HRP, time permitting.
Approx 330 km in 19 days including 3 rest days.
7.7. El Pont de Suert
Arrived to Barcelona in the afternoon. For whatever reason, my backpack was very last to arrive in the baggage claim belt, some 15 minutes after everyone else had left. For someone it had seemed suspicious and they put thorough inspection, I guess.
While I was waiting in the airport lounge for the bus to arrive, a dozen meters away woman started screaming that someone had aggressively tried to take her purse. Apparently she recognized the thief in the crowd and tried to get security to catch the perpetrator. The scene went on for some time. About half an hour prior to that I had been in the ATM taking out some cash, when a touristy looking couple got closer to me, to my side, more than I was comfortable with. I felt that perhaps trying to see if they can pin down me typing the PIN code. I canceled the draw before that and took cash in a quieter area. Perhaps they were same people that stole the woman's purse.
Finding the right bus turned out to be some effort, as its departure gate wouldn't show up in the monitors at all. I ended up having to ask around a lot from other drivers to get to the right one, after than it was supposed to already been gone.
Arrived to El Pont de Suert at evening, which was still about 20 km from the trail, but I had planned to spend one day in preparation before starting my trip.
8.7. El Pont de Suert
Staying in the town. Went to dinner with one of the other occupants in the hotel who was on a vacation trip.
Bought 4 days supplies and fuel for trangia. Hiked to Vilaller from El Pont de Suert.
10.7. Conangles - after Refugi de la Restanca – 18 km
Arrived to trail head from Vilaller by bus at noon. Saw occasional dayhikers and one likely thruhiker – unkempt beard, tanned, worn down clothes.
Saw a boulder crashing down the mountainside.
While stopping next to a stream to cook the dinner, I realized the methylated spirits I bought (which does have a symbol that indicates it's suitable for this use), I realized it has strong smelling additivies, likely rendering it very toxic and the smell contaminating everything in my pack, so I wouldn't be able to use my stove, nor several kilos of dry food I bought, at least until I reached next resupply point.
For some reason, despite of being well traveled, trail became hard to follow approaching Refugi de la Restanca for a while. Had to bushwhack to find it again.
Area around Refugi de la Restanca very popular with day/overnight hikers, as getting to approximity is possible by bus.
I filled my bottles in the Refugi and hiked for a while until reaching a plateau where I found a hidden spot for my tent away from the trail. Spotted a bright spot in the distance during the evening which may have been a tent. It was gone by the morning so it obviously was not a fixture. I waited until it had just started to get dark and pitched my tent.
11.7. campsite - Refugi de Colomers - shelter - 13 km
790 m altitude gain in the first hours. During a rest at Port de Caldes noticed a family of hikers in the distance, where one of the kids stopped to take a shit behind a boulder, right next to the stream. Good reminder that none of the bigger streams here are potable (not even if there were no people around, cows are grazing everywhere).
In the afternoon, had a lunch break in the refugi by lake and refilled bottles. Very hot day. Took 5 liters of water, in anticipation of continuing heat and long distance until next likely water source.
Later, while on a break spotted an a derelict building across the stream. Went to investigate and decided to stay there for the night, despite it being relatively early. It was obviously an unofficial hiker's crashing place with markings allover the place, a fireplace and makeshift bed, but quite trashy with half of the roof missing. Backside of the building had been serving as a hiker's toilet for who knows how long. As mosquitoes kept creeping in and I couldn't set up my tent indoors, I set up my tent close to the building as it got dark.
12.7. shelter - hotel in Espot - 22 km
Dew inside the tent in the morning, result of fast cooling of the lake from night's temperature drop. After a climb up to Port de Ratera de Colomers (from 2200 m to 2578 m), stopped to dry it in the morning sun.
From here onwards it was mostly downhill with 865 m of altitude loss. Valley of Aigüestortes very attractive until it reaches Estany de Sant Maurici, which is a popular tourist spot since it is reachable by a 4x4 taxi service, and also it is an easy couple of hour's walk from the nearest town. I met many day hikers for remaining of the day.
Picked up water at Font de Ermita, rested a while and continued the well maintained trail amidst forest, giving much needed shelter from the sun, to Espot, where I found a reasonably priced tiny family hotel unlisted in booking.com, after asking around.
13.7. Espot - la Guingueda d'Areu - 14 km
First resupply in the small town grocery store since El Pont de Suert. I decided to follow mostly the paved road (no traffic), though I suppose the official GR11 is also a paved road in this section. I hoped this one would take me faster to the next interesting section. Midday temp around 32°C, which makes the pavement hike an arduous experience. After reaching la Guingueda d'Areu in the afternoon decided to stay in the camping ground even though early in the day.
14.7. to campsite near Lleret - 22 km
One of the best days in the trip. Many excellent camp spots along the way to Dorve, an abandoned village, which apparently has occasional restoration work going on, and has a working fountain. I generally found this area very attractive, and after a hard climb of 1560 meters in the following 5.8 km (which was just preceded by 700 meter climb in a distance of 2.8 km), you have a magnificent view to the river valley and also to the village, which still looks as being a stone's throw away.
I stopped to cook a dinner near the peak. Shortly after finishing, rain started with occasional thunder, but went away in half an hour. Steep downhill until Estaón (1237 m), where there is a refugi, but I continued to next area, hoping to find a camping site along the trail. It turned out to be more difficult than expected. After following the river valley, which offered no good spots, filled an emergency water bottle near an abandoned farmhouse, dropped a purification tab in the bottle, and proceeded to cross the next mountain.
Eventually on the other side, half an hour or so before dark, as trail had already joined a road and some cow pastures, I found an even site, just out of sight from the road and wide enough to set up my tent, with a view to the valley.
15.7. to Tavascan - 7 km
Packed and left well before sunrise. Felt tired today after long exposure to sun in the last afternoon on the treeless mountainside so decided to have a rest day in Tavascan. Bought supplies from the tiny grocery store along with fresh bread.
16.7. to Areu - 22 km
Listened to first book of Plato's Republic during the day. While hiking towards Punta de Roquetes I could see the same valley as when camping the day before, on the opposite side. After Coll de Tudela (2243 m), descend to Arriba where I went to the campground. Village grocery store not open. Bought bread and wine from the restaurant.
17.7. to Estany de Baiau - 19 km
Left early, at 6:30. Reached Parc Natural de l'Alt Pirineu. Mostly uphill through the day. Lots of cows and sheep. Intermittent rain. Heavy cloud cover when reaching the mountain emergency shelter in Estany de Baiau (2506 m), promising heavy rain, but subsided an hour later. Overgrazing is a problem in the populated places in Pyrenees. Also due to lack of outhouse the area surrounding the shelter is again filled with "landmines".
Another hiker arrived a couple of hours later, a French woman thruhiking to opposite direction and stops in the same hut for the night.
18.7. to Arans (Andorra) - 19 km
In the morning, pass the highest col in my hike, Portella de Baiau, 2757 m, after a hard climb on a steep, rocky hill, which also is a border to Andorra. Lots of runners on trail on the other side due to a trail running contest.
Stopped for lunch in Refugi de Comapedrosa. Trail continues gently downhill until Arinsal, first town in Andorra. Resupplied and waited for afternoon sun to pass in a covered spot. Temperature around 30°C.
After passing Coll de les Cases (1965 m), booked a room in hotel in Arans though initially aiming for campground a couple of km further.
19.7. to Encamp - 19 km
Some potential camping spots in the trail after heading to mountains the valley. Though trail likely to be busy at times.
Stopped at 2 hours in to have a snack while admiring the view to Ordino lying in the valley. Surreal hearing sounds of cars, kids playing football in the fields, all far away.
Trail climbs moderately until reaching today's peak at Coll d'Ordino, which I pass quickly to get from the sun baked peak back into the forest. Trail progresses into outskirts of Encamp, one of the small towns in Andorra.
I had booked a hotel in the morning, where I now head and enjoy cold shower, before taking a tour in the town.
Andorra is wealthy, buildings quite modern and streets clean. Banking and tourism is the main source of wealth, attracted by Andorra's duty-free status and by its summer and winter resorts. Agricultural production is limited and the principal livestock activity is sheep raising, made possible by wide foraging areas of the mountains, which contributes to rather eroded state of some of the mountain ranges, no different from Spain.
20.7. to Vallcivera - 26 km
Leaving the town, path climbs steeply up to next mountain. Day becomes hot again. Stopping at lake Llac d'Engolasters, I realize my water reserves are not enough so kept in mind to look for a tap. Lake accessible by car hence popular with families. Proceeding onward I finally got to a trail where there's a running contest in progress, likely part of the same one that I already crossed with two days ago.
After refilling the trail continues rather well maintained but busy with runners coming in both directions. Having the only one with heavy backpack, I feel rather out of place, and feel that I'm by far the slowest on the trail. Many people greet me as they pass.
In the afternoon I spotted an shelter about 50 meters from the trail and decide to visit it to get relief from the scorching sun. For whatever reason the gadflies are numerous and extremely aggressive, but inside the hut I'm completely sheltered from them. I slowly enjoy my simple lunch of bread with olive oil and cheese in the coolness of the stone building, before heading out again.
As expected from the crowdedness of the trail, the refugi was extremely popular with hikers. The vicinity also served as an etape for the trail runners. I pressed on, shortly crossing the border back to Catalonia.
After reaching the peak trail descends into the valley of Vallcivera, which is pleasantly empty and forested. Along the way I see some campers, not far from the trail, so apparently it is permitted here. I decide not to stay near trail, and as I spot a flat spot uphill from the trail, covered by pines, I walked up there, had a dinner and went to bed as sun glide behind the surrounding mountains. Air cools fast after that, attesting to the high altitude.
21.7. to Refugi de Malniu - 14 km
Continuing down to the plains, pine trees forests get slightly thicker. I passed an old shelter with a group of campers around it, then later a wide open plain with about 20 tents but not many people in sight, perhaps it serves as a base camp for exploring nearby trails, or they're late sleepers. Ascending the next hill, I spot a hiking couple really looking out of place, both carrying huge backpacks and guy dressed in jeans with heavy hiking boots that do not seem to fit to the trail that well. I greet them as I pass. Even though I'm much faster, it's obvious they're fit since they make good progress despite of their heavy equipment.
After the steepest part is done, the view opens into vast treeless vista. In the distance I can already see the upcoming descent, still few kilometers away.
Descending into next valley, I picked water upstream of a small stream, making use of the water purifier tabs I have been carrying.
Trail roughens up a bit into a narrow platform following a steep mountainside, until it becomes more forested.
By afternoon I already reached Refugi de Malniu, and after some pondering decided to stay there, paying 4 € to camp on their grounds.
22.7. to Puigcerda - 18 km
Trail blocked by fence at els Clots, just after starting. Walked northwards to find passage.
Already after the peak, as vegetation reduces, valley and the city is visible in the horizon.
8 km from the city, trees disappear entirely a few kilometers from the city, exposing a sun baked plain with eroded soil and only low growth vegetation. I noticed that I have diverged from the GR7. Not wanting to backtrack I decided to pass a few hundred meters through the vegetation, followed by thorough check for ticks, as I did not bother putting on long pants just for this occasion. Walking on tick infested areas is something I prefer to avoid and only lack of restraint makes it happen and leaves me disappointed with myself afterwards.
Nearing the city, trail gives way to a road, I'm faced with hottest few kilometers since early days in the trip, and same as then, entirely without tree cover and sun rays amplified by pavement for the last hour or so. Apparently the heat in the summer had been slightly hotter than usual, told by the hotel manager in town.
23.7. zero day in Puigcerda
Spent most of the day idly in the town. Moved to another hotel for the next night. Gave excess sunscreen to the hostel manager, I don't want to carry anything extra.
24.7. to Santuari de Nuria - 9 km
Very short day.
Heat persisted, so instead of continuing hours on an exposed trail in low altitude, I decided to skip by takin a rain to Ribe where I took the tourist train to Querabls. 8 km of easy walking brings me to very popular tourist/skiing center in Nuria, where I decided to stop already. The campground expensive for what it offers.
25.7. to Refugi de Ulldeter - 15 km
About 2 hour ascent from Nuria to Pic de la Fossa del Gegeant at 2780 m. This was my last high peak on this hike.
Descent to valley with many streams.
On Refugi by Ulldeter around 15:00, which was not my intended stop but it was for whatever reason quite empty so I got an entire room for myself cheaply.
26.7. Puig de Sant Joan (near Molló) - 17 km
Stopped at Setcases to get supplies and fill up water.
Path follows many small roads and crosses farms. Sun peeked out enough that I stopped for a while to dry the tent at the roadside.
Day started sunny but by evening a furious thunder which kept circling in the valley for hours on end. I had already put up tent in the woods about 40 meters from the gravel road.
Dogs kept barking through the evening, assuming from the village. However, as this was possibly my last opportunity to camp in the hike I was determined to stay. Similar situations in my previous trips never amounted to a conflict of any kind.
TODO: pic of tent set up
27.7. to Talaixa - 30 km
Woke up around dusk. Barking getting louder, so realized they are hunting dogs that had been just let loose. Packed my stuff fast and started crawling to reach the road through thick bushes, to opposite direction where the dogs were approaching. I had my hiking pole in hand, ready to strike should one of them decide to attack, but they all kept a some distance and just barked loudly, trained to not attack humans.
Continuing on the trail, met the hunter who likely owned the dogs. I could tell he had probably put 2 and 2 together and known his dogs had been chasing me. He looked quite surprised. Due to my complete lack of Spanish I found the only course is to let things be as they are, so I just greeted without expression and walked by. Continuing the narrow farming roads towards Molló, a hostile driver forces me to get off the road between a small gap of fence and the road, where my hand touches the wiring and I catch a mild jolt of currency. At that point I didn't care, just wanting to move away from the uncomfortable situation, but it does strike me as dangerous and extremely offensive in hindsight.
Passed by Molló at about 8 am, took a couple of photos and proceeded. In contrast to earlier events one of the villagers walked by and greeted me with great enthusiasm.
Couple of hours into the day and rain begins again, progressing from drizzle to heavy pour in an hour's interval. By the time I reach Beget, rain has drenched my shoes and also seeped through the rain jacket onto my body and also into the backpack, feeling cold taking over as I stop in the town to fill some water bottles. Hiker approaches from opposite direction and tells that roads ahead were flooded and she had turned back, not daring to venture there alone.
Not eager to stop so early in the day we agree to hike together until the flooded areas have been passed. Half an hour out the town and apparently the road we followed had been totally flooded an hour prior, but now was walkable.
Old woman approached us in the road and started speaking fast in Spanish. No idea what she was saying, but the way she spoke and the expression she had really seemed out of place, it's as if she was panicking from something and wanted us to follow her, or return back to the village. We decline and proceed.
Five minutes later we find a flooding stream crossing the road with fast current. I take a few steps in the stream and find it possible to cross using hiking poles for balance. So we both cross it. On the opposite shore, the lady, who apparently had been following us, screams at us like crazy. We wave her goodbyes and go on, still hearing her screaming at distance for minutes. Neither know what to make of that experience.
Thunderstorm had left its mark in the proceedings, there were fallen trees and at least one case where a tree was cut razor sharp a few meters off the ground in such a way it was probably lightning caused. No signs of fire though.
In Talaixa by evening, which is an abandoned settlement with a well maintained free shelter, owned by local hiking organization. Rain has subsided and there's a nice evening sun that allows drying the clothes outside the hut before settling in for the night.
28.7. to Albanya - 25 km
Awaken by noise and flashing of torchlight as a group of mountain climbers (I presume) arrived to the hut late at night. Only one of stays sleeping indoors and four others staying on the yard, sleeping on open sky. As me and the other hiker depart at 6:30, they are still sleeping on the ground, in a hugging each other position, having only a thin sleeping pad under them. Apparently they do not carry a shelter with them or it's emergency practice for mountain climbing.
Day progresses quite gently, with few short but hard climbs, altitude generally descending from 1100 m in the morning down to some 400 m before ascending to 700 m, following a paved track, for the last 45 minutes before Albanya. Before the town, there is a large campsite but it was rather unattractive and had stink from overflowing trash bins. There was a tiny store where I bought bread and continued to the hostel in town.
My hike finished here as I intended to spent remaining 4 days of my holiday sightseeing, so technically I will never be a GR11 thru hiker even if I complete the western section, unless I come specifically to complete the last 2-3 hiking days from Albanya to the coast some day.
Post trip notes
Many wonderful sections, though overall I'd rank French alps higher in attractiveness. Both are worth visiting.
- Some sections busy in July, but generally not so much that it worsened my experience
- Could just barely fit all gear in a 55L back, had to do a lot of cramming each time I needed to repack
- Down jacket unnecessary (worn briefly only once) also felt too fragile and condensation prone for field use
- Fleece jacket saw only occasional use (not every day), should be replaced with a thin + light pullover
- Methylated spirits available nearly everywhere (just make sure it contains no additives). Primus gas probably somewhat easy to find. Stove can be left home in a pinch – just bring a plastic spoon/fork – except if hiking the HRP
- Three season 7°C comfort sleeping bag warmer than necessary. Quilt or summer sleeping bag may be enough as long as sleeping in lower altitudes
- Weather was generally very dry, so unless it was exceptional, can save additional weight by bringing lightweight rain poncho instead of jacket + pants (their total weight about 500g). Also makes backpack rain cover unnecessary However, if late in the season (September–October), rain jacket would serve as a windbreaker in higher altitudes
- Long sleeve hiking shirt used only twice. Still probably a good idea to take along and try to use more often
- Sun screen: 100ml lasted for 14 days, then had to resupply. 300 ml bottle minimum for a thruhike
- 2 pairs of short running socks, 1 pair on long hiking socks which were mostly worn on rest days only
- Thermal underwear totally unnecessary: discarded shirt early on and kept the pants, but did not wear them even once. Perhaps pants needed if using down quilt
- Lithium batteries much lighter and provided perhaps 30% more use time. 3 or 4 sets of batteries (2 lithium, 2 alkaline) lasted entire hike
- Zip-off pants work well (just look unattractive), used them mostly zipped off
- Not as strongly addicted to caffeine as believed, cut it to minimum early on and did not get strong cravings at any point. Can still carry "emergency" instant coffee and mix with cold water
- Only hiked on snow once, a slab not more than 10-15 meters across
- Shoes felt too loose, suffered some blisters as a result. Maybe 1/2 size too big, though 10.5/45 is almost always the right size for me, so maybe the overall
- Cap and gloves never used, though should take if going later in the season