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High Pyrenees Mountain Bike Holiday
High Pyrenees mountain bike adventure with Orbea bikes. This will form a special mountain bike holiday high in the pyrenees mountains.

High Pyrenees: A Mountain Bike Holiday in the Making

Photos thanks to Matt Wragg and Sam Needham

These trips 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 week free and no restrictions. We started talking about it to guests as we drove through the mountains and gauging interest. We talked with people we knew in various areas and the ideas kept pouring in. It grew and grew until it had it´s own momentum and it felt like this trip just had to happen. We had to make it happen. This is the story of the big adventures which grew from that little idea. 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.

High Pyrenees: The Background and Thanks to Orbea

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 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 uplift or a lift back to the van at the end of the day. When you include teams of mules, high mountian campsites and helicopter uplifts it becomes a lot more difficult. After a long time talking about a High Pyrenees special trip we finally got the opportunity to test it in two parts, thanks to Orbea. It is one of the things I really like about working with an adventerous, 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.

High Pyrenees: The Plan

“What could go wrong?” is something I ask myself most days; I believe it is a critical part of my job. For once I had a definitive answer to that questions. It was “everything”.

The trip would take us from the flat ground north of the Ebro river 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. We aimed to do the trip in as linear a manner as possible, plotting a straight journey from the planes to the peaks, however to cover these distances while sticking to the best trails we knew we needed some help with the climbs and we had a few ideas around that. Each person would have to carry their equipment for the day but the basqueMTB team would be supporting us and moving our bags to our next stop and preparing us picnic lunches on the way. Adventure doesn´t have to be a stranger to comfort after all!

High Pyrenees: A Beginning and Night on the Mountains

For this first High Pyrenees trip we had Paul Hubert from VojoMag, Pete Scullion from Scotland, Muriel Bohout from MTBPro, Sam Needham on photo duties and Ian Baquerin filming. The first day we rode through the tough, rocky trails of Guara, an area where you fight for every inch of progress and the trails are hard on the riders and on the bikes; as the locals say, “Guara: si quiere, te mata” or “Guara: If it wants to it will kill you”.

The idea was to finish the day with a climb up to the highest peak in the area at around 2000m. We knew we needed to reach the summit by 7:00pm to give us enough light to descend in, however as we were climbing a dense bank of cloud formed on the western horizon and it was obvious that we were going to be treated to an early, but glorious, sunset. It was a hard decision to make but we just didn´t have enough light to safely reach the peak. We had arrived to within 60 vertical meters of the summit but we were out of options and turned to start descending with the last rays of sunlight pushing at our backs. We raced the setting sun down the mountain but although we descended fast and hard, the sun descended faster and harder and soon we had almost no light left.

I was leading the charge and was glad of the trust I have built up in my bike over countless hours in the saddle this year as I pointed it towards the lightest places I could see and trusted in it to do the rest as we whooped and hollered down the barely seen singletrack. Just as we ran out of light and 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 had a fire going, beers chilling and food cooking thanks to the local cowboy, Bertrand and his amazing daughter Eva. Leaving our bikes in the dark outside we entered into the warm hut with it´s flickering candles and smells of cooking. It was an emotional, almost religious experience to arrive to that place high on the mountain after a long, tough day on the bikes.

That night we ate deep-fried breadcrumbs, drank wine and talked deep into the night. When the time came to seek our 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 for ever. Today was an intense experience which I was glad to share with this group of people; people who had been strangers this morning but which were being forged, in the fires of adventure, into a tightknit group ready to support each other through the trials ahead.

High Pyrenees: Getting up High in the Mountains

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 pinetrees in secret places. We had a big day ahead of us, potentially the toughest of the trip as we traversed across Guara to reach Ainsa. As the group were coming to know Guara doesn´t give up its secrets easily and we were expecting to pay for today´s passage with sweat and maybe with blood and tears as well. Luckily for us everything worked perfectly and we crossed one of Spain´s real wildernesses without incident, reaching the boundaries of Zona Zero early in the afternoon. With Ainsa in our sights we rode a few stages from the EWS race which had been held here the year before, their 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 (beer and pizza!) Everyone slept well that night.

From here we headed high into the mountains. If the first couple of days we had journeyed to the highest mountains, and now we were starting to make our way across 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 mountain top and rode for hours downhill until the singletrack spat out 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.

High Pyrenees: Mules and High Mountain Camping

The second 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 singeltrack deep into the mountains. After a few minutes of pedalling we saw two shapes looming out of the murk ahead of us, as we moved forwards the shapes slowly resolved themselves into 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, an Ibon. 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. 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.

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. This wasn’t 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 the mule guides, Alberto and Alvaro, were talking to the two mules, and it was touching to see the care they 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 it 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 on the route. Careful manoeuvring and detouring was undertaken and after over an hour of walking we arrived to a high mountain coll, looking down on our lakeside camp far below and behind us.

The mountains stretched away eastward of us 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 I could hardly hold a beer and our group settled into a quiet comradery around the dinner table, which was only occasionally broken by Pete´s wisecracking which was subdued and halfhearted. Sleep came fast and deep tonight but all too soon morning broke and we had to force our tired bodies out of warm beds.

High Pyrenees: A day of enduro mountain biking to recover!

The last day 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. It is at this point that we have an overlap with the second trip I ran with Orbea this year, the Orbea Rallon press launch. This trip starts where the other finishes, giving me the idea to stitch them together into a High Pyrenees super trip! This was a more intense experience as we had 4 different groups of journalists repeating the same two days, meaning 8 intense days of guiding for me. The first day we ran uplifts around the valley, racking up almost 5000m of descending in a day. It was a brutal but hugely enjoyable experience! What was really nice was to get some more flowing, less high mountain / high consequence trails and to take the skills we had honed riding all the way up there to these lower trails; it felt like I could ride anything!

High Pyrenees: Helicopter Uplifts and Incredible Descents

The second day of the press launch was special and really let me test out the idea of helicopter uplift, something that has just become possible in the Pyrenees thanks to our friend Pablo. What I realised was that if you treat the helicopter as a pure uplift then it´s just not economically viable, however if you use the helicopter as part of the day it makes a lot more sense. The day we planned started 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.

As incredible as the sights were however they fade from memory against the trail which descends from here, down into France. We pass through a notch in the backbone of the Pyrenees; towering over our heads but narrow enough to let you touch both sides at once. The trail is narrow, exposed and has lots and lots of really 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 to a small, 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 climbed high, passing over the highest mountains in the Pyrenees and were dropped off 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

We had shared a profound experience, something that for me at least ranks up there with some of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. It was Ferris Bueller who said “life moves pretty fast, if you don´t stop and look around once in a while you might miss it”. 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 never stopped moving from first light to last light, however that´s how it felt. They 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 over-comeable. On our adventures I made some memories that will stay fresh for a long, long time. We went seeking adventure and we definitely found it and with that adventure 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.

The Future – A High Pyrenees Super Trip?

What is coming in the future? Well my idea is to take these two incredible experiences and stitch them together into one trip, a High Pyrenees super trip if you like. The route would be more or less the same but we would include two helicopter trips, one in the middle and one at the end, to let us get to some places which wouldn´t be practical otherwise. It would be something to do once in a lifetime, probably not an every year occurrence. The idea would be to have a couple of high mountain camps, using the mules to support us, and include one or two helicopter assisted days. The trip is going to be expensive, there is no other way to do it, but we would make sure it´s great value for money and I don´t think this type of trip is possible in Europe at the moment. It would only be for people we know from previous trips, or who have people we know who can vouch for them. The idea would be to cross the highest mountains in the Pyrenees with 4×4, mule and helicopter support over a 6 or 7 day trip and more details will go up on the website over the next few weeks as I pull it all together. The idea is to run one trip in mid to late July. If you´re interested then get in touch!

High Pyrenees: Trip Videos

There are two videos from the trips, if you would like to get a real idea of what we did then I think these are great.

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