A Dream, Realized

The Pic d'Anie, day 9

 

I did it. After forty-five days and five hundred miles, I successfully completed my traverse of the Pyrenees via the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne. There were tears and blood and an incredible amount of sweat. There was an unceasing chain of awe-inspiring landscapes. I savored plenty of solitude. Equally, I met people along the way whose company I cherished. At times it seemed like nature offered little gifts, and other times nature seemed indifferent and overwhelming. Some obstacles gave me serious pause. Some moments filled me with the rush of victory. At one point I even believed I had failed and my dream had slipped from my grasp.

I pushed my body, applied my skills, and quieted my mind. I made some great judgment calls and some enormous errors. I learned through experience. I smiled to myself, entertained myself, and talked to myself. I got tan, grew some facial hair, and lost some weight. (I think I've already regained the weight).

How can I even write about such an immense experience? How can I process, organize, and articulate in a way that does it all justice? I don't think it's possible in a single post, but I feel compelled to write something to help people understand this milestone in my life. I'll just need to trust that the details will come through in my conversations with people and in my future writing. So for the moment I'll summarize the experience, what I learned, and how it's influenced the way I imagine my future. I'll let photos do the rest of the talking.

The route that I followed consisted of five sections. The first section crossed through the Basque country from Hendaye to Lescun over the course of nine days. My departure on June 19th was, of course, anticlimactic. I set off alone on a rainy morning, but it wouldn’t be until almost a month later that it rained on me again (the weather was bizarre in the Pyrenees this summer, but it worked in my favor). During the first leg I transitioned into life on trail: conditioning my body, adjusting to my no-cook diet, and establishing my daily rhythm and rituals. I savored the green and bucolic landscape each day. The Pyrenees are pastoral in the truest sense of the word—there are grazing animals everywhere. I enjoyed getting a sense of the Basque culture and passing through picturesque villages as I crisscrossed the French-Spanish border. I was filled with peace and contentment each afternoon as I stopped for the day and set up camp; it felt as if I’d been hiking all my life. 

On day six, however, the trip took a turn for the worse. During the ascent of the Pic d’Orhy, the first summit over 2000 meters, my right knee started hurting. Then it hurt more. Then it became excruciatingly painful. Each step caused extreme, audible suffering. With each step my pace slowed. With each step I could tangibly feel my dream slipping further and further away. It began to sink in—I’d severely damaged myself, only a week in, and my trip was almost certainly over. 

For the next two days I limped onward to Lescun, where I took a few rest days. The situation didn’t improve much; if normal stairs proved to be an obstacle, how could I hike through the mountains? I had great doubts, but verbalized them to no one except my mother—I asked her to look into whether or not my plane ticket could be refunded and rescheduled. The more I thought about it, however, the more resolute I became. I reminded myself of how long I’d wanted this, how far I’d come, and how difficult it would be to return and try again later if I gave up. I decided that if I failed, it would be because of my body and not my mind. I would not make the choice to stop walking—I would stop only when I was physically unable to continue. I was prepared to hobble all the way to the Mediterranean.

 

The beach at Hendaye

A horse blocking my path on day one

Endless ferns

Pillbox from the Spanish Civil War

A mushroom that grew overnight 

Crossing the Camino de Santiago

A cromlech

The Pic d'Orhy

Scrambling on a ridge before the Pic d'Orhy

From the summit of Orhy, snow in sight

"pastoral zone, free-roaming herds/flocks"

Desolate limestone plateau and the west face of Pic d'Anie

 

The second section from Lescun to Gavarnie entailed seven days in the French Pyrenees National Park. The first few days went better than I had expected. I became absolutely in tune with my body. In the general sense, I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, and relieved myself when I so desired. But for the first time I truly listened to my body. I learned to distinguish the nuances of soreness, ache, and pain. I figured out precisely when I could continue and when I needed to rest, dip my bandana in a stream, and cool my knee.

Little by little, I became accustomed to walking with an injured leg. As long as I didn’t weight my knee while it was bent, I could handle most terrain. Rocky trails, boulders, and snowfield still proved to be difficult, but I was inspired by my surroundings. The views during this part were absolutely stunning. Every day was beautiful, and in retrospect I consider the second section to be the most consistently impressive of the entire trip. In fact, I was so motivated that I didn’t take variants that would have made the section easier and safer. On top of that, I wanted to complete the section one day faster than the guide book prescribed so I could have a rest day afterwards and not fall behind. The end result was that I successfully tackled some of the most challenging terrain of the entire HRP while shaving off a day in the process. I was only able to accomplish this via virtually interminable days—I limped for thirteen hours three days in a row.

Towards the end of the section I was reminded of what inspired me to do the HRP in the first place. There was one day where I hiked the exact route that I did in 2012. It was as if I’d gone back in time, back to the person I used to be. As I climbed towards the inspiring north face of Vignemale, I couldn’t help but feel as if each of the last three years was a decade. When I descended into Gavarnie I was filled with pride: in a week I’d gone from thinking my trip was over to overcoming some of the hardest days the HRP had to throw at me. I had proven much to myself, but I also knew it was time to get serious about letting my knee heal.

 

Cirque de Lescun

Pic du Midi d'Ossau, from west

Pic du Midi d'Ossau, from south

The Passage d'Orteig

The Refuge d'Arrémoulit

The Lacs d'Arrémoulit

Traversing snowfields 

Balaïtous, first peak above 3000 meters

Vignemale, from the west

Vignemale, the southwest face up close

The north face of the Vignemale massif at sunset 

Vignemale, from the east

The Cirque de Gavarnie

 

The third section stayed primarily in Spain during the nine days between Gavarnie and Salardú. During this time the HRP passed some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees, and the landscapes were enchanting. The normal HRP route includes four extremely difficult days in a row over snow and boulder fields and high passes. I decided to take a three-day variant following the GR 11 (the Spanish route) during this part for a variety of reasons, chiefly for the sake of my knee. 

For me, this was the most social stage of the entire hike. As my knee improved, I was able to hike with other people again. I reunited with hikers that I’d previously met, and I spent the majority of the section walking with others. I enjoyed the company, the conversations, and the cooperation. People went from meeting each other to feeling like old friends within a matter of days. Chatting made the time fly on trail. I was even gifted with a few hot cups of herbal tea. All of this prompted me to reflect on myself and my relationships back home. I wondered often about what type of person I truly am at my core, and what that means for the people around me. Bit by bit my knee healed, as I crossed the halfway point of my trip.

 

The mist receding

Vignemale, in the distance from the east 

Pico Posets, second highest in the Pyrenees

A birthday party for John 

Estany de Rius

Brushing teeth at sunrise 

Estany de Tort de Rius

Estany de Mar

From the summit of Montardo d'Aran, looking west towards Aneto (the highest peak in the Pyrenees)

From Montardo d'Aran, looking southeast towards the Parque Nacional de Aiguestortes

The Estany des Monges

Over halfway across the Pyrenees 

 

The fourth section crossed some of the most remote areas of the Spanish and Andorran Pyrenees in the ten days from Salardú to Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre. The area was so remote, in fact, that there was essentially no place to restock on food for the entire duration of the section, so on day one I crawled out of town with an absurdly heavy pack.

The rain finally caught up with me as well. Every afternoon, like clockwork, clouds darkened the sky, and most nights they let loose. It wasn’t a tremendous hindrance, however, because the rain usually began after I’d stopped hiking for the day. This region contained many unstaffed shelters along the trail, so I often had protection from the rain if I really needed it. While the clouds did provide some welcome shade during the day, they didn’t create ideal lighting for photographs. As I approached Hospitalet I could sense the beginning of the end. I began to look back on the trip, think about how I’d changed, and try to grasp what it all meant going forward.

Sunrise to the east of Salardú

Andorra

Not a road within miles 

 

The fifth and final stage of the HRP consisted of ten days between Hospitalet and Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was afraid that it might be less interesting after having completed the rest of the traverse. The last section, however, still had much in store for me—including the highest point of my entire trip, an incredible two-day ridge walk, and one crazy thunderstorm. Any concerns that it would be too easy were further invalidated by the fact that I compressed the ten days of hiking into just eight. Over the course of those eight days, I appreciated the most diverse scenery of the entire hike: desolate alpine peaks, grassy high plateaus, and the dry Mediterranean bramble. 

As I neared the finish, I became increasingly elated by the probability of my success. Only a few obstacles stood in my way; I only needed to avoid stupid mistakes. With greater frequency I passed hikers going west to east on the trail—just starting. The beginning of my trip seemed both unfathomably distant and undoubtedly proximal. It felt, simultaneously, as if I’d started my journey years ago and as if I’d started it the day before. Either way, I certainly felt changed by it. 

Due to poor weather on the Pic de Canigou, I didn’t see the ocean until the penultimate day. I had prepared myself to be impatient towards the end, yet I found that I was simply excited. I was saturated with a constant happiness. I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face as I drew closer to the Mediterranean, as Banyuls came into sight, and as I descended for the last time. I prepared myself for anticlimax as I entered the calm streets of Banyuls. I saw the beach, packed with sun-soaked crowds. I slowly walked up to the water, crouched down, and let it lap against my dirty hands. Puzzled beachgoers observed a single, oddly clothed man with a giant backpack, completely unaware of the gravity of what he had just accomplished. 

 

The Pic Carlit, notice the trail 

The summit of Pic Carlit 

Pic du Canigou in the distance at sunrise 

Ascending towards Canigou in the mist 

The Brèche Durier underneath Canigou 

The summit of Canigou 

A break in the clouds 

Arles-sur-Tech, approaching the Mediterranean

An abundance of wild blackberries

Canigou from the east 

Banyuls on the right

Finished.

Celebrating in Banyuls 

 

So what now? I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I still don’t know if I’m an introvert or extrovert or both. I still don’t know whether or not, at the deepest, most hidden level of my being, I’m a bad person. I still don’t know exactly to what extent I should regulate my interactions with technology. I still don’t know if or when or where I want to establish my roots. I still don’t know whether I should give money to panhandlers. I still don’t know why women do what they do. I still don’t know why Donald Trump is number one in the GOP presidential primaries right now. 

I do know that I’m well rested in body and mind. I know that when your greatest stress is physical, you’re living a pleasant life. I know that, after a month and a half of eating out of an old peanut butter jar and sleeping in a plastic bag on the ground (albeit an expensive plastic bag), I want to live a more minimalistic life. I know that I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned to hiking in the U.S. I know that I want to get involved with more serious mountaineering. I know that completing the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail) is now a long-term goal of mine. I know that the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne has been the biggest dream that I’ve conceived of, planned, and achieved in my entire life. I know that that I’m enormously grateful for my experience in the Pyrenees, and I know that someday I’ll be back again. 

 

Before and after


See my video of the HRP here.

A Dream—The Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne

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I awoke in the cold mountain hut the same way I went to bed—alone. It was the second day of my hike through the Parc National des Pyrénées in October 2012. The day before, I had slowly ascended the Gaube Valley towards the Pic de Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. But as I had drawn closer, the weather had worsened. From my map I could tell that I was close to the base of the mountain, but I hadn't actually seen it yet due to the thick gray mist. As I stirred some nuts into my oatmeal, I glanced outside to see the clouds retreat for an instant, revealing a dramatic wall of granite right before my eyes. The rush of perspective overwhelmed me with awe, and then the valley was veiled again with clouds just as quickly as it had been uncovered.

Nevertheless, I set off and hiked for the entire morning without seeing more than fifty feet through the fog. It was a grueling path, working up to the highest point I would reach in my entire trip. The air became thinner: I made a push, paused, and restarted without any proof of progress from my surroundings. Then, suddenly, the sun burst over the ridge-line to my left, immediately banishing the mist. Everything around me glistened with dew, and directly in front of me—close—the spire of Vignemale shone brilliantly.

 

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I think that moment of rapture, when both the light and the jagged mountains pierced through the clouds, was when I first sensed I would return to the Pyrenees. It was a slow realization that I wasn't anywhere near done here. In the months following my trip, the sense turned into an idea: to traverse the entire range from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. In the months following my return to America, the idea turned into a dream. Then over time the dream intensified and crystallized into a plan—the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne.

The Pyrenean Haute Route, as it's called in English (or even more commonly just the HRP), is just one of several ways to hike across the Pyrenees. The GR 10 runs all the way across on the French side. It has a twin on the Spanish side, the GR 11. Both of these trails are well-developed and well-traveled, often providing a mountain refuge for the hiker each night. The HRP, on the other hand, is more of an idea than an actual trail. It attempts the follow the highest walkable path all the way across the Pyrenees, frequently crossing the border while linking together bits of the GR 10 and GR 11 with local trails, livestock paths, and bushwhacking. Over the course of 45 days the HRP thru-hiker travels almost 500 miles with 140,000 feet of elevation change. Quite the ambition.

Yet even though I've had this dream for so long, it's often proven difficult to communicate—most of all to a close friend whose wedding I'm missing, to parents concerned for my safety and unclear future, and to a woman I love dearly but from whom I'm voluntarily prolonging separation. When I tell people I'm going on a 45-day hike alone in the mountains, the nearly unanimous response is, “You're crazy.” The rest say, “Be careful.”

Part of what draws me is the challenge. I’m guessing the HRP will be the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, and that's very appealing. It will also be a test of my wilderness skills—most of all, navigation. There will certainly be a mental challenge as well, which I've heard can often be the most taxing part of a thru-hike. I crave the feeling of success and accomplishment that can only come from pushing oneself to the absolute limit and overcoming.

A few people expressed interest in doing the hike with me, but an essential part of my dream has always been solitude. This of course amplifies the challenge and raises the stakes, but I feel that solitude has inherent value, especially when interacting with the natural world. Being alone enables deeper introspection and reflection—maybe even making them necessities. Of course it'd be nice to experience some self-discovery or revelation along the way, but you can never expect these things. 

I think it'll be good for my health. I'm not in peak physical condition at the moment, and that's not a great feeling. I’ve known the vitality that comes from having a fit mind and body and I wouldn't mind returning to that level of fitness. Also, as a sort of experiment, I'm abstaining from caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for the duration of the hike. It's not that I consume any of these in excess, but they are easy things to cut out and I'm curious to see if it will have any effect on me. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I want to look tan and lean for all those pool parties I'll attend when I get back to the U.S. in August. 

So here I am, about to start this hike. I’m about to begin what I’ve dreamt of for more than two years. After spending so much time gathering information, reflecting, and planning, the moment has finally arrived. Just like any other major event, it doesn’t seem real now that it’s here. Whether it feels real or not, tomorrow morning I'm going to walk down to the beach in Hendaye, touch the water, and turn to walk east. Wish me luck.