29th July

Hiking the Freedom Trail (23 to 27 July)

I’m back from my first trek of the summer – well, actually, my first trek ever (if 3 day trips in the UK don’t count.) Yes, I successfully hiked from Saint-Girons in France, following ‘Le Chemin de la Liberte’ (the Freedom Trail), over the Pyrenees and into France.

I added an extra day to the four day trek so I could ‘summit’ Mont Valier, making the whole trip five days. It’s about 40 miles, with a total ascent of 4000m (plus the 600m to ascend Mont Valier), although the Viewranger app on my phone measured the ascents as quite a bit more; I cannot account for that.

The route follows one of those used during World War II by people escaping occupied Europe – Jews, resistance fighters, spies, as well as escaping Prisoners of War and downed aircrew evading capture. Over 30,000 people escaped into Spain by this and other routes, all the time fearful of capture by the Germans.

I’ll be honest, it was challenging at times (especially day three which encompassed crossing two ridges, before we descended to the refuge), but my guide, Paul, was superb, ensuring we kept the pace slow enough, that we ate and drank regularly, and I stayed in a Gite, two refuges and had one night under the stars in a bivvy bag; we were intending to stay in a Shepherd’s Hut (like a bothy, really), but there were 6 other people in there, so my guide and I decided to sleep out – as I was carrying the sleeping bag, bivvy bag, sleeping mat etc, I was somewhat keen to use them and justify the weight! I can only describe the trip as one of the best things I’ve done (so far!)

As I said, it was hard work at times (and the horse flies literally had me for lunch during the first two days), but the Pyrenees are beautiful, and it was both interesting and humbling to know I was following in the footsteps of people who, in some cases, we literally walking over the hills to save their lives. I actually felt a little emotional as I approached the border with Spain (Col de la Clouere) – not for me, but just thinking about the folks for whom that strip of flat land on the ridge really represented freedom (accepting that they would be interned by the Spanish for some time). It’s a superb hike on so many levels and I can highly recommend it.

Getting to and from Toulouse by train was straight forward enough and I have the smug feeling of someone who has reduced their carbon footprint just a little by not taking an aeroplane – this time. And, of course, as great as the trip was, it was wonderful to get home (and recuperate!)

Equally importantly, despite my concerns beforehand, I managed the physical challenge without any problems. My guide was great, ensuring we stopped regularly and – more importantly – drank plenty of water. The issue of hydration is one I’ve really taken on board for the Haute Route – drink plenty of water and often; and keep eating – you’ve “go to feed the machine”.

And so I feel ready for the Walkers Haute Route. It will be twice as long. But I won’t be carrying 10 kgs (plus usually 2 litres of water) which will make things easier – and the accommodation will be somewhat more comfortable most nights!