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Ultralight across the Pyrenees

  • Written by  Paul Deegan
  • Published in Explorers
Many parts of the GR10 route remain secluded spots of natural beauty Many parts of the GR10 route remain secluded spots of natural beauty Paul Deegan
07 Mar
2016
When a back injury threatened to derail Paul Deegan’s attempt to traverse the Pyrenees on foot, he re-evaluated every item in his rucksack. Would an obsession with item weight and Olympic-level techniques be enough to see him through?

8pm: Finally, dinner is served. Trekkers make an orderly stampede for the refuge’s dining hall. Wooden benches are climbed over, metal cutlery is distributed, wine (wine!) is poured and a steaming basin of vegetable soup is deposited on the table. I rise, offer to serve the other guests and ladle the liquid into ceramic bowls. The room is filled with the sounds of slurping and clinking.

I have been hiking since dawn and am hoping that the dregs of the soup will not appeal to anyone else, especially as many of the diners walked in from the road just a couple of kilometres distant. However, my manners are as ingrained as the knots in the wooden table and so I gesture the vessel in the direction of the other patrons.

No-one seems interested until a portly man with a sunburned face curls a chubby finger towards himself. The receptacle is delivered to his end of the table, at which point he dispenses the remaining broth into his dish. Clearly, my dining companion was not brought up with a sense of fairness. As I retire for the evening, hungrier and wiser than when I set out that morning, I remember something that climber, environmentalist and self-confessed reluctant businessman Yvon Chouinard once said: ‘Nice guys finish last’.

1.50am: My bladder is demanding attention. There is a limit to the amount of water I can carry on the trail, so to counter the debilitating effects of satanic daytime temperatures I swig up to two litres of water upon waking and guzzle another couple of bottles in the evening. Every night I become the middleman in an endless negotiation between faucet and sewer. Rising from a communal sleeping platform without waking the slumberers either side of me is not a trivial matter. To that end, I have learnt to tolerate wearing my Lilliputian headtorch around my wrist at night. Its elasticated metal cord bites into my skin but this is a small price to pay for always knowing where my torch is. A flick of a lever and the headlight streams a vermilion beam across the dark hallway.

gr10GR10 covers some 538 miles and can take between 45 and 60 days to hike from one end to the other (Image: Paul Deegan)

5.05am: A long day of hiking stretches before me. I descend to the deserted dining area with my sleeping accoutrements tucked under one arm. After completing a series of back exercises I extract a stubby foam roller from my rucksack which is hanging from a metal hook in a vestibule near the entrance. (A couple of years ago, sections of the route were scarred by an influx of bed bugs. As a result of this infestation, no self-respecting refuge guardian allows baggage, the principal carrier of these bloodsuckers, to be placed in the dormitories.) My younger self would have dismissed a foam roller as an unnecessary luxury. But now, with many more kilometres and years under my belt, preparing my leg muscles for their daily trial is not decadence – it’s a necessity. As I roll across the dining room floor, my headtorch is made redundant by the alpenglow.

5.40am: My wife, Rosamond, has hopped on the roller I recently abandoned. I head outside and dump my gear on a wooden table decorated with a velvety cloth of hoar frost. Before packing my spartan belongings, I pull on a synthetic duvet jacket. This lightly insulated garment, which squishes to the size of an apple when not being worn, is my insurance policy against early starts, late finishes and – heaven forbid – benightment. Unlike many trekkers who attempt to walk the long-distance Pyrenean footpath known as GR10, we carry no shelter. That’s because we are carrying injuries that dictate we travel light, or not at all.

Seven months earlier, Rosamond left her job to spend the best part of a year globetrotting. The highlight of her odyssey was a traverse of the French Pyrenees, from the Atlantic seaboard at the resort of Hendaye to the town of Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. All that stood between her and success was approximately 850 kilometres of trail, around 50,000 metres of ascent (and a corresponding amount of descent) and a long-term knee injury that precluded her from carrying more than six kilograms of food, water and equipment.

Which is where I, a poor imitation of a sherpa, should have stepped in. Except that I too was carrying my own impairment in the form of inflamed spinal ligaments, which flared into a flock of angry gremlins whenever I shouldered more than eight kilograms. The irony of toting an injury caused by two decades of humping heavy loads up mountains was not lost on me. A surgeon’s opinion that carrying more weight would probably not cause additional long-term damage was only slightly reassuring.

After seven months of physiotherapy I had raised the ceiling of weight that I could carry without wilting to a mighty ten kilograms. Around this time, Rosamond was assured by a sports injury specialist that a single long-distance walk was unlikely to encourage an earlier onset of arthritis. Excluding water and provisions, I find myself lugging nine kilograms on GR10, Rosamond three. In return for carrying a share of her essential gear, she puts her superior foreign language and internet skills to good use by booking our accommodation along the route. Between us, we make one perfect human.

hostelOne of the 60 or so refuges gardés (hostels) available along the route providing shelter and food overnight (Image: Paul Deegan)

6.15am: The route description promised a tricky morning of navigation because the slashes of red and white paint that adorn boulders and tree trunks to mark the way are unusually thin on the ground hereabouts. Yet we have found the correct path reassuringly quickly in the grey light of predawn thanks to our smartphones, which are loaded with an inexpensive app containing digital versions of the official French maps.

The program integrates seamlessly with the devices’ GPSes to pinpoint our position. This technology does not eliminate the need to read a map, but it does save time. Over the course of 53 trekking days, minutes saved here and there add up to many hours. Having the internet in our pockets has also enabled us to find a seamstress to repair a stitching failure on my backpack, order a new camera and keep up-to-date with Andy Murray’s progress at Wimbledon.

9.35am: This time of day is lovely on GR10 because the slopes up which we toil are often sheltered from the sun until about now. Such protection allows us to enjoy vistas of distant Pyrenean peaks awaiting our arrival, as well as close-up sightings of primrose, iris and martagon lily.

12.20pm: We crossed the first col of the day an hour ago and have now descended to a deserted valley, its floor just a couple of hundred metres wide. This valley so remote that we are not bedevilled by flies, as there are no cattle hereabouts for the insects to feast on. Lunch is the simplest of affairs: half a loaf of crusty bread, a slab of Brebis cheese and several slices of Bayonne ham. For dessert we polish off a dented box of Petit Ecolier biscuits, which has been swaddled in my thin fleece gilet and buried in the centre of my pack to prevent the chocolate toppings from liquefying in the savage heat.

3.10pm: Since we left the refuge we have not passed a single inhabited building. In many ways it has been a relief to discover that 21st century France still boasts secluded valleys and mountainsides that show no signs of human encroachment. That’s not to say that all of GR10 is this isolated: during our traverse we will pass through three stage finishes of the concurrent Tour de France.

signsNavigation along the route comes through the distinctive red and white trail markers (Image: Paul Deegan)

4.25pm: After more than ten hours on the trail, during which temperatures kissed 38°C, we wheeze into camp, ask for water and enquire about a menu. The French are particular about their dining hours, even in the mountains. However, our muscles are screaming for calories and I know that every mouthful consumed in the hour after exercise will be processed more effectively than a large meal eaten later in the day.

5.30pm: Two chocolate-filled crêpes later and I am only partially sated. While other trekkers relax over dehydrating beers, I fill my empty two-litre water bladder and drain its contents into my belly, rinse my cotton underwear and merino wool socks, repair a damaged trekking pole with half a metre of miraculous Leukotape, punish my complaining leg muscles on the merciless foam roller and then head to the shower block for a torture of a different kind.

Years ago, the French Olympic team pioneered a method to help rid their athletes’ bodies of lactic acid. The technique requires the victim to rotate the shower’s temperature control every 30 seconds between scalding hot and glacially cold for a total of three minutes while focusing the jet of water on the back of the neck. I follow this procedure religiously, as much for the psychological as the physiological benefits. By enduring this daily regimen, I convince myself that I am doing everything possible to complete GR10. Only after concluding my personal drills do I give myself permission to flake out on a stained mattress ahead of the evening meal.

8pm: Finally, dinner is served. Only this time it’s no more Mr Nice Guy.

Having unlearnt much of what he knew about lightweight gear in the build-up to GR10, Paul Deegan was rather pleased to discover that an old dog can learn new tricks.

 

COUNT EVERY GRAM

To attempt GR10 with a complaining back, I immersed myself in the largely underground world of ultralight backpacking gear. The supposedly lightweight kit I already owned may as well have been made from concrete in comparison to equipment being produced by a cottage industry which mainstream manufacturers of outdoor apparel have only recently taken heed of.

How could I be sure about the precise weight of every product that ended up being carried on my shoulders across the Pyrenees? Because in the several months before departure I visited outdoor retailers in America, England and New Zealand with my secret weapon: a £12 digital scale capable of weighing items to an accuracy of 0.2 grams.

The highlight (lowlight?) of my obsession with shedding weight from my pack came in the accessories aisle of one Pennsylvanian store when a member of staff found me kneeling on the floor and weighing superlight towels. Laura applauded my attention to detail but scorned the thought of carrying something to dry myself with as being an unnecessary extravagance. I subsequently learnt that Laura had walked the granddaddy of long-distance paths, the Appalachian Trail, which at 3,509 kilometres put GR10 – and me – firmly in the peanut league.

 

TEN OF THE BEST

Reducing weight was the prime factor for Paul Deegan and his wife when it came to choosing the kit they would pack for their Pyrenean walking odyssey. Every gram was counted and calculated to keep within the required limits, from the ultralight sleeping mats to smallest available emergency communicator to the always handy spork...kit

1. Windproof jacket

Montbell Tachyon Jacket – $100/45g

Still need convincing about the benefits of ultralight gear? Weigh your existing jacket and compare it to the surprisingly durable Tachyon. Mesh underarm panels improve breathability. A cagoule version, that dispenses with the mesh inserts and adds a hood, is also available.

2. Rucksack

Osprey Exos 48 – £120/1.13kg

Osprey has pulled out the stops to pare down the weight of this pack. The outer lid can be discarded (saving 109g) in favour of a second, integral, inner lid. It’s available in 38- and 58-litre capacities.

3. Rucksack liner

ZPacks Pack Liner Dry Bag – $40/54g

ZPacks are at the sharp end of superlight gear development. This waterproof Cuben Fiber liner has taped seams and a roll top closure to ensure your gear remain dry in a downpour. Custom-sized liners are available for a few extra dollars.

4. Trekking poles

Alpkit CarbonLite Ultra Twins – £45/146g

Extraordinarily light and affordable. My concern that the foam handles would not be as comfortable as cork in hot weather proved unfounded. Also useful when warding off over-protective dogs guarding isolated farm buildings. Single poles (£25) and replacement lower sections (£15) are also sold.

5. Waterproof jacket

Berghaus Men’s Vapourlight Hyper Smock 2.0 – £100/75g

I wore the Hyper Smock on the few occasions when afternoon storms overwhelmed my windproof jacket and umbrella combo. The smock’s deep front zip helped excess sweat vapour to escape. And its hood fitted surprisingly well.

6. Sleeping bag

Rab Neutrino 200 – £250/580g

If you camp on GR10 to reduce overall costs (and increase the number of places where you are able to sleep) you’ll want to pack a sleeping bag, even in the summer months. This Neutrino, with its three-quarter length zip and 200g of hydrophobic down, is one of the lighter fully fledged bags on the market.

7. Sleeping mat

Exped Synmat UL 7 – £95/450g

If you choose to camp, you’ll want something comfortable and rustle-free to lie on. The UL 7 can be inflated with the optional Schnozzel – a clever 60g accessory that performs double-duty as a vacuum stuff sack for your sleeping bag. I used the matching Air Pillow (45g) every night on GR10.

8. Cutlery

Alpkit Tifoon – £8/15g

The Victorinox Classic SD penknife (22g) which we carried on GR10 was devoid of a bottle opener. Alpkit’s titanium spork made up for this deficit and provided an elegant way to eat locally-made Pyrenean yoghurts at lunchtime. 

9. Duvet jacket

Berghaus Vapourlight Hypertherm Race Smock – £140/156g

The Hypertherm contains 40g of synthetic insulation. These fibres are imprisoned in a sleek, reversible design that allows you to regulate the smock’s heat-retaining characteristics to compensate for a range of temperatures and activities. A hooded version with a full-length zip is also produced (221g).

10. Emergency communications

Ocean Signal PLB1 – £190/116g

The onset of a life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack or stroke, in a remote location makes self-rescue improbable. In this type of grave situation every second counts: activating the world’s lightest personal locator beacon may increase the probability of rescue. Register the PLB1 – for free – with the UK Distress and Security Beacon Registry.

 

DON’T FORGET...

…a can opener. You never know what you are going to find to eat in sparsely-stocked Pyrenean grocery stores. To that end, I carried a vintage P-38 (five grams) that was originally designed for American military ration packs during the Second World War.

This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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