This trip started, like most things, as an idea. It was an idea that grew arms and legs during post-ride drinks and as we chatted while we drove our guests on mountain bike holidays through the Pyrenees. We talked about the high Pyrenees trip would we like to do, if we had a free week with no restrictions. We started talking about it to guests to gauge interest and adding possibilities. We talked with people we knew in various areas and the ideas kept pouring in. It grew and grew until it had its own momentum and it felt like this trip just had to happen. We had to make it happen. This is the story of big adventures which grew from little ideas. It is the story of some of the best adventures of my life, something special which we made happen and the amazing experiences which came from a series of risks.
As mountain bike guides part of our job is to tame adventure, to shape it and bring it, in a safe package, to our guests. Our trips are very adventurous but in reality, we have looked at the risks, mitigated against them and stacked alternatives on top of alternatives so that we always have good, safe options for our groups. This is simple enough to plan when we only need some support with shuttles or a lift back home at the end of the day. When you start to include teams of mules, high mountain camps and helicopters it becomes a lot more difficult. After a long time talking about our "High Pyrenees VIP"
trip we finally got the opportunity to test it, thanks to Orbea´s support, during various press trips we organised for them through 2016 and 2017. It is one of the things I really like about working with an adventurous, forward-looking company like Orbea; when we talked to them about these ideas, slightly crazy though they were, they were instantly really excited to get involved and take the risk. Often taking those risks is necessary to do something special, whether that is in having an adventure or designing a new bike.
The trip would take us from the flatter ground south of the Pyrenees mountains, across the wilderness of the Sierra de Guara, through Zona Zero and up into the high Pyrenees mountains before crossing all the way to the Benasque Valley and dipping into France. We aimed to do the trip in as linear a manner as possible, plotting a straight line from the plains to the peaks, however, to cover these distances, while sticking to the best trails, we knew we needed some assistance for the climbs and we had a few ideas on that front. Adventure doesn't have to be a total stranger to comfort after all!
Our first day took us through one of the wildest areas I know, a real backcountry paradise called Guara. It is an area where you fight for every inch of progress and the trails are hard on the riders and harder on the bikes; as the locals say, “Guara: si quiere, te mata” (sic)
or “Guara: If it wants to, it will kill you”. We rode a whole bunch of pretty extreme trails, with unending rock gardens, and finished the day climbing the tallest mountain in the area as the sun was setting. We raced the setting sun back down the mountain with the last rays pushing at our backs, but although we descended fast and hard, the sun descended faster and harder and soon we had almost no light left. Just as we could safely go no further we reached a shoulder on the mountain and spied a small, lonely hut with firelight flickering enticingly in the windows. This was our stop for the night and we were treated to a roaring fire, cold beers and hot food thanks to the local cowboy, Bertrand and his amazing hippie daughter Eva. Leaving our bikes in the dark outside we entered the warm hut with its flickering candles and smells of cooking. It was an emotional, almost religious experience to arrive at that place high on the mountain after a long, tough day on the bikes.
We ate deep-fried breadcrumbs in that tiny cabin high in the mountains, drank wine and talked deep into the night. When the time came to seek out our beds we stumbled, a little drunkenly, out into the night and were treated to an incredible spectacle above us. The skies were clear and filled with stars but on the other side of the mountain a thunderstorm was raging and the flashing lightning was silently lighting up the sky and throwing patterns across the stars above us. It was an amazing end to an amazing day, something which will live on in my memory forever. That day was an intense experience which I was glad to share with this group of people; people who had been strangers this morning but who were being forged, in the fires of adventure, into a tightknit group ready to support each other through the trails and trials ahead.
The next morning, we woke early to blue skies and cold air. We had coffee and breakfast and the group diverged out from the hut to plant our pine trees in secret places. We had a big day ahead of us, potentially the toughest of the trip as we traversed across Guara to reach the beautiful medieval village of Ainsa, now made famous thanks to the Enduro World Series. As the group were coming to know, Guara doesn´t give up its secrets easily and we paid for today's passage with sweat, with blood and with tears. We reached the boundaries of Zona Zero early in the afternoon and our route to Ainsa took us down a few EWS stages, the well-ridden singletracks providing a sharp contrast to the anti-flow trails of Guara. Our weary group rolled into Ainsa just as the sun dropped and night rolled out over the mountains. We didn´t even make it to our apartments but instead, we decided to stock up immediately on fuel in the form of beer and family-sized pizzas. Everyone slept well that night.
From here we headed deep into the high Pyrenees mountains, trying to find our way through and over them. We used vehicle uplift as far as possible and when that could go no further we shouldered our bikes and headed higher. On one trail we rode an amazing old aqueduct cut into a thousand meter cliff in the mountains while the vultures circled all around us. On another, we carried around an hour up to an exposed mountaintop and rode for hours downhill until the singletrack spat us out right at a bar where we slept that night. A different adventure saw us riding and carrying our bikes up over 2700m on an incredible moonscape and hunkering down out of the wind to eat our sandwiches before dropping 1400 vertical meters on the most perfect singletrack all the way to the valley below. We rode and crashed and laughed and rode some more. Much more. These days passed in a blur of high mountains and singletrack.
One afternoon we took a 4×4 lift high into the mountains and unloaded our bikes as the sun set, leaving us to follow a crepuscular singletrack deep into the mountains. After a few minutes of pedalling, we saw two shapes looming out of the murk ahead of us and as we moved forwards the shapes slowly resolved themselves as two men leading two mules. We followed them by the light of their head torches, down into the base of the mountains and reached a high mountain lake. Following the shores of the lake, we saw the welcome glow of the tents where we would spend the night. Leaving our bikes on the cold ground we entered a big tent where there was light, and food and most importantly beer and wine! We ate like kings that night, looking out of the tent at the millions of stars which lit the sky and were reflected in the Ibon. We told stories of the ghost which haunts the lake, a Muslim queen who rises on the longest day of the year and can only be seen by the pure of heart. As we scared ourselves with ghost stories the temperatures dropped rapidly. Fortified with wine, we finally crawled into our sleeping bags, most of us wearing all of our clothes. I don't think that Adventure really arrives until it rides in on the back of suffering and for us it arrived that night as temperatures dropped way below zero and ice built on the tent walls. Despite the hardship and cold, it was an amazing experience to be sleeping and eating that high in the mountains with the mules tied up to a post just outside our tents.
Mules are one of the historical reasons that many of these paths are here. They were used to move goods and people between the villages, their paths often taking the shortest route and heading up and over the mountains. Alberto and Alvaro, our mule men, have a team of mules and work the mountains still, taking touristic visits, stocking refuges and assisting with trail maintenance. They have permission to camp in places where it is normally prohibited, thanks to the work they are doing to revive this traditional use of the mountains. It was cool for us to be part of that and everyone enjoyed the contrast of our carbon wonder machines and fluorescent clothing with the mules and their slow and steady manners.
That morning we saddled up the mules and very carefully, very slowly we loaded our bikes onto them. All the bikes were weighed and put into matching pairs, one to be strapped on either side of the mule. Everything that was sharp or pointy was carefully covered with thick foam, not to protect the bikes but to care for the animals. When one of the bike-pairs didn´t match exactly in weight a bag was filled with stones to make the weights exact. During this whole process, it was touching to see the care Alberto and Alvaro took and the obvious love they held for the animals. These mules are almost 30 years old and it's a long-term relationship, something which was very obvious when you watch man and animal working together. This was going to be a very light load for the mules, normally they carry much heavier weights and the only issue was the height of the bike with some low trees along the route. Careful manoeuvring and detouring was undertaken and after over an hour of walking we arrived at a high mountain pass, looking down on our lakeside camp far below and behind us.
The mountains stretched away eastward and it was down into these mountains that our route would take us. The ride down was intense, we largely descended for the whole afternoon, arriving once again as the sun was setting. The trail was technical in the extreme, serious anti-flow and very trials-like in places. For this group of experienced riders who had come to trust deeply in their bikes it was an absolute riot. We finished deep down in a canyon, another special experience after starting high up on a mountain-top. That night my hands were so tired I could hardly hold a beer and our group settled into a quiet comradery around the dinner table, which was only occasionally broken by halfhearted wisecracking. Sleep came fast and deep that night but all too soon morning broke and we had to force our tired bodies out of warm beds.High Pyrenees: A Day of Pure Enduro.
Today to add some contrast we enjoyed some uplifts around the Valle de Benasque and Puro Pirineo. We took it easy and enjoyed some flowing trails and relatively little pedalling. We floated and cruised down around 5000m of vertical and it was really nice to ride some more flowing, less high mountain / high consequence trails. With all the skills we had honed riding way up on the super technical high altitude trails the lower trails were suddenly really fun and it felt like we could ride anything, with superhuman bike control! The Scariest Part of the Trip: Helicopters!
The last day of this trip was something Orbea helped us test on the launch of the new Orbea Rallon last summer. Pinkbike was there! Helicopter uplift is something that has just become possible in the Pyrenees thanks to our friend Pablo, although you need to pull a group together to make it feasible. What I realised was that if you treat the helicopter as a pure uplift then it's just not worth it, however, if you use the helicopter as part of the day it makes a lot more sense. We started the day with an early morning hike up to the French-Spanish border, high up in the Pyrenees. We used mules so that we didn't have to carry our bikes for this 90-minute hike which gave us time to enjoy the incredible views of the highest mountains in the Pyrenees. We will make a small change for our High Pyrenees VIP trip and we will sleep up on the high mountains here with another mule-supplied camp.
As incredible as the sights were, however, they fade from memory against the trail which descends from here, down into France. We passed through a notch in the backbone of the Pyrenees; rock walls towering over our heads but narrow enough to let you touch both sides at once. The trail is narrow, exposed with lots and lots of tough switchbacks and it goes on, and on, and on. You descend an incredible amount, all the way to the French valley below. From here there is a beautiful, and challenging, singletrack climb before the trail continues down on more technical singletrack but in the woods this time. Eventually, you arrive at a pretty French village and it's time for the next part of this trip.
A lift to the top in the gondola and as you emerge you hear it… it's our helicopter coming for us! The intensity of the experience shouldn't be underestimated, it was exciting, to the point of being emotional for some people. We flew really high, suspended in our metal and carbon fibre box, passing over the highest mountains in the Pyrenees and were left on a black ridgeline almost 3 km up in the sky. From here the trail descends for hours, changing as it nears the valley below but always fantastic and technical. The trail literally ends at the bar and those beers have never tasted so good. If the high mountain camping was the Ying, then this was the Yang, a totally different but none-the-less unforgettable experience that just put the cherry on top of this cake!High Pyrenees: A Reflection
Over the 6 days of riding which will make it into the future trip, we will descend over 21,000m, sleep two nights high in the mountains with the help of mule trains, and finally step well into the 21st century with a helicopter shuttle over the highest mountains in the Pyrenees. When we tested this trip our group shared a profound experience, something that for me at least ranks up there with some of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
These adventures really force you to stop and look around; it feels like someone stops the hamster-wheel and you can step out for a while. Which is crazy when you consider that most days we are moving from first light until the sun sets. That's how it feels though, these adventures give a break from the routine, you don't have time to think about anything other than what you are doing, and the only problems you encounter are immediate and overcomeable, unlike the complexities of real life. I made some memories that will stay fresh for a long, long time. We went seeking adventure and we definitely found it and with those adventures, I found a reprise from a world where things are often complicated and often can't be solved with a dose of man-up-and-get-on-with-it or a dash of brute force and ignorance.Want To Do This Trip?
Want to do this trip? We will offer one trip from the 21st – 28th of July 2018. Ideally, you will have done one of our other trips or have a friend who has ridden with us before and who will vouch for you. Details over on http://www.basquemtb.com