7 December, 2016

Seeking Adventure: a journey through the Pyrenees without anesthesia; Part 1 of 3

We talked about the trip would we like to do, for ourselves rather than for work, what we would do if we had a week free and no restrictions. It grew and grew until it just had to happen, we had to make it happen. This is the story of the adventure grew from that little idea.

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 seem 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. We have practiced the routes with friends and numerous holiday makers and we are pretty sure of the success of every and every holiday.

This trip wasn´t like that, this was a trip without mitigation, where we would have to commit to plan A and follow it through to the end. There wasn´t going to be much space for weak links in this trip; if any part of the team, either an individual or a piece of equipment, failed then it was going to be a big problem for the whole team. This trip was planned to be a real adventure. And by that I mean one which had the potential to go wrong!

To make this trip happen we needed a reason for it so the idea was to invite some mountain bike journalists, photographers and video makers from around the world and record it. Orbea would provide us with the bikes and we went equipped with a mixture of Occam AM´s and Rallons. 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, however to cover these distances while sticking to the best trails we knew we needed some help with the climbs so we planned the route to take that into account. 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!

We only invited along people who we had worked with before, this was no place for unknown quantities. We had Paul Humbert from VojoMag, Pete Scullion from Scotland, Muriel Bouhet from MTBPro, Sam Needham a well known photographer and Ian Baquerin a Spanish film maker. From the basqueMTB team we had Carlos, one of our guides, and me, (Doug) the owner of basqueMTB.

The first night we arrived to Nocito, a tiny village which was almost totally abandoned until relatively recently, where we built our bikes and enjoyed a hearty meal by the open fire. The next morning we rode through the tough, rocky trails of Guara, an area where you fight for every inch and the descents definitely aren´t for resting on. 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 Tozal de Guara, the highest peak in the area. 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.

Just as we were mounting the last push to the summit we realised that we didn´t have enough light to safely reach the peak. We had arrived to within 60 vertical meters of the summit and it was a hard decision but we were out of options and so we turned aside from the summit and started 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 Bertrand and his amazing daughter Eva. Leaving our bikes in the dark outside we entered into the warmth with it´s flickering light 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 listened to stories from Bertrand, an old French cowboy and one of the first people to repopulate the abandoned villages of Guara. He talked of adventure and the joy of returning home, of trips across Africa with his daughter left with his understanding partner in semi abandoned villages, of strangers met on the road and of chances taken. We ate deep-fried breadcrumbs and drank wine and talked but most of all we just listened deep into the night.

When the time came to seek our our beds we were treated so 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 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.