October is out of season for Thru-hiking the GR11 and there were plenty of question marks before we started about whether we would complete it at all. The seasons can change quickly in the mountains and there was a chance that early snow would hamper our progress but also with the days shortening, the distance we could cover would be limited. In addition to this, the summer walkers have left and the winter revellers have not yet arrived, meaning most of the mountain refuges would be closed and even a good number of towns and villages will have shut-up-shop until the next surge of visitors in the winter.
Although I like to think I am a risk-taker, if I am honest, I am a planner, I like to consider potential risks and plan potential solutions but it was difficult to find much information on the trail for this time of year and after studying historic weather data I came begrudgingly to the conclusion that the weather could do anything. We might drive for three days, start walking and then have to stop, or we might not even be able to start. Not wanting to be forced away by transient winter weather, we packed crampons and axes, so that if we were faced with some cheeky - our preferred term for uncomfortable or difficult - conditions we wouldn't have to turn back. We also made sure that even if shops were closed we would always have enough food for a few days backup.
Once we started we had three or four days of pretty horrendous rain, everything was wet and we had no way of drying ourselves, our dog Bella, or anything else. "This", I thought, "is why people don't walk the GR11 in Autumn". Being from the UK and having lived in Wales for the last 10 years, you would be excused for thinking I should be used to rain, which I am, but that still didn't stop me from having a little wobble at the thought of it for the next month and a half!
Luckily, after our initial very wet introduction to the GR11, the weather cleared and then we really started to experience the potential joys of Autumn in the Pyrenees. In September the trees started to turn and as we walked we were able to see them change from luscious green to bright yellows and reds. As I mentioned in my previous post, we were also able to gather hazelnuts, walnuts, chestnuts and berries along the way, leading us to nickname the lower GR11 the Path of Plenty.
In the higher mountains there were some bitterly cold mornings and nights, but this also meant crystal clear skies, frost and snow. We also had these higher paths to ourselves, meeting just a few great characters along the way, but without feeling crowded. There were sections where we wouldn't meet another soul for three days at a time, finding blissful solitude that I don't think we could get at other times of the year.
Walking from West to East in the high-season gives you time to acclimatise before reaching the heat of the final sections approaching the Mediterranean. Although we felt at times we were being followed by worsening weather and shorter days, walking in the full heat of summer would not have been good for me and could have been fatal for Bella if we weren't careful, so I was grateful for the cooler weather of Autumn. As for the short days, no matter what we did, or how fast or slow we felt in the mornings, we always started walking at 9am. It was dark until 7.30am and towards the end of our walk the sun didn't fully rise until gone 8am, setting at 6.30pm. This meant we didn't have much time for variations and we weren't able to visit some of the surrounding peaks - which we may have been able to do in the summer - but this was a trade-off for the beautiful Autumn light that transforms the mountains with a golden glow.
Despite wanting to plan for all of the potential risks, looking back I am grateful for the uncertainty that off-season provided. We didn't know what the weather would do or what would be open or closed and there were times when we relied on the kindness of strangers to help us out, but being able to plan for everything takes away the opportunities for challenge, adventure and ingenuity and so I heartily recommend the GR11 in the Off-season; for us it was mostly definitely in!