Sunday, July 20, 2008


This is my blog of the walking trip from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through the length of the Pyrenees, of three gentlemen from New Zealand.
HOW TO READ THIS BLOG: Because blogs are a continuous chronological chain of entries, the best way to follow the blog is to read (scroll down) each page, then go to the list of dated entries to the right of the screen and click on the oldest one at the top of the list (Ignore the "older posts" html tag at the bottom of each page otherwise you will end up going backwards through the blog).
I hope you find it of interest. It is still being built and new photos and entries are being added in a haphazard fashion as and when I find the time.

Este es el blog de tres caballeros de Nueva Zelanda que caminaron del mar Atlántico hasta el Mediterraneo a través de lo largo de los Pirineos. Como los blogs están escritos como una história continua, para leerlo desde el principio hay que ir a la lista de los artículos fechados a la derecha en la pantalla, y cliquear en lo mas viejo arriba de todos (No toquen la frase "older posts" abajo sino le llevará hacia atrás). Espero que lo encuentren de interés. Todavía está bajo construcción y voy añadiendo nuevas fotos y paráfos cuando tenga tiempo libre para hacerlo.

The 3 Chris's (Jackson, Martin, Bennett - left to right)

The GR11 Plan

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The plan is to walk a distance of 875 kilometres following the border of Spain and France. Starting at Cabo Higuer on the Atlantic coast near the Basque village of Hondarribia, and moving along the spine of the Pyrenees, climb up and into the high peaks of Aragon, cross through into Andorra, over into Catalonia and back down towards the coast finishing at the Cape of the Cross (Cap de Creus), the easternmost point of mainland Spain which juts out into the Mediterranean just south of the French border.

The squiggly white line in the map above is the border between France and Spain. It is more or less our route. We were travelling west to east (left to right). You can zoom in on the map to check out places I talk about in the blog.

The logistics of the journey were a little difficult to plan because we had trouble finding out any definite information; and despite the fact that I speak fluent Spanish, that continued to be a difficulty right throughout the walk. Basically while a lot of people walk short sections of the GR11, not many actually follow the whole route in one hit. Naively I imagined it to be a well marked, national trail with a carefully maintained footpath; rather like the Camino de Santiago, the reality however was quite different. Some parts were well marked, a lot of it though was a case of taking an educated guess as to where we were supposed to go.

The other issue was our equipment. I had decided, against all advice, to start the walk at the beginning of autumn. I reasoned that there would be a lot less people around (a good thing as far as I am concerned), and we would not have to walk through the summer heat. The problem of starting a 6 week walk at the beginning of September was that we would be marching at high altitude towards the oncoming winter snows. I did not want to carry ice axes, crampons, etc., but nonetheless we needed to carry warm clothing, tents, survival blankets, first aid equipment and other stuff for below zero temperatures. As my catalan friend Albert, who has many years experience with the high Pyrenees, said to me: "One day it can be 25 degrees above zero, and the next it can be 25 degrees below". We didn't know it at the time, but that's exactly what we were going to experience.

Also, as we would be doing this trip outside of the tourist season, we could not rely on a lot of the usual accommodation being open and available which meant carrying tents and sleeping gear, and many of the shops that are open in the summer period would be closed so we had to prepare to carry provisions for 3 or 4 days at a time.

In the end, after some months of minimising everything we had to take, we still ended up with about 18 kilos each on our backs, plus on average about another 4 to 5 kilos of food and water. Water in particular was an issue in the sense that in the lower areas where we walked there were a lot of animals (both wild and domesticated) so you could not rely on the quality of the water. I carried a UV water steriliser but still we started every day carrying about 3 litres of water each. Once we arrived in the higher alpine areas in the centre of the Pyrenees we were able to drink directly from mountain springs (beautiful water) but they were few and far between, and once again because it had been a dry summer there was not a lot of water about.

Fuel to cook with was another challenge, again due to the time of year there were going to be very few places to buy replacement fuel cannisters. I decided on a MSR lightweight multi-fuel stove. It would run on most anything including lead-free petrol, which actually became our main fuel simply because it was the most easily available. The problem then became one of weight versus fuel quantity. We calculated that we could carry enough fuel to cook 4 evening meals for the 3 of us, given that we planned to spend up to 4 days away from civilisation at a time in certain sections of the walk. This did not allow us to cook anything for breakfast or lunch, or allow us to brew up a cup of coffee at any time except one after the evening meal. 

With the food, we planned for 3 basic meals a day. We had to travel through a village about every 3 to 4 days where we could reprovision (and stay in a hotel - soft bed, hot shower, restaurant meals with wine, luxury!!) and so while en route we settled on the following menu:
Breakfast - cold porridge with raisins ( sounds horrible but if you prepare it the following way it is not at all too bad and boy does it get you through a hard morning's climbing. Buy rolled oats (spanish: Copos de Avena) and raisins (Sp: Pasas) and powdered milk (Sp: Leche en polvo). Mix together and bag it. Every night put a cupful per person into your cooking pot and cover well with cold water. Leave to soak overnight. In the morning simply scoop out your portion into a bowl, add a bit more water, and eat like muesli. You could heat it up if you wanted to but we wanted to absolutely minimise on the use of fuel so we wouldn't have to carry too much.
Lunch: the local goat cheeses, salamis and hams are excellent and keep well. We also carried cans of sardines and tuna. Most of the local bread available unfortunately is not of great quality and does not keep well. Occasionally we found packets of German dark pumpernickel bread, thinly sliced in 500 gram packets; great food. We also carried oranges; heavy to carry but the only fruit available that was durable enough to last and wouldn't get crushed to a pulp in our packs.
Dinner was the only time we used cooking fuel and to minimise that we kept it basic: packet soups, and instant pasta dishes.
We also took along big bars of chocolate and packets of digestive biscuits which we rationed out to make them last. Amazing how a single portion of dark chocolate tastes just so good after a lunch of cheese, chorizo or sardines on bread.

A walk from the Bay of Biscay to Cap de Creus

This is the beginning. I have been thinking about this walk for 15 years. It all began when I was living in Barcelona. I went there for a holiday in 1988 and ended up staying until 1993, meeting and marrying a Catalan woman, Anna, who came as a package with her beautiful daughter, 4 year old Angela, and then we all got lucky and Emma came into our lives.

While I was living there, thanks to my friend Sergi Rovira, I was introduced to the then nascent sport of Barranquismo; Canyoning as it is now called in English. It involves climbing up to high points in the mountains where small streams launch themselves over cliff edges and the idea is that, using abseiling techniques, you follow the streams down to their ultimate ends. Sergi and I were on a weekend expedition up in the Catalan Pyrenees and while we were resting in a forest clearing near Sant Aniol, two walkers with backpacks appeared out of the forest. I asked them where they were from and they told me "Hondarribia" (that is way over on the Atlantic coast at the other end of the Pyrenees) and they said they had walked from there. I was impressed and thought the idea of walking the length of this mountain range was a good one. It took me 15 years to get around to it due to bringing up children, work reponsibilities, house mortgages, etc. Finding 2 months to disappear from the world ain't easy these days.

2 years ago (2005) I started to think seriously about getting on with it before I wouldn't be able to (the body ain't getting any younger). Initially I was thinking about a solo adventure, but having done more than my fair share of travelling by myself over the years (55 different countries so far), I wasn't adverse to the idea of sharing the trip though I didn't really go out looking for anyone, as it turned out they found me. I think at one point there were about 7 people that wanted to come along but I didn't want a crowd so settled on Chris Bennett who I work with and we had been friends for a while. A builder by trade and a fair bit younger than me, he had done a lot of tramping in the Tararua Ranges of the southern North Island of New Zealand, a tough bit of real estate.

Chris Jackson then put his hand up. A chef and a tramping and fishing guide, he was a good man to have along on an expedition like this. He came on board and then that was the three of us. Three Chris's.

So it's now March 13, 2007. I leave New Zealand on August 20 for Barcelona and then organise myself over to Hondaribbia on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, right on the border with France. The plan is to go with the two other Chris's (always good to have spares), Bennett and Jackson, and walk through to the Mediterranean.

The walk is a distance of 875km approximately and we start at sea level and finish at sea level. We will be walking the length of the range of mountains that separates Spain from France, the Pyrenees (Los Pirineos en castellano, Els Pirineus en catalan, Pirinioak en Euskera). Starting in Euskadi (the Basque country), we will be climbing up over passes and down into valleys every day. Initially the heights won't be that great but little by little our altitude will climb and we will probably be spending almost half the time at altitudes over 2000 metres above sea level. Over the distance we have a total climb of 37,000 metres up and obviously a total fall of the same amount, to finally finish at Cap de Creus on the shores of the Mediterranean.

A lot to organise between now and then, and setting up this blog is one of the things I want to do. I am hoping that modern technology will allow me to send photos and text from my cellphone while on this walk to this website so that everyone who may be vaguely interested in what I'm up to can check on my progress.

In the groove


Today was a great day. As usual it started with a hard climb but once we got up to the pass it was a cruise and high country walking of the highest calibre.
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Aguas Tuertas, Aragon

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The Paris Madrid flight.


During the course of the walk we must have seen hundreds of jet streams from planes crossing the Pyrenees. Sometimes there were so many jet streams that the winds would spread and mix them and what had been a cloudless sky became cloudy because of the planes.
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Big country


Mr. Bennett on top of Ezcaurri,
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Nuthin but up...

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There is no way around it, you have to go over it. With a 20 kilo pack it was never going to be easy.
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Peña Ezcaurri here we come...

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The big stuff

The cloud cover you can see trying to crawl over the mountains is coming from the north, France.
Sometimes it would catch us, sometimes we were lucky.
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Getting directions

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Its all up from here...

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Bosque de Irati

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To Irati

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On the way to Orbaiceta

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Mountains of Aragon

Looking east from Navarra towards the high peaks of Aragon is exciting though worrying at the same time. I couldn't imagine how I was going to make it through the steep climbs and drops over the next couple of weeks. This wasn't helped by the fact that I had just received word from Lola in Barcelona that the son of a friend of hers had started the GR11 about 2 weeks before us and had just given up in Alto Aragon because he couldn't take the heights and difficult terrain.
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The Bennett

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

7 months later.

Well we have been back in New Zealand for 7 months now and the Big Walk seems like distant history however I have been promising myself that I want to tweak the blog a bit. We have a lot more photos now and the early entries at the beginning of the walk weren't that detailed so they need to be upgraded. I want to see if I can also put a map on the blogsite showing the actual walk that we did (we did a few extras apart from the GR11, climbing to the top of Puigmal for example and a visit over to the Sierra de Cadi).
Now that the pain in my feet has subsided my thoughts are turning to the next challenge; I like Spain so maybe a walk through the Picos de Europa? Its only 250 kilometres so it would be, as Mr. Bennett was so fond of saying as we struggled uphill in the Pyrenees, a walk in the park.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The FOUR Chris's

All 4 now including Chris Little (the one and only) of Cap de Chaos...I mean Creus. Do not go past this place without eating here...amazing.