The Pyrenean Haute Route (or HRP, for Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne) traverses the highest walkable route across the Pyrenees Mountains, taking hikers from Hendaye, France on the Atlantic coast to Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean. It spans 500 miles, regularly crosses the French-Spanish border, and includes an impressive 138,000 feet of elevation change. The typical itinerary, set out in Ton Joosten's Pyrenean Haute Route, has thru-hikers complete the trail in 45 days. Others hike fast and light, going coast to coast in just 23 days.
My sister and I set out to do neither of these things. My Madrid-based sister, Katie, had hiked a 25-day section of the HRP the previous summer and was eager to complete more of the route. My goal was to experience real backpacking in Europe - not the three-countries-a-week hostel-hopping version - without getting into too many fights with Katie.
After sightseeing through a number of countries that summer and on previous trips, I was eager to experience a different side of Europe: the backcountry, on foot. I had by that point discovered that I was a very particular travel companion and this trip would surely test my relationship with my sister. Katie and I had never backpacked together before or even traveled as a duo for over a week. We planned to start with seven days of the HRP and then continue for four more days on the GR11, a parallel route through the Spanish Pyrenees.
I was to discover that backpacking in Europe provided scenery and animal encounters very different from what I had experienced in the U.S. I was immediately struck by how different the landscape was from what I had expected and from the mountains I knew. We faced rounded, green hills in the first few days of hiking. When we reached the first sharp and rocky ridge of our route, I was dismayed to discover it littered with sheep poop. It was a blow to my ego to realize that the ridge that I was struggling to traverse was a regular hangout for livestock of mediocre intelligence. Plus, their poop made the rocks slippery and the walk that much more harrowing.
Freerange livestock were a constant on our route. At our first camp, we had to fend off cows that also liked our shady spot by the creek. During a frantic and poorly orchestrated attempt to keep the herd at bay, I frightened a cow who then stepped on and irreparably bent my sister's trekking pole. I was being introduced to trail hazards I had never before considered.
The grazing cows and sheep wore bells around their necks, which I found charming at first. The gentle clanging of their bells bolstered the idea that this whole trip would be just like something out of The Sound of Music. The bells were a persistent auditory companion to our trip but, thankfully, the animals seemed to keep still through the night.
Meanwhile, my sister - who is 5 years my senior - and I were learning about each other. Like that I moved faster going uphill and that she should move in front of me for downhill stretches. There was no need for constant conversation; we would often put a bit of distance between ourselves on an ascent or descent or when she stopped to take photos, which she did frequently.
My sister was the designated navigator. She had more experience in the region and with backpacking in general and would pore over the maps each night before bed, studying the next day's route. I looked to her for all logistical questions - where we would sleep, where to fill water, communicating with a cheesemaker in French (a language that neither of us spoke).
My contribution was to keep calm and reassure my older sister in moments of uncertainty. One such moment occurred on day four when we entered a different landscape. We walked for most of that hot day through a treeless, rockstrewn expanse following occasional painted trail blazes. Our guidebook had described this section as a "labyrinth" and provided little else in the way of a route description. Unlike the route we had followed up to this point, this section did not offer views of our objective: a peak, a pass, or a way out of this harsh valley. We knew that we would not be able to refill our water until we gained the next pass and, with our water supply dwindling and no relief from the punishing sun, my sister became increasingly hopeless. She felt sure we should have already reached the junction that would tell us we were close to water and camp.
In her heat-induced desperation, she attempted to convince me (for she was already sure) that we would die out there before reaching the source de Marmitou which, by that point, had taken on mythical status. I did my best to quell her pessimism, pointing out that we had not been walking for long enough to have missed the junction and that, while we were both quite thirsty, we had some time before becoming sun-bleached skeletons among the limestone. We of course eventually reached the junction and took special satisfaction that evening in setting up camp in a lush valley surrounded by the sound of flowing water.
A couple of nights later, under flashes of lightning and rain drumming on the tent, Ilearned that my sister's fear of thunderstorms had persisted into adulthood. We were in a municipal camping area in the Spanish town of Sallent de Gallego, and she was torn between her fear of leaving the perceived security of the tent and the need of a midnight bathroom run. I emerged into semi-consciousness as her moans of dread and discomfort took on increased urgency, and volume. This time I took on a no-nonsense approach: get on your rain gear and go to the damn bathroom.
My sister had her opportunities to bring me back from the brink as well. The one fight we had throughout the whole trip arose the day before the thunderstorm. We had missed a turn and ended up hiking along a paved highway for the last few kilometers of the day. Road walking is what pushes me past the point of rational behavior and into a bad mood that knows no boundaries. I compounded the mistakes of the day by forgetting to zip the pocket of her backpack that held our precious maps as we walked along the windy highway. We didn't lose any maps but we vented our frustrations at each other and with our situation on the shoulder of the highway with cars flying past.
We yelled at each other, I cried, and we walked the rest of the way to Sallent de Gallegoin silence. Using the wisdom of her years, my sister later made it clear that we should put the incident behind us and bought me an ice cream: a sure way to reach me through my negativity.
Katie also helped me get through what was for me the most challenging feature of our route: the Collado de Piedrafita. After a long, gradual ascent, the scree-covered trail became nearly vertical in the final climb up and over the pass. Katie sensed my nervousness and we reversed our usual uphill-hiking formation so that she could climb ahead of me and guide me to the top. Katie gave me calm directions and encouragement from above and we admired the view and celebrated together when I joined her on the col.
Some of the novelties of backpacking in the Pyrenees were charming. For example, I couldn't argue with high-quality cheese and dry sausage as a trail lunch. Any remote shepherd's hut could be an opportunity to buy fresh cheese. Our hike on the HRP was also my introduction to backcountry huts or refugios. We only paid to stay indoors once throughout our trip but we passed many picturesque lodgings.
Other features were disenchanting. Our route had us cross - and occasionally use - a number of paved roads, which I did not enjoy. We also hiked through a couple of ski resorts, whose size and impact on the land seemed more evident in the off-season. The lack of wildlife in that part of the world made for easy backpacking as we did not need to worry about food storage or surprise encounters. On the other hand, this made me thankful that we have not yet decimated all things fanged and clawed in the United States.
The town of Torla brought our trip to a pleasant conclusion. Katie had a final personal mission: to get the swim she had been dreaming about through the heat of the past ten days. She asked around and got directions to a swimming hole near town. We followed the description but began to lose hope after walking a good distance with no results. Determined, we continued on and found it: a clear pool under an old stone bridge. We were both grinning as we jumped into the turquoise Río Ara. We lingered by the river, enjoying our last moments of solitude and preparing for the return to the lives we had interrupted and the bustle of Madrid. I could think of no better way to savor that place, the company, and a successful journey.