Magazine article Geographical

Ultralight across the Pyrenees

Magazine article Geographical

Ultralight across the Pyrenees

Article excerpt

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?

8 pm: 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.

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. …

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