Sunday, July 20, 2008

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.

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