Photo Epic: A Monstrous Pyrenean Refuge Adventure

Nov 12, 2018
by Doug McDonald  

Photo by Pete Scullion
Seeking Refuge in the Pyrenees
with ORBEA
Words&Photos: Pete Scullion
The story of an adventure, sleeping wild in the Pyrenees mountains.

High above Biescas, as the hot morning air rises up the bright white cliff faces, beared vultures, once almost extinct laze in their half dozens on these mighty updrafts. The sweat is already beginning to sting our eyes as we make our way through the thin pine trees, weaving through the lurid summer mountain flowers to our overnight stop high in the mountains above Panticosa. Soon we’d be squinting through the dust as we play cat and mouse down an old droving trail, littered with the boulders that once made up this commute to work. Every straight has no obvious line, every corner has a hidden obstacle ready to snatch at the bike’s extremities. Corner after corner, straight after straight, we weave our way down as the pine gives way to broader leaves and we’re finally afforded some shade from the baking midday sun. Less than an hour previous, we were loading our bikes onto the back of a trailer, coated in dust, the PirineosMTB 4x4 has clearly seen some proper off-road use, and both Andres and Bea know how to handle their Hilux when the going gets steep and rough. Shortly before we’d strayed out into the choking dust of the car park, Doug from BasqueMTB and myself had been sat in the cool shade of a bar, soaking up the cortados, lemonade and ice cream in attempts to stay awake and cool.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Coming in over the mountains to the first refuge.
Photo by Pete Scullion
The uplift vehicle and toilet shovel.

Photo by Pete Scullion
The first nights refuge.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Doug enjoying one last coffee before we leave civilisation.

Three days of riding and two nights under a blanket of stars is what awaits us in this part of the Pyrenees. Mountainous Aragon would bring us the French frontier, before making our way south over the many smaller valleys that run parallel to this grand valley. Along the way, we’d be making the most of the Pyrenees’ industrial history. A history that predates the industrialisation of the cities, a history where money was to be made in the mountains, from the natural wealth that this part of Spain is renowned for. After a morning searching for shade along some pristine singletrack brought back from being fully reclaimed by nature by Andres, we stop for lunch high on the French-Spanish frontier. This is the furthest north we’ll reach on our trip and we take the time to refuel after a busy morning before an even busier afternoon. Once the pinxtos and other Pyrenean delicacies are inhaled, we make our way through a the first village on the Spanish side of the border, weaving past inquisitive dogs and ridiculous SUVs to yet more pristine singletrack, lined with all the flowers of summer, with bees and butterflies filling the air either side. From our vantage point here we can almost see the full distance back to Biescas. Only the hazy summer air stops our starting point from appearing out of the milkiness on the horizon. Here, all the tallest peaks of the Pyrenees are visible but it’s the trail ahead that has our attention. Any lapse of judgement and the vultures, now tiny specs against the blue sky will make short work of us. Like a thin chalky ribbon, the trail winds its way through thick Alpine pasture, the long grass hiding the trail from us, so we’ve to be on our toes here. Doug leads out Bea as the speed increases on a long, steady left-hand traverse across the open face of the hill. It’s not long before we pick up another old trail into the hills that drops steeply down to the road below. Switchback after switchback come and go, getting tighter and more technical as the trail steepens and we’re thrust out onto the road before we know what’s happened, grinning from ear to ear. We’re barely into the afternoon and already the riding has been superlative.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Cruising the flower meadows during the afternoon heat.

Photo by Pete Scullion
More singletrack, different flowers.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Another uplift, another amazing mountain view.

Photo by Pete Scullion
The riding in the Tena valley is scenic.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Yet another uplift, yet another amazing mountain view.

We can hear the ice cream and coffee calling once more, but we opt for more riding time rather than the quicker, easier run into town. The switchbacks above set the tone for the rest of the run into the valley below. Steep, fast and rocky is the name of the game and I almost get sent out the front door trying to keep pace with Doug down a steep roll-in, with Bea hot on my heels. A rowdy few minutes of sniping between rocks and low hanging trees before we’re feet up again, cooling off with the hordes that have descended on this valley for the local festival. From deep in the valley, we make the long, winding journey above Panticosa, past the old national downhill track, past the droves of cattle coming off the hill for the night to our million star hotel. Sitting on the terminal moraine created by a cirque glacier long ago, our refuge for the night might be low on facilities, buthigh on connection with our surroundings. From where we leave the 4x4, we can see a small herd of horses augmented by a flock of chamois making the most of the late evening sun and the pasture around the small stone building. The glacial lakehere is teeming with fish and there almost seems to be more fish than water. With the wind dropping, the tall limestone crags of the peaks above reflect perfectly on the water, giving the impression of a massive void into the centre of the earth. Our stop for the night could not be more perfect. With a full moon rising, it seems to take forever to lose the light of day and only the brightest stars shine through. The silence is almost audible outside therefuge and despite the valley below being a bustle of small villages, they feel far more distant now that they are. The gentle clink of bells tells us where the horses are the buzz of bats in the growing darkness are joined only by the gentle breeze. Inside, it’s considerably louder as Andres and Bea set about whipping up a feast before we bed down for the night. The whisky is soon flowing and it’s not long before the refuge is full of chatter of the day before, the trails and just how amazing the spot is.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Rolling into the refuge high in the mountains.
Photo by Pete Scullion
Clothes hung up to dry in the hut.
Photo by Pete Scullion
Sunset over the Pic du Midi d'Ossau

Photo by Pete Scullion
Refuge nights.
Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
The last push to arrive to our lodge

Photo by Pete Scullion
Refuge nights.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Refuge mornings. What a place to wake up in!

With the day’s golden rays sinking into the inky darkness of night, the stars show themselves before the moon drowns out all other light. Doug opts to sleep out with the horses, a wise choice considering the heat of the refuge. All is quiet until the sun returns once more. Day two begins with an awe-inspiring sunrise with reflections once again being ever present. Coffee and breakfast slowly bring us four to life and it’s not long before we’re waving this most amazing place to spend any part of the day. Sunset, night time and sunrise were beyond spectacular. Even with the day still young, the heat in the air is already into the twenties and we’re glad to have Bea dropping us at the top of a long, winding trail through the silver birch and into a forest made almost entirely of moss. Dusty turns in the fields awash with flowers don’t lose their charm and all three of us battle with the dust as much as the turns. There’s no let-up in this trail and we’re descending the for the best part of an hour from the open pasture to the cool darkness of the woods below where everything about the trail takes on a more claustrophobic feel. The trail, again another route into the hills from yesteryear, seems to be more a tunnel cut through the forest than a simple ribbon of dirt. This ribbon of gold is as good as the accommodation from the night before. Simple yet effective embodied. Anyone could ride this trail at the speed they wanted to and have fun.Fast straights give way to complex chicanes and gulleys, every turn of the wheels or pedals is sublime. The sound of buzzing freewheels and tyres scrabbling for traction fill the still air of the forest for half an hour before we’re spat out onto the road again. We meet Bea again, using the time to refuel before the next uplift and the next trail.


Photo by Pete Scullion
Flow trails high in the Pyrenees mountains

Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Riding deep in the green room.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Blasting through the woods.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Flow trails lower down the valley.

Climbing high into the mountains, under rocky cliffs.

An unusually strong summer sun demands an unplanned siesta and we find a cool spot under the watchful eye of circling some vultures to allow the heat to wane before we take to our final trail of the day before we spend the night in another refuge. The heat now is oppressive, even high on a mountain ridge under the shade of a pine forest, it seems hard to get away from. One by one we slowly slip into sleep, managing to ignore the ever-present flies and the heat that doesn’t seem to be fading at all. Hours pass and waking into the stifling heat doesn’t have us moving particularly quickly. Any cooling breeze is blocked by this ancient pine forest and the only way to get the wind moving is to move through it. As soon as we get cracking down the trail, the heat is long gone in our minds and our attentions are turned to keeping as much air between the rider behind. Fast, loose turns demand a foot out to keep the front wheel in check as we wind our way through the massive, twisted hulks of pines centuries old. The still, coolness of the forest ends abruptly, and the monochrome that is all pine woods gives way to the brightest collection of summer flowers we’d seen up to this point. A thin snake of trail finds its way past the old shepherd’s huts down the fall line towards the valley floor, and the pace rises inexorably. The sharp hauling of anchors ahead indicates the easy speed we’ve been enjoying might be surplus to requirements as we dive back into the woods again, picking up yet another ancient trail cut into the hill to get animals and their masters into the summer pastures. All is now focused on the trail as we begin a long traverse interrupted by complex switchbacks into more traverse. Speed comes and goes, the rider ahead no longer of any real concern, the griffon vultures above once again hinting at what might happen should we take a tumble off this mountainside. The bodies may well be tired, but after two days of threading bikes through boulder-strewn tunnels in the trees and finding a line across a pathless pasture, we’ve settled into an easy rhythm. The hand cut trail provides plenty of grip and predictability as we tumble out into the holiday homes to find Bea again, relaxing in the shade. By now, ice cream and lemonade don’t even need to be suggested. We find the nearest bar, put our feet up and enjoy the shade and the relative coolness of an air conditioned balcony. The chat is thin on theground as we do our level best to cool off before we make the long climb to the opposite side of the mountain from where we slept the previous night. As the crow flies, the refuges are only a few kilometres apart, but separated by sheer limestone crags that make a direct assault with bikes impossible.


Photo by Pete Scullion
Rough and rowdy trails mix in with fast and flowing ones.
Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Doug and Andres discussing route choices.

Photo by Pete Scullion
The campsite table set up and loaded with food for us.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Photo by Pete Scullion
Wine and food.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Our trillion star hotel.

Our refuge for the night appeared to be already fully booked by several long-eared bats, so we opted to leave these protected creatures alone and get the tent up before the sun dipped below the mountains. The refuge here is in stark contrast to the one from the night before. Stone gives way to breeze blocks and the glacial nature of the northern flank, while the southern approaches have no flat ground whatsoever save for the fire road the refuge is built on the periphery of. As the tent goes up, we team up to get the fire going and dinner ready. With the moon well-shielded by the mountains, it doesn’t take long for the stars to show themselves in all their glory. So clear is the sky, we can pick out satellites in orbit, or pick a star and watch it slowly makes its march towards the horizon. So thick are the stars laid across the sky, that going to bed doesn’t come easy. Words can’t really do justice to a night sky that is devoid of artificial light. That’s something the Pyrenees does awfully well. When we do finally turn in, the massive temperature drop means we all sleep far better than the opening night and we all seem far more alert in the morning as we wait for the coffee to brew. Our trail back to the foot of the valley and the end of the trip takes us past the massive charcoal furnaces that gave this gorge its name. Long before the cities became the home of industry, men would make the long hike from the valley below to burn wood underground to produce charcoal.

Bike loading.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Don´t fall in, it is way colder than it looks.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Bats and nonsense.

Everyone always asks. The shorts are by JeansTrack and they are bike specific (and comfy!)

Again, this ancient commute lends itself perfectly to bike riding, and we find our way down along a steep traverse above the gorge below, every now and again the trail heads away from the precipice and we can relax for a moment. Huge boulders line the trail, having found their way here over many years of the weather hammering at the slopes above. Huge monoliths that we’re glad we weren’t in the way of. Crashing water fills the air as the river thunders its way down the hill and the constant presence of this icy cold water drops the temperature well out of the stifling heat above. As the altitude drops, the heat jumps and we make our way further and further away from the river as it slows. The trail here takes on the width of a cart but the amount of fallen trees or trees growing in the path keep us on our toes. A long, steady traverse allows us to switch off the brains for a few minutes, find a cadence and soak in the landscape. Tall broadleaves shade us from the sun’s attention and I find myself miles behind Doug and Andres. We regroup at the start of the final descent of the day and the trip. Approaching the road, the trail narrows once more as the surface gives way from paved stone to loose gravel and tired minds and bodies struggle to keep pace with the change in speed and grip levels. Within minutes we’re on the road down to Biescas and back where the trip began. A lifetime has passed in an instant, but it felt like it went on forever. The best trails, even better company, the most spectacular of accommodation locations and memories that will stay forever. BasqueMTB and PirineosMTB offer this trip as a fully-supported trip, or with a GPS route. Get in touch with them if you want the experience of a lifetime.

Photo by Pete Scullion
Cheers! A successful few days.


Must Read This Week

14 Comments

  • + 10
 I always love reading about BasqueMTB trips!
  • + 2
 Pirineos is an amazing place to ride. Tons of almost virgin trails waiting to be discovered. Been there several times, can't wait for next trip.
  • + 3
 Love it. Such beautiful pictures, just wanted some pics of a few Great Pyrenees dogs.
  • + 1
 Well done! Almost felt like I was there reading it and viewing the pictures. Thanks for sharing..
  • + 3
 Nicely done
  • + 2
 Great piece @DougBasqueMTB !!!! Awesome photos!
  • + 1
 have to be in my top 5 to trips to do a full back country package with Doug
  • + 1
 Deadly! Great pictures! Beautiful part of the world!
  • + 1
 Great article ...makes a guy want to book this exact trip...thanks
  • + 1
 Definitely on my shortlist for my 40th Birthday riding holiday.
  • + 0
 Envious as i sit at my desk still getting sand out of my ar** from the weekend !
  • + 1
 Epic.
  • + 1
 Gorgeous!
  • + 1
 Very nice ????

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