Haute Route Pyrenees:
The travel from Iceland had me bushed, just plumb tuckered out. A flight at 2am from Reykjavik to Madrid, plus a connection to San Sebastián, had me up nearly 24 hours. So, once I walked to Hendaye from the airport, I wrapped up some last minute route chores, grabbed some food, and settled in for the night early. I tried to sleep as much as I could before starting the Haute Route Pyrenees. I knew this route would be formidable, especially with the pace I had wanted to undertake. With the effort of recouping some lost sleep, I kept my excitement at bay. In Reykjavik, after coming off the Iceland Crossing feeling sky-high, I eagerly awaited the HRP. I felt strong and confident. I had been eyeing the HRP since ‘14, and now I would get a tackle at it in top shape. I knew the route would probably be the toughest since the Grand Canyon Traverse, too. Just this thought alone stirred me up. Sitting around in a coffee shop or a bar in Reykjavik and planning the route, I wiggled in my seat.
I also changed my end date in Europe due to a memorial for the passing of a friend. I would get home earlier to attend his memorial. So, this left a gap after the HRP and my return home, the gap not big enough for my initial intention of hiking the GTA but just long enough to do something smaller. I just wouldn’t have enough time to tackle the GTA, and that was okay with me. About to set foot on the HRP, things felt so much closer to the end of this huge year. I had not thought about it much up until that point. I had kept my mindset in the moment and on task with whatever adventure was at hand. Now I found myself eager to cap this year long adventure off and return home.
Yet, I first needed to capture sleep. I laid around in bed until I deemed it time to go down to the buffet. I scarfed down as much food as I could without looking like an uncouth American idiot. Already with my French being terrible, my manners probably were not too far behind. Plus, with my scraggly and long bearded appearance, I made for an unusual sight: an American bigfoot wandering across the mountainous countryside. I struggled deciphering some aspects of the French breakfast Buffett. Since I couldn’t really communicate in French I just went in clumsily and surreptitiously, embarrassed by my growling stomach and lack of proper manners. I had to hide an egg in an empty tub of yogurt to see if it was hard boiled or not. It wasn’t and the yolk leaked and filled the tub. I felt so thankful for my obstructed seat at the table, odd pillars blocking the sight of me. Not only was I somewhat hidden from the other patrons but I could spy on the others. I wanted to see how to eat these damn eggs. After a few minutes of observation, I finally figured out how to boil an egg and eat it. I hid the use of my hands and fingers. I wolfed down my food and slurped my coffee and juice, part anxiety to get on trail, part anxiety to get out of sight of the proper French tourists. The French must think I’m a bear, I thought, and I nervously ate my way through the rest of the meal. I left the hotel and wandered down to the beach and laid my palm in the shallow and rippling waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Then, I set off through the streets of Hendaye.
I moseyed out of town at a chill pace. Flowers decorated the sidewalks of the bustling beach side city of Hendaye. Instantly, I was smiling at the fact it was the middle of summer. The warmth of the sun felt so good. After the long nights of the Bibbulmun Track and the blustery chilly weather of the Iceland Crossing, I was excited to have long warm days in comfortable clothing and lighter gear. My dark suntan would come back, that bronze swarthy skin I had in the Outback. I ran into other hikers going the westbound direction as they were about to finish whatever trail they were on, respectively. I even ran into a German fellow who was about to finish the Hexatrek. We happened to be on the PCT in ‘16, although we never met. We talked about how the PCT is the best trail in the world. After a nice chat, I moseyed on.
The track went up into hills and stayed there, the city getting farther and farther away. Cows, horses and people out for day hikes crowded the trail. But, it was all pleasant. I think I was just excited at the sight of animals, too. Just everything felt ‘in season.’ Everything felt like the perfect time to be hiking and enjoying summer. After the rugged hilly day of trekking in warm weather, I set up a bivouac camp under some oak trees adjacent to some picnic benches. I laid there after dinner and just listened to the myriad of animals. Birds tweeted, bees buzzed, crickets chirped, cows mooed and grunted, horses neighed, grazing bells rang, a fox or some canine squealed a puny howl, dogs barked, chickens squawked, the sheep bashed----such a fairy tale. Everything seemed so much more vividly alive than the past two routes I had been on. As I laid down, a friendly Spanish family came for an evening picnic. We joked and laughed at the cows who had turned so curious at the group of people from across the road. The cows poked their rubber noses through the gaps in the barbed fenceline. The cows tussled for position, their bulging eyes wide and fixated on us. A couple of dogs ran around free and unleashed looking like they too were excited to get away from home. After an hour, the group wished me a good night and left. I shut my eyes and became lulled asleep by the bells of grazing animals ringing lazily like wind chimes in a summertime breeze.
The heat persisted early in the day, sweltering and humid. My legs picked up a bit after a sluggish first day. I hadn’t known I was sluggish until I laid down to sleep. I had minor soreness but that went away as I got loosened up. By noon, I strolled into the tiny village Ordoki. I laid in the shade of a bridge built by the Romans, some 2,000 years ago. I washed off and splashed off, cooled off by the fortune of chilly water. Then, I began another ascent in the heat of the day. I took my time and indulged in whatever shade I could find under groves of birch. At the top, clouds began to spread across the sky. My views became limited and a halo of smothering clouds covered the skyline of peaks and ridges. In Aldudes, I took a long break because I seemed to be an ahead of schedule for the day. I did some minor shopping and ate a huge lunch. A 2,500ft climb ensued and I crushed it. The clouds reinvigorated me and gave me boosts of energy, the heat stifled by the cloud cover. On top of an undulating crest, I ran into horses and goats, a pastoral existence up high above the French hamlets down below. Soon enough, I walked into the cloud layer that had now moved in. A fine mist pattered me but I stayed warm with my movement. I set up camp near a sheep corral as the mist turned to rain.
More or less cloud cover all the next day, a fine thick layer hovered about a thousand feet beneath the peaks; I was walking within the clouds. Once on top or in that layer, some instances I couldn’t see a 100ft in front of me. At one point a driving rain drenched me straight on in the face. I moved quickly and scurried for a couple miles to get to a metal shed that I hoped would be empty. It was, and I waited out the rain, although the clouds and fog dug deeper and I could here ice pellets splattering the shed. I dried out a bit inside and that peeked my spirits up. After a couple naps in a few hours, I sauntered off. The day continued with the dense fog, so typical of Basque country, but the temps rose and the drizzle ceased. The bells of the grazing animals the only sign of existence in my silver globe, I would hear the bells off into a grey abyss and think they would be so close. Yet my perception was distorted. How sound moved in this foggy world. I felt like the cows and horses were buoys in a bleak port in the wee hours of an autumn morning. I didn’t think of much today. Really, I wanted the rhythm of yesterday. Well, I mean I did have the rhythm of yesterday; I just didn’t have the views. This didn’t bring me down, however. I just kept at it, one foot in front of the other. I found a camp in a wide open green space. I spotted the fringe under some trees right next to the river. I hadn’t seen the sun all day, so I was ready for a warm meal and shelter. I couldn’t believe I got more than my anticipated mileage that day.
Hiking is a constant reflection. There is nothing like it in any endeavor for me. At the same time, hiking is the endeavor that is most in the moment, the most present. I poked my head out of my shelter and saw a few rays of morning light persevering through the puffy stratus layer of fog. I saw what was out there, and I packed up and hiked towards it. I sought the warmth of the sun. I found it and stood there with my eyes closed and thought of nothing of that warmth of the sun. I soaked in the love of the sun and forgot about everything that ever was. At Col d’Iraty the alpine country opened up. High pointy peaks jutted into the crystalline blue sky, water crystals still shimmering in the chilly morning atmosphere. From here, I found my escape from the fog and mist and the suffocating swath of clouds. I had pointy peaks piercing the blue sky. I tingled with the warmth of the rays of sun spattering my face. I pushed on up towards the ridge escarpment of Pic d’Orhy, the first proper peak. On the way up, I focused on the task at hand, present and breathing, dialed in, thriving, feeling the body in unison with my breath with each step. From the top, I see the landscape far off ahead, aspirations for the future, growth, forward progress, and humility through hard work. The skyline looked intimidating. At the top, peak baggers hovered in small groups like day trippers in the Rockies bagging a 14er. I found a nook between two small boulders painted with cow shit. I nestled in between and ate my lunch of bread, cheese, and sausage. I gazed out over the High Pyrenees to the east. A stiff breeze dried my sweat and a warmth from the glorious sun singed my arms and face. My eyes squinted and I traced the skyline of rugged peaks in front of me. I could envision where I was headed, like a sprite flitting through a forest of flowers. I thought of the sprite whisking through wildflowers and the ragged peaks looked a bit less intimidating.
Then, the crest undulated like a roller coaster. The grassy slopes rolled up and down from peaks and gaps. Tremendous views, peak after peak after peak, reached out in front of me, an endless scope of mountains. The texture changed quickly just as quickly as I went from the foggy Basque country to the pointy peaks and then to the grassy slopes. Now, massive limestone walls and escarpments gleamed in the afternoon sun. The limestone landscape was utterly fascinating and dry as a bone, like walking atop a scrap pile of bleached bones. The deer/goat like creature, izards, scampered along the sharp limestone with magnificent agility. A slew of them hopped about, on guard. I would hear a couple of the goats scuff and snort, that mixture of sound that an antelope makes. High basins filled in with the limestone karst and sinkholes; you could tell where the water went. So, obviously I found not a trace of water. This sector of limestone seemed so out of place, a division line between the coastal ranges and the very high alpine region of the Iberian Peninsula strip between France and Spain. I don't know how I found a camp up there with every square inch littered or covered with sharp limestone. But, I did, creatively, in between some limestone ribs, barely a patch of grass or dirt around. Around me, on knobs and mounds, warped pine trees, wind blown and hardened, endured the barren rock. The wind howled and whistled through the cavernous landscape. I fell asleep to the empty howls of wind rifling through limestone ribs, alley ways, and ridgelines.
A clear morning in the world of limestone perked me awake. I felt the sunlight filtering through my sheltering, the red gleam behind my eyelids Mother Nature's alarm clock. On the descent I ran into some friendly mules. I enjoyed their company for a few minutes. Two mules sandwiched me and nudged my hands for some petting. As I descended, further misty clouds covered the craggy limestone cliffs and serrated ridges above. As I neared the village of Lescun, I couldn’t help but marvel at the quaint and rustic French countryside below. I strolled past the latticework of pastoral grounds that surrounded a stone home at each rectangular plot. The serene scene was something out of a movie. Plots of vibrant green grass and wildflowers adorned the lower flanks of the hills beneath the dark green birch and pine forests. The scene was quite picaresque and dreamy. I couldn’t help but think that most of those cottages are of familial lineages, passed down from generation to generation, something so completely foreign to me coming from the western U.S. Everything from the stone walls and posts, to the barns and the cottages, to the bridges and alleyways and streets, everything was beautifully old. The stone homes were decorated simply with various colors of potted flowers. In Lescun, I ate a couple lunches of quiche and lasagna, both homemade. I chatted up Tristan, the young local waiter who had been a foreign exchange student in Indiana last year. He helped me get sorted on the little things, this having been my first true town stop—charging my phone, other little trivial things that made me nervous, and of the like. I tried to explain Hoosiers to him, but he was way too young. I described the Rockies and Colorado. His eyes lit up: ‘Ay, mas major de Indiana.’
After town I started up towards the next pass. I met Columbus and Blue Bear, Brits who live in France now, who were on the HRP again this time with their infant daughter and 2 year old son. So impressed by the physical and mental feat and the family unity, I asked them so many questions on the how-to's of such a different way of hiking. They had hiked the PCT in '17. Down the rabbit hole we went pleasantly talking about the PCT. We spoke about how the PCT is the best trail in the world. The PCT is the one trail that could be hiked and re-hiked again and again. Once every 3-5 years seemed about the right duration in between hikes. They had such an infectious enthusiasm. It was so cool to see folks so happy about long distance hiking, even more so as a family.
Up at Col de Pau, the clouds swirled and collided with each other then dissipated into the ether. Round after round would occur, the crest getting slammed by vaporous clouds. Every so often I would be mesmerized by the views of the surrounding limestone monoliths and crags. Then, the mystified air of wispy clouds would slam shut the vista. I hit a mile long stretch of fog and ran into a herd of horses, their large bells clanging, the huge shadowy figures silhouetted in the shroud of fog. I hit a shoulder on the crest and rounded it through a gap. Suddenly the clouds vanished and a huge ferrous red striped buttress appeared in front of me, a murky blood red conglomerate of crumbly rock smushed together. The trail contoured under the deep red walls. I could see the trail meandering for a while, a dream of a trail. I continued on the crest and past a crowded refuge, the overnighters missing the best part of the day. On and on, the terrain opened up beautifully. Alpine grass carpeted the hanging valleys above treeline, Strips of streams lazily meandered through the meadows and glistened in the fading afternoon sun. The whole hillsides struck up a colorful glow that highlighted the striations of rock and the blanketing tundra. I continued still and went through another high basin filled with sheep. More and more peaks appeared, taller and pointier. I descended a long ways down until I reached a huge valley and set up camp on a bluff overlooking a meadow. What an incredible day. That night, as the evening air cooled the valley, I ate cheese for dessert because I am in the Pyrenees. So, why not?
I reached the town of Candachu in the late morning. A tiny town on the Spanish side of the Pyrenean border, the highway that switchbacked through town buzzed with weekend activity. I found a small store to resupply in and then headed over to a small café. The owner of the café, a tatted up rock-a-billy from Madrid, made me two meals within an hour of each other. I devoured the large breakfast dish. Then, did the same for the lunch dish. She hadn’t seen anyone eat like that before.
"Helados?" she said.
"No, otro mas...un bocadillo de loma, por favor."
She looked at me incredulously. "Ah, claro, si si, eres tan muy grande.’ We laughed together. It’s nice to know no matter what continent I am on I can impress anyone with my appetite. We continued chatting in my broken Spanish and her broken English. It was small talk, but I enjoyed the simplicity of just relating with another person. We complained about where we were from, both big cities, and how we prefer the mountains now and never want to go back to any large metropolis. We now have too much disgust for any big city. She let me linger in the restaurant even after my meals. I charged my phone and just relaxed. After a while I left. She stood on the sidewalk waving me on.
As with creativity, leave a little in the idea tank, the stream of consciousness must not be dammed and will grow with flow. We must revisit these streaming waters, to grow on with, to seed and nurture the creativity of the day, of the next year. Even though an end is not in sight, or the vision is obscured by the moment, we must save up the well of creativity to entertain the freshness of newness. And, because of this thought, I was not bothered by the heaps and heaps of people out enjoying the backcountry. I just didn’t care. I probably would have minded, say if I were in the High Sierra or the San Juan. I just wasn't bothered by any of it out here. Certainly, I was seeing something for the first time. The mountains of any range in any place feel like a museum to me. When I first see that mountainous museum I cannot help but feel the freshness of first-time seen art. Why piss on the genius and beauty of art in a museum just because of the tourists? I can block it out if I have to. And, I did just that.
Of course, over the pass and down some hardscrabble trail I hit the refuge at the foot of a lake nestled in a huge cirque. Towering sheer cliffs loomed over the basin. Impressive as the cliffs were I fell into that human trap of ‘it’s not me that’s the problem, but the others…’ The cirque and basin resembled a corral for the hordes of people and horses. Such a buzz of activity hovered right around the refuge and the lake. The lake even resembled a giant shared bathtub. People scrubbed themselves off with soap. The beautiful alpine lake lost its lustrous sky blue tinkling. The strong aroma of fire singed in the air. It was at least 80 degrees and 3pm. ‘What for…’ I thought, ‘I can block it out if I have to.’ It is so funny to be so far from anywhere yet so close to everywhere. Wilderness is not an idea here. It is merely a word with a definition. A philosophy is not behind it. At least with the Basque grazing and shepherding in the mountains, it was a way of life beyond generations. I understand why everyone stops here at Refugio de Pombie. I truly do. The high country scene is spectacular. Surely we can piss in the art museum directly under a world class work of art and want to visit again. Would we visit the art museum if it was filled with shit? Pun intended, I’m sure my drift is caught. Maybe I like it better when we people are simply moving, passing one another by on this trail of life to where we go we do not know. And yet maybe it’s not? I mean, wilderness is not an art museum. What I was blabbering about was eco-tourism. I am a part of it too. I’m actually an even bigger part of it out here. I am not from this country. Most of these people are and this is how they do it. I thought about this as I departed the basin, just how lucky I am, how grateful I am to see these places before they are all gone or completely changed. I pressed on down a lonesome valley. The only company the clanging of the bells dangling off the bulky neck of cattle. I so recognized I am a literal walking contradiction in so many ways.
Yet why am I bitching so much. It feels so petty and silly. I really don’t think about the crap I’m complaining about anyways. It doesn’t linger in my head for too long. I just don’t like crowds no matter where I am at. I am in complete and utter joy and glee out here in the mountains. My senses are piqued, my body is riding good, my head is so clear. All of it…THIS…this place is perfect, these blissful mountains.
I pushed up into another drainage and hiked up into the clouds. I camped just shy of Col d’Arrious, nearly my 4th pass of the day. I found a small basin within a stones throw from the pass and camped in the clouds as water vapor misted against my shelter. After a comfortably chilly night of sleep, I woke up refreshed, probably from both the morning mist and the deep sleep. So, I lingered and dragged a bit to get going, despite being up early. The clouds and fog still swallowed up the basin I was in. I lingered in my warm and snug quilt not wanting to get wet. I left an hour later than usual. I had become aware of an early morning storm the next day, so the late start wasn’t ideal. I wanted to get a beat on it and have a good chance at getting to Gavarnie by midday of the storm. I finally broke camp and scrambled quickly up the last couple hundred feet to the shrouded pass. I found a hidden lake tucked in a high cirque, the fog just barely hanging over the surface. I scaled a rocky ridge and then traversed a stretch of crumbled rock along a thin pathway on a damp cliff face. A cable set in place extending the length of the traverse eased me across. It wasn’t difficult or technical. I just had to concentrate. The thick fog obscured my vision and the water vapor made the pathway slippery. Despite the fog I could feel the long drop of the couloir that fell precipitously off into an abyss.
The clouds began to dissipate and I took off my rain jacket. From the Col d’Arremoulit, across the deep valley, a high peak sprouted out through the clouds. The alpine lake way down below held a deep turquoise blue. I held the incredible vista in my memory for a second. I gulped in the crystalline air. I scanned the high basin. The granite resembled a gopher snakeskin pattern varnished with a patina of lichen and moss. Splotches of dark water bled down the faces in seeping streaks. In the middle of the scales of rock chunks and blobs of dark green vegetation gave the diamond scale pattern of the snakeskin. I maneuvered down from the pass, the turquoise lake shimmering like a tube in an icy kaleidoscope. I was mesmerized by the hypnotic glimmer of the crystal clear water being pushed by the wind. The high alpine walking continued in perfect serenity.
At one point on the descent from Col de Fache, I found a spring gushing from a gneiss wall, flaky and sparkling in the sunlight, the water pouring out from ribbed cracks, tiny yellow wildflower mounds lining the outflow. I found myself smiling, a huge wide smile. I find springs like this so powerful and special. I paid homage by gulping a liter, my brain freezing from the cold clear water. I splashed my face and ritually thanked the mountain spirits. I filled up 2 liters and pranced down the trail. Beneath the Col d’Aratille, the comical choughs chortled up in the high crevices of gnarled granite. Chasms hung down from within the jagged peaks. The echoes of the choughs careened maniacally. The cacophony seemed to be coming from every direction, like caroms from a pinball machine. The wispy clouds rammed into the high peaks, a lonesome lake nestled in a red quartzite cirque, the ruby colored talus slopes in direct contrast to the smooth worn glaciated walls across the tarn; and the funny birds chortled within something so silent it felt whimsically absurd.
I passed so many lakes that day. I noticed them all, observed them glistening in the scorching sun. I swam in a couple, just gorgeous blue alpine lakes shimmering in the alpine sun that felt so refreshing as hard as I was working. I was consumed by the world of rock that surrounded me, too. The mountains felt endless, views upon views around every bend. And, as usual, after 4pm or so the trail became empty. I had all the beauty I could contain within. At my proposed camp I realized I could stretch the day a bit more considering how early it was. I went for my 5th pass of the day. I hunkered down as the clouds swirled in the massive basin. Waterfalls and gorges gouged the amalgamation of glaciated rock above. I think I even spotted some marble layers, smooth varnished rock as if made by a jeweler. I looked at the map. I couldn’t see the peaks above but I knew they were huge. Just looking at the glaciated destruction confirmed the loftiness of the big peaks. I’m not sure how much elevation I loss and gained today but I knew with the 5 passes, not including the one I camped just shy of, that combined with the 25 miles at least hiked I had my biggest day on the HRP thus far, quite possibly the prettiest day yet too.
Sleet and ice splattered the sides of my tarp, the splitting and tingling noise startling me awake. I figured the storm was upon me. I stayed snuggled in for a bit shutting my eyes again and again hoping to have one last entertaining dream. After an hour or so, the sleet stopped. I had a window and I hurriedly broke camp. The rugged trail spiraled down the huge cavernous cirque, the middle reaches shrouded in gray clouds and encumbered in a thick moisture. As soon as I hit the glacial floodplain, the rain fell in sheets, sideways sheets. The wind raged in. I mentally buckled in. I knew I only had a few hours till the town of Gavarnie. The wind got stronger and stronger, a fierce driving headwind pulsing straight into me. My fingers began to sizzle, tinged with fire. This only confirmed my frostnip hadn’t fully healed since Iceland. I knew it anyways. I gripped tighter and forged ahead. Turned out, when I de-gloved in town I found a couple new blisters on a couple of digits. Either way, I needed to get to town to warm up and get out of the elements.
In town the streets buzzed with activity, as if the rain was an afterthought. The weather was warmer and not raining. Hikers strolled through the streets with all their rain gear on over-prepared and out of place. At least I could tell someone else had been on the shit. The town was stunning—-stone architecture backdropped by the immense Cirque de Gavarnie. After two meals within an hour, including defrosting my hands with 3 piping hot cups of coffee, I checked into the gite d’etape and immediately hit up a piping hot shower. Now I could relax and enjoy a half day off while the weather was shitty outside.
Along long green benches towering above the huge canyon of Gave de Heas, I glanced up amazed to see the dramatic uplift of the jagged range and the precipitous plunging of the deep and narrow canyons to the French countryside to the north…an indelible nature dominated the landscape but semblances of human existence still nestled in flat green ledges, an old civilization still present, still showing the age of a pastoral life, much quieter yet harsher. The scene was beautiful. Massive glaciated walls towered above in the Cirque de Tramousse, the silvery and amazingly smooth limestone glinting in the afternoon light. Below as the canyon dropped and the river cascaded, chunky and mangled red rock walls showed the devastation of time and water and ice. Bizarre lenticular clouds capped the high peaks and swirled furiously in the path of the strong wind. Folded triangular monoliths resembled giant fangs which just made the cirque even more threatening, the jaws of a mountain monolith monster, an iron bear trap massif. Then, the roving clouds swept in and the shadows of the wispy clouds danced on the worn and polished limestone panels, a silent movie of a ravaged landscape. The shadows made the mountain cirque appear to be heaving, breathing. I scaled up a tilted limestone slope angled at 45 degrees or so. The wind pushed in forcefully as I neared the top. A couple of times I had to maintain my balance on the steeply angled limestone ledges. At the crest I had the lofty view of the Cirque de Tramousse. I felt exhilarated. Incredible views abounded in a sweeping panorama. Jagged peaks of the heart of the Pyrenees poked up over every ridge and canyons. I could see where I had come from. The view was breathtaking. Then I hiked up the ridge to only drop off of it and traverse under a huge blocked summit. The wind roared as I tiptoed the catwalk between two high peaks. Down way below I sighted the most incredible sight, another cirque on the backside of the other cirque, the line of peaks carved out, huge epic walls and cliffs shooting directly off the summits. Patches of glacial tarns and a couple lakes sat below the alluvial fans of crumbled rock. I knew the route went down to that cirque but I still had to scale Pic de la Gela immediately in front of me. Minor third class scrambling seemed a bit more difficult with the wind wailing on me but I managed just fine and stood atop the block summit in the center of huge valleys and ranges bracing the holes of wind. I felt so small. I picked my way down the bluffs and hit a pass. From there I had a rugged trail to the cirque under towering limestone cliffs. I pitched camp on the backside of the lake, the one I saw from above, as clouds slammed into the cliffs of the massive cirque. The wind gusted in like a menace. I laid up near the pass to have a shot at the epic ridge run and traverses of the next day: Crete de Port Vieux, the Crete de Bataillence, the Crete du Moudang, and the Crete du Lia. The wind continued to rip through as the sun set and crashed into the enormous headwall. Upon impact, the wind barreled under and careened back like a massive rip curl, the current thrashing everything. I closed my eyes and thought of the ocean, the crashing waves, of a tsunami. Needless to say, it was hard to fall asleep. I just hope the wind dies down a bit, I thought. What a day. Exhilarating and exhausting, epic.
The wind did die down and I woke up to quiet still seas. The vagaries of mountain weather can both be tempestuous and peaceful all at the same time, for nature is still at work, always at work. Alpenglow gleamed on the glaciated headwall, a spectacular light show for the biting cold morning. A bluebird day, worth the prior evening’s wind barrage. I scampered up to the pass and began the traverse. Peak after peak, a beautiful climber trail undulated along the crest. The slabs of rock up ahead where I was headed had a watery sheen even though water wasn’t on the slabs. The slabs gleamed like mica, and the rock was different, those metallic broken plates sounding thin slat pieces one finds up high, the type of talus that’s fun to hike on. My legs dragged. I was tired and worn, but happy, that special feeling of passion and work. As I got up to my last pass a stream of clouds pushed in and tumbled over the peaks and crests like a blanket of thick pearl wool. I hurried down as a cold wind blew in. I hurried a bit as the trail became dusty. I found a nice campground amongst Spanish families protected from any wind down low and amongst a forest of birch and pine. I must’ve looked odd and funny looking with my simple gear, big bushy beard and scraggly hair. Salt encrusted my shirt and my legs were caked with dust. I was filthy. I still hadn’t properly showered other than jumping into a couple lakes, which happens to be the two times I’ve rinsed my clothes. I had only used the shower in Gavarnie to warm up. I relished in the moment of being a lone stranger in a strange land. I felt more than me than ever. I slept through most of the night I was so exhausted, which is a rare event for me. Maybe I smelt so well because I was completely disarmed of the ego. Sleep enveloped me like an instinct from deep within. I embodied sleep as a predator hunts prey. I slept with hunger, with a survival for my whole being. It was simply peaceful and correct.
A 3700ft ascent to start the day… this would be a theme. Really a proper high route for the whole day, especially since Lac de Caillaouas. I was surprised to see so many people tackling such a rugged route. Even families were going for it. Got me thinking about routes, trail history, and trail culture. Here the mountains are deep rooted culturally. Sure it’s crowded and the huts seem weird to me. But it’s deep rooted and passed down from generation to generation. They follow these difficult routes like they were taught as kids, and so on. There’s a history here. Sometimes it’s so frustrating in the US. There’s a lack of trail history. Even route creators get trashed at because the younger generation don’t know when something or how something was created. We need to cultivate trail history, a log of record, the people who’ve paved the way, the philosophy, instead of just ticking off the boxes. It would honor what we do, where we have been and where we are going. As much as I refrain from big groups or gatherings I do see the need to be a tighter community, almost like the rock climbing community. I just found the generations of mountain families here in the Pyrenees so meaningful. The people are connected to the mountains. It is the supreme sense of place here that really seems to lack in the US. These mountain folk don’t just go to the mountains; they are absolutely of the mountains. Oh, how the high peaks and rugged valleys teach us the understanding of time. Oh, how love and loss grant us humility, generation upon generation dwelling in the mountains. Oh, how nature grants us a bountiful life if we only stop and listen to it, acknowledge it and honor it. That’s it. One may have to walk the world to process all of life. Some just abide by life. I don’t envy those people, the majority. Yet, I see the power of the mountains infused in the people hiking the routes regardless of their experience. These mountains are in their blood. What are these mountains without the people. What is a route without the exploration of the soul. What is life without exploring. What are these people without these mountains.
Some ramblings don’t make any damn sense. But, I feel it here in the Pyrenees, the absolute why of it all. I encountered so many more people. And, it was ok. I could see the joy on their face. I could see their generational connection, lineage of the mountains through the erosion of rock and ridges. I enjoyed going the opposite direction. I enjoyed feeling different. All simply because I enjoyed the observation of the life, of the mountains and of the people. I scrambled up a massive moraine, huge turreted peaks poked right up into the sky blue heavens. The basins held the gasps of air that sucked from the caverns under giant boulders. Cerulean tarns looked so out of place in this galaxy of rock. A father and son asked me to snap their picture at the scenic pass. Two older women asked the same. I held up their phone camera and on the screen I saw the father and the older women young again. I could envision their first time scrambling up this pass. I let them head down first giving them some space. I ate a lunch of meat and cheese and sunk into the void of all the gnarled rocked. All around me chaos reigned yet counter to the mangled appearance of flaked and mangled rock, the sun blared down and the cool breeze stifled the pulsing heat. I navigated superbly, descending down a scrappy pile of talus and enormous piles of cleaved boulders. I ran into the other travelers who maneuvered slowly and carefully through the jumbled moraine. I called them over with a loud whistle that reverberated from the head walls of granite peaks. The wrong-wayers took the most laborious way through, so I hailed them over to get them back on track. This place was dangerous and any one novice could use a little bit of guidance. I saw the young boy following his dad. He looked more comfortable than his father did. He spotted me, nudged his dad, and began heading towards me. I slowed a bit to keep all the people on sight. Eventually, they got on the safest track through.
I pushed and scrambled over chossy rock broken off and grated by glaciers. Then, I maneuvered over shabby granite slopes and ascended to the Col des Gourgs Blanc. From there one could spy the next target Col du Pluviometre. A rounded granite dome summit bulged in between. Down below and nestled in the massive basin a shimmering lake contrasted the dominant burnt red granite skyline with sheer blue brilliance. The Lac du Portillion might have been the most spectacular sight I had seen up to that point on trail. I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was situated beneath cragged and jagged 10000ft peaks. The lake held a deep blue towards the center, concentric rings showing the profound depth of the lake. I could imagine the power of a massive glacier in the past that pressed and pressed down into pure rock. I marveled at the skyline from my vista. I could even see the eventual crux of this section across the enormous basin cradled by massive serrated peaks, the Col Inferieur de Literole, the highest pass of the whole HRP at over 10000ft. I was in the middle of it, the heart of the Pyrenees: a proper high route. I gulped in the thin air and held my chest out. I dug deeply inside with my breathing. I felt so goddam alive.
After a couple more bulging summits, I descended towards the dam of Lac du Portillion. I knew I had a shot at the next Col some 2500 feet up. It had been a bluebird day all day with a calm and warm wind, and nothing seemed to be changing. So, I gave it a go. People were lying about and chilling, lounging in the remaining warm sun at the refuge. I didn’t even stop, I was focused, I wanted this climb. I pushed through and headed for the Col. In less than a mile and a half the climbers trail ascended 2500 feet. I got it in an hour, the last pitch atop a dirty glacier with water so refreshing and cold I slugged a liter not before getting a brain freeze. Down the opposite side the views opened up a bit and less pointy peaks dominated the skyline. A huge mound of a mountain stood apart from the smaller peaks. This bulwark was Pic de Aneto, the highest in the Pyrenees. Below me in the high glaciated valley hung three steely mirrored lakes. I aimed for the biggest one at the foot of the valley. I stopped at the head of the lake—not a soul in this pristine silent cirque but me. I know a special moment when I have one. And, this was one. I stopped and set up camp, then strolled over to the lake. A silent chill fell over the basin, the echoes of streaming water pervading the silence. I washed my legs off, a solid day of soot. I scrubbed my face clean and the hairs on my arms stood up as I shivered with cold. I lumbered back to my shelter and dove in. I scoured over the map—I estimated some 18 miles and at least 9000ft of elevation gained today. I couldn’t wait to sleep in this massive bowl of silence, the seed of space enveloping my innards, an emptiness that hung with fullness.
Serenity, a peaceful night, I slept within the barren rock like the rock, still and silent. The night was warm at 9000ft and I woke up with my quilt halfway off of me. An alpine bird tweeted and saluted the rising sun and alpenglow baking and crisping onto the jagged and crumbly cliffs above in the cirque. I picked my around the lake and hopped across the outlet. Up a slabby knob I left the quiet basin. I picked my way down huge slopes of pink slabs of granite and quartz. Early on the morning was hot. I felt the heat smother me and I felt a little tired in the legs. A long slog of a descent persisted on a jumbled mishmash bouldery route and a zigzag pathway through a gorge over a few thousand feet—a real pain in the ass and I felt a little clumsy.
I finally got to Besurta, the bus access point for the town of Benasque. At the chalet I was surprised to find soda, bocadillos, and salty chips. Not that I was craving both a beer or town, but they both sure sounded good. I refrained from both and relaxed under the awning of a picnic area and slowly ate and drank my bocadillos and sodas. I knew a long break would help me recover a bit, both the tired kind and clumsy body, for the heat had been stifling. I would be in a town the next day and I could gather some recovery time. I was motivated by that thought alone. This kept me pushing. All this elevation and mileage in the blazing heat everyday is adding up. I feel great and tired, worn with a full heart. Even so, as much time as I can spend in the alpine the better, the better for my soul. I’ll be damned though, the huge 32oz plastic cup filled with an ice cold pilsner really looked refreshing. After the long break, I pushed on.
Waves of Spanish tourists crowded the trail. I had seen heaps of them get off at the chalet. Now I had caught up to them. Most were doing day hikes up to the high reaches of Aneto. I weaved through the crowds and reached Plan d’Aiguallut. Here, the merging creeks fell into a sinkhole. Strangely enough, a bizarre sight, around 100 people laid around amidst about 200 cows doing the same. What a strange and, oddly enough to me, a lovely sight. I’m not here to judge humanity or culture, or to make any sense of it; only to observe it. I am a part of the madness. I don’t know; I just embraced it. I felt amused by the swarming mass of people and cows lounging in a huge meadow in 100 degree heat. I also felt confused and conflicted, yet I refused to answer the dying question of WHY. We all do what we can and feel is right. However, I’ll be damned we live in a very crowded world so detached from our primitive instincts.
I left the throng and escalated into a galaxy of sheer granite. I started the day with a 3700ft descent. Now I embarked in the bulk of a 4300ft ascent to Tuc de Mulleres at 10,000ft. The heat reflected off the granite slabs and I sweated profusely. I must have rinsed my shirt off and splashed my face a dozen times at a lake, or a pond, or countless tarns. Yet, I pranced on up. This was fun. The crowds had diminished and I immediately felt so far from everyone while up in the slabby sphere of granite. Up and up I went and followed the most sensual way through. Angled slabs made for direct ramps up into the basin and directly beneath the summit. I scaled a ridge and before long I was sitting atop the blocky summit watching the puffy clouds float on by. The granite slabs shimmered in the blaring sun. Aneto was just across a couple basins close enough to think I could have gotten there lickety-split if I so yearned. I didn’t yearn to scale Aneto nor to put that much more effort into the day. I traversed the ridge of the summit over serrated rock and slabs to a pass. I found a keyhole to get through and skied down a rough hewn path chopped in my sliding steps. The scrabbled dirt was sketchy and slippery with fine dust and marble sized rocks within cleaved boulders. Finally, my day felt closer to sleep. But, I had a crushing 4700ft descent. The huge lakes below nestled in the basin lured me down. I wanted to cool off so badly. However, the descent pervaded brutally underfoot. The terrain was terribly slow going. The navigating wasn’t the hard part at all either. Just the shitty rock and mangled slabs and slippery marbles, beyond steep, beyond even moderately easy. The ascent up to Tuc was awesome. Gleamed granite slabs easy to walk on, ramps almost all the way up. This descent was the complete opposite. I was on the ravaged side, the north facing side that probably got slammed by Winter. This side the rock crumbled and was eaten away by the forces of a brutal nature. It was really beautiful, but it was harsh. And, I was exhausted. I buckled down and picked my way across the steep slabs slowly. Even when I finally hit trail, I tumbled steeply down. The descent was endless.
I climbed out of the deep valley filled with green meadows. I glanced over my shoulder and spotted Tuc in my rear view. The ragged peak emerged from my tired eyes thousands of feet above. I parked my butt in the creek nearby. I rinsed off, cooled off, and soaked my feet. I was thoroughly bashed. Looking back up at the peak, in that moment, it felt unbelievable to me that that was where I was at a couple hours ago. The remaining daylight highlighting the peaks above faded and the plateau I set up camp in plunged with the coolness of the oncoming night. I made up some dinner quickly and tallied up my day. In doing so I couldn’t help but tabulate the last four days. I pushed and worked so hard. I felt so full and strong and at the same time deflated and worn—one of the best feelings in the world. For the next day , I would treat my mashed legs to a hotel room. I was excited to engorge this ragged body with food, stoked for a shower, and eager to get some laundry in. Before I could even finish typing this out, I fell asleep in my shelter. I needed some rest. That was certain enough.
22m 8600ft + / 5400ft -
27m 7000ft + / 9400ft -
18m 9700ft + / 5900ft -
18m 5000ft + / 8300ft -
I left Salardu around noon. I had a long rest and overstuffed my belly with food. As much as I was wiped, I continued the hard push and pace I was on. The tendency of the route remained the same: I ascended about 4000ft to start the day. Up in the high grassy benches, the ski lodges down below appeared dwarfed with the giant mountains surrounding the valley. I noticed how the mountain scenery has changed again, too. The ranges are not as precipitous and are further apart separated by massively deep canyons. The plants are changing, also. A bush similar to ephedra cloaks the slopes. Pines line the hillsides in furry patches. The very high reaches of the peaks are smothered in grass and the threadbare summits are less bare rock. People are scant-- I was in an empty area. Once I left the ski areas, I had only myself for company. Hardly a soul out there and, in fact, I didn’t see another the entire day afterwards. One thing I noticed on my person: my shirt is thrashed. Turns out my timing in arriving in such an empty area so unlike any other part of the region was spot on, as I didn't have to be as presentable as normal Although I doubt I would be presentable anyway. Just having a tattered shirt made me way more disheveled. I think giving the shirt a thorough wash the day before only made it worse. The salt encrusted in the seams of the shirt only shredded the threads. As I got into camp, I spotted a couple holes and rips up on my shoulders. Soon the shirt would be in complete tatters, essentially falling off my bones. I needed a new shirt soon. Sounds silly, I know. A shirt of such importance. However, the shirt has been with me the whole year on this big solo adventure. From New Zealand to Australia, from Iceland to now here in the Pyrenees, this ragged shirt endured whatever the weather presented, endured all my rough touches and handlings, and all the countless episodes of profusely sweating. I was a bit sentimental. How funny is it that a shirt feels like a companion to me. I wore it everyday and the navy blue shirt embodied me as if I wouldn’t know even who I am without it.
I sauntered on the next morning with my shirt barely hanging on. I ran into another HRP’er early on near a series of stepped alpine lakes. In fact, he’s the author of the guidebook, Tom Martens. We hiked together a bit. I enjoyed the company. I hadn't hiked with anyone since the Te Araroa in New Zealand some 6 months. He provided me with further background and history of the route. I thoroughly enjoyed this and this new information really tied the route with my steps and the people and mountains around me. We got into a conversation about route creation, guidebooks, and the language of maps. He’s a master of languages, charming and witty, cool to hang out with. We then got into our HRP journey. We had actually camped around the same alpine lake a week or so back. We had deduced he was the one I was keeping an eye on on that huge traverse day. I was ahead of some wayward soul behind me, but I couldn't shake the hiker like all the rest. He remembered the silhouette of a tall hiker ahead of him that he just couldn't catch. We had been on the same ridges at the same time, just an hour or so apart. Now, we re-kindled a chance meeting. We decided to head into Tavarscan and share a lunch. Since he was the author of a very popular guidebook, he knows a lot of hotel and shop owners in so many small towns across the Pyrenees. He got invited to lunch at a very nice hotel. Straggling into town with him, this meant I was included. I should hang around people more often because we were regaled with an epicurean feast on the house and solely because he writes the guidebook and knows the owners and all the publicity from the guidebook keeps these businesses in business. It was awesome, I must declare this was trail magic. I definitely would not have gotten that on my own looking the way I looked. I had the works: a chicken stew with some fresh bread, various meats on a scorching stone slab, french fries, and a beer. I couldn't believe the spread. Upper class visitors sat in the restaurant and over in the corner sat us smelly and dirty hikers lapping it all up. I raised my first pint of beer on the whole route and saluted Tom and the moment. After the late lunch, we moseyed into a lounge and splayed out over on a couple couches. We charged up our phones, took a nap, and waited for the market to open back up after the siesta. I was still feeling pretty gassed from the previous week while at the same time rejuvenated. My spirit was high and intense and no matter how my body felt I had that spirit to fuel me. Though I could’ve easily laid on the sidewalk or leaned up against a wall near the cold drinking water village fountain on that lazy street in the tiny mountain village, we pushed up a 4000ft climb in sweltering 90 degree heat, our aim for a basin high above to camp for the night.
The climb up out of the quiet village was grueling. A hot ascent on rough and tumble trail, a tad overgrown, steep, yet I pushed on swiftly. I felt my energy pulsing through my legs. I got up to a plateau in a basin and found a hut, recently refurbished and no one around. I had the entire basin to myself. I washed off in the cold stream. I cooled down as the wind fanned me off and the shadows began to cast across the basin. Tom came strolling up about an hour later. We met at the hut. I couldn’t pass this up, so why go any further. My first and only hut on the HRP--I was pretty stoked The sun began to set and the basin sunk in a purple ambience that exuded a soothing serenity. We sat on a couple of rocks and ate a light dinner. I noticed my head start to ache, a slight pulsing in my head. I found it odd and I drank a half liter before bed thinking I was a bit dehydrated. I laid down on the wooden platform, the cool meadow air wafting through the open windows. Tom got into his shelter outside the hut. Darkness fell, utter and deep, thick; I couldn't even see my hand if I threw it in my face. I pooped an aspirin for the headache and gulped some water. A light breeze continued through the rafters that lulled me to sleep.
A few hours later my eyes fluttered open. I felt nauseous, not in my belly but in my head. I felt drunk, obliterated as if waking up in a stupor of booze after passing out. I had an incredible urge to piss, yet the nausea kept me splayed out on the platform. I breathed deeply and slowly to grasp some bit of composure to stand up and go outside to piss. About 5 minutes I laid there breathing to combat the crazy nausea that persisted. I struggled to get my head right. This is what a black out drunk episode must feel like...except I was sober and aware. The twinkling stars shimmered and provided the only light I could fathom inside the dark hut. My staggering eyes tried to straighten the blurred images in front of me. I breathed deeply and slowly. I fought off the urge to vomit while trying to hold in the incredibly urge to piss. I sucked it up. I fought it off...I slipped my shoes on without putting my socks on or tying my laces... stood up, wobbling, staggering, grabbing at the air with my hands, extending my arms to maintain my balance. I hurried on in that stumbling drunken stagger. I steadied my balance with my arms and used the momentum of movement to propel me forward. I open the bottom metal door, a loud squeak clanged from the metal rod and clasp. I drunkenly maneuvered over the rip-rap of leftover and littered granite rocks not used for the stone walls of the hut...my legs wobbled and my head lost blood and I felt like I was about to pass out. I reached my right arm out to the coarse granite wall and felt the coolness of the rock and pushed off to right myself the right way up...took a step and my right ankle twisted lightly but strongly enough to make me wince...I was about to go down, tumbling down...I felt faint, blackness, intoxicated in a drowning dark black sea...I turned the corner of the hut and fell to my knees...I was going down and having the sober head I instinctively wanted to control my fall. I fell to my knees banging the caps on granite rocks compacted in the dirt and grass, cobbled and raised....passing out the night enveloped me, the urge to piss consuming my whole body, that tingling sensation raising my hairs...the swirling stars in the massive black eddy of night circling, my eyes in swoon, diving, falling, twirling in a whirlpool...I fell, falling into an abyss...everything went black and dead...no consciousness, no awareness, no thought, no dreams, no imagery, no physicality....nothing.
I came to...from utter blackness into utter darkness...a new moon, no light in the sky save for the twinkling stars...I laid in a fetal position, shivering, sweating in the cool grass and cool meadow, the galaxy above me my only shelter. Confused, unaware of where I was at, I blinked a couple of times to gather my vision back, to transfer what I could barely fathom to my brain...synapses turned over and sputtered...it took a couple minutes to gather my brain off the floor. I felt like I had passed out from being extremely intoxicated...but I wasn't...I was confused, I had no idea what was going on. I continued fluttering my eyelids focusing on that to fire up a continuous stream of synapses to the brain. Where was I? What is going on? Why am I wet? I'm cold, freezing. Help me, I need help....
I felt the urge to piss again. This urge triggered a memory. I had come out here to piss; I fell after tweaking my ankle. Suddenly things felt clearer...cognizant of why I was laying down in utter darkness in this massive basin under a tremendous galaxy, alone and vulnerable, ailing. I must have pissed myself...my shorts and the bottom of my shirt soiled, soaked...my upper body clammy, sweaty, cold. What the fuck is going on? I tried lifting my shorts to piss again but my shorts were so soaked they stuck to my thighs. I just pissed letting the warm flow of liquid warm me back up....and my headlamp, I reached around for...I must've lost it in my tumbling to the ground. I laid there for a minute breathing deeply under an immense darkness, feeling the relief of urination, of a completely empty bladder. No headlamp; I lost it in the blackness, my blackout...my knees stung from the sweat, cuts scraped from the fall, I reached down and felt warm blood oozing from the scrapes. I tried to assess myself, my body, my brain, my breathes...my lower back held a dull pain...the darkness my light. Was I laying on a rock for a while? How long was I out for? Why is my lower back sore? I finally pushed myself up...I needed to lay down; I needed shelter; I needed by sleeping quilt. I hurriedly staggered back to the hut, my nausea controllable...not like before, I could manage. I laid down. I tried laying on my right side...no, uncomfortable, nausea crept in...I tried on my left side...no uncomfortable. I tried to stave off nausea but I couldn't find the spot or side to lay on to relieve the wooziness. Finally, after a few minutes of deep breathing I managed to find a spot, just face down on my belly. A memory came rushing back to me...pissing kidney stones throughout the night at Nita's Toaster House in autumn of '16 while southbounding the CDT. The uncomfortable pain, the wriggling, the urge to piss, the nausea, the total body discomfort...is this what is happening right now? I calmed myself down; I needed to maintain my composure and remain calm. I dozed off. Then suddenly woke up a bit later with an incredible urge to shit. I wasn't as nauseous as before and I slipped my shoes on and teetered out the door with my phone light leading the way. I found my headlamp then, on the ground and some distance away from where I had passed out. I scurried over to a rock pile and let it rip. I felt instantly better. I teetered back to the hut, the nausea gone, my head still pounding. I tried lying down on my right side...no, uncomfortable. I tried lying on my left side...still no. I laid on my belly and focused in on my breathing. I fell asleep finally.
A few hours later around 5am I woke up with a throbbing headache similar to a hangover. I slowly packed up. I knew I had to get to town that day. I had 25 grueling miles away to the next town. I had to move forward, even if I potentially needed medical attention. I am not sure if I was a little shell shocked but as I sat there trying to focus the mind on the monumental task of the day in getting to town, I felt a sudden overwhelming feeling of gratefulness of being alive. The night felt like such a blur that I must've looked pie-eyed. I packed up slowly. In my movements, I felt a tremendous pain in my lower back right on top of my right kidney. It seemed every movement I made only exacerbated the pain in that region. I began to fret over the day. Do I turn around? Or keep going? I opted for the latter. I needed to maintain forward progress. Plus, enduring pain is something I am so used to, so it made sense to me to push forward no matter how uncomfortable I felt. I met Tom outside the hut.
'How'd you sleep?' he asked.
'Well, I'm sorry if I woke you up a couple times.'
'Nah, you didn't. Why you saying so?'
I then went into the journey of the night. After the morning ramble, we ascended a pass that put us on the crest of a massive ridge spanning back to the heart of the mountains. A broad grassy plateau adorned the top and we had some easy hiking ahead of us. I continued in my headspace of embracing the pain while at the same time utilizing our conversation to distract me from the pain. But, as soon as the trail became difficult every lunge, long step, or step up and down my lower back throbbed with pain. I winced occasionally and audibly groaned. Tom kept tabs on my whereabouts and state of pain. The kidney pain throughout the morning just kept getting worse. However, by mid-morning I was fully committed to get to town. I would get there or die trying. Around noon, Tom and I parted ways. He diverted up another path to scout a potential route alternate. I took the main route up a high valley and basin filled with shimmering alpine lakes. Luckily for me the heat of the day refrained from anything stifling. I finally took an Advil despite not wanting to to alleviate any severe pain. Town was getting close and I needed that extra mental boost. Plus, I just needed some pain relief for the massive climb just ahead. I muscled my way over the loose scree of Portella de Baiau, blasting by other hikers. I was on a mission driven with pain. I understood the need to get to town with a potential serious injury. And then, once atop the pass, I sort of cruised to town, skipping along. Sure enough, I managed to stroll into town nearly two hours ahead of what I had anticipated with the pain. The town buzzed with people on a Saturday afternoon enjoy the respite of the mountains. I had been so focused to get to town that the hordes of people through me off, so much so I almost left town as quickly as I had arrived. I focused on my needs instead. Immediately, I found a new shirt. Then, I searched for WiFi. I found a room, one of the few left. But, I still thought about leaving. I think I was still in the movement zone, the habitual form of movement which made me feel good despite my throbbing lower back. I wandered into a market and thought about just grabbing a resupply and leaving town. Of course another massive climb would be in the way. I forced myself to be patient, present. I felt strong, fine really. I was hungry. Even though the kidney is still throbbed severely, I tended to my personal needs before getting to the room. I was okay with everything by then. I figured to rest up and hydrate and decide in the morning whether I should stay and rest or forge ahead.
I tried to get some rest and I did. I fell asleep watching a movie while squirming around the bed with my kidney still sore. I felt it as I tossed and turned, a dull pain just uncomfortable in any position. I reached out to an EMT friend. I was concerned, to be honest. This is the second time this year I’ve felt some kidney pain after a heat related event, maybe even an hypo/hyper natremia event, the first being on the first leg of this year of adventure on the 2nd and 3rd day of the Grand Canyon Traverse. The pain also felt so similar to the kidney stone episode I endured in ‘16. Whatever happened wasn’t identical to the GCT event, however. I wasn’t severely cramping and the nausea was in my head and not my belly. I also wasn’t pissing out iced tea this time. I had been hydrated and was pissing clear. I was still pretty flummoxed about that night, puzzled as to what happened.
I woke up sore, really needless to say. I really wanted to get out hiking that day, but I relented in my egotistical pursuit. I thought better of it. I had been pretty stoked for a 22 day on-pace finish. I had to think long term though, bigger picture. I had plenty of time to finish this route. And I still had discomfort back there. It sure as hell wouldn’t hurt to rest it up. After all, the pain is in an organ area. I needed to take extra precaution no matter how my ego felt about it. And, I thought—-Hey…this is what I do. It’s about endurance, the paincave…reaching the depths of your soul, body and mind and getting through. I think I’m ok. I will be ok. No matter what. In the end, a single day won’t matter to anybody but me or to anything other than my kidney. I spent the day hydrating and eating and laying around…and planning what I’m hiking after this before I have to go home. Of course, a foolish endeavor that provides me with solace. I had no end point, so it made sense to just keep planning ahead.
Nonetheless, when I wasn’t planning I harped on the incidents of this past year. I’ve had 4 events this year, including the other night, that could be considered life threatening. The heat event in the Grand Canyon, the scary mountain lion encounter in the Grand Canyon, being swept away by a glacial river in Iceland, and now this most recent kidney event. Clearly I had been putting so much wear and tear on my body. If you know me, too, I don’t do anything lightly. In some ways, the scenarios feel completely reasonable in regards to my personality, my drive, my intentions, and the areas I had ventured into. Australia was a pretty clean trip other than the back tweak. That wasn’t life threatening, though. I’ve had legitimately 4 very close calls. I reflected on each and every one of those moments. Strange to say too, I felt more alive than ever sitting in that hotel room squirming with kidney pain. I wouldn’t have it any other way than to live my life full fucking throttle.
But all jokes and toughness aside, I definitely play up the character of whatever endurance bravado I am trying to embody. I do truly mean the paincave endurance spiritual shit. It is who I am. Yesterday morning, however, I was hurting really bad. The pain was that severe, no joke. I was really concerned. I’ve not forgotten that. I had to check my ego at the door because I wanted a badass 22 day finish. I need to get through this route. And, I will. I know it. Nothing will stop me. Yet at the same time, I’m cautious and concerned. I’ve even thought about the past couple days of just wrapping it all up after I complete the HRP and just head home earlier than I have wanted. I know I need some rest and care and some other occupation to shift my mindset. Planning hiking stuff today is solace for me, but it’s not reality in a way. It is as addicting as a drug. I am humbled, too. These experiences are not necessarily fun. I mean, I actually enjoy going through life-on-the-line experiences. Life just matters most in those moments. Life is the most precious. Sensibly though, I just want to finish healthy. I know it’s a tall order after a year of pushing myself this hard. I’ve accomplished a lot. Maybe I want to find the peace of the adventure rather than chasing more pain. Maybe I just need an endpoint.
It is interesting timing on the year long journey, however. I started out in emotional pain from a heartbreaking break-up. I’ve grown. I’ve healed. I’m in a very good spot right now. I’m strong. I feel more than me than ever. I’m in a very good spot. I’ve endured the roller coaster of the whole year battling my emotional pain. I’m not trying to seek pain anymore now. That is a huge difference. I want ti be happy again and I am currently. This hike and the trek across Iceland has brought me peace and solace, has brought me pure joy. I feel really prepared to go back into the real world. I think back, I really am doing so. There hasn’t been a single time my sadness paralyzed my movement this year. I kept my momentum up, and tried to stay patient with myself. Were there lows? Sure. But that’s on any adventure. In some way, I knew what to expect with the rigors of an adventure, most certainly I did. I understood things would not ever get worse for me emotionally as in the previous year. I was out here solely out of my own freedom of choice to deal with my pain. And I held that as special. I held that as sacred. This only meant I held my action as ritualistic. I would not take that for granted. I was on a journey of personal proportions. I feel quite at peace at the moment, probably because of all the pain, probably of what it has taken to get here. I am here right now, battered and bruised, but happy and strong.
I stopped trying to figure out the why of yesterday. Maybe kidney stones, maybe AKI from so much wear and tear and being on the fine line of hydration balance, especially in very hot weather and very difficult conditions, maybe it’s just whatever. At that point, I just wanted to finish the HRP. It sure as hell is a long game. I think you think you are going to wake up. Most of the time you do. And the only time you don’t there’s no coming back. Endurance is the game. Endurance is my game.
The next morning, I woke up with slight discomfort but felt good to go. I took my time getting ready and ate a long breakfast before taking off just. I needed to ensure nothing weird was going on. I took it slow out the gate and ascended the huge climb with relative ease with little discomfort. I arrived at El Serrat way earlier than expected. I took on the next climb with some vigor and before I knew it I was up there high on the pass feeling rather joyous. I knew I was on my way to the Mediterranean Sea. I had some luck, too. All the trails in Andorra were pretty well worn in and used, even maintained, which leads to swifter travel and less discomfort in my kidney area. This meant I could simply walk. Then, I hit a high. I floated on down from the pass and traversed the valley. I was grooving. This continued and I hiked until sunset. I met a young Andorran at the last hut before I was about to head up into the next basin to lay up for the next pass. He was curious as to why I was still hiking so late. He was shocked by how far I had come and how tiny my backpack was. He was a pretty cool dude. I liked him his enthusiasm. We chatted for about ten minutes—about the route, the Pyrenees, the epic camp spots, why I hike so much. It felt so good to impart some inspiration. His eyes were beaming, his smile wide. I found a camp just above a meadow. God, it felt so good to lay there and feel the cool breeze. It felt so good to be high in the mountains feeling good rather than laying in a hotel room with no clue with what’s going on with my kidney. Once again, movement to the rescue.
The days got easier. I neared the next village, the coast, the last of the HRP. One night, I laid down in a grove of aspen. I laid my body down, my kidney almost feeling normal, and cooked me up a huge meal. As the forest sunk in silence, I heard the cow bells. A few cows roamed into the grove. Then, a bull sauntered in like he owned the place. I kept my headlamp on to let the herd know exactly where I was situated. But, they didn’t give a shit. After an hour or two I relented my space in the grove and found another flat spot and set up camp in the dark a bit away. I did actually get some sleep, though. In the morning, the cows hung around. The herd lingered in the grove grazing on the tall green grasses interspersed between the aspen. The cows looked at me with familiarity, as if a part of the herd. I enjoyed their presence despite the huge dominating and stubborn bull. I left early enough to enjoy the coolness of the aspen grove.
I strolled into a tiny French village. The village was beautiful with buildings adorned with amazing stonework, lean streets, and a wonderful country market with an artisan meat selection out of this world. Fresh bread, amazing cheese, the chicken on rotisserie, I enjoyed resupplying out of the market. The sausages looked like art in a display case, the spectrum of reds and purples sumptuous and beautiful. I found a perfect refueling spot before the next 4000ft climb.
I left after a long spell chilling at a table in front of the market. I filled up on some yogurt, croissants, and coffee. I strolled down the streets with a long baguette tucked into my backpack. I was looking forward to the end and I was near. I wanted to lay by the beach and not do a damn thing. All that changed once I hit the high basin below the sharp ridges. In that instant, I didn’t want to finish anymore. I simply wanted to remain in the mountains forever. I clambered up the pass to an epic ridge. High peaks reached up into the sky and I was surprised once again by the scenery in front of me. How could mountains be so high near a sea? I scurried along the long traverse of the ridgecrest, a definitive trail outlining a future of gleeful trekking. Peak after peak after peak, amid rocky and grassy slopes, a hiker’s dream, the trail continues into an endless undulation. Storm clouds lumbered in from the north and remained off the line of sight of the ridge. I remained dry and unthreatened by the stormy clouds. The changing rock, the high flat grassy tablelands, less jagged and more broad and swooping peaks, spaced out more instead of crammed together within huge monumental cirques, less lakes, I entered a different sphere of mountains. At first a busy trail, but once past the first set of peaks I had the rest of the ridges nearly to myself. I ran into a bunch of izards. The sort and agile goats jumped and danced on the high slopes and rocky hillsides. The goat/antelope creature, so swift and nimble, pranced in a stupor, the blood of the mountains oozing from their corporeal spirits. The jubilant goats pranced away from me, definitely wary of my presence and not so jubilant. I was just impressed by their nimbleness. I rested at a ski hill in the late afternoon. I let a minor squall pass on through before I scaled atop another crest.
What ensued atop the last proper crestline proved to be my last lengthy extended stroll up high. I relished it all. I had the whole crestline to myself and took my time over easy miles that barely undulated over primo singletrack paralleling razorback juts of rock. Seeing the sun rays rise above the puffy clouds, radiantly crepuscular, warm and soft, a pathway of light to a heavenly altar, just could make one believe in a higher power. I soaked it all in. I was having so much fun. I couldn't help but smile at the whole experience of the HRP. I found a pleasant camp tucked in huge granite outcrops, the decomposing rock twinkling with quartz crystals. I gazed at the sunset slowly sinking over the western horizon, the crepuscular rays angling longer, lower, dimming with the sinking sun.
I enjoyed the respite of the last reaches of the higher Pyrenean mountain ranges. I woke up to a cool morning, probably my last one. I hiked in the pleasant morning sunshine up high on an open tableland, views abounding to the north and south, glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea outline pilfering through the marine cloud layers way down below. I observed humongous buzzards soar and circle in the morning thermals backdropped by the warm glow of the sun, a sea of wool with the tops of mountain coastal ranges appearing like islands that the buzzards would land on. The whole scene was dreamy, majestic even. I understood what the buzzards were doing, not in the scavenger sense rather the freedom of flying sense. I had not a care in the world this high up above everything, high above whatever the year brought me, whatever stirred inside of me. I was soaring with my wings riding the thermals of life carefree and flowing wherever the current took me.
The final scrambling ascent up Pic de Canigou had some chossy and crumbly rock. Hordes of people scrambled up from both the route directions of the summit. I had to slow down a bit in the climber-choked chimney. I enjoyed the scramble, something I hadn't done in a while. This was the last big peak of the Pyrenees west to east traverse. I had a similar feeling to Pic d’Orhy when I officially entered the high country except now I was officially leaving the high country. With the summit of Canigou, I officially departed the high Pyrenees for the coastal ranges. Both the peaks are portals and bulwarks of a spectacular range spanning the width of a peninsula, a land bridge never to be submerged.
I had a hunch the last two days to the Mediterranean Sea would be hot. It surely was and turned into a more than expected scorcher. A terrible night of sleep ensued where the temps just didn’t fall and the humidity rose. I could barely move or touch anything in my tarp. Everything was so sticky. I was even more antsy to finish then. I rose early to try and beat the heat. My right kidney ailed and my lower back was sore, remnants from that weird night about 6 days prior. Lactic acid filled my quads and I winced a bit. I felt like I was in the heat of the day in a 100 mile race on a very hot day. I had 23 miles to go to the Mediterranean Sea.
At a spring along the side of a road, a piped fountain spewed cold water. I took a breather; I was drenched from sweat and it wasn’t even 8am. I sat there and let the mind wander listening to the steady drip and flow of the spring water. I couldn’t wait for the sea. 'What was I going to do afterwards though?' I thought. But I didn’t want to think about it. A major highway thrummed in the near distance. I leaned back against the coarse decomposed granite wall. I took a breath in and exhaled whatever it is inside of me out: I am tired, sore, very happy, full and content, and I’m ready to be done, ready to return. I am excited to decide on the arrangement of time for what lays ahead, for whatever adventures I have in mind. I am excited to work towards them, earn my way, and continue exploring the world. I am ready for rest.