2016 GR11 – The Western half of the Spanish Pyrenees

SUMMARY

To be added later on…

THE TRIP VIDEO

I’m still unsure how much to write about the adventure that never ended in an epic way I had dreamed of so unlike before, I decided to edit the trip video first. Although, as my plan was to walk the whole GR11, I didn’t shoot that much material during my time there in Spain. I was constantly thinking that I’ll have time and energy to focus on filming something more interesting later on. Even though this video is compiled of quite random shots then, I hope it will reflect part of my experience in the western half of the Pyrenees.

The video is shot with Sony Cybershot DSC RX100 pocket camera.

Sound:
*El Arte de Eschuchar – Gnawledge
(creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/)
*District Four – Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
(creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
*Floating Cities – Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
(creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

THE STORY

DAY 1 – Írun to Amargunko Lepoa (17km, 773m/473m, 12:15-19:00)

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Turning my back to the coastal city of Írun feels exciting and bit scary, even though I’m posing bravely in the departure photo. For the first time in my life, I would step into the Pyrenees and for a reason, my mind feels restless.

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“Impossible!”
“If not having crampons, the route is impossible,” a tired looking, elderly French hiker states firmly, whom I meet only few hours after leaving Írun. Not the most encouraging news. Have I estimated wrong the upcoming snow situation? Would the way through the mountains stay closed?

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Walking feels clumsy, and it’s hard to get into a good rhythm. On the quiet dirt road to the dam of San Anton, suddenly a fox with a big furry tail trots against. Majestic birds of prey are circling in the sky over the green and lush hills.

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Nearby hills are full of cattle and fences, and finding a good place to stop before the saddle of Amargunko Lepoa seems impossible. Great cloudbanks are moving in the horizon, and they look like a giant steam locomotive had just passed by. At nine o´clock the sun sinks behind the western ridges and it’s time to set up the camp.

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DAY 2 – to Collado de Inaberri (30km, 1333m/877m, 07:00-16:45)
The first night becomes even more difficult than usual. A wildboar stomped in the neighbouring bushes and a big herd of cows wanted to pass by along the same narrow ridge. The surrounding darkness of the night highlighted their tensely staring eyes when catched in the beam of my of headtorch.

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Finally, the day dawns pale under a heavy sky. Feeling exhausted, I descend to the village of Bera and visit it’s excellent bakery. The ladies working there want to try how heavy my backpack is.

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Advancing through the network of Basque hills, I encounter few other long distance hikers, an ill-tuned jay and an overly enthusiastic dog, which joins me for a while (as I like so much to make new dog friends…).

Darker and darker clouds are gathering over the hills but fortunately, the rain remains hidden.

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DAY 3 – to Adipekoa Lepoa (29km, 1435m/1088m, 06:50-18:10)

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This time I sleep well through the night; a half moon guarded my sleep high up in the sky and a calm wind sang a pleasant lullaby. The clear morning foreshadows a hot day but first, I descend to the village of Elizondo for a hefty breakfast.

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In the middle of the next ascend, I lie down to the bank of the adjacent field and close my eyes. Suddenly, I become fully aware of the sounds of the countryside surrounding me: jingling of the cow bells, steady chirring of the grasshoppers and somewhere further, an old tractor in its morning chores. When opening my eyes and looking up, I can see few fluffy clouds floating in the blue sky and a hawk in its own heights. Just at the edge of my vision, branches of a leafy tree are swaying gently in the wind.

For meditating, the best position is to lie on your back, your arms under the head or crossed over your chest, resting on a soft tussock, gazing the sky, following the clouds passing by and dreaming, what if every moment could be this carefree.

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When I reach higher again, the landscape turns into a vast chain of hills, rolling endlessly forward. Walking feels pleasant even though the trail is poorly marked at times.

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At the next break I admire how Red Kites fly almost still in the air draughts. I meet a Spanish man, who slowly slogs towards the same destination. With few common words, we try to find about each other.

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After a long day I arrive to a quiet ridge. A barbed wire fence guards the edge of a forest, and I decide to place my tent next to it. A dense fog has crept along the valleys and hides the peak of Adi, rising at the end of the ridge towards the hidden sky. The wind has increased and blows now coldly from the northwest. The day turns into a night, and the quiet trail becomes even more deserted. The dark forest behind the fence feels eerie.

DAY 4 – to Burguete (16km, 509m/792m, 06:45-14:00)

At the beginning of the night, I wake up to a loud noice coming from the forest, which scares me so badly that I get the zipper of the tent door completely stuck. After solving the problem with the door, I wildly aim my headtorch to the woods but the misty night reveals nothing. I hear only the gentle rain before tiredness takes me again.

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After breaking the camp, I notice how the whole landscape below me is covered in low clouds. The voices of the night have disappeared. The rising sun golds the western slopes and the edge of the forest which just in the evening felt so gloomy. It’s hard to imagine more beautiful morning. Close to the next col, a lonely hiker is still sleeping in his bivy bag.

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My way heads downhill and soon I find myself inside the cloak of mist. I reach the slowly strengthening stream of Barranco Odia, but can’t see other walkers in a long while.

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Missing the Roncesvalles short-cut, I continue all the way until the village of Burguete. I had thought to visit the famous starting point of Camino Frances, but now the day had become scorching hot on the floor of a wide valley. I sit in the shade of a picnic area, expecting to see some pilgrims but only an Irish fellow arrives, on his way towards the distant Mediterranean.  Under his ragged leather shoes he reveals blistered feet and badly burnt shins. But for a change, it’s very nice to have a long and understandable conversation in English.

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After a long break I continue the last 2km to a busy campsite, where I enjoy the first shower of the journey.

DAY 5 – to Zazpiturri ridge (28km, 1206m/706m, 06:45-16:15)

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I walk back to the village centre and sit down next to the main street for fifteen minutes to observe the pilgrims passing by. Few solitary women, a young couple, elder and louder men in groups of three, Asians, an old blind man helped by a younger assistant, feeling the way with his walking stick – the whole spectrum of pilgrims on their way to distant Santiago de Compostela.

Turning my back to the busy street, I head towards silent woods. Behind the next ascend I find Stephen the Irish with his tarp, enjoying a morning tea. A group of horses are grazing freely around us.

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A steep descend through thick bushes leads me to the quiet village of Orbara. The sun has climbed to the mid-day heights and the village won’t offer any relief; just streets radiating in the intense heat. I continue until Hiriberri along an arduous climb, hays tickling and scratching my bare legs. The one hour journey feels like an insuperable and insane effort.

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Also the climb up from Hiriberri towards the next ridge continues being painful. The white-glowing sun burns relentlessly, and when I dive into the woods for the second hour, I find the rocky forest floor moist and slippery. Between the trees I observe possible thunderclouds and far in the south of the ridge, I notice an enigmatic formation of mist. I would not make it until Ochagavía so I’d better find a place to camp somewhere on the 7km long ridge.

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With the increasing wind, I begin to feel more restless. I’m on the ridge without any protection, and the fast moving mist has dropped the visibility only to ten to twenty meters. For not getting lost, I place my tent near the trail, next to a fence which crosses the ridge.

The mist carries water in almost invisible droplets. I sit eating in the grey bleakness, but when a huge flock of sheep arrives with same thoughts, I decide to move to the other side of the fence. The rest of the evening I listen nervously the jingling of cattle bells, which suddenly comes next to my tent. From the dark mist stares a line of big, horned cows, and I realize being just on the trail of their evening walk. The less curious and smaller sheep feel a better choice after all, so once more I change the camp spot across the fence.

DAY 6 – to Ochagavía (13km, 266m/878m, 06:45-12:00)

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As often after a restless night, appears the morning somewhat special. The clouds still cover the sky which glows in eerie violet, but a hopeful light already peeks out in the horizon.

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After walking one hour, I sit down to have a breakfast. The silence is complete and only the occasional whooshing of the wind reminds the world being alive. Far in the horizon looms a blue kingdom, the land of rock and granite. From the ridge I see well the Pyrenees behind the Basque Hills for the first time.

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The only goal of the short day is to descend to Ochagavía and enjoy thoroughly its campsite.

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A merry GR11 hiker gathering builds up at the campsite.  A long-haired and chatty adventurer Jose is already there, on his fourth hike across the Pyrenees, now to the opposite direction. A german girl, on her first real hike, was walking partly with him towards the west. During the afternoon the slow Spaniard arrives too, and shortly after another, an elderly Spanish man. I’m happily surprised to see Stephen, limping to the campsite just before the dusk.

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DAY 7 – to Zuriza (31km, 1239m/816m, 06:45-16:15)

In the early morning I say goodbye to the German girl and Jose. Meeting a living legend of the Pyrenees, who radiated unique positiveness towards life, felt special and inspiring.

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After walking three hours along a dirt road to the top, I catch up with the older Spanish man. I praise him for good speed, but the man shakes his head laughing and saying tres …oras something. I’m not at my sharpest and I ask if he meant tres sodas before realizing he said horas, three hours. The hazy mountain range waits us now near.

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I head down to the busy village of Isaba. After resting for a while on its main street, I began the scorching hot afternoon stage.

In only half an hour I arrive at the gates of the mountains. Gentle hills have now vanished and the trail dives between jagged and steep walls. I leave Navarra behind and step into the alpine style slopes of Aragónia.

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I carry on along the river valley but there at Zuriza a surprise waits: it was not a village I expected but just a holiday resort, hidden among the mountains. From my tent door opens up an impressive view to the limestone cliffs of  Sierra d´Alano. The clouds travel fast behind the peaks, and showers of rain are taking turns with sunshine, like reflecting my own mixed feelings. I’m waiting for the first real day in the mountains anxiously but also a smile on my face – finally there!

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DAY 8 – to Candanchu (34km, 1723m/1457m, 06:30-19:00)

Thick mist covers the river valley when I leave early in the morning. After half an hour of steady walking I turn towards the hidden heights. Cursing poor visibility and lacking trail marks, I manage to climb along the right trail all the way until the col of Petraficha, near the 2000 meter mark.

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From the top of the narrow and steep-walled col opens up an impressive mountain vista to the East.

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I descend to La Mina, keeping an eye the cloudbanks drifting all over. The morning difficulties still haunting fresh in my mind, I hope the weather would stay clear.

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From La Mina begins a long, 15km ascent to the lake of Ibón d´Estanes where I thought to camp for the night. Walking is fast along a popular dirt road together with all sort of walkers: tourists, day hikers, groups of students…

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Expectant atmosphere floats over the lovely meadows of Aguas Tuertas. The end of the watery high valley, where the trail inevitably leads to, is buried in thick clouds. Not liking at all the idea of finding the route in poor visibility, I reluctantly step forward.

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Finding the exact right path turns out to be little difficult, but I follow other people towards the lake. I gain on two Spanish guys and together we walk the rest of the day.

Higher on the slopes the air cools down and the visibility drops even more, making it hard to navigate without a gps. Moist mountain fog sweeps the rocky mountain sides, and when we finally reach the hidden lake, the whole idea of camping feels miserable and lonely.

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As the Spanish kept goint towards Candanchu, I decided to follow their lead. A train would wait me there the next morning, to spend few rest days off-trail, and it felt as a better option to march now together back to the civilization.

However, the day becomes long and 12 hours on the move begin to feel heavy in my limbs. I’m cold and tired, but hilarious jokes help. We briefly visit the French soil when the trail dives into an arduous and muddy forest, and we joke how everything would be better back in the Spanish side, how the clouds would retreat and how we would be greeted with fanfares and garlands.

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But the ski resort of Candanchu is more like a ghost town in the darkening, misty evening. Fortunately, we find a refugio and an Argentinian steak house. Recovering with a beer and laughter, it’s nice to revise the hard day. At the same time ends the first part of my journey, but within few days I would continue ever deeper into the unpredictable slopes of the Pyrenees.

DAY 11 – Canfranc to Ibons d´Anayet (13km, 1058m/84m, 12:45-17:15)

The regional train circles slowly around sun burnt valleys and fields back towards the Pyrenees. The closer to the mountains I get, the more contradictory I feel. When the train finally stops at the end station of Canfranc, there’s not much left of my love of adventure. I can’t really understand why – maybe it’s just me being nervous.

From Canfranc I continue along the pilgrimage route of Compostela, which runs from the mountains towards lower lands. The path is well marked until the crossroads, where the GR11 trail turns and starts its climb to the lake of Ibon’s D´Anayet.

I wonder if the signposting has been changed because suddenly I lose completely the right direction. An overgrown dead-end follows one after another, and only after half an hour of searching I’m back on the right trail, along a wide river valley.

I zigzag up a steep slope for an hour. An easily recognizable giant of Pic du Midi d´Ossau rises on the French side of the Pyrenees, its stony fin ploughing majestically through waves of mountains.

It’s late afternoon and the day is getting quiet. Most of the day walkers have gone back down already. A band of horses graze freely at the plateau and a Northern Wheatear welcomes me by jumping cheerfully on the rocks. A Red Kite flies over few times. From the eastern ridge I catch up a signal and I call home. I’m feeling strangely lonely and for a moment I’m not sure if I even wanted to be here. The air cools down quickly and the evening got darker.

DAY 12 – to Ibones de Brazato (Panticosa detour 24km, 869m/1248m, 06:00-16:00)

During the small hours of the night silent, eerie flashing of lightnings wakes me up. The wind picks up speed and starts to shake the tent more and more furiously. After five a o’clock I decide that it’s better to pack my gear and leave the grim plateau behind. It’s cold and raining but when reaching a lower altitude I see a beautiful day waiting in the horizon.

I descend past the ski resort of Anayet and the hill side village of Formigal, all the way until Sallent de Gállego where I enjoy a long breakfast break.

Even if I have mentally made my mind, I’m still mulling over the upcoming route. The GR11 would ascend to the refuge of Respomuso and the most snowy and demanding part of the trail behind it – the passes of Cuello de Tebarrain and de l´Infierno. Without having an ice axe or crampons I don’t want to try my luck, as I have heard very contradictory news about the condition of the trail.

After making a final decision, walking feels light. The sun shines brightly for a moment but dark clouds are gathering behind the surrounding peaks. I’m passing by the lake of Lanuza towards the spa resort of Panticosa.

From the resort I climb up a steep, 600 vertical meter wall. Under the relentless afternoon sun, one hour and a half feels like an endless task. Further up the short mountain pines won’t give any shelter but the view from my wild campsite towards west and evening light is certainly breathtaking. Flies are buzzing around until the dusk.

DAY 13 – to Camping Valley de Bujaruelo (20km, 481m/1400m, 06:45-15:00)

The whole night it kept raining hard, thunderstorms flashing and playing silently somewhere behind the surrounding ridges. After another badly slept night, the morning reveals itself calm but in low spirits. Gray clouds are hanging low over the peaks.

I quickly ascend close to the pass of Brazato (2566m) but then the trail disappears under a field of treacherous boulders.

On my way down I need to wade through the fast-flowing Rio Ara. The ice cold mountain water makes my feet numb but after the bath walking feels easy. Marmots are following my progress among tall grass, whistling occasionally after me.

Even if it’s just half an hour to the campsite of the day, I rest a whole hour next to the ancient arch bridge of San Nicolás de Bujaruelo together with many other people enjoying the outdoors.

For long I have waited to reach the famous Ordesa national park but for my disappointment the river canyon is steep walled, which creates quite a pressing impression. The campsite of Valle de Bujaruelo is terraced on many levels on a forest slope without any views to anywhere.

Immediately after pitching my tent it starts to rain. Passing thunderstorms make horribly loud sounds, echoing long in the narrow canyon.

In the evening I notice how a familiar tarp has appeared to the campsite. For my great delight, I found Stephen under it with his brand new hiking boots. Reunion after a week feels great, and the rest of the evening we share trail stories. At the campsite bar we meet another Irishman, David, who has an ambitious plan to walk the GR11 in exact 30 days.

DAY 14 – to Rio Bellos (28km, 1524m/924m, 06:30-18:30)

David had already gone when I start my approach towards the Ordesa heartland in dim morning light. I follow the roaring river at the canyon floor until Torla intersection, from where the trail heads upwards. Against my expectations, the Ordesa canyon continues still narrow and densely forested.

I stop admiring mighty, roaring waterfalls every now and then. The morning has remained quiet but the huge parking lot at the end of the public road is already full of life. I wonder the amount of people realizing this is where the hardship would start.

After finishing my break, I have no other option but to join the flow of people. I try to dodge the other walkers and tourists the best I can, a grim expression on my face, but despite of every measure, every now and then someone sees the chance with a unpleasant smile on their face, shaking their cameras speaking the words I hate the most: “foto, por favor”.

Suddenly, the rest of the canyon widens and the trees get more scarce. The landscape transforms itself into the same that is seen in every postcard and photo album of an Ordesa visitor. I’m staring at that view from down, surrounded by impressive rock walls. The refuge of Góriz waits behind this secret valley of Circo de Soasa, around 400 vertical meters higher than where the easy path ends.

I truly enjoy the straightforward push, zigzagging the lower slopes of scree, up until the first ridge line.

The refuge of Góriz is popular for a good reason; in addition to front row mountain views, it offers a good base camp for conquering the summit of Monte Perdido (3348m). I sit aside on the grass and follow how group of climbers arrive to the yard, helmets and climbing gear jingling, faces red from exhaustion and sun. Everyone congratulates each other and order then lunch plates. One woman faints but recovers after quick nursing.

I got surprised when also David arrived. The day was still too early to stop and spots for tents in the open mountain side next to the refuge felt too exposed for winds and famous storms traveling along the Ordesa canyon. We keep going forward for six more kilometers, first up to a nearest ridge, then down to meet the Rio Bellos, before ascending to a small meadow for the night, near the end of the next valley.

DAY 15 – to Collata las Coronetas (17km, 1840m/1610m, 06:00-18:00)

We both wake up feeling anxious. After a short morning climb, a thousand vertical meter drop to nothingness below would wait us. We want to get moving before the sun reaches the ridges.

The view from Anisclo pass is just wild, and feels impossible to get down from there. But somehow, within time, the path has found its way with tight turns. Descending demands full focus and some head for heights but fortunately it doesn’t feel overly dangerous.

But one vertical kilometer in rocky and difficult terrain takes its toll. After reaching the valley floor, we enjoy refreshments for a long moment before continuing the day. Under the afternoon heat we tackle the wall on the other side of the valley before reaching a good spot for wild camping. Fearless flock of sheep wonders around but we are too tired to care much. Clouds are moving fast during the rest of the evening, bringing in few showers.

DAY 16 – to ref. Biados (32km, 1576m/1818m, 07:30-18:00)

At midnight it begins to rain harder. For some time, the night sky is full of silent, distant flashes until suddenly a loud bang echoes from the middle of the darkness. I’m fully awake, realizing the desperate situation. We’re in the middle of an angry thunderstorm which roars now directly above and around us. A lightning after a lightning illuminates the surrounding slopes scarily close, accompanying with thunderous rumble. I’m squatting on my sleeping pad, terrified to move. I shout to David, who’s also awake.

Thundering lasts a long hour until the rain suddenly ceases and we thought the morning had come. But only a brief moment later another thunder cell creeps in from behind the ridges and starts the hammering. We escape again to our tents thinking whether we’ll survive or not. The second storm rages even more fiercely, throwing lightnings everywhere. I could feel the lightning hitting the tent any second. Wind and rain shakes the tent without any mercy. The second hour goes by even more slowly and few times I’m nearly crying. I feel myself utterly helpless under the powers of nature.

After an eternity the second storm cell decides to leave us alone. We seize the change and hurry down to the valley as fast as we can. The relief grows with each step but the night of terror weighs heavy on my mind the rest of the day. I can’t take another night like that.

In the afternoon the hard days of walking and badly slept nights start to wear me down. The way to the refuge of Biados seems to take forever, and the couple of kilometers beyond thirty just continue and continue.

The next day I would need to make some tough decisions as we would arrive near to the busy village of Benasque which is a good transportation hub.

DAY 17 – to Puen de San Chaime (22km, 1094m/1422m, 07:00-14:30)

From the very beginning of the day I feel low on energy and I have big difficulties to keep up with David who strides forward without a worry. While ascending the long but gentle slope towards Puerto de Chistau (2572m), my legs stop being cooperative, breathing turns heavier than ever before on a hike, and body temperature changes uncontrollably. It felt like my whole body is sensing the end approaching and wanting to give up. I had experienced similar feeling few times before, also during the last days on GR5, and slowly I started to know what I should do. Heavy mist covers the pass and the temperature drops noticeably before we reach a lower altitude again.

The whole day I was wondering what to do because the walking simply didn’t feel good. After Benasque waited the highest and the most rugged heartland of the central Pyrenees, and camping wild and the nightly thunderstorms worried me. Here it seemed the thunders develop very late in the day, and were hard to predict. Without sleeping well, I couldn’t recover as I should and enjoying the walk would become more and more difficult.

When we reach the village of Puen de San Chaime and Benasque, I’m utterly exhausted and shaking in fever. There’s only one choice to be made. For this time, the half way of the Pyrenees crossing would be enough and I decide to quit.

The decision feels like a huge relief and big disappointment at the same time, naturally. I had had high hopes for this trek but for some reason I wasn’t feeling it the right way. For the first time, I lost the duel with a hiking trail but more important was to make a right call, no matter how hard it was. Simply, I wasn’t enjoying enough. But don’t get me wrong here, the experience was great and blister-free, landscape beautiful and fellow hikers super nice. I was just missing that something to justify the upcoming weeks.